Even before visitors walk into the lobby of the Canadian War Museum, they recognize they are entering a building like no other.

With its grass-covered roof and facade jutting out toward Parliament Hill like the bow of a great ship, the concrete building overlooking the Ottawa River is striking.

Inside, the lobby is open and expansive, but as visitors enter the galleries, there is something constrictive about the space.

The architect, Raymond Moriyama, wanted to take people out of their comfort zone. The imposing grey walls seem cold and barren.

With Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, the stories told here have had more resonance. An extended 14-month exhibition on Afghanistan, now touring Canada, attracted 190,000 visitors before wrapping up in April 2008 — exceeding the initial 12-month projection of 120,000 in just seven months.

More than 300 attended the opening of the travelling exhibit at the Rooms in St. John’s, N.L., earlier this month. The war museum plans to bring the show to Victoria, Calgary, Toronto and other cities through 2011.

Since reopening in a new building in May 2005, the museum has become a beacon for tourists and history buffs alike. Visitors have more than quadrupled to 450,000 a year.

The museum traces Canada’s history through conflict. Visitors can learn about early Iroquois fortifications, the Seven Years’ War and the War of 1812. There are also permanent displays on the two world wars, Korea and Canada’s blue-helmeted peacekeeping missions in far-flung regions of the world, along with an extensive collection of war art.

Dioramas, interactive displays and amazing artifacts — like Adolf Hitler’s Mercedes, or the torn, bloodstained coat of French Capt. Francois Dezery, shot at the Battle of Chateauguay in 1813 — bring the installations to life.

Besides Afghanistan, special exhibitions have featured the art of war propaganda, photographic collections and a look at wartime life at home.

Public lectures and other events ensure the museum is a venue for the informed discussion of military affairs, past and present.

“We’re not pro-war, we’re not antiwar,” said spokesman Pierre Leduc.

The current special exhibition, Trench Life: A Survival Guide, focuses on some of the 65,000 Canadian soldiers who experienced the misery of First World War battlefields, showing their kit, their trench art, their letters home.

Theatre, poetry, newspapers, cartoons, songs and art helped soldiers find meaning in their war experience and cope with the strain of combat. Trench art included mugs crafted from shell casings, and all manner of trinkets.

If you go ...

• Trench Life: A Survival Guide runs until April 13 at The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
• Details at www.warmuseum.ca

Latest From ...