Some things change, summer things remain the same

Photo by Joshua De Costa.

The McCord Museum’s Summer Days! public exhibition takes a look at the simple joys of summers past

Along a short stretch of McGill College Avenue, 13 silver frames house 24 black-and-white photos. These photos, although plain and rustic, catch the eye of passers-by. What their eyes are drawn to are candid snapshots showing how Quebecers in the 1900s spent their summers.

The snapshots are all part of the McCord Museum’s Summer Days! exhibition, which the museum put together by picking these historic gems out of thousands of photos from that era, acquired through family donations.

The photos are a serene sight on a busy street, but they also hold a deeper meaning for Montrealers.

“It’s not just art for art,” said Hélène Samson, McCord Museum’s curator of the Notman Photographic Archives. “The McCord is not a fine arts museum—it is in fact the museum of Montreal’s social history.”

For the past 11 years, the museum has showcased Montreal’s social history by displaying its collection in exhibitions like Summer Days! along McGill College Avenue. The exhibitions are also an opportunity to “uncover the richness and diversity of the museum’s collection,” Samson said.

Not too long ago, one Quebecer saw the photos and discovered her family’s ties to the city’s past. Samson said the girl called the museum, said she recognized her grandmother, Yvette, in one of the photos. “[The whole] family plans to go to Montreal and see the photo where Yvette is camping with a friend,” Samson said.

The photos provide a peek into the past, and they also keep a record of the real moments in Quebecers’ lives. “Unlike studio photos, these spontaneous snapshots capture the joie de vivre of Quebecers on vacation,” said Suzanne Sauvage, McCord Museum’s president and CEO, in a June 2016 press release.

In one photo from 1938, two men, Bob and Albert, both wearing ruffled shirts and suspenders, stand side-by-side in a river in Brockville, Ont. They smile and smoke cigarettes as the water swirls around their ankles. It’s possible that the two men may have been suffering through the Great Depression, but their smiles tell a different story.

In another photo, three young girls, wearing straw sunhats and tartan dresses that extend well past their knees, play barefoot on a beach. The caption reads: “Three young ladies from the Braithwaite family.” If it weren’t for the attire, you wouldn’t be able tell that this photo is over a century old.

Technology may have changed the way Montrealers spend their summers, but what these photos of summers’ past show is that some simple joys remain the same: driving through the countryside, picnicking in a park or snoozing on a beach. 

Steps away, on the corner of Sherbrooke and Victoria Street, the McCord Museum holds the complete collection of photographs, along with more than 1.45 million artefacts which include costumes, textual archives, textiles and artworks.

You can find the Summer Days! photos along McGill College Avenue between Président-Kennedy Street and De Maisonneuve Street until Oct. 16.

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