Canada's Homeless Portrait Gallery: A Historic Collection Falls Victim to Economic and Intellectual Uncertainty

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LOCKED IN A HIGH-TECH STORAGE and laboratory facility in western Quebec, way beyond the sightlines of Parliament Hill, is a most intriguing collection. Inside Vault 34 at the Library and Archives Canada Preservation Centre, dozens of paintings are hung on rolling art racks, about one foot apart. Between cold cement walls, under brutal fluorescent lighting, a helpful curator rolls them out for the occasional visitor.

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Eighteenth-century British soldiers rub shoulders with 20th-century musicians. Along with unsophisticated depictions painted "in the style of" or "from the school of" there are works by well-known artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jerry Grey and Frederick Varley. There are the "Indian kings": life-size images of four North American Indian leaders who visited the court of Queen Anne in 1710 and were painted in ceremonial dress by Jan Verelst. The collection also boasts thousands of Karsh prints and negatives, in which heroic individuals loom out of deep shadows.

Some of the subjects are recognizable, particularly politicians such as Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau. Others are anonymous individuals or groups caught by photographers on the beach at Lake Winnipeg, or around a prairie grain table, or at sewing machines. You don't have to spend much time examining the oils, watercolours, busts, statues, photographs, engravings and prints to realize that the motive underlining the core acquisitions of this collection is not their aesthetic appeal (although that is present) or even the fame of the subject. It is all about history. This is a visual record of men and women who have shaped and continue to shape the history and culture of Canada.

The sprawling collection originated in the omnivorous appetite for historical materials of Arthur George Doughty, a dapper, gregarious English immigrant who held the position of Dominion Archivist from 1904 to 1935. Disturbed at the neglect of Canada's documentary heritage, Doughty scoured salesrooms and importuned private collectors for material to lodge in a national archive. Doughty was a friend of Mackenzie King (he may have introduced King to spiritualism), and with King's encouragement he acquired manuscripts, including government records, transcripts of key documents in British and French archives, private papers and maps. But Doughty did not stop at written material. He also scooped up flags and trophies, posters and works of art.

The National Archives (which became Library and Archives Canada, or LAC, in 2004, when the National Archives and the National Library merged) evolved a small program to look after portraits amassed by Doughty and his successors, but the collection did not have a clear identity until 2001, when the Portrait Gallery of Canada was created. Today, the portraits occupy storage space in Gatineau, while the Portrait Gallery of Canada has a dedicated website, a staff of 26 and half a floor in the LAC building in downtown Ottawa. However, the portrait collection is still treated as archival material: it is embedded in the rest of LAC's vast collection, available only to researchers. The past seven years have seen a prolonged and expensive effort to find a permanent display space for the collection. But the culture-phobic Harper Conservatives never warmed to the idea. First they distorted the process; then, last month, they declared the whole project "on ice."

As artwork, the quality of the pieces runs from exquisite to appalling. But as historical artifacts, each item is part of a larger story--often several larger stories. Here are the sketchbooks of George Back, the British naval officer who was part of the second overland expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1825-26. On one small page, Back caught the likeness of Egheechololle, a fur-clad Dogrib Indian with a quizzical expression. The collection also includes an 1819 miniature of shy young Demasduit, one of the last of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland, and a watercolour from the 1840s of an anonymous young African-Canadian boy in Nova Scotia, wearing a smartly buttoned jacket and a cheeky smile. …