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Montreal | MUSEUM PLANNING PARTNERS

MUSEUM PLANNING PARTNERS

TALE OF TWO CITIES
Part One: MONTREAL
The Province of Québec holds a key place in Canada’s history and cultural industries. This is why my colleague and I selected a number of museums in Montréal and Québec City in late 2019. We couldn’t go everywhere, so we chose seven museums or cultural places in each city. I used a four wheel medical walker to get around the museums and the streets. We also took advantage of each City’s Museum Pass which proved to be of great value.

Robert Barnett, Chairman

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Château Ramezay
Montréal is a vibrant contemporary city with great respect for, and investment in, its heritage and history. One of the unexpected gems we found was the Château Ramezay. The Château was the first building proclaimed as a historical monument in Québec and is the province’s oldest private history museum. Built in 1705 as the residence of the French Governor of New France (incl. Montréal), over the years, the Château changed owners and functions several times, including as corporate headquarters for the fur-trading Compagnie des Indes, and briefly in 1775, it became the Canadian headquarters for the American rebel Continental Army when it invaded Montréal. After the British conquest of Quebec (1759) until 1849 the house was again used as a governor’s residence. The building was converted into an historical museum and portrait gallery in 1894.

While modest in scale, the site is well interpreted and accessible. There are steps at the entrance (with the availability of a temporary ramp). Interpretation is in English and French as is common in larger museums in Québec. The collection of over 30,000 pieces is well displayed in traditional cases and open displays; there are outstanding examples of historic portraiture. There is also excellent use of miniature models throughout the exhibitions and fixed position phone type audio guides in both languages. There are interpretive guides who move among the galleries in period attire helping visitors understand the history of Montréal (and Québec) and are most generous in engaging willing visitors in discussions of history and the collections.

While we greatly enjoyed the permanent collections, the highlight of the visit was an outstanding temporary exhibition called
War Flowers which was based on George Stephen’s letters home from the battlefields of World War I. The letters were accompanied by carefully preserved flowers. Humanity during war is explored through these letters accompanied by a series of magnificent pieces of contemporary optical crystal sculptures by Mark Roberts and scent boxes by Alexandra Bachand. There was also an excellent series of short videos. My colleague was literally moved to tears by the exhibit, a very rare event.

There are accessible hands-on displays in basement of the Château Ramezay with live interpreters available. There is also modest retail and no food services.
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Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours
It was an easy roll to the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel founded by Ste. Marguerite Bourgeoys, the first teacher in the colony of Ville-Marie who pushed to build a chapel in 1655; the stone church was completed in 1678. It burned in 1754 and was rebuilt by 1771. In the 19th century, the chapel came to be a pilgrimage site for the sailors who made offerings in gratitude for the Virgin’s "good help" for safe sea voyages; the chapel is often called the Sailor’s Church.

The Museum on the second floor is accessible by elevator but was very modest employing mostly “doll house” type models to interpret the saint’s life. As well, there was good use of several small Pepper’s ghost projections on scrims, which were very effective. I could not access the spire or the basement archaeological dig. Retail was modest with no food services.
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Pointe-à-Callière Museum
Pointe-à-Callière Museum is a museum of archaeology and history founded in 1992 as part of celebrations to mark Montréal’s 350th birthday. It receives more than 350,000 visitors a year and has been recognized by more than fifty national and international awards including those in museography, architecture, and for cultural, educational and community activities. The complex includes at least three archaeology sites, four heritage buildings, a walk through sewer and so much more.

There were many highlights from the visit. We particularly liked the
Into the Wonder Room, a 20th century cabinet of curiosity which is a 360º experience of objects of wonder. With little interpretation, it is a visual narrative of wonder. We also like the Montréal Multimedia Experience: it used multiple giant screen visual narratives, and was itself incorporated into an archaeological site and used other forms of projection to great effect. We viewed it from an accessible position above the main floor and were very impressed.

The building itself was very striking and, like several museum complexes in Québec, it linked several buildings through underground tunnels (including an historic sewer) and elevators and lifts made the entire complex accessible and weather proof, which was great as it was raining all day. The museum offered the use of free wheel chairs. We found the exhibit design palette very rich, incorporating scale models and archaeological sites in situ beneath glass floors, videos, dramatic lighting, strong contemporary graphics to connect with historic events. The museum complex offers great opportunity to experience and enjoy the various exhibit design techniques available and in each case they are carefully chosen to support the stories’ narratives. The most interesting narrative for me was
The Great Peace of Montréal,  a peace treaty between New France and First Nations signed on August 4, 1701 with 1300 representatives of 39 distinct aboriginal nations including parts of the Iroquois confederacy, the Huron peoples, and the Algonquian peoples.

The entire museum complex was very accessible, made good contemporary use of exhibition techniques, had good visitor services from check-in, and had live interpreter/guides throughout the building. There was food in one building (not visited) although it was highly recommended.
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Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA)
The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is Montréal’s premier, large museum complex founded in 1860; it is spread across five pavilions and occupies a total floor area of 53,095 sq m, 13,000 sq m of which is exhibition space. Any visit to Montréal requires a visit to MMFA. The galleries are diverse with a strong Québec fine art focus but also with Inuit, Medieval, Contemporary Arts and Design, world arts, and multiple temporary exhibitions at any time. Again wheelchairs are available for visits, and most spaces can be reached without assistance although not all; in some cases, staff needed to make access available. Like other large museums, this one is very hard to see in a single visit; plus, its outreach programs to children, people with special needs and others is such that there is always something new happening. I have visited the museum before and will again, and I have not begun to exhaust the MMFA experience and still enjoy discovering new artifacts and new collections. Excellent accessibility, particularly given the size and geographic spread, excellent white table cloth restaurant, the best museum shop in the city, easy to follow visitor guide, one of the most inclusive museums I have ever visited. My recommendation as the museum to see in Montréal if you only have time for one or two museums; an easy 2-3 hour experience to start.
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Écomusée du fier monde
The Écomusée du fier monde is a museum about the industrial and working-class people of South Central Montréal, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods. The Museum is in the Bain Genereux, an art deco former indoor public bath, opened in 1927. The Écomusée du fier monde invites you to explore little-known aspects of everyday working class life. It was not uncommon for working class apartments of the period to have no bathing facilities and, therefore, the entire neighbourhood used the public baths. The permanent exhibitions follow around the mezzanine balcony tracing the manufacturing and post-manufacturing evolution of the neighbourhood. The temporary exhibitions are always interesting, focusing on a specific aspect of life. The interpretation is exclusively French but the objects speak for themselves. A great example of a neighbourhood museum with a vibrant presence. Largely accessible once you are in the building, no real retail or food services, no printed guide, exhibits from 2012 but still very powerful.
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