It was -47°C with the windchill this past Saturday and there was no way we were going outside. If we didn’t want to die of boredom in the house another day, it was time to get out and be a local tourist.
There’s this museum called the Diefenbunker in Carp, which is a short drive from where we currently live and I’ve always wanted to see it. It was named after the Prime Minister who commissioned its construction in 1959, John Diefenbaker. I knew it was a bunker that would house the Prime Minister and the government of Canada if there were ever a nuclear blast. But I didn’t know anyone who had gone. I had no idea what it was like. I hardly knew where it was. I had heard that it does birthday parties, Valentine’s Soirees, zombie-themed Halloween adventures and as I found out on their website when looking up directions, they are the latest “room” in the Escape Manor adventures.
We drove through the cute village of Carp, turned left at the large, black sign and followed the lane through barbed wire fence. There is also a library there and behind the library a small ticket booth, a large chain-link fence that slides shut (like in a prison) and another concrete building behind it. The parking lot is through the large chain-link fence, though, we didn’t think we were allowed to park there and parked at the first lot you come to, which must be their overflow parking. It certainly didn’t look like a museum. But then again, the bunker was secret and needed to be discreet and secure. The small ticket kiosk outside the chain-link fence was closed. I don’t know if it always is in the winter or if it was just because of the ridiculously cold weather we had that day. We bought our tickets in the main building.
When we stepped through the doors, our eyes slowly adjusted to the lack of light. In front of us was an A-bomb. I admit that while I had known that the Cold War was because of the nuclear threat, it never occurred to me that they would have an old A-bomb on display with stories of how many went missing, didn’t detonate or got stuck in the bomb bay doors of planes.
Then we walked through the blast tunnel – a tunnel created to allow the nuclear blast to go through it, from end to end, keeping the majority of the kinetic energy flowing forward instead of to the sides, where the doors to the bunker were.
At the end of the blast tunnel is the entrance to the museum and the front desk. Admission was $14 for an adult and $8 for a child up to 12. Because we were there during the city’s winter festival Winterlude, there was also an easy but fun scavenger hunt for the younger audience. There are audio guides available too, if that’s your thing.
There are four floors and no elevator so keep this in mind if mobility is an issue. The first floor (which is actually the fourth floor because you will be going down farther underground as you tour the museum) is the most museum-like of all the floors. There are quite a few rooms that can be explored. Many of them hold displays based on different historical events during the Cold War (the Berlin Wall, Hiroshima, the UN, people who spied against Canada, etc.), with videos, photos and artefacts. Some rooms on the first floor were recreated to look like rooms from the 60’s, like the kitchen and HAM radio station below.
While this floor had points of interest, I’ve never been a big fan of museums that involve a lot of reading. It’s not that I don’t love reading, I just don’t love dry, factual, museum reading. It’s just not the most effective way for me to learn, synthesize and remember, especially history. The rooms I really enjoyed on this floor where the ones that were recreated to look as they did during the Cold War – the kitchen, the nuclear shelter, the amateur radio station, the CBC emergency broadcasting studio, and the medical supply room. It should be mentioned that the bunker itself has not been redesigned to house a museum. It does not have the easy flow of museums that were built to be museums. This building is still a bunker and this adds to its atmosphere. Everything is mostly as it was. There are water fountains still on the walls, but don’t try drinking from them. The original washrooms have updated fixtures but they are the same washrooms that everyone else has used since 1961.
When we took the stairs down to the 2nd floor (which is really the third floor because it’s the third floor from the bottom of the bunker), things started to get more interesting. First of all, it’s old and it smells it. There is something really authentic about smelling old things. Like when you open a dusty, old trunk in your grandmother’s attic. That moist, musty odour signifies that these items were loved and treasured and kept because they were real. These rooms haven’t been hidden in climate-controlled, dust-proof rooms in a museum. These rooms and the things in them were used regularly. And now they sit, where they were left, for all to see. In fact, there are small signs on the walls that don’t say “Do Not Touch” but ask museum-goers to treat the objects gently. Please, touch these items. Be a part of this history.
Not only is it old and musty, but it’s from the 60’s and you are going farther underground. It’s like walking into a time machine, a real-life hatch from Lost. Considering what it was built for and seeing the scale model of the bunker in its entirety on the first (fourth) floor, there is an eeriness to the halls, knowing that behind the locked doors are more hallways and more locked doors, covering 100 000 square feet over 4 floors.
It was on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors that we saw the most authentic history of the Diefenbunker – the War Room, the cafeteria, the computer room, the barracks, the OR, the vault and the maintenance rooms.
While the bunker never had to house our government during a disaster, it did become another military base in Ottawa, during the Cold War up until it was decommissioned in 1994. It was then turned into a museum in 1997. This bunker was built to house 535 people for thirty days but in its 32 years, it was CFS Carp and had 100-150 staff on a 24-hour rotation, ready to go into lockdown at any time. My wild imagination really loves apocalyptic stories, so this definitely added to the creep factor for me.
When we hit the 1st floor (the fourth floor, 75 feet underground), where the vault and the atomic energy maintenance room were, we got a bit disoriented in the maze-like concrete halls. There was a slight increase in anxiety as we tried doors that wouldn’t open, went down hallways that didn’t go anywhere, retraced our steps to find ourselves in a completely new room and the knowledge that we were very far underground. We did, of course, find our way back to the main floor and the front desk safe and sound in a matter of minutes. But if you are badly claustrophobic, you may want to reconsider visiting the Diefenbunker.
For such a small museum, they offer some really unique events. A friend went to the Valentine’s Soirée that has wine, beer and cheese and she said it was fantastic (here’s her blog about it). I’ve heard from colleagues that their children have gone to birthday parties that offer spy-themed scavenger hunts, complete with moustaches, magnifying glasses and capes. For kids, they also offer Spy Camp during March Break. The Diefenbunker is also the latest room in the Escape Manor adventures, starting in March, 2016 and through the month of October, they have an Incident at the Bunker: Zombie Adventure.
Overall, I’m glad that we had a 2-for-1 ticket to see what the museum is like. I’m not sure if I would pay another $14 just to go in and see the bunker a second time, but I would definitely be up for trying the Escape Manor adventure or the Halloween zombie adventure. I think the Diefenbunker is a fabulous setting for macabre storylines (there’s even a decontamination shower!). I’m really glad I went and I encourage anyone who has an interest in that era to check it out as well.