Foundation of the NAC Maquette Collection

by Rae Ackerman

Read how and why the NAC began preserving set maquettes up until the 1980s. 
Rae Ackerman is Director of Vancouver Civic Theatres and was Production Manager of National Arts Centre English Theatre when the archives were being developed. His writings reflect the excitement of production at the NAC in its early days.

Why did we start preserving maquettes?

I recall talking to Andis Celms around 1972 when he was Production Director of the NAC Theatre Department. We talked about a visit he’s had with an old acquaintance, Heather McCallum (former head of the Theatre Department at the Toronto Reference Library) and her saying how much she wished “we” could preserve records of the NAC’s productions. Nothing much happened right away but the thought slowly caught hold and we started looking a little bit differently at what we were doing archivally.

Some of the things that were being kept or created include:

  • Photographing sets, costumes and production stills before opening night so the NAC public relations department would have to offer the media.
  • Hanging on to prompt books from stage managers who were always loathe to discard them at the end of a show.
  • Amassing donations from designers of their production works.

But keeping maquettes of set designs?

Usually they were pretty much destroyed by opening night from sitting around in the scenery shop, being picked apart to get measurements and spattered with paint from the paint shop. Sometimes the designer would take his battered maquette home or sometimes it would end up in a garbage can. Nobody was really happy with that sate of affairs. Maquettes almost always started out as scale-model jewels.

Some designers, like Brian Jackson, were so good at making maquettes that I once photographed several of them and projected them larger than life-size on a screen on stage as settings for a musical. Afterward people often asked how I had ever managed to get that particular angle in a living room or jail cell, etc. They were surprised to learn they were not real locations.

Preservation of set maquettes probably began with the scenic carpenter, Willy Pomerleau. He started making boxes with folding lids to contain and protect them. At the end of the show, the maquette would now be in much better shape and we could close the lid and give it back to the designer, who legally owned it. Everyone was pleased with this small innovation. What happened next was that the designers, who usually did not have large studios or basements, began asking if we could keep their maquettes for them, and we did, in a small room that was the third story above the scenery shop lunch room.

By the time Tony Ibbotson came on the scene with a responsibility for archiving, we already had a small collection assembled. I n time, that little third floor room was filled and a bigger room was built at the NAC Warehouse .

By about 1980 we were keeping the maquettes, preserving technical drawings, props sketches, prompt books, photographing costumes and sometimes even videotaping portions of shows.

Why did we do this?

As Michael Eagan said elsewhere in, a live theatre production is so ephemeral. When the show is over, it all goes away and only a memory is left. At the NAC, and of course everywhere else , a great deal of talent and effort, blood, sweat and tear s, sometimes dram a — on stage and off — g ot poured into many beautiful and remarkable looking shows. We all wanted to keep some of that creativity alive for posterity. Behind it all was the idea that there might one day be a national theatre collection somewhere and when that day came the NAC would be part of it with its own collection at, or as near as possible to, museum standard.

This was the first time to my knowledge, outside of Heather McCallum’s efforts, that an institution conscientiously invested in preserving its history in such a complete and professional way. (Maybe the Stratford Festival was already doing it…) but at the NAC Tony Ibbotson made it his mission and a labour of love to preserve, record, research, document and collect what he could leading back to the earliest years. He often called on me and others to try to identify something he had found. He was genuinely thrilled when he got a name and a date.

The corporation gave the effort full support for a number of years. It was accepted as a responsibility of the National Arts Centre to create and maintain the record. At least until the cut backs in the mid 1980’s.

Learn More About…

Discovering and Developing the NAC Maquette Collection, by NAC Archivist Gerry Grace

Other Articles by this Author:

Creating Sets from Maquettes
Who Uses the Maquette