Peace in a war museum?

A visitor to the Canadian War Museum’s newest display – “Peace: the Exhibition” – might be forgiven for being skeptical about the museum’s ability to adequately and comprehensively portray the meaning of and search for peace.   After all, what might one expect from a museum devoted to war?

The exhibit is actually a fascinating portrayal of the diverse ways Canadians have been engaged in building peace over the centuries.

PAIX_BandeauxWeb490x200AngThe exhibit is divided into three sections called Negotiation, Organization, and Intervention. Within each section, text, photos, audio recordings, film clips, and artifacts tell many stories. Within Negotiation, we learn about Canada’s role in the establishment of UN peacekeeping in 1956, about the “law of peace, power and righteousness” within the Six Nations Confederacy, and about the signing of treaties between the Crown and Indigenous people.

Within Organization, we learn about Canada in relation to World War I, nuclear weapons, Vietnam-era draft-dodgers, Southeast Asian refugees, and a ban on landmines.  The section on Intervention is devoted to Canadian military involvement in World War II, in Afghanistan, and in Haiti.

peace buttonsThe Mennonite “story” is told in various ways:  through the WW I military exemption cards of two church leaders, the boots of a WW II alternative service worker (Elmon Lichti), the profile of a WW II Mennonite soldier (Leslie Neufeld), some MCC school and relief kits like those shipped to Afghanistan and Haiti, and MCC’s iconic peace button: “to remember is to work for peace.”

Staff of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, and MCC Ontario in Kitchener provided information and artifacts for the exhibit.  The Ottawa Office’s director, Paul Heidebrecht. participated in a “human library” at the exhibit’s opening, offering stories about Mennonites and conscientious objection to war.

The exhibit is creative, artistic, interactive, and has been assembled with care.  One of my favourite sections was a place where one can listen to audio recordings of peace songs – everything from John Lennon’s “All we are saying is give peace a chance,”  to Cat Stevens’ “The peace train” to the Canadian Mennonite University choir’s rendition of “We are people of God’s peace.”

At the same time, I left the exhibit feeling dissatisfied.

I was disappointed the exhibit fails to grapple with the meaning of peace, as varied and diverse as the definitions might be.  It simply accepts the notion that peace is whatever people choose to call peace. As such, the exhibit is completely uncritical of the notion that war makes peace.

Secondly, I was troubled by the significant emphasis on Canada’s involvement in war.  Given that the entire War Museum is devoted to war, could this exhibit have focused on other things?  For example, the emergence of mediation and conflict resolution, the growth of restorative justice and alternative dispute mechanisms, the development of trauma healing, and the recognition of cross-cultural bridge-building as channels for building peace?  Not to mention some of the amazing people of the peace movement?

Thirdly, I was perplexed that the exhibit asked so few questions.  I did not expect it to deviate widely from traditional interpretations on Canadian involvement in WW I and WW II. But I did expect the exhibit to more adequately explore divergent voices and ask probing questions.  I did expect the exhibit to raise questions that would provoke critical reflection on the part of visitors – perhaps questions like these:

  • Some people say war and armed force can build peace, while others say that peace can only be built through peaceful means.  What do you think?
  • Some people believe we advance security by eliminating terrorists, while others say that security is found in identifying and addressing the root causes of terrorism. What do you think?

The War Museum is to be commended for picking up the challenge of exploring Canadian stories of peace.  I hope many people will visit the peace exhibit.  I also hope that the exhibit will generate a much deeper conversation on the nature of peace, the necessity of peace, and the peace-filled ways we can build it together.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

4 Thoughts

  1. Great overview! I also recently saw the exhibition. Despite the curators’ obvious care in mounting this exhibition to me the message seemed compromised, as though nothing could be said about peace without an obligatory mention about the valour of those who fought. I also thought the exhibition did not fully explain the roots of pacifist groups such as the Mennonites, Quakers and others who have had a major impact from even before Canada was formed in 1867. It’s fascinating that even today the concept of pacifism can still be considered a dangerous one.

  2. While I haven’t seen this particular exhibit, my visit to the Canadian War Museum a few years ago left me very disappointed with the lack of analysis in most of the displays and the boosterism for the idea that Canada became a nation largely because of its participation in international war efforts. What makes a sovereign country appears to be the ability to defend one’s borders and go to war whenever “evil” rises in the world…. It was obvious to me then, that this museum was attempting to simplify issues and promote military action as an acceptable way of solving global political problems. It appears that this new exhibit on peace, while interactive and informative in certain ways, is still promoting war as honourable, rather than as the failure it most certainly represents. Here’s one of those peace songs Esther probably listened to: “Where have all the young men gone? Gone to fight wars everyone…When will they ever learn?” They will never learn if we continue to fund museums that don’t encourage Canadians to ask the tough questions about their past.

  3. You are too kind. I believe this exhibit trivializes the peace movement and the great sacrifices pacifists made in order to show humanity to a better way of conflict resolution. Great attention is given to John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s love-in: as if having sex in a Montreal hotel is really what the protests against the Viet Nam War were all about. Nothing is said about the pacifist martyrs of the European Radical Protestant Reformation that brought waves of immigrants to Canada with a promise from Queen Victoria that they would not be conscripted into military here: a promise that was kept only because those people’s children were ready to go to jail before they were willing to submit to conscription. Nothing is said about the legacy of J.S. Woodsworth, nor his view that war is a result of economic imperialism. Nothing is said about the Quebec opposition to World War II conscription. The section on the Viet Nam War talks about Draft Dodgers and Deserters. The term used by those people to describe themselves: Draft Resisters, is never used.

  4. I also remember the peace display including a bit on the raging grannies…Again, as if this is what peace-making looks like in Canada! Not to suggest that their protest efforts were not useful: initially, the raging grannies did garner some media attention as they represented a different demographic group than the usual student protesters, etc. But with so little context provided for any of these displays, I agree with you: what the museum did was designed to trivialize and minimize Canada’s peace-making efforts. Even the blue-berets and Canada’s UN efforts in that regards, seemed to take second place to what was obviously the museum’s chief message: Canada- a sovereign nation, capable of going into battle with the Big Boys in order to defeat evil in the world. This kind of analysis is a misrepresentation of the historical record and surely even our veterans appreciate that there are lessons to be learned from war in order to avoid it in the future…Instead, this museum’s subtext is, in my opinion: “war will always be with us”, so let’s be sure we’re ready for it when it comes…sigh….

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