Few North American museums have the opportunity to say they have been a military site for more than 350 years. The museum of the Fort Saint-Jean National Historical Site of Canada can! It is located on the Richelieu River, 40 kilometers south of Montreal in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. The museum has a two-floored exhibition presenting the military history since 1666. The Museum is on the site of the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, a unique situation in Canada as the site is both a military and a public space!
The Fort Saint-Jean Museum is dear to my heart. It was my first “real” job as a tour guide in the summer of 2011. I recently graduated from an undergraduate degree in anthropology, soon to be a master student in archaeology. My summer internship as a tour guide then turned into multiple contracts as an archaeologist until today. From 2012 to 2016, I contributed to the artifact inventory and the new exhibition.
Prior to 2012, the Fort Saint-Jean Museum was located in an old Protestant church. In order to prepare the new exhibition, the museum closed for almost four years. That was the time required to work to pack the artifacts, to develop the new exhibition, and to get the new building in accordance with museological standards. The museum moved in a 1839 building constructed by the Royal Engineers of the British Army. Throughout its history, the building served multiple purposes but to be a museum, it needed controlled temperature, controlled humidity, appropriate lighting, and appropriate rooms for the collection reserve and exhibitions.
Built with two floors, the museum is divided into two main narratives. The first floor welcomes the part of the exhibition about the colonial period, while the second floor addresses the Canadian period until today.
Since 1666, the site witnessed the construction of four consecutive forts, two French and two British. The chronology of these forts creates the narrative of the first floor. Each section has a series of displays exhibiting the artifacts from the archeological excavations led on site since the 1980s. Each artifacts have been carefully chosen. We wanted to have a wide range of objects that were not only pretty or spectacular, but objects that could tell a story. How many time have I seen artifacts in a museum that, sure looked pretty, but were not bringing anything to my understanding of the exhibition? Our modern life is surrounded by objects that serve multiple purposes other their esthetic, why would it be different when we look at the past?
Thanks to the multiples archeological excavations, we had hundreds of artifacts to choose from. In addition to historical accuracy, we had to be sure that they could be safely put on display and that they could participate to each display’s narrative. I had to switch my mind to pick up only a few artifacts. I remember facing our collection of hundreds of clay pipes. I was like a child in a candy store who was told she could only pick five of them! I had my heart broken a couple of times, but I was also really happy to share with others the content of our collections. My favorite artifact is a black basalt tea set with a teapot, a creamer and one cup. Being a tea addict myself, I was left in awe as I opened its box after the conservation team made their magic on what was once hundreds of pieces. It probably belonged to an officer during the early 19th century as tea became more commonly consumed in North America.
Archeological artifacts and discoveries are central to the first-floor exhibition. In addition to hundred artifacts, we have also put in display many reconstitution of buildings through 3D modeling. Visitors can enjoy the evolution of the site unfolded before their eyes. We also encouraged them to go outside the museum and see the different remains that still inhabit the site. Not only can we still see 18th and 19th-century structures, there are multiple planes and tanks displayed on the exterior site.
While the first floor is organized around the colonial period historical events, the second floor started with the Canada Independence in 1867. The Saint-Jean fort served as a training camp for military units. The exhibition pays tribute to the different regiments trained and based on site during World War I and World War II with original objects and uniforms. The second to last section of the museum is dedicated to the Royal Military College Saint-Jean created in 1952. It presents officer cadets' life, among which prestigious alumni like the Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau and Lieutenant General the Honorable Roméo Dallaire.
The last display of the museum is also probably one of my favorites as it is dedicated to the different archeological excavations undertaken since the 1980s. The display is meant to evolve to show the most recent discoveries. I have been involved in the underwater excavation in the river in front of the Museum, and I am excited to see our most discoveries on display in the near future.
The Fort Saint-Jean Museum is a beautiful museum (I know, I’m biased but I honestly think it is a beautiful museum to visit!). Through its two floors, one can witness the evolution of this site and encompassed the major events that shaped the destiny of North America since the 17th century. The exhibition has been made with love by a small team dedicated to the site’s history and who want to share it with everybody else. I am proud to work along their side!
The Fort Saint-Jean Museum is open during the summer season, usually between mid-May until the beginning of September. The Museum is also open during off-season but reservations should be made. More information here for admission prices and hours: http://www.museedufortsaintjean.ca/
The Fort Saint-Jean Museum is easily accessed by car. Because the Museum is located on the site of the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, there is a security booth at the entrance of the site but the site is open to the public. There are free parking places around the Museum and you can enjoy a walk around the site along the large green area near the river.
* * *
Marijo Gauthier-Bérubé is a Ph.D candidate in archaeology working on 17th-century French shipwreck at Texas A&M University. She is studying the La Hougue wrecks sunk in 1692 and has an interest in the evolution of traditional knowledge and scientific evolution in the Early Modern era. She firmly believes in the importance of science communication and the mission of museums. In Quebec, Canada, she co-founded the Institut de Recherche en Histoire Maritime et Archéologie Subaquatique (www.irhmas.com) to promote the maritime and underwater heritage. @marijogb