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Ottawa's Incredible War Museum

© By Mike Keenan

  On Remembrance Day, yes, spend two full minutes of silence to commemorate the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when armistice took effect. It's a scant period of time to recall both world wars, but for a visceral sense of what was really experienced, you must visit Ottawa's new Canadian War Museum, a staggering encounter that advances the visitor far beyond John McCrae and his poem, immersing viewers in both the heroism and the sordidness of war. Yes, there's heroism, but no smiles exhibited in the pictures. Stolid grimness initiates from the outside slabs of concrete walls, and the inside exhibits force a baptism of fire from the birth of our nation to present day, careful not to omit unsavoury incidents such as Gertrude Kearns' painting of Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee torturing teenage Shidane Arone in Somalia. Vets argue about this inclusion, as they do about the display concerning the bombing of German civilians, but military history is wisely portrayed here, warts and all. Indeed, my experience was dismal - observing small, coloured medals insignificantly paltry compared to what was lost. A startling portrait of General Romeo Dallaire's face, (Shake Hands with the Devil) hidden amidst camouflage, eyes piercing outward like blazing coals, mesmerizes all onlookers. That alone is required viewing.
     The Museum opened May 7, 2005, a joint project of Moriyama & Teshima Architects and Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects. As with another notable Japanese-Canadian, David Suzuki, Raymond Moriyama, a 12-year-old, was one of 20,000 Japanese-Canadians interned as "enemy aliens." Now, he boasts hundreds of architectural projects that dot the globe, including Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, Ottawa's City Hall, the Saudi Arabian National Museum, Ontario Science Centre, the Toronto Reference Library and the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. His Ottawa design emphasizes regeneration, the power of nature and hope, implicit just as the grass greening on the museum's roof.
     In WWI, the Canadian Corps first fought as a national unit at Vimy Ridge, winning a great victory and reputation for bravery. At a life-size diorama of a typical trench, visitors pass by sandbags, barbed wire, dugouts, rats, and trench soldiers who greet them. During World War II, Canada raised an armed force of over one million men and women from a small population of 12 million. The collection of war art features Alex Colville and the Group of Seven. A black, armoured Mercedes Benz limo that Hitler used as a parade car continues today to propagate an image of power.
     The first floor gallery examines military history from pre-European arrivals to the end of the WWI. The Hall of Honour documents stories of 40 military heroes. The second floor gallery features WWII including a large-scale model of the Normandy D-Day landings. Canada's Peacekeepers display includes the Korean War, the Cold War and UN peacekeeping missions. A Discovery Room provides hands-on experience - trying on uniforms, identifying unusual artifacts or handling a colonial musket.
     The apogee of the museum is called Regeneration Hall, a strikingly narrow space featuring angled walls that tower dramatically over visitors entering from the upper level. Subdued light slows one's pace such that for a spark of a moment, we are presented with a tightly-framed view of the Peace Tower silhouetted against the blue Ottawa sky through a narrow window. Moriyama's metaphor works brilliantly. A slight movement and the Peace Tower disappears from sight. Below is plaster model of Walter Allward's sculpture "Hope" from the Vimy Memorial.
     On the huge basement floor there's a military pantheon of vehicles, tanks, guns and even a supersonic jet suspended from the ceiling. One marvels at the "progress" we've made in killing from the tomahawk to the nuclear bomb.
     Located on the shores of the Ottawa River, minutes west of Parliament Hill, the Museum offers a restaurant/café and a 250 seat theatre plus a boutique, four classrooms and areas for rest and reflection. With expansive space to display its impressive artifacts and war art collection, it's one of Canada's most significant museums.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

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Mike Keenan

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