Arts·Museum Guide

It's like something out of a storybook, and it's in Montreal: An artist's tour of the Redpath Museum

Antique dioramas, secret drawing nooks...and curtains made of human teeth?! They're all waiting for you inside.

Antique dioramas, incredible fossils...and curtains made of human teeth?! They're all waiting for you inside

A curiosity in and of itself, the Redpath Museum is the oldest museum building in Canada. Let's go inside. (Facebook/@redpathmuseum)

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

To most Canadians, museums only look like this in old storybooks: dark Victorian woodwork, ancient dioramas — even more ancient specimens. But there's an exception in Montreal.

The Redpath Museum is the oldest purpose-built museum in the country — a slightly imposing landmark on the northwest corner of the McGill campus, what with its Greek Revival columns (and the threat of dinosaurs lurking inside). First opened 1882, the place is an antique in itself, which might account for why just about every artist featured in this series so far asked if they could talk about it. But the honour goes to Jude Griebel. For one, he called dibs first. But the Brooklyn-based artist also has a unique perspective on the place.

Your tour guide, Jude Griebel. (Courtesy of Jude Griebel)

"It's definitely a wonderful old relic of a natural history museum, and it has all original Victorian interiors, beautifully painted and preserved," says Griebel, who used to explore the place while doing grad studies at McGill. "It really has an old-world museum feel to it." And a few years ago, he pitched the Redath with the idea of doing an exhibition. In 2014, he'd made a series of sculptures that "subverted the idea of taxidermy display" — art that would be at home among the Redpath's stuffed jungle predators and whale skeletons. The exhibition, Reanimator, appeared there in 2016.

"It allowed me to spend a lot of hours there, just looking and figuring out the best way to do [the show]," he says. And if learning by dust-borne osmosis is a thing, the Redpath's also gently inspired the displays at Griebel's Museum of Fear and Wonder. (Co-founded with his brother, it's a similarly old-fashioned and mysterious place located in southern Alberta — and our team was compelled to see it ourselves last year. Watch that video here.)

"I am especially drawn to the aesthetic of the Redpath's displays because in my sculpture I'm referencing a lot of natural history dioramas and ways that we understood the natural world through materials," says Griebel. (Take a look.)

But he keeps returning to the Redpath for more reasons than that. "I find it's really important for me to have certain old rooms I go back to that never change," he says. "It's a very grounding thing in a rapidly changing world."

"There's minor changes to what's being shown, but the Redpath often stays the same. The only thing that changes is you coming back to it. And sometimes that helps you discover new things."

With that in mind, here are the things he always goes back to.

First, take your sweet time getting there

To get the most out of your visit, be strategic about your arrival time. "I most enjoy being there during really quiet hours," says Griebel — but peaceful vibes aren't always a given. The Redpath is a classic field trip destination, but in his experience, the kids usually clear out by the end of the afternoon. Aim to arrive by then, and if you're just passing through Montreal, take the late start time as an excuse to dawdle along the way. "In the summer you can walk along Mont Royale, the mountain in the middle of the city, and end up on the McGill campus," says Griebel. "It's a beautiful walk, whatever direction you're coming from."

Go towards the polar bear! (This photo was taken during Jude Griebel's Reanimator exhibition at the Redpath Museum. Some of his work is installed on the white table.) (Courtesy of Jude Griebel)

The Ordovician Diorama

Don't let the giant polar bear distract you. That relatively recent acquisition (it was donated in 2010) is perched on top of one of Griebel's favourite attractions: a sea-floor scene that's been part of the Redpath's permanent exhibit since the late '50s.

"It's the first really great thing to see," he says, and it'll be staring right at you once you're through the doors. The diorama shows what Montreal looked like when it was still under water. That was half a billion years ago, during the Ordovician period.

Mile End hipsters, circa 480 million years BC. (Courtesy of the Redpath Museum)

"It's supposed to be reality, but it depends on a lot of fantasy. And it really engages the imagination that way," says Greibel, whose eye is always drawn to the painted backdrop. "It's something people might not even notice, but with these dioramas there's always a point where they're trying to erase the fact it's a box you're looking into. I like the sort of forced perspective of the painting."

"It has a really sort of crafty, charming feel that I like even though it's supposed to be something very old and ancient and from another time."

Take the time to discover all the marine specimens while you're on the main floor, he says. "It's important not to overlook those displays and just head right up the stairs." This fully articulated skeleton of a leatherback tortoise, which was hung in its current spot in 2003, is one of his favourites.

From the museum floor, you'd see this tortoise from a different angle. It's actually hanging on the wall. Check out the crown molding. That's your clue. (Courtesy of the Redpath Museum)

This is why you'll want the place to yourself

If you're taking the stairs to the second and third floors, be warned — there's a stuffed gorilla guarding the top. And take your time as you climb.

Grab a step, actually, and stay awhile.

"The museum has this beautifully crafted Victorian staircase," says Griebel, and he thinks it deserves as much admiration as anything in the collection. Over the years, it's doubled as one of his favourite places to hang out during a visit.

"Just sitting on the main staircase, I've done that quite a bit to draw," he says. Obviously, camping out on the stairs is a lot easier (and safer) when the place is reasonably empty — but if you followed tip No. 1, you've beaten the crowds already, right?

Proceed with caution. Artists may be hiding on the steps. (Courtesy of Jude Griebel)

This shell is one in 7,000

In 1998, the Redpath acquired the shell collection of Abe Levine, a Montrealer whose personal "conchological treasure" is made up of some 7,000+ specimens. Many of those shells can be found behind glass on the second floor. "It's just lovely to look through and see the contrast of all the shells sitting in there," says Griebel. "My favourite thing in there is a dark oyster the size of a record." According to the Redpath, Levine himself researched the unusual provenance of this particular item. "It was found attached to the wreck of a German submarine."

Shell yes. This is the oyster Jude's talking about. (Courtesy of the Redpath Museum)

This room will give you chills

"On the second floor there's this amazing gallery called the Dawson Gallery which opens up and it's a two-level gallery, sort of open air with skylights at the top, and the interior architecture is just incredible."

Also, there's an eight metre-long dinosaur skeleton right in the centre of it — this guy. A Gorgosaurus.

Welcome to Jurassic Park ... via the Dawson Gallery! (Facebook/@redpathmuseum)

"That room is very magical to spend time in due to the architecture more than the displays, I would say. Just walking through the door of Dawson Gallery is really spectacular."

While you're there, discover a secret study nook

"If you walk to the very back of the Dawson Gallery, there's a set of windows that are kind of tucked in behind some displays," says Griebel.

"That's my little quiet space where not a lot of people go. It's a really nice spot to look out these old antique windows and sit. It's often a place I go to draw."

Those aren't beads...

The Redpath's a museum of world cultures as well as natural history. They own Canada's second-largest collection of Egyptian antiquities, for example. And the third floor is where you'll find all their ethnological exhibits, including one of Griebel's favourite items: a curtain from a Chinese dental stall — that isn't what it appears to be.

"It looks like one of those '70s beaded curtains," he says. But those aren't beads. "It's actually a curtain made out of human teeth," he explains — assorted chompers that would have been extracted by the dentist who owned it.

It's not always on view, he says. "But hopefully if you go, you'll be able to see it. I find it to be a sort of jarring object."

Plan an extra special visit

Events are happening at the Redpath all through the year, but according to Griebel, you'll want to see what they do for Nuit Blanche. As part of that annual art festival, the Redpath usually hosts a flashlight tour. It's exactly what it sounds like: visitors get to prowl around the displays in the dark. "When you're being led by the beam of a flashlight, it really allows you to focus in a different way," he says. "It's a really fun way to rediscover the collection."

And here's one final museum hack. Maybe you're not around for Nuit Blanche, but the Redpath offers lectures all the time — science talks that are aimed at the general public. Those events typically take place in the Redpath's auditorium, a raised-level lecture hall where, back in the 1880s, McGill's first female students had their classes.

Says Griebel: "It's worth going to any lecture just to sit there because that's a space you don't get to see during a normal museum visit."

(Facebook/@redpathmuseum)

For more info on how to plan a visit to the Redpath Museum, visit www.mcgill.ca/redpath.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.