- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

OTTAWA — Because of its grim topic — war — I might have bypassed Ottawa’s newest major museum building during my most recent visit. That would have been a mistake.

The Canadian War Museum, on the banks of the Ottawa River, is at once a memorial, a fascinating educational experience and a symbol of renewal. Its spare architecture, inside and out, emphasizes the enormity of sacrifice war involves as it remembers and honors the fallen, but it also incorporates symbols of hope, peace and regeneration.

In fact, chief architect Raymond Moriyama has called regeneration the “central idea”of his design.

“Nature may be ravaged by human acts of war, but inevitably it survives, hybridizes, regenerates and prevails,” he wrote in a much-quoted paper he prepared for the museum’s opening on May 8, 2005 — the 60th anniversary of VE Day, the end of World War II in Europe.

A Japanese-Canadian born in British Columbia, Mr. Moriyama experienced that process firsthand after childhood internment with his family in a Canadian camp for “enemy aliens.” He has said he built his first project, a treehouse, in camp when he was 12. Although he envisioned it as a refuge from bullying and the misery of camp life, it unexpectedly became his observatory for discovering the wonders of nature.

Much of the museum, in a former industrial area just west of downtown and Parliament called LeBreton Flats, lies low, like a concrete bunker but with irregular turns and angles meant to recall the lines of trenches and earthworks. Then, out of the roof, west to east, rises a dramatic copper fin that, at its 80-foot-high zenith, points toward the rising sun, Parliament and the post-World War I Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

The rest of the roof is covered by almost 115,000 square feet of self-seeding native grasses, plus a memorial garden with panoramic river views and a pedestrian walkway over the roof to the riverfront.

The large, unornamented lobby seems desolate when we arrive on a gray-and-white February morning during Winterlude, the city’s joyful snow-season festival. We soon realize the effect is intentional. Concrete walls on one side are molded to look like rough-hewn wood planks of a World War I bunker, and the rectangular cement blocks on the other recall both the concrete bunkers of World War II and, by their shape, the tombstones of those who died.

The only artifact in this area, called Memorial Hall, is the original headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier, who died in World War I’s Battle of Vimy Ridge in France. Every year at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, the anniversary of the official end of that war in 1918, sunlight shines through a window high on the opposite wall, angles down along a black stone line that leads to the tombstone and bathes the stone in light.

Behind the wall holding the tombstone is a small remembrance area with the tombstones of Canadians who died in other conflicts. Nothing from beyond the enclosing walls intrudes on this place of reflection, which anyone can visit without paying the museum entrance fee.

The permanent collection, begun in 1880 but without a permanent home until 2005, is contained in four main galleries arranged around a central hub and organized chronologically: wars fought among the native “First Peoples” and by European arrivals up to 1885; the South African War of 1899 to 1902 plus World War I; World War II; and the Cold War, peacekeeping and conflicts to the present day.

With time for only one main gallery, we decide to concentrate on World War II.

The sounds of planes flying low, bombs exploding, guns strafing and people screaming surround us as we walk through one exhibit area and come upon a mock-up of a home in the Adriatic seaport of Ortona, Italy, with walls damaged by house-to-house fighting. It’s an example of “mouseholing,” in which Canadian soldiers “blasted their way from one house through the walls and into the next in a painstakingly slow operation,” according to museum materials.

At the home’s entrance, we take a blind right turn and suddenly come face to face with a Canadian soldier, gun at the ready. Even knowing this is a mannequin, we experience shock, then relief. If we had arrived from another direction, we would have encountered a German.

The Allies took Ortona, but only after 19 days of fighting that cost 2,339 Canadian casualties and temporarily depleted the 1st Canadian Division.

We learn more — for example, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Canada “the aerodrome of democracy” because it trained about 130,500 air-crew members from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and its own ranks, and that German U-boats got much closer to North America than we realized. One in the St. Lawrence River blew up 22 ships.

We see a “bomb balloon,” a device that could cross the Pacific in 70 hours, according to our very knowledgeable graduate-student guide, Stephen Gooch, and one by one drop its cluster of firebombs, which look like nothing more sinister than sacks of flour, into forests. We also come within feet of Hitler’s armored Mercedes-Benz parade car, one side window cracked but not penetrated by the shots of American soldiers testing to see if it really was bulletproof.

The artifacts are a compelling mix of educational materials and personal memorabilia. Mr. Gooch tells us that every gallery has a “story line” developed to emphasize the organizing goals to “educate, preserve and remember.”

Themed galleries beyond the first four include the Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour; LeBreton Gallery, with a collection of military vehicles and artillery that the museum says is “one of the world’s best”; the Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae Gallery for temporary exhibits; and, under the fin that looks so dramatic from the outside, an area known as Regeneration Hall, where artworks and architectural design underline the healing theme.

Small windows in the fin spell out “Lest we forget” and the French equivalent, “N’oublions jamais.” A triangular floor-to-fin-tip window at the eastern edge of the hall frames the Peace Tower, but only from certain spots on the entrance balcony. From other areas, the view is lost, emphasizing “that peace is fleeting,” Mr. Gooch says.

We are surprised at first that art is a recurring element in the galleries and even the hallways connecting them, but we discover that it provides invaluable documentation of battles and battle sites as well as illustrations of the emotional, personal aspects of war. Thirteen thousand works of art are included among about 500,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection (only a small percentage of which are on display).

“Nose art,” sections of planes in the hallway leading into LeBreton Gallery, shows how pilots and their crews decorated their planes — with paintings of cartoon characters, boasts and pinup models. They speak of the insouciance of youth but also make me wonder: Where are those young men today? Did they survive and rebuild their lives, or did grieving families and friends have to move on without them?

One wall of the hallway is imperceptibly angled inward, making the walker feel off-balance, because “war is disorienting,” Mr. Gooch says as I notice that the design is, indeed, causing me to walk off-kilter.

There is still much to see, learn and experience in subsequent visits. I’m chagrined that I almost passed up this gem.

•••

The Canadian War Museum was a joint venture of Moriyama & Teshima Architects of Toronto and Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects of Ottawa. For hours, fees and current exhibits, see www.warmuseum.ca. The museum’s research center is open to the public.

Ottawa’s museums continue to expand and modernize. The Canadian Museum of Nature, which began renovations in 2004, reopened its west wing in late 2006 with new galleries on dinosaurs, mammals and birds. The east wing is projected to reopen in 2009 or 2010. See www.nature.ca.

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