What a Nuclear Bunker Taught Me About Museums

Ottawa’s small museums are some of its best, thanks to their human scale


Deep down on the third subterranean level of the Diefenbunker, a tour guide named Torie explains that while the Diefenbunker is Canada’s most famous underground nuclear shelter, it was not the only one built.

The federal government built several other bunkers, but as the Cold War wound down, they were all decommissioned. The Diefenbunker – commissioned by late prime minister John Diefenbaker in 1959, hence the portmanteau name – was going to be destroyed before local citizens got together to save it as a poignant and possibly profitable memento of an era of existential insecurity.

At first, the Canadian government had thought it might be a good idea to sell off the bunkers. It sold the Penhold bunker in southern Alberta, for starters, to a local businessman. So far, so good. But then the local businessman listed it for sale, and grabbed the attention of a local group of Hells Angels. According to Torie, the government didn’t like the idea of the biker gang owning an impregnable underground fortress, so it stepped in, outbid them, dropped a couple of bombs down inside, then filled it up with concrete for good measure.

Fun, huh?


The cosy confines of Canada’s premier state-of-the-art nuclear shelter

That’s the thing about Ottawa’s smaller museums, like the Diefenbunker (which is actually in nearby Carp, Ontario): Small crowds, limited ambits, and a uniformly impressive group of guides – which mostly students of history or museum studies in local universities and colleges – combine to create a friendly atmosphere where you might hear cool little stories.

“Somebody threw a Molotov cocktail through the now-vacant living room.”

Another example: In Ottawa’s leafy Alta Vista neighbourhood, the Billings Estate lies tucked away at the end of a residential cul de sac. The stately structure is the oldest wooden house in Ottawa. Braddish Billings built it in 1827. A farmer, he did well enough to give his daughter the leisure to hang out with the Beecher Stowe family down south, and fund his son Elkanah’s eccentric enthusiasms that ultimately led him to become Canada’s first paleontologist.


But the best Billings story comes from much later, after family finally sold the house in the 1970s. In the 1980s, somebody threw a Molotov cocktail through the now-vacant living room window as a rather pointed expression of the neighbourhood’s feelings towards the last iteration of the Billings clan to live there.

You don’t get stories like that at the Mint.

“Humanizing movements, epochs and themes is a real museological problem.”

Even beyond the stories, smaller museums offer history on a more human scale than that offered by the national museums. Take the new Canadian Museum of History, for instance, which has more space devoted to seats for those waiting to get into one of its theatres than any of these museums has in total. It offers a grand, sweeping history of Canada’s First Nations that takes an hour to get through, yet it leaves you with no sense at all of who any of these people were as individuals.


Humanizing movements, epochs and themes is a real museological problem, one that the otherwise embattled Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg tries hard to overcome. These smaller museums avoid the pitfall as a matter of course. With budgets as small as their floorplans, these are museums that have come together over time, cobbled together by people – often volunteers – rather than the results of federally stipulated master plans.

The Goulbourn Museum is a great example of the human scale. It tells the story of the surrounding community, which was founded by veterans of the War of 1812. And it does so with a collection of 9,000 artifacts that were entirely – with one exception – donated by their descendants. The Goulbourn has the clubs that once belonged to George Seymour Lyon, the local man who took up golf late, but nevertheless won gold at the 1908 Olympics, the last time golf was an Olympic sport (which technically makes him the reigning Olympic golf champion for the last 109 years and counting).


There’s also an old box of Laura Secord chocolates where, instead of the famous elegant cameo logo of today, you see a little portrait of an actual middle-aged 19th-century woman. And that one exception mentioned above? Clarence Evelyn Riley’s RCAF Long Service and Good Conduct medal, one of only 487 given out to people who served continuously from the First World War right through the Second.

The Bytown Museum, housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone structure (built in 1840) uses hats, easy chairs, mailboxes and quills to tell the story of the muddy lumber town’s unlikely ascent to being the nation’s capital.

The Fairfields Heritage House, possibly the most modest of them all, is another house, home for 175 years to the Bell family, which produced Dick Bell, a minister of immigration for Diefenbaker, and the first female judge to sit on the Ontario Supreme Court (his daughter, Judith Miriam Bell), with their respective impressive libraries intact. There’s also a 1970s kitchen preserved down to the last avocado-coloured detail.

These are not the nation’s stories, they’re Ottawa’s, but in focusing on people – and not always the most accomplished or most historically significant – they tend to feel a lot like our stories, no matter where we’re from.

What a Nuclear Bunker Taught Me About Museums
Scroll to top