Canadian War Museum

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Quick Review

This museum presents its collection of objects from all of the wars fought on Canadian soil since the Europeans arrived, as well as objects related to earlier wars. Although a museum in its own right, The Canadian War Museum is run by the same organization that runs the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The permanent collection consists of five “pathways,” each leading through a somewhat chronological presentation of wars in a particular era.  Labels describe where the war occurred, how it started, highlights of the progress of the war, its impact on participants and bystanders, and how the participants in the conflict resolved it.   When all of the participants in the war were Canadian (such as conflicts between French and British Canadians, and First Peoples and other Canadians), the museum presents all sides of the conflict. As a non-native Canadian, I did not detect bias but given the lingering wounds of these conflicts, others might feel differently.

The first gallery focuses on wars up until 1885, such as wars between First Peoples and the Vikings (I didn’t realize they had fought, much less how successfully the First Peoples repelled the Vikings), between the British and French at the Plains of St. Abraham, and the rebellions of 1837-1839 in modern day Quebec and Ontario.  There’s a light film about this period featuring an anglo Canadian, franco Canadian, and First People’s Canadian that highlights the inherited tensions among these groups.  It was cute and entertaining and leavened the mood in the gallery. It’s representative of the détente that exists in Canada today, but doesn’t necessarily address the underlying issues.

The second gallery, for Crown and Country, explores the Boer Wars and World War 1.  The gallery does an excellent job at describing the divisions underlying Canadian involvement in the Boer Wars, as well as explaining what happened in that war (one that, as an American by birth, I know little about because the U.S. did not actively participate in it).  It seemed more balanced than the presentation of the same subject I had seen two weeks earlier at the Auckland Museum. The best part of the gallery is the World War 1 section, which stresses the trench warfare that made up most of the conflict, and includes a walk-through trench so that visitors can understand what the soldiers experienced.

The third gallery focuses on World War 2, starting with the events that led up to it and continuing with a presentation of the war on all fronts in which Canadians participated.  The European and home fronts receive the most attention, but the gallery pays some attention to the Asian front.  Both this gallery and the one before it acknowledge the internment of Canadians of German and Japanese descent, and acknowledge other shortcomings.

The fourth gallery focuses on peace keeping and the Cold War.  Given the third-party nature of Canadians as peace keepers and the battle of wills rather than battlefields in the Cold War, the presentation differs substantially. Highlights of this gallery include a recreation of a peace keeping station and a video juke box playing Cold War-themed music videos, like Elton John’s “Little Nikita.” The gallery certainly captures Canadian values around peace keeping, but like most recent history, because we are all so close to it, it is both hard to display and harder to critique.

The last gallery of the permanent collection is a collection of military hardware, almost exclusively military vehicles.  The sheer number—it felt like enough to fill the parking lot of a medium-sized mall—overwhelms. But closer inspection shows that the vehicles span several decades and conflicts.  While the majority are Canadian, many are not, including an East German vehicle, which is opened up so visitors can get a sense of the tight conditions inside the vehicle. This exhibition makes minimal use of labels, merely describing what visitors see, but do not provide any perspective on the technology and its evolution.

A highlight of the museum is Regeneration Hall, a chapel-like memorial hall that has the same emotional effect as Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.  It is a powerful space with sharp angles, subdued colors, dramatic lighting, and some of the early casts for the Canadian memorial at Vimy in France, a suitable setting in which to reflect on the message of the museum.

And a surprise throughout the museum is its collection of military-themed art. The paintings are integrated into all of the galleries, and add a unique, reflective dimension to the exhibitions.

Strengths of the museum are its message and storytelling.  The entrance to the museum emphasizes the message of freedom and sacrifice; and the museum supports that message.  Although the subject matter is somber, it is not maudlin.

As a result of its accurate and balanced historical reporting on the various conflicts in which Canadians engaged, it provides visitors with a clearer understanding of those conflicts and their impact on this nation, and a better appreciation of the value of peace.  All in all, this is an extremely impressive museum.

Fast Facts about the Museum

Type of Museum: History (military focus).

Highlights of the Permanent Collection:

  • Military hardware, military memorabilia, military-themed art, and recreations of certain battlefield conditions.
  • Displayed in periods from 1885 and earlier, 1885-1930, 1931-1945, 1945 to present, as well as a gallery of military hardware and a space for reflection.

Notes about Special Exhibitions: I did not visit, but they tend to focus on current issues, such as the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the recent conflict in Afghanistan.

Special Amenities: A cafeteria called “The Mess,” and a gift shop, with many useful gadgets, such as powerful flashlights.

Admission Discounts: “Value” tickets that also include admission to the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Issues to Consider When Visiting:

  • Leave at least 2 hours to see everything; if you want to read everything or visit a special exhibition, leave 3.
  • Off-street parking is available but is metered.
  • A slight, but do-able hike from downtown Ottawa.




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