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War museum

CMC photo by Harry Foster

The Sussex Drive facility in Ottawa, Canada’s national war museum for many years.

A Brief History of Canadian Forces Military Museums: 1919 to 2004 – Part 2

by Doctor Serge Bernier

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By the middle of the 1960s, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) still had no museum of its own, although it had trophies of all forms and sizes on display at different locations in Canada. In fact, in April 1949, the service had organized a special exhibition at the Canadian War Museum (CWM), building upon the occasion of the air force Silver Jubilee.1 The Air Historian’s staff, which had been reduced to two members following the 1947 defence cuts, was the body of expertise with respect to the possibility of establishing an air force museum in Canada between the end of the Second World War and 1965. And the air vice-marshal sitting on the CWM Board for most of this period (AVM James) was entirely supported by the Air Historian, Fred H. Hitchins.

In counterpoint, even by 1956, as we have seen previously, the navy and the army each had more than one museum. However, in 1954, the Air Historian had proposed the creation of an RCAF Museum as an annex to the CWM, and this annex was to be located at one of the two air bases in Ottawa. Discussions with respect to the project had led nowhere, the government of the day not being any keener on this initiative than it was on a new Canadian War Museum. In fact, the air force itself did not appear to be much more interested, invoking, at the time, how difficult it would be to find space available at Ottawa’s RCAF Station Rockcliffe.2

In April 1956, however, the RCAF established a committee to compile an inventory of the holdings it possessed at military and civilian locations around the country, including those at several universities. Nonetheless, that would be the only effort dedicated to the establishment of an indigenous air force museum for some years.3 In 1956, another group commenced working towards the creation of a National Aviation Museum, one that would incorporate elements of both military and civilian national aviation history. The National Research Council (NRC), the prime mover behind this project, had in its possession some 30 aviation engines dating from 1906, plus a few aircraft and model aircraft, all of which were proving difficult to store. Accordingly, in 1956, the NRC formed an associate committee to consider ways and means of obtaining funding for a National Aeronautical Museum. In 1957, this committee formally accepted a member of the RCAF as one of its members. And in 1959, in lockstep with the 50th Anniversary of the first powered flight in Canada, the government agreed to support the display of the aeronautical items that had been assembled at Ottawa’s Department of Transport air terminal at Uplands.4 This exhibition proved to be successful, but it was a far cry from being a significant museum, although it was officially named the National Aviation Museum (NAM). Only a few military artefacts were included to demonstrate the role played by the RCAF in the development of Canadian aviation. That said, by this time, the RCAF was also periodically holding small temporary exhibitions here and there on its various bases throughout the land.


DND photo by Clive Prothero-Brooks

Several captured German artillery pieces on display at the RCA Museum in Shilo, Manitoba.

By 1961, the idea of a central RCAF museum located at Rockcliffe was still lingering. But in order to achieve the goal of a dedicated air force museum, the RCAF had to retain a significant inventory of artefacts. By this time, it had already given the CWM all its First World War memorabilia, and some artefacts of Second World War vintage had gone to the aforementioned National Aviation Museum, even if neither facility possessed the space to properly display them. It became clear that an eventual central RCAF museum would have to be oriented towards coverage of the Second World War period and thereafter. On 18 June 1961, the Air Council created the RCAF Museum Committee, “to establish policies on the collection, storage, display accounting, and disposal of RCAF items of historic interest.”5 This committee, chaired by the Air Historian, would accomplish a lot over the next three years, but it was far removed from having created one centralized air force museum. It had collected material, done a proper inventory of its holdings, displayed material here and there, particularly on Air Force Day, and it had participated in permanent or semi-permanent displays with the Canadian War Museum and the National Air Museum. The Committee was also making plans for the permanent storage and display of various aviation relics.6 However, even though the separate RCAF commands had been authorized in 1961 to set up local museums, by the end of 1964, only Training Command had shown particular interest in doing so. It had been given permission to use two Second World War hangars for that purpose, but it had to refurbish them with its own resources, which where not even sufficient to hire a curator.7 This was further exacerbated by the fact that the armed forces, from 1964 to 1972, would suffer budgetary and staff cuts, resulting in a diminishing number of serving members. Meanwhile, the three services were also required to reorganize themselves in order to first integrate their three headquarters with their civilian Departmental counterparts, and then conduct the unification of the three services, commencing in 1968.

In short, the RCAF did not create its central museum. However, it supported the Canadian War Museum and the National Aviation Museum in their individual attempts to harmoniously develop their respective RCAF aeronautical collections. It also provided the two institutions with historical information and airlifts. Then, in the spring of 1964, when military flying ceased at Rockcliffe, three hangars became available. One of them was assigned to the two museums for display purposes. The two remaining hangars were used to store the RCAF collection.8

At the same time, a National Aeronautical Collection was officially created, bringing together at Rockcliffe every artifact now in the hands of the Canadian War Museum, the National Aviation Museum and the RCAF. By the summer of 1964, this collection was formally placed on display. It included 47 separate aircraft of historical importance, plus many other items of interest, including engines and other aircraft components. More than 60,000 people visited this collection in its inaugural year. Every summer, following that experimental summer of 1964 until a new Canadian Aviation Museum was finally inaugurated on the Rockcliffe site in 1988, this collection was made available to the public.

Some of the first organizations within the new integrated Department of National Defence to be amalgamated in 1964-1965 were the three individual historical services. The emerging new Directorate of History would have less staff overall than they collectively possessed before 1964. Within this new organization, only the Air Historian emerged with direct responsibilities for museums in its service, the air force. The question was then asked by the Secretary of the Department – to whom the new Directorate of History (D Hist) reported – if this function should be included in the new terms of reference. However, the initial Director wanted to focus on research and the writing of official histories, and the museum function was not embraced as part of the D Hist mission.9 For the air force this was a loss, since its only museum champion had been effectively eliminated.

From 1972 until the Present

Integration and unification had a profound impact on Canada’s armed forces. In April 1969, a revised defence policy decision was announced. And its implementation was to result in the disbanding, the redesignation or the move of many units that possessed museums. An ad hoc interim policy to cover urgent cases provided for the move of museums using service transport on a space available basis to accommodation provided by the armed forces. But the entire envelope of Canadian Forces (CF) museums was to be studied under the aegis of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) Study Directive S4/70, dated 12 March 1970.10

At the time, there were 42 museums in the regular and reserve components of the CF, most of them managed by units or establishments of the land environment. These museums had over 69,000 items on display, most of them owned by the museums or on loan from private individuals. The museums were collectively occupying approximately 75,000 square feet of space, and most of them employed either full or part-time staffs.11 One of the factors to be considered in the CDS-mandated study was the purpose and value of the museums to the Canadian Forces. In a questionnaire submitted to the commands and interested branches, the questions, “Do Military Museums contribute to the Forces?” and “Should these museums be supported with public funds?” the responses to both were 70 per cent affirmative.12 The Chief of the Defence Staff’s Advisory Committee (CDSAC) discussed the results of this study at a 1 December 1971 meeting. It was concluded that the Chief of Personnel – today, the Assistant Deputy Minister Human Resources Military [ADM (HR-Mil)] – would form an overall Canadian Forces Museum Committee. This committee’s secretary would manage the day-to-day operations of the various museums. Free accommodation and transportation requirements would continue to be provided by the Department of National Defence. The committee would, as its first priorities: further investigate budget requirements, but they were not to exceed $10,000 per year for unit facilities, subject to review in 1977; seek authority to obtain obsolete DND equipments for museums; identify which museums were to be classed as official; approve the creation of new museums and the closing of any existing ones; and, finally, prepare an appropriate Canadian Forces Administrative Order for overall governance and implementation.13

Aviation museum

CAM photo by Malak

The Canadian Aviation Museum located in Ottawa, Ontario with the exact replica of Billy Bishop’s Nieuport 17 in the foreground.

Thus, the issue of the CF museums was resolved when they ended up finding a ‘home’ within a new integrated Directorate of Ceremonial (D Ceremonial), under the Chief of Personnel. As indicated at the CDSAC meeting, there was to be no single staff officer in D Ceremonial specifically assigned to the museums. As had existed within the three individual services prior to integration, this function would be handled as a secondary task by some of the staff within the new directorate. The Directorate of Ceremonial could, however, draw upon the experience resident in each of the three services.

Aviation museum

CAM photo by Malak

Inside the Canadian Aviation Museum, Ottawa, Ontario.

The new Canadian Forces Museums Committee (CFMC) was to be chaired by D Ceremonial. The navy and air force would each have one representative on this committee, while a few of the various army corps would also each provide one representative. (Historically, the logistics, armour, artillery and signals corps representatives have proven to be the most engaged in this forum over the years.) The organization at DND in charge of the disposal of surplus equipment would also be represented on the committee. And this representative was and remains as important as all the others, since his organization is responsible for directing the action required to loan, borrow, sell or transfer any DND material, including any material or artefacts provided to CF museums. As an aside, since 1993, the CFMC has been streamlined, and each service is allowed just one representative on a committee now chaired by the Director of History and Heritage (DHH). Its present mandate is to steer policy and to promote the development of all military museums in Canada.

It was very clear, right from the outset, that the military museums would not be ‘owned’ by D Ceremonial. However, the CFMC would help the museums become more professional, and the committee would have a modest annual budget to distribute to the museums. Of course, the CFMC believed in 1972, as it does now, that it did not have enough money to carry on its work.14

Past experience had shown that some of the museums were merely arms collections raised by either individuals or very small groups. In fact, it is fair to say that most of the regimental museums currently recognized by the CFMC originated as collections built and maintained by veterans. In short, these collections represented a group of interesting artefacts, but had no overall, coordinated story to tell. Such was the case with the RMC Museum, for example, between 1922 and 1946.

At its first meeting, on 27 April 1972, the CFMC decided that the $10,000 budget of special funds available would only be used on military museums that warranted official status. In order to obtain this status, a series of criteria would have to be met, and similar criteria continue to this day. The principal ones revolved around the need for substantiation to establish a new museum. A proposition had to be logical and objective, and had to provide clear reasons why this museum was uniquely necessary. Furthermore, the organization that wanted to create a museum needed an artefact collection policy. Again, there had to be a unique need for the new museum, as opposed to the creation of yet another museum that replicated an existing facility. The new museum had to be sponsored by the base or unit commander, and it had to be accessible to service personnel, but also to the general public. The CFMC had to be informed of the exact content of the museum, the scope and the variety of its artefacts and the number of exhibits and their relation to the unit and/or local area history. The administration of the facility would depend on a governing base museum committee, and it was to be staffed by a knowledgeable custodian or curator. Of course, other criteria, such as financial support and bookkeeping, accommodation, security staff requirements and membership in professional associations were also taken into account.15

Once accreditation has been given, the CF can support the museum with accommodation, the transportation of artefacts, the refurbishing, procurement or construction of displays, and so on... Of course, these accredited museums – 65 of them as of April 2004 – have access to the special funds the committee can disburse. These funds are not there to fund a museum budget in its entirety. Neither are they to be used for maintenance of buildings nor for the expansion of museums facilities or displays, for honorariums for curators or the acquisition of artefacts. In fact, one of the best methods for museum curators to acquire new artefacts is for them to keep an eye on upcoming decisions regarding the disposal of equipment.

Specifically, the special funds are accessible through a formal submission to the CFMC in order to help the museums change their displays, to organize a special exhibit, to maintain the actual collection or to hire an intern on a short-term basis.

Hands-on, top-down management from the CFMC of the Canadian military museum family is minimal to the point of being almost non-existent. The committee coordinates, at the most, the museum community for the common good. The various artefacts can be DND property, or they can come from an organization or an individual who, for some reason, loaned them for to the museum. Thus, the bookkeeping is important, as well as respect of the National Defence Act articles that pertain to the management of non-public funds. While the museums are clearly under DND management, they can be supported by organizations that are non-military. Some of the larger museums in our system can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from a friendly association to build a new annex, for example, or even a completely new building on government property. In other words, a committee of friends of a museum may support the facility, but they will not own it. Of note, reserve force units organize many of our 65 accredited museums.

As intimated earlier, accreditation by the CFMC will only be given to a museum that can produce a reliable ‘story line,’ a raison d’être for its existence as a well-articulated historical entity that commemorates individuals, formations, events or materiel of national military significance. This is in order to distinguish the museums from historical collections. After both world wars, groups of veterans created collections they wished to protect from the bureaucracy in Ottawa. Some groups, however, have protected their collections so thoroughly that the artefacts either disappeared or were lost after the disbandment of units, instead of being carefully transferred to the custody of existing units. In some cases, those artefacts ended up in local civilian institutions, which, given their mandate, have gradually come to ignore the display of military themes and memorabilia. These relics then frequently disappeared into storage, as has happened too often up until now at the Canadian War Museum. The CFMC will not support a historical collection directly, but it stands ready to help them to make the attitudinal shift from historical collection to museum, the latter being developed to properly safeguard our military heritage. Through our accreditation policy, a museum has a clearly defined role, a mandate to tell its story, a collection policy to ensure that artefacts are gathered and disposed of systematically and for a purpose, and a continuing commitment for the future to ensure that its role is carried out.16

I would now like to cover very briefly what has happened on the Canadian military museum front since 1990. In that year, the Minister of Communications, to whom all federal museums report except those managed by DND, created a task force to examine the development and care of various military history collections in Canadian museums. While the original aim of this task force was really related to the creation of a vastly expanded and updated Canadian War Museum, a revision of the draft terms of reference came to include, with DND’s consent, a study of the facilities, needs and other requirements of the CF museum system. Also, a review of military history museum collections and an examination of ways to enhance the cooperation among military museums across the country became part of the task force’s mandate. Its report was tabled on 11 April 1991.

The recommendations with respect to DND were not numerous, but they were important. For example, it was recognized that accommodation and conservation were major areas of concern. The Directorate of History and Heritage (D Ceremonial’s new name by the end of the 1990s) took this into account and we have now a multi-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Canadian Conservation Institute to conduct a comprehensive conservation and archival assessment of our holdings. As the task force recommended, a full-time position was created to be responsible for DND military museums and to provide them with assistance and direction. This staff officer was also placed in charge of the implementation of all other task force recommendations. Additional funding was also made available. As of 2004, the NDHQ financial support provided to our military museums exceeds $500,000 per year. The Directorate of Military Traditions and Heritage (DMTH), a predecessor of DHH, also started to develop a computerized inventory, the Canadian Forces Artefacts Management System (CFAMS), which has since been regularly enhanced. This directorate and its eventual successor have distributed computers to the museums, upgraded them over the years, and offered specialized courses on their use in conjunction with CFAMS. Moreover, since 2002, we have started a radiation safety program for all Canadian Forces Museum artefacts, and have started to address, to treat and to rectify those artefacts not presently in compliance with the requirements stipulated by pertinent Canadian laws. DHH also now holds the licence that will guarantee that our museums comply with the Canadian criteria related to radiation safety.

War museum

CMC photo by Harry Foster

The Canadian War Museum celebrated its Grand Opening on the week- end of 7-8 May 2005. The Museum is located on LeBreton Flats on the south bank of the Ottawa River, west of Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa.

In 1998, a History and Heritage Board was created, composed of the three service Chiefs of Staff, and for which DHH is the secretary. In 1999, this board asked for an evaluation of all the existing military museums (62 at the time) in order to make sure they met current criteria for accreditation. On a scale ranging from “very good” to “weak,” only four of the museums were classified as “weak.” Some of the criteria used for the review were quite new. For example, the visiting team had to determine if a museum had a program to increase visitation, which had been one of the weaknesses brought to light by the 1990-91 task force. The team was also required to determine if a museum actively participated in its host community and if it publicized and marketed its products.

Conclusions and The Way Ahead

Canadian Forces Administrative Order 27-5 contains a mission statement for DND military museums. It is to preserve and interpret Canadian military heritage in order to increase a sense of identity and esprit de corps within the Canadian Forces, and to support the goals of the Department of National Defence. With respect to the first of these two aims, our museums collect, preserve, research and interpret artefacts, including archival and photographic material relating to the history of the topic they represent. In general, they display the heritage of regiments/corps/branches and/or services, so that a visitor can comprehend the events and the people who helped form our heritage and traditions. Most of the museums are called upon from time to time to assist in the training of recruits and in fostering leadership skills by developing story lines and displays that will achieve the goals of the training package of a service or a unit. In doing so, the CF museums are popularizing our military history and are thus playing a role in the diffusion of a substantial part of Canadian history.

Between 1972 and 1993, once a museum had received its accreditation, the CFMC was more or less finished with it, except for when the committee studied the museum’s annual request for funds. However, since 1993, a regular inspection schedule has been developed to provide the museums with technical assistance and to insure that accreditation standards are being maintained. If one recalls how the first military museums were created in the 1920s, one has to admit that much progress has been made in this particular realm of oversight and standardization.

Part of the stipulated DND mandate has been to consider the Canadian War Museum and the National Aviation Museum as part of the overall CF System for the purposes of artefact support. This is why those two museums are clearly present in DND’s Artefact Retention Policy. Moreover, it is fair to say that all our CF museums, the CWM, and the NAM are working towards a “common agenda” that my predecessor as Director of History and Heritage defined this way: “Simply put, it is agreement on a group goal – in this case the preservation of military heritage for all Canadians – and cooperation between otherwise independent organizations in accomplishing the task”.17 This is why, for the last four years, we have encouraged our museums to sign MOUs, particularly with the Canadian War Museum. But it is not easy. The competition for the same artifacts may be strong and the fact that the CWM has not played a truly pivotal role as a national war museum up until now has, in turn, generated considerable discontent and skepticism within the CF military museum community. The 1990-91 task force included, as evidence in its report, part of a letter it had received during the course of its investigations. The particular writer said that the CWM was a national embarrassment. In short, the CWM should be the center of excellence and the lead institution for building a fully integrated system of military museums in Canada. At present, the CF museums and the CWM have not developed this synergy as much as they could, promulgating the idea that they are partners, not rivals.

For example, as DHH, I favor a balanced coordinated, coast-to-coast distribution of our military heritage in accordance with government and DND policies when the time comes to dispose of military equipment from active service. As perceived from the grass-roots vantage point of our military museums, it appears, often incorrectly, that the CWM and the CAM sometimes place their interests above those of the other museums. One has to consider that Canada is the second largest country in the world geographically, although it has a relatively small and widely dispersed population. To ‘put all of our military heritage eggs into the one basket’ of the CWM in Ottawa would, in my view, be the worst of all policies, since many Canadians will have no occasion to visit Ottawa during their lifetimes.

As of today, all our CF military museums are autonomous, non-public funded institutions, ranging in size from those housed in major buildings with outside display, access and separate storage facilities – such as the naval museum in Halifax, comparable army facilities in Gagetown and Calgary and equivalent air force museums in Winnipeg and Bagotville – to smaller institutions that may well just occupy a large armoury room with extra storage space somewhere in a government building. This latter situation certainly holds true for most army reserve units across the nation.

Naturally, DND wants its museums to serve a worthwhile purpose, and so, since 1972, it has provided them with some measure of support. The Department wants them to be efficiently organized, to be properly and attractively maintained and to have interesting and worthwhile exhibits. It also wants them to be readily accessible and to be used as public relations tools, particularly to make the point loud and clear that in Canada, service in our armed forces is completely voluntary.

However, a few factors are the root cause of a quite difficult situation in many of our museums, and one of them is linked to the concept of volunteerism. Most of our military museums would simply not exist if it were not for the dedication of hundreds of volunteers, most of whom are either currently serving or are former military members. Some of them are enthusiastic and supportive civilians, who never served in uniform, but who are ready and willing to devote a few hours a week to support of museum activities. How are we to sustain this voluntary effort in the future, given that in Canada, volunteerism has been decreasing over the last ten years and that our museum volunteers are now becoming relatively old?

Secondly, in many Canadian towns and cities, there is more than one CF museum. Each may be dependent upon two or three volunteers and may be accessible to the public only two or three hours a week, even during peak tourist seasons. Thus, the role that our museums could, and should, be playing with respect to the education of the general public is, in my view, a far cry from what it could be. Moreover, many of these museums are so self-oriented and narrowly focused that their local or regional links are often difficult to ascertain. Lastly, often situated as they are on the mezzanine of old armories and the like, they just cannot be readily visited by handicapped people or even the majority of our aging Second World War and Korean War veterans. One of the solutions envisaged would entail the consolidation of these local efforts. In short, put all the museums in a given municipality on one site – such as Calgary is presently doing with its navy, army and air force museums.

The Department of National Defence is not a cultural organization per se. That being said, it can certainly be considered a player in this domain. On one hand, the latest Auditor General’s report underscored the difficulties inherent in documenting and preserving our nation’s heritage. On the other, our incumbent Prime Minister wants to reinforce the Canadian social fabric. Our military heritage is certainly part of this social fabric, and amelioration on the side of helping to preserve Canada’s military heritage would certainly be welcomed. If the government were to decide, for example, to dedicate a “cultural dollar” to Defence, with the aim of further pushing the Calgary experiment or of providing an opportunity for Montreal and Winnipeg to concentrate their military heritage, now spread out and not well-frequented, on one central municipal site, a lot could be accomplished in a very few years.

Finally, through DHH, the Department of National Defence has been very actively supporting the Organization of Military Museums of Canada (OMMC) for more than ten years. This organization was created and supported by the Canadian War Museum from the 1970s to the 1990s. When the CWM decided to abandon the OMMC, DND stepped up to the plate in this support function. For the last few years, much professionalism has been injected into the OMMC through DHH’s expertise and financial assistance. I firmly believe this level of support should be maintained in the forthcoming years. However, in return, the OMMC must continue to demand the highest standards of excellence from its membership.

CMJ Logo

Doctor Serge Bernier is Director of Heritage and History at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.


  1. Department of National Defence, NAC, RG 24, Series E-1-c, Volume 17664, File 045-6, Vol. 1, Hitchins to CAS, 4 May 1946. The CWM received 11, 267 visitors, in April 1949, a record for that month of the year.
  2. Ibid., File 045-6, Vol. 2, Air Commodore V.H. Patriarche to Air Vice-Marshal M.M. Hendrick, April 1956.
  3. This entire story can be followed in Ibid., and also in RG 24, National Defence, Series F-1, Box 218, File DRB 300-1.
  4. Located at the Uplands terminal, where the civilian airport was situated, but where there also was stationed a component of the RCAF. During the Second World War, it had been an important RCAF base. Officially, the National Aviation Museum (NAM) opened on 1 July 1961 under the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources.
  5. NAC, RG 24, Series E-1-c, Volume 17664, File 045-6, Vol. 3, Acting AMP to CAS, 20 March 1964.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., Vol. 4, Wing Commander R.V. Manning to Secretary Defence Staff, 17 December 1964.
  8. This event can be followed in Ibid.
  9. Ibid., Brigadier R.L. Purves, Secretary Defence Staff, to Air Marshal C.L. Annis, 13 January 1965. Ibid., 045-6, Vol. 5, R.V. Manning, A/Historians, to senior RCAF Advisor, 4 May 1965, R.V. Dodds (Historian) to C.P. Stacey (D Hist), 24 September 1965. Dodds explained that Air Historian, Flight Lieutenant W.O. Owens, was now winding down his involvement with the Air Museum’s matters.
  10. DHH files, CDS Study Directive S4/70, Canadian Forces Museums, 12 March 1970.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid. Minutes of the Chief of Defence Staff Advisory Committee meeting, 1 December 1971.
  13. Ibid.
  14. DHH, Minutes of the 1st CFMC meeting, 27 April 1972. Concerning the budget, the committee was unanimous in its opinion that $10000 was not enough. “Unless the Department is willing to provide the funds to enable this activity to be carried out in a professional manner which would reflect credit upon the Canadian Armed Forces, that the whole idea of establishing official museums should be discarded and leave existing museums to survive as best they can.” p.3.
  15. Ibid. and 2nd CFMC meeting, April 1973.
  16. DHH, (DHH-5 working files), File 1328-1, Vol. 025, Vince Bezeau (DMTH) to Bob Bradford, 25 September 1989.
  17. DHH working files, File 1328-1, Vol. 026, Vince Bezeau to Alec Douglas, 26 March 1990.