Since 1996 the Canadian War Museum (CWM) has been a major partner with the Wilfrid Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies in the production of Canadian Military History. The CWM was described in 1991 by a government appointed Task Force on Military Museum Collections in Canada as the country’s “flagship military museum,” but, as the report made clear, the museum lacked many of the essential resources for that role. The CWM occupied cramped and antiquated quarters on Sussex Drive in Ottawa and was receiving only about 125,000 visitors a year.1 Since then, in May 2005, it has moved into a greatly expanded, up-to-date facility on Ottawa’s Le Breton Flats, and the number of visitors has more than quadrupled. The new building has recently received its one millionth visitor within a period of less than two years, results that give much more substance to the term “flagship.”

The museum’s ongoing association with Canadian Military History and the publicity surrounding the opening of its new building must sometimes cause readers to wonder where this institution came from and how it became established as Canada’s national military museum. The story is a long and interesting one, with many twists and turns. The present article focuses on the original museum to which the CWM traces its beginnings. The CWM’s lineage goes back 127 years to a small military museum that opened in Ottawa in 1880, at a time when the stirrings of a national cultural life in the capital were beginning to be felt in a number of areas. This museum flourished for 16 year before closing in 1896. Parts of its collection survived, however, and today are incorporated into the current museum on LeBreton Flats.