The head of Library and Archives Canada says he would love to see a portrait gallery in the former U.S. Embassy on Wellington Street across from Parliament Hill.
“Yes I would,” says Dr. Guy Berthiaume. “But it is not up to me to decide. You are probably aware of the fact that there are three options on the table and a decision will be coming forward.” The options being considered are an Indigenous cultural centre, an art gallery and a Canada House venue that would serve place that would give visitors an idea of the country.
If the Trudeau government decides to follow through on former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s plan for a National Portrait Gallery, however, Library and Archives is ready, he says.
“We have the collection for it. We have 40,000 paintings and millions of photographs. We have all of Yousef Karsh’s archives.”
Library and Archives (LAC) has been collecting portraits since 1872 when the archives were founded and placed under the purview of the Minister of Agriculture.
Berthiaume isn’t waiting around for the portrait gallery decision, however. He’s got other fish to fry in this sesquicentennial year.
“Of course, all the federal cultural institutions have lined up to do special programs for the 150th,” he said in a recent interview. “In our case, since history is our thing, we felt that we had to do more. So we are doing several exhibitions.
One, in particular, is a signal effort. Moments From 150 Years Ago is the first exhibition in the new Treasures From Library and Archives Canada gallery at the Museum of History. The gallery opened this past week. (You can read Peter Simpson’s article on the show for ARTSFILE here.) The exhibition includes rare documents, photographs, watercolours and other printed material.
“We now have our own room in the Museum of History. Every year we’ll have a new exhibition. That’s very exciting. We are also putting one together in our own building at 395 Wellington St. called Who Do We Think We Are. It’s an exploration of Canadian identity from well before 1867. We have some stuff from Champlain.
“We are also doing something called On This Day, that’s on Facebook and Twitter. Every day it takes note of an important event.”
There is a another project organized with the Toronto International Film Festival and organizations in Montreal and Vancouver to present 150 historically significant Canadian films.
Berthiaume believes such collaborations are a necessary fact of modern life for what he calls “memory” institutions.
“Library and Archives, the Museum of History, galleries and museums have to work together now. They are closer than one would think. Most museums have libraries and archives. And most libraries do exhibitions so we should work together.
“We are part of the Heritage Canada portfolio. I am also working with others. We are working with the Glenbow in Calgary. We are going to have our own room there to show portraits in Calgary. I strongly believe in that.”
Berthiaume’s agency is also involved in a major collaboration with the City of Ottawa to building a new central library and home for LAC on a slice of land near LeBreton Flats. The plan is moving forward, he says, and is now awaiting federal government approval. The city has already signed on.
“We expect that before summer,” he says, “then we get to choose an architect.”
There will be one entrance to the building, he says. On the main floor there will be shared exhibition spaces and an auditorium.
“Our vision is that once inside the building the archives will be on one side and the public library will be on the other with bridges between the two.”
The building at 395 Wellington St. will be handed back to the department of Public Services and Procurement save for the extensive underground stacks that hold about 22 million books. Berthiaume says the archives wanted a joint location close by so that there is easy access to those stacks.
The archives will celebrate its own 150th anniversary in five years, but LAC is already dealing with the future.
One of the big puzzles is how to collect pronouncements on social media. U.S. President Donald Trump is showing Twitter matters in terms of the evolving history of the world.
In the U.S., Berthiaume says, the Library of Congress is “crawling” tweets. In Canada, Library and Archives does gather digital material such as social media from elections and other special events, he says, but a broad-based collection is not going to happen anytime soon, in part because there is no software that can sort meaningful tweets and Facebook posts from insignificant ones.
“The Library of Congress is trying to create (a program) and I hope that they do, because it is one thing to ingest social media it is another thing entirely to sort it properly.
“It is something that I would like to collect. I would also like to collect things like Twitterature, where people write poems with tweets.
Vacuuming up all those tweets would also lead to massive and likely prohibitive storage costs, he added. But while the memory world waits for software, there are concerns about lost material, leading to what some people call digital amnesia.
Berthiaume is concerned about that, warning that time is running out to come up with answers for storing digital material.
“Stuff is disappearing,” he says. “It is a challenge. But we must remember that we have lost stuff throughout history. We don’t have one tenth of what the ancient Greeks and Romans produced, for example.”
Gathering and digitizing material is forcing archives, libraries and universities to work together. One project that Library and Archives is involved in would see the creation of a web portal through which Canadians could access all digital material. It is something Berthiaume expects will be realized soon. The archives of future will be built on linkage and access to material where, for example, a book will be stored on one server at one institution but made available to all.
Main Art: Dr. Guy Berthiaume says he would like to see the former U.S. Embassy building turned into a portrait gallery, but adds, it’s not up to him to decide. Photo: Peter Robb