My trip to the Portrait Gallery of Canada

I know what you are thinking: there is no Portrait Gallery, at least thanks to the actions on the part of the Conservatives. Instead, we have a partially-renovated heritage building sitting directly across from the House of Commons, ripe to benefit from the thousands of tourists that visit the Parliamentary precinct every year.

But you’d only be sorta right. There is a portrait gallery- it even has a website, curators, and (presumably) an acquisition budget. What it lacks is a permanent home in which the general public could go and see it’s holdings. Instead, they sit locked in a preservation vault in Library and Archives Canada’s Gatineau Preservation Centre, where no one but those employed by the gallery can see them.

No one, that is, until the recent vault tour program was started. Sadly, its also finished. I managed to get in yesterday, one of only about 250 people to do so (capacity is limited by the size of the vault and the need to keep climate conditions under control).

The tour itself was fantastic. I’m a building and history geek, so getting to go into the vaults was the biggest thrill, and something that I’m certainly going to try to do again. The portraits themselves were impressive and included the usual suspects, like Karsh’s photo of Churchill and Warhol’s of Wayne Gretzky; more interesting were some not-so-usual suspects, including a bunch of small photos taken of immigrants as they arrived in Canada and of Demasduwit, which is the only known image of a Beothuk. The curator took great care to explain why each was important, where to look for meaning, and what it tells us about both the subject and the times it was made.

Very clear throughout the whole trip was that these tours were about getting people the chance to see at least some of the collection, the same reason why the gallery works with other museums to lend out pieces for exhibitions. But even more clear was that the gallery has important stuff and it wants everyone to be able to see it. It’s impossible to sit through the discussion, even if occasionally I wished that I had learned more about art history, and not feel bad that you are one of only a handful that gets to see this.

It would be one thing if we were talking about setting up a collection from scratch, but we have been collecting pieces for longer than anyone but the British, we’ve just never found a home to put them in. So let’s get the gallery built, and soon.