Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sisters of Sainte-Anne Historic Centre

You have to ring the doorbell to be allowed access to The Sisters of Sainte-Anne Historic Centre. Inside we are greeted by two women who are desperate for a visitor to share their story with.
The Sisters of Sainte-Anne Historic Centre, even more so than the Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, explores religious patrimony from a subjective position. The space is a memorial to Marie-Anne Blondin and the Sisters of Saint Anne. Yet because the Sisters of Saint-Anne are actively involved in the museum's programming and exhibitions the Centre is a religious museum, rather than a museum about religion. This is a museum driven by content instead of museology. The passion is there but the execution is lacking. The material is unclear, there are doors hanging from the ceiling, and the narrative is awkward. I'm almost getting bored of pointing out translation issues. Hat weared by... Dress wear by the sisters... Montreal, I will look over your translations for free! Seriously. It will be a heck of a lot more professional, even if you do only get a few visitors a day, and even if they're rarely anglophone.

This is what the museum blurb promises: "The Sisters of Sainte-Anne Historic Centre offers you access to the unique world of a convent dating from the 19th century. Its great hall will let you walk in the footsteps of the Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin, who devoted her life to education. Our exhibition will allow you to discover various aspects of the daily life and history of the Sisters of Saint Anne." Where to start. First, the convent is certainly not a unique world. If we were talking about a mosque in 19th century Montreal, then yes, that would be unique. Second, learning about daily life could be interesting, but this museum makes it as boring as possible. The facts and figures aren't particularly attention grabbing. It would certainly be eye opening for students in todays largely secular Montreal. Educators could have great discussions about devotion (devoted to God versus devoted to our ipods?) or nuns' isolation from society versus our own connected to technology but disconnected from each other kind of isolation. I'm reaching a bit, but there's a lot there. It just requires a bit more objectivity and room for criticism than a museum that promotes religious life can maybe allow for. The museum is boring, but I don't think it has to be.

Every museum has at least one redeeming quality. In this case it was a little temporary exhibit about the congregation's active history of arts instruction. One sister went on to receive a diploma from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in a time where women didn't typically do so. The diploma itself assumes that a man will be the recipient and the M for Monsieur is crossed out to accomodate the sister's name. That is a story that doesn't get told as often as the straightforward history of the congregation. The art that the sisters produced is largely comprised of copies or weird religious abstracts, but there is passion and dedication behind this exhibit. Unfortunately, passion and dedication aren't enough to make this museum as interesting and successful as it could be.

25 down. 7 to go.

The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site of Canada

The Fur Trade museum is an important school trip destination. Whether or not it will have anything to offer me and my mum, who continues to let me drag her to random museums, is another question. Walking up to the entrance we stop to read the didactics along the canal. There are a few dedicated to Frances Anne Hopkins, a 19th century artist who painted day to day life during her travels along the fur trade routes. Hopkins certainly isn't a household name and my mum had never heard of her. Hopkins' paintings aren't the standard macho images of conquest, or gentle natives about to lose their traditional way of life to the power of European industry, which are usually associated with that time period. We seem to be off to a good start.

And then we get inside. Like the George Etienne Cartier house, the Fur Trade museum is a national historic site operated by Parks Canada. The weird muppet-like dolls and questionable didactics used at GEC are also in evidence at the Fur Trade museum. Stuffed animals wearing ceintures fléchées? Like sized Inuit man who looks like he was crafted from stuffed hosiery? Seriously? Museum fail. Maybe kids find it cute, maybe I shouldn't dislike it so much. Maybe I shouldn't have high expectations.

In fairness, the display do a good job of conveying the facts. Diagrams show trade equivalences (One beaver plus one baby beaver for one blanket. Wait, a baby beaver? or is it one large beaver plus one smaller beaver? Hmmm, maybe not so clear) and export values at various times. One smart inclusion was the breakdown of the requirements to be a voyageur. A scale and a height chart allow visitors to see whether they fit the bill. I imagine that seeing the 5'7" 140 pounds restrictions creates interesting conversations for students.

There isn't much of substance here. One text panel outlines some of the pros and cons and concludes by saying "You decide about the benefit of the meeting of two civilizations." Good, I don't want the museum to tell me what to think, however, they could have filled in the blanks to a greater extent. They don't because this is about adventure, not consequences. The museum advertises that visitors will: "Discover one of the most important periods in the history of Canada: the fur trade. Live the adventure of the Amerindian trappers, the French Canadian voyageurs and the European merchants of the fur trade era." I think they could have done a much better job of immersing people in the fur trade adventure. For example, we could read profiles or biographies of some of the real players rather than learning about general character types. Creating exhibits isn't an easy job, but I think that a greater attention to detail, and more exacting standards, could make a huge difference here.

The most substantial part of the exhibition space are the didactic panels crammed in at the back of the room. The poster sized panels are a temporary exhibit using information from the National Archives. My mum spends considerably more time here than in the rest of the room. Most of Montreal's historical museums provide information at primarily grade school level. Its a reiteration, with visual enhancements, of what kids learn in school. Mum remembers what she learned in school and thus basic displays are of little interest to her, but she's a good sport.

24 down. 8 to go.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Canadian Centre for Architecture

The Canadian Centre for Architecture is one of the best museums in Montreal. It is the best because it is not the most popular. CCA consistently puts forth exhibitions that are unabashedly intelligent and thus are rarely blockbusters. This is a museum that uses words like contrapuntal distribution. This is a museum for adults. A museum that challenges visitors to explore new worlds and new ideas without the constraints of having to appeal to the general public. There are no language debates, no identity politics, and no Quebecois propaganda.

My favourite museum in Toronto is the Textile Museum. There's always something interesting to see at the ROM and the AGO has done wonderful things since re-opening, but the Textile Museum is smaller, less mainstream and more refined. All reasons why I love the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The current exhibit Space Odysseys is not CCA's best, but certainly worthy. Part of the thesis is that space tourism forces us to reconsider our relationship to our planet. The idea is that odysseys, virtual or real, ultimately return to tell us about our world. This is not a connection that I would have made, but that's what CCA does best. Presenting the work of people who push the boundaries, who ask us to reconsider what we think and how we view our world.

Most museums have signs to indicate that one shouldn't touch objects or take pictures with flash. It is taken for granted that people will accept the instructions and comply. CCA explains why we should not touch the objects on display. I assume that most people who visit CCA aren't the people who are going to think they can handle museum objects, but the signs show a respect for the visitor and a commitment to education that other Montreal museums would do well to learn from.

23 down. 9 to go.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre

Visiting the Holocaust Memorial Centre reminded me a story my Intro to European History professor told us right before his lecture on World War II. He told us that he used to assume that everyone knew the basics about the war, and certainly the end result, and as such he had been in the habit of skimming the topic. That is until one student wrote on the final exam that the Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union to depose Hitler and end the war. The student could well have been from a country where European history is not common knowledge, or could have been drunk from a kegger the previous night. My prof's assumption was that WWII and the Holocaust are no longer topics that all his students will know about, or understand. Elie Wiesel's quote over the entrance to the Memorial's exhibit reads: "Not to transmit an experience is to betray it." The museum does a very solid job of explaining and commemorating the Holocaust.

The first text panel provides visitors with a concise definition of the Holocaust. The facts and the emotional context are there, but only for the Jewish experience. The text speaks of the Jews' "often hopeless attempts to resist while their neighbors watched and the world stood by." I am worried that the museum will ignore the Holocaust's many other victims, but thankfully other peoples whom the Nazis considered undesirable are indeed mentioned throughout the exhibit.

The museum does an excellent job in providing visitors with context and background information. The first section deals with Jewish life before the Holocaust including Judaism and the Jewish experience in different countries, and rituals, religion, and customs. The displays establish what will be the Jews saving grace during the Nazi regime: the ability to build autonomous communities in the face of their outsider status. The context for the Holocaust begins with a detailed look at World War I and the building racial tensions and anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany. "In the end, however, the treaty that ended this war would prove to be a first step toward the next."

The exhibit does more than provide the straightforward textbook facts and I learned several interesting things that I didn't in school. Despite antisemitism, between 1901 and 1933, eleven Nobel Peace Prize winners were Jewish. Information such as this is part of a larger project of fighting stereotypes and highlighting Jewish contributions. In addition, I had no idea that China was a haven for Jews. I knew that despite wanting them to leave the Germans made it extremely difficult for them to do so. What I didn't know was that Shanghai didn't require a visa.

The exhibit makes no bones about who helped and who didn't. Canada's inaction is brought up repeatedly as is Canadian antisemitism in public signs that read "No Dogs or Jews Allowed." As I've probably mentioned I think my high school Canadian history course was woefully lacking in both breadth and scope. I've applied for many jobs recently that have a Canadian history focus. As with the books that I've been reading to re-learn Canadian history, the Holocaust Memorial works because it presents an exhaustive history, tells us stories that conventional histories miss, and forces us to be critical about things that hit close to home.

Part of the importance of a Holocaust memorial is that seeing is believing. We know that the Holocaust happened, but seeing the objects helps visualize how and what happened. In Aushwitz it was a large glass display case full of human hair that did it for me. A display with a family board game provided my "ah ha" moment in Montreal. The game, where one scores points by chasing the Jews out of Germany, shows the extent of propaganda and indoctrination. However, a big part of a Holocaust memorial or a museum of conscience is its powerful emotional message. The Montreal memorial has the context and some powerful displays, but I didn't experience any of the heart-string tugging never again type of moments that other similar sites induce.

22 down. 10 to go.

Biosphere Environment Museum

I've wanted to visit the Biosphere for a while. As a symbol of Expo 67 its a uniquely Montreal structure on Ile St. Helene. I went with my friend and her fiancé, figuring that I like museums and he likes science so perhaps it would be a good bonding activity. Unfortunately, after convincing them to join me, the experience was largely a letdown. I say that because the museum is geared only towards families. With the exception of a very interesting movie about the building's architect Buckminster Fuller there is little for an adult crowd, something I wish I knew before I went.

They claim to have exhibits and activities for everyone, which I think is a bit of a stretch. The exhibits are made for children in that they are created around games and age-appropriate learning activities. For example, you ride a bicycle to learn about how energy can be generated. The exhibits are designed from a child-friendly standpoint, so much so that we initially thought one of the rooms was a daycare rather than an exhibit. There is a lot for kids to see and do, and the space is great for a fun family outing. However, it was certainly frustrating to arrive with friends, and pay the entrance fee, only to find that there's little adult appropriate content. While a close reading of the exhibit information on the museum's website insinuates the family-focus, it should be better advertised.

While it's wonderful to have solid family offerings, I'm starting to notice a gap in Montreal's museums. There are a ton of staid historical museums and family friendly exhibition centres, but little in the way of current, engaging, adult programming. Places that cater to families, school trips and tourists are important but to truly have a relevant cultural scene, shouldn't Montreal have more institutions to engage and challenge intelligent adults? We need more places such as DHC/ART please.

21 down. 11 to go.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Last Week

Well, the one-way train ticket to Toronto is booked. I leave on Wednesday with no apartment or job lined up, but I’m confident in my decision and hopeful that things will quickly fall into place. Besides packing and seeing friends and having little panic attacks, I have a lot of museums to visit in my final week in Montreal. At this point I have to acquiesce to the fact that I won’t complete my mission. I need to spend some of this week just doing nothing, decompressing a bit. However, I will have almost seen all that Montreal has to offer.

I’ve visited many random museums over this last year, some of which surprised me, and some I could have lived without. In my last week I will be making time for the ones I really want to see, and the ones that don’t require me to travel to the edge of the island. My parents will be joining me on several little adventures this week, which makes me happy. I can definitely be an annoying person to visit a museum with. Granted I can be an excellent tour guide, but I also have a hard time not being critical or cynical. That hasn’t changed despite my efforts, although I always try to be fair in my judgments. My sister says that I ruin the experience for her by pointing out the faults, and that’s fair enough. My mom continues to let me drag her to places, and even my dad is getting in on the action this week. Hopefully I’ll introduce them to some interesting new things.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

Everyone who knows me well knows that I can't stand this museum. I recognize that I was disappointed when the Prison museum was objective, but I do generally expect that exhibitions will reflect scholarship and not personal agendas. PaC has always struggled to be objective, their text is usually frustratingly laughable, and their permanent collection is so outdated. I didn't have high hopes for their current offering about Easter Island.

And I was pleasantly surprised. Negatives first. The temporary exhibit space is one of the most poorly designed galleries I've ever visited. The space has narrow passageways with text on one side and objects on the other. It requires one to either do two circles around the space or constantly zig back and forth. There were a few textual errors but by and large it was the best temporary exhibition I've ever seen at PaC. The exhibit designer did a wonderful job with the graphics and imagery that gave wonderful reference points for understanding scale and time periods. There were a lot of interesting facts and details. Who knew that there are no large shells on Easter Island. Don't know if I needed to know that, but it was interesting.

The permanent collection has text on neon coloured lightboxes. Its so painful I could barely look at them. I suppose I've seen it so many times that its no longer particularly interesting. I think its a good school/tourist destination. Why not walk through Montreal's old sewers that have pigeons projected on the side? My favourite part of the museum is their audiovisual terminals, which goes against everything I believe in. However, its my favourite because they are so friggin awful you can't help but laugh. Actors portray different people from early Montreal. A touch screen allows you to ask the characters questions, sort of like those Choose Your Own Adventure books. I suppose they provide an interesting entry point into life in early Montreal, but I usually just end of laughing hysterically at the crappy acting and odd choice of questions. They have to be seen to be believed.

20 down. 12 to go.