Montreal's Stewart Museum, located inside historic fort, closes for good

The museum is located inside the old fort, a designated heritage site, on Île Sainte-Hélène. Citing financial strain, the museum is closing and its collection will eventually be exhibited at the merged McCord Stewart Museum.

The museum is part of a designated heritage site on Île Sainte-Hélène

The Stewart Museum on Île Sainte-Hélène was founded by David M. Stewart in 1955. (McCord Stewart Museum )

It's only been one week since Quebec museums were allowed to reopen and start receiving visitors for the first time since October. But for the Stewart Museum, located inside the old fort on Île Sainte-Hélène, the reprieve comes too late.

On Tuesday, the museum announced that it was closing permanently, effective immediately.

Citing financial strain and an uncertain future, the museum's announcement listed a number of issues which ultimately led to the decision to close.

These include a decrease in financial contributions from foundations, a steady increase in operating costs, the loss of revenue during the pandemic and the challenge of attracting visitors to the Parc Jean-Drapeau location.

"It's heartbreaking. Closing a museum, and an institution such as the Stewart Museum, is not an easy decision but it's inevitable in a way, because of the economic context and the uncertain future we have ahead of us," said Suzanne Sauvage, president and CEO of the McCord Stewart Museum.

President and CEO of the McCord Museum Suzanne Sauvage said this was a 'heartbreaking' decision to make. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Sauvage told CBC that even before COVID-19, it was difficult to get enough people in the door to make ends meet.

"There's been a lot of centralization of the cultural activities downtown around the Quartier des Spectacles, and to attract visitors, particularly in the winter, to Île Sainte-Hélène has been a challenge."

Despite the closure of the Stewart Museum, the collection of 27,000 artifacts, archival documents and rare books will be integrated into the planned McCord Stewart Museum complex when it's built.

The McCord Museum and Stewart Museum officially merged in 2013, and with the planned relocation of everything under one roof, visitors would be able to get the best of both.

The expansion project, announced in spring of 2019, was supposed to double the size of the current McCord Museum site on Sherbrooke Street across from McGill University, building into the adjacent lot.

However, that expansion is currently on hold due to loss of private funding, which means the McCord site is facing "a major space issue."

The expanded McCord Stewart Museum will be about double the size of the existing McCord Museum on Sherbrooke Street. (DMA)

Leaving the Île Sainte-Hélène site also means the Stewart Museum will no longer be tied to the heritage site, complete with its picturesque courtyard and view of the St. Lawrence River.

Once the building is empty, the site's owner — the Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau — will decide what to do with it going forward.

"It will be up to the Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau to find a new vocation for the building since we are responsible for the administration, maintenance, development and animation of the park and its two islands," said spokesperson Kaven Gauthier in an email. 

A museum with many names

The Stewart Museum was founded by philanthropist David M. Stewart in 1955, originally as the Montreal Military Museum.

Occupying the barracks and arsenal of the old fort, the museum was known for its military re-enactments.

Sauvage suggested that the building could be turned into a military museum once again, "which would be in line with its history."

In 1965, the museum changed its name again, becoming the Montreal Military & Maritime Museum. Another decade later, it became the Île Sainte-Hélène Museum.

When Stewart died in 1984, the museum was renamed for the fourth and final time, in honour of its founder.

In 2007, the City of Montreal designated the fort a heritage site and the museum later underwent a significant renovation.