Re-imagining the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: Bringing the Museum Into a Post-Colonial Age

Meghan Williams

Since its founding in 1860, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has built an extensive and encyclopaedic collection. In 1991 the museum underwent an extension to better house the bourgeoning collection and to create new galleries such as Ancient Cultures. Now it is time to re-imagine not the space of the museum, but its contents. The museum’s mission statement reads:

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, true to its vocation of acquiring and promoting the work of Canadian and international artists past and present, has a mission to attract the broadest and most heterogeneous public possible, and to provide that public with first-hand access to a universal artistic heritage.[1]

However, the museum is currently far from providing a universal artistic heritage. The international contemporary artists whose works are on display are of European or American descent, or artistic traditions. The truly international aspect of the museum’s collection is locked in the past, in the Ancient Culturesgalleries. Like other museums founded during colonialism, or prior to the development of the new art histories such as post-colonial studies, the MMFA’s curatorial practices are outdated. Through an examination of the MMFA’s collections and post-colonial museological discourse, this paper presents an exhibition proposal museum to update the museum’s contemporary art galleries in order to create a reflexive institution.
The Ancient Cultures galleries, which house art from non-western regions or pre-contact periods, are problematic when analyzed in relation to the rest of the museum’s holdings. Ancient Cultures denotes exotic objects from distant pasts. Yet, these cultures are ancient because the Western hegemony locks non-Western cultures in the past. According to anthropologist James Clifford, for the early ethnographers, “the value of exotic objects was their ability to testify to the concrete reality of an earlier stage of human culture.”[2] Where this is problematic is that this past, and these ancient cultures, were seen as confirming Europe’s triumphant present. Anthropologist C. Richard King says that a European colonial hegemony constructs Native Americans as the “uncivilized” other to European “civilization.” Created by Western scientists on the basis of pre-determined assumptions, King explains that evolutionary paradigms placed Native Americans beneath Europeans on the basis that they had failed to develop as fully. Native American technological and cultural specificities were no longer seen as “cultural facts” but rather as markers of their confinement to an earlier period before the rise of civilization.[3]

This privileging of a Western artistic tradition is evidenced throughout the MMFA. For Western artists, the museum reserves the realm of great art, for non-Western artists, that of ethnography. Clifford says that a work of art in an ethnographic context is “displayed along with other objects of similar function or in proximity to objects from the same cultural group, including utilitarian artifacts such as spoons, bowls, or spears.”[4] The object is often explained as part of a ritual with the name of the artist unknown or suppressed. An object in an art museum on the other hand, is labelled according to the artist, with the cultural context ignored.[5] Through the display of Western art as fine art and non-Western art as culture, the MMFA perpetuates a colonial hegemony which institutionalized the belief that Western art is synonymous with the canon of great art.

When Western museums exhibit the material culture of the “other,” what art historian Svetlana Alpers terms the ‘museum effect’ occurs: objects are isolated from their cultural contexts and transformed into art like our own. Alpers views the museum effect not as one to be overcome, but rather as something we must work with.[6] In order to display non-Western art in Western museums, there is an unavoidable process of appropriation as well as an imposition of Western values. However, a critical approach to how Western art is displayed, rather than a transformation of non-Western art “into art like our own” can distance museums from their colonial heritage. One starting point is the contemporary art collection. Incorporating non-Western artists into this collection would break the colonial idea of triumphant Europe conquering uncivilized and ancient cultures. By including South American, African, or Middle Eastern art, the museum would demonstrate not only that these cultures did not disappear with colonialism, but also that their art is just as valid as the Riopelles and Borduas in the collection.[7] As art historian Carol Duncan writes:

[To] control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths. It is also the power to define the relative standing of individuals within that community. Those who are best prepared to perform its ritual – those who are most able to respond to its various cues – are also those whose identities (social, sexual, racial etc.) the museum most fully confirms … What we see and do not see in art museums – and on what terms and by whose authority we do or do not see it – is closely linked to larger questions about who constitutes the community and who defines identity.[8]

It is time that the museum accurately reflected the multicultural community in which it is located.
To realize and inaugurate my cross-cultural curatorial undertaking, I would like to re-hang the Contemporary Art galleries. My greatest aggravation with the space is that, with the exception of the Riopelle and Borduas rooms, there is an overall lack of context. If, as cultural analyst Mieke Bal says, paintings form sentences in conjunction with their neighbours, there is very bad grammar on the walls of the MMFA.[9] Works are grouped together with no obvious adherence to period, style or theme. I intend to re-hang the collection coherently, having rooms with themes such as “Modernism in Montreal.” The re-hang will serve as a solid foundation for the incorporation of multi-cultural art. However, the acquisition of international and often “marginal” art will not, I assume, be a speedy process and I do not want to place a newly acquired African painting into the current European and Canadian context as this will only reinforce its marginalization. As Irit Rogoff, an art historian who specializes in visual culture writes, we cannot “simply insert other histories into the grand narratives of Modernism and its various crises and collapses,” because this ignores and devalues the struggles that marginalized cultures have endured in conflict with the West.[10]

To specifically express this conflict I focus my re-imagining on one gallery space designated as a cross-cultural room, designed around a multicultural dialogue. A smaller space would initially suit this project best. The room behind the large contemporary art gallery would be suitable because its smaller scale and lower ceiling provide a more intimate environment to stimulate conversation. With the growth of the museum’s collection, I expect this exhibition project to expand and perhaps to function on a larger scale in a gallery space across the hall. This exhibition will be semi-permanent for two reasons. First, this will allow the museum to display works on extended loan rather than having to immediately acquire a large body of international art. Second, this space is intended to be one of interaction between cultural art forms, centered on themes or ideas, which change depending on the international climate and the state of scholarship. This plan for an international exhibition space completes the museum’s mandate and complements and enhances the Contemporary holdings.

These changes will affect the museum’s staff, primarily the Contemporary Art Curatorial Department. The MMFA aspires to international distinction, but this cannot be achieved solely on the strength of blockbuster exhibitions. In director Guy Cogeval’s words: “ten or twenty years later, nothing remains of a show but the catalogue. It is the collection that is the very heart and soul of a museum. The heritage it displays affects all of us, shaping our cultural identity and our view of the world.”[11] Ideally, practice should follow theory. This is an opportunity for curators to establish their own prestige through innovation. I do not anticipate that the curators will be open to the changes, as I am suggesting that change is necessary because of past curatorial failings. Yet, taking this project as a personal attack invalidates the larger goals. Curators should view this as a necessary update, as a new project in which to demonstrate their skills. Collections are built based on the strengths of the institution and the gaps in their collection. What I am suggesting can be considered as the filling of a very large gap. The MMFA has modern and contemporary Canadian, American and European art. What was going on in the international context while Borduas was making his non-figurative abstractions? Who is the Chinese equivalent of Michael Snow?

However, the project has a likelihood of failure if the changes introduced remain Western interpretations of the “other.” Community consultants and experts will be needed to assist both the curators and the educators in terms of political correctness and cultural accuracy, and simply to expand and enrich the viewpoints being presented. Consultants from the communities in question will open a dialogue that can inspire the curatorial project as well as provide insights as to how the museum can incorporate new art works in a relevant and positive way. Clementine Deliss writes that “for a discussion on contemporary art from Africa to be successful today, it has to structure itself as an on-going debate acknowledging the existence of a multiplicity of indigenous art-critical systems and no longer exclusively framed through the gaze of the Western observer.”[12]
This project follows two recent trends in museum practice. The first is a critical re-hanging of collections to reflect current trends in art-historical scholarship. In 1990, the Tate Gallery under Nicholas Serota began an annual re-hang of the permanent collection under the exhibition title New Displays, allowing a rotation of the collection and the display of works that would otherwise not be seen by the general public. In addition each re-hang provides opportunities for diverse marketing.[13] I see my plan as a way to constantly renew interest in the space. In Serota’s words: “Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery in looking at a particular moment, rather than finding themselves on the conveyor belt of history.”[14] The updated MMFA will provide both.

The second trend in contemporary curating is universal or cross-cultural exhibitions. In 1990, Clementine Deliss organized lotte or the transformation of the object for the Grazer Kunstverein and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. The exhibition combined works from Europe, America and Africa in order to put forth a variety of perceptions of material culture with “the premise that an exhibition is a short-term operative site and can be used to expose ideas around the interpretation of art as well as the art itself.”[15] There is also precedent for the incorporation of international art into largely European and North American institutions. The redesigned MoMA includes art from traditions such as Latin America, albeit in a tentative way.[16] But largely there is an absence. Non-Western art exhibited in Western museums remains an addendum to the privileged canon of Western art history where it is marginalized as inferior cultural production. Collector Jean Pigozzi recalls his early understanding of African art as “the stuff that one sees at the Metropolitan in New York – dark wood masks, dogs full of nails, gold jewellery, carved drums – or it was the junk one can buy at Mombasa airport.”[17] His few encounters with contemporary African art both impressed him with the exuberance of the creative output and inspired him to put together a collection to “help the Western world understand that good art can come from … the poor, remote villages of Ethiopia, as well as from air-conditioned studios in SoHo, New York.”[18] It is this generating of ideas and examinations of different cultural contexts which I am interested in developing in my exhibition space. Rogoff describes The Short Century: Independence and Liberatarian Movements in Africa 1945-1994 at P. S. 1 in New York as “a series of losses to various fundamental assumptions that the West has about itself and through which it has traditionally constituted a place named Africa as its quintessential other.”[19] I recognize that while there are issues in not exhibiting contemporary non-Western art, there are issues in displaying it as well. In this case, outside consultants will likely prove invaluable.
A thoughtful re-hanging will keep the museum current and a universal exhibition space will help the museum move beyond the Western hegemony and stereotypical Western understandings and interpretations of the “other.” I see many possibilities for the new space. Presently, one half of the gallery which I have in mind for my project is devoted to portraits and I think that this would be an interesting starting point. I will use portraiture as an entry point to a valuable critique and understanding of how we see ourselves and others; to examine questions of identity and authorship as well as provide a foray into more heated issues in future exhibitions. I would bring Serge Lemoyne’s Dryden (1975), portrait of a local icon, into the space as a contrast to newly acquired non-Western portraits to which we have been little exposed. The Canadian Art installation, for example, features two portraits of West Coast Natives by Paul Kane, taken to be fact, surrounded by portraits of “civilized” Euro-Canadian settlers. This contrast marks the Native subject as “savage” to the Western “civilized.” Portraiture produced by the “other,” who up to now has been the subject rather than the producers of art, will create a multifaceted exhibition and moves beyond the single perspective western hegemony. In addition, an exhibition of portraiture that goes beyond the museum’s current holdings of early Canadian settlers provides non-Western viewers a chance to see a reflection of themselves on Western museum walls.
This project cannot be realized solely on the basis of the museum’s current holdings. The painting which I propose for acquisition is a 2003 self-portrait by Chéri Samba entitled J’aime la couleur (2003). Samba is an artist from Kinshasa, Zaire, who began working in the 1970s as a street artist producing commentaries on contemporary African life and power structures.[20] Describing Samba in ArtForum magazine, Manthia Diawara writes that, “like other market artists in urban Africa, his paintings, influenced by narrative techniques borrowed from comic books, movie posters, and cartoons, deal, often humorously, with the faits divers of modernity and its impact on life on the continent.”[21] The addition of this portrait works towards a change in the museum in several ways. First, the face of a contemporary Black African man indicates that the history of Africa and African art production does not end with the Ancient Cultures Collection. The aim of Samba’s series of self-portraits was to reflect on Africa, reporting through his presence the realities of being an African artist in an international context.[22] Second, the portrait examines African art and culture which can be seen in relation to Western portraiture without slipping into a hegemonic dialogue. Third, the acquisition demonstrates recognition that art production happens outside the Euro-American context and that the museum’s potential viewers do not necessarily see themselves reflected in that context.

I would like to stress that the exhibition cannot work if my acquisition is simply added into a Euro-Canadian context. There needs to be a variety and multiplicity of works in order to create dialogue and avoid a continued neo-colonial approach to art and art display. This includes a critical look at the collections and the museal discourse provided: do western works maintain the status of art while non-western works are merely objects within a western framework?; is there any mention of non-Western art on the museum’s website and in the guidebook and is the language used to describe this work one that fits it into a western narrative?; is a self-evident or self-critical western view presented to the viewers? The process of questioning is an important one; how do museums say what they say and what should they be saying differently? What is missing from the MMFA is an institution-wide commitment to issues of non-Western art and inclusion, and this is more important than smaller insertions of change into the existing structure. Despite our best efforts, we are displaying art in a Canadian setting and we should not presume to speak for others, regardless of how de-centered we attempt to be. Along with the assistance of community representatives who provide viewpoints that we should not hope to create on our own, the museum needs to be aware of itself as a Western institution that is beginning to display non-Western art. The museum needs to be reflexive in order to become complicitous.

Alpers, Svetlana. “The Museum as a Way of Seeing.” In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. 25-32.
Arts of Africa: Jean Pigozzi’s Contemporary Collection. Commissioner André Magnin, assisted by Philippe Bouteé and Belinda Paumelle. Monaco: Grimaldi Forum Monaco, 2005.
Bal, Mieke. “On Grouping: The Caravaggio Corner.” In Looking In: The Art of Viewing Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2001. 161-89.
Bennett, Tony. “Art and Theory: The Politics of the Invisible.” In The Birth of the Museum. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 163-173.
Chong, Derrick. “A ‘Family of Galleries’: Repositioning the Tate Gallery.” Museum Management and Curatorship 18 no. 2 (1999): 145-157.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Deliss, Clementine. “FREE FALL – FREEZE FRAME: Africa, exhibitions, artists.” In Thinking About Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, Sanda Nairne. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 275-293.
Diawara, Manthia. “Chéri Samba- Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie, Paris, France,” ArtForum (November 1997). (accessed April 6, 2006).
King, C. Richard. Colonial Discourses, Collective Memories, and the Exhibition of Native American Cultures and Histories in the Comtemporary United States. New York: Garland, 1998.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts “Mission” (accesed February 21, 2006.)
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Guide Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2003.
O’Neill, Mark. “The Good Enough Visitor.” In Museums, Society, Inequality, edited by Richard Sandell. London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 24-40.
Rogoff, Irit. “Hit and Run – Museums and Cultural Difference.” Art Journal 61 no. 3 (Fall 2002): 63-73.
Smith, Terry. “Making Manhattan Modern, but Not Contemporary Again: Reopening exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, November 2004.” CAA Reviews, http://www.caareviews

1 The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “Mission,”, (Accessed, February 21, 2006.)
2 James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988): 228.
3 C. Richard King, Colonial Discourses, Collective Memories, and the Exhibition of Native American Cultures and Histories in the Comtemporary United States (New York: Garland, 1998): 32.
4 Clifford, 226
5 Ibid, 227
6 Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, eds. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991): 26-27.
7 Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923- ), is a Quebec painter once associated with the Automatistes who later became renowned for his action paintings. Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-60), was a Quebec painter and leader of the Automatistes. The MMFA devotes a room to each artist.
8 Quoted in Mark O’Neill, “The Good Enough Visitor,” in Museums, Society, Inequality, ed. Richard Sandell (London and New York: Routledge, 2002): 28-29.
9 Mieke Bal, “On Grouping: The Caravaggio Corner,” in Looking In: The Art of Viewing (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2001): 170.
10 Irit Rogoff, “Hit and Run – Museums and Cultural Difference,” Art Journal 61, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 66.
11 The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Guide (Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2003): 6.
12 Clementine Deliss, “FREE FALL – FREEZE FRAME: Africa, exhibitions, artists,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, eds. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sanda Nairne (London and New York: Routledge, 1996): 281-282.
13 Derrick Chong, “A ‘Family of Galleries’: Repositioning the Tate Gallery,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 2 (1999): 149-150.
14 Ibid. 153.
15 Deliss, 278
16 Terry Smith, “Making Manhattan Modern, but Not Contemporary Again: Reopening exhibitions auseum of Modern Art in New York, November 2004,” CAA Reviews,
17 Arts of Africa: Jean Pigozzi’s Contemporary Collection, commissioner André Magnin, assisted by Philippe Boutté and Belinda Paumelle (Monaco: Grimaldi Forum Monaco, 2005): 14.
18 Id.
19 Rogoff, 66
20 Manthia Diawara, “Chéri Samba, (Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie, Paris, France),”Artforum International 36, no. 3 (November 1997): 108.
21 Diawara, 108
22 Arts of Africa, 105