Saturday, 12 May 2012

National Museums in Ottawa

The Nation's Capital has 3 major National Museums, the Canadian War Museum, the Museum of Civilizations, the National Gallery of Canada. All three were built in the last 30 years and represent an effort by the Federal Government to present Canada to the world in the Capital. The architecture is impressive, top architects were involved in the design and building, they are Moshe Safdi for the National Gallery, Raymond Moriyama for the War Museum and Douglas Cardinal for the Civilizations museum. The collections are impressive, much of it gifts to the Nation from individuals or purchased on the open market at a time before ''art'' became a hot ticket item with outlandish prices.

With all the cutbacks in the last 15 years to the National Museums budget, purchase of new art works or even maintenance and curatorial work has become next to impossible. Staff have been cut, services to the public have been cut and attendance is way down, some 40% according to the Government. So the reaction has been from the Government to declare the museums un-necessary, putting them on life-support and claim that if the public is interested it is up to the public to do something about it. The ''vision'' of Canadian identity and culture is gone from public discourse replaced instead by accountants and politicians who prefer to talk of efficiencies in saving money, all this waste must be gotten rid of, a rather mercenary discourse, but it does find resonance with a certain uninformed public.

I have in the last 10 days visited all three, first I found that the museums are empty, attendance is very low, often finding myself alone in the galleries with a lonely guard as companion. Private security firms have been hired to patrol the exhibit space. There is lots of empty parking space, restaurant facilities are operating at minimum since few patrons come in. The general public perception of these museums, despite the pride people take in them, is that they belong to the ''elite''. The people have no need of culture or art or knowledge, this type of argument reminds me of Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution when art and culture was destroyed in China in search of the values of the people.

This argument is in part confirmed by the low value placed on education in general and by the very low literacy level amongst children in Canada, if the figure released at the Ottawa Writers Festival are to be believed.

If you cannot read and have little general knowledge then what is the incentive in going to a museum to appreciate what is on offer. Recently a study of students in High Schools reveals that generally speaking few have developed critical judgement abilities and lack focus or attention, do not read, lack vocabulary and have difficulties understanding certain concepts of logic or thought process.

But what about the rest of the population, why are they not going to our National Museums?
Why are the museums having difficulties attracting sponsors in the Corporate world or important donors
with deep pockets? Is it because we constantly looked to the Federal Government in the past to do all the financing. Very serious problems and no response or suggestions are offered to tackle this question. Are tourists not interested? Why are we not marketing the National Museums beyond a website?

I first went to the National Gallery on Sussex drive, it should be noted that this impressive building on what is the Ceremonial boulevard of the Capital, like Pall Mall in London or les Champs Elysées in Paris is not connected to any direct public transport route. The museum was near empty, beautiful works of art displayed in a grand setting with the right lighting and set to be enjoyed. Only a few people here and there visiting, I encountered a group of bored teenagers brought by a teacher on a school outing, they obviously had no idea why they were there. This summer the National Gallery is presenting its summer special exhibit on Vincent Van Gogh, hopefully it will attract a crowd, it opens on 24 May (Victoria Day in Canada).

I then went across the Ottawa river opposite to the National Gallery is the Museum of Civilizations built to resemble a Long house favoured by the Algonquin people who use to gather by the hundreds in the summer time on the banks of the Ottawa river before 1780. A little known fact or a forgotten one, all of the land on which is built Ottawa the National Capital of Canada is un-ceded Algonquin land which still belongs to the Algonquin people. As the saying goes Canada is the only country in the world whose Capital is built on land belonging to another Nation.

The museum of Civilizations houses many stunning artifacts and its great hall is dedicated to the Pacific coast native people like the Haida, Salish, Tlingit and Nisga'a to name a few. Many of Bill Reid's sculptures are on display with the mythological creatures of the old native religions and complex belief structures being represented.

The museum also has special exhibits, currently one entitled ''God an owner's manual"
depicting the different beliefs of people around the world. The function of the museum is to display but also explain aspects of civilizations. The approach is multicultural putting all civilizations on the same footing, something that is out of favour with the current administration in Canada.

The only people in the museum the day I came where Asian Tour groups, 5 buses and a handful of other people.  A telling conversation at the ticket counter, a young couple wanted to buy tickets for the IMAX cinema, the attendant asked them if they wanted to see the rest of the exhibits, the woman who was around 30 said to him in reply that they had no time for all that boring stuff. Maybe that is the problem, culture is perceived as boring of no value. This appears to be a general belief fostered in large part by our modern consumer culture, we need to be constantly stimulated and hilariously excited.

Yesterday, W and I went to the Canadian War Museum built in close consultations with all Veteran groups and the Royal Canadian Legion, they had a large say in how the museum would look. Moriyama the architect certainly produced a building the Veterans were satisfied with, it recalls the trenches of the First World War and the jagged edges of battlefields, rising from an unseen underworld.

Unfortunately there is too much to read and the museum does cover 500 years of Canada's military and political history from the discovery of Europeans by the Aboriginals to today. An enormous amount of information, difficult to digest if you do not have at least a basic in the history of Canada or of the many conflicts we were involved in.  The artifacts are also poorly displayed, one example is a large Mercedes Benz limousine which belonged to Adolph Hitler pushed in a corner. The museum architecture tends to be dark and foreboding, certainly something that was desired in illustrating the dark, deathly side of all Wars, but at times it is overwhelming.

Again few people, except for the school groups who like all teenagers thought war fun, the weapons awesome, sort of like an internet game. It is difficult for a generation who has no knowledge of conflict and whose sole information of war comes from the television news to be interested in something that appears so remote, disconnected from their reality. The museum becomes a theme park to have fun.

I was disappointed in that particular museum, I thought the presentation could have been different. Again the War Museum sits in splendid isolation in LeBreton flats, a vast desolate area west of Parliament Hill and by the Ottawa river, once a neighbourhood, bulldozed in the late 1950's, basically the middle of nowhere in the Capital.

I often think that Ottawa is not much loved by Canadians and not much respected by the politicians who are mostly indifferent to the Capital.

1 comment:

  1. that is sad to hear.
    I very much want to see Ottawa. I would like to see Montreal too.
    Face it, I should be Canadian, I am positively wasted here in the States.