Updated December 27, 2016
Montreal has existed as a continuous European-style settlement since 1642, and was the site of first nations villages for untold centuries before that. As one of the North American cities with deepest roots it naturally has a number of important and interesting history museums.
Fifteen of Montreal's history museums have a collective website.
The Pointe-à-Callière museum focuses on Montreal's history and archaeology, and is built at what's generally considered to be the founding spot of the original French colony of 1642. Part of its charm is that its basement contains walls from some of the original European structures built in the area, long sunk below present-day street level. The museum's mandate is to preserve the archaeological remains of these early settlements for future generations as well as to educate the public about the history of the city.
The main museum building dates from 1992 and was built on the site of the old Royal Insurance Company building which had stood on that spot between 1860 and 1951 when, after a fire, it was taken down. The shape of the lot dictated that the new building should be shaped similarly, and a tower was added partly as a homage to the earlier design.
The museum also includes the old customs house (which now houses its gift shop), an old sewage pumping station nearby, and archaeological sites in the area. Plans are afoot to develop access to disused sewers in the area and excavate the remains of the pre-Confederation Canadian parliament building that burned down in 1849 on nearby Youville Square.
There's a permanent exhibit on the origins of Montreal and a multimedia introduction to the city's history in French and English. 2017 promises to be interesting for the museum as it will be doing something major for the city's 375th anniversary.
The museum usually hosts two or three travelling shows with historical connections throughout the year plus an ongoing program of lectures and activities. Most notably, in late August it holds a two-day 18th-century-style public market in and around Place Royale, with costumed soldiers, traditional snacks for sale and handmade products and wares being sold from market stalls.
The museum is a five-minute walk from the Montreal History Centre along Place d'Youville.
The Montreal History Centre is built in an old fire station dating from 1903, designed in a Flemish style unusual in Montreal. Disused as a firehouse after 1972, the building was preserved by the 1983 inauguration of the History Centre. A major 2001 renovation gave us the museum we have now.
The permanent exhibit, Montréal en cinq temps, introduces the visitor to different eras in Montreal's history through an exhibit including historical objects and the projection of archival movies. A deliberately tactile and multimedia experience of what Montreal has been like at different stages of its history, elements like lamp posts, fireboxes, a streetcar ride, are assembled to give a sense of the layered history of the city. Other exhibits have focused on specific aspects of the city's history. Tours are offered to school kids and the museum holds a regular photo contest.
The History Centre is a five-minute walk from the Pointe-à-Callière museum along Place d'Youville.
The McCord Museum of Canadian History is a research and teaching museum. It was founded in 1921 by David Ross McCord, a wealthy Montreal lawyer who amassed a large collection of items related to Canadian history. On his death, McGill University took charge of the collection and administered the museum for many years. It is supported by all levels of government and members, donors and sponsors.
The museum building was the original McGill student union building, designed by Percy Erskine Nobbs and built in 1905. It was converted for use by the museum in 1971.
The permanent exhibit, Simply Montreal, presents a mass of artifacts from First Nations objects to photographs by William Notman, who documented many scenes and people in 19th-century Montreal. Another permanent exhibit shows the attire of First Nations people.
The Stewart Museum is located inside the British Fortified Depot on Île Sainte-Hélène. The building was constructed in the 1820s as part of a chain of fortifications being put in place by the British after the American invasion in 1812.
The museum usually has a permanent exhibit as well as a temporary one. The Museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. year round.
Montreal has numerous smaller, specialized museums of history, including:
Montreal Firemen's Museum
5100 boulevard Saint-Laurent at Laurier
on the east side of the fire station
This museum contains a surprisingly large collection of artifacts connected with the history of firefighting in Montreal. The wall of helmets belonging to firemen who died in action is quite moving. It is, however, only open Sunday afternoons between 1:30 and 4:30.
1, chemin du Musée, Lachine
near the western end of the Lachine Canal
The building that houses the Lachine museum dates back to 1669 and the fur trade that was once the biggest thing in the local economy. It has historical exhibits but also shows recent art by local artists, and there is a sculpture garden in the surrounding park.
The Fur Trade in Lachine national historic site
1255 Saint-Joseph, Lachine
A surprising piece of history lingering in lower Point St. Charles, the remnant of a farm that's been worked by the Congregation of Notre-Dame for over 300 years.
Musée des hospitalières de l'Hôtel-Dieu
201 Pine Avenue West - 514-849-2919
The history of the hospital sisters of Hôtel-Dieu is deeply connected to the origins of Montreal itself. The museum has interesting old artifacts, not so much old medical devices as religious and historical pieces connected with the adjoining cloisters and the city's history.