Both the building and the name is unforgiving and to the point: Canadian War Museum. But this institution is so much more. This is where you learn the complicated, multifaceted history of the federation. This is where you learn about all the different people who make up the nation. This is where you learn about every armed conflict – and peacekeeping mission – Canada has been involved in. This is where you get a chance to read letters and learn the personal stories about individual soldiers, and the nurses, refugees, prisoners and the people left back home. This is where you learn about military strategies and why important battles were won and lost. This is also where you learn about the technological achievements developed from the earliest humans on the continent, to the present. Despite its name, the War museum is in essence a museum of Canadian history.
This museum is one of my absolute favourites! I would even go as far as ranking it number one of the museums I have visited (so far), in terms of design and narrative of the exhibits, the overall content and the make up of each gallery, the architecture, and the learning outcome of me and every guest I have brought there. Almost all of them have cried (all at different points in the museum), and laughed and lost track of time.
Of course, it is a rare privilege to have the opportunity to build a national museum, dedicated to one subject matter, from scratch. The architecture is made for the stories. The outer building has strong, sharp angles, while the inner galleries are shaped like the whirls of a conch shell. Walking through these winding halls helps you process the content, and the display offers something different for everyone. At different levels of the walls are arranged art, text, objects, small, large, weapons, personal objects, interactive displays, from the French, British, various Indigenous groups sides, from the aggressors, from the victims… There seems to be an ebb and flow between the detailed and the bigger picture, between the dark and the light, between the technical, emotional and philosophical aspects. Much work has gone into evaluation, and it shows!
There are a few displays through which the visitor gets to experience how a situation might have felt to be in. On the top three of my experiences at the War museum:
#1 Walk through a life size trenche, the way it may have looked and sounded during the long, awful WW I – an intensly frightening and somber experience.
#2 Walk through a 17th Century battle on two giant screens, of life sized soldiers from the French and the British side, instinctivaly trying to avoid getting shot. The actors feels very real, and very scared.
#3 Waiting in a model of a landing craft, about to open up to one of the beaches on D Day, WW II. The sounds of guns, cannons and motors, the inability to see more than the sky above, the nervous wait when you genuinely feel you have no clue what to expect, and the minutes that feels like hours until the door opens. You do not want it to open, you do not want to die. Yet, after a while you can’t stand the wait any longer and just want it over with.
And one of the more lighthearted displays is a movie theater where you watch three modern day Canadians talking about hockey, and about Canadian history, from their different perspectives as French-Canadian, British and Indigenous. This topic is not an easy one to talk about in Canada without creating a heated argument and hurting someones feelings, but this movie is made with a lot of disarming humour making it easy for all to listen and reflect.
On the Canadian War Museum website there is plenty of information about the exhibits, as well as content created specifically for an online visit. Well worth a visit!
Text and photos: Anna Larsson Berke, 2017 ©