In the interests of full disclosure, readers should know that I have an inherent bias when it comes to the Canadian War Museum (CWM). I was part of the original team that selected, wrote, designed, and installed the content in the “new” museum, which opened to the public in 2005 (the “old” museum had been in existence since 1942). Since then, I have continued to be a part of the CWM, and proudly so. As such, allow me to introduce you to this excellent museum and provide some of what I believe are its “must see” elements.
The building itself is extraordinary and worthy of note. Designed by Moriyama & Teshima Architects (Toronto) and Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects (Ottawa), it is full of symbolism and meaning. The bare and rough concrete walls – reminiscent of bunkers — present a stark contrast to the colourful displays in the exhibition areas. The grass roof speaks to the idea of regeneration after war. And the copper-clad “fin”, rising from one end of the building towards the iconic Parliament Hill, spells out “Lest we forget” and the equivalent French, “N’oublions jamais” in Morse code.
The exhibition areas are divided into three distinct sections:
- The main exhibition space, which details Canadian military history from the earliest known civilizations in Canada up until the present day.
- The Lebreton Gallery, which holds an extensive military technology collection.
- Various Special Exhibition areas, in which temporary exhibitions are installed regularly. They may feature anniversary exhibitions, such as the recent Vimy – Beyond the Battle, or collaborative shows with other museums, such as the previous gladiator’s exhibition.
Visitors who want to see the entire museum should allow at least 2 to 3 hours – it’s a long walk, but it’s also well worth it. When I take guests through the museum, I have several preferred highlights. I often start with the intricate dioramas in Gallery I: Early Wars in Canada. They are very well done and full of detail. The next stop is usually the trench recreation and Passchendaele section of Gallery 2: The South African and First World Wars. They are both immersive experiences made even better if you have an active imagination.
Next, I take my visitors to the infamous “Hitler car” in Gallery 3: The Second World War. This vehicle is arguably one of the best-known – and most problematic – artifacts on display in the building. But I see it as a conversation starter, not as a tool to glamourize a heinous group. The car sits at the beginning of the gallery and is bookended, aptly, by a concentration camp uniform at the end. With it is the story of a family, including young children, who did not survive the Holocaust. For me, that is the symbol worth holding on to. Also of note: Canada’s National Holocaust Monument sits adjacent to the CWM. It is not associated with the CWM at all, but its location provides a nice link, and perhaps a space for contemplation outside, but close to, the museum’s walls.
Finally, I take my guests through Gallery 4: From the Cold War to the Present. The tail end of the gallery was updated this past summer (2017) to include more artifacts and information on recent conflicts in which Canada has participated, including Rwanda, the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. It, like other areas of the museum, features several personal stories and first-hand accounts.
Leading out from the main exhibition areas, I like to take guests down the hallway to Regeneration hall. The mezzanine at the top of the stairs provides an excellent view through the fin to Parliament Hill, as well as down onto the plaster models used by Walter Allward to carve the figures on the Vimy memorial in France. These beautiful white maquettes symbolize many things, including Peace, Justice, and Hope. This is my favorite area of the museum to just sit and think.
Another perfect spot for contemplation is Memorial Hall. The space was deliberately built for rest and reflection. The smooth concrete walls – unlike the rough, unfinished walls in much of the rest of the building – are reminiscent of gravestones in Commonwealth war cemeteries. In the room is a single grave marker of an unknown soldier from one of these cemeteries and, at 11 am on 11 November each year, daylight shines through a narrow window, striking the center of this stone perfectly.
The Canadian War Museum is, admittedly, my favorite museum in Canada, and certainly one of my favorite museums in the entire world. It is very well done, with a high regard for telling the whole story, and not just that of the side that won. Its architecture only adds to the subject matter, which at times can be off-putting and difficult to fathom. But its storytelling, exceptionally high level of research and attention to detail, visitor-friendly interpretation, and its extensive and excellent art collection provide a visit that is enjoyable and informative, no matter what your knowledge of military history.
About the Author
Having enjoyed museums for as long as I can remember, I am a self-professed museum nerd, with an equal interest in military history. I received a BA (Hons) from Queen’s University in Medieval History, and an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Finally, I completed a Master of Museum Studies at the University of Toronto before beginning my museological career, primarily at the Canadian War Museum. I have lived and traveled all over Canada and Europe, being an “army brat” and having married into the Air Force. Any chance I get to visit a local museum, I take, whether the institution is national or niche. I am always looking for new and interesting ways to interpret and display history.