World Cultures

Four Pillars of the Redpath Museum: World Cultures


When you think of the term ‘natural history’ you will probably think of a dinosaur, mineral or taxidermy animal instead of stone tools and beads, but the world cultures collection is an important cornerstone of the Redpath Museum collection.


Back in the Victorian era, ethnological and archeological material was essential to a well-rounded natural history collection. In fact, when the Redpath Museum was first opened in 1882, the world cultures collection was more integrated with the rest of the natural history collection than it is today: the world cultures collection was displayed on the second floor, where the shells and minerals currently are, rather than separated on its own floor.

The Redpath Museum is fortunate to possess much of the original ethnological and archeological collection from 1882. The collection was briefly moved to the ground floor of McGill’s Strathcona Medical Building to form a separate Ethnological Museum from 1926 to 1941 and then returned to the Redpath Museum in 1970 after a thirty-year period where it remained in storage. The one major difference between the original world cultures collection, and that on display currently, is that all of the original artifacts relating to Canada’s First Nations are now part of the McCord Museum’s collections.


While Sir John William Dawson, McGill’s fifth principal and the first director of the Redpath Museum, is best known for his work in geology and palaeobotany, he was also an avid collector of ethnological and archeological material due to his interest in human history. The centre shelf in the case contains beads from Egypt collected by Dawson. These beads are made from a variety of stones including jasper, steatite, and haematite. Some of them are even shaped like animals! Can you find the bead that is shaped like a hippopotamus?

The bottom left shelf holds a bamboo comb that was donated to the museum by Rev. Hugh A. Robertson in 1883. Rev. Robertson collected this comb, and several other artifacts while working as a missionary in the New Hebrides, present-day Republic of Vanuatu. This comb is designed to be worn in men’s hair as a decorative ornament.

On the right shelf, are two scarab figures donated by James Ferrier, who was the Chancellor of McGill University between 1884 and 1888. Scarabs were considered to be ‘scared beetles’ by ancient Egyptians. Can you guess which of these scarabs is modern and which is antique? If you guessed the blue scarab you are correct! Interestingly, the modern scarab figure has hieroglyphics written on the bottom, as seen in the picture.

The Redpath Museum contains over 18 000 artifacts in its world cultures collection, including over 2 300 Greek and Roman coins, 2 500 African objects and the second-largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Canada! Want to learn more about the World Cultures collection? Please visit the third floor of the museum! You will find, pottery, figurines, mummies and more!




Land Acknowledgement

McGill University is on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. We acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous peoples whose presence marks this territory on which peoples of the world now gather.

The Redpath Museum's director EDI statement.

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