Design-Driven Canadian Museums to visit when they re-open

By Eric Pellerin, Head of Scenography and Media Production at Canadian Museum of History 


Like most sectors, the global pandemic has greatly affected the arts and culture sector as well. Museums are juggling with closures, new sanitary measures and overall lack of revenue. With exhibitions being delayed or simply cancelled, many great designs that were intended to be physical experiences are now being reviewed, sometimes completely re-modelled into digital online products. I have put together a list of museums and art galleries you will want to check out once it is safe to do so.
Out with the old and in with the new

MEM - Centre des mémoires montréalaises

Montreal, QC
My formative design years were spent in Montreal. The city is bursting with cultural institutions. If you happen to go there, one of the quintessential post-pandemic visits should be the MEM, formerly known as the Centre d'histoire de Montréal. In 2018, the museum announced a name change along with a major architectural capital project. The team is working to move the institution’s operations into a brand new contemporary building, set in the heart of the Quartier des spectacles. Visitors will be able to discover spaces three times larger (over 20,000 square feet!), offering four state of the art exhibition galleries and a variety of digital interactive experiences. Considering the creativity of their past exhibition designs, it's a safe bet that history buffs will be in for a treat.
Seeing past the industrial diamond in the rough

MOCA – Museum of Contemporary Art

Toronto, ON


Image: ©Toni Hafkenscheid
Speaking of museums that are moving. For someone who has worked in museums for over 20 years, there is nothing more satisfactory then when a grand building is saved from demolition and re-imagined as a place where art and knowledge are made accessible. But can this be successful when the reconversion takes place in… an adequate formal industrial building? You bet! Since they took over and effectively changed the vocation of this Lower Junction gem, the MOCA can better explore their artist-centred approach with their audiences. Exhibitions are now showcased in clean line spaces, with exposed utility pipes on the ceiling, cool concrete columns and floors. No doubt the former occupants of the building never dreamt of such a design vision for a place like that.

Back to the future

Redpath Museum - McGill University

Montreal, QC


Image: ©Musée Redpath Studios

Sometimes you don’t have to go for the brand new shiny things to find designed spaces that can carry you away. This is why I wanted this museum to make my list. The Redpath Museum transports you to a time when museum goers craved the exotic, unexpected and the unknown. Built in 1882 as a gift from a sugar baron, it is one of Canada’s first buildings erected to house a museum. And very little has changed since! Think cabinet of curiosity, set in a Greek revival temple, with ornate Beaux Arts interiors and old wooden vitrines filled with wicked scientific collections. If you want to experience the latest technologies, this is definitely not going to be your cup of tea. But if you love history, this small time warp will transport you into another world.
Home grounded

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

Halifax, NS

Image: ©Origin Studios


Now more than ever, with global travel restrictions, we find ourselves longing to travel as far away from home as possible. But do we really understand what being far from home truly means? The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 offers a unique perspective where you can explore first-person stories from newcomers who have contributed to the richness and diversity of Canada. On the physical experience front, what you will experience is a series of newly-designed exhibitions that are filled with interactives and artefacts.
Trendsetting for tomorrow

MacKenzie Art Gallery

Regina, SK

Image: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2019


This art gallery I personally want to discover when a more normal life is possible. What inspires me to put it on this design centred list is their innovative approaches in regards to equity challenges that all museums are facing today (Check out their statement about the many systems of privilege and inequity within their communities and institution). Not only did they hire the first Indigenous Executive Director and CEO of a public art gallery in Canada, but they recognize that museums should do more to address systemic barriers. I believe that in order to be even more creative and conceptualize better exhibitions, the museum sector must aim high just like the Mackenzie: with boldness and accountability. 
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