What’s So Important About the Canadian National Portrait Gallery?

Well, mostly the fact that there isn’t one.  Not an actual walk-in-the- door, gaze-at-the-paintings one.  It’s not for lack of material to be shown – there are about twenty thousand portraits, drawings and prints in the archives.  There are about four million photographs, including a complete collection, in negatives or prints, of Yousuf Karsh’s work.  There are thousands of caricatures,  of medals and stamps.  The images make visible the people who are Canada’s past and present.  Not just politicians, but writers, actors, athletes, scientists, ordinary joes – all kinds of people.  They show Canada as it was and as it is.

There was even a building that was designated to become the Gallery, once.  And then the possibility that some lucky city outside Ottawa would successfully bid to become the home of the Gallery.  Then, it seems, the idea of an actual physical gallery was quietly put to bed, and along with it the chance that any one of who chose to could see these images for ourselves, stand in front of them and wonder about the people that we see in them.  Except, if we are lucky,  for those few images which are chosen to go out on traveling exhibitions.

In it’s last incarnation, the Portrait Gallery did put together some appealing online exhibits and community activities.  They are interesting and informative – but limited in their range and impact by the medium they are presented through.  Images online are only a representation of the original images, and the context in which we see them is affected by the ideas of the person putting the images there.  Important and valuable, but no replacement for looking at the originals.

So, why care?  Because portraits bring other times and other people to life in our imaginations.  Because they give us a window into our history.  Because the images were created, and given or donated, so that they might be shared.  Because an image means nothing until other people see it and share it.

The National Portrait Gallery should speak clearly and proudly of who we are, sharing the images in its care with us and with the world.  Perhaps one day it will be able to do more than it can now.  I wish that day were today.

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