Thursday, June 14, 2018

Doing the galleries in Ottawa

Visitors in the History Hall central rotunda, on the giant Canada map

We made a quick trip to Ottawa earlier this week, partly social, partly to see the "new" (well, new since last July) History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History.

I think I like it.  It is pretty serious, more rewarding to those who like to read text and scrutinize the contents of exhibit cases than those who like a full-size stuffed mammoth or a recreated fortress wall looming up ahead of them at every corner.  But what the hell:  when you go to the National Gallery, you don't expect endless showbiz to make it fun for the kiddies; you expect to look at Impressionist masterworks or the best of the 19th century Royal Canadian Academy painters, with serious text panels talking about brushwork and colour sense.  Why shouldn't our historical galleries also be able to be thoughtful and challenging to adults?

Well, because museum bean counters concerned with visitor stats and length-of-stay data drop dead in a faint at the thought. But that's their problem.

The History Hall is not constantly telling us that Canada is and always has been a hellhole of oppression and sexism. But it consistently raises serious issues of indigenous title, of the evolving status of women or workers, of tensions between French and English or between the state and minorities, in a way that I thought was consistently interesting and respectful. It's immense too. Douglas Cardinal's swirling layout covers a vast amount of space: Canadian history matters, it says.  Well done, museum team, I'd say. I'm glad I got a chance to see it.

Comfort's Tadoussac: better in the original, but I love this one
We also dropped in to the National Gallery to see their show about Impressionism.  It's a great building, the National Gallery. (So is the Museum of History, for sure!) The Impressionist show is based on the collection of a Danish philanthropist of the early 20th century. He had Monets and Manets and Renoirs and Pizarros, but if you have been to MOMA or the Musee d'Orsay, you begin to see the Dane's collection is not the very best of the Impressionists, but mostly lesser works more of interest to specialists than big-wow seekers.

By contrast, I thought the Indigenous and Canadian Collection just down the hall really did deliver the big wows. They really do have the best of Canadian art, from aboriginal works through 18th century colonial efforts to the late 19th century Canadian Academicians, and right down to the 20th and 21st century stars.  I had not been among the Gallery's Canadians for years, and it impressed the hell out of me. There had been some damn interesting painters working in this country, and for a long time. 

Canada's History also took a recent look at the new History Hall.

Images:  History Hall (me)  Tadoussac: NGC
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