Friday, 26 April 2013

Volunteers, bénévoles

This week is volunteer week in Canada, being a volunteer I got to partake in the Festivities. It is interesting to me that since I retire I have taken on a new job, that of being a volunteer at the National Gallery of Canada.  I first called the NGC back in May or June of last year, I was still fully employed then but was thinking of the future. I had this Epiphany while in Rome in March so this led me to the NGC. I gathered all the info and at the same time looked at other museums in the Capital and read about what they wanted or offered to people who wished to volunteer.

The Canadian War Museum is a bit of a private club, in the sense that it was built with the approval and in-put of the Canadian Legion and Veterans. The architecture recalls the trenches of the First World War and though from an architectural point of view it is interesting to look at, once inside it is rather depressing, the concrete walls appear to be caving in on you, this is apparently what the Veterans wanted. There is a heavy emphasis on the First World War, Vimy Ridge and the Second World War.
There is a little about other wars in the French Period prior to 1763 and then a gap. Cannot say that I found it interesting, it is very heavy on historical detail and you have to know your history before you go, otherwise you might be a little lost amongst the display. Very few people actually go to this museum which sits in isolation on Le Breton Flats next to the Chaudière Falls. Until the Flats are re-built and people actually live in the area, this museum will continue to look disconnected from the rest of the City. People who wish to volunteer at that museum need to have an army background. Though I am not sure given the lack of visitors what there is to do, it's a bit of a white elephant.

The other museum I was interested in was the Museum of Civilization built by the architect Douglas Cardinal who designed a truly amazing structure on land sacred to the Algonquin People. The buildings of the museum look like Long Houses which were the housing structures of the Native people living in this part of Canada. At the time of construction much was said about how difficult it was to build, new techniques had to be employed. This new museum gave a much needed face lift to the City of Hull, now Gatineau on the Quebec side of the Outaouais River. It does receive a lot of visitors because of the wonderful parkland around the museum and the striking views of Parliament and the cliffs on the Ottawa side of the river. The Museum has now been renamed Canadian History Museum by the Harper Government who wish to impose a politically controlled agenda on the Museum. The museum has received a special grant of $25 million dollars to re-furbish and re-organize the exhibition space. Not much when you think of it, given the size of the exhibit space. The last time I visited I found it a little sad, there was not much to look at really. It is almost as if the Curators did not know where to go or what to do with their mandate. The museum trains their volunteers and it can be intensive but the volunteers are given little to do that is of interest. With the change of mandate I was also disappointed in the direction the Prime Minister announced he wish to take things. Very old thinking in terms of museology, but then again our PM has a very old fashion way of thinking.

Finally I came to the National Gallery of Canada because it was for me, by far, the most interesting museum. The architecture of the building, the art work exhibited, the training and opportunities offered to the volunteer was by far the most interesting. I started taking the training at the NGC back in September and by end November was involved in the school program. It is quite the challenge to go and speak to classes of children about art. They may be young but they are a demanding audience.
Everything you say is noted and they have extraordinary imagination and have a way of interpreting a painting that may not have occurred to you. Presenting art to a class is a performance and requires a lot of preparation. You also have to learn to say that you do not know the answer to a question instead of trying to bluff your way around. The kids will trip you up, they know when you are making things up.
I also discovered that they love modern or contemporary art, it really strikes a cord with them.
They have a way of looking at it that shows the power of the imagination.

So this to me was a great experience and also re-introduced me to our school system which has gone through enormous changes in the last 40 years. I barely recognized the schools so un-structured the whole classroom system is nowadays. It is also poorly funded by our Provincial governments who prefer loads of administration to better educational programs.

About a month ago I was asked by our coordinator if I would like to organized our French language art and culture lectures on Wednesday afternoons, called Les mercredis cultures.
I said yes only to realize the next day that I had to start from scratch and had to build up a portfolio of contact names. I also had a very tight deadline to put together the coming new Season which starts on September 25.

I did it, 14 lectures over a period of 7 months on a variety of topics from painting to sculpture to photography, looking into art restoration, sociology and art in our modern society, etc.
I am also preparing, what I call emergency lectures just in case one lecturer can't make it at the last minute. I am currently also working on the program for 2014-15, trying to find new fresh ideas and topics.

So today on this beautiful sunny Spring day in the restaurant of the NGC the Director Marc Mayer and other curators gave a reception for the 173 volunteers of the museum. It was nicely done in a very thoughtful way. He recalled the hard work of the volunteers, one lady put in 950 Km driving to different schools in the greater National Capital area. Others put in hundreds of hours of their time on various programs. It sounded more like a full-time job than retired people on pension doing volunteerism. In this age of cutback and Political neglect, this type of dedication helps the NGC weather the storm. He said he did not think that the NGC could function as well as it does without the volunteer. Thank you to Marc Mayer for such kind words.


  1. I love museums and monuments. I like the 'old fashioned' types of museum which don't have a lot of 'interactive' displays. Monuments are intriguing to figure out if they capture the urtext of the mission of the monument.

    1. You and David should come to Ottawa, I would love to show you around the National Gallery.

  2. I've been to all three of those museums several times over the years (although just once so far to the new War Museum -- yes, it's heavy on the grey concrete but SO much better than its former terribly cramped quarters) and enjoyed them all. The National Gallery is always a treat and it sounds like they gave you volunteers a terrific appreciation party!