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Designing Museums for indigenous collections at the National Gallery of Canada

Junia Jorgji is the Chief of Design at the National Gallery of Canada. We caught up with her recently about her work redisplaying the national collection of Canadian and Indigenous art.

Can you tell us a little about the National Gallery of Canada?

The story of the National Gallery of Canada began in the late 19th-century so that Canadians should have a national gallery to call their own.

It would be a place to showcase Canadian art; to preserve, study and teach about this nation’s cultural heritage; as well as to acquire works from around the world. It would expose Canadians to great art from all periods and in all its manifestations: paintings, photographs, sculptures and more.

Today, the National Gallery of Canada is Canada’s largest art institution, with an exceptional collection of more than 65,000 works for art, in Prints & Drawings, Canadian, Indigenous, European, Contemporary, International and American art, and is the home of the Canadian Photography Institute and its collection. The Gallery is housed in a landmark building designed by architect Mosche Safdie and inaugurated in 1988.

You’ll be speaking in Brisbane about the recently redisplayed national collection of Canadian and Indigenous art can you tell us how you approached this important task?

Art history in Canada is complex and rich. It spans thousands of years, from the earliest pieces created some 14,000 years ago, to the first contact between the European settlers and the Indigenous people in the late 16th century, to the founding and growth of Canada as a country. Therefore, a museum-wide cross-departmental initiative was put in place to bring together four major collections (Canadian art, Indigenous art, Contemporary art, and Photography) into a single narrative and to make it appealing and accessible to the public.

We identified the need to bring in a strong external design voice, and hired Adrien Gardere to work collaboratively with the internal design team. The process then involved numerous workshops between the curators and the designers, consultations with Indigenous advisory committees, the active collaboration of the Education department, as well as strategic partnerships with multiple cultural institutions. The intent was to allow for the creation of strong and irrefutable intellectual, symbolic, and physical connections between the content, all while highlighting key moments in the curatorial narrative.

Architecturally, this was achieved by better connecting the galleries to one another, by modifying gallery sizes, by eliminating redundant architectural detailing, by toning down the floor saturation, by emphasizing lines of sight, and by using light and color to modify perceptions of depth and the relationship between spaces.

In terms of the interpretive narrative, a strong hierarchy of content was developed in three layers: room panels addressing a broad historic context, theme panels discussing more specific art historic moments, and extended labels discussing the specific artwork under purview. This content is shared in a total of 19 languages (which includes English and French), with over 50 artworks having extended labels for artworks translated into the native tongue of their artist.

Also, as the space had not been renovated since the building was inaugurated in 1988, infrastructure needs were assessed and capital funds allocated accordingly. This included, but was not limited to, a complete refresh of the plywood and gypsum walls, a lighting upgrade from halogen to LED, a redesign of our permanent cases to tall anti-reflective glass cases that do not interrupt sightlines, and multiple security and mechanical updates.

As this was the largest and most complex undertaking by the Gallery since its relocation in 1988, temporary dedicated resources were allocated to this project, with the institution expanding in key areas. The design team was expanded and restructured. Also, a project management department specific to this project was created, which led a core task force comprised of five players from each key discipline. Regular meetings between these key players allowed for a constant flow of communication and monitoring of progress at all stages of design and construction.

What advice would you have for Australian museums working with Indigenous collections? 

All participants in this type of project need to constantly be willing to learn, discuss, and question. From a curatorial standpoint, an emphasis must be placed in the need to start planning early in order to identify missing links in the curatorial storyline, which can be filled either through loans or acquisitions.

Another major component of this project was the partnering with the Indigenous communities. With the help of the Education department, the Gallery developed and accommodated protocols and requirements that respected the provenance and culture of the Indigenous artworks– whether it was for their welcoming, display, or interpretation.

Inclusivity within the exhibition space is also crucial – in our new galleries, the story is told through the art yes, but also through the use of multilingual audio-guide stops and labels, as well as theme panels that address difficult moments in history candidly.

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