The effect of an unexpected spring thaw in Montreal: Natural disaster as ‘Fifth Business’

Brittany Webster, Anne MacKay, and Alexander Gabov


Totem urbain/Histoire en dentelles by Pierre Granche pays homage to past and present Montreal, its geography, and its culture. Composed of 15 elements in brass and six levels of glass panes and fragments atop an aluminum substructure, the entire sculpture both figuratively and literally bridges the old and new McCord Museum edifice. Completed in 1992, the sculpture remains one of Granche’s major public commissions.

Although regular maintenance tracked and mitigated preservation issues typical in the care of an outdoor sculpture, the sudden and violent impact on the sculpture from falling ice on the morning of March 11, 2015, led to the complete dismantling and conservation of the artwork. The accident not only allowed for the repair and replacement of damaged elements but also provided an occasion to improve the structural stability and durability of the work.

The fall of ice from the cornice of the museum recalls the fateful snowball thrown by Percy Boyd Staunton in the iconic Canadian novel Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. As the effects of that snowball reverberate throughout the remainder of the book, so did the impact of the ice: although devastating to the sculpture, it set in motion the type of discussion and conservation treatment needed to preserve this emblematic Canadian artwork for decades to come.

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2016 | Montreal | Volume 23