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.