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.

And the winner for the worst museum in Montreal goes to...

...Exhibition Centre La Prison-des-Patriotes. I still have a dozen museums to see but I'd wager that this one will remain the worst of the bunch.

The Prison-des-Patriotes, located in the basement of the Au Pied-du-Courant building, presents an exhibition on the 1837-1838 rebellions in Lower Canada, the background to the Patriote movement and the impact of these events on political life in Québec and Canada. Fine. But I was expecting a prison and instead there was just text panels. Large blown up images and text panels. I was expecting the information to be totally biased and nationalist and thus kind of amusing but sadly it was objective and fairly uninteresting. I was expecting to be offended in a highly comical way, in fact I had promised my companion that the museum would be flamingly nationalist, but it wasn't. Which obviously is a good thing, but I suppose the point is that museum went too far in the direction of boring.

If you are going to have a museum without objects, then the ideas presented should be weighty. This is not a museum of ideas, in the sense of a human rights museum (which would include objects), it is a straight up history museum. I didn't read much of the information, or take the guided tour which probably would have been quite informative, but I did skim the entire space and it was no more interesting than reading a Quebec history textbook. They could have recounted the stories of individual patriots, talked about those other than the famous names, included objects from the period... It could have been in an actual prison! Luckily it was free, but they definitely shouldn't be charging. There is nothing there that a textbook doesn't have, except that galleries have larger font.

The building is attached to SAQ headquarters. The SAQ sponsors an artwork in the entry way of the museum based on the relevant themes of rebellion, patriots, or, wait for it, the world of wine. Corporate sponsorship gone a little too far?

19 down. 13 to go.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Château Ramezay Museum

The Château Ramezay Museum is a school tour staple in Montreal. Unlike many of Montreal's history museums, the Château Ramezay has been recently updated. By recently I mean sometime in the last decade. The museum is no longer a historic home but rather a history museum in a historic building. The exhibits tell the story of the house and its history but within the broader context of the history of Montreal. The exhibition "Hochelaga, Ville-Marie, and Montréal," presents the history of Montréal, Québec, and Canada from prehistory to the early 20th century. "Life in Montréal in the 18th Century," is presented in vaults. "Hochelaga, Ville-Marie, and Montréal," lacks focus. There shouldn't be Inuit artifacts in a display about Montreal, unless their presence is explained, and links to the greater context of Québec and Canada shouldn't detract from the principal focus: Montréal.

Each room has audiovisual terminals where visitors can listen to stories of various important historical persons. When not in use creepy silhouetted ghosts float across the screen, presumable to evoke the spirits whose history haunts the house. People learn in different ways and having different kinds of entry points into the information on display is important, but I still believe that audiovisuals are largely a waste of time and money and I rarely see anyone more engaged with one than they would be with an exhibit.

I really like it when exhibitions include a panel that names the people responsible for its execution. Doing so indicates that the museum is not an anonymous authority and in theory it provides the staff with a certain amount of accountability. The permanent collection was reworked by a large group of people included half a dozen translators and editors. Knowing this makes forgiving their errors much more difficult. It amazes me that museums can present text to their visitors that is riddled with errors, and one would think that with 6 people working on editing there wouldn’t be any labels that repeat the same paragraph twice, contain misspelled artists' names or have improper terminology. Can we get past clichés like the "here the walls speak," or "the spirit of the past haunts these rooms?"

It’s a shame because the museum presents lots of good information to the public. There are consise yet thorough historical breakdowns that provide needed context as well as unique tidbits that make one museum stand out from the rest. A portrait of Ben Franklin is displayed because a reception was held for him at the Chateau, and this artifact is used as an opportunity to talk about Canada’s relationship with the United States at that time. Maps and paintings for each time period illustrate Montreal’s changing landscape.

Let's Eat!

Let's Eat is a temporary exhibit that recounts the history of Quebecois cuisine. The quirky and enjoyable exhibit is the by-product of developments in food history. We learn that the 17th century church considered beaver to be a fish and the Quebecois sugar shack meal is a product of British kitchens. The exhibit compares our eating habits to that of our ancestors, explores the history of 10 of the provinces most popular dishes, and asks us to guess which products would not have been used centuries ago. Its a unique and very interesting entry point into our history.

18 down. 14 to go.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


My efforts at blogging over the winter were slightly lackluster. It's now July and after 8 months I'm about half-way through this project. However, since I intend on moving back to Toronto in the fall, I now have roughly a month and a half to do the remaining 16 museums. Actually the Stewart Museum is still temporarily closed so instead of 16 to go I have 15 to go. We'll see.

In part doing this project is helping to build an increasingly complete image of Montreal. Each museum adds a layer of information about this city. I've seen some really interesting exhibits, and found a few unique and exciting museums, but overall I wouldn't say that I'm particularly impressed. Although I've had contracts in my field, I haven't worked in a museum since last spring. I suppose I feel a bit out of touch and uncertain about what my future holds. That anxiety and the decision to pack up and move again in the hope of having better luck in another city may be fueling my lackluster opinions of our city's cultural institutions. Nonetheless, I believe that Montreal's museums could be telling their stories in much more intriguing ways. Financial constraints are a major factor at play, and it is obvious that the exhibits and the methodology that backs them, haven't been changed much in the last few decades. The museology and display tactics seem so so dated, which is a shame because our city has important histories and cultural stories to share.

In a sense our museums resonate issues that percolate in the socio-political landscape, both Montreal's and Quebec's more broadly. We get stuck in an ideology of protecting our minority status within Canada, of promoting a French cultural identity because no one else will do it. Fine, but at a certain point it limits this city and this province's ability to move forward. There has to be a way to embrace our unique heritage while still participating in the 21st century and accepting the diverse place that Montreal has become. This isn't necessarily revisionist history but rather a revisionist present, a more open-minded and inclusive museology.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

DHC/ART Foundation

The Power Plant gallery in Toronto likes to think of itself as the leading contemporary art gallery in Canada. Montreal's DHC/ART has a similar aim. After visiting the DHC for the first time this week, The Power Plant comes off as amateur hour in comparison. Both galleries are non-collecting contemporary art institutions. Both book major shows, do interesting curatorial work and have exhibition spaces in converted historic buildings. Yet, DHC is a privately endowed foundation, and its financial comfort is evident. Admission is free. The gallery is impressively staffed with security guards and helpful personnel. The foundation's goal is to present two exhibitions per year, as well as a program of special screenings and talks; all the while building an inclusive education and outreach program for the general public. The Power Plant also has important lectures and programs but the DHC just seems cooler and its educational offerings are much stronger than its “competitor”.

I think it’s important to have transparency and to provide visitors with the tools to interpret what they look at and the DHC’s education projects are quite impressive. Staff create a reading list for each exhibition, one in French and one in English. The list provides context for the exhibition through readings that relate to the artist or elements of their artistic practice. The list would be useful for post-secondary school trips or to enhance an individual visit. The current Jenny Holzer exhibit displays some of her text-based works that examine both the public and private realms. DHC suggests readings such as Simon Morley’s Writing on the Wall, Word and Image in Modern Art, and writings on Habermas and the public sphere. Leading visitors to sources that relate to the exhibit helps build critical thinking. Certainly not all visitors will want to take advantage of the DHC’s educational resources, but the fact that they are so thoughtfully put together and provided to the public is commendable.

While educational offerings such as the reading list expound on ideas displayed in their exhibitions, the in-gallery interpretation is solid. The brochure and text panels are smart and well written (in both French and English). The writing is smart but accessible, which isn’t always the case with contemporary art. In addition, reproductions of Holzer’s works, themselves painted reproductions of censored government emails, are available on good quality cardstock for visitors to take home and contemplate further. Looking at art, particularly contemporary art, shouldn’t be a passive experience, but for many, myself included, the act of looking is heightened when we have some context for what we are looking at. In my opinion DHC/ART helps visitors navigate contemporary art without compromising their ability to look for themselves.

16 down, 16 to go.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sir-George-Étienne-Cartier National Historic Site of Canada

Part of the idea of this project was to re-acquaint myself, or in many cases acquaint myself, with different areas of Montreal. This past weekend I visited Old Montreal and spent an afternoon visiting three different museums. The first was Sir-George-Étienne-Cartier National Historic Site of Canada. The building is only slightly out of the core of Old Montreal, but it made me realize how much of it I haven't seen.

The museum is operated by Parks Canada, and is an inexpensive place to visit.The site is comprised of exhibition spaces and the restored interior of Cartier's home. There aren't many historic homes in Montreal, and the Cartier house is the only restored Victorian interior on display to the public.

The exhibition section of the site leaves a lot to be desired. I couldn't help thinking about everything I would change. There were no introductory text panels to inform visitors about the exhibit's themes or raison d'etre. The first room simply has a sign that says "The railways, industrialization and political upheaval shpaed Montreal society in the 19th century." On display are coats, costumes, guns, and weird political figure dolls. One text panel tells about the fire department next to a graph with the rise in Montreal's population. It was all a bit disparate and nonsensical. The intention was probably to show the climate in the city when Cartier was in power, but there are other museums that do this better, in particular the Centre d'Histoire.

Moving on we come to a room with Cartier's personal and political history. Text panels are set up on the perimeter of the room. In the center is a round table with a glass dome in the center. Inside the dome are little wooden figures representing different stages of Cartier's life. Surrounding the table are all white male figures, presumably Cartier's cabinet or advisors. It was just all so bizare. 1980s museology?

I did learn things, albeit they may be things that I should have learned in high school. My mom gets tired of me saying I didn't learn much in high school, but in terms of Canadian history I think the Quebec curriculum is sorely lacking. Pretty much all I remember is about Louis Riel and the seigniorial system. I don't remember much of what I learned about Canada's formative years, so this museum offered a brief crash course in early Canadian history. It turns out that Cartier was responsible for the legislation that abolished the seignorial system in Montreal and for much of the city and country's modernization. The displays go through Cartier's life and accomplishments, but in a very didactic and not overly interesting way. At least the text is short and to the point.

The house part of the site is slightly more interesting. Each room has motion sensitive audio machines that play stories told my the house's staff. For example, the femme de menage tells us that Mr. Cartier rarely visited his wife's bedroom, and sometimes he would stay at a hotel even if he was in town. I'm not sure to what degree of accuracy the interior was designed to, and there are no text panels that go into detail about the decor. The dining room table is set up, including fake candles and fake food which was pretty gross, and kind of unecessary. What was really interesting was the list of all the foods they would consume at one meal. Between the first course, entrées, roasts, entrement, third course and sweets there must have been about 40 different dishes served. These kind of behind the scenes tidbits, the things that get left of textbooks, are part of what make a museum an interesting place to learn about the past. And the layers of information: textual, audio, and visual, add to the experience.

I think that there's potential here, but the displays are in desperate need of, well, being redone. On a scorching hot day it was a nice air-conditioned respite, but as a museum-experience it didn't thrill me. There were interesting sections but a lot missing.

15 down, 17 to go.

Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum

As I've mentioned before, destination architecture is becoming commonplace among major museums. In Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario commissioned high-profile architects to enhance their buildings' facades. The hope is that the awe-inspiring and sometimes notorious designs will help get people through the doors. The Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum in Old Montreal is located within the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. The 300 building is the antithesis of high-profile contemporary museum architecture, but it is worth being a destination.

The visit begins with a trip up the antique staircase to the top of the tower. The view at the top is impressive. In one direction we see La Ronde, the Old Port, Nun's Island, and the Jacques-Cartier bridge, in the other direction is Bonsecours market, Old Montreal, and beyond that downtown Montreal. It was nice to escape the crowded touristy street, climb up into the chapel tower and take in the view.

Unfortunately, the actual exhibits leave a lot to be desired. I learned a lot more about Marguerite Bourgeoys at Maison Gabriel, than I did at her eponymous museum. To be fair they are in the process of renovating sections of the museum, but the exhibits that were up are sorely in need of organization, direction, and beefed-up content. There are timelines that talk about Marguerite's life and journey to New France but much of the text was kind of cheesy. For example, "The most precious baggage that Marguerite brought to Canada was not to be found in her simple bundle. It was in her heart - the heritage of her city, family values..." Or, verging on the condescending: "In Marguerite's day, there weren't any cars, metros or buses in Montreal." The map of locations she frequented by foot, and the availability of a tour that follows her footsteps would have been sufficient. When exhibits are well-organized and well-displayed the text becomes more effective. When viewers have random panels and no sense of structure, problems in the text become more problematic.

The crypt is barely worth seeing. Random, undated archaeological samples mingle with artifacts from the chapel with little sense of why. The organizational theme seems to be that there was an empty space to fill. The temporary exhibit next to the crypt demonstrates a higher level of polish and exhibitionary sophistication, suggesting that with the proper resources the museum could become a much more engaging space. Ultreïa! Onward, pilgrim tells the stories of modern day pilgrims. Connecting the stories of Marguerite Bourgeoys to modern incarnations is a great way of relating information and helping visitors connect the past to the present. Profiles of pilgrims, including a biography, reason for pilgrammage, experiences on the road, and special objects from their trips, is an engaging way of displaying contemporary pilgrammage.

From there you move into the last three galleries, which are again about Marguerite. One contains dollhouse sized glass displays of her life told in miniatures. These are quite creepy but have been made over the years by the dedicated sisters of the congregation, and are a more interesting way of telling her story than a timeline. The one room with didactics that expand on Marguerite and her work was definitely a failure. Weird holographic shadow boxes reconstruct her day to day life, an example how expensive technology can often be completely unnecessary. I would have loved to know more about her work, her impact, her legacy, and her relevance. The one successful room houses Marguerite's True Likeness. The painting, made immediately after her death, was subsequently altered to match the tastes of later generations. On the assumption that the painting had been changed, a restoration process was undertaken to reveal her true likeness. The text details this process and the restored portrait is safely behind glass as the focal point of the room.

This museum has the potential to be a hidden gem in Old Montreal, but a seeming lack of curatorial and educational effort throughout much of the displays prevents it from being as engaging as it could.

14 down, 18 to go.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec

It's a weird feeling to walk into a museum and recognize several of the objects on display; not because you're familiar with the work but because the objects are the same as ones in your house. My parent's home is a carefully curated collection of antiques and family heirlooms and does at times feel a bit like a museum. Nonetheless, to walk into the the Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec and see our living room armoire is slightly bizarre.

The museum's mission is to promote Quebec's cultural heritage, including traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. The museum is located in a 19th century Neo-Gothic church, the interior of which provides a striking backdrop for displays about craft. A large portion of the museum's collection is religious objects. Displaying said objects in a secular way inside a building which would have been the former setting for their spiritual purpose is interesting. We are asked to revere these objects and to understand their purpose and we are asked to do so in a former house of worship. Yet the experience is meant to be aesthetic and educational and not spiritual. The church becomes a temple for the secular ritual of looking at objects but unlike a typical museum where the white walls highlight the art, here the interior competes for attention. What stands out are the intricately carved wooden beams and sculptures and the colourful stained glass windows that echo the work and skill of the objects explicitly on display.

One of my professors at U of T said that if you needed information about an object you should flip it over and have a good look at its bottom. The Musée shows several object's undersides with their seals or maker's marks. The Musée is a lesson in material culture. Displays teach viewers to see, to develop a visual literacy around the objects on display. Display explain how to tell the difference between the work of a master carver and a craftsman (and the value of both) or between an antique and a fake. We learn what now unfamiliar objects would have been used for, which ones are more valuable than others, what materials are used in different time periods, how objects are crafted etc. By including elements of connoisseurship in the exhibits the museum is helping visitors feel less daunted by the objects on the display and also suggests that engaging with material culture on a deeper level is attainable. I appreciate the transparency in the approach to display and in the didactics, as it suits that kind of collection.

It wouldn't be a trip to a Montreal museum without a comment on language. My mom and I were both very impressed with the English text panels in the permanent collection. Not only were they gramatically correct but they were clearly written in English rather than directly translated from French. Refreshing. The temporary exhibition, in honour of Montreal: City of Glass, had such awful English didactics that it would have been better not to include them. Suddenly the words I was reading no longer made sense. The present tense was the only tense employed which just contributed to a confusing mess of sentences. My mom figures that the text was fed into some kind of automatic online text translator, and then created into text panels by someone who has never heard of a language other than French. This is an issue of sloppy curatorial practice. I don't care how small or understaffed a museum is, if text panels are going to go up on the wall, they should be legible.

The museum is free on Wednesdays and fairly inexpensive on other days.

13 down, 19 to go.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Detour: Ottawa

The way that objects are displayed, and the information that accompanies them, can both enhance and detract from a visitor's experience. Having studied museums it can be easy to focus on display, curatorial decisions, and didactics at the expense of the objects. Yet while my museum side wants to focus on the whole, I very much enjoy those moments when an artwork grabs my attention. That moment where I spot something that makes my eyes widen can happen because I recognize the artist but haven't seen that particular work, because I've always wanted to see it in person, or because I appreciate the message the artist is conveying. Those are the nerdy reasons. Sometimes its just because I like it. Like the colours, the shapes, the composition, the subject matter... I have been known to gasp "oooh sheep!" while making a beeline for a canvas full of furry subjects. Okay that actually happens fairly often. But my recent museum experiences have mostly been historical and I've been missing that feeling of seeing something that momentarily takes my breath away. The solution? A trip to Ottawa. This past weekend a friend graciously provided me with a couch to crash on for five days of gallery hopping and general art nerdiness. While I have friends and family in Montreal whom I can convince to accompany me on various museum expeditions, none share my academic or professional interests in quite the same way as Sheena, a Montreal friend currently in Ottawa working on her PhD. So while everyone else in the city was gearing up for Grand Prix weekend and a slew of local festivals, I escaped.

On Friday we toured the largely unremarkable Ottawa Art Gallery (save for an exhibition that highlighted student artwork next to the objects from the collection that inspired them) before heading over to the Carleton University Art Gallery. The CUAG's current exhibition cycle is cause for wonderment, appreciation and exclamation. Frank Shebageget's subtle use of familiar objects in unexpected ways was strikingly beautiful. Diana Thornycroft's large scale photographs of dioramas that place figures into the Group of Seven's iconic landscapes or expose uncomfortable truths in Canadian history were witty, disturbing, intelligent, and unforgettable. Into the Hands of Women: Inuit Uluiit and Qulliit was smart and intriguing and A Leap of Imagination: The Barwick Gift reminded me that I really do enjoy David Milne.

En route to Carleton

On Sunday we saw Pop Life: Art in a Material World, the National Gallery of Canada's big summer show. The show opens with Andy Warhol's critically panned late-career move into the cult of celebrity as a catalyst and influence for subsequent artists. "Like Warhol," the curators tell us "the artists in Pop Life have found that marketing and publicity provide a means of engaging modern life on its own terms, beyond the confines of the studio, the gallery and the museum." To support their thesis the curators recreate Keith Haring's Pop Shop and Damien Hirst's record breaking 2008 auction, they illustrate how artists branded themselves to sell their art, and they displayed how artists cross the boundaries between fine art and commercial output. The show was adapted to a Canadian context and Canada loves a chronological mode of display. In this instance I think it did the curators a disservice as the show's themes became broken up by time periods, which didn't do much for the subject matter. From an academic standpoint I think the show may almost be more interesting as a book (for me the text was the most intriguing element) but it does have worthwhile moments.

Make Your Mark, a blackboard room that visitors can tag in the spirit of Pop Art

Monday I made an exhausted trip to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Their summer blockbuster The Horse offers a family friendly option for those not wanting to see Jeff Koon's pornographic photos over at the NGC. I found it unremarkable but the simple, straightforward text, hands-on elements, and mix of aesthetic and educational displays will probably be successful. I was there on a Monday and it was packed.

Now I'm home and taking a bit of a break. Although I have 20 Montreal museums still to see, and I'd like to get that done by the end of the summer. Fingers crossed.

Friday, May 28, 2010

And the winner for the longest museum name goes to...

The Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal.

The museum is in the McGill Ghetto and as I walk up Parc I see suitcases outside of one the residences. Summer is here and students are leaving. The ones who are left, along with other people not at work on a Friday afternoon, are lounging around in the sun on Mount Royal. I, on the other hand, am heading indoors to a museum about religious hospital workers. My fifteen minute walk to the museum has giving me all the sun my pale face can handle for the day, so I'm happy to be inside despite the less than thrilling subject matter. The woman at the front desk is even happier. Something tells me that she doesn't get too many visitors.

I am the only person in the museum and the docent gives me a introduction to the building and the exhibits. The atrium was built to accomodate a restored wooden staircase that was in a Hôtel-Dieu in France, where Jeanne Mance would have been before she founded the Hôtel-Dieu de Montreal. The museum tells of the origins of Montreal and the Hotel-Dieu with a look at medical practices of the time and the mission of the Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph religious order, whose nuns cared for the sick. What was once a 210-bed facility is now a hospital with 570 beds affiliated with the University of Montreal.

Montreal's history is inextricably linked to that of the Hôtel-Dieu, a reality that came about after a Frenchman named Le Royer had mystical visions to create a Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal and establish a colony to evangelize the Native peoples. Le Royer never left France and yet he is largely responsible for shaping New France. The museum commemorates the hospitallers and the Hôtel-Dieu's history. As such it doesn't question their mission in New France or the impact they had on the Native population. One text panel reads: "The Iroquois harassed Ville-Marie once again in 1661, killing 12 and capturing 20." Ugh.

The museum is a history museum heavy with text panels. As always there were some questionable English translations: "absolutism became definitive," "10:30 am the nuns gather for particular examen," but I am getting used to these and try to find them amusing rather than annoying. The information is supported by documents, portraits, maps, and religious artifacts.
A patient registry from 1759 indicates that everyone was named Jean, Francois, or Jean-Francois, so nothing much has changed. I particularly liked the recreation of a nun's cell and I'm sure if will be a great conversation starter for school kids.

Perhaps kids will also like the mannequins dressed as nuns. Life sized mannequins freak me out. What freaks me out even more is a glass casket containing a life-sized man, with bloody arms and half-dead eyes. The labels weren't numbered but I believe it was the reliquary of Saint Felix, made in Italy in 1865. Seriously creepy. But it was unexpected and actually kind of woke me up after leaving a very text-heavy gallery.

I did not expect that the Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal would be a thrilling museum. I did learn things, albeit some of the information is questionable. More importantly I'm starting to build a picture of Montreal's history that is more complex than what I learned in school. Visiting so many museums in this city adds to my conceptual scaffolding about Montreal and how it was shaped. Granted I think that many aspects of our history are left out, but I see that my museum mission is starting to have its desired outcome. So what did I learn this afternoon? I learned that hospitaller is a word. I learned that people on the boat rides over from France in the 17th century were subjected to under-nourishment (their word) and promiscuity, which any crossing to America implied.... I learned that a nun named Marie Morin, the first hospitaller born in Canada, was also Canada's first writer (she documented the nuns' lived experiences) and I am presently learning that the internet has no record of this woman. I learned that nuns in the Hôtel-Dieu lived life in the cloisters from 1671 to 1925 when Rome banned the practice, althought the visible signs of the cloisture were not removed until the 1950s. I learned that until the mid-18th century medical practice was basically powerless in curing illness. I also learned that nursing was the prerogative of religious communities until the development of medical techniques. However it was only in 1970, with the introduction of the Health Insurance Act and the implementation of universal health care that religious communities ceased to have administrative control over the care of the sick.

I appreciate this particular museum as part of my larger experience of Montreal museums and what they say about the city. I think that there is a lot of information in the permanent exhibit and the exhibition space is well laid out which quality displays. The temporary exhibit, which was only in French, repeated much of what was described in the permanent exhibit. The museum was interesting. Not my favourite, but I could definitely have spent more time reading.

12 down, 20 to go.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Montreal Museums Day

Sunday May 30th is Montreal Museums Day. From 9am to 6pm, participating museums will offer free access to their collections and exhibitions as well as family activities. Demonstrations, workshops, concerts, and guided tours are among the activities offered by participating museums. Free shuttles will be available to take participants along the designated museum routes. This year's Museums Day theme is glass, because for the duration of 2010 Montreal museums have joined forces for thematic exhibitions and programming around glass. Montreal City of Glass. Not exactly thrilling but the idea of pan-institutional programming that can create layered learning experiences is fairly exciting.

A day such as this is a great opportunity to get out and experience the diversity of cultural experiences that Montreal has to offer. Which museums will you enjoy, which ones will you dislike, and which ones will make you want to come back? I will spending the day helping out with the activities at the Redpath Museum and I look forward to hearing about people's experiences.

More information can be found at

Friday, May 14, 2010

Centre d'histoire de Montreal

According to its website the Centre d'histoire de Montréal is the city museum that "offers you the key to discovering Montreal’s multiple identities." I have to say I very much doubted that any Montreal museum, particularly one billed as the city museum, would really be able to delve into our city's multiple identities. The Centre d'histoire, which has no English translation, doesn't do the best or particularly unbiased job at exhibiting complexity, but it does make a fair attempt.

The permanent exhibit comprises five separate displays that explore different time periods in the city's history. The museum intends for visitors to feel like time travelers discovering different eras. "You'll discover the famous places of the day and meet some of the people who made history... quite unaware." Huh? The French version makes more sense, as it does throughout the museum. But as I've learned recently from a contact who works in a Montreal museum, it is generally more important for English text to be a literal translation of French text than to be a sensical read. Thus the predominant use of inappropriate exclamation points, which French writers seem to love but which would never fly in an English institution. "In short, to save the Natives from eternal damnation!," or "The Depression was no fun at all!" Oh, of course, thanks for clarifying.

I've learned not to let issues like crappy translation get in the way of my Montreal museum-going experiences, because said issues are common across the board and reflect larger cultural concerns that I can't do anything about. Despite moments of laughing out loud, checking the French text to figure out what the hell was going on, and being overheard muttering "oh French people" to myself, I did learn a lot. Many, many street names in Montreal are named after saints. Or so I thought. Turns out the Saint part was added to the name of a local dignitary. So Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal, is honoured by a street named Saint-Paul. Who knew? I was also intrigued by the story of the now defunct local brewery that made Dow beer. The company poured 500, 000 gallons of beer into the St-Lawrence river after 16-40 deaths in Quebec were attributed to an overconsumption of Dow beer. Subsequently the brewery became the Dow Planetarium in 1967. I appreciate a history museum that links the present to the past and shows how a city has evolved. I also liked the mix of official more common historical approaches with material culture studies.

As museums attempt to remain relevant in a rapidly changing social and cultural landscape, tools like computer interactives and touch screen displays become more predominant. I can't stand these things. Some museums, like the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. use touch screens to provide close up views and contextual information for objects on display, but most provide silly fairly useless interactives. I don't believe that technological tools engage people any more than a regular display. Case in point, the Centre d'histoire had plenty of terminals that said "touch screen" with nothing to actually touch or manipulate. Fail.

I was much more interested in the simpler interactive tools such as quizzes. The museum has tons of opportunities to engage audiences, primarily young audiences, and as such would be a great family destination. I liked the multiple choice questions in the permanent exhibit, although some seemed kind of stereotypical. I suppose that as I advanced in my education my understanding of certain topics became correspondingly more complex, and sometimes I forget that we have to start somewhere. I also know that exhibits that provide visitors with too much information that is incongruous with their own understandings will alienate rather than inform. The Centre d'histoire does a good job of clarifying that the information is relevant to a specific time period but I think it could do a better job of creating nuance and could question, rather than reinforce, certain cultural assumptions. In addition, some statements were just offensive. One text panel reads: “You can find everything in Montreal. Everything to help you hide your eyes from some uncomfortable truths.” This is juxtaposed with a large image of a homeless youth. Inappropriate? Je pense que oui.

Made in Montreal? is an exhibit about products that are, well, made in Montreal. One room includes accession information and curatorial research behind everyday products. I like this kind of transparency as I think its important to explain to the public how museums do what they do. I also believe that when you're going to exhibit common everyday objects behind glass, the average visitor wants to know why. The exhibit does a decent job of delving into Montreal's history through a history of local industry and commercial output.

The Centre d’histoire de Montreal is not a thrilling or wildly exciting museum. Nevertheless, taking its content with a grain of salt I learned some interesting things about my city and its history. I was also reminded that while it’s important for museums to adapt, sometimes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Updated content, in my opinion, is more important than updated display tactics. Man I wish I could rewrite the text panels in Montreal's museums...

11 down. 21 to go.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nature Museums

Before I moved to Toronto for school I spent the summer doing “Montreal” things. As any self-respecting Montrealer would, I dreaded the thought of living in Toronto. So before I left I embarked on a mission of sorts to fortify my Montrealness. One of my destinations was the Biodôme, a museum that recreates some of the ecosystems of the Americas namely the tropical forest, the Laurentian forest, the St. Lawrence Marine ecosystem, and the Arctic and Antarctic. There’s nothing particularly “Montreal” about the Biodome except that is one of our major tourist attractions. The Biodôme, Insectarium and Botanical Gardens, and Planetarium, are part of what is called the Montreal Nature Museums and are operated by the city. Having an affinity for animals I’ve been to the Biodôme several times in the last few years but it’s been a while since I’ve visited either the Insectarium or the Botanical Gardens.

I visited all three museums on a double date. Going to a museum with a group of friends is very different from going alone. You spend less time at each exhibit, skimming more and reading less. It becomes more of a social activity than an educational one, but the learning potential is still there as each person picks up tidbits and shares with the group. As the “museum person,” I find myself wanting to explain the museum, apologize for its shortcomings, point out what people missed. Going with non-museum friends reminds me that the general public doesn’t see the museum content the way we expect or hope that they will. What I find scary, and frustrating, is when people use exhibits as an opportunity to misinform their friends or family. I’ve often seen visitors position their opinions as facts, and said “facts” in opposition to those presented by the museum. Not that a museum’s authority can’t be questioned, it can and should, but it’s frustrating to watch parents use a museum’s exhibits to provide their children with unfounded information.

Since the Biodôme consists of habitats, there are no displays to change, no new exhibits. One new addition was an orange plastic caiman above the caiman habitat. A text panel reads: “Want to make a wish? Before you do, you should know that our caimans happily gobble anything thrown into their basin.” Visitors are asked to instead make a wish and throw a coin down the plastic caiman. Money goes to fund environmental projects in line with the Biodôme’s mission. It can be difficult to navigate a museum, albeit the Biodome does not feel like a museum, and most signs tell visitors what they can and cannot do without an explanation. I thought that it was refreshing to see that the museum is explaining to people why their actions are harmful and instead is offering a preferred and beneficial alternative.

All three institutions offer many didactic opportunities, but what they offer for casual visitors is simply an opportunity to look, to see specimens that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see in person. They offer us the wondrous and the fantastic although with less than ideal text panels and bad English translations.

10 down. 22 to go.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Being Irish O'Quebec or Why I don't always dislike Montreal's exhbitionary output

I have been decidedly sucky at producing entries recently. I can blame an abundance of part time jobs, but I definitely can’t complain about being employed and busy! In any event I’m finally getting around to writing an entry about the McCord Museum’s “Being Irish O’Quebec,” which I saw in the fall. Up since March of 2009 the exhibit has been extended until October 2010. The McCord has been putting up some solid exhibits in recent years and this one is far and away one of the best shows in Montreal right now.

Talking about Anglophone history in Quebec, let alone celebrating it, is a daring move. There is a great fear of elitism in Quebec, with Anglophones typically regarded as the elite. Being Irish O’Quebec delves into the hardships that Irish immigrants encountered, which is probably the best way to connect to a local francophone audience. The discussion on mutual culture shock was particularly interesting. French Quebequers and Irish immigrants shared their Catholic faith but quickly learned that they had quite different interpretations of their religion.

A timeline along the front wall shows Quebec and Ireland’s parallel and shared histories, beginning with the first Irish immigrants in the 1630s. A few confessional style chambers are set up for one or two people to sit and listen to stories about some of the first immigrants, including Guy Carlton who served as the Governor of Quebec from 1768 to 1778. The story continues until the present day with the changing nature of Montreal’s St. Patty’s Day parade and contemporary reactions to the day that "everyone in the city turns Irish for the day."

The exhibition highlights both Irish immigrants’ contributions to Quebec society as well as the compromises they made to fit in. Many settlers frenchisized their names: O’Flaherty became Flerter. Yvonne Audet (née Duckett) became a fierce defender of correct French. Audet, who cherished her heritage but championed the French language, is the model of a perfect Quebec immigrant. Their stories are the focus of an exhibition based on people. The photos and memorabilia accompanying the profiles of Irish Quebecquers helps to make them relatable.

The final text panel sums up the exhibit's underlying objects: "Why do these stories of Irish Quebec matter? They matter because they provide a glimpse into the vast – and crucial – process of creation a common culture. The Irish gradually came to belong to this place and in so doing help build Quebec’s distinct national identity. Perhaps Quebec’s Irish stories, taken as a whole, should serve as a model of how people can come together to create shared histories and diverse, tolerant communities." This exhibit is a great way to negotiate cultural tensions in Quebec, but to do so it is missing nuance. Missing are the negative attitudes in Quebec towards immigrants, the stories of those who never truly found a comfortable existence in this province, and the tensions that continue to plague our society. But there is something to be said for showcasing the positive side of immigration and revealing stories rarely told in Quebec.

If you visit, stop by the gift shop to pick up lavender shortbread and Celtic tea. Produced by the Gryphon D’or tea room in NDG (where I was briefly employed as a waitress a few years ago), these homemade treats are a must.

7 down. 25 to go.