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.