Installation Team: L to R Doug Wournell (The Phoenix Consultancy), Mike Forbes, Jon Ambler, Don Smith ( The Phoenix Consultancy), David Wilson, Mel Birne

Installation Team: L to R Doug Wournell (The Phoenix Consultancy), Mike Forbes, Jon Ambler, Don Smith ( The Phoenix Consultancy), David Wilson, Mel Birne

A journey that began over ten years ago is nearing completion with the installation of the 443 Maritime Helicopter Sqn exhibit. Although the museum is not totally finished, I was able to sit down with Don Smith from the Phoenix Consultancy to discuss how far the museum has come in those intervening years.

It began at the Organization of Military Museums of Canada (OMMC) annual workshop. Captain John Lowe, former director of CAFM attended a presentation given by Don Smith about Museum Interpretation. After the presentation Capt. Lowe approached Don to talk about the Comox Air Force Museum and what could be done to improve the exhibits. Don had previously been to Comox and had visited our museum. It was agreed that he would come back to Comox and evaluate the current exhibits.


Walking through the museum told him that there were “serious changes needed.” There were plenty of artefacts, but the museum lacked narrative and interpretation to help the visitor make sense of the collections. Don looked at the space and discussed Capt. Lowe’s vision for the museum and came back with a presentation that overlaid the new vision over the then current layout. “It was necessary to tell a story and to use the space in such a way that the visitors could move around and get the story.”  He suggested graphics to attract the visitor and the use of models to help with the interpretation.DSC_0020

There were challenges. Unlike other projects Don has worked on this was not starting from scratch with a clean slate. Budget restrictions meant that the work would have to be done in chunks as money became available and renovations to each part of the space were completed.

“It was extremely difficult to maintain the vision and to not go off track, into tangents” he said. ” We needed to maintain the style of the graphics, text, and placement of models while working on it piecemeal.” This meant working in areas out of order, meaning that they had to make each section in such a way that it would fit in with the next, even when the next section hadn’t yet been planned.

He credited John Lowe for his vision and Jon Ambler for maintaining him as a consultant, which helped with the continuity of the design and content. He also praised the quality of the volunteers at CAFM. “If it wasn’t for the work Jon (Ambler) and the volunteers put it, it couldn’t have been done. This place has the best volunteers- they are enthusiastic and it makes for a great time.”

I asked Don what needs to be done to get these interpretive panels completed. The most time consuming part is looking at the pictures and choosing the graphics. ” I literally look at thousands of images to scan at high resolution.” The picture needs to be enlarged so the selections process includes checking the quality of the images. It’ not just picking pictures, though. There is text to write to support the images so having a working knowledge of the historical period is essential. ” I have over 40 years of experience and two degrees in History, plus I grew up in the Forces surrounded by these wonderful planes.” His passion for research and modeling have accentuated his design work.

The model installed in the new 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron is proof of that. Don managed to get the original plans for H.M.C.S Vancouver, before any upgrades were done. He sent them off to the model builder who then created the model from scratch to those specifications. “These helicopters have served as a detachment on all the frigates. It’s an important part of how the Squadron operates.”





Our time was growing to a close when I asked him if he was satisfied with how things have turned out. He said he was very pleased with the museum. But, he cautioned, “Wouldn’t it be nice defeats the purpose of having a theme. I’m always concerned with the space and to eliminate the tendency for clutter.”

Don and his colleague Doug Wournell are currently working on the next upgrade and will be back (hopefully) in October.