The Best Montreal museums
Last weekend we decided to check out two museums on Ile Sainte Helene, the small island in the middle of the St.Lawrence. The island is easily accessible by metro or, alternatively, by ferry from the port in Old Montreal (see my next post on that).
The Biosphère Environment Museum gets very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. A lot of people find it “boring” and I can’t tell you how many reviews complain, in a shocked tone, that “it’s not the Biodome” (yeah, well, it’s not – that’s why it has a different name). The Biosphère is an interactive environment museum aimed at increasing understanding of major environmental issues such as air, water, biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable development. I know that description doesn’t sound exciting. But you know what? We actually really enjoyed the Biosphère, finding it both educational and fun.
My biggest tip to enjoying the Biosphère is to actively participate in the various exhibits. The Hall 1 exhibit by the lobby is called “Finding Balance” and it an interesting and rather artistic exhibit regarding consumption and what we really need. Hall 2 has a waterworks exhibit that is very interactive: if you’re bringing kids they’ll love playing with the water wheels and rubber band propelled boats. Hall 3 is an Eco lab with microscopes where you not only learn about but see the effects of water and air pollution on the environment.Hall 4 has a great exhibit on fashion, featuring dresses made from recycled materials such as plastics, batteries, computer wiring, and airbags. It was actually really cool. Hall 5 is on global warming and featured a video exposé on the Inuit communities and polar bears. Hall 6 features a beautifully made nature film – you sit on revolving stools in a large, circular room and watch a the video which moves between all the screens in the room. Hall 7 focuses on renewable energies. You can step outside from Hall 7 and walk around the top floor of the Biosphère, enjoying the views of Montreal and the St. Lawrence.
Above: waterworks exhibits in Hall 1
Above: Recycled fashion
They’ve talked of closing the Biosphère which would be a terrible shame. This is a learning museum, you and your kids will come out of here knowing more about our environment and how mankind’s activities affect the planet and how we can change our consumption habits and energy choices. It is well worth the $8.75 entry fee ($6.25 for kids). Besides which, just walking around the inside of this huge metal globe is an experience.
One last thing I should add: The staff who work at the Biosphère, mostly young people studying in environmental education, were fantastic and very helpful. It’s nice to see young people so excited about what they are doing.
The Stewart museum is about a 10 minute walk from the Biosphère. It was a military fort and depot built by the British in 1820. Today it is a historical museum “celebrating the influence of European civilization in New France and North America”. This could be a very good museum. We were disappointed though for reasons I will soon explain.
There are two parts to the museum: 1) a temporary exhibit (until April 2014) entitled “20 000 Leagues Over Land and Sea – Exploring Six Centuries of Cartography” and 2) the permanent collection “History and Memory“. This permanent collection has an impressive collection of objects, documents, and old books dating back from the beginnings of Saint-Helene’s island. They cover the colonization by the French, the war with the British and Americans, all the way to the present day.
The question is: who is this museum intended for? It advertises itself as interactive and educational and has outdoor activities for kids which are led by staff dressed as inhabitants of New France in the mid-1700’s. Indeed, there were a lot of kids and they were having a great time in the outdoor courtyard of the museum. But do you think kids are interested in maps dating back 500 years? We were enjoying the great collection of maps in the temporary exhibit but were constantly interrupted by families hurriedly trudging through the exhibit with their whiny, bored kids. If the idea is to make this an educational museum geared to kids they should make the interior more interactive and interesting for children. If it is meant as a historical museum for adults (which the content seems to indicate) then it should advertise as such.
The other problem is the lighting which is truly awful. Dark rooms highlighted by hard spotlights all facing the wrong direction. It was especially evident in the cartography exhibit where one needs lighting to see the maps, some of which have faded over time. Some exhibits were hidden in dark shadows, others had bright spotlights reflecting off the glass. Not a very good job.
This could be a really good museum. We found the mission and execution sloppy though. The Stewart Museum needs a marketing makeover. It is in our opinion not worth the $13 adult entrance fee.
Related: Our detailed Montreal Guide
Ps. If you find our blog helpful, please consider using our links to book your flights, hotels, tours, and car rentals. Have a look at our Travel Resources page.