The Best Montreal museums
This summer we decided to vacation at home and re-discover Montreal. One of the things we did was explore Montreal’s museums – this is a city with over 40 museums.
Which are the best Montreal museums? Some thoughts on that as well as tips on visiting them on the cheap.
I had never been to this museum. I’ve passed by it a million times on the street and never once had the slightest inclination to go in. I think their problem is bad advertising – even clicking on the link above I don’t get a sense of what the museum is about. But Wednesdays from 5pm to 9pm are free so we decided to check it out. And we were really pleasantly surprised. This museum should be on the top of any tourist’s list because it covers Montreal’s history and does it in a very engaging manner. Start on the 2nd floor.
As a Montrealer it is fascinating to see old photographs, some from the late 1800’s, showing the city as it was then. One of them, taken in 1890, was taken from Mont-Royal and shows the skyline of the city at that time with Notre-Dame Basilica being the largest building in sight. Now of course you can’t even see it because of all the highrises dominating the downtown core. There is a little video room showing old video of everyday life in the mid 1900’s which shouldn’t be missed. There is a lot of Montreal history to be seen on the 2nd floor and we found it fascinating, it is superbly done by the museum.
The 3rd floor had a temporary exhibit on hats worn through the ages (Lissette liked it more than I did) and the 1st floor showed off clothing worn by Canada’s aboriginals (we both found interesting). The highlight of the museum however is the 2nd floor exposition. Also interesting: the museum has a temporary outdoor exhibit on McGill College (a couple of blocks west) with photos and text describing how Indian children were forced into residential schools by the 1876 Indian Act. This was an effort by the government to wipe out traditional First Nations practices. It’s a powerful exhibit that highlights what these kids were subjugated to by the religious authorities at the time.
Tip: FREE Wednesdays 5pm-9pm. Otherwise $18 if you buy online ($20 if you buy there)
The Pointe-à-Callière museum is the other main “historical museum” in Montreal and highlights the history of the city from mainly an archaeological point of view. It is in fact the most visited history museum in Montreal and the largest archaeological museum in Canada. Lissette had been many years ago and had found it boring. So we decided to come back and check it out.
Most of the exhibits are underground and visitors find themselves walking through some old ruins and artifacts representing different periods of the site on which the museum is situated: remains from its time as an old Catholic cemetery (1643-1654), or from the time it was Montreal’s customs office. You see remains of some of Montreal’s old fort walls (built to fight off the English. They were later torn down when city had to expand). The highlight is an old stone tunnel in the building’s foundations which was originally a river but which turned into the city’s sewer in the 1830’s. The problem is that, unless you are a big fan of archaeology, you’re just walking through a lot of undistinguishable ruins that don’t look much different from one another. I’m sure digging all this up was a monumental undertaking but as a visitor it just doesn’t grab you visually.
The museum also has a temporary exhibits. When we came here years ago they had one on The Beatles (the rock band). They’ve had other exhibits on the Royal Queens of Ancient Egypt and on Easter Island. You should check their website to see what is currently being displayed.
One of the highlights of the museum is the observation point where you can good views over old Montreal. Overall however I was a bit disappointed by the museum.
PS. No free times here, adult rate $26.
This is a great museum, one of the most visited in all of North America. And I’ll mention this off the top because I didn’t know it myself and they don’t really advertise it: access to the permanent exhibits are free at all times. You only pay for the temporary exhibits.
You should always check the website to see what temporary exhibits are on display. Several years ago we came to see the Chihuly exhibit. Chihuly is known for fusing blown, multi-colored glass into natural elements from America’s West Coast.
The museum has a large permanent exhibit. Below are a few highlights that we found interesting.
There’s a lot to this museum and I can’t comment on all the permanent exhibits because we didn’t cover them all. Since they are free, we’ll stroll back in here on a rainy day and spend more time. This alone makes the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts a must-see. It’s also worth always keeping up to date on what the temporary exhibits are as they are on par with the best seen around the world.
FREE permanent exhibits at all times.
I don’t get temporary art. But you might. The great thing is, like the McCord Museum, you can get in for free on Wednesdays from 5pm – 9pm. That’s what we did. Here are a few photos.
If this kind of art is your thing then you’ll probably love this museum. It is superbly located, right next to Place des Arts in the heart of the city. The building is modern, the exhibit rooms huge. And even if contemporary art is not your thing, it is worth checking out when it is free.
Tip: FREE Wednesdays 5pm-9pm.
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” (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. Cost: $22.75 Adult entry fee ($11.50 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.
Summarizing: Some excellent museums above. I would put the McCord Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts at the top of my list. See the details on seeing them for free. The Biosphère Environment Museum isn’t cheap but it’s educational and interactive and I recommend if you have kids.
Related: The Best Views in Montreal
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