The History of the McCord Museum - The Museum of all Montrealers

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The History of the McCord Museum

The McCord Museum, inaugurated on October 13, 1921, is celebrating its centenary this year. Discover the journey of this institution that celebrates life in Montreal, from the early years to the present day.

The McCord Museum embodies the vision of a passionate collector, David Ross McCord, whose abiding wish was to shed light on the history and cultures of his country and thus bring its people together.

David Ross McCord

David Ross McCord was born in Montreal on March 18, 1844. After attending the High School of Montreal, he graduated from McGill College with a Bachelor of Arts in 1863 and a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Civil Law in 1867. On August 21, 1878, he married Letitia Caroline Chambers, Head Nurse of the Montreal Civic Smallpox Hospital, and they settled at Temple Grove, the home that his father John Samuel McCord had built on the southern flank of Mount Royal (at the corner of Côte des Neiges and Cedar Avenue). They had no children.

In 1878, David Ross McCord started to add his own acquisitions to the already large family collection dating from when the McCord family had settled in Canada. Sparing neither time nor expense, he combed the length and breadth of the country in search of the finest and most historically significant objects. As early as 1903, he began searching for a home for his collection.

David Ross McCord was convinced of the utility of history in the creation of a Canadian identity. He saw his museum as a place that would preserve and celebrate the myths and heroes of Canadian history. Between 1880 and 1920, McCord accumulated roughly 15,000 artefacts from a variety of sources: his family, purchases and donations obtained through flattering letters of appeal.

David Ross McCord died on April 12, 1930, in Guelph, Ontario.

The Founding of the McCord National Museum

By 1914, the situation at his home, Temple Grove, had become precarious. The collection had outgrown all available space and David Ross McCord’s health had become unstable, as he suffered from arteriosclerosis. With the help of McCord’s friend and lawyer William D. Lighthall (1857-1954) and McGill librarian Charles Henry Gould (1855-1919), McGill University was persuaded to accept his donation in 1919 and commit to exhibiting it. Despite his health concerns, David Ross McCord assumed responsibility for the design of the inaugural exhibits.

October 13, 1921, the McCord National Museum opened its door for the first time, in a building selected by McGill University, the “Dilcoosha” (Heart’s Delight), the Egyptian-Renaissance house of Jesse Joseph (1817-1904) set between Sherbrooke Street and McTavish Street, where the McLennan Library is currently. The official opening took place without the presence of David Ross McCord himself, who was too ill to attend.

The 1920s

While officially David Ross McCord retained the title of Curator of the McCord National Museum until his death in 1930, from 1921 to 1930 he was, in fact, no longer involved in the Museum’s day-to-day activities. Despite this, the exhibition space that McCord had meticulously conceived did not change significantly over the next decade. In the 1920s, the Museum did develop a few temporary exhibitions. Mary Dudley Muir (1860-1936), the Assistant Curator, was in charge, reporting to the McCord Museum Committee. She was replaced by Dorothy Warren (1883-1957) in 1928. With Warren’s arrival came renewed focus on the careful inventorying of all museum objects, and various initiatives to promote the collections beyond the university’s walls.

The 1930s

During its second decade under McGill’s supervision, the McCord National Museum gained momentum. There were more temporary exhibitions, mounted with the intention of drawing visitors from the general public. In 1932, in conjunction with a Survey of the Museums of the British Empire initiated by the British Association of Museums, McGill requested that a detailed evaluation of its sixteen museums and collections be carried out. The report, drafted by Cyril Fox (1882-1967), Director of the National Museum of Wales, was harsh. While it highlighted the exceptional value of the McCord Museum collections, it criticized the lack of vision by administrators, the absence of a management policy and the poor conditions of the facilities. Fox’s recommendations would change the Museum’s activities, shifting the focus towards exhibits designed to support the history curriculum of school children during the school year.

In spite of all efforts, McGill University, suffering financial difficulties during the Great Depression, voted for a “temporary closure” of the McCord Museum in June 1936. Over the next three decades, numerous proposals to reopen the McCord Museum were made and turned down, and the Museum remained closed until 1971.

The 1940s to the 1970s

While the McCord National Museum remained closed, small exhibitions of McCord objects were held at McGill University, often in the Redpath Library, or the Redpath Museum. Objects from the McCord Museum’s collections were also lent off-campus for various historical displays on the 1940s.

In the 1950s, the regular creation of exhibitions to supplement the teaching of history in local schools resumed and gained in popularity. In the mid-50s, two individuals, Gordon Lowther (1928-1984), an archaeologist specializing in the study of Arctic cultures, and Isabel Barclay Dobell (1909-1998), a McGill graduate in history, were hired to give new life to the museum. They had three goals: preservation of the artefacts, providing stimulus for research and collecting activities.

One of the most important additions to the Museum occurred during this decade, when Maclean’s magazine, Empire Universal Films and the Maxwell Cummings Family Foundation bought the William Notman & Son studio’s historic collection of photographs and negatives from Associated Screen News Ltd. and presented it to McGill University. The subsequent publication of a series of articles on William Notman in Maclean’s magazine helped make the McCord Museum’s new acquisition known beyond Montreal and across Canada.

In 1954, the McCord Museum moved to the Hodgson House. Archibald Arthur Hodgson (1869-1960) was a Montreal businessman who had donated his home on Drummond Street (at the corner of today’s Doctor Penfield Avenue) to McGill. Moving the collections to the Hodgson House had been necessary, because of the impending demolition of Dilcoosha.

While an exhibition gallery was set up to display McCord Museum material in the new Hodgson building in 1960, it was too small to accommodate many of the exhibitions that were planned. The need for a new permanent location for the museum became a priority once again. McGill selected the Student Union building site at 690 Sherbrooke Street West for the McCord Museum as early as 1964, yet the project was marred with various financial, bureaucratic and internal discussions that delayed its realization. Set to open for Expo 67, it missed that important target and would only open four years later.

The 1970s and 80s

The reopening of the McCord Museum in 1971 at 690 Sherbrooke street West was a turning point for the Museum. Even so, the Museum’s meagre operating budget was far from ideal. Threatened with having to close it again, McGill searched for partners to share financial and public responsibility for the McCord Museum. The University turned to Ottawa in 1975, attempting to attract federal government funding by uniting the McCord Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). An agreement between the two institutions was signed that year, but because McGill refused to surrender ownership of the collections to the MMFA, the agreement was terminated four years later.

McGill University managed the McCord Museum for more than sixty years, until it became a private museum. Prominent members of the community, including the Walter M. Stewart, T.H.P. Molson and J.W. McConnell families, steadfastly and generously supported its activities all these years.

In 1987, thanks to the generous support of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the McCord Museum became a self-governing, private museum with an autonomous Board of Trustees, with the objective of carrying out a major expansion project. This arrangement was formalized on November 18, 1987, when McGill University and the McCord Museum signed a Custodial Agreement. In September 1992, the expansion was finalized and the Museum recovered the entirety of its collection. The new museum building, developped by Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes and Lapointe Magne & associés, garnered several prizes for its architecture.

The 1990s

Two popular exhibitions of the 1990s, That’s Hockey (1996) and Marguerite Volant (1996), introduced the McCord Museum to a new clientele, more French-speaking and more family-friendly.

The McCord Museum launched its website in 1997. The Museum was one of the first museums in Quebec to display a database of digitized images on the Internet. A further 15,000 images from the Notman Photographic Archives were added to the site in 1999.

The end of this decade also saw the implementation of its new collection management system, The Museum System (TMS, version 8). The McCord Museum was the first Canadian institution to use TMS as its database management system.

The 2000s

In time for its 85th anniversary, the McCord Museum adopted a new mission and vision: while continuing to work on “collecting history,” the Museum renewed its focus on “connecting people.” This idea of connecting would become a key element guiding the Museum’s activities, manifesting itself in multiple ways:

  • Launch of the first virtual exhibition in 2000: Magic Lantern
  • Launch of an Indigenous cultural activities program as part of a collaborative pilot project with the First Nations Human Resources Development Commission of Quebec
  • Inauguration of the new third-floor gallery with the exhibition Fragile Witness in 2002
  • First outdoor exhibition on McGill College Avenue, entitled Transactions, in 2006

The 2010s and 20s

In the 2010s, the Museum presented its new mission and vision, to celebrate life in Montreal, its people and communities, past and present. It has an open outlook on the world and on issues facing Montrealers.

A Few Key Facts:

  • The Museum was at the forefront of digital initiatives in museums, with the launch of the MTL Urban Museum application in September 2011.
  • That same year, the Urban Forest received an award for best design in integrating the urban environment from the Conseil régional de l’environnement de Montréal and the Coalition pour la réduction et l’apaisement de la circulation.
  • In 2012, the Museum presented the exhibition Families, by Marie-Claude Bouthillier, from the Artist in Residence program. This exhibition opened a new path for promoting exhibitions.
  • In September 2019, the Museum unveiled EncycloFashionQC, a new online encyclopaedia dedicated to the history of fashion in Quebec from the nineteenth century to today. Its entries document over 500 designers, manufacturers, retailers, organizations and events, a virtual who’s who of Quebec fashion. EncycloFashionQC is based on the first encyclopaedic reference volume published on Quebec fashion, Gérald Baril’s Dicomode (Fides, 2004).
  • That same year, the Notman Photographic Archives were listed in the Canada Memory of the World Register, an honour that has been extended to only sixteen Canadian collections to date.

Two Museums Join Forces

In 2013, the McCord Museum and the Stewart Museum entered into a merger agreement. This agreement gave rise to a new administrative entity, the McCord Stewart Museum. Both institutions continued to operate publicly under their respective names and to maintain their activities as before. Nevertheless, initiatives had already begun to consolidate their administrations, to integrate their collections and to share knowledge in order to maximize synergies. In 2021, due to an extremely difficult financial environment and uncertain prospects, the McCord Stewart Museum announced the permanent closure of the Stewart Museum. The integration of the two collections and two programs in a single place, planned as part of the new Museum project announced in 2019, is thus anticipated. The Stewart Museum collection will continue to be preserved and exhibited at the Sherbrooke St. location.

The McCord Museum Merges with the Fashion Museum

On January 23, 2018, the McCord Museum and the Fashion Museum announced their merger. With a shared mission to preserve and promote Quebec and Canadian costume, fashion and textiles, the two institutions decided that joining forces would enable them to fulfil this role more effectively. The Fashion Museum, which officially closed December 31, 2017, has thus become part of the McCord Museum. Its collection of over 7,000 garments, accessories and textiles will enrich that of the McCord Museum, which already comprises over 20,000 such objects.

Montreal to Welcome a New Downtown Museum

On April 30, 2019, the McCord Stewart Museum announced that its new museum project will be located in the heart of downtown Montreal. It will stand on the current site of the McCord Museum, in addition to integrating Victoria Street, which adjoins the west side of the Museum, and the grounds of the former Le Caveau restaurant on President Kennedy Avenue. By occupying all this area, the Museum will be able to meet its needs for additional space and build a museum that will make its mark on the urban and cultural landscape of Montreal. This project was made possible by close collaboration with the City of Montreal, which ceded the rights to Victoria Street for the construction of the new museum after the completion of a feasibility study around the selection of this site.

This major project will give Montreal an institution of international calibre that will be a legacy for its residents. At the same time, the Museum announced that it has received a pledge of a $15 million donation from La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso, a donation of historic magnitude. In fact this is the largest private financial donation made to a Quebec museum in over thirty years. The completion date of the construction work, which is dependent on funding from the governments of Canada and Quebec, has not yet been determined.

Indigenization and Decolonization

For many years, the Museum has been engaged in a process of indigenization aimed at increasing the relevance and accessibility of the Indigenous Cultures collection to Indigenous communities and at ensuring that its scope reflects their concerns and contemporary perspectives.

A Few Key Facts:

  • Since June 17, 2019, the Museum’s statutes stipulate that at least two elected positions to the Board of Trustees be reserved for trustees identifying themselves as belonging to an Indigenous culture (including the Inuit, Métis and First Nations).
  • In February 2020, the Museum hired Huron-Wendat historian Jonathan Lainey as curator of the Indigenous Cultures collection.
  • The McCord Museum is one of eight Montreal cultural institutions selected by the Conseil des arts de Montréal to share its expertise, resources and networks with the arts community. Under the agreement, the Museum will carry out two projects focused on creating stronger ties with Indigenous creators and increasing awareness of Indigenous realities and issues.
  • In December 2020, Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL), become a member of the McCord Stewart Museum’s Board of Trustees, and was appointed Chair of the Board in June 2021.
  • In 2021, the Museum established a permanent Indigenous advisory committee, whose primary focus is to take an informed, cross-disciplinary look at the Museum’s indigenization initiatives. It brings together eight members, including Heather Igloliorte, Inuk researcher, independent curator and art historian from Nunatsiavut, and associate professor of Indigenous art history at Concordia University; Philippe Meilleur, of Mohawk ancestry, Executive Director of Native Montréal; Nadia Myre, multidisciplinary artist of Algonquin ancestry and co-founder of daphne, an artist-run centre; Melissa Mollen Dupuis, Innu filmmaker and activist for Indigenous rights; and Karine Awashish, an Atikamekw community member, co-founder of Coop Nitaskinan and coordinator of the First Nations Social Economy Regional Table.
  • As part of preparations for the centenary and the Museum’s new five-year strategy, consultations have taken place with representatives of various Indigenous and marginalized communities to reflect together on the process of the Museum’s decolonization.
  • The Museum is undertaking reflection on the decolonization of its museum practices and is embarking on this process.

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