Canada in a cup: Montreal couple curates unofficial Tim Hortons 'museum'

The visual artist duo says the exhibit is less about patriotism than it is an exploration of Canadian culture and identity.

Visual artist duo says the exhibit is less about patriotism than an exploration of identity

Alexandre Contant and Lorie-Anne Chamberland are the creators of the unofficial Tim Hortons Museum in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. (CBC)

For many Canadians, a cup of Tim Hortons coffee is one of a handful of preeminently nationalistic symbols.

The company, founded in 1964, bears of the name of NHL defenceman Tim Horton and has played heavily into its Canadian roots through advertising campaigns over the last few decades.

Now more than 50 years later, there are franchises in nearly every city, town and highway rest stop in the country.

"I think that all Canadians are de facto fans of Tim Hortons because it's such a huge thing in our culture," says Alexandre Contant, co-curator of the unofficial Tim Hortons Museum.

"In every city we have a Tim Hortons and some cities they don't have a McDonalds, but they have a Tim Hortons. So I think that if you were born in Canada you're a fan."

"You can't escape it," adds co-curator Lorie-Anne Chamberland.

The collection includes merchandise from different aspects in the company's history including special edition and promotional models. (CBC)

The "museum" can be find inside the couple's apartment, located on a little street on the southwestern end of Montreal's Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood.

They've spent nearly $1,000 on merchandise and converted their spare room into an intimate gallery space.

Breaking down Canadian culture

Despite the subject matter, Chamberland and Contant don't consider themselves or the exhibit to be uber-patriotic.

As Contant tells it, his family leaned farther towards the Quebec sovereignty movement than the federalist one.

"My grandfather was an activist for the Parti Québécois. He voted 'yes' on both referendums."

Among other things, the museum features a specialty keychain designed to roll-up-the-rim called a Rimroller™. (CBC)

His family history just may be one element that drives his interest in Canadian culture and identity.

"The argument of the 'yes' camp was we don't have the same culture, there is Quebec culture and Canadian culture," he explains. "Is there such a thing as a Canadian culture?"

The unofficial museum does a better job of posing that question than answering it.

A map on the wall shows the location of every Tim Hortons franchise in Montreal, marked with a single red tack. 

The travel mugs, T-shirts and paraphernalia — some of which has been bought at thrift stores, on eBay or even handmade by the curators themselves — traces a history of a brand that has become synonymous with Canadiana.

There's even a double pair of Tim Hortons inspired earrings which Lorie-Anne Chamberland has sported on several occasions. (CBC)

But rather than identifying the project as a love letter to Tim Hortons or Canada in general, the pair prefer to poke fun at Canadian history and the search to find one, unified identity.

"That's what we're here to critique," says Contant. "It's over-the-top ridiculous. And then people can start to see the irony. It's for this reason that in the beginning people hear about [the museum] and think it's funny and then they realize that we're serious."

The eye of the beholder

It all started with the coffee maker, the very first addition to what is now a vast collection of around 70 items.

They bought a used Tim Hortons brand coffee maker from a thrift store, and the rest is history.

The two are somewhat hard to pin down on exactly what drives their fascination with this particular brand and its products.

Chamberland says the exhibit is really open to the interpretation of the beholder.

It at started with the purchase of the first coffee maker, bought for the house at a thrift store. (CBC)

"I think that with this project, you can make it say and you can do whatever you want with it," she says. "The goal, as in every art form, is to have a reaction.... So if you have a reaction, like, you're already there."

The free museum is accessible only by appointment through the couple's Facebook page.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the chain itself made clear that the company is keeping the passion project at arms' length.

"While we appreciate our guests' passion for our products, this museum is not affiliated with the Tim Hortons brand," read the statement.

A collection in Montreal dedicated to the Tim Hortons coffee chain asks the question: what is Canadian identity? 6:21

With files from Sara King-Abadi, CBC Homerun