CFB SHILO — After eight years at the helm of one of the country’s finest military museums, Marc George is passing the baton in the never-ending marathon to preserve and protect some of our nation’s most important artifacts.
Standing between two gun carriers — one that carried Queen Victoria through the streets of London on her funeral day, the other that carried Capt. Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian female soldier killed during combat in Afghanistan in 2006 — George is humbled by the role he has played preserving the past.
"These artifacts are touchstones of Canadian culture and there is a sense of overwhelming responsibility that these items are in your care," he says, standing in a building used to store relics from wars past.
"We do our utmost to look after them."
Some of the vehicles, planes and guns — tattering and banged up, with paint peeling off — that line the building appear as though they have come here to die. In truth, it is the exact opposite.
It is in this shed where they go to be reborn.
Most museum visitors, who marvel at the 50,000 square feet of the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum, never get to see this aspect of what George and his team do.
George is a walking history book as he shows off some of the museum’s treasures; the words "This is the only one left in the world" roll off his tongue with some frequency as he moves about.
Stopping in front of a Diamond T lorry truck with a caravan mounted to the back, George explains that the quarters belonged to Gen. Harry Crerar. The caravan is where Crerar — Canada’s leading field commander in the Second World War — would meet with the likes of Winston Churchill, Bernard Montgomery and Dwight Eisenhower to discuss strategy.
"For me, it’s like time travel," George says. "The magic of museums is that it’s your perspective. Once you stand in front of this, it’s yours forever and it’s yours in a way that is unique to you."
If we’re all connected by seven degrees of separation, standing in front of vehicles that were driven by soldiers during battle is like being a half-step removed, he says.
Peering over the windshield of another vehicle into the driver’s seat, George says, "The only thing missing is him (the soldier). It’s why I think this place is wonderful."
He stops in front of several other artifacts, as tidbits of information continue to flow.
Like the time George Blackburn, who served in Second World War and wrote "‘The Guns of Normandy," rode in the museum’s restored White Scout Car just weeks prior to his sudden passing. It was the first time he had been in such a vehicle since the war, George says.
It’s the same car that creates a flurry of discussion any time it is loaned out to parades.
George says when the car goes out in public, he is always met by a group of irritated Americans. Their displeasure comes from the decal on the car, or, at least, in its application.
A crooked white star adorns the hood of the vehicle, a symbol of the Allied forces in the war.
George says Americans are offended that the star isn’t placed straight on the hood, perpendicular with the bumper.
"During the war, the Canadians would put the stars on crooked because they didn’t want to be mistaken as Americans. It’s something that I really like and any time you see a crooked star in old photos, it is almost 100 per cent certain a Canadian vehicle."
Exiting the building, George hops in his vehicle and takes the five-minute trip back to the museum. On the way, he passes another outdoor compound and shed that he has managed to negotiate a deal with the owner to store more vehicles and crates of artifacts.
On the ride, he talks about how integral the staff has been to the evolution of the museum.
He’s adamant they are thanked for all of their tireless work, which often goes unnoticed, that they have contributed to the museum’s success.
Back at the museum, George strolls past more than 30 military guns that have long since gone silent, but whose stories live on in the country’s largest outdoor artillery exhibit.
The guns sit on concrete pads and feature an informative plaque, another of George’s success stories.
Off the ground and on the pads, the guns and vehicles will essentially last forever with a little tender love and care, he says.
Inside the museum, he points to some of the items he is most proud of, while children, on a local school tour, buzz back and forth reading about the past.
George is proud of so many of the exhibits, in particular the Manitoba Gallery, which documents the province’s military history.
But his crowning achievement isn’t a tank, gun or artifact on display or in storage.
Instead, it’s a simple piece of paper that states the museum’s designation.
Earlier this year, it was awarded the highest level designation for a Canadian museum. Of the more than 70 Canadian Forces museums scattered across the county, the RCA Museum is one of only four with the moniker.
"I think the museum is in a good place now," George says.
It was part of a process that step-by-step — through projects such as air climate control, lighting specifications and new insulation and siding, to name a few — will make George’s job one of the most sought-after in the country when he retires on Aug. 29.
With a 25-year military career behind him and close to another decade at the museum, George plans to write a book about the First World War.
He believes his experience as a gunner can offer a unique perspective into the country’s most deadly war.
George, who has been involved in several war documentaries with local filmmaker Graham Street, knows the transition won’t be easy, but he also leaves with no regrets.
"If given the chance, I’d do it all again," George says, standing in the heart of the museum that in so many ways he has ensured will endure long after his story is written.
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