A Walk Through Redpath Museum

By Nicholas Jasinski, Managing Editor -- April 5, 2017
(Chris Li / The McGill Tribune)


“The Governors have heard with the greatest gratification the announcement by Mr. Peter Redpath of his intention to erect and complete a Museum for the University for the safekeeping of the collections of the University in Geology, Mineralogy, Paleontology, Zoology, Botany and Archaeology,” read the minutes of the March 27, 1880 meeting of the McGill Board of Governors.

Today a visual anchor of McGill University’s downtown campus and a popular destination for a quick and enlightening break between classes, the Redpath Museum also houses a world cultures (ethnology) collection that boasts the second largest assemblage of Egyptian antiquities in Canada. In addition to these displays, the museum is home to six labs where scientific research is done every day. The museum’s collection includes early hominid skulls, samurai armour, dinosaur fossils, shrunken human heads, and the largest collection of seahorses in the world–although only a few are actually on display. Less than a tenth of the museum’s holdings can be seen by the public, with the rest stored in the basement, off-site, or loaned out to other museums.

Construction for Redpath, which is the oldest building in Canada built specifically to be a museum, began on Sept. 21, 1880. Peter Redpath, a prominent 19th-century Montreal businessman and industrialist, provided the $140,000 required to finance the museum’s construction. One of McGill’s greatest benefactors, Redpath earned his fortune from his family’s sugar refinery on the Lachine Canal. Redpath provided the financing for the Redpath Library, as well as many other gifts to the university. Along with his wife Grace, the Redpaths bequeathed over $500,000 to McGill in the second half of the 19th century–the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in today’s money. These donations laid the foundation for McGill to become the world-renowned institution it is today.

When the Redpath Museum opened on Aug. 24, 1882, the majority of its collection came from the personal holdings of McGill’s longest-serving principal, Sir John William Dawson. One of the foremost Canadian scientists of his day, Dawson was born in Nova Scotia in 1820 and came to McGill in 1855. Dawson hit the ground running, converting McGill’s curriculum from a classical education based on the study of ancient texts, Latin, and Greek to the newly-invented “liberal arts,” which included many topics in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

“Dawson came and he was this enormous burst of energy,” Peter McNally, Director of the McGill History Project, explained. “He had these wide-ranging interests in everything scientific [....] Science became a respectable topic of study. [Before the 1850s], science had never been on a university curriculum and it was considered something you did, it was a pastime, a hobby. It was fun, it was interesting, but what use could it possibly be?”

In addition to modernizing the curriculum, Dawson took advantage of a major economic shift occurring in Montreal in the 1850s. The city grew from a primarily commercial centre—at the intersection of arriving immigrants from Europe and the point where furs, logs, and other goods from Ontario and Quebec were shipped overseas—to become an industrial city, a transition that was accompanied by a boom in Montreal’s population.

“The Canadian industrial revolution began in Montreal in the 1850s along the Lachine Canal,” McNally said. “Dawson coming at that time was crucial [....] This was a moment when all this new money was being created with all this industrial development and the Redpaths were right at the height of it.”

Dawson invited Peter Redpath to sit on the Board of Governors of McGill and attracted many other wealthy industrialists to contribute to the university. The influx of funds allowed Dawson to revolutionize the university’s academic offerings by adding the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Engineering. By the time Dawson stepped down as principal in 1893, he and Redpath had become close personal friends and McGill had become known as Canada’s leading university with a renowned faculty and many strong benefactors.

The first president of the Royal Society of Canada, and the only person to have ever held the presidencies of both the American and British Associations for the Advancement of Science, Dawson’s reputation as a scientist was immense. Naturally, he attracted suitors from other universities wishing to add him to their faculties. In 1880, after 25 years at McGill, Dawson was considering moving to Princeton University, but Redpath was eager to keep Canada’s leading intellectual and the man responsible for building McGill into an internationally acclaimed university. At a banquet celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dawson’s principalship, Redpath announced his intention to build a museum to house Dawson’s collection of fossils, rocks, minerals, birds, and butterflies. Evidently, Redpath’s plan worked: Dawson would spend another 13 years at the university, working out of the sole office in the Redpath Museum building.

Today, the Redpath museum is administered by McGill’s Faculty of Science and is free to visit for McGill students and members of the Montreal community. The museum’s labs are an active site for research at McGill and family workshops are held on weekends to fulfill the educational aspect of the museum's mandate. The Redpath Museum Society is a student club that leads tours of the museum, plans lectures and films, and travels to elementary schools in Montreal to educate students about the museum and its exhibits. The club’s last event of the year, “Freaky Friday: DJ and Dinosaurs,” will be held on April 7 and will feature a talk by paleontologist and Museum Director Hans Larsson, followed by food, drinks, and dancing on the museum’s main floor.