Cul­tur­ally Speak­ing

Ottawa Magazine - - THIS CITY -

Who Do We Think We Are?

There’s al­ways been some­thing un­invit­ing, even Stali­nesque, about the ar­chi­tec­ture of the Welling­ton Street head­quar­ters of Li­brary and Ar­chives Canada (LAC). Per­haps that’s ap­pro­pri­ate for a mau­soleum hous­ing an­cient maps, stern Vic­to­rian por­traits, and as­sorted state se­crets. But this sum­mer, to mark the 150th an­niver­sary of Con­fed­er­a­tion, the fed­eral agency is invit­ing the pub­lic in­side. The big show, sched­uled to open June 5 and to last 10 months, is provoca­tively called “Who Do We Think We Are?”

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at Cana­dian iden­tity, reach­ing back 350 years,” says Guy Berthi­aume, head of LAC. While the ex­hi­bi­tion ad­dresses some se­ri­ous is­sues, it’s all done in a light­hearted way, through pop cul­ture ar­ti­facts meant to re­veal so­ci­etal at­ti­tudes. “It’s ba­si­cally giv­ing peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity to look at what be­ing a Cana­dian has meant over the cen­turies.”

Ad­mire the dec­o­ra­tive beavers and maple leaves. Play a round of the Oh! Canada board game. Watch a clip from the tele­vi­sion se­ries R.C.M.P. Peruse such ar­ti­facts as a leather­bound copy of Sa­muel de Cham­plain’s per­sonal jour­nal, Les Voy­ages, and a 1919 poster for the silent film Anne of Green Gables (in which a sur­pris­ingly ma­ture Anne looks more sul­try than scruffy).

The ex­hi­bi­tion helps ex­plain the func­tion of Canada’s chief pack­rat, the LAC, but also helps vis­i­tors ex­plore their own con­cept of that con­stantly evolv­ing and some­times elu­sive no­tion of “na­tional iden­tity.”

Even 50 years ago, Canada was very dif­fer­ent, espe­cially in re­gard to the place of women, First Na­tions, and im­mi­grants, says Berthi­aume. Thus, the ex­hi­bi­tion is meant to make us look at his­tory “with dif­fer­ent eyes” and bet­ter un­der­stand how we have changed. For ex­am­ple, a 1944 Na­tional Film Board photo by Jack Long, ti­tled Typ­i­cal Cana­dian Fam­ily, shows a Cau­casian mom, dad, and three kids in their liv­ing room. Such pho­tos were distributed to for­eign jour­nal­ists to show what Cana­di­ans were like. In 1944, that was deemed to be the rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cana­dian fam­ily, even though many fam­i­lies had dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tions. To­day, we rec­og­nize that there is no one typ­i­cal fam­ily.

Since Berthi­aume, a Que­bec historian, ar­rived two years ago to head LAC, the in­sti­tu­tion has been climb­ing out of a dark pe­riod char­ac­ter­ized by shaky lead­er­ship, Con­ser­va­tive fund­ing cuts, and the death of the planned por­trait gallery, which was to show­case the thou­sands of pho­to­graphs and paint­ings held at the LAC.

The dark age seems to be over, and the LAC is back in the ex­hi­bi­tions game. There are plans — not yet fi­nal­ized — for a new down­town head­quar­ters, com­plete with a mu­seum-cal­i­bre ex­hi­bi­tion space, to be shared with the Ot­tawa Pub­lic Li­brary. (Stalin be­gone!) There is even talk of a re­born por­trait gallery, as orig­i­nally en­vis­aged, in the for­mer United States em­bassy, across from Par­lia­ment.

Berthi­aume sounds con­fi­dent and up­beat. “If the de­ci­sion is to have a por­trait gallery, well, we’re ready.” — Paul Ges­sell

Be­ing Cana­dian The ex­hibit “Who Do We Think We Are?” at Li­brary and Ar­chives Canada in­cludes such ar­ti­facts as a vin­tage poster from the silent 1919 film for Anne of Green Gables and The Red Ca­noe (1915) by J.E.H. Mac­Don­ald

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