Founded in 1983, the Centre d’histoire de Montréal (CHM) is a municipal museum which focuses on interpreting the history of Montréal and of its citizens.
For the past two decades, the CHM has explored ways to get closer to its community, notably by collecting oral histories and using them in its interpretation activities. Our experience and expertise has grown since 2009 with projects such as the exhibitions Lost Neighbourhoods and Scandal! Vice, Crime and Morality in Montréal 1940-1960, and, most recently, Explosion 67. Youth and their World.
The Explosion 67. Youth and Their World project was a colossal one, not unlike Expo 67 itself. It involved more than two and a half years of non-stop work. No one had expected that it would be such an intense experience.
As the year 2017 was approaching, we anticipated that therewould be a lot of interest in the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, especiallyin the context of Montréal’s 375th anniversary. Expo 67 was one of the most significant events in 20th-century history for Canada, for Québec, and especially for Montréal. It had major cultural and social effects and left a lasting impression not only on the city but also on its citizens.
Though the CHM wanted to mark the event, we were not sold on the idea of simply producing a straightforward commemorative exhibitionand limiting ourselves to an exercise of pure nostalgia. It was important tofind an interpretive angle that would provide a new perspective on the event and would engage Montrealers directly.
The angle of youth quickly appeared as the most interesting road to take. We immediately saw it as powerful theme that had not yet been exploited by museums and could draw an enthusiastic response. Our starting point was the idea of drawing a parallel, through an oral history approach, between adolescence, a crucial period in any individual’s life, and Expo 67, a watershed moment in Montréal’s history. The concept was then validated and developed with the help of an advisory committee of sociologists, historians, and archivists.
Our museum has a tradition of dealing with major social themes through the use of oral history in exhibitions and with the participation of citizens in the interpretation of their own history. With the aim of maintaining this tradition, we undertook a major oral history project with people who were between the ages of 11 and 21 between 1967 and 1969. This project resulted in interviews with 47 people and more than 76 hours of recordings. The powerful emotional intensity that emerged from these personal testimonies was a wonderful discovery. It reassured us that we had made the right choice in having people who were young in the late sixties tell, in their own words, the story of Expo 67 and the story of their teenage years.
In addition to featuring oral histories, it was essential that the project be mainly powered by private archives to accentuate the intimate feel of the exhibition and the personal experience of the events. Therefore, a massive preparatory research process uncovered more than 30 000 photographs, objects and archival documents, 250 archived films, and 200 musical works. Most of this documentary content was unpublished and thus outside the scope of the official sources generally used for anniversary tributes such as this.
With every project, the CHM endeavours to take the integration of oral histories one step further. And every time, one of the main challenges is to achieve coherence when incorporating the personal accounts into the overall concept and experience. Above all, the tangible and intangible content has to fit together perfectly throughout the exhibition itinerary. For this reason, it was essential that there be a solid basis for co-creation between the CHM’s team and the production and design team which was led by Figure 55 and Plasma (now Halo), as well as with director and documentary filmmaker Antonio Pierre de Almeida. In the end, we are delighted to find that the vision and intentions of all parties involved blended so well. There has been real dialogue between the museological approach, the cinematic approach, and the graphic design approach. This dialogue is definitely one of the great strengths of this exhibition.
The result is an immersive and multimedia documentary exhibition. Imagined as an Expo 67 “pavilion,” it offers visitors an experience full of anticipation, mystery, emotional intensity, and discovery. Digital experiences, immersive environments, projections, and more than 35 original short documentaries provide an engaging setting for the often humorous personal accounts and the rich visual and sound archives of this watershed period.
Visitors to Explosion 67 enter a kind of “black box,” as though virtually penetrating the minds of people who were young in the 1960s in order to explore their memories. Along the way, “memory molecules” - impressionistic and fragmented recollections ‐ give a glimpse of the powerful impressions left not only by Expo 67, but also by the tumultuous end of the 1960s. The exhibition allows young people from that era to tell their story, and their visceral and emotionally resonant accounts allow visitors to connect with this significant moment in their lives and the development of their society.
In the exhibition, oral history gives colour to the whole range of emotions and events that youth of the time period experienced. The emotional quality that we succeeded in capturing brought us a deeper understanding of the project’s themes and immersed us in the multiple dimensions of this history. With its multimedia approach and virtual reality elements, Explosion 67 is a 3D experience. The personal accounts create a fourth dimension: the human side of history.
Finally, Explosion 67 was a laboratory to test and evaluate new approaches. As the CHM prepares to relocate to a new space in downtown Montréal in 2021, it is reinventing itself to become the MEM (Mémoire des Montréalais.es): a participative citizen space dedicated to the celebration of Montréal’s identity, diversity, and heritage. By exploring new ways of presenting personal accounts in a museum setting, the CHM continues to develop its expertise in documentary exhibitions and remains a pioneer among museums in its collection and dissemination of oral history.
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