[Late last year, I had a chance to spend a few days in Montreal, my first extended visit to the city. Among the many reasons I loved it was the plethora of compelling spaces and ways through which the city remembers its social, cultural, and artistic histories. So this week I’ll CanadianStudy a few such spaces, leading up to a special post on a few Canadian colleagues!]
On the best exhibit at a unique social and cultural history museum, and its complicated relationship to the whole.
Founded in 1921 by, and initially grounded in the extensive materials of, Canadian lawyer, politician, and collector David Ross McCord, Montreal’s McCord Museum has a unique mission: to reflect the city itself, to capture in a museum setting “our history, our people, our communities.” While that mission could be paralleled to other famous history museums, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to the British Museum in London, the McCord is much more purposefully and specifically linked to its particular city than those, seeking as “a museum that mirrors a city” to “celebrate our past and present life in Montreal.” And yet because the McCord defines its city, in that same section of the museum’s mission statement, as “a city that mirrors the world,” it at the same time seeks to incorporate “an openness to the world and to issues important to Montrealers.” Achieving that balance, between the local and the global, is a complex but certainly worthwhile goal.
To my mind, the McCord Museum best achieves such a balance in the permanent exhibition “Wearing Our Identity. The First Peoples Collection.” Introduced with a map of Canada that highlights the locations of the First Peoples cultures (past and present) across the nation, along with a looped video that continually welcomes visitors in all of their respective languages, and featuring a separate video inside that details the deeply troubling Indian Act of 1876, the exhibition certainly seeks to provide a comprehensive reflection of this vital part of Canadian identity and community. Yet in the powerfully specific and individual items it presents, pieces of clothing and costume and material culture collected and narrated with the help of Algonquin artist and guest curator Nadia Myre and an Aboriginal Advisory Committee, the exhibition makes clear that neither First Peoples nor identity can be reduced to any overarching image or idea. For this visitor, at least, the exhibition offered both specific knowledge and an invitation to enter a much broader conversation, details about dozens of communities and cultures and an understanding that the histories and stories of these First Peoples and their world go far beyond the exhibition’s walls.
Just beyond those walls, of course, is the rest of the McCord Museum. Any individual museum exhibition has its own distinct identity from the space as a whole, but in this particular case I found Wearing Our Identity to be (or at least to feel) more separate from the museum than might be ideal. Part of that is simply location and the building’s floorplan: the museum’s upper floors included at least a couple exhibitions each, while putting Wearing Our Identity on the first floor (quite possibly to prioritize it) isolated it from the rest of the collection. Yet the separation was also reflected in other exhibitions, such as those on the second floor: “Montreal—Points of View,” which “explores 10 different facets of the history of Montreal” but features at best a minimal (and nearly invisible) First Peoples presence; and the fun “Mister Rabbit’s Circus,” which offers children a glimpse into “traditional toys” but once again includes (to my memory, and as always correct me if you have other info!) little to no engagement with First Peoples materials. Here in the United States, even when we remember Native American histories we tend to treat them as entirely separate from our narratives of “America” more broadly, and the Montreal and Canadian history reflected at the McCord seems to create the same split.
Next memory tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Sites of collective memory you’d highlight?
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