The McCord Museum of Canadian History
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1921 on the grounds of McGill University, the McCord Museum of Canadian History boasts a collection of over a million historical documents, photographs and archaeological finds.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.
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.
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.