The McCord Museum (1921-2021) – 100 Years Young!

By Guislaine Lemay

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2022

 
McCord Stewart Museum, 2021 © Marilyn Aitken

2021 marked a historic anniversary for the McCord Museum. Inaugurated in 1921, the Museum turned 100 years young! Long before it was established, the land it sits on witnessed countless generations of Indigenous presence. Today, as in the past, Tiohtià:ke/Montréal/Montreal is a place where nations come together. It embodies the vision David Ross McCord had for his museum—a place that would bring people together by shedding light on the history and cultures of their country.


David Ross McCord (1844-1930), the fourth of six children, grew up in a family that valued both science and art. His father, John Samuel McCord (1801-1865), who became a judge shortly after David’s birth, was an amateur meteorologist and botanist. His mother Anne Ross (1807-1870) was an accomplished watercolour artist. The couple and their children lived in an imposing Greek Revival-style house named Temple Grove, prominently situated on the southern flank of Mount Royal.[1] It was here in his temple of private memories, surrounded by familiar objects, that David Ross McCord spent his life and assembled his collection.


Like his father, McCord studied law, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in 1863 and a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Civil Law in 1867 from McGill University. However, shortly after his life took an unexpected turn with the death of his father, followed by that of his older brother. At the age of 23, McCord became the family patriarch, taking over the family estate. It was largely through his control over the family inheritance, to the detriment of his siblings, that McCord was able to pursue his passion for collecting. By about 1895, McCord no longer practiced law and devoted all his time to his favourite pursuit.


"As stood Latin to the world so will stand my museum to the history of Canada." – David Ross McCord

McCord was a staunch imperialist, convinced of the utility of history in the creation of a Canadian identity. He saw himself as a dutiful servant of Canadian national unity. He wished to bequeath his country a tangible record of its mythic past, with objects at the heart of the narrative. McCord saw his family as an integral part of this history—with no heirs to carry on the McCord name, the museum became the means of ensuring his family would not be forgotten. Not surprisingly, McCord’s view of history is biased and full of contradictions. He saw Canada’s history through an anglophile lens resolute in a conviction of British superiority, yet sometimes expressed strong opposition to ethnocentric attitudes.[2] He recognized Indigenous peoples as part of Canada’s founding cultures all the while distancing himself from the changes and upheavals they suffered. His collection decontextualized Indigenous objects, silencing their voices from their intended cultural meanings and traditions.


Alexander Henderson, David Ross McCord's house "Temple Grove," Côte-des- Neiges, Montreal, 1872.

Over the years, Temple Grove would take on a new role—that of a museum. Between 1880 and 1920, McCord amassed a collection of roughly 15,000 artifacts from a variety of sources: family, purchases, and donations obtained through letters of appeal. Although assembled in a relatively brief period, his collection is remarkable for its scope and documentation, and while he occasionally embellished source information, for the most part attributions appear to be accurate. By 1909, with the collection outgrowing all available space in the house and McCord’s health failing, he began to look for an institution willing to supply him with a building and the funding to care for it. He set his eyes on his alma mater, McGill University. It would take ten years of negotiations, but in 1919 McGill accepted McCord’s donation.


The McCord National Museum officially opened on October 13, 1921. Ironically, by the time McCord achieved his life goal, he was 77-years-old and no longer capable of running the Museum. Ten months after its opening, suffering from arterial sclerosis and vascular dementia, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he stayed until his death in 1930. With McCord no longer part of his museum’s day-to-day activities, the collection joined the fifteen other museums and collections administered by the University. While activities and visits gained momentum during the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression dealt the Museum a devastating blow. Hoping to cut costs, McGill closed the McCord Museum in 1936; it would remain closed for the next 35 years.


The collections, however, continued to grow through individual donations and the amalgamation of various institutional collections, notably the Natural History Society of Montreal,[3] the Art Association of Montreal,[4] the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, and McGill’s Redpath and Ethnological Museums. By 1954, the original collection donated by David Ross McCord had doubled in size and needed a new space. The collection moved to the Archibald A. Hodgson house on the northeast corner of Dr. Penfield and Drummond Streets, a solution that soon proved inadequate. With the acquisition in 1956 of the Notman Photographic Archives, and the establishment of the Costume and Textiles collection the following year, the Museum moved once more, this time to its present location in McGill’s Student Union Building on Sherbrooke Street. The reopening of the McCord Museum in the spring of 1971 was a turning point for the institution.



In 1987, thanks to the generous support of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, the McCord Museum became a self-governing, private museum, an arrangement formalized when McGill University and the McCord Museum signed a custodial agreement.[5] A large donation from the McConnell Family Foundation two years later helped to finance a major expansion of its building, giving the Museum more exhibition space and state-of-the-art storage facilities. The new building was inaugurated in 1992.


In 2013, the McCord Museum and the Stewart Museum merged, adding 27,000 artifacts that document the influence of Europe on the history of New France and North America to the collections. Five years later, the Fashion Museum joined as well.


Today, the McCord Stewart Museum celebrates life in Montreal, its people and communities, past and present. A participatory and community-centred museum, it creates and presents engaging exhibitions as well as educational and cultural activities with a critical and inclusive take on social history. It is renowned for its collections of Archives, Documentary Art, Dress, Fashion and Textiles, Indigenous Cultures, Material Culture, and Photography, comprising 200,000 objects and artworks, 2,150,000 photographs, 3,500 rare books, and 340 linear metres of textual archives. It is committed to increasing the relevance and accessibility of the McCord Stewart Museum’s Indigenous Cultures Collection to Indigenous communities and ensuring that its scope reflects their concerns and viewpoints, as well as those of other historically marginalized communities.


In 2019, the McCord Stewart Museum announced its plans for a major expansion: a new, 10-storey space to be built around the façade of the existing museum. While a timeline has yet to be established, this exciting legacy project will create a world-class institution that will leave its mark on Montreal’s urban and cultural landscape.


Guislaine Lemay has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a Master of Science in ethnohistory. She joined the McCord Museum in 1992, working primarily with the Indigenous Cultures collection. In 2010, she took charge of the Museum’s Decorative Arts collection and in 2019, named Curator of Material Culture, a collection created following the merger of the McCord Museum and the Stewart Museum.

 

[1] John Samuel McCord built the house in 1836, declaring that if the Greeks had seen such a place, they too would have erected a temple.


[2] In his planning notes for the Museum McCord wrote: “The Indian is accused of being cruel–in his methods of warfare–he was not gentle–but there is an element of stoic virtue, which dilutes the cruelty–but the white man–with all the elevating influences of Christianity–was dreadfully cruel. . . What right have we to make despising comments upon North American Indians?” (MCFP, file #2062, First Museum Arrangement)


[3] Established in 1827, the N.H.S.M. was the earliest scientific organization in Canada and one of the oldest in North America. It was disbanded in 1925.


[4] Today the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Canadian Guild of Crafts.


[5] McGill has granted the Museum long-term custody for the development and care of this collection. The McCord Museum itself holds title to most of the objects donated since 1998. The Custodial Agreement is binding for a term of 99 years commencing on June 1, 1988 and expiring on May 31, 2087.

 

Image Credits: All photos courtesy of McCord Stewart Museum.


Photographer unknown, David Ross McCord in his library in Temple Grove, Montreal, about 1916.


Sydney Jack Hayward, McCord National Museum, Jesse Joseph House, Montreal, about 1927.