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.