An art curator's guide to N.L.'s largest public museum
Every day is a day at the museum for Mireille Eagan, but who could get tired of a kraken?
Let's go to the museum! Over the next few weeks, we'll be discovering Canada's favourite museums and public galleries and sharing little lifehacks for planning your trip right. What are the must-sees? The hidden gems? At every stop, a different artist will be your tour guide.
For all the colour and variety of the St. John's harbour, there's no ignoring The Rooms. It's the giant, gable-roofed complex that tops the city's skyline, and should you trek uphill to visit — and you should make the visit — you'll find an art gallery/museum/archive combo that reflects the life and history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mireille Eagan is the curator of contemporary art there, which gives her a unique perspective on the place. For her, a day at the office is the same as a day at the museum — and when she spends time with a painting or sculpture (or stuffed flamingo), that object could wind up anchoring a whole new exhibition.
"I'm constantly behind the scenes. I'm very much a Phantom of the Opera," she laughs. And beyond the 7,000+ works in The Rooms's art collections, Eagan also pulls items from the museum and archives when piecing together a show. To play this game of cultural connect-the-dots, she's always asking herself questions: How do these objects fit together? How do they tell a story about the region and the people who live there? And will it make an impact with visitors of all kinds — from art history profs to 12-year-olds?
Still, for someone's who's always hunting for fresh ideas, there are certain items around The Rooms that will always grab her attention. Here's her guide to the space and the most fascinating things it holds.
Once you've arrived, keep climbing!
So, you've made it to The Rooms — and if you've arrived on foot, you've enjoyed the bonus of a major lower body workout. Congratulations. But the climb's not over, friend! Once you have your ticket, get yourself to the top of the building. (Relax. This time, there's an elevator.) On level four, you'll find the permanent exhibition, Truth or Myth, and according to Mireille, it's the best way to begin your visit.
"It shows what the art gallery is really about," she explains, and that's because the exhibition showcases art that defines and reflects the region. It's also the best place to find most of Mireille's favourite things — "highlights of the collection" including these works.
Mary Pratt. "Eviscerated Chickens," 2009
Says Mireille: "Mary Pratt is an artist who is very close to my heart. I worked on her national tour with The Rooms and I also co-curated her exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, and I spent years sitting on her couch having conversations with her. She did pass away recently, and it was a tremendous loss to the arts community of this province and nationally, but this work — it is her encapsulated."
"The wonderful thing about Mary Pratt is she shows the beauty in everyday life but she also shows the sacrifices that are made in those same everyday rituals — in the preparation of a meal, for example. So this — it wouldn't normally be considered beautiful subject matter, these chickens. But she shows us that they're beautiful. And for me, it's a gem in our collection and it's also a perfect example of how Mary operated, and how she showed us our daily lives. That's a definite must-see."
Sid Butt. "Lorne Home from Ontario," 1979
This one's hard to miss, even though there are thousands — possibly millions — of dudes all over Canada who look just like "Lorne." But that's one more reason to love it, really. "It's this picture of a guy with a dirt 'stache with a stubby beer," says Mireille, talking about the painting. "He just looks like someone I want to hang out with, you know?"
Angela Antle. "Mishta-Shipva," 2009
In its history, Newfoundland and Labrador has been considered both a "have" and a "have not" province — something this neon artwork directly addresses. As the light blinks, the display changes. "Have." "Not." Have not." Says Mireille: "It's about this changing identity of Newfoundland and Labrador, and how we are re-assessing our identity in the face of confederation, but also changing oil prices and concerns about the future. It's a really poignant work that's worth seeing."
On the museum side, some of the most fascinating things in the collection are reminders of how art has been a part of life on the East Coast for thousands of years. Mireille singles out these soapstone carvings, made by Indigenous artists somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years ago. "They could be contemporary objects. They're excellent," she says. "They're absolutely exquisite. [...] and they show us our history is longer than we might imagine. We should be thinking about that."
Maps of Shanawdithit
Says Mireille: "The Maps of Shanawdithit are really interesting and don't often see the light of day. She is described as the last known Beothuk, and she created these maps when she was brought into a home in St. John's that describe numerous events but also aspects of Beothuk culture." While the originals are preserved in museum's collection, you'll find reproductions on display. (Something to look forward to: Mireille says that local Indigenous artist/curator Logan MacDonald is revisiting the maps as part of an upcoming project. It'll feature in The Rooms's programming this June.)
Don't release the Kraken!
Newfoundland and Labrador: home of puffins, cod fish and mollusks of unusual size. "There are these histories of sea monsters in the folklore of this province," says Mireille, and The Rooms has a sea monster of its own: a giant squid. Sorry, make that a "HUGE squid." This particular overgrown specimen entered the collection in 1981. "I don't know its story, but it's very dead," she laughs. "It's really worth seeing."
Joey Smallwood's glasses
This next item isn't going to grab anyone's attention like a squid the size of a mini-van, but to Mireille, it's one of the most "iconic" objects in the entire museum. Former premier Joey Smallwood brought Newfoundland and Labrador into Canadian Confederation in 1949. "He was known for his glasses," says Mireille. "They were his signature, and those are in the museum. They're a nice, little hidden away find."
"He's an interesting part of Newfoundland and Labrador history," she continues. "He's both beloved and absolutely despised depending on who you talk with. I think there are mixed feelings in this culture, or rather this province, about joining Canada, and we're coming up on the 70th anniversary of this province's confederation with Canada, and there are still those feelings of was it really a good idea." Mireille says she's been thinking a lot about those themes lately, and a new exhibition reflecting on the anniversary is in the works.
We're not saying you should nap at the museum, but...
"This is a massive building with a lot of really interesting spaces to hang out in, so yes, I am here all the time," says Mireille. "I could nap here. I should probably nap here," she laughs.
And if she did, the Art Pod would be the place to catch those z's. Find it between the third and fourth floor of the art gallery.
"It's this place where families can relax, where kids can do art projects, where you can sit, look out at the beautiful view — and have a nap, I'm sure. It's a nice, hidden away spot."
Get the best view in the city
Just about every museum we've featured in this series has boasted a spectacular lookout, but so far, nothing can compare to The Rooms and its eye-popping ocean view. From the atrium, with its sky-high glass windows, visitors can look beyond downtown St. John's, out towards The Narrows.
"The view — you can't beat the view here. It's definitely the best in the city," says Mireille. "If you had a strong enough pair of binoculars, you could see England from here. You know, if it's not foggy."
For more info on how to plan a visit to The Rooms, visit www.therooms.ca.