Artful Musing

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Photo show at National Gallery demonstrates that Library and Archives Canada can get it right

For a change, let’s say something nice about Library and Archives Canada, the federal institution that has cut services, eliminated in-house exhibitions, and billed taxpayers so the head honcho (now former head honcho), could learn to speak Spanish. (You just never know when librarians from around the globe will gather in Cancun, without simultaneous interpretation, for an emergency debate on the Dewey Decimal System.)

Anyway, Library and Archives has embarked on a three-year program to exhibit some of its treasures at the National Gallery of Canada. First up is Early Exploration Photographs in Canada. This small exhibition is found in an alcove off a much larger room in the early Canadiana section of the permanent galleries.

The installation features 26 19th-century exploration photographs taken primarily on the prairies and the British Columbia interior. These are some of the first photographs taken by anyone of those areas.

Sergeant Kay’s Royal Engineers Survey Camp on North Antler Creek, 1873. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

The actual photographers include Humphrey Lloyd Hime (1858), Benjamin Baltzly (1871), Charles Horetzky (1871-1879), George Mercer Dawson (1878-79) and one group of explorers, the British Corps of Royal Engineers (1858–1862; 1872–1875). Visitors can also discover the past through two digitized albums and contemporary reproductions of photographs in printed materials.

Some of the photographs are landscapes, showing flat, endless prairie, waterfalls, and towering mountains. One is of a swath being cut through a dense forest to mark the 49th parallel – the border between Canada and the U.S. in the West.

Party at Fort McLeod, 1879. By George M. Dawson. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada

Even more interesting are the photographs showing men at work surveying borders, felling trees, or portaging canoes. These all look like they belong in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy of novels about the old Canadian West – The Englishman’s Boy, The Last Crossing, and A Good Man. And then there are the portraits of Aboriginal inhabitants and early European architecture, including an 1858 shot of St. Andrew’s Church, a large, impressive looking stone structure 16 miles outside of Fort Garry (now Winnipeg).

Two more Library and Archives exhibitions of historical photographs have been pencilled in for the National Gallery after this one closes Sept. 29. The next one will focus on the work of the French photographer Paul Émile Miot and his views of Newfoundland; the third will showcase images of the Arctic.

These exhibitions appear to be a win-win situation for everyone. Library and Archives gets to exhibit its wares at a top-notch venue. The National Gallery gets a low-cost exhibition to offer its visitors. Gallery visitors get an extra lesson in history for the price of admission.

The federal government, in cancelling plans to construct the Portrait Gallery of Canada, vowed that the art and the artifacts held by Library and Archives would circulate around the country and not be limited to exhibitions of portraits at an official Portrait Gallery. This promise has, more or less, been kept. The photography exhibitions at the National Gallery are one example. So, is the portrait show, Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians, currently running at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Another show on miniature paintings is circulating around the country.

Civilization is soon to become the Canadian Museum of History. What better place to view exhibitions of holdings of Library and Archives than a museum dedicated to history. The Civilization building is huge. Surely an appropriate permanent space could be hived off for Library and Archives to exhibit its riches. Then maybe more people would start saying nice things about a very battered institution.