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