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National portrait gallery across from Parliament an ideal opportunity

Here's an idea whose time has come: Why doesn't Canada establish a national portrait gallery in Ottawa and house it in the old U.S. embassy building across the street from Parliament?

If you feel like you have heard that one before, it's because the plan was much discussed in the 2000s before the Conservatives, only interested in museums that could be built outside Ottawa, cancelled it in 2009. But it is now being revived as the Liberals figure out what the government should do with the prominent heritage building at 100 Wellington Street. The best idea is to take the rich portrait collection hidden in the vaults at Library and Archives Canada and create a lively new national museum.

Portrait museums are highly popular with the public everywhere from Washington, D.C., to London and Canberra and present a great way to engage visitors on the themes of history, society, ancestry, personality and achievement. But a solid, sensible plan to do the same for Canada may lose out to shinier political offerings.

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Here is what is going on in Ottawa: Supervised by Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department that oversees the Parliamentary precinct, three departments are now working on three ideas for the building. Canadian Heritage is figuring out how to program a "Canada House" that brings the best of the regions to the capital; Indigenous and Northern Affairs is looking at how to build an Indigenous cultural centre; and Library and Archives Canada is dusting off the portrait gallery file.

These were the top three ideas that emerged from consultations last summer when the government surveyed Canadians, offering them six vaguely worded proposals for the site. About 7,000 people participated and the idea of a portrait gallery got strong write-in support, especially from older Canadians. But when the pollsters also surveyed a random, demographically representative sampling, Canada House won.

It may sound like a nice idea if you are being asked to consider it on a multiple-choice survey but Canada House is actually the weakest option because it has no natural programming base or existing collection to draw on. Starting from scratch, programmers would likely develop a pavilion-style survey of the regions, one of those boosterish displays of interactive gizmos that are produced for world fairs and intended to be short-lived. This type of programming is likely to grow stale quickly, requiring expensive refurbishment and technological updating every few years. In the past, similar if smaller Canada pavilions in Ottawa and Toronto rapidly became baby white elephants before they were dismantled.

The Indigenous centre is a more interesting idea. In this year in which the government has set reconciliation with the First Nations as a goal, it would be wonderful to see a powerful native cultural presence established right across the street from Parliament. However, a colonial-style building with a history as a U.S. embassy doesn't feel like the place to put it, and any scheme would need to be driven by Indigenous communities who might not want a rival for a year-round facility sometimes discussed for the summertime aboriginal centre on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River.

If the Indigenous centre were to work it would have to be a genuine hub for a living culture with a regular schedule of live performances: if you want to see archeological and historical evidence of Indigenous culture, there is an excellent collection at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. That would mean establishing a whole new cultural institution under Indigenous leadership, an idea that would take years of planning – yet, a representative of Public Services said that department expects to make an announcement before the end of 2017.

Let's hope that announcement finally unveils plans to get some of the millions of portraits in the Library and Archives collection out of storage and into a publicly accessible home. (Right now, they can only be seen in irregular temporary exhibitions or through small reproductions online.) One of the political ironies of the portrait gallery's long wait is that when the Tories iced the previous plan for 100 Wellington – it smelt of Liberal profligacy and Ottawa-centrism – they effectively buried an institution devoted to one thing their grumpy government did love, which was Canadian history.

But if you think the old Stephen Harper, men-in-medals version of the national narrative is what a portrait gallery would offer, think again – and take a look at the portrait portal on the Library and Archives website.

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It includes reproductions from the collection of 20,000 paintings and drawings and four million photographs, such as a portrait of a young Sir John A. Macdonald by an unknown artist and photographs of Margaret Atwood and Karen Kain by Toronto artist Arnaud Maggs.

But there are also many, many faces of not-so-famous Canadians, such as the early 19th-century painting of Céline and Rosalvina Pelletier, two Quebec City girls clad in pale red dresses that perfectly match the coral necklaces they wear to ward off childhood diseases. Famous or ordinary, these Canadians deserve to be seen.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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