Tuesday, 28 February 2017

THE POWER OF SUGGESTION AND OTHER PEOPLE'S VISION

COLLECTIONS CORNER

BY: KATIE PAOLOZZA

Like several of my fellow Musers, I traveled to Ottawa last week for the Museum Studies getaway. Every time I visit the capital I'm reminded of how different a city it is from Toronto. The size, the people, the overall vibe, it is all reflected in the material culture present in Ottawa museums.
Many of us broke away from the group and explored museums on our own like the Bytown Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, but we also had two days of presentations and tours from alumni and professionals at the Canadian Museum of History and the National Gallery of Canada.

Both sets of talks brought up great points about how the public perceives collections and interactivity. Our group was lucky enough at the CMH to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the new Canadian History Hall that is reopening this year in honour of Canada 150. For those of you who don't remember the old one, it was an immersive recreation of many buildings and monuments that represented different points in Canadian history. People loved, loved that gallery because it was like stepping back in time:

   
The new gallery doesn't seem to be quite as immersive by design, but I was very excited when I heard that the history represented would be more expansive and more inclusive of Indigenous and minority cultures that played an irreplaceable role in Canada's evolution. Here is a look at the new gallery under construction as reported by the CBC:



What fascinated me most about the differences between the old and new Canadian History Halls was the public's perception of what was on display. We were told that the public had on more than one occasion lauded the interactive displays in the original gallery, and if the CMH were to carry one element over to the new one, it should be that feature. We were then told that there was not a single thing in the first gallery that was interactive, but many people perceived it to be that way. I still can't quite wrap my head around that. Is it something about the immersive nature of historical recreations? Is this sense of participation rooted in the imaginations of guests that were inspired by their surroundings? And most relevant to this column, is it possible to interact with objects in a collection if we cannot touch them?

I felt like the answer to that last question was given to me the next day at the National Gallery. We were given a tour of the special exhibition celebrating the work of famed Indigenous artist Alex Janvier. Here is an example of just one of his works:


It's hard to see the breathtaking level of detail present in each painting, but what is still visible is the aesthetic of the swirling colours and the dream-like visage of the recurring motifs of dehumanization, death and life intertwined, and devastating loss. This was a collection that had many of us leaving the exhibition with tight chests and an uncomfortable sense of empathy and guilt. It was a solid, tangible collection that we could not touch or manipulate in any way, but we interacted with it all the same. One particularly beautiful yet brutal painting even had our tour guide warning us that that section of the gallery was a trigger space.

You can get the exhibition catalogue in English here, and in French here, but I strongly urge anyone in the area to visit the National Gallery and see how brilliantly they have displayed Janvier's personal narratives. What so often can happen with these types of collections is that they are used as tools of political bias, for both the right and the left. Janvier certainly doesn't eschew politics, but he consistently breaks them down and brings his audience back to the personal narratives of those who have been dehumanized by their oppressors and by their so-called saviours.

The trip was enlightening in many ways, from the time spent bonding with our like-minded peers to the solid advice given by alumni who were once in our shoes. I think what will stay with me most are the surges of emotion that swelled up in me when I least expected it. Collections can transport us, move us, challenge us. They don't have to be accessible or open in every way to do so. I was quite happy to enjoy other people's vision of Canada and Alex Janvier. It made me more cognizant of my own preferences and interpretive eye. That's a gift I will most likely carry with me into my future career, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that.

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