Episode 1: Getting Started
From the early nineteenth century, we see the appearance and disappearance of museums with a diversity of content, especially in Montreal and Quebec City. These museums were, initially, the creations of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. Museums of natural history and travelling museums proliferated in this way throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, offering oddities, curiosities and sensational displays. Some accompanied their exhibits with a variety of spectacles, dioramas, amusements, plays, concerts, and explanatory booklets. Entertainment value, which is not unfamiliar to our contemporary museums, was a key element in drawing crowds-families in particular, but also, on occasion, schoolchildren. It is difficult, however, to gauge the seriousness of these presentations, especially when one considers how the information was communicated. (See Gagnon for more details.)
Most of the precursors of the great contemporary Western museums emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century. Spurred on by philanthropists, religious institutions, colleges and universities, collections were assembled and museums created. These exhibition halls became, and have remained even to this day, austere places of learning where science and knowledge are categorized. The Victorian museum is the stereotype with which many museologists must still come to terms at the start of the new millennium. The driving force behind these museums was a desire to educate the masses in order to increase social and economic well being. In addition, these museums offered courses, conferences, workshops, etc.
It is interesting to note that museums came into being at the same time as public school systems. Schools and museums share, in fact, an important educational function. It is no coincidence that Egerton Ryerson, the great Ontario reformer to whom we owe the public school system of that province, created in the 1850s a museum intended for teachers in training as well as students in Toronto schools. It was Ryerson’s belief that the museum should be an essential component in the development of every individual. The collections amassed for this museum gave birth, several years later, to the Royal Ontario Museum.
However, with the rise of public schooling, museums progressively unburdened themselves of their educational mandate, and concentrated on collecting and the scientific study of content. In Quebec, we see the birth of projects or collections that would later become great public establishments: for example, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Art Association of Montreal), the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Geological Survey of Canada) and the Musée du Séminaire de Québec.
Episode 2: Efflorescence
Quebec museums resumed their educational mandate in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of increased activity in the museum world, linked to an awareness of the importance of heritage. It is interesting to note that, according to Allard, Expo ’67 in Montreal may have engendered an enthusiasm for museums in Quebec, much as the great World’s Fair had in London in 1851. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts established its first education department in 1961. Although numerous activities termed “educational” had been offered there since the 1930s, the museum now acknowledged the importance of its educational mission and would become a trailblazer and an inspiration for a number of other institutions. Museum-related education gradually developed in Quebec during the 1960s and 1970s with the creation of new museums and the development of programmes for schoolchildren. In fact, museum-related education would henceforth be synonymous with schooling. Professional literature dealing with the world of museum-related education increased in volume, both in Quebec as in other Western countries, particularly in the United States, followed by England. The early literature often deals with problems facing educators in their daily work or questions of a practical nature: the absence of professional recognition and of literature pertaining to their new profession; excessive dependence on the school system and its uncertainties (transportation, budget, etc); the workload (most educators designed, supervised and delivered the programmes themselves); programme design, successful techniques, etc.