What would you do in the face of nuclear fallout?
Let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment, and genuinely think of the options. You could seek shelter in a designated or improvised space, hopefully with enough supplies to last until the earth has recovered enough to provide us with food and water. You could hop in a fast car and drive, with the goal of reaching outside the blast zone. Or, you could accept your fate.
After visiting the Diefenbunker several times in the space of a month, I had a dream where I was in this situation. We watched a nuclear warhead stretch across the sky, and we held our loved ones closely. My acceptance of the situation surprised me—I’ve always thought of myself as a survivor.
It’s something that visiting the bunker brings close to mind. It was built because this was a real possibility during the Cold War, so much so that the government felt it was a necessary contingency.
In 1958, Prime Minister Diefenbaker authorized the construction of 50 “Emergency Government Shelters”, ensuring the country could continue to be run in the case of nuclear disaster. Of these, about 30 were actually built. The shelter in Ottawa is the largest of them, and was built from 1959–1961.
There’s no place like it in Canada—at least, nothing that’s open to the public. In 1994, these bunkers were decommissioned. They were auctioned off to interested parties, or sealed up. In one case, the Hells Angels purchased a bunker, which then had to be re-purchased for about three times the price. Oops! The bunker in Ottawa was purchased by a group of community members, who thought the place was too interesting not to be preserved.
Life as a museum
The Diefenbunker opened as a museum in 1998, by reservation only. In 2010, they undertook fire retrofits which,among other things,added a second exit, increasing their capacity from 60 to 460 (or 120 per floor). A game changer!
While most museums are public institutions, the Diefenbunker is an independent non-profit undertaking with minimal funding. With public funding comes responsibility, and so these temples of culture become governed by rules and oversight. This isn’t the case with the Diefenbunker, who cite the lack of red tape as being one of the factors that enable them to stay true to their “quirky” nature and appeal to different audiences.
It also enables their own staff to come up with and enact ideas. I spoke with their business development manager, Kelly Eyamie, where I mentioned the sheer size of the museum and the unusual lack of supervision for guests. “It’s a touch and feel museum,” said Eyamie. “People are pretty respectful. You can open drawers, type on typewriters. For those in their 30s or older, it’s nostalgic. For young people, there’s a certain amount of “What the heck is this?””
There are several types of initiatives coming out of the museum these days. Of course tourism and admissions are a key source of revenue, but this is accompanied by regular events including an Escape Room (apparently the world’s largest). “We like to welcome creative people to come in and play up the space how they envision it,” said Eyamie.
They select an artist-in-residence through an annual program, which provides access to the Museum and its collection and archives. They have two galleries—currently, local artist Marc Adornato is displaying a selection of his ‘Ruined Landscapes’ until July 15. I’ve been to two punk shows at the bunker—one recently in early March, which was an initiative of one of their tour guides. One was a couple years ago with Megaphono. The Moscow String Quartet has played a handful of times.
Yet it’s also a family-friendly place. They put on a free Easter egg hunt, as well as a Halloween haunt. The goal is to be a place where the community (particularly from west Ottawa) feels they can come and make their own.
What does the future hold?
Is the bunker still relevant in today’s day and age? “We are becoming more and more relevant as people learn more about us,” said Kelly. “People are curious about how the bunker operated.” We’re not quite in a Cold War situation, but there is a sense of uncertainty around international relations. The Doomsday Clock, which has been maintained by scientists since 1947, conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making. In 2017, the clock reached two minutes to midnight, a level not seen since 1953. The threat this time is not nuclear, but “the misuse of information technology and witnessed the vulnerability of democracies to disinformation.”
I think the Diefenbunker has a bright future as an event space, but only if we don’t destroy ourselves first.
– Check more from the Diefenbunker here: diefenbunker.ca