McCordial relations

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McGill Reporter
September 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 01
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McCordial relations

Brian Young wrote the book because he was mad.

Brian Young History professor Brian Young
PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris

He was mad that the McCord, a museum that he regards as maybe the best of its kind, had, in his view, progressively severed its links to McGill's scholarly community. Mad that McGill has always maintained an uneasy view of the McCord despite its great wealth of unique research materials.

He was mad at the McCord's leadership, mad at McGill's leadership and mad at the philanthropic leaders of English Montreal.

Today, he's not quite as mad. He even says there is room for optimism. But many of the concerns that drove him to write The Making and Unmaking of a University Museum: The McCord, 1921 - 1996 remain in place.

Young, a history professor who specializes in Montreal's past, is anything but a passive chronicler of the McCord.

As a member of the museum's board during a particularly turbulent period and as a leading figure in an effort to forge closer links between the museum and the University, Young was an active participant in some of the events outlined in his book.

The book chronicles the McCord's long, sometimes odd history. The McCords were powerful players in the early days of Montreal -- a wealthy, influential family that arrived in the city in the 1780s and quickly became prominent members of Montreal's English elite. "If it moved and it was English, they had their fingers in it," Young says of the family.

David Ross McCord and his siblings became the last of the Montreal McCords when they failed to produce heirs. David Ross trained to be a lawyer but lost his appetite for the profession as time went on. He developed a new calling and became a passionate collector of items related to Canadian history -- particularly if they related to the history of the English community in his city. His interests ranged from military matters to aboriginal societies and the collection he built reflected this.

Young says McCord was unusual in this respect; most of the wealthy collectors who were his contemporaries preferred to dabble in art and artifacts connected to Europe or Egypt.

McCord gave his collection to McGill in 1920, despite his reservations that the University wasn't nearly as excited as it ought to be about its windfall. When McCord died 10 years later, leaving the University little money for the expensive maintenance of the collections, McGill leaders grumbled in return.

According to Young's book, that ambivalence has pretty much characterized McGill's relationship with the McCord ever since. The museum opened in 1921. A decade later, the Carnegie Corporation termed the collection "priceless." A few years after receiving that rave review, McGill shut the place down and kept it closed to the public for the next three decades.

The costs associated with maintaining the collections have long been a sore point with McGill, acknowledges Young. But he figures there are other factors that have led McGill's movers and shakers to be less than enamoured of the place, especially earlier on.

In previous decades, McGill's board of governors tended to be dominated by rough and tumble businessmen. "McGill was driven by male values -- science, sports, war, industry. But on the outskirts of the University, there was this collection of dresses, dishes and paintings. I think it was something of an embarrassment to them. They certainly weren't going to invest in it."

Despite this lack of enthusiasm for the collections, they continued to grow. In 1956, McGill received the Notman Photographic Archives, a collection of 700,000 items, including 400,000 historically significant photos taken between 1856 and 1940 by the famed Notman studios. The McCord's collections were housed in cramped quarters, sometimes beneath leaky roofs.

Given his theory about McGill governors' testosterone levels and the dampening effect it had on their enthusiasm for the McCord, Young thinks it's no accident that the person who kicked life back into the museum was a woman, Isabel Dobell. "She was a powerhouse," Young says of Dobell, a writer who was hired part-time in 1955 to do an inventory of the McCord's collections.

Dobell ended up doing much more than that. A persistent lobbyist within McGill and a talented fundraiser who was on a first-name basis with many of Montreal's wealthiest families, Dobell made the revitalization of the McCord her life's work. She was instrumental in paving the way for the reopening of the museum in 1971.

According to Young, in the years that followed, McGill and the McCord embarked on a strained relationship. The McCord wanted more money than McGill wanted to give. McGill wanted more recognition of its role; McCord officials preferred to play up their autonomy. Quarrels broke out over control of paintings given to McGill but housed at the McCord.

Another complication was that, as the McCord and McGill turned increasingly to the government for financial support, governments insisted that the museum tailor itself to public demand. Young believes that as a result, pressure mounted for the McCord to downplay its research function.

In 1980, the McCord incorporated. This set the stage for better access to government and philanthropic support. It also weakened McGill's authority over the running of the place although the University continued to be the owner of the building and its collections.

More turf battles ensued. There was tension over potentially competing capital campaigns. Then, in the late 1980s and early '90s, came a period that particularly troubled Young. The McConnell Foundation made a $30-million investment in the McCord that resulted in a bigger, more modern museum. The donation also further weakened McGill's say in how the place was run.

David Lank became the chair of the board of trustees, anxious to encourage more visitors to the place and grumbling that "McGill did nothing" to support the museum. He and Young butted heads over an advertisement for a new McCord director -- one that didn't insist on any academic orientation toward the study of Canadian history or culture.

The director who was hired, Claude Benoît, focused her attention on making the McCord a more popular attraction. When Notman Archives curator Stanley Triggs, an invaluable resource for researchers, retired, he wasn't replaced. Pamela Miller and other curators were chastised for spending too much time assisting researchers. Miller was subsequently fired. A McGill course on material culture that hoped to make extensive use of the museum's collections was sent packing.

Young was furious with what he regarded as "this great pressure to just count how many people went through the turnstiles." He spearheaded a campaign protesting Benoît's moves and lobbied for closer links between McGill and the McCord.

Young insists he's not a snob. He recognizes that the McCord must organize crowd-pleasers like its recent exhibitions on the histories of hockey and baseball to appeal to the public. But he is concerned that academic museums are leaning in this direction a little too hard.

"A museum like the McCord can do both. It can have the baseball shows and it can do solid intellectual work.

"If you trot out James Duncan's superb paintings from the 1830s and '40s and put them on a wall in front of schoolchildren, they might see their beauty, but they won't see the historical context. For that, you need curators and scholars. You need to explain the significance of the items. You have to have anthropologists, art historians, sociologists all working together. Otherwise, a museum is just a pretty place to have corporate cocktails."

Young adds that museums have to present more than just baseball exhibitions. "We also need to have some provocative shows, shows that might upset people and make them think." He muses that the McCord's remarkable collection of aboriginal artifacts, coupled with the expertise of somebody like anthropology professor Bruce Trigger, an expert on natives, might make for a controversial exhibition.

Young has some sympathy for McGill's reluctance to operate the McCord; running a university is hard enough. Still, he thinks the university administrators have been narrow-minded in the way they regard the McCord.

"The University is so science-oriented, it fails to see that these collections are research jewels. The McCord is a laboratory of the past. McGill shouldn't just view the collections as a financial drain. Most labs are financial drains."

He believes the University should boldly advocate on the McCord's behalf, the way it does when it raises funds for a cancer centre, instead of treating the museum with lukewarm enthusiasm. He also thinks Montreal's English community should take greater pride in the McCord's role as a chronicler of its past. He says the community "has been too much of a milquetoast" in its reluctance to promote its own heritage.

David Bourke, the current chair of the McCord's board of trustees, isn't much of a fan of Young's book. As McGill's secretary-general during the period in which Young contends the McCord strayed too far from the University, Bourke was responsible for McGill's museums and sees the relationship between the University and the McCord quite differently.

McGill might have been uncertain about how to deal with the McCord during much of its history, but it wasn't distinct in that regard; there were plenty of museums and universities in the same boat.

"People gave their collections to universities because they didn't have anywhere else to give them. The Royal Ontario Museum used to be a University of Toronto museum," Bourke notes.

Most universities had problems funding these museums. Most have given up control of the museums in order to enable the institutions to have access to better funding.

If anything, Bourke believes the changes have allowed the McCord to become the robust national institution David Ross McCord wanted it to be.

"It's not a cozy little research hole for five McGill professors," says Bourke. "It's much more than that.

"We must be one of only a very few North American museums that features thousands of images from its collection on its web site. We're working with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the faculties of education at McGill and the Université du Québec à Montréal to develop tools to teach Canadian history to high school students.

"Brian's book makes it sound as if the McCord is in a hell of a mess. On the contrary, it's never been stronger. If the changes hadn't been made, the McCord probably would be closed today."

Young himself sees encouraging signs. The museum's new director, Victoria Dickenson, is a historian who has welcomed researchers and classes back to the McCord, and Young supports the museum's web-site offerings.

You can be sure that he will keep careful watch over the next phase of the museum's development. "The history of our community is there, tied to those objects."

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