Arts·Museum Guide

How to spend the perfect 'me day' at Musée des beaux-arts Montréal

Discover hiding spots and creepy-cute hidden gems. Artist Sandra Dumais shares how she does the museum.

Discover hiding spots and creepy-cute gems. Artist Sandra Dumais shares how she does the museum

If you're looking to beat the crowds at Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, illustrator Sandra Dumais has some tips you can use... (Instagram/@mbamtl)

Let's go to the museum! Over the next few weeks, we'll be discovering Canada's favourite museums and public galleries and sharing lifehacks for planning your trip right. What are the must-sees? The hidden gems? At every stop, a different artist will be your tour guide.

The Musée des beaux-arts Montréal is the biggest museum in the city and one of the most popular public galleries in the entire country, attracting more than 1.3 million people last year. Local illustrator and children's book author Sandra Dumais (a.k.a. Moon and Sparrow) is one of those visitors, and for her, there's nothing better than a "me day" at the museum.

"When I'm alone, I love it," says Dumais. Going solo gives her the freedom to think, to sketch — and to chase down all of her favourite things: the museum's trove of Canadian paintings, for example, plus a few "creepy and adorable" items that demand your attention. Here's how she does a quiet, introspective trip to the MBAM. It's an expert guide to getting lost.

How to get there

Head to the MBAM's website if you need detailed directions, whether you're travelling by bus, car or bike. But however you get there, you'll find the main entrance at 1380 Sherbrooke Street West.

Give yourself plenty of time

"This is not a museum you can rush through," says Dumais. For one thing, it's enormous, spread over five buildings and 140,000 square feet of gallery space. You're probably not going to see everything inside — Dumais never does. But even so, she recommends exploring for a minimum of two hours.

As for when you'll want to show up, if you're craving peace and quiet, she has two suggestions. During the school year, museums can be field trip central on weekdays. "If you're going to go early, go for noon. At that one time, all the classes disappear to go eat." (Or at least they did the last time she visited.)

"Also right before closing, in the evening, is awesome." On most nights, the MBAM shuts its doors at 5 p.m. But of course, you'll want to check out their full hours of operation before planning your trip.

First things first

Remember what we were saying about how huge the place is? Grab a map before you do anything else, and if paper's not your thing, try the museum app instead. "There are areas that can go completely forgotten," she says, and no matter how many times she visits, she makes a point of discovering something new. That's another tip for you: challenge yourself to do the same!

Get the Belle Époque

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, level 1 – The Salons of the Belle Époque: Romanticism. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo: Marc Cramer/Courtesy of MBAM)

"I'm a bit of a meanderer," says Dumais, but she suggests wandering in the direction of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace once you're inside. On level one, you'll find The Salons of the Belle Époque: Romanticism. Stay awhile. Says Dumais: "It's a dark blue room covered in Romantic paintings, with projections of leafy tree tops and sounds of singing birds. It's like walking into a night forest. Lovely."

Pay your respects to the Beaver Hall painters

Prudence Heward. At the Theatre. 1928. (Courtesy of MBAM)
Henrietta Mabel May. Snowflakes. Studio Window. 1928. (Courtesy of MBAM)

"There's a group of paintings I always go straight to," says Dumais, and they're all by the Beaver Hall Group — Montreal's great Modernist artists of the 1920s. These are two of her favourites: "Snowflakes. Studio Window" by Henrietta Mabel May and "At the Theatre" by Prudence Heward.

Go toward the light

Luigi Loir. The Point du Jour at Auteuil: Dusk. 1883. (Courtesy of MBAM)

This 1883 painting by Luigi Loir is called "The Point du Jour at Auteuil: Dusk." It's one of two works by the French painter that Dumais is drawn to every visit. "They're very large paintings. Enormous frames!" (This particular oil painting is 149 x 299 cm.)  "They're just striking images. You know when you look at a Renoir, the contrast? You're drawn to the light. You can see it from across the room."

Unwind in a giant, forgotten gallery

Liliane and David M. Stewart Pavilion, level 1. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo: Marc Cramer/Courtesy of MBAM)

The Liliane and David M. Stewart Pavilion is like nothing else at MBAM — or any other Canadian museum, really. It's two whole floors devoted to design and the decorative arts, a hidden gem that too many people overlook. "It's so quiet and quirky!" says Dumais. "It looks like you're walking into the Bay. It's a huge, spacious, almost empty pavilion featuring all sorts of wacky furniture from the past." Please don't sit on the "Getsuen Armchair," but if you're desperate to put your feet up, Dumais recommends one of the public benches around this wing. You won't find a quieter spot for a breather.

Give yourself the creeps

"Creepy and adorable." That's how Dumais describes most of her favourite things inside the MBAM, including...

Z'otz Collective. Untitled. 2017/2018. (Photo: Denis Farley/Courtesy of MBAM)

Z'otz Collective

Says Dumais: "This pottery exhibit is amazing. They're these incredible, playful, enormous clay sculptures. When I first saw them I thought they were really old, but it's a contemporary collective of young artists." On view to June 23 as part of the "Connections" exhibition, a rep for MBAM tells CBC Arts that the artwork will be shown in the museum's new Stéphan Crétier and Stéphany Maillery Wing for World Cultures and Togetherness when it opens this November.

Claude Cormier. Stuffed Animals. 2012. (Photo: Denis Farley/Courtesy of MBAM)

Claude Cormier
"Stuffed Animals"

On loan to the museum from the artist, this installation is made of 3,000 stuffed animals. Says Dumais: "The texture is delicious."

Dana Schutz. How We Would Talk. 2007. (Courtesy of MBAM.)

Dana Schutz
"How We Would Talk"

"It's a disturbing painting in a pretty way," says Dumais.

Ferdinand Hodler. The Woodcutter. 1910. (Courtesy of MBAM)

Ferdinand Hodler
"The Woodcutter"

The MBAM has an extensive collection of drawings by the Swiss artist, but this particular painting is a loan from a private collector. It captured Dumais's imagination on her last museum visit. "When I first looked at it, I had no idea when it was from. It's such a weird picture. It looks really modern in some ways. The ground is pink. And then in another way, it almost has a Van Gogh vibe, actually."

Enjoy an extremely Montreal moment

A portrait of Leonard Cohen adorns a Montreal high-rise. The mural was painted to honour the singer-songwriter, who died on Nov. 7, 2016. (Michel de la Chenelière)

"There's a few really awesome places to hide at the museum," says Dumais, and this final stop is an absolute must — especially if you're a tourist. "There's an enormous mural of Leonard Cohen downtown." (She's referring to this one by MU collective, looking out over Crescent Street.) "There's a rest spot where you can sit, and it's overlooking that. I think it's on the third floor, as you're going into the exhibit. You can spend a little moment with Leonard. It's pretty great. It's so Montreal."

For info on how to plan your visit to the MBAM, visit


Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.