In a quiet corner of the Canadian War Museum, Julian Krajewski stares at a poster from the Second World War. “Yes, you boys and girls can help win the war,” the poster declared. Krajewski, a 16-year-old resident of suburban Montreal, scrutinized the poster with 21st-century eyes. “That’s actually a really good ad,” he said finally. “It hits everyone. It’s cool.”
High praise from a smart boy who, until a recent visit to Ottawa, was more familiar with World of Warcraft than with any human war. When I accompanied him around the museum, I was struck by a few things he already knew – and a lot he didn’t. What little history he had studied in school had mostly concentrated on New France. Julian didn’t know there had ever been a devastating explosion in Halifax in 1917 and he’d never heard of the Korean War. He was surprised to learn about the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s, and intrigued to discover that Canada had once had a prime minister (Lester Pearson) who was also a Nobel laureate.
Informing and inspiring young people like Krajewski is a key part of the War Museum’s mandate. For, whether they like it or not, the young are the recipients – and sometimes the victims – of history. In its previous incarnation on Sussex Drive, the museum could show off only a small part of its extensive collections. Sure, Hitler’s black limo was on display – but the vast majority of paintings and artefacts languished in storage. While the old museum appealed mainly to those few people who already knew a lot about Canada’s military history, it didn’t have the money or the space to attract a large audience.
The new museum – it opened its doors on LeBreton Flats in May 2005 – has wider ambitions. It aims to tell a coherent story about Canada and Canadians and how they have been affected by war and conflict. And to judge by the attendance figures, it has been doing a superb job. Each year about 500,000 people pass through its doors – roughly four times the number who bought tickets to the old museum.
Equally important, the War Museum is now a key destination for Canadians from outside Ottawa who are visiting the nation’s capital. “You could say it’s a place of secular pilgrimage,” suggests Mark O’Neill, the museum’s Director General. Part of the reason involves the homage the museum pays to our fighting men and women from past decades and centuries. Beyond this, its displays emphasize the huge impact that armed conflict has had on all Canadians, including those who never left the home front. We can question the usefulness of war, but we can’t deny its reach.
Unlike some of the nation’s older galleries and museums, the War Museum is determined to be user-friendly. No guards rush in to stop a proud father taking pictures of his daughters as they pose amid the silver twilight of a World War One trench. Nobody stops a little boy loudly explaining the intricacies of a model warship to his baffled mother. The sense of pilgrimage coexists with a sense of discovery.
When Krajewski began his tour of the museum, he was interested mainly in the hardware. “Do you know the parts of a gun?” he asked a friend, expertly pointing out the locking lever on a model from a century ago. The unusual shape of a Polish mine detector aroused his highest praise – “See how cool that looks?”
But as the teenager made his way around the six main galleries, he became more and more intrigued by the human element. From the tiny teddy bear kept by a Canadian soldier in the First World War to the well-hidden face of Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko, the displays show the very personal consequences of world events. They also give physical coherence to the museum’s vision of our national history. By the time Krajewski reached the austere silence of Memorial Hall, he was ready to ponder the tombstone of an unknown Canadian soldier who died in Europe nearly a century ago, whose remains now rest at the foot of the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
In its gallery for temporary shows, the museum is now presenting an exhibit on camouflage. Featuring such items as a chiffon gown and a Christian Dior bikini with camouflage motifs, the exhibit stretches the notion of “military history” far beyond its usual limit. Krajewski was impressed by the papier-mâché head of a British soldier smoking a cigarette. “That’s cool,” he said with a slight grin.
By the time he left the museum, he was willing to say the same about a lot of its contents.