Last week I received a deeply troubling email from the Frontier School Division, which serves thirty-five communities and forty-one schools in remote/northern Manitoba. The school division wrote to the National Gallery of Canada last October requesting a copy of a photograph taken in 1850 of a then-young artist named Paul Kane. The request came after the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas donated four reproductions of Kane's paintings to the school division. The paintings were "coming home", with one of the portraits featuring Ogemawwah Chack, "The Spirit Chief," who is a direct ancestor of many local residents. It is the only likeness of this aboriginal elder in existence. The school district requested the photograph since it wanted to create an explanatory text to accompany the paintings.
In responding to the request, the National Gallery sought $150 for a copy of the photograph, more than ten times the fee charged by the National Archives for a similar service. Moreover, the Gallery claimed the right to see and approve final design proofs of the usage of this public domain image.
The School Division has produced a lengthy recount of the correspondence that followed (which they have kindly allowed me to post), including claims by the office of the Minister of Canadian Heritage that they could do little to help and further asserting that the Gallery holds copyright in the copy of the photograph. As the School Division notes:
"We have been involved in curriculum development at Frontier School Division for nearly two decades now, and have purchased hundreds of copies of archival photographs and paintings over the years at nothing more than the cost of reproduction. These copies have been used in our educational publications, which are expensive enough to create, without the additional costs that institutions like the National Gallery would like to charge us."
I'm not sure what is more remarkable: that our government officials would seek to deny that they have an important role to play in facilitating access to Canadian heritage or that this courageous school district would stand up and fight for access to its cultural heritage in the face of unyielding government and museum officials.
Just before Parliament broke for the summer, Canadian Heritage Liza Frulla claimed that she "does not need advice on protecting Canadian culture" given that "that is the story of [my] her life." If protecting Canadian culture means putting it under a pricey lock and key, perhaps not. Out of this sad tale, we must ultimately ask whether this Minister will recognize that support for Canadian heritage requires support for more than just large rights holder groups, who are frequently dominated by foreign interests? While I know that it can get noisy in an HMV record store, surely the Minister of Canadian Heritage can hear the cries of the archivists, historians, and other groups who are also directly part of the Minister's mandate.