Nine Wishes for Museums in Montreal

This is the last of several posts with suggestions for the museums of the cities I have called home.  I first posted these in the summer of 2010; this series of posts features some updated information and additional suggestions.  

Museums are integral to Montreal in a way that they’re not integral to most other cities.  OK—most cities have museums and the museums may be related to the culture of the city.  But going to these museums does not necessarily seem to be a part of the city culture, and that’s what’s different from Montreal.  Going to the museum is  a part of the local culture in Montreal, and that’s what makes it unique.

This post (a revision to an earlier post) first explores the context of museums in Montreal, then offers specific suggestions.

The Context of Museums in Montreal

Montreal makes its museums worth visiting.  On the whole, they tend to be smaller, more specialized, and more intimate—“boutique museums” as I heard one travel magazine describe them.  The smaller size makes visiting the museums and experiencing the exhibitions seem like a more realistic goal.  Even our major art museum, the Musee des Beaux Arts, feels smaller than counterparts in other cities, though its storied history makes it no less significant.  In contrast, just the thought of visiting the Louvre inspires museum fatigue.

Similarly, Montreal’s museums act as a community.  They don’t just collaborate to offer a museum pass to see all of the museums.  They collaborate on events—events that no other city in the US or Canada offers (at least, to the best of my knowledge).

One is Nuit Blanche, a Saturday night at the end of the winter High Lights Festival during which many of the museums in the city core are open all night long.  The other is a free day to visit museums, in observance of the International Committee on Museum’s Annual Museum Day.  Not only are all museums open, but most hold special events to attract visitors.  The city supports both events by offering free or expanded public transportation.

The boutique-ness of the museums, along with the spirit of the community, are unique among communities in North America.  Rather than trying to duplicate the mega- and over-architected museums of other communities, this one should strengthen its uniqueness by adding to the collection of boutique museums, enhancing the boutique character of existing museums, and providing some unity and structure to the entire collection.

Nine Suggestions for Strengthening the Museums of Montreal

1. Establish “Le Histoire De Montreal.”  A rework and expansion of the Montreal History Centre, whose implicit purpose seems to be introducing the city of Montreal.  It also seems to implicitly link the stories of Pointe-a-Calliere (which, informally, seems to focus on francophone Montreal history and events until the mid-1800s) and the McCord Museum (which, informally, seems to focus on anglophone Montreal history and events from the 1800s through the 1900s).

A rework would make the implicit explicit.  The reworked Centre could have an audiovisual presentation that formally and emotionally introduces Montreal, a three-part permanent exhibit—one that introduces the neighborhoods of Montreal, one that introduces the history of Montreal, and a third that invites visitors to continue learning about Montreal at our other museums.  A temporary exhibition space could highlight the contributions of Montrealers and unique aspects of Montreal culture.

Admittedly, in honor of its twentieth anniversary and current expansion, Pointe-a-Calliere prepared an introductory video.  But the video moves too quickly, throws out too many details and provides too little context, to effectively introduce the history and culture of Montreal (at least, from an instructional point of view), much less serve the purposes suggested above.

In the end, the community needs a separate exhibition to achieve this goal.

2. Develop a Museum of Montreal Cultures, which would provide a single home to showcase the different cultures that comprise the population of Montreal.  This would provide a new take on the traditional identity museum because, rather than one group telling its story, this single museum would tell the stories of several groups. In the process of doing so, it could explore not only what’s unique in each of these stories—but also the universality of those experiences.  The museum could have three groups of galleries.

  • One would be a series of several small galleries that would provide several groups with an opportunity to tell their stories, with permanent galleries provided to the two founding communities of this province—the First Peoples and the French-Canadians.  Two benefits of rotating the groups presented in that set of galleries: to generate recurring visits and to ensure the continued freshness of those galleries.
  • The next group of galleries would explore what’s common in all experiences: the common social, economic, political, and religious marginalization that drive people to seek new lives; the challenges of immigration and integrating into the community, contributing to the new community, and the challenge of retaining identity when surrounded by pressures to assimilate.
  • A third set of galleries would explore specific issues associated with cultures, from the controversial—like the challenge of peoples who are at war elsewhere in the world living in peace in this part of the world—to the safe—like expressions and customs from particular cultures that have been co-opted as “Montrealaise.”

3. Add a Natural Science “Collection” to complement to the Biodome, Jardin Botanique, Insectarium, and upcoming Planetarium in the Parc Maisonneuve area.

Already, this group of institutions is one of the most unique and complete natural science exhibitions in the world.  But the collection lacks is, a museum that not only explains the natural science underlying these living collections—but also the history of science underlying this.

As its title suggests, the Natural Science Collection would focus on those goals.  Telling this history through the objects of current and historical scientific instruments, gems, and preserved specimens already in the collections in this province, this museum would explain larger issues in biology, chemistry, and physics, such as the origins of life, the chemistry of life, and geological processes.  The collection would also focus on the “art” of science—both in terms of the artistic forms and images found in natural science, as well as the art in scientific instruments.  Last, this collection would serve as an introduction to the other museums in this group.

4. Fix the Off-the-Shelf Montreal Science Centre.  With all of the life science institutions based in Parc Maisonneuve (or soon to be) this one looks increasingly isolated where it is.  Furthermore, with its emphasis on hands-on science exhibits—all of which are purchased off-the-rack—this institution, frankly, offers little unique to the cultural scene, but has an amazing location.  And, given Montreal’s excellent natural science museums, we don’t really need another one that tries to cover the same territory.

To make the museum more relevant, it should scrap the current abstract approach and rework itself with a more concrete one–as a museum that focuses on technology—especially technology that’s core to the Montreal experience.  In fact, like the museum I proposed for Atlanta, a re-worked mission for this one would be explaining the science underlying current and past industry in the city.

The Centre might even rename itself the Centre de Sciences et d’Industrie de Montreal.  It can use the technology as a springboard for explaining the underlying science.  Some key technologies that would be of high interest to visitors would be medical, gaming, maritime, and fashion technology.

The museum might also have an area for technologies that have come and gone, like printing technology and heavy manufacturing. The museum might also have an area for changing exhibits about the technology of everyday life—from the dinner table to the school.

5. Establish a Musee de Design du Quebec.  Building on the recent temporary exhibit at the Musee National des Beaux Arts in Quebec City, this museum would showcase Quebec design.

And it’s about time that Montreal had an institution that focuses on design other than architectural design (which is addressed by the Canadian Centre for Architecture). After all, the city has been declared a design city and has an annual design open house.  But we have nothing that preserves design artifacts, showcases it, and studies it.

The permanent exhibition could explore the major types of design: industrial, furniture, clothing, and even web and information design.  But the centerpiece of such a museum could be an exhibition on design thinking—the common thread that links the different types of design.  In addition, a few galleries would be set aside for changing exhibitions.

6. Add to the campus-like feel of the Musee des Beaux Arts, which would be presented as a series of museums, rather than a single one. Although it’s admittedly easier to control through a single entryway, on a practical level, it’s not working.

Visitors will enter on one side of the Sherbrooke merely to cross under the street to get to the other side to visit the other two pavillions, each of which has a separate exterior entrance anyway.

Rather than approach this museum as a single department store—like the Bay—why not approach it as a series of stores-within-a-store—like the more engaging Ogilvy?  Include separate entrances, too.

7. Highlight the decorative arts collection at the Musee des Beaux Arts.  This is one collection that deserves to be highlighted, and given its own special “museum within a museum” (which is more than a gallery—but a series of galleries with a permanent  collection on display and changing exhibitions) is the decorative arts collection. At one time, this was a separate museum collection that was merged with the Musee des Beaux Arts.

Another set of collections that deserves greater attention through a “museum within a museum” are the collections on Asian and pre-Columbian art, displayed with special exhibitions of African art (such as the series of Sacred Africa exhibitions the museum has shown in the past few years), which get buried in the corners of the museum.  Maybe they could eventually move to their own building, providing more space for the decorative arts collection.

8. Significantly strengthen the collections of the art museums of Montreal.  In a time when most major museums in most major cities are sprawling, multi-block edifices presenting large quantities of artworks, the collection of the Musee des Beaux Arts feels limited.

As reviewers noted about the recent addition to Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the hazards of additions is that they ultimately highlight the weaknesses in the collection. Surprisingly, the collection seems weak in Canadian art.  The collection the museum does display is sumptuous, but compared to the quantity of paintings and rooms in the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Musee National des Beaux Arts in Quebec, this collection seems more petite.

But the collection and exhibitions at the Musee d’Art Contemporain are also disappointing.  The recent reimagining of the permanent collection is reminiscent of a similar reorganization of the collection at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in the late 1990s, which also organized its collection thematically to make viewers less aware of the weaknesses in the collection that are apparent in a more traditional organization.  (This thematic approach can work well, as demonstrated in the Art Gallery of Ontario, but like chronological presentations, works best with large collections.)

What’s worse, the documentation of the exhibition provides visitors who might be interested in learning more about the art with nothing: just the artists’ names and a few cursory details.  If the curators gave any thought or invested any scholarship in their selections, or have insights to share that would help visitors better appreciate the art, they chose to keep them to themselves save a brief 2-paragraph opening.

Although some modern art lovers eschew such detail, curators and exhibition specialists should be aware that much of the general public has a limited understanding of modern art. Although some might find the art inaccessible, because they have chosen to visit the museum, many are showing a genuine interest in learning more about the art.  The least the curators can do is meet these people halfway and provide some tools to do so.

9.   Change the exhibition philosophy and approach at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.  On the one hand, I really, really want to like this Centre.  I love architecture; I am fascinated by the ways that architects working at their best marry form and function to create a building that serves particular purposes while serving higher purposes.  When I was a child, I made my family visit the planned community of Columbia, Maryland every three months so I watch the city take shape.  I would visit construction projects in my neighborhood to collect plans and follow their progress.  So my interest in the subject is genuine.

But perhaps as a result of my training as an instructional designer or perhaps as a result of my research and experience in museums, this one simply does not excite me.  Although the curators of the Centre do provide extensive documentation of their exhibitions (unlike the newly reinstalled permanent exhibition at the Musee d’Art Contemporain), however, the curators gear all of the labels for an extremely knowledgeable visitor.

Not only are the labels abstract and make extensive use of undefined architectural jargon, they often omit basic details that would be helpful for a less knowledgeable visitor to put the material in context.  And to be honest, even a more knowledgeable visitor might still need the refresher.

More fundamentally, I fund the exhibitions to be, frankly, wanting.  On the one hand, I understand that curators may feel limited to using actual documents and artifacts in the exhibition.  On the other hand, drawings—and early, conceptual models—often fail to provide a perspective on a finished building or large scale project.  Artistic photographs of finished projects don’t help much either.  Larger scale and more realistic models, recreations of interiors (even if done on the cheap with documentary photographs) can help the more concrete thinkers attending the museum visualize the architecture described in exhibitions.

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