The year is 1915. Royal Military College cadet William Avery (Billy) Bishop trudged through dank mud that infested his attire up to his knees as light drizzle poured from above.
Amidst the bog, Bishop managed to push himself onwards before catching a glimpse of what appeared to be an aeroplane in the distant horizon, fighting against all elements the storm had to deliver.
As the tiny flyer cleared the grey mists, Bishop found himself envious at the thought of the pilot saddled in the dry cockpit while he begrudgingly took another wet step. In that moment, he made up his mind — he was going to fight the enemy in the air.
Bishop would go on to become one of the most legendary pilots to serve in the Canadian military, earning titles such as the distinguished Victorian Cross. His story lies in the aviation wing of Calgary’s Military Museums — one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
For legions of tourists and Calgarians, the Military Museums is too easily associated with stereotypes that buildings dedicated to history are the epitome of prosaic places. But the Military Museums isn’t boring if you take the time to learn how to appreciate the stories buried underneath the suffocating glass displays.
“A museum within Canada … doesn’t have the same excitement as it could elsewhere so I think people forget how entertaining, exciting and educational a museum can be until they actually come out,” says Jackie Jansen Van Doorn, the educational interpreter at the Military Museums.
The exterior of the building is deceiving; the walls are painted a dull beige that looks as though the original white had simply yellowed with time. Black frames enclose tinted windows that reflect the image of the snow on the side of the ascending pathway. The rest of the museum is designed in twos — two steel flagpoles touting Canada’s insignia guard the two front doors — but only one door opens inwards to the hidden gems of the city.
Inside, there is only one way to move forward, following a trail set by a dark-patterned carpet which leads to the front desk. The table is manned by groups of middle-aged men and women, each sharing trivial conversations about their lives outside of the museum; their chatters just barely audible. A large mosaic centrepiece reigns under the skylight, in a space that was sure to echo if anyone dared to shout. At first glance, the immaculately kept displays and well-vacuumed space seem to be a synonym for boring but if you were just the slight bit careless, you’d never see the faint promise of something more.
Explore the strings of grayscale photographs and striking medals that line the walls, the stories from the past that yearn to be heard. Listen to the snapping and popping of gunfire from the videos in the exhibits, the desperate hollering of orders given to weary soldiers who never made it home — the sounds of those who were once left behind. Taste the smells of pollution and war with your mind. Feel the gust of the winds racking against your body as you try to find traction in the dirt beneath, the bittersweetness in knowing you are still alive. Journey through the remnants and find the bravery, strength and loyalty that hides behind the invisible glass barriers.
“Our education system is kind of dried out when we teach history,” says second lieutenant Ashley Fournier-Montalvo, communications and marketing manager at the Military Museums, recalling her own drab experiences in high school.
Fournier-Montalvo says she couldn’t have begun to imagine anything through the bland edu-speak her teacher would give in their social studies classroom — not the historic atrocities, the tales of heroism, nor the impact past events would have on her current way of life.
Geoff Jackson, a history professor at Mount Royal University, says while he tries to keep things interesting in his classes through sourcing multimedia elements like videos and audio, he knows there are some lecturers out there that don’t do the same.
“I think it depends on the professor. If you’re just droning on about a narrative of something that happened a hundred years ago, that’s going to be of less interest,” he says.
“I don’t want to speak for other professors but perhaps [because] they’ve taught the same course, year in and year out, they sort of have a formula doing it, they don’t challenge themselves to … stuff like that.”
Since taking on her role, Fournier-Montalvo says she’s taken a new perspective on Canada’s military history.
She says although her initial educational experiences didn’t exactly pan out the way she expected, she hopes that like her, others will learn to love the Military Museums and the stories it has to offer.
“[Canada] has done a lot of cool stuff and we just don’t get to hear about it. If [people] come here, they’ll realize that there is a lot more to the military and to the military histories … than what they’re taught in school.”
Rory Cory, the museum’s senior curator and long-time history buff, also notes that history isn’t just about what happened in the past.
“It’s a way to connect more with your own personal history because a lot of people have family members who either have served in the past or who are currently serving,” he says.
“It’s a good chance for people to connect with that history now, while it’s still with us.”
Cory adds that the Military Museums is looking to expand their facility and bring in more interactive displays to engage the community.
The clock in the foyer flashes: 5 p.m. The Military Museums is now closed and the staff shuts the doors behind them as they return to their everyday lives but rich stories like Billy Bishop’s never really end. The brave soldiers that once were are still there, waiting for another day to regale visitors about their sacrifice, their service and most of all, to act as a reminder that heroes can come from anywhere, even from the ones that are on the outside, looking in.
Editor: Sam Nar | email@example.com