[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 limitations and possibilities of archaeological history.
Complementing the McCord Museum, and offering its own engagement with Montreal and Canadian history and identity, is Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History. Its archaeological focus allows Pointe-à-Callière to feature some interesting and unique permanent and temporary exhibitions inspired by that subject, such as two I had the chance to visit: “Pirates or Privateers,” a permanent exhibition that uses archaeological and anthropological finds to explore the ambiguous histories of that worldwide nautical community; and “Investigating Agatha Christie,” a temporary exhibition that details the role that archaeology (and prominent archaeologist and Christie’s second husband Max Mallowan) played in the life and writing of the world’s most translated author. But despite these and other exhibitions, the museum seeks first and foremost to use archaeology to portray and interpret Montreal’s history, and in so doing it reveals both the weaknesses and the strengths of that method.
The weakness has a great deal to do with the site and timing of the museum’s founding. As that piece details, Pointe-à-Callière was the spot of Montreal’s 1642 founding by French explorers and settlers; the museum opened in the same site as part of the city’s 350th anniversary celebration in 1992. As a result much of the museum, from its impressive use of archaeological remains in the basement’s permanent “Where Montreal Was Born” exhibition to the multimedia show which makes use of those remains to welcome visitors to the museum, focuses entirely on that French founding as the city’s and museum’s starting point. That multimedia show does include a brief starting point on the First Peoples village that had long existed in the area by the time the French arrived—but, in part because there seem to be no archaeological remains of that village and in part because of a decided “us and them” tone to the show, those First Peoples are presented much more as a prior and even opposing community than as a part of the city’s history and identity. Of course there are plenty of museums of archaeological history that can and do focus on indigenous peoples—but the version presented at Pointe-à-Callière quite simply and frustratingly does not do so.
With that important proviso, however, I would nonetheless highly recommend a visit to Pointe-à-Callière. As I walked through that basement “Where Montreal Was Born” exhibition, my first thought was that it had to have been assembled, that at least some of the multiple centuries’ worth of remains present there had been moved from other places and finds. But (not for the first and certainly not for the last time) I was wrong—a combination of preservation, archaeological excavation, and just plain luck has allowed Pointe-à-Callière to feature those multiple stages and periods of the site’s history in one entirely authentic place, where and how they existed as the city developed around them. As that article on the museum’s website succinctly describes it, “The way the remains are superimposed in this one spot offers a sort of condensed history of Montreal.” Indeed it does, and a unique and extremely compelling such history it is, one made possible by archaeology and by a museum that literally and figuratively builds upon that discipline. We can critique what Pointe-à-Callière leaves out and still appreciate and learn from what it reveals.
Next memory tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Sites of collective memory you’d highlight?
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