Accepted Paper:

Imagining the 'Orient' in early 20th century Canada- The Asian Arts Collections of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts  


Laura Vigo (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

Paper short abstract:

The MMFA's collections provide an ideal time-capsule to appreciate an idea of China that got formed and 'consumed' by early Canadian collectors in Montreal. Their colonialist gaze and faith in the supremacy of the Empire informed their choices thus shaping the core of the museum's collection.

Paper long abstract:

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts owns one of the richest and oldest collections of Asian art in Canada, strangely little known abroad. Over 6000 artefacts ranging from Neolithic pots to modern works were collected by a closely-knit group of Montreal wealthy industrialists connected to the railway boom, who were exposed to the first Asian (both Japanese and Chinese material diaspora on the North American market in the late 19th-early 20th century. Even if the collectors' intentional choices and the way in which they appreciated their newly acquired possessions were based on arbitrary aesthetic criteria, their inclinations well reflect the shared perception of otherness and the construction of a taste for the 'exotic' that pervaded North America in the late 19th century. Sir William van Horne, Lord Strathcona, Mabel Molson and Frederick Cleveland Morgan became informed collectors and then donors, shaping our museum for the decades to come. They unsurprisingly followed the western connoisseur's terms to define the Far East, manipulating its material cultures to favour continuity over change and unity at the expenses of diversity. Artefacts were interpreted as crystallised in time and function. As it turned out most objects were continuously used for various purposes -sacred or profane-, and cherished in a large variety of contexts by different people, as in the case of a 9th century BCE ritual bronze gui container, later absorbed into an imperial collection and finally diaspored in the West to end in our museum's holdings. This is the story of its wondrous journey.

Panel P006
Museums of Asian Arts outside Asia: Questioning Artefacts, Cultures and Identities