The neat thing about a museum experience is that it's different for everyone. No two people share the same journey while there. Just as the museum exhibits are curated by professionals, an individual curates their own visit, selecting the poignant moments that leave a lasting impression.
With this in mind, I took a day trip through the sand hills to C.F.B. Shilo to the Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA) Museum, a museum that many of my friends and family had visited before, but one that I needed to experience for myself.
The RCA Museum is a mighty place. It's dedicated to the history of the 200K+ Canadian Gunners who have served in war and peace since 1855. The weightiness of the content may be overwhelming to the uninitiated, but soon enough visitors uncover nuggets of information that really change a perspective. Here's what I learned:
Artists visited the front lines
Visitors don't expect to find fine art among war memorabilia, but at RCA's the latest temporary exhibit 1918: The Last 100 Days, which documents the Canadian artillery experience leading up to November 11 (Armistice Day), a dozen framed beauties adorn the back wall. Here I learned about the Canadian War Art Memorials Fund, a program that funded notable Commonwealth artists - including Group of Seven members AY Jackson and Frederick Varley - to visit the front lines and document the war in a way that photography couldn't. There were over 800 pieces created and curiously no paintings were displayed until the end of WWI. The charred trees of the front lines clearly had an impact on the artists, as it's an image that shows up consistently throughout the works on display.
'In Flanders Fields' in Manitoba
One of the crown jewels of RCA's permanent collection is the printing plate used to published the famous 1919 wartime poem 'In Flanders Fields' written by Canadian Gunner John McCrea. The delicate metallic plate on display in the main gallery is incised with McCrea's elegant handwriting. Even though I had to read the words backwards, I could recite the first line: "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow..."
Métis rangers who helped map the country
The Glorious and Free Gallery takes Manitobans through 12,000 years of military history on our land, starting with warring First Nations.The gallery is choke-full of great DYK local war stories, and the one that resonated the most was that of a unit of 31 burly Métis scouts from the Red River Settlement who were commissioned to protect the British-Canadian engineers and civilians who surveyed the Canada-US border from 1872-74. These Métis men - who knew the wilds of the prairie better than anyone - were key in establishing Canadian sovereignty.
Small artifacts can make a big impact
Upon arrival at the RCA Museum, 40 gigantic artillery pieces and vehicles greeted me in the parking lot. Inside, decades of war history is condensed into a 12,000 sq. ft. space among an imposing collection of self-propelled Howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, soldier dioramas and more.
Surprisingly, I found solace in the finer artifacts that sat quietly waiting to be discovered. I was particularly drawn to the story of the Dead Man's Penny, a next of kin memorial plaque that was sent to families in the event of a death or missing soldier after WWI. The main Canadian Forces Heritage Gallery is also decorated, much like many Great Gunners, with exquisite medals of honour. The colourful adornments are as captivating as staring at a case of jewels.
The oldest piece in the collection
When I asked senior curator Kathleen Christensen, who doubled as my tour guide, what her favourite piece in the museum was, she patted the 9-pounder smooth bore gun that greets visitors when they first enter the museum. The gun, which was cast in 1812 and coated in bronze, was the principle gun of the Canadian artillery at the time of Confederation, thus chosen as the official badge of The Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery.
Guns can be cool
Stepping into the weapons vault took my breath away. The giant glass display case of over 100 gun is a fascinating tour through the decades to see how weapons have evolved from the simple rifles and revolvers of early Canada to the sub-machine guns with bayonet of WWII. I found myself studying the guns as pieces of art rather than weapons.
Now it's your turn to go on a journey to the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum to see what kind of impression this national treasure leaves on you.
On Canadian Forces Base (C.F.B.) Shilo, 30 minutes east of Brandon or 2 hours west of Winnipeg, south of #1/Trans-Canada Highway on PR 340.
Open daily, year round, 10 am - 5 pm
Serving CF & RCMP Free
Silver Cross Recipients Free
Veterans (inc. RCMP) $4
Seniors (65+) $4
Students (6-18 yrs ) $4
Children (under 6 yrs) Free
Guided Tour $25