The collections of World Cultures and Mediterranean Archaeology, comprising 9,640 objects, are unequalled in Quebec and among the largest in Canada. Many of these pieces are the result of judicious acquisitions made by F. Cleveland Morgan, volunteer curator of the Museum from 1916 to 1962.
The collection of Mediterranean archaeology, the second largest in Canada and of very high quality, comprises 875 objects dating from the Early Bronze age to late classical times. Thanks to the richness of this collection, the MMFA has earned a reputation as an important repository of artefacts of the classical period. Consisting of sculptures, glass objects, reliefs, textiles, jewellery, coins, sarcophagi, bronzes, terracotta and ceramics, the holdings illustrate the unique nature of the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean and reveal the cross-cultural influences at work in Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Middle Eastern art throughout ancient times. Notable pieces include an exceptional collection of ancient glass objects magnificently preserved – vases, lamps, perfume bottles, funerary urns and so on – produced between 300 BC and 800 AD, and sixty fine pieces of Coptic textiles woven in Egypt between the third and the twelfth centuries AD.
Art of the Americas
The MMFA holds an important collection of works from the major cultural areas of the Americas (North, Central and South America) produced between 1500 AD and the present day. The pre-Columbian collection is one of the largest in Canada.
In total, 1,151 works are presumed to be pre-Columbian, but it is not yet possible to establish the exact number of pre-Hispanic works because of the varying terms used to identify the cultures and the lack of information regarding some of the works. Hitherto, fourteen different countries of origin and fifty-five styles have been identified. These styles cover periods from about 3000 BC to the last years before the Conquest in the sixteenth century. All the pieces, with the exception of a Chumash soapstone statue (1200 to 1600 AD) from California, come from Latin America. The museum also owns some works produced before the period of contact with Europeans by the Dorset and Thule civilizations, the ancestors of the Inuit. To facilitate a tour of the collection, the works have been grouped into large archaeological sections: Mesoamerica (from Mexico to Honduras), the Intermediate Area (from Nicaragua to northern Ecuador), the Andes and the Lowlands (the Amazon Basin and the Caribbean). Mesoamerica is the best represented area, the source of two thirds of the collection.
It is noteworthy that over 80% of the MMFA’s collection of pre-Columbian art is composed of works gifted to the Museum, and that most of the purchases were made thanks to the financial support of patrons. This situation underlines the close relationship the MMFA maintains with the collectors of its community, perhaps partly because of its origin as an association.
The Asian art collection is one of the oldest in Canada, and indeed in North America. Comprising over 6,000 objects, it illustrates the artistic production of numerous periods and regions. It has also played an important part in the history of the collections. The first objects to enter the MMFA testify to the interest taken by Montrealers in Asian art at the turn of the twentieth century.
The collection of Chinese art, represented by a display of over 200 objects, has been enriched by the rediscovery of numerous items in our reserves, by some recent acquisitions (the blue-and-white min yao ceramics donated by Madame Zhang Zhimei, the impressive alcove bed gifted by Yvonne Callaway Smith and Milo S. Smith) and the major loans from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation in New York and by passionate Montreal collectors, including Blema and Arnold Steinberg and Nicol Guérin.
Thanks to the richness and variety of its collection of Japanese art, the Museum has been able to focus on specific themes related to the Edo culture and society (1615-1868) – the serenity sought by the Samurai in troubled times and the detailed attention paid to nature. The kogo or incense boxes on display, which came from the unequalled collection of almost 3,000 pieces that once belonged to French statesman Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), make this collection almost unique.
The African art collection comprises 565 pieces, most from sub-Saharan Africa. It was started in 1940 by curator F. Cleveland Morgan, who purchased the first African artifact for the Museum: a bronze mask from Benin. The collection was significantly expanded in 1975 by a donation of some 500 objects collected by the Jesuit priest Ernest Gagnon.
The MMFA possesses an outstanding collection of some 300 Islamic pieces from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia and South Asia, representing most of the important periods and dynasties. It is laid out in a circuit that is both geographical and chronological, focussing as much on objects from the Arab world as on several centuries of Persian arts. It highlights one of the collection’s strengths as well as contemporary taste at the time it was being assembled in the first half of the twentieth century. Including glass and metal, textiles, carpets, manuscripts, miniatures and ceramics, the collection is composed of very high-quality objects from the first half of the twentieth century, thanks mainly to the acquisitions of the Museum’s curator F. Cleveland Morgan. It features a number of outstanding pieces of Persian ceramics from the medieval period, the beauty and variety of which attest to the rich creativity of the potters of that period and to the new decorative techniques developed after the invention of soft-paste porcelain. Of the Turkish, Indo-Islamic and Spanish objects, a silver bowl and a gold-inlaid pentray are the only pieces from India. They date from the heighteenth century and are now exhibited for the first time at the Museum.