Sunday, May 18, 2008

Canada's National Portrait Gallery Comes out of the Closet

In the nearly two months since I've last blogged, I've finished up my coursework at Western and have embarked upon the final leg of my journey towards being a master of history -- my internship. I am two weeks in to a sixteen week stint at Library and Archives Canada, working in the Government Records branch. The internship program in its current form is quite new, but already I am very impressed with the number of professional development opportunities that have been made available to me and the other interns. One of these presented itself last Thursday when we attended an open house at the downtown branch of LAC, where the public services are located. The day included a variety of tours, including one of the current exhibit, a joint project with NARA (the American version of LAC) featuring a copy of the Treaty of Paris, and one of the National Portrait Gallery.

Before last week, I had never really realized that we even had a National Portrait Gallery. In fact, the only one I knew of was the spectacular institution in London, England, where I have spent many blissful hours in the Tudor and Stuart galleries. This institution is affiliated with its nextdoor neighbour the National Gallery, but not with the National Archives. By contrast, our version, an affiliate of our national library and archive, is located in an office space, barred to the public. The NPG is unique because it has an active collecting mandate that is more reminiscent of an art gallery than of an archive. It remains part of LAC because of its long history as a repository of nationally significant works, but it also actively purchases, and even commissions, new works of art and is constantly trying to challenge our traditional notions of what a 'portrait' is. And all the while, the majority of its collections and are housed in the Gatineau Preservation Centre and rarely seen by the public.

Currently, there is a movement afoot to set up the National Portait Gallery as our newest national museum (joining the likes of the Canadian Museum of Civilization), but things are complicated. Cities across Canada have been invited to compete for the privilege of hosting the institution. This has opened up a floodgate of controversy. What would it mean for a national institution to be in Calgary or Halifax instead of in Ottawa? How will we pay for it? (This is designed to be a public-private partnership, so the chosen city would have to foot part of the bill). What are the financial repercussions of physically moving the collection, which includes many old and valuable works? This topic has been hotly debated between those who believe that the costs of setting up the museum outside of Ottawa outweigh the benefits, and those who champion the idea that national institutions should be located across out nation, and not centred in our capital.
I haven't figured out exactly how I feel about these questions, but they are interesting ones, and
I'll be sure to follow the debate as it unfolds. Still, wherever it ends up, I look forward to being able to see this beautiful collection the way it was meant to be seen -- in a museum, open to the public, and not in a small and crowded storage facility.
Image courtesy of Part of NPG's collection, it is an image of Japanese-Canadians being relocated to camps in BC in 1942 and was taken by an unknown artist.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Blogging from the Trenches

Few would dispute that the internet has changed the way we learn. In the early days, websites were fairly static and unchanging, and so all the internet really did was increase the ease with which we could access information. Websites were, in effect, little more than the equivalent of books or articles available on a computer screen. But we are now in the age of web 2.0, a collaborative era in which we communicate and share information more instantaneously, using newer technologies like wikis, blogs, and social networking sites. Because the web has become such a fluid thing, we can learn and correspond in an ever more immediate and interactive way.

This can have interesting consequences for the study of history. On example of this is the grandchild of a First World War soldier who had the idea to use a very simple format – a blog like this one – to stimulate interest and engagement in history. Bill Lamin, a native of Cornwall, England, used his grandfather’s wartime correspondence to create entries in a blog created under his grandfather’s name. What, for me, is the best part of this experiment is that he does it in real time, posting correspondence exactly ninety years after they were written. This creates an amazingly immersive experience. The blog reader finds themselves in the position of the family at home, waiting, day by day, to see how the story turns out. (And, just to be clear, he already had a son before he left for war, so we really don’t know how the story will end). The blog begins with posts explaining the project and introducing readers to Harry and his family. Starting in mid-1917, there are an impressive collection of letters from Harry, and there is a new post on every day for which his grandson has a surviving letter, and there are also scanned images of postcards, envelopes, certificates, and any other documents relating to the family history of the time that have been found.

This strikes me as a beautiful way for Lamin to share his family history with others, but it is also a very effective way to create interest in this very important period of history. Personal stories always make history more relevant, but what is so unique about this project is the real-time element. Lamin may be “just” a school teacher, and not an historian, but he has succeeded in creating an amazing experience that is immediate, personal, and very interactive. He has also received international attention for his efforts. Lamin has plans to publish the letters into a book, but I would encourage anyone who is interested to check out the blog as soon as possible, while you can still experience this project as it was originally conceived.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Do you really need to know what Freud had for breakfast?

A common topic of discussion in several of our classes this year has been privacy. To what extent should we consider the privacy of historical figures? Archival repositories have been struggling with these issues for years. Families of deceased persons whose personal papers are bequeathed to an archive may wish to control access to certain documents and thus, the data that they may contain. For example, when Sigmund Freud’s papers were deposited at the Library of Congress, many of them were sealed for decades, with restrictions imposed until, in one case, 2113. While most of these documents have now been made public, some restrictions still exist, seventy years after his death. The reason for this was the concern of his daughter, and the psychoanalyst who was in charge of the Freud Archive, that he might be exposed to unfair criticism. But of course, no-one can actually own a reputation. [1] Information is information, and should be made available to the public as much as possible – right?

In our current, digital age, the issue of privacy becomes much more pressing. At least Freud could control what records he left behind, even if he cannot control who sees them from beyond the grave. The documents he left behind are of a conventional nature – things like letters and diaries that he actively and knowingly created. But we now live in a world where it is possible that we are leaving behind a trail of evidence of which we are not even aware.

In a previous post, I discussed spimes and possibility of a future in which all objects are connected in a sort of wireless network, so that their own personal history is recorded. The issue of privacy comes in when the objects you buy in the store are imbedded with chips that allow them to be tracked once you take them home. So it’s not just about the record you leave through email and telephone conversations, or through your diary and handwritten letters like Freud. Now it’s about what you buy and what you do with your possessions. The technology to imbed objects with small microchips and monitor its location already exists. It’s called radio frequency identification – or RFiD – and has been around since the Second World War. But in the past few years its potential implications have become more apparent and have been cause for concern, even alarm, among some. In a world that is increasingly monitored, where we are ever more frequently under the scrutiny of surveillance cameras, doesn’t this seem like the next logical step?

This technology could certainly have interesting implications for studying history, as I intimated in my previous post. But the already complicated issue of privacy just gets even stickier. Just as Freud’s daughter didn’t want the less flattering elements of her father’s records to come to light, who would really be ok with the world knowing their every purchase after they died? Aren’t some things, after all, better left unknown?

1. Joseph L. Sax, “Not so Public: Access to Collections”, RBM:A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage vol. 1 no.2, 101-105