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Four Perspectives + 1812 = One Fascinating Exhibition at Canadian War Museum

Four Perspectives + 1812 = One Fascinating Exhibition at Canadian War Museum
Mookomaanish, an Odawa war chief, fought as an ally of the British during the War of 1812. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art © Canadian War Museum/CWM 19810296-121

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For Canadians, the War of 1812 was a pivotal event that helped forge our country. For Americans, it was a second war of independence. For the British, it was a minor, far-off campaign. For first peoples, it was a clash of civilizations that resulted in the decisive crushing of their status as nations.

And that’s what makes the Canadian War Museum's new exhibition 1812: One War, Four Perspectives so fascinating. It forgoes simplistic approaches for a deeper, although necessarily not exhaustive, exploration of those four different points of view. A round hub incorporates all four, with doorways leading into rooms devoted to each.

By focusing on an individual to represent each group, the exhibition personalizes the military facts of the war. Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words for The Star-Spangled Banner while watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, is the focus of the American section, while Laura Secord represents Canada and an anonymous sailor Great Britain. It’s an accessible way to help visitors enter the more detailed discussions of the war’s events, personages and artifacts.

Those artifacts have been chosen with great care, both from the museum’s own collection and from institutions including the Smithsonian and Britain’s National Maritime Museum. It’s hard not to be captivated by such sobering items as the coatee in which Major-General Sir Isaac Brock died — complete with hole from the musket ball that killed him — or a battered piece of the ensign flown by the Chesapeake in its famous loss to the HMS Shannon.

Other highlights include a letter of marque from the British Admiralty to privateer (and former Royal Navy officer) Lt. Michael Molloy; a medal awarded by the British to aboriginal allies; a singed piece of wood from the White House; the handwritten petition of black soldier Richard Pierpoint and what are perhaps Canada’s most overdue library books, checked out of the Niagara Library before it was burned by American troops.

The Native American story — the aboriginal peoples involved in the war were primarily from the American side of the border — is the most compelling, if devastating, of the four perspectives. 1812 pinpoints the Battle of the Thames (also known as the Battle of Moraviantown), where the gifted Shawnee chief Tecumseh was killed after British troops fled the field, as a catastrophe that led to the defeat and betrayal of his people. As British support evaporated, the alliance forged by his brother, the religious leader Tenskwatawa, fell apart and America’s ruthless westward expansion advanced unchecked. It is deeply unsettling to realize that the war most Canadians see as a great victory is the exact opposite for first peoples.

A smaller version of the exhibition will travel the country over the next few years after it closes at the War Museum in January, 2013.

— Review by Nancy Payne, Editor, Kayak: Canada's History Magazine for Kids

 
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