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.