Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

I have a love hate relationship with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I like what Stéphane Aquin is with the contemporary art collection and I think that the museum might go in a more interesting direction under Natalie Bondil than it did under her predecessor. Yet, during my undergraduate studies in Art History at McGill the MMFA was the frequent and easy target for my term papers. The museum’s collection of First Nations or what they call Amerindian art occupies a scant corner of the Canadian Art galleries. It might as well not even be there. Most of the galleries take a very boring and safe view of art history; the Canadian galleries in particular follow chapter-by-chapter the seminal but dated Painting in Canada: A History by Russell Harper. Thus in my last semester I undertook a project in which I proposed a re-hang of the MMFA’s Canadian galleries, including a list of hypothetical acquisitions. For this reason, I am intimately familiar with the Canadian collection and was incredibly disappointed with the museum’s recent show Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscapes 1860-1918.

The exhibition is academically up my alley but what distracted and upset me was the amount of paintings on display that were straight off the walls of the permanent collection, which is free to the public. Although the exhibition will be brand new for its Vancouver audience and for first time visitors, I found it to be sloppy and unacceptable curatorial practice. Putting up a major exhibition is a lot of work, but I cannot believe that the curators couldn’t have displayed works from the collection that have not been on display recently. I have decided not to renew my membership after that exhibition, but before it expired I visited the newest show: a J. W. Waterhouse retrospective.

Stylistically, the show is beautifully done. Everything is black, including the velvet room dividers and the pots of plants. Waterhouse’s paintings pop against the dramatic backdrop. The lighting could have been better, it was either too dark or too bright and not always easy to see the paintings clearly. I was impressed with the extended labels. The texts explain the history and mythology in the paintings without telling the viewer exactly how to interpret them. Waterhouse is an interesting and intelligent artist and the show is definitely worth experiencing.

Hopefully the MMFA will continue to put up quality exhibitions without cutting corners.

6 down, 26 to go.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Month One Update or Why there haven't been more entries

My project has gotten off to a slower start than I had hoped. A nagging case of bronchitis has put me many weeks behind and I'm still not completely recovered. I managed to visit 5 institutions and I had positive experiences at all of them. It's been quite refreshing to approach a museum looking for the positives, or expecting it to be good, which is maybe what the average visitor expects. I remain cynical and critical and I still pay close attention to detail but I know that when you expect negative you will usually get negative.

While I am accomplishing my goal of finding great aspects of Montreal's cultural scene, I don't feel any more connected to this city or to its arts. I struggle with my identity as a linguistic minority in a province where language is all that counts and while I understand the importance of protecting and promoting Quebec/French culture I am bored with the mentality that French is all there is to this place. We are about to have mayoral elections and one of the candidates refuses to speak English because Montreal is a French city. The reality is that Montreal is anything but monocultural and unilingual. Its time for our cultural institutions to recognize that Montreal's importance is not in its being in a French province in an English country but rather that we are uniquely situated within this province. That said, I still have many more museums to visit.

This week I found out that I will be getting full-time hours at my retail job as of November. So my unemployment project will have to be modified as my employment status is altered. While I obviously don't intend to sling socks as a career the financial benefits of working full-time are too good to turn down, especially considering that when I do find a job the pay probably won't be that great! Over the next few months I intend to keep visiting museums and recording those exploits here, but my project won't be completed by December. If I stay on in Montreal I will likely keep going until I've visited all of them, but for now I have to abandon the goal of visiting every museum in Montreal in three months in favour of paying down those student loans.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Redpath Museum

Musk ox at the Redpath Museum

Opened in 1882, McGill University’s Redpath Museum is one of Canada’s oldest museums with exhibits showcasing a large variety of biological and geological specimens as well as cultural artifacts from around the world. In my four years at McGill I think the only time that I stepped in the Redpath was when I got lost trying to find the library. However, I do remember coming here as a kid. The bulk of the displays are collections, which highlight better than words can the breadth and depth of our natural world. There is a simple wonder in seeing all of these specimens, particularly in a social climate where we are urgently called to protect a natural world we have increasingly destroyed.

For university students the collection and the research that goes into it are evident, but the wonder of the old-school approach is great for igniting passion in young visitors. On the day of my visit the only other people in the Redpath were a few families. Let me say off the bat that I absolutely think parents should bring their children to museums. Museums can be places of wonder, especially for children seeing objects for the first time. In addition I’m a strong believer in informal education and how it can complement or add to what children learn in classrooms. That said, the upper level displays overlook the atrium, creating what can be interpreted as a racetrack. Two parents were looking at displays with half of their kids, while the other two chased each other around the exhibit. It took a staff member, whose office is in a room off the second floor gallery, to come out and call up to the boys to calm down and stop running before their parents did anything. The mom brought her boy downstairs and made him apologize, but that put him in a foul mood. Noise travels easily in this 19th-century building and reading text panels was soon overshadowed by whining, hitting, crying, screaming. It was difficult to concentrate but I guess I have to admire the mom's determination to expose her children to the museum.

Despite interruptions I really enjoyed my visit, both as a learner and a museologist. The Redpath is a teaching institution, and it does some interesting things with its collection. The museum puts itself and its practice on exhibit. A display entitled “A Curator’s Conundrum” explores the process of identifying objects, a kind of transparency that isn't often on display. Also interesting were the nineteenth-century display cases that highlight how curatorial practice has changed over time. Changes include terminology, as what was once the “Ethnology Collection” is now referred to as “World Cultures.” The Redpath might feel the same as I remember from childhood visits, but its not stuck in the past, thus it becomes contemporary while remaining familiar.

I think the Redpath is a good example of a curatorially-driven institution that communicates well with its visitors. The text panels are detail laden and scientific, but understandable. Some of the attempts at communicating with the visitor fall short, such as the text panels that end in specific questions but have no answers. Yet, for the most part the modernist top-down approach to knowledge sharing works because the information and the research behind it are clearly laid out. The Redpath tells us what we should know, but it also tells us why we should know it, which is all I’ve ever wanted from any educational institution.

The Redpath doesn't have a rotation of temporary exhibits or flashy interactives. It has objects, lots of them, and plenty of information about them. It is definitely worth a trip, and a return visit.

5 down, 27 to go.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Montreal Planetarium

Although I enjoy visiting museums by myself, the benefit of this project is that it arouses curiosity. Knowing what’s out there has encouraged people to join me on my journey. My friend Vanessa was eager to rediscover the Planetarium and as we are both also working on our French we decided to see the French version of the show “Telescope to the Stars.” I’ll admit that I wasn’t as engaged as I could have been. I was sick and things had been going wrong all morning. Because my attention span was diminished, I definitely felt more like an average visitor than a museologist. The problem there is that the average viewer might not try as hard to make an exhibit work for them and there wasn’t a whole lot at the Planetarium to reach out and grab my wandering attention.

The Planetarium is part of the Montreal Nature Museums, which includes the Biodome, the Botanical Gardens, and the Insectarium. The museum has a domed theater with timed shows and a permanent exhibition about the Planetarium and astronomy throughout the decades. The permanent exhibit is mostly didactic. This isn’t how I like my science. I don’t have a natural aptitude for, or inclination towards, sciency things. Ultimately I don’t want to read about why science works I want to see why science works. There are a few interactives, including two silver balls that you lift to demonstrate planets’ different weights, but overall the exhibit is text panel based. Complementing the text is the oddest collection I have ever seen in a science museum: champagne bottle, walking stick, Expo ’67 memorabilia. The exhibits could have done without the clutter. Vanessa and I did enjoy the vintage Planetarium posters, but I found it very strange that the Planetarium is a museum unto itself.

That said, the museum’s real appeal is Star Theatre’s giant hemisphere dome. The movie has an announcer who explains how the theater works and gives us an abstract of the show. We are going to learn about how Galileo is not the be all and end all of astronomical discoveries and about the discoveries of three Quebecers. Bizarre non? The first part appeals to me. I’m much more interested in the history of science and what scientists have done wrong than anything else. The second part made me laugh, as there are obviously other people who are important to astronomy besides Galileo and three Quebecers, but I do have to admire our province’s ability to promote itself at every possible opportunity. The show did touch on many other people and their contributions, but the real draw was seeing astronomy in action, so to speak, and to feel as though we were traveling to the stars.

I think that the Planetarium is a great destination for class trips. While we did learn things, and making astronomy simple is helpful in some instances, there isn’t much beyond the basics. In my opinion, the Planetarium has done a decent job with what it has, but I hope that with plans to create a new museum will come a new interpretive approach, one that moves the Planetarium away from a didactic exhibition space in favour of visitor participation and exploration.

4 down, 28 to go.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Side Note

My friend Meghan, who is in fact another person and not a creepy third-person reference, has suggested that the whole French/English thing might be confusing for non-Montreal readers. This is a valid point. Let me explore it in a roundabout sort of way.

I recently interviewed for a job in Quebec City at an institution that aims to promote English-speaking culture in Quebec. I had the impression during the interview that they thought I was some kind of radical Anglophone out of touch with the realities of life in Quebec City, which is apparently quite different from Montreal. In Old Quebec, or tourist Quebec, French people are accommodating and address you in English when they hear your accent. There is a recognition of tourism’s importance. Yet, in the rest of the city Anglophones are a non-entity and apparently are not on people’s radar. In Montreal, Anglophones and English culture have a much greater presence, presumably causing more of a threat to the sanctity of French culture and thus there exists a much stronger anti-English sentiment, tourism be damned. This is my impression, and while I don't think I'm radical I am biased towards a different understanding of Quebec. Because, much to the chagrin of any French Quebecer who finds this out, Quebec is not solely French.

People often don’t realize that while we are a minority, there are Anglophones in Quebec. When I moved to Toronto and people found out where I was from many commented on the quality of my English. But we exist. There are 10 English school boards, English universities, and traditionally, although shrinking, English enclaves. My father, born and raised here, knows only one sentence in French. Being Anglophone in Quebec does at times feel like a political act, and at the very least it is complicated. Without getting too much into the societal and political realities, immigrants to Quebec are expected to conform. There is an intense xenophobia in Quebec. In the interest of preserving a pure and marginalized French culture, Quebecers in turn marginalize and discount minorities within their province. Anglophones throw this for a loop because our language represents the greatest refusal of conformity. While we have chosen to remain here and navigate the cultural codes we will never be Quebecois. We aren't allowed to be.

While I was in Quebec City I had four and a half hours before my interview and I headed to the Musée de la civilization. I was excited to see the space after listening to staffer Francois Tremblay’s talks on the conference circuit last winter. I spent my whole visit in “Le temps des Quebecois,” to learn what Quebec thinks people should know about its history. There was an interesting video testimonial that didn’t fit into the rest of the exhibition in which people of all ethnicities said things like: “I have always refused assimilation,” “I am Quebecois but I come from elsewhere,” or “Do I still fit into your history?” This was really the only critical lens on current societal perceptions and as such it was in no way integrated into the exhibit.

Interestingly, the British and their conquest of Quebec and subsequent attempts at Anglicization weren’t spun in an anti-British way. But those distinctions between British or English, immigrants (non-French or English) and Francophones (those who actually belong in Quebec) was there throughout the exhibition. We are set up as separate entities; the French have some kind of manifest destiny here while Anglos created St. Patrick’s Day parades. This narrative is boring to me, but obviously I am biased. While I think museums should have points of view, I don’t think they should have agendas. To read labels that say things like “x was the pride of all Quebecers,” when Quebecers is meant in reference only to Francophones is unnecessary and insulting, never mind that sweeping statements are bad academic practice.

My hope was that I could work on a new dialogue at the cultural institution I was interviewing at. I think that focusing on a shared culture, a shared history, and a shared struggle is much more interesting than pitting one against the other, but that might just be my bias talking. On a side note to my side note, I will never know what kind of dialogue I could have created. I was offered the job, but after extensive consultations with people in the field to confirm my foreboding gut instinct about the institution and the job, I felt it necessary to decline the offer. This was not an easy decision to make, but I am hopeful that something else will come along.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Écomusée du fier monde

The Écomusée is in an area of town called the Centre-Sud. The last time I was there was to get my nose pierced in some sketchy tattoo shop as a pseudo-rebellious fourteen year-old. I’ve never had any desire to go back yet, go back I did. I went with my friend Stacey who’s much more comfortable navigating the sketchier areas of town than I am. The museum is on a nice street across from a market and near Sherbrooke, but it’s also above Ontario Street, which I hesitated to walk along even in the middle of the day.

Regardless, the museum itself is a great find. The building used to house a community pool, of which the tiled sides remain on the ground floor of the exhibition space. The young man at the front desk walked us into the gallery and told us all about the community, its history, and the museum. We asked him questions in English and French and he listened and responded in French, the perfect Québécois conversation. The permanent exhibit is only in French but we were giving a flyer with English translations of the main text panels. The text was full of errors and I asked the attendant if they had a lot of English visitors. He said they have a fair number and I told him that the text wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great. He gave me a highlighter and asked me to fix it. The nerd in me rejoiced; Stacey was mortified.

The permanent exhibit is a brief but important look at the community’s struggles and their efforts to adapt and survive. I really liked the testimonials and documentary photographs of the area’s residents. The Centre-Sud serves as a synecdoche for Montreal’s industrial past and I learned about a history that I didn’t get in school. Granted one of the only things I remember from Quebec history class is how French farming is different from English farming.

The temporary exhibition was done in partnership with the Textile Museum in St-Lambert. On display are garments by important Quebec designers. The Écomusée does an interesting tie-in to the local community by talking about the Centre-Sud’s industrial history and its role in Montreal’s garment industry. The exhibit did not touch on contemporary designers, but perhaps the show at the Textile Museum does.

The Écomusée isn’t perfect, but I think that its imperfections make it work. The museum is about an industrial working-class community and it shouldn’t look fancy. It should be exactly what it is: unique, honest, and passionate.

3 down, 29 to go.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Musée d’art contemporain or It is in fact possible to change my mind

The Montreal Museums guide describes the Musée d’art contemporain as the biggest museum of contemporary art of Canada, but I’ve never found it to be particularly exciting. It always seems like the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on Quebec, and obviously we’ve got a great artistic heritage and comtemporary output to be proud of, but it’s not the Musée d’art contemporain Québécois. I’ve discovered great artists and artworks at the MAC, but it hasn’t felt like a strong contender on the international museum scene. This visit changed my mind.

The first thing I saw as I walked through the lobby was Marina Abramovic’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton. Impressive. Upstairs there were five shows, three of which are now closed. The MAC is free Wednesday evenings but I went on Monday to catch the last day of the stunning Robert Polidori show. According to the curator, Polidori is “nourished by an unquenchable creativity.” Profoundly cheesy. The opening didactic panel also included a sentence with “conflictual” and I’m fairly sure a real word would have a worked just as well. The text panel and the jumbled confusing labels didn’t work in the MAC’s favour but Polidori’s photographs can’t be overshadowed. From the detail shots of restoration work at Versailles, to the aftermath at Chernobyl, the photos were stunning. What struck me most was how, in almost every shot of natural disaster and destruction, there was a glimpse of greenery growing and surviving. He’s definitely an artist on my radar.

Also closed is Spring Hurlbut’s beautifully creepy room of metal crib frames arranged in a grid under dim lighting, and Christine Davis’ complex and layered installations. Betty Goodwin’s show is up until October so you can still discover how she “invokes the labyrinth of the subconscious.” I find her art much more interesting as an oeuvre than as individual works, so I think a retrospective is a great showcase of her approach. I was particularly drawn to her later sculptural pieces. Around the corner is “La Collection: quelques installations,” which doesn’t really make sense as a curatorial project but the works on their own are intriguing.

One last note, the Musée has a lovely little sculpture garden off the back gallery. I love it when I see a work for the first time but I can still recognize it. One of only three sculptures in the garden is by Henry Moore, a favourite of mine, and I’ve never seen a sculpture of his in that style. The real standout was the garden itself, a colourful, wild English garden that was the perfect place to sit and re-energize before finishing the galleries. This is the MAC like I’ve never seen it.

2 down, 30 to go. Next up Ecomusée du fier monde.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maison Saint-Gabriel

First up was a trip to Maison Saint-Gabriel, a museum and historic site in Pointe-Saint-Charles. I’ve been to the Point maybe twice, both times at night, and was definitely happy to leave. Yet on the 1.5km walk from Charlevoix metro to the museum my mom and I were impressed by the quiet neighbourhood feel, the wide boulevards, the English street names, and the beautiful parks. And then we arrived at Maison Saint-Gabriel and walked straight into the 17th century. The woman at the ticket booth was very welcoming and switched to an excited English when my U of T student card (which I will try and use as long as possible) suggested to her that we had come all the way from Toronto.

Our visit coincided with harvest festivities and in addition to a woman making and selling green ketchup there were three costumed interpreters demonstrating period crafts and skills. I am not usually a fan of costumed interpreters or attempts to recreate history, but these people were interesting and informative rather than cheesy. After trying the delicious green ketchup our first stop was in the gift shop, which is strategically placed at the entrance to the temporary exhibition. “Silver Magic” displays the museum’s silver collection and discusses the evolution of silversmithing from its earliest days in New France until its contemporary incarnations. It wasn’t thrilling, but it was interesting.

While waiting for our scheduled tour, Mom and I walked around the garden. Who knew that there were so many kinds of thyme? One section had large didactic panels that explained the different varieties of plants found in the garden. The panels, which were created with well-spent corporate sponsorship dollars, provided just the right amount of information.

Our French tour guide did her best to speak to us in English and during her hour-long tour I learned more than that I have at other historic homes. She took us through the rooms of the 1698 building, which was the first school in Montreal. It was also where the filles du Roi or the King’s Wards made the transition to life in New France before being married off. In the dormitory we learned that people slept sitting up due to a superstition about lying down like the dead. In the attic our guide demonstrated how the giant foghorn was used to call over to Nun’s Island. Other points of interest: the ingenious kitchen sink, Marguerite Bourgeoys’ portrait, and some curious stories about dining room chairs.

The stunning architecture with well-restored interiors provided the atmosphere of the 17th century and our tour guide filled in the details. This place was charming and with so much programming happening there I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. Next time I would take a picnic and enjoy an afternoon in one of the Point’s parks as well.

1 down, 31 to go.
Next up the Musee d'art contemporain

Meghan's Montreal Museum Mission

In June I received my Master's in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. In other words I graduated in the arts, in a recession. While my résumé includes work experiences at institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Smithsonian, recent job applications have failed to get me an interview, let alone a job. After many months of anxiety, self-doubt, and second thoughts about getting my Masters I have made a conscious decision to change my mindset. Rather than freaking about unemployment, I’m embracing it. In addition to a variety of part-time jobs and a French class at the University of Montreal, I have, in typical nerdy fashion, given myself a project. But this time the assignments are on my own time and I’m not being graded. Ah freedom.

So this is it: visit and write about 32 of Montreal’s museums and heritage sites in three months. Although there are other museums and certainly an abundance of galleries, I’ve chosen the ones listed in the Montreal Museums Magazine that are open to the public. I have a natural tendency to be fairly critical of museums but my degree has taught me about the enormous constraints under which museums operate. I’d like to use this project as a way to find the impressive and positive aspects of our local cultural institutions and to reconnect to my city while I’m at it. Hopefully my experiences can help bring to light some of this city’s little known gems.

Visiting so many cultural sites isn’t cheap and the student loans aren’t paying themselves off. Many places offer a few free hours a week but my primary ally will be the Accès Montréal card. The card costs 7$ and offers, among other things, 20-40% off many of the city’s museums.

Here’s to the things one can do while unemployed!

Accès Montréal:,13287567&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

Montreal Museums: