The new downtown Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM) will be an inviting, tranquil oasis on bustling St. Laurent Boulevard when it opens three years from now.
The winning architectural plans for the $90-million project unveiled on Sept. 8 depict a striking three-storey building of pale grey Quebec limestone in five sections of varying heights and setbacks.
The entire ground floor is visible to passersby through wrap-around windows, including commemorative space, multi-purpose rooms, a coffee shop and bookstore. The centerpiece is a daylight-flooded “agora” and linear garden, complete with birch trees reminiscent of German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann’s depiction of the Wannsee forest, stretching to St. Dominique Street at the building’s rear.
A rooftop garden is also planned where those having gone through exhibitions on the upper floors can reflect and take in the cityscape.
There will be no symbols of the Holocaust or disturbing imagery on the exterior; the intention is to draw people in first, perhaps pique their curiosity enough to have them venture upstairs to see the permanent and temporary exhibitions that will educate them about the horror of the Holocaust.
A Wall of Memory near the entrance is inscribed with the names of annihilated communities and an adjoining survivor testimony area will signal to visitors that this is not just a pleasant place to pass the time.
The joint submission by prominent Toronto-based KPMB Architects and Daoust Lestage Lizotte Steckler, whose office has been next door to the site for 30 years, was the unanimous choice from among 32 proposals from nine countries by a nine-member interdisciplinary jury in a blind international competition launched last year.
Groundbreaking for the 45,000-square foot facility on what is now a parking lot between Sherbrooke and Prince Arthur Streets amid low-rise storefronts is scheduled to take place a year from now with inauguration in late 2025. The new MHM is promised to be a landmark that will revitalize a rather rundown block.
A couple of attendees at the by-invitation unveiling questioned whether the design is too comfortable for visitors and should the suffering of the Holocaust not be more apparent from the outset.
KPMB founding partner Shirley Blumberg said, “this was deeply personal for me; all the relatives I did not meet were standing at my shoulder.”
The team spent a long time discussing what it means to create a Holocaust museum today, she said. “I relate differently to the Holocaust than my parents and grandparents, and my children and grandchildren will relate to it differently from me.
“We did not want to reproduce the experience of the Holocaust; one, because it is impossible, and, two, it’s a kind of Disneyfication. You cannot represent the Holocaust; it’s too vast to grasp,” not only in architecture, but art, prose or any other creation.
“This is not a building about despair, but about hope,” that will be relevant to all people, Blumberg said.
Architectural historian and Holocaust scholar Robert Jan van Pelt of the University of Waterloo, a consultant to the team, concurred. The Dutch-born child of survivors, who said he has visited every Holocaust museum in the world, noted, “I’ve always been skeptical about attempts to make monuments to the Holocaust… Jewish tradition, unlike Christianity, is not really about monuments.”
Nearly $85 million has been raised toward the $90-million goal, said Give Voice campaign chair Julia Reitman, including $20 million each from the federal and Quebec governments, and $1.5 million from the City of Montreal.
The Azrieli Foundation is the lead private donor, contributing $15 million. The total sum includes setting up a $20-million endowment fund for the greatly expanded MHM’s operations and programming.
Since its founding in 1979, the MHM has been located in the Federation CJA building in the West End Côte des Neiges district. Four years ago, the MHM made known it intended to move to a far larger, centrally located purpose-built premises to accommodate an increasing number of visitors, a growing artifact collection, and greater demand for its educational and research resources. Securing a site and the pandemic delayed plans.
Reitman acknowledged that early on there was skepticism about undertaking such an ambitious project, but critics were won over as antisemitism worsens around the world. The hope is that the new MHM will bring together all communities in combating racism and protecting human rights.
The MHM’s projection is 100,000 visits annually to the new facility. In 2020, over 21,750 visits—almost half by students—were recorded at the current museum, an increase of 41 percent in five years.
Thousands more participated in online programming and nearly 900 teachers from across Canada were trained last year.
The MHM houses 13,521 artifacts and 871 survivor testimonies, many of which will be transformed into interactive hologram-like recordings in the new building, with technology developed by the USC Shoah Foundation.
Rae Gropper expressed the appreciation of her fellow aging survivors for finally seeing the new facility take shape and their hope to live to see its opening.