Continuity and Contrast in Montreal’s Museums

As the various national museums in Ottawa (Civilization, Nature, Science and Technology, War, Agriculture, Aviation) are concerned with conveying a particular brand of identity, that is Canadian-ness, the smaller museums in the city of Montreal are concerned with conveying the history and identity that is unique to Montreal-ers. Both the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke Street West) and Pointe-a-Calliere archeology museum attempt to conveying the stories of Montreal inhabitants, past and present.

Ninety years old this year, the temporary exhibition 90 Treasures, 90 Stories, 90 Years at the McCord is a collection of various objects from the museum’s collection, supposed to illustrate the history not just of Montreal but of the museum itself. Providing visitors with ninety treasures and ninety stories is a tough ask, and while the exhibition succeeds on the first count, it fails on the second. As a Londoner, neither a Montreal resident or even native Canadian, the cultural significance of many of the objects on display eludes me, and little attempt is made an interpretation. Each of the treasures are identified: Rocket Richard’s hockey sweater, the second oldest quilt in the world, a corset designed for a child. However, without the background information, it is a difficult exhibition for a foreigner to get much out of.

In terms of conveying a sense of identity, the Simply Montreal exhibition. The blending of First Nations and more Westernised artifacts gives a sense of both continuity and contrast  between Montreal residents, with displays on sport, fashion and, something close to the heart of all Canadians, sport. The McCord is not a big museum, and most of the exhibits can be seen in about two hours, which may make some potential visitors question whether to fork out the entrance fee ($13 adults, $7 students).

The main selling point of the Point-a-Calliere is that it is an archeology museum with a real archeological dig underneath. Though the building itself is very modern, but when you descend the stairs after paying your entrance fee ($15 adults, $8 students), you are confronted with what is still an archeological field site. When the “Montreal Metropolis” project is complete, visitors will have access to new sites including the William collector sewer, an example of 19th century urban engineering, a tour of the cellars of St Anne’s market, and the remains of the Parliament of United Canada.

Some floors above the dig itself, and several centuries forward through time, is the Montreal Love Stories exhibition. Like Simply Montreal at the McCord, Montreal is presented as a cultural metropolis full of people of all races and religions, though ironically the focus in the archeology museum’s exhibit is far more contemporary than at the McCord. The first exhibit looks historically at methods of communication from the humble letter through to the internet, via typewriters and telegraphs. More interesting, however, are the letters from actual Montréalais. The exhibition goes on to look at the differences and similarities in practices such as religion, marriage, and even tea between the various tribes and communities that exist in Montreal. This exhibition, more than any of the others, gave me the greatest sense of what it is to be Montréalais.

McCord Museum

Pointe-a-Calliere Archaeology Museum


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