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The History of a Museum of History

This story was initially published in 2006

On October 13, 1921, the McCord Museum of Canadian History was officially inaugurated in Montréal. The museum was named after its founder, David Ross McCord, a passionate collector who assembled one of the first and most important collections of Canadian historical artifacts.

M.David Ross McCord in his library, Temple Grove, Montréal (QC), about 1916
© McCord Museum / MP-0000.2135.1N

David Ross McCord was born in Montréal in 1844 to a prestigious middle-class Irish family. Following family tradition, McCord trained to be a lawyer. In 1870, he became the chief administrator of his family’s estate, which included the “Nazareth Fief,” where he successfully speculated in real estate. Nevertheless, the family business came second to his passion for history.

The late 19th century was a period of historical revival, as Canadians sought to reclaim their national past. Aware of Canada’s diversity, McCord wanted to show that a unified Canada could emerge from its differences. He believed that an understanding of the past would strengthen Canada’s national identity. Sharing the imperialist views prevalent among the English elite at the time, McCord’s vision of history was influenced by the idea of a “clash of races” between the Aboriginal, French and British peoples in North America, who form the foundation of our national identity. McCord devoted most of his life to building a museum that showed the influence of each of these peoples.

McCord National Museum, Joseph House, McTavish and Sherbrooke streets, Montréal (QC), about 1927
© McCord Museum / Sydney Jack Hayward, MP-0000.181.4.1

Starting in 1878, he began to add to the family collection by acquiring historically significant objects that shed light on Canada’s past. The collection became so large that in 1919 he decided to donate it to McGill University. In 1921, the collection was officially unveiled at the “McCord National Museum,” housed in the former residence of prominent financier Jesse Joseph. Closed in 1936, the McCord Museum did not re-open its doors until 1971, in the former McGill Union, on Sherbrooke Street.

The McCord museum contains more than one million objects and 4000 documentary files describing Canadian history. The collection includes ethnological and archaeological artifacts, costumes and textiles, photographic and textual archives, and art works. It documents a range of diverse fields, including those involving domestic, urban, religious, artistic, and political activities. The original collection of photographic archives from famous photographer William Notman is the museum’s most prized acquisition. It takes the viewer back to the Montréal of 1840-1935.

David Ross McCord died in 1930 after having fully realized his vision. In 1999, he was designated a national historic person for having built a public research and teaching museum dedicated to the preservation, study, diffusion, and appreciation of Canadian history.

For further information, please visit the McCord Museum Web site.

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