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.
The 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.
The 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.