The History of the RCMI Museum

By Gregory Loughton

This article, edited for brevity, originally appeared in the RCMI Year Book 1990 (Royal Canadian Military Institute, 1990), 8-13.

Like many museums, the Institute Museum began when the Library received donations of a “museum nature.” The first museum artifact was likely a pair of elk horns donated in 1893 by North West Mounted Police Inspector A. C. MacDonnell. The Museum assumed its official title in October 1908, when “members attended the opening of the Museum in the new annex level…”

Through donations from members and the public, the Museum assumed an identity and collection separate from the Library. The Museum educated members and the public about Canadian military history by arranging and describing military artifacts. The Museum, while a private collection, has become part of a public network of Canadian military museums, which tell a vital part of Canada’s history.

In 1900, the Institute acquired its famous landmarks, the two bronze 9-pounder smooth-bore field guns which stand outside our front door to this day. A gift from Minister of Militia, the Right Honourable Frederick Borden, the cannon were cast in Woolwich, England in 1813 and 1815. The original wood carriages rotted between 1905 and 1910. Replacement carriages were periodically repaired: the last major repair was in 1989-1990. In 1996, the Museum Committee purchased two cast aluminum (field gray painted) carriages to modernize and economize: no more concerns about wood rot.

In 1920, the Museum acquired its most famous artifact, "the seat of Baron von Richthofen's Fokker Triplane, donated by Captain A. Roy Brown, R.A.F., who downed the German Air Leader." The seat amazes visitors interested in early military aviation, and is a material reminder of the most legendary First World War German air ace, and of the controversy surrounding his death.
The outstanding donations of the 1930s was Lieutenant-Colonel Alban Wilson's collection of 300 Polynesian spears, bladed paddles, axes, clubs, daggers and blowpipes. Wilson served in the Far East, Afghanistan, and Mesopotamia.

In the 1940s, the Museum committee organized its first collections policy, asking for specific artifacts rather than collecting items in a random order. Because of the collections policy approach, the Museum now has one of the more complete collections of First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force cap badges in the country.

In the 1950s, the Museum added uniforms, medals, and photographs to its holdings. The House and Museum Committees cooperated in decorating the Institute’s walls and new display cases. Various Institute rooms displayed specific artifact groupings. There was the “Sword Room,” “Medal Room,” “Pistol Room,” and “Print Room”. (The “Print Room” was probably the new Main Dining Room.)

The most famous painting in the Museum collection came to the Institute in 1955, on permanent loan from the City of Toronto. Artist R. Caton Woodville painted “The Dawn of Majuba Day” in 1900. The painting celebrates the defeat of the Boers at Paardeburg Drift, South Africa , on 27th February, 1900. The painting, which shows the Royal Canadian Regiment in action, is the centerpiece of the Main Dining Room.

In the 1960s, the Museum loaned artifacts to the University of Toronto, York University, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Department of National Defence (DND), and the Department of Reforms Institutions (DRI). The loans made a public relations presence for the RCMI Museum. Both DND and DRI later gave artifacts to the Institute. The Museum also received loans from Toronto Garrison units to help celebrate the Institute’s 75th anniversary, in 1965, and Canada’s 100th Anniversary in 1967. Artifacts from the Royal Irish Regiment, the Toronto Scottish, the Governor General’s Horse Guards, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Royal Regiment of Canada, the 48th Highlanders, all contributed to the Institute’s d├ęcor.

In these years, the Museum’s collections policy built up the weapons collection. Private donors, Canadian Arsenals Limited, and DND gave the Museum examples of Canadian military rifles, sub-machine guns and machine guns.
In the 1970s, the Museum’s dramatic growth continued. Large donations led to a significant pistol collection, while the Museum acquired the Pellatt collection of 219 medals. The House Committee built a new “Wings Room” for the Baron von Richthofen artifacts.

With the Centenary Year now over, the Museum looks to the future. The Museum exists to safeguard its artifacts, and to exhibit them to the members and public. Each artifact needs professional care, from its registration through to display and storage. The collection needs to be completed. Many artifacts need improved storage conditions, and some need very special conservation treatment. The Museum’s survival depends on an active membership. Its special collection is part of Canadian military history, and is worthy of preservation.

 In the new facilities opened in June of 2014 the curator has opted to make the entire facility into a museum by spreading the Museum displays onto all the floors of the Institute. The displays are easily viewed by all and contain written descriptions along with the creative and visually stimulating topics from Canada's vast military history.