© Elias Touil

The McCord Stewart Museum, according to Suzanne Sauvage

Nathalie Schneider, Freelance journalist

December 19, 2022

On the eve of her retirement, Suzanne Sauvage, President and Chief Executive Officer of the McCord Stewart Museum, discusses her tenure at the Museum and the institution’s future.

Since you took over as head of the McCord Museum in 2010, the number of visitors has quadrupled. How do you explain this?

There’s no denying that, 12 years ago, the Museum was a little outdated. The challenge was how to differentiate it from other museums and make it into a vibrant, relevant museum for all Montrealers.

Increasing the number of visitors fourfold took time and effort. We started by redefining its role to bring it into the 21st century, making it an active, participatory, inclusive museum of social history.

We also made a commitment to present history in a critical, inclusive manner by drawing on the Museum’s exceptional holdings of over 200,000 objects and more than 2 million photographs. These collections chronicle the social history of Montreal and its place in Quebec and Canada, as well as the vitality of Indigenous peoples.

At the same time, we developed a new, more modern and colourful, visual identity to reflect our role. By offering very diverse programming (nearly 150 exhibitions during my tenure), creating bold, revamped education, community engagement and cultural programs, and forming strategic partnerships with cultural and community organizations, we encouraged visitors to come to the Museum more than once a year, which partly explains our increased attendance. Our Artist-in-Residence program, where we invite a contemporary artist to interpret our collections, and Evolving Montreal, our program of photographic commissions to document Montreal’s ongoing urban transformation, are just some of the initiatives that have helped attract a larger, younger, more diverse clientele.

In the Studio with Notman exhibition by Marisa Portolese, artist in residence. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2018
Decolonial Gestures or Doing it Wrong? Refaire le chemin exhibition by Nadia Myre, artist in residence. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2016
there's a reason for our connection exhibition by Hannah Claus, artist in residence. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2019
There Once Was a Song exhibition by Meryl McMaster, artist in residence. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2021
Piqutiapiit exhibition by Niap, artist in residence. Roger Aziz © McCord Stewart Museum, 2022

The launch of our Online Collections platform is another strategy used to reach a wider audience and make our collections more accessible. Researchers—and anyone with an interest—can now enjoy access to over 140,000 objects, photographs and archival documents. We’re already working on adding new collections from our holdings to this long-term project.

Could you tell me about the mergers with the Stewart Museum and the Fashion Museum?

The idea of incorporating the Stewart Museum into the McCord Museum existed long before my arrival. This merger enabled us to enrich our complementary collections, especially with regard to objects and documents from the era of New France, and ensure the sustainability of this extraordinary heritage. As for the Fashion Museum, I’d say that similar criteria were at play: the desire to make our institution a reference for the history of fashion in Montreal and Quebec.

The Museum has hosted a number of major international exhibitions. Which one in particular excited you the most?

We have indeed hosted quite a few, including From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly – Beyond the Icon, Balenciaga, Master of Couture, Eleganza – Italian Fashion From 1945 to Today and, more recently, Christian Dior. Of course, it’s always important for us to include something of Montreal in these international exhibitions. For example, the Christian Dior exhibition featured Dior dresses from our Dress, Fashion and Textiles collection that had been worn by Montrealers.

Christian Dior exhibition. Laura Dumitriu © McCord Stewart Museum, 2020
Balenciaga, Master of Couture exhibition. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2018
From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly - Beyond the Icon exhibition. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2013

Of all these exhibitions, my favourite was Horst: Photographer of Style, which we presented in 2015. Devoted to one of the 20th century’s most influential fashion and portrait photographers, this magnificently staged exhibition introduced visitors to his many talents and sources of inspiration beyond fashion photography.

Horst: Photographer of Style exhibition. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2015

In fact, exhibition design plays a key role in all our exhibitions. Fellow curators in London and Toronto who’ve worked with us on these exhibitions have rightly praised the work of our exhibition designers, remarking that the quality of our stagings is a hundred times better than what is done in their respective institutions! We also benefit from the unique conservation and mounting expertise of our internationally recognized Conservation team members, who are often consulted by major museums in the United States and Europe. We’re very proud of them!

Do you believe that museums of today have a duty to engage in outreach, to take the museum to the people?

The McCord Stewart Museum’s outreach efforts began long before I took over. Its annual photography exhibition on McGill College Avenue—a great way to promote photography and our collection—was started over 15 years ago. We also set up the Urban Forest along the west side of the Museum on Victoria Street, a space that the City of Montreal allows us to occupy year-round. Every summer, thousands of Montrealers come there to eat, work at the picnic tables, or watch one of the shows we present. It’s a fun, friendly way to literally bring the Museum out onto the street. Similarly, we install the mechanical window display on Victoria Street during the holidays to continue the tradition started by Ogilvy’s, while the second window is set up inside.

Go Play Outside! exhibition. Laura Dumitriu © McCord Stewart Museum, 2020
Musical performance in the Urban Forest. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2022
Urban Forest. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2020
Ogilvy Christmas mechanical windows. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2018
Ogilvy Christmas mechanical windows, December 16, 2022 © Stéphanie Poisson

Outreach also means taking the Museum out into the city’s neighbourhoods to meet people. It’s the first step towards building trust with communities. We can’t sit back and wait for people to come to us; we have to go to them. With this in mind, we’ve put together two new educational programs. In collaboration with First Nations schools located outside the Montreal area, we’re organizing workshops that also rely on the participation of seniors from the community. In addition, starting next year, we’ll be giving a series of workshops in Montreal schools using educational kits that feature Indigenous objects and testimonials from Indigenous community members.

Can you think of a particularly emotional high point of your time at the Museum?

There were many, in fact, but if I had to pick one, I’d say Kent Monkman’s exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. Through a series of disturbing and heartbreaking paintings and installations, this exhibition explored themes like colonization and First Nations residential schools. What really moved me was seeing visitors realize, for the first time, that this cultural genocide had taken place in Canada and ask themselves what they could do to be part of the reconciliation process and put an end to this systemic racism.

Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibition. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2019

The McCord Stewart Museum is home to some incredible collections. Do you have a favourite?

The Museum houses one of the largest historical collections in North America. I’m particularly fascinated by the Indigenous Cultures collection, while the Photography collection, which documents the period from the late 19th century to the present, never fails to amaze me. My greatest regret is that I was only able to explore a fraction of these collections after spending almost 13 years at the helm of this institution. I’ll simply have to come back in another life as a cataloguer or curator!

What is the main thrust of the new strategic plan? How does it envision the future of the Museum?

The strategic plan was the result of a wide-ranging consultation of over 600 people—the Museum’s various clienteles, employees, and Board of Trustees members—to identify the issues and initiatives that should be implemented. Among the goals set, the most important is undoubtedly to decolonize our museum practices. This is also in line with another goal, to become a model of sustainable development and environmental responsibility in the museum world. For these objectives to be achieved, it is essential that our teams understand decolonization and sustainable development. As a result, we’ve created a staff professional development program focussed on sustainable development and issues of diversity and inclusion.

By decolonizing our museum practices, we’re also hoping to boost attendance by attracting marginalized groups, notably racialized, Indigenous and LGBTQ2+ communities. Our objective is to build relationships of trust with these communities and make the Museum a safe space where they can express themselves and make their voices heard. In addition to being a centre of culture, we’d like to be an agent of change to encourage dialogue and discussion and help strengthen our visitors’ commitment to social justice.

For the past several years, there has been talk of expanding the Museum. What is the status of this project?

We do, in fact, need more space to present our collections; we can only exhibit 1% at any one time. Space is also an issue in our storage areas, which are filled to capacity, and our educational spaces, which limit our ability to accommodate learners. This expansion project will enable us to double the Museum’s current square footage and properly promote Montreal and its history. I’m very hopeful that the various levels of government will recognize this need and support the project in the coming years.

You are a board member of several prestigious organizations and associations. What does life after the McCord Stewart Museum hold?

I haven’t given it much thought yet, but I’m not worried. I’ll soon have a lot of time to think about it! One thing is certain: I’d like to be involved in some way or another with Indigenous communities. Only time will tell.

Griffintown exhibition for Evolving Montreal photographic program. Marilyn Aitken © McCord Stewart Museum, 2020
Robert Walker in Griffintown for the photographic mission Evolving Montreal © Tomi Grgicevic, 2018

About the author

Nathalie Schneider, Freelance journalist

Nathalie Schneider, Freelance journalist

Nathalie has been fascinated by art and nature for 30 years, observing the natural connections between the two. She is a regular contributor to the special museum section of Le Devoir newspaper.
Nathalie has been fascinated by art and nature for 30 years, observing the natural connections between the two. She is a regular contributor to the special museum section of Le Devoir newspaper.