Best history museums to visit in Montreal, Quebec

Montreal, the cultural hub of Quebec, is a city steeped in a captivating history that spans centuries. As one of Canada‘s oldest and most vibrant cities, it boasts a diverse heritage that has left an indelible mark on its present-day identity. At the heart of preserving and celebrating this heritage lie the numerous history museums that grace the city.

In this article, we embark on a fascinating journey through Montreal’s history museums, delving into the past and unearthing the stories that have shaped the city’s evolution. From the early days of settlement by Indigenous communities and the arrival of European explorers to the development of industries that paved the way for its economic growth, these museums offer an immersive experience into the city’s past.

We will explore the distinctive narratives presented by each museum, highlighting their efforts to showcase artifacts, documents, and interactive exhibits that capture Montreal’s multifaceted history. Join us as we uncover the treasures within these museums, providing a glimpse into the captivating history that defines Montreal and the people who have called it home.

Pointe-à-Callière Museum

The Pointe-à-Callière Museum, located in Old Montreal, is an archaeology and history museum founded in 1992 to celebrate Montreal’s 350th birthday. With over 350,000 visitors annually and more than 4.5 million visitors since its opening, the museum showcases artifacts from First Nations of the region, illustrating cultural interactions over the years under the influence of the French and British regimes.

The museum complex includes three archaeological sites: Pointe-à-Callière, Place Royale, and 214 Place d’Youville, among others. It stands above significant historic and archaeological sites, preserving major periods in Montreal’s history.

The museum’s permanent exhibitions cover various themes such as the 1701 Great Peace of Montréal, the city’s built and industrial heritage, and more. Additionally, it hosts numerous temporary exhibitions on local and international archaeology, history, culture, and creativity.

Educational and outreach programs, along with cultural activities, are available for school groups and the public, including musical performances, theater, and lectures. The museum actively collaborates with Native and cultural communities and has received over fifty national and international awards for its contributions to museography, architecture, and community activities.

Affiliated with several organizations, including the Canadian Museums Association, the museum continues to be a significant cultural institution showcasing Montreal’s rich heritage.

Bank of Montreal Museum

The Bank of Montreal Museum is located in the old Montreal offices of the Bank of Montreal on 119 Saint Jacques Street, and it stands as a symbol of the bank’s rich history. This bank was established in 1817, being the oldest bank in Canada. Although its operational headquarters moved to Toronto in 1977, this building remains the bank’s legal headquarters.

The centerpiece of the complex is the Bank of Montreal Main Branch, an awe-inspiring Neo-Classical building designed by John Wells in 1847, inspired by the former headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Adorned with a Corinthian colonnade and a triangular pediment, the building features intricate sculptural work by John Steele, symbolizing the world of finance, dating back to 1867.

The grand hall boasts 32 Corinthian columns made of green syenite, with gold-plated bronze capitals, supporting a dome reaching over 27 meters in height. The ceilings are adorned with 22-carat gold paint, and the marble counters are well-preserved, adding to the opulence of the space.

Within the passage between the old building and the current head office, the Bank of Montreal Museum showcases exhibits detailing the bank’s history. Visitors can explore a 19th-century teller’s window, view photographs, coins, banknotes, cheques, and mechanical piggy banks. The museum is open during regular bank hours and offers free admission, allowing visitors to delve into the rich heritage of this historic institution.

Château Ramezay

The Château Ramezay, located on Notre-Dame Street in Old Montreal, is a museum and historic building steeped in rich history. Constructed in 1705 as the residence of Governor Claude de Ramezay, it holds the distinction of being Quebec’s first proclaimed historical monument and the province’s oldest private history museum. In 1949, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

Throughout its existence, the Château Ramezay changed hands and served various purposes. It housed the Continental Army’s Canadian headquarters during the American Revolutionary War in 1775, with notable figures like Benjamin Franklin staying overnight. Later, it became the official residence for British governors from 1849 to 1878.

In 1894, the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal acquired the building, transforming it into a historical museum and portrait gallery. The museum’s collection, primarily comprised of gifts from private Montrealers, boasts around 30,000 objects, including manuscripts, printed works, numismatic items, ethnological artifacts, artworks, paintings, prints, and furniture.

The Château Ramezay underwent extensive indoor and outdoor restorations from 1997 to 2002, culminating in the creation of the Governor’s Garden in 2000, which received the National Award of Excellence from the Landscape Architects of Canada. Welcoming over a million visitors, the Château Ramezay Museum stands as a living testament to Canada’s fascinating past and cultural heritage.

Pied-du-Courant Prison

The Pied-du-Courant Prison, a prison museum in Montreal, is located near the Saint Lawrence River and the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. Originally designed by Quebec architect George Blaiklock in 1825, it was later built by John Wells and opened in 1836 to house over 276 prisoners.

During the 1837-1838 rebellion, it held over 1500 prisoners. After its closure in 1912, the prison became the headquarters of the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), the provincial liquor board.

The prison played a significant role in the history of the Patriotes, with several executions by hanging taking place there. The site now includes a museum dedicated to the Patriotes and houses the Monument aux Patriotes by sculptor Alfred Laliberté, representing Chevalier de Lorimier, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and Wolfred Nelson.

The collections of the Maison nationale des Patriotes showcase artifacts related to the Patriots of 1837 and 1838, contributing to the understanding of their history. The prison’s historical significance continues to be commemorated on National Patriote Day with gatherings and events.

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

The Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) is a Quebec government agency responsible for managing the province’s legal deposit system, national archives, and national library.

It was created in 2006 through the merger of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec and the Archives nationales du Québec, which had previously merged with the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec in 2002. The BAnQ, located at the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal, houses legal deposit copies of all works printed in Quebec or related to Quebec, including those written by Quebec authors.

In addition to its regular collection, BAnQ maintains a valuable collection of over 11,000 rare books published between the 15th and 19th centuries. This includes texts from various religious communities and works by historical figures such as Samuel de Champlain and Louis-Joseph Papineau.

The library also holds more than a hundred documents in Indigenous languages, representing the three major linguistic families in Quebec: Iroquoian, Algonquian, and Inuit. Most of these documents are accessible in digital format on BAnQ’s website.

BAnQ operates in twelve facilities open to the public, including the flagship library, Grande Bibliothèque, located in the Quartier Latin in Montreal. This modern library encourages exploration and offers free access to its vast collections.

While some materials can be borrowed, rare items, like most of the legal deposit collection, can only be consulted on-site. The Grande Bibliothèque attracts scholars and the general public, welcoming around 50,000 visitors each week.

The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site

The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site is a historic building located in Montreal, at the western end of the Lachine Canal. This National Historic Site served as a strategic departure and arrival point for fur trading expeditions in the 17th century.

Voyageurs launched their canoes from here to transport trade goods deep into North America’s interior, as the Lachine Rapids blocked further westward ship navigation along the Saint Lawrence River.

Constructed in 1803, the stone warehouse stored furs collected from the fur trade. Today, it is a Parks Canada museum dedicated to preserving the history of this significant location. The site was vital for transferring goods between canoes and ships, making Montreal a crucial starting point for westward canoe routes.

The Lachine Canal, built in 1825, bypassed the rapids, further facilitating trade. The warehouse became a museum in 1985, offering visitors interactive presentations and guided tours to delve into the bustling fur trade industry of the early 19th century.

McCord Stewart Museum

The McCord Stewart Museum, officially known as the McCord Museum of Canadian History, is a public research and teaching institution in Montreal, Quebec, dedicated to preserving, studying, and promoting Canadian history. Founded in 1921 by David Ross McCord, the museum’s diverse holdings have grown significantly over time.

One of the main collections is Ethnology and Archaeology, with 15,800 objects showcasing the life, arts, cultures, and traditions of Aboriginal Canadians, along with objects from communities in Alaska and the northern United States.

This includes over 7,300 historical aboriginal objects dating from the early 1800s to 1945 and more than 8,500 archaeological objects dating from about 10,000 years ago to the 16th century.

Another notable collection is Costume and Textiles, with 18,845 objects featuring women’s dresses, hats, fans, and footwear crafted by renowned 20th-century designers from Montreal. Menswear, suits, coats, and accessories are also part of this collection, along with embroidered samplers, quilts, and North America’s oldest known patchwork quilt from 1726.

The Notman Photographic Archives collection holds 1.3 million photographs, providing a visual history of Montreal and Canada from the 1840s to the present. It includes the William Notman & Son Photographic Studio fond, with over 600,000 photographic images dating mostly from 1840 to 1935, along with approximately 700,000 images by other photographers.

The museum also houses collections of paintings, prints, and drawings, offering 69,000 iconographical pieces illustrating the history of Montreal, Quebec, and Canada, and Decorative Arts with 38,900 objects showcasing the material environment of past centuries.

Additionally, the Textual Archives collection preserves manuscripts, correspondence, personal journals, and other historical documents from the 18th century to the present, representing various families, well-known individuals, companies, associations, and collections related to Canada’s history.

Outside, visitors can admire the sculpture “Totem urbain / histoire en dentelle,” an allegorical representation of Montreal’s history, created by Pierre Granche.

Montreal Holocaust Museum

The Montreal Holocaust Museum (Musée de l’Holocauste Montréal) serves as a poignant educational institution dedicated to raising awareness about the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism, racism, hate, and indifference. Founded in 1979, it stands as Canada’s sole recognized Holocaust museum.

The museum’s remarkable collection of over 12,900 artefacts, mostly donated by local Holocaust survivors and their descendants, offers insights into life before, during, and after the Holocaust. Notable pieces include an urn containing ashes from Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Heart from Auschwitz, a heart-shaped book with birthday wishes smuggled out of the concentration camp.

Furthermore, the museum houses the largest oral history collection of Holocaust survivors’ stories in Canada, with over 800 archived testimonies. Its permanent exhibition, “To Learn, To Feel, To Remember,” showcases Jewish culture and history in Europe before the war, the devastation of Jewish life during the Nazi era, and the survivors’ resilience in rebuilding their lives in Montreal and Canada.

The museum hosts impactful traveling and virtual exhibitions that examine genocides, including the Armenian genocide, Cambodian Genocide, Rwandan genocide, and the Holocaust, encouraging understanding and prevention.

The institution also organizes public events like Yom Hashoah and Kristallnacht commemorations, as well as educational events featuring guest speakers, films, workshops, and Holocaust survivor testimonies. Through its initiatives, the Montreal Holocaust Museum strives to foster respect for diversity and the sanctity of human life.

Musée des ondes Emile Berliner

The Musée des ondes Emile Berliner is a technical history museum located in the historic factory of the Berliner Gramophone Company in Montreal. It showcases the development of music recording and subsequent industries. In 2020, the museum received the Governor General History Award for its project celebrating the Centennial of Broadcasting in Canada.

Emil Berliner, the inventor of the flat record with a lateral cut, established the Berliner Gramophone Company’s world headquarters in Montreal in 1907. The factory later became part of RCA Victor Canada. The museum was founded in 1992 and holds approximately 30,000 objects related to recording technology, broadcasting, various recording media, and the development of satellites.

The museum presents a permanent exhibition featuring phonographs, gramophones, radios, and records from different eras, tracing the history of sound recording and diffusion. It also hosts yearly temporary exhibitions and offers a weekly workshop for sound engineers, record collectors, and historians known as the “Club des vieilles lampes.”

Financed by federal, municipal, and provincial subsidies, as well as self-generated revenues, the MOEB operates with a budget of $110,000. In 2019, 18% of its operational costs were supported by the City of Montreal and the Sud-Ouest borough. The remaining 82% came from the museum’s income through visits, souvenir sales, and donations.

Maison Saint-Gabriel

The Maison Saint-Gabriel Museum in Montreal, preserves the history, heritage, and artifacts of mid-17th century New France settlers. Administered for over 300 years by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal, it was founded in 1658.

Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2007, the museum includes a small farm that supported the Congregation and served as a preparatory school. The original farmhouse burned down in 1693 but was rebuilt with 17th-century structural design elements.

In the 18th century, the farm expanded, cultivating wheat and oats and raising animals for butter, wool, soap, and leather production. In the early 1960s, the original house was transformed into a museum, and the adjacent Jeanne-LeBer house was built for the overseeing sisters.

The museum hosts live demonstrations, surrounded by gardens, showcasing 17th-century craftmaking. With over 15,000 artifacts, the museum’s collection recreates rural life in New France, featuring domestic objects, religious clothing, furniture, correspondence materials, and agricultural tools dating from the 17th century onwards. The Maison Saint-Gabriel offers a captivating glimpse into the lives of early settlers and the rich history of the region.

Montreal Aviation Museum

The Montreal Aviation Museum (French: Musée de L’aviation de Montréal), formerly known as the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre (French: Centre canadien du patrimoine aéronautique), is a renowned aviation museum located in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec.

Godfrey Pasmore founded the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre in 1998, and it warmly welcomed the public in 2009. In 2016, the museum adopted the new name, the Montreal Aviation Museum.

The museum boasts a diverse range of engaging activities catered especially to the youth. Among its prominent features are a collection of historically significant aircraft, a world-class aviation art gallery, a comprehensive documentation center and library, and a treasure trove of aviation artifacts and memorabilia.

Visitors are treated to captivating workshops where they can observe aircraft restoration and construction processes, making the experience all the more immersive and enlightening.

The aircraft collection housed at the museum is nothing short of remarkable. It includes esteemed aviation marvels such as the Blériot XI, Fairchild Bolingbroke Mk IV, Fairchild FC-2, Fleet Canuck, and Curtiss-Reid Rambler. Each of these aircraft holds significant historical value, allowing visitors to witness the impressive evolution of aviation technology and engineering.

The Montreal Aviation Museum stands as a testament to the rich history and achievements of aviation in Canada. By offering an array of captivating exhibits and interactive programs, it continues to inspire and educate aviation enthusiasts of all ages.

Museum of Paleontology and Evolution

The Museum of Paleontology and Evolution (MPE) was established on October 4, 1995, in Montreal, Quebec, by a group of paleontology enthusiasts and academics. It is a non-profit organization with the current mission of preserving, studying, and showcasing Quebec’s fossil heritage.

Today, the museum houses over 60,000 fossils, mainly originating from Quebec and spanning hundreds of millions of years. These specimens have been donated by private collectors and universities or collected by the museum’s members.

The MPE features a conservation and research laboratory and regularly organizes outings, guided excursions, and fieldwork in which the public can participate, contributing to scientific research advancement. Additionally, the museum occasionally hosts temporary and traveling exhibitions and participates in organizing conferences and symposiums.

The Museum of Paleontology and Evolution is currently seeking a permanent location in the Montreal region that would allow it to display its collections to the general public on a long-term basis.

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