Sunday, September 8, 2013

IMPRESSIONS OF THE NEW CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM

Part of the exterior of the Canadian War Museum

I was given a chance of a lifetime, thanks to Ottawa Tourism's assistance, to visit the CanadianWar Museum (completed in 2005) for two meetings and a private tour with the WW2 historian, Dr. Jeff Noakes.

Top of lookout with the hay
field to left and Parliament
framed by the building
On a beautiful September morning, I arrived early at the site on the banks of the Ottawa River. Outside, the building is long and low-slung with a roof that turns skyward at its eastern end and points at the Parliament Buildings in the distance. But the building above ground is the tip of the iceberg—much of the behind-the-scenes stacks, collections, archives, etc. are below the ground.

I followed the signs on the river side and climbed a twisty, long ramp to the lookout and found a hay field on the roof and a spectacular view of the Peace Tower. No happenstance! The roof was designed this way deliberately, and I found many other examples of brilliant architectural ideas inside.

After a discussion with the WW2 historian, he whisked me away for a tour. The interior of the museum is stark and austere with cement walls that rise at all angles. Initially I wasn't sure about this ultra-modern concept but soon discovered how well it worked. First, the walls didn't distract from the art that hung there, some of which is huge and needs big blank spaces. The mid-grey colour was the perfect background, and I thought it complemented the subject of war and military history. (Cheerful colours wouldn't work!)




There were two smaller galleries or spaces that moved me deeply. The first I saw was Regeneration Hall. High, narrow and angular with a window facing east, it contained the original plaster casts of some of the carvings that are part of the Vimy Memorial in France, commemorating the dead of WW1. There is no adornment or explanation: the magnificent sculptures speak for themselves of the horror and pain of war. Through the window visitors see the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill—no accident of design. I was quite overwhelmed.

The second space I wanted to experience is hidden deep in the heart of the museum. Memorial Hall is reached through a narrow twisting corridor whose walls press in on visitors. This opens into a bare rectangular space with a small window high in one wall. I was alone and felt the space was a cross between a dungeon and a Cistercian abbey—no accident either. At waist height on the wall opposite the window is a marble plaque honouring the Unknown Soldier. Every November 11 at 11a.m., the sun shines down through the window and strikes the plaque. Remembrance Day services are held here annually, of course, but need official invitations to attend. My brother-in-law was lucky enough to be invited and told me the experience was one of the most moving in his life. For me, just being alone in that sacred space was a once in a lifetime moment.

Next I browsed through the permanent exhibitions, which guide the visitor through all the wars Canada has fought from earliest times before we were a country to Afghanistan. None spare the visitor from the agony and heartbreak. I was struck that every artifact on display is connected to a Canadian Forces member at war and the story is provided. This focus on the human connection is evocative and often poignant.




In the WW1 section is a tiny, pocket-sized teddy bear with a letter in childish script next to it. The bear was given to a Canadian army officer by his 10 year old daughter "to keep him safe" when he left for the front. It was found in his pocket after he was killed and returned to the family with his personal effects. No one can fail to be moved by displays like this.





There is a huge gallery devoted to military vehicles—tanks, armoured cars, staff cars, torpedoes and an array of cannons and other field artillery. Even a CF 101 fighter jet! Here too, there are explanations that tell the story of the piece. I was looking for displays related to submarines as this is my area of interest, but all I could find was a German midget submarine collected by Farley Mowatt. There was one WW1, 18" torpedo that might have been used by Canada's first submarines in 1914, but the staff can't prove it, despite trying hard.


One battered jeep attracted me the most. It was used in a UN peacekeeping mission and demonstrates how dangerous they can be. Canadians have often been stuck between warring factions trying to keep them from annihilating each other and civilians. The bullet holes through the windshield need no words of explanation. Next on my itinerary was the big exhibition devoted to our peacekeeping missions on land, sea, and air. Very well done.

I also spent some time in the Military History Research Centre that houses textual and image records, a massive library, and ninety journals that the museum subscribes to. I was taught how to access the catalogues for each, so that I can continue my work at home. Technology is a wonderful asset for writers!

Before I knew it, I'd spent the whole day in the Canadian War Museum and, as I left, I vowed to come back. I highly recommend a visit for Canadians to learn about our contributions to maintaining peace with freedom and the human cost that goes with it.

ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2013. All rights reserved.