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ARTFUL BLOGGER: Breaking news! The Canadian Museum of Civilization becomes a temporary stand-in for the Canadian Portrait Gallery

A photo of silent film star Mary Pickford. Alfred Cheney Johnston, ca. 1920s Library and Archives Canada, e010857304.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is not just about to become the Canadian Museum of History but, as of March 21, it will also become a temporary stand-in for the Canadian Portrait Gallery.

Although Canada has no real bricks-and-mortar national Portrait Gallery, it does have a virtual one that pops into life now and then in various parts of the country. Most recently in Ottawa, the Portrait Gallery’s administrators, Library and Archives Canada, mounted an excellent small show at the Canadian War Museum displaying portraits of key players in the War of 1812.

Now the Canadian Museum of Civilization is on the verge of showcasing an exhibition of 100 portraits of 57 Canadians assembled by the portrait “program” at Library and Archives.

The exhibition is called Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians. It will be at Civilization from March 21 to Oct. 14. It has already appeared in Charlottetown at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and at the McMichael Canadian Art Centre in Kleinburg, Ont.

The portraits span four centuries — including early explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, and more contemporary icons such as environmentalist David Suzuki and race car driver Gilles Villeneuve — using a variety of media, including paintings, photographs, cartoons, drawings, video, and sculpture.

There are the usual good guys: Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, author Margaret Atwood, and athlete Tom Longboat. But there are also some characters who tend to fall into a far different category: Ex-con Conrad Black, sports cheater Ben Johnson, Métis rebel Louis Riel. Think of the exhibition as Canada, warts and all.

Out For Fun (Dionne Quintuplets). Andrew Loomis, 1950. Library and Archives Canada, e010836745.

The title of Double Take refers to the fact that the exhibition, through images and text, tries to show two sides of people — the well-known and the lesser-known aspects of their personalities. Example: Joni Mitchell is posed in front of one of her paintings to demonstrate that she sees herself as a visual artist more than a musician. And did you know Mitchell had polio as a child, leaving her with a weakened left arm and the need to develop a different style of guitar picking to compensate for the disability?

The exhibition, while at the McMichael, received a glowing review from the Toronto Star’s entertainment columnist Martin Knelman.

“While this might not have been the government’s intention, this stunning exhibition mainly serves to demonstrate the marvellous promise that was dashed a few years when the Harper government ditched plans to build a national portrait gallery where the country’s rich collection could be on display permanently,” Knelman said.

“The entire collection includes tens of thousands of pieces, so this show represents just a taste of it. But it’s a provocative selection that defies clichés about the presumed dull, self-effacing nature of prominent Canadians. And many of these memorable images are being showcased for the first time.”

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. Many thousands of people will visit the Double Take exhibition. So why not create a permanent home for the Portrait Gallery in the Museum of Civilization? The museum has loads of space, considering the Postal Museum there is being disbanded and the attic floor housing a Personalities Gallery is being dismantled.

We all love looking at portraits and the stories behind them. And there could be no better place to stick a small portrait gallery than in a building housing the Canadian Museum of History.

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