At the time this article was
written Kim Thalheimer was a recent graduate of Carleton University's School of
Did you know there used to be a
saloon in the basement of the Centre Block before the fire of 1916 or that MPs
used to be able to chose how hard their chair would be? Probably not, since the
history of the art, artifacts and architecture on Parliament Hill may be one of
the nation's best kept secrets.
In 1977 Ian Watson introduced a
private member's bill to establish a Parliament Hill Curator. "I came to
think about such a bill because of an incident which occurred in the House (in
1975) when I sought information from those people responsible for removing the
glass windows in the House when it became necessary to replace them by these
beautiful coloured windows," Watson said. "The removal of those
leaded windows was done quite simply -- they used a sledge hammer to smash them
off and not a single piece of those historic windows was salvaged."
Watson's private bill never came to pass but finally Parliament has its first
Stephen Delroy was hired in
February 1989. His official title is Curator of the House of Commons Collection
but his duties extend to most of Parliament Hill, except the Senate. Before
Delroy was hired, no one person was designated to restore and conserve the
pieces although some curatorial duties were done by Parliamentary Library
Delroy has an undergraduate degree
in anthropology at Carleton University and a masters of philosophy in social
anthropology. He was employed by the Museum of Civilization for more than seven
years as an archivist, cataloguer and curator. Later he worked for the Canadian
Heritage Information Network – a computer network of Canadian and international
museums – as the chief of consulting and research.
One of his first projects in his
new position was the restoration of two old wooden phone booths that belonged
to the House but were found in a Public Works warehouse. "It took three
months to refinish them," Delroy says as he runs his hand over the wood
finish and turns the brass handle of the glass doors. "We're trying hard
to find out how old they are. Maybe 60 years." In the absence of any documents
that revealed their original location they were set up in the East Block.
Working telephones will be installed in them soon.
The Curator's job is to make sure
Parliament Hill's art pieces and historical furniture remain for other
generations to see and learn about. A major task is to take inventory.
"The idea is to find out what pieces are out there and where they are,
count them and see if they're falling apart." He hopes to have that done
by next year and to have a catalogue with photographs and short descriptions of
the pieces done in the next three years.
Part of Delroy's job is to answer
questions from MPs and the public concerning art, artifacts and architectural
details found on the Hill. Delroy hopes he'll be able to provide the
information to anyone who wants it through the catalogue. "It's not the
kind of thing you can take a half hour to find out. It takes time," he
says. "One of the things that surprised me was that there was no
documentation of the works. A lot of our time and money is spent just trying to
gather information about the pieces."
Because many of the pieces are
unsigned, Delroy and his staff often have to sift through government archives,
old administration files or architectural plans to find out who was
commissioned to do the work and when it was done. Delroy has two people working
for him, a reference document curator and a curatorial assistant.
"Sometimes we also have to read debates, committee reports or interview
previous staff members of Public Works Canada to find out why something was
done." Delroy says they also try to interview the artist or the artist's
family to find out the meaning behind the pieces.
"We're also trying to put
together a series of photographs of the artists and their work. You see the
work that's there but you don't see who did it. Some artists used their friends
or relatives as models and we have photographs of the model standing next to
Another part of the job is to find
missing artifacts made on Parliament Hill or associated with it. "I'm
having a hard time finding spittoons. Eventually ashtrays will be the same,
they're going to disappear." Spittoons are among the artifacts displayed
in the historic rooms of the East Block. "They are authentic but they're
just not the actual ones used in that specific room. For example, an ink stand
would match something in a photograph but it's not the exact ink stand that was
there a hundred years ago."Delroy is also trying to find paintings or
drawings of the Centre Block's saloon. Parliament Hill has roughly 1,000 to 2,000
paintings, worth about $50,000 each. Most of the paintings are hanging but some
are in storage. Many of the carvings, Delroy says, are worth as much as the
paintings. "These works of art should be visible because they have a
purpose," Delroy says. "The painting of an MP, for example, would be
like painting a debate or painting that person's role in the governing
Parliament Hill is not a museum and
we can't treat it as one. The historical furniture has to be used and the art
pieces can't be protected like they are in a gallery. But we should take care
of them and conserve them because there's an awful lot of history here and it
shouldn't be lost.
One of the biggest problems is
trying to sort out whether an item belongs to the House or to political
parties. "Because they (art and artifacts) have been around for so many
years, nobody knows who they belong to." Once it's determined that an item
belongs to the House then the Curator can decide to have it restored. If they
belong to political parties he does not have jurisdiction over the pieces.
Another problem is to correctly
interpret an artist's work for documentation. "We try to interpret the
works and come up with the concept behind them based on the sources we
have," Delroy says. "I think with the catalogue we're putting
together, it's necessary to tell people as much as we know and take the risk of
being shown to be wrong." He says there are times when it's impossible to
be absolutely sure who did the work but an educated guess can be made by studying
its particular style.
Architecture does not fall under
the jurisdiction of the Curator. Although part of his job is to compile a
history behind a building's architectural details, he says Public Works Canada
is in charge of determining what the buildings look like and what they are used
During the 1960s the interior of
the West Block was redesigned to look like a regular office building.
"They didn't restore any of its old charm," Delroy says. "They
destroyed the place." A heritage committee to advise on renovations and
decide what's in keeping with the style of the buildings was set up after the
horror of the West Block to make sure it does not happen again.
Commissioning works of art does not
fall under the jurisdiction of the curator. At present some work, like the
stone carvings and statues, is commissioned by Public Works Canada while other
pieces, such as the paintings of the speakers, are commissioned by the House of
Commons. Parliament Hill has one sculptress and one stone carver on staff.
You need artifacts and art on
Parliament Hill almost for the same reason you need Parliament Hill. They are
made for the purpose of representing tradition and the reality of parliament as
Perhaps the touchiest part for a
curator of a legislature is public access. People associate these art pieces
with the history of Canada, and recognize them as visual displays of the
country's heritage. More than a half-million people come every year to visit
Parliament Hill. Canadians take pride in this institution and they go away
feeling patriotic after seeing the buildings and its art.
"Parliament's first function
is not art and architecture but to govern the country. Everything else is
secondary. But on the other hand, life would be awfully dull if we did
everything on a functional level," Delroy says as he walks past the
sculpted face of an MP sleeping during a debate.
What is the Curator's favourite
piece of art on the Hill? It is the 120 feet of bas-relief panels carved in the
foyer of the Centre Block. "Carved into it is the history of Canada, from
the discovery all the way through the opening of the West and the beginning of
the institution of banking. It took eight to 10 years to finish and it was
carved right where it is."
One can not really put a price on
the worth of such objects. The ceiling of the House of Common's Chamber is
worth an estimated $10 million but in reality it's priceless since it would be
too difficult to reproduce. Most of the techniques used on the ceiling just are
not being used anymore.
The office of Parliament Hill's
Curator is a permanent one paid for by the House of Commons but no separate
budget is set aside to run the office. "In the first year, it's hard to
say how much it will cost us to run the place," Delroy says. The budget
for the office would also include the conservation and restoration of the
objects. Public Works Canada spent roughly $2 million last year on the
restoration and conservation of the statues outside. "We don't have an acquisition
budget right now, but maybe we'll eventually have one. If I find an art piece
or artifact that used to be on Parliament Hill but is owned privately, I hope
for a donation." For the moment he is not focusing on collecting art but
documenting what is available and what it means to the country.