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McGill University and the Redpath Museum

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Founded in 1821 on a royal charter from King George IV, McGill is today considered to be Canada’s leading university. Its original, downtown campus located at the foot of Mont Royal is a thing of beauty, and among its Victorian-era buildings, you’ll find the Redpath Museum of Natural History.

McGill Redpath Museum

McGill University has an enrollment of nearly 40,000 students, roughly half of whom are from Quebec. Twelve Nobel laureates studied here, as well as three of Canada’s prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau. Oh, and William Shatner. McGill is Canada’s most prestigious place of higher learning, and its incoming students have the highest average test scores of any school in the country. The school is primarily English-speaking, although students are expected to have a working knowledge of French.

Living in Montreal, it’s impossible to escape the shadow of McGill University. Its facilities are spread throughout the city, and its alumni seem to have their hands in everything. In most museums we visit, we read about discoveries made by McGill researchers, studies initiated by McGill teams, theories offered by McGill professors, etc. Habitat 67 was the master’s thesis of McGill student Moshe Safdie. Arcade Fire met while studying at McGill. And the drunk kids shouting and laughing outside our apartment every Thursday night at 3am are almost certainly McGill undergrads — in addition to its sterling academic reputation, McGill is known as a party school.

Since we’d heard so much about it, we figured we should at least see the campus. Located between Sherbrooke Ave and Mont Royal, and bounded on the east and west by Rue University and Peel, McGill’s main campus is gorgeous, with old limestone school buildings and small grassy parks where you’ll almost always see students studying or taking naps. The Royal Victorian Hospital has recently moved to a more modern facility, but its former home, a Gothic building on the foot of Mont Royal, is now part of McGill.

McGill Redpath Museum

It’d be fun to explore all these old buildings, but we limited ourselves to one: the Redpath Museum of Natural History. This museum dates from 1882, and features exhibits that range from fossils and minerals to anthropological items from around the world. The centerpiece of the collection of the full skeleton of a Gorgosaurus. But the best part of the Redpath Museum is the atmosphere of the building in which it’s housed. It looks exactly how you’d expect an “ancient university library” to look, with the scintillating layers of dust and mystery that go along with it. While examining the exhibits, I kept expecting some old professor to suddenly appear and slam shut one of the cabinets, admonishing me not to look inside. “You may examine any of the cabinets, but not this one!”

The Redpath Museum is free to visit, although they do suggest a small donation to keep the museum going. And obviously, the campus is free to visit as well. Both are well worth seeing during your time in Montreal.

Locations on our Map: McGill Campus Main Entrance | Redpath Museum

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June 25, 2016 at 10:25 pm Comments (0)

The McCord Museum of Canadian History

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Established in 1921 on the grounds of McGill University, the McCord Museum of Canadian History boasts a collection of over a million historical documents, photographs and archaeological finds. The permanent exhibition is dedicated to Montreal’s history, but what makes the McCord Museum worthwhile is its examination of the clothing and customs of Canada’s native people.

McCord Museum

If there’s one thing Montreal has plenty of, it’s museums dedicated to the city’s history. There’s the Pointe-à-Calliére, the Centre d’Historie de Montréal, the Chateau Dufresne, and the Stewart Museum, just to name the ones we’ve already visited. Another thing Montreal has in abundance, is rainy days. And when it’s storming out, visiting yet another museum doesn’t sound too bad.

“Anyway,” we reasoned, “this is the McCord Museum of Canadian History, so it will be more than just another museum about Montreal.” But, basically it was just another museum about Montreal. The permanent collection is called “Montreal – Points of View,” and took us on the same tour we had seen countless times before: native life, colonization, French vs. English rule, independence, the roaring twenties, the World Expo and Olympics. And unfortunately, it’s not well-presented… the lighting is poor, the exhibits seem slapped together without much care, and we found the whole thing both confusing and boring.

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Luckily, the museum’s other permanent exhibit is much better. “Wearing Our Identity: The First Peoples Collection” concerns the clothing, style and self-expression of Canada’s native people. I spent nearly as much time examining a single amauti, or seal-skin parka, as I had visiting the entire “Montreal – Points of View” exhibition. These garments are individually-designed, and reveal much about the women wearing them, including their social status and whether they were (or had been) pregnant. And they’re decorated with a fascinating blend of traditional elements and those borrowed from Western culture, such as coins and spoons.

This exhibition also includes the feathered shaman headdresses, jewelry, beaded friendship sashes, and old photographs of Inuits involved in body modification, as well as a large totem pole. One of my favorite exhibits was a timeworn picture of walrus hunters, who wore large white studs on either side of their bottom lips, in order to better resemble their prey.

The McCord Museum isn’t cheap, and its modest size in no way justifies the price. In fact, were it not for the presence of the “Wearing Our Identity” exhibit, we’d recommend skipping it entirely. But here’s a tip: after 5pm on Wednesday afternoons, the museum is free. It will be more crowded, but this is almost certainly the best time to check it out.

Location on our Map
McCord Museum of Canadian History – Website

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June 21, 2016 at 12:59 pm Comments (0)

Montreal’s Biosphère

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Built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, the Biosphère on Île Sainte-Hélène has become one of the defining landmarks of Montreal. Today, this geodesic dome is home to a museum about the state of our planet’s environment.

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The Biosphère is one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal, and is at its most impressive when you’re standing inside it. The geometric pattern used to create the dome (a Class 1, Frequency 16 icosahedron, since you asked) is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to become dizzy while staring up and around at the intricate system of interlocked metal bars. This is the work of the famous American architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who helped to popularize geodesic domes in the 1950s.

When it was built for the Expo, the Biosphère had been covered with a plastic shell. But in 1976, the shell caught fire in spectacular fashion. The metal girder remained unscathed, but the sphere was closed to the public for nineteen years, before reopening in 1995 as a museum dedicated to water. In 2007, it was re-branded as the Biosphère.

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The exhibitions inside the Biosphère are what you might expect from an environmental museum, though they’ve done a good job of balancing the doom and gloom with optimism for the future. The best exhibit is a 360° cinema experience that recreates wind, rain and snow, and provides concrete examples of how humans are applying lessons from nature within our newest technology. For example, we’re learning how to make LEDs more efficient by studying fireflies, and designing optimal mass transport systems by looking at the veins of a leaf.

Other exhibits allowed us to re-enact a scientific study into water and air pollution, and take a walk through a tribute to the forests. On the top floor of the museum, there’s a viewpoint which offers a view of Montreal’s skyline through the bars of the dome.

Location on our Map
Montreal Biosphère – Website

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June 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)
McGill University and the Redpath Museum Founded in 1821 on a royal charter from King George IV, McGill is today considered to be Canada's leading university. Its original, downtown campus located at the foot of Mont Royal is a thing of beauty, and among its Victorian-era buildings, you'll find the Redpath Museum of Natural History.
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