Wednesday, 1 October 2014

In the vaults of the Canadian War Museum

Today as a thank you to the volunteer guides of the Summer Program on the paintings of the First World War we were invited by the Coordinator of Volunteers of the Canadian War Museum on Le Breton Flats to an exceptional visit, a very rare event, to go underground to see where all the 84,000 artifacts of the Museum are kept and curated.

We were a small group of 12 people composed of volunteers from various other National Museums like myself who had come to help out with the Exhibits Witness and Transformations (1914-1918).
I was expecting a short visit maybe 30 minutes, sort of a general tour, we got a 90 minute tour to various rooms where various artifacts are kept in well humidified and temperature controlled rooms, look after by a staff of dedicated and knowledgeable people some of which are themselves volunteers with expert knowledge in one field or another.

We first went to see the room where the Lord Beaverbrook Canadian War Memorial Fund paintings are kept. We were able to see some pictures which were not part of the exhibit this Summer.

The Flag by John Byam Shaw, 1918. A dead Canadian Soldier wrap in the Flag of Canada at the time lying at the foot of an Imperial Lion (Britain) mourned by Canadians. A very large canvas, it has not been exhibited since 1919 when it was shown at the Royal Academy in London as part of the Canadian War paintings.

We were able to look through the collection. We then went to another room where 2 artists were preparing a diaporama of the battle of Passhendaele in Flanders, Belgium for the new exhibit which will open in November. They were working on figurines of soldiers in the 30 mm and 5 mm scale, amazing work they are doing. Recreating battle scenes in great detail. They have to hand paint each one by hand, incredible work.

Then on to the paper room where posters and sketches and small aquarelles are kept all in special boxes on shelves, again in a temperature controlled room. A lot of the drawings made by Canadian soldiers which were shown at the exhibit Witness have now been put away and will probably not be shown again for 40 years. Meaning I will never see them again in my lifetime. The paper used by the soldiers is 100 years old and all the artwork is very fragile, in most cases the paper used by the soldiers on the battlefield was not good quality, in many instances it was letter paper or scrapes of cardboard or scraps of cigarette cartons, whatever they could put their hands on. But such beautiful art work they did to express what they saw and how they felt, often with great humour despite the danger and death all around.

We then went to the weapons room, it was full of cannon balls, bombs of all kinds, torpedoes, a small submarine, World War one gun carriages, saddles for horses, etc... We got a short course on the difference between a Howitzer which has a short neck and a cannon which has a long neck. Then one person asked about how you load a cannon and how you put the fuse on the shell. So we got a demonstration, and I learned that you first fitted the fuse on top of the shell, then put the shell into the cannon and then this tubular pillow like device which explodes when the cannon is fired propelling the shell forward. Depending on the size of your cannon you could fire a shell up to 2 Km or more in distance.

Then someone asked if they could see the Sherman Tank, I like many people have heard of the Sherman Tank but had never seen one. There it was, it is about a third the size of a regular tank of today. Still it is pretty big and the model we have is a 1939 tank manufactured in Montreal. It is powered by gasoline and makes an incredible noise when the motor is started and lots of exhaust fumes.  Apparently it is difficult to start and you have to crank it by hand like the model T Ford.

There was also a very large German Gun manufactured by Krupp in Essen which is being restored and which will be part of the exhibit in November. We were shown deep indentations in the metal of the gun, this was made by shrapnel which killed the crew manning the gun.

We did not see the room where uniforms and flags are kept that in itself is also very interesting. All in all a good visit and I am very happy to have seen something that is not open to the public and can only be accessed on special permission.

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