Published Friday, November 3, 2017 10:37PM EDT
Every day without fail, from gardens and fields near the front lines of the First World War in Europe, Lt.-Col. George Stephen Cantlie picked flowers for his one-year-old daughter Celia in Montreal.
He flattened and dried them and enclosed them in his letters home; no doubt a source of beauty and hope amid ugliness and despair.
His daughter and his granddaughter Elspeth Angus held on to the precious artifacts. A century later, they are part of a multi-sensory exhibit called War Flowers now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
“(Angus) keeps them all this time in a red box. And so their condition is perfect. Their colour is incredible,” said filmmaker Viveka Melki, who came across Cantlie’s story while researching a documentary.
Melki, who curates the exhibit, worked with a botanist, a crystal sculptor and a perfume artist to tell the wartime stories of 10 Canadians through the symbolism of flowers, including roses, poppies, heather, lavender and forget-me-nots. The flowers represented qualities, such as grace, love, kindness and devotion during the Victorian era.
The exhibit, which took four years to create, is a deeply touching and personal glimpse into war.
Cantlie, who served with the Royal Highlanders of Canada, signed his short notes to his “wee Celia” with “much love and lots of kisses from Daddy.”
“The goal of the exhibit was to make history intimate and to make history intimate you have to surround people by the experience and that means, I believe, touching all their senses,” said Melki.
The exhibit uses daisies to represent the lost innocence of Victoria Cross winner Jean Brilliant who died in battle. Stitchwort is used to remind viewers of the mental and physical wounds of soldiers.
The English daisy symbolizes mother’s love and the story of Julia Drummond, who created the Canadian Red Cross Information Bureau so families could more easily find out about loved ones recovering in military hospitals overseas after her son died at Ypres in 1915.
Visitors can push a button to release a scent at each station that is designed to evoke personal memories.
“I would suspect being a solider in the war, the scent of a rose, would evoke love of the loved one at home,” said museum visitor Kathy Hamer.
Sculptor Mark Raynes Roberts incorporated flowers into every piece of art.
“Beauty transcends war and transcends that pain,” he said. “I think it has a richness and a vitality to it that draws people in.”
The exhibit, which includes personal photos, artifacts and stories, also features a black back drop into which many of the names of Canadian casualties are etched. According to the Canadian War Museum, 61,000 Canadians were killed and another 172,000 were injured during the war.
Melki’s exhibit has 68,000 names of the fallen — a number based on her own research that includes injured soldiers who died after peace was declared. The names are presented on a black backdrop.
“I think there’s power in history when you say someone’s name,” said Melki.
The exhibit will be on display in Ottawa until Jan 7, 2018 and at the Campbell House Museum in Toronto from Jan. 23 to March 25. It will then travel to the Canadian National Memorial in Vimy, France from April 9 to Sept. 9 and the Museum Chateau Ramezay in Montreal from Oct. 4 to March 31, 2019.
With a report from CTV’s Kevin Gallagher in Ottawa