• A replica of Iron Man's suit, on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa

    A replica of Iron Man's suit is one of dozens of examples of armour through the ages on display now at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. (Photo: Katherine Lissitsa)

When Frederick Stibbert inherited his grandfather’s fortune on his 21st birthday, he started filling his home with antiques in the hopes of making it into a museum one day. Two centuries later, Italy’s Museo Stibbert houses his impressive collections of art, weaponry and armour — the latter of which recently travelled from Florence to Ottawa.

Armour, on now at the Canadian War Museum, is a showcase of protective gear through the ages. Centered around the ornamental Renaissance pieces collected by Stibbert, visitors can also see garments worn by samurai warriors, learn about hockey goalie equipment, and even marvel at a replica of Iron Man’s costume.  

“When we were approached by the Stibbert museum, we automatically thought of ... ways that we could introduce a bit of a Canadian twist,” says Caroline Dromaguet, Acting Director General of the Canadian War Museum. “The objects coming from Italy are beautiful, and we thought we could just add a little dynamic layer to that.”

Museum display featuring two life-size knights in full body armour on horseback

Courtesy of Italy’s Museo Stibbert, the two knights on horseback are a life-size representation of Renaissance armour. The knights are adorned with specialized equipment fit for a tournament, while the horses’ saddles are trimmed with ornamental silk. (Photo: Katherine Lissitsa/Canadian Geographic)

Within the exhibition, protective gear is divided into four different themes and purposes: battle, sports, status and popular culture.

“For as long as people have been fighting with weapons, they’ve protected themselves with armour,” says Mélanie Morin-Pelletier, a historian with the Canadian War Museum. The battle zone highlights decorated suits, swords and daggers brought over from Italy, armour used in the First and Second World Wars, all the way to a modern bulletproof vest that once spared a police officer’s life.

Highlighting a different kind of battle, the sports section includes jousting equipment, shields and an impressive display featuring two life-size knights on horseback in full body armour. To show the contemporary side of sports gear, the exhibition features goalie equipment worn by three-time Olympic medalist Shannon Szabados, together with an array of sports helmets.

The third section of the exhibition is all about status. Throughout history, armour not only served for the purposes of protection, but symbolized prestige and power when worn outside of the battlefield. Used in ceremonies and tournaments, armour belonging to the famed Medici family and pieces crafted by Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph (representing armour historically worn by the Alaskan Indigenous community) are displayed.

The final section of Armour showcases the multiple ways in which armour has been reinterpreted through the lens of popular culture. “Knights in shining armour may have disappeared from military campaigns a long time ago, but they are still an integral part of popular imagination,” says Morin-Pelletier. A testament to that are costumes at the exhibit made famous by two Hollywood films: Iron Man and Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Canadian War Museum is the only Canadian venue to host the Stibbert collection. Armour is open to the public from now until September. As visitors learn about the history behind armour, Dromaguet hopes that they also understand its relevance.

“I hope that they’re going to appreciate the beauty of these objects and the craftsmanship that goes into making this Renaissance armour,” she says. “But also realize that armour is still around us today — it’s just come a long way.”