Column: The heart of Canadian culture is getting caught in the Web

By Stephanie Hayne

Four years in Ottawa and I hadn’t been to the National Gallery – not even once.

I’d always planned to go. It’s just the sort of thing you don’t do unless somebody comes to visit.

Last summer, my friend came to visit. And I was blown away.

The Monet-Renoir exhibit was out of this world. To be honest, when I say ‘out of this world,’ I say it with all the tourist-like, culture-deprived, wide-eyed wonder the cliché conjures up. For me, it was like another world.

I remember thinking to myself, “how could I have ignored this not-so-hidden Ottawa treasure?” I remember thinking I’d never see anything like it again. And I remember seeing it a month later on the Internet.

I was blown away.

With all the dot-coms out there, it’s not surprising the National Gallery would have one. In fact, it’s hard to describe why I was so appalled. I’m not even all that opposed to the ever-expanding reach of the Web.

I guess I just secretly hoped art wouldn’t get caught in it.

While Ottawa’s new portrait gallery won’t open its doors until 2004, you can already surf the Web site at (see story, pg. 23).

Buzz about the site’s interactive capabilities have teachers drooling over possibilities for classroom instruction. Believe me – the kids are drooling too.

But it’s only because their minds have been dulled.

We used to take them on field trips to museums, theatres and yes, art galleries. Now, we sit them in front of a computer and let them take a ‘virtual tour’ of our city’s cultural centres – places they may never otherwise have the opportunity to seriously explore. At least they won’t if we don’t take them.

We could end up with a generation that has never seen the inside of an art gallery, a nature museum or a live performance.

Why would they go? They can get the Coles Notes version in their classroom or better yet, the comfort of their home.

It’s crude. The supposed gateway to information has instead built a wall between students and culture. And with each new web site, another brick is added.

Just as a web page about Paris will never fully capture the city’s breathtaking beauty, no site will do justice to the brilliance of Monet’s Water Lilies. These are works of art that need to be viewed first-hand, not through the grainy shield of a computer screen.

Imagine your favourite picture hanging in a sleek, black frame on a stark, white wall. Soft, lingering music follows you as you walk slowly, stopping every few steps to gaze at another picture, wondering if this one isn’t your favourite.

Now imagine the picture loading onto your computer. Maybe the colour on the screen is a little off. Maybe it’s taking 10 minutes for the image to appear.

Or maybe everything works perfectly and the thumbnail reproduction staring back at you is all you need to feel cultured.

It’s not for me.

Some of you will say I’m being too harsh. You will say the new portrait gallery website is great for those who live outside Ottawa and may never get to see the real thing.

And I won’t disagree.

Remember, I’m the girl who visited the National Gallery for the first time last summer.

But, I’m also the girl who fears we may not need a portrait gallery in 2004. There won’t be the demand. We may just need a Pentium III, a computer programmer and a few portraits.

That would blow me away.