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Ethnographic Objects from David Ross McCord's Collection

By Moira T. McCaffrey

David Ross McCord (1845-1930) was the founder of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, in Montreal. His decision to collect ethnographic objects was intimately tied to his quest to build a museum that would help foster a Canadian national identity.

In many ways David Ross McCord was a typical Victorian collector, obsessed by the objects - their authenticity and significance - and relentless in his pursuit of new acquisitions. Yet to characterize him solely in this manner would be to trivialize what appears to have been a deep and a genuine interest in Aboriginal peoples. His correspondence and notes do not reflect the racist views about "Indians" which prevailed at the turn of the century. Rather, they reveal a remarkably well-read individual with interests in subjects as diverse as basket-making, Aboriginal religion and treaty rights.

Victorian anthropology and the museum movement

David Ross McCord's attitudes towards Aboriginal people clearly reflect the beliefs that shaped ethnographic collecting in the Victorian era. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists and the general public believed that Aboriginal groups were doomed to extinction. Tribes were disappearing and the encroachment of white settlements, even in northern and isolated areas of North America, was rapidly transforming Aboriginal life. A tremendous sense of urgency prevailed among Victorian scientists regarding the need to document "vanishing" Aboriginal cultures.

The evolutionary orientation of 19th century anthropologists was also a strong motivating factor in the process of ethnographic collecting. This approach depicted European civilization as the product of an accelerating cultural development that promoted technological, social, moral and intellectual progress. Aboriginal peoples were thought to have evolved more slowly, and so their cultures were interpreted as living examples of early stages in the evolution of European society.

An outgrowth of both evolutionary and relativist approaches was the development of museums as institutions to collect, conserve and display artifacts of Aboriginal cultures. The "Museum Period," as it has been called, lasted from the 1840s to the 1890s.

Remarks in McCord's notes and letters indicate that the three most prominent anthropologists in Canada - Daniel Wilson, Sir William Dawson and Horatio Hale - played a strong role in shaping his views.

McCord the collector

David Ross McCord's collecting practices reflect a typical Victorian bias toward older, "traditional" objects presumably representative of Aboriginal life before European contact. McCord does not appear to have travelled to acquire these objects: much of his collecting was done by mail during the period 1890-1920. He sent appeals to a diverse range of individuals and groups, including Aboriginal friends and contacts, missionaries, government agents, McGill alumni and other collectors.

Researching and exhibiting the collection

Though amassed in a brief period of time, McCord's collection is remarkable for its scope and documentation. He concentrated on ethnographic objects, collecting well over a thousand specimens himself and obtaining an additional five hundred pieces from other collectors. He also acquired over a thousand archaeological artifacts as well as manuscripts and a wide range of images illustrating Aboriginal life in Canada. Though he may occasionally have embellished source information (by insinuating that he had acquired an object personally rather than through an intermediary), for the most part his attributions appear to be accurate.

David Ross McCord sought to document, research and display his collection according to the most advanced scientific guidelines. He showed the same high level of curiosity about all objects, whether they were attributed to royalty or to simple domestic origins. He initiated research projects as varied as the determination of geological sources of stone used to make hunting weapons and pipes, the identification of feathers in headdresses, the chemical analysis of glass beads, the meaning of wampum belts and the interpretation of design elements. These interests instigated a flood of letters to various Aboriginal leaders and the different science laboratories at McGill University, as well as to museums in the United States and Europe.

McCord's letters and notes on several specimens in his collection illustrate a keen interest in broad cross-cultural comparisons, such as different methods of moccasin manufacture or similarities in designs and decorative elements. This reflects his awareness of then current diffusionist theories, which held that innovations occurred rarely and in specific locations, and then were gradually adopted by neighbouring groups. Thus, groups with similar traits were thought to be closely related.
McCord's earliest attempts at exhibiting his collection were typically Victorian. Photographs taken in Temple Grove, McCord's residence, show that his first displays were in curio cabinets. The ethnological objects, as well as the Euro-Canadian material displayed, appear to illustrate the theme of warfare. As his collection grew, McCord undertook to organize a thematic ethnology display for his future museum.

David Ross McCord was no doubt convinced that the "reality" presented in his exhibit on the Aboriginal cultures of Canada was grounded in the most advanced scientific thinking of the day. In retrospect, we realize that like most museum exhibits conceived in the early 20th century, McCord's display contributed to a tenacious stereotype of Aboriginal culture as simple and unchanging - if romantically appealing, with its warrior figures, exotic princesses and clever artisans. This stereotype was only enhanced by its juxtaposition with displays on colonial history, filled as they were with exciting imagery of a dynamic Canadian nation - modern, complex and rapidly progressing.

McCord, and most of his contemporaries, were unable at the time to envisage that these "vanishing" peoples would not only survive, but would one day take charge of their own history. Aboriginal groups in Canada are now questioning a wide range of practices related to the care and display of objects of their heritage. They are gradually building their own museums, and are challenging non-Aboriginal institutions to recognize and eradicate remnants of these Victorian attitudes.


Source: "The McCord Family. A passionate vision" Exhibition Catalogue,
Montreal, McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992.


Cole, Douglas. Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.

Trigger, Bruce G. "A present of their past? Anthropologists, Native people, and their heritage." Culture. 8 (1) 1988.

"Museums and First Nations." MUSE: A Special Issue 6 (3), Fall 1988

"Museums and Native Americans: Renegotiating the Contract." Museum News (January-February) 1991.

Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association. "Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships between Museums and First Peoples." Ottawa: The Task Force = Le Groupe, 1992.


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