In the late 1990s, Montreal’s McCord Museum – now the McCord Stewart Museum – created a website featuring objects and images from its collection, complete with a searchable online database. The Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the city and its communities, was one of the first museums in Canada to leap into the digital realm. But over the past couple decades, the website became increasingly obsolete.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the McCord to temporarily close its main location and permanently shutter a second site, the organization’s leaders knew it was time to ramp up their overdue digital transformation. Thanks to a $500,000 gift over two years from the Azrieli Foundation, the museum was able to go beyond guided virtual tours and interactive online conferences and workshops.

In May 2022, as part of the institution’s 100th anniversary celebrations, the McCord Stewart launched a new open access online platform with bilingual descriptions of over 140,000 objects, photographs and archival documents from its collections, including a large Indigenous cultures collection and high-resolution historical photos that people can download and use for free.

“We’re breaking down barriers and providing access to the whole world,” says Christian Vachon, the Head of Collections Management and Curator of Documentary Art. “This project democratizes our collection. Everything is available at the tips of your fingers.”

Credit: Guillaume and Julien Coudray, Globe céleste, 1533. 1980.47, McCord Stewart Museum

Casual visitors, students and scholars conducting research can now see objects and images that were on display, as well as others that were tucked away in the vault, with thousands more set to be added in the ensuing years. This will help preserve sensitive artefacts by avoiding the risks associated with handling and moving them. And it means anybody — anywhere — can access the collective past of Montreal.

“It’s a gift to the public,” says Vachon. “This history belongs to them.”