Royal Canadian Geographical Society explores the Arctic with art, artifacts and a compass

Some of the pieces in the work Compass: Peace in all Directions which is based on the compass logo of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Photo: Peter Simpson

Down by the Ottawa River, perched atop a stony cliff, is the home of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and three summer exhibitions that span the land, history, and media.

The society is at 50 Sussex Dr., nestled between Rideau Falls and the Embassy of France. It’s in what was formerly known as the Canada and the World Pavilion, which was built in 2000 to showcase Canadian achievements, including, it turned out, publicly funded boondoogles like the one the pavilion became.

Now it’s home to the RCGS, and a beautiful home it is. The exhibition spaces on the first and second levels offer spectacular views of the river, and there’s an expansive lawn on the landward side. Each space now features an exhibition, mounted in co-operation with the Norwegian embassy.

On the first floor is Lessons for the Arctic, about the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who was the first person to reach the South Pole, which seemed an especially sensible destination on a day when the temperature in Ottawa topped 36 C.

The exhibit consists mostly of information panels, with photographs of the expedition and a few artifacts. Some are more compelling than others; Amundsen’s spoon seems a generic choice, though his snowshoes are more to the arduous point, hung up on the wall and looking wholly primitive compared to the metal and rubber models so readily available these days.

Joseph Burr Tyrell as imagined by Alberta artist Chris Cran. Photo: Peter Simpson

The excitement picks up on the second level, with a series of portraits by Alberta artist Chris Cran featuring “some of Canada’s greatest explorers and geographers,” as the notes say. The people include Alice E. Wilson, Canada’s first woman geologist, and Joseph Burr Tyrrell, the geologist and explorer who was “known best, perhaps, for his discovery of an Albertosaurus skull . . . in the Badlands of Alberta in 1884.”

Another portrait shows the Inuit oral historian Louie Kamookak in contemplative pose, his eyes downcast and face fringed in the thick fur of his parka hood. Kamookak, whose knowledge of land and history was instrumental in the discovery of the ships of the doomed Franklin expedition, died earlier this year.

Exhibition notes explain how “Cran is known for his ability to challenge perception by playing with illusion, and for exploring, borrowing from, and overturning traditional artistic genres to create alluring works of art.”

Here, Cran plays with perception via a screen effect, with the portraits built of uniformly spaced vertical lines of white and colour. What the eye sees seems to shift as viewing distance and angle change. It’s a bit like seeing these people through lines of falling snow, or through the narrow slits of traditional snow goggles, if turned slightly askew.

The third exhibition is an installation out on the front lawn, and it is built on layers of symbolism. It’s titled Compass: Peace in all Directions, and it’s based upon the compass logo of the geographic society. The compass shape is formed by either 3,500 (says the news release) or 3,800 (says the info panel on the lawn) hand-made ceramic sculptures.

The sculptures came from a larger installation of 9,000 made by members of the Ottawa Potters Guild for a Canada 150 project that was at the Canadian Museum of Nature last year.

The compass points due north and “tells the history of the three main groups of people who were here at the time of Confederation.” Ceramic feathers represent Indigenous people, roses represent British settlers and fleurs-de-lys represent the French. There are also 195 birds to represent the countries of the world.

The full name of the installation includes boussole, the French word for compass, and kekinòwijiwedj, the Algonquin word for “guide,” as the language has no word for compass.

The 3,500 or 3,800 sculptures are not evenly distributed among the cultures represented. Most numerous are the feathers, and they form a large Indigenous population at centre of the compass, which seems appropriate and evocative.

There’s no cost to see the three exhibitions, which continue at the RCGS to Sept. 15. Compass, which was striking under the relentless mid-day sun, is surrounded by lights and could be worth a second trip to see it after dark.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.