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Hello from Ottawa: The Canadian War Museum and Its Special Exhibit Weapons of Mass Dissemination
Anybody who knows me and my personal family background knows that I absolutely abhor violence and war. War and conflict has existed all throughout human history and it has often baffled me that even in this day and age, in our supposedly advanced civilizations, we still haven’t found more peaceful ways of coexisting.
My trip to Ottawa this past weekend has been very exciting, entertaining and enjoyable, yet I felt the impulse to add a more serious stop to my itinerary and I decided to explore the new Canadian War Museum and it’s special exhibition: “Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Dissemination”.
The new Canadian War Museum opened in May of 2005 in a brand-new building on the banks of the Ottawa River, about 7 minutes west of downtown Ottawa by taxi or bus. Its mandate is to “Educate. Preserve. Remember” and the Museum focuses strictly on Canada’s role in various armed conflicts throughout history.
The new museum building is an interesting story in itself. Designed by Raymond Moriyama of Moriyama & Teshima Architects, the innovative design of the Museum is based on the theme of “regeneration”, which not only alludes to the impact of war on the land, but also Nature’s ability to regenerate itself and recover from the devastation of human conflict.
In tune with natural regeneration, energy-efficient construction techniques and recycled materials were used in the construction of the building. The roof is covered by low-maintenance native, self-seeding grasses, and river water is used in its cooling system. Recycled copper panels from the roof of the Library of Parliament were used as cladding in parts of the interior of the building.
The building is an unusual structure, low-lying with jagged edges and angular, trapezoidal lines. When you enter inside there is a large central hall that connects both the south and north entrance. The building has a raw, fragmentary and unfinished quality to it, and the materials used include galvanized steel, concrete, wood, hard surfaces and strong, deep colour. It is not a comfortable, harmonic place, and it is not intended to be.
An immense seven-meter high audio visual presentation of the Museum’s content provides a glimpse of what is to come inside the main exhibition areas. Several features of the building deserve to be highlighted:
– the Museum features Morse Code windows in both English and French, reading “Lest We Forget” on the north peak, and other windows spell out the Museum’s initials “CWM”.
– Every November 11, at 11 am, and only on this day and at this hour, the sun shines through the window of the Museum’s Memorial Hall and illuminates the only artifact in this space: the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier.
The window illuminating the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier
The Museum is very large and its total collection has about 500,000 artifacts. The total artifacts on display in the Canadian Experience Galleries is 2,167 and there are 135 featured audiovisual productions. 2,000 graphic images reside inside the Museum.
The layout of the Museum is complex and interwoven, creating a rich, multi-sensory, multi-media visitor experience. It houses 4 Permanent Exhibitions:
This exhibition explores warfare from pre-contact Canada to the Battle of Batoche in 1885. This section looks at the technology and equipment of early First Peoples. A major highlight in this section is the Battle of the Plains of Abraham of 1759 where New France was conquered and Quebec became a part of Canada. Amazingly this battle only lasted half an hour, 30 minutes that changed Canada.
Another section in this area illustrates the War of 1812, when Canada was attacked by the United States and government buildings in the City of York (now Toronto) were burnt down by the Americans. In retaliation British Canadian militia marched all the way to Washington and burned the American’s official buildings which had to be whitewashed, therefore the term “White House”.
Different outcomes of two consecutive rebellions in 1870 and 1885 in Manitoba and Saskatchewan illustrate the key difference of new technologies: while the first rebellion was successful, the second uprising was quelled easily due to the introduction of the railroads, which allowed for rapid troop deployment, better training of the government troops and the introduction of the telegraph which allowed for rapid communication. Other technological innovations of this era included the Gatlin gun which was capable of 800 shots a minute, the first automatic weapon.
This gallery explores Canada’s military involvements overseas. It looks at the South African War (also known as the Boer War, from 1899 to 1902), and the Second World War from 1914 to 1918.
A significant technological development during the South African War include rifles that could fire accurately at a distance of up to 800 m. British soldiers, who had earlier been wearing red tunics, had to switch to camouflage uniforms due to the increased reach of modern weapons. The time of traditional British formation battles was over.
Canada’s land forces were among the most effective during World War I and an important section is dedicated to the critical battle of Vimy Ridge. My tour guide Eric mentioned that the First World War was initially a very popular war and that after the declaration of war in July of 1914, Canadian soldiers even expected to be home by Christmas. 1 of 8 Canadian men joined the war and interestingly, conjugal consent was required to enlist for married men.
Support for the war dwindled as time went on and as people learned about the devastating effects of trench warfare which are illustrated effectively in the Museum. An interesting social side note is that in order to enact conscription, i.e. mandatory military service, the Canadian government extended a limited voting right to women in 1917, but only to women whose sons and husbands were fighting in the First World War. These women would logically vote in favour of the existing government as they wanted to send support to their husbands and sons fighting in the war. General voting rights were not extended to all women until 1919.
A powerful exhibit includes an outright scene of devastation that shows a recreated landscape after a devastating battle where all surrounding structures have been destroyed and soldiers are lying dead face-down in the mud of the battlefield.
My guide Eric also enlightened me on the Halifax explosion of 1917 when two ships collided in the Halifax harbour and one carried huge amounts of ammunition. This event represents the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb and much of Halifax was levelled.
Another exhibit displays gas masks used during World War I. When German soldiers used poison gas for the first time, French and British forces broke their own lines to escape, while a chemist on the front lines of the Canadian army realized that chances of survival could be increased by putting something humid on one’s face. As a result Canadians held their grounds in the face of gas attacks, contrary to the French and British counterparts.
World War I also saw many technological innovations such as artillery canons and water-cooled machine guns. As a result of this heavy equipment, soldiers became less mobile and trench warfare came into being.
This gallery explores Canada’s role in fighting dictatorships overseas during the Second World War. Canada contributed one of the largest armies in the world, on land, at sea and in the air in addition to providing important industrial and logistical support. A key artifact in this section is one of the last remaining parade cars of Adolf Hitler, an armour-plated black Mercedes convertible with bullet-proof windows, apparently the only one of its kind in existence in a public museum.
My guide also pointed out the Wasp flamethrower which could generate flames of 90 m in length. To give you an idea of the size of these flames: the Peace Tower of the Canadian Parliament Buidlings is 92 m high, so this was indeed amazing firepower.
Particularly interesting exhibits from this era include a battlefield surgery kit that illustrates how primitive medical equipment and techniques were at this time. Another highlight is the pigsuit, a full body suit for pigs that was intended to investigate the protective capabilities of uniforms under wartime conditions. Pigs were used for this purpose as they have very similar genetic makeup to human beings.
This section of the Museum looks at the tenuous peace during the post-WWII Period where Canadian forces participated in a Cold War against the Soviet Bloc. During this era, Canada also took on a leading role as an international peacekeeping nation, a role from which Canada derives great pride.
The post-war era of the 1950s and 1960s was an era of great paranoia. A machine called an “electro-psychometer” (similar to a lie detector) was employed to determine the sexual orientation of civil servants. In this very conservative era homosexuality was a taboo and it was assumed knowledge of that fact could be used against an individual and force this person to collaborate with the enemy. The government intended to protect itself and subjected hundreds of civil servants to tests on this notoriously unreliable device, also referred to as the “fruit machine”.
One of the exhibits also explains the origin of the notion of modern peacekeeping, brought to life in 1956 by Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions in 1957.
To me one of the most amazing exhibits in this area is a controversial painting depicting a Canadian soldier abusing and killing a civilian victim during a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. My guide indicated that many people in the Canadian military did not appreciate that this painting was being displayed, and in many countries this kind of unflattering depiction of a member of a national army would have been censored. It truly speaks to Canada’s openness and honesty that this picture was included in the exhibition as a testament to the devastating and dehumanizing effects of war.
This section was not part of the original concept of the building, it was added by the architect himself. Through a narrow window one can see the Peace Tower, and any slight change in position will make this view disappear. This is a symbolic metaphor for how difficult peace is to achieve and how easily we lose sight of it. Plaster statues in Regeneration Hall were created by the same artist who created the Vimy Memorial. The eerie sound in this portion of the building is the recording of the wind that used to come through the steel girders before the roof was put on. A tour of war veterans came through Regeneration Hall, heard this strange sound of the wind and they were very moved by it. The museum officials decided to record the sound and run it continuously.
One of the world’s best collections of military vehicles and artillery are exhibited in the LeBreton Gallery. Furthermore, it features an important collection of uniforms, medals and other artifacts.
In addition to these permanent exhibitions and commemorative places, the Canadian War Museum houses special exhibitions. One of the main reasons I went to visit this museum was to see an exhibition called Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War.
The psychological aspects of warfare, and in particular the tools and techniques of propanda to mobilize and incite the general population to participate in war have always fascinated me. I could have spent hours in this part of the Museum alone, and this collection has been one of the most fascinating exhibitions I have visited in my entire lifetime.
The term “propaganda” itself is defined as the “organized dissemination of information to influence thouths, beliefs, feelings and actions”.
The exhibition was originally developed by the Wolfsonian-Florida International University and highlights visual propaganda tools used in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Holland. Propaganda posters date back to the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Spanish Civil War.
Numerous colourful posters from different countries illustrate the powerful impact of war-time propaganda and its powerful impact on the masses. Emotional headlines, bright colours and strong symbolism evoke powerful feelings fear, anger, pride and patriotism.
Here are a few examples of how nations engaged in war use propaganda posters:
– to exhort men, and even women and members of different ethnic groups to join the army [“There is still a space for you in the Waffen SS”]
– to promote the purchase of war bonds [“I buy bonds and I build bombs”]
– to increase production and output of military equipment
– to reduce the civilian onsumption of tobacco products so soldiers can enjoy smoking
– to plant seeds and vegetables to create oil for the hungering masses
– to portray the enemy in the most negative way, using unflattering and threatening images
– to warn the population of “careless talk” implying that foreign spies could pick up important information and use it against the nation
– to instruct soldiers and the population in the use of protective equipment such as gas masks
In addition to the posters from the Wolfsonian – Florida International University, the Canadian War Museum has added a Canadian component to add to this exhibition. The development of propaganda in Canada is featured in the form of posters from the Museum’s collections, footage from the National Film Board, as well as special hands-on programming. Screenings of NFB propaganda films, creative workshops and a popular speaker series round out the programming on the topic of mass media and propaganda.
My two hours at the Canadian War Museum definitely weren’t enough, I was just able to get a cursory glance at the permanent exhibitions and this most fascinating special exhibition on wartime propaganda. It is one of the most impactful museums I have ever visited, and the combination of the layout and design with the artifacts on display have given me an excellent overview of Canada’s role in local and international conflicts.
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