Montreal is a mecca for museum hopping and shopping.
This summer and through the fall, the city's major museums are filled with an exceptional array of blockbuster exhibitions. And the boutiques are stocked with special merchandise that is well-coordinated with the exhibits, and not readily available elsewhere.
The hottest ticket in town is to the new "Leonardo da Vinci, Engineer and Architect" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1379 W. Sherbrooke St. The show opened May 22 and runs through Nov. 8.
The exhibition demonstrates the Italian master's astonishing achievements in the field of mechanics. On display are original notebooks with insightful commentaries about the nature of movement. These also contain illustrations of machines that da Vinci could never test, because other machines necessary for realizing his inventions had not yet been invented. His head was filled with theories and principles he couldn't test. For example, it was da Vinci who thought up the notion of ball bearings, but in his day there was no machine that could be used to create a perfectly spherical ball.
Based on the notes, the museum constructed moderately sized working models of Leonardo's machines. These wooden models, demonstrated by guides, are beautiful to look at, and it is fascinating to see how Leonardo conceived of using gears and axles to determine the direction and magnitude of force.
The connection between Leonardo's achievements as an artist and scientist is clear. Understanding the scientific aspect is mind-challenging, rather than mind-boggling, even for non-scientists. Merchandise sold in the museum boutique helps. The spectacular catalogue ($38), has plates of Leonardo's notebooks and photographs of the museum's machines. It's a fascinating coffee table book, or a gift to inspire budding engineers.
Do-it-yourself kits ($19) contain all the pieces necessary for you to construct these machines, in miniature, at home. Putting together the wooden model stimulates the imagination; the result is a beautiful curiosity and art object. There is a rich list of additional titles about Leonardo and his contemporaries, as well as a beautifully illustrated catalogue for children ($7).
Simpler souvenirs include handsome canvas carryalls ($12), T-shirts ($12), and sweat shirts ($17), all with logos to do Leonardo proud. And there are notebooks in which to keep track of your own inventions--or dates.
The Museum of Fine Arts boutique also has an appealing array of other merchandise, including handcrafted papier-mache and wooden bangles ($16), modernistic Alessi coffee pots ($128 and up), jigsaw puzzles designed by Canadian cartoonists ($14), hammered silver lanterns ($102), elegant silver-stemmed wine goblets, delicately wrought silver rings ($8), and other functional and decorative items.
Animals and Hunters
The shop's fabulous Inuit soapstone sculptures of animals and hunters ($88 and up) and collection of delicately colored prints ($8 and up) are impressive. These reflect other museum collections. The museum also has a gallery that sells or rents original paintings and prints, some by well-known Canadian artists, for quite reasonable prices.
The boutique at the Palais de la Civilisation, on Ile Notre Dame, has unusual items to go with its "Gold of the Thracian Horsemen" exhibition, which runs through Oct. 4. The show, loaned to the museum by Bulgaria (which occupies much of the land of ancient Thrace), traces the rise and eventual decadence of Thracian decorative arts.
On exhibit are some pieces that have never before been shown, more than 1,000 artifacts, many made of 23-karat gold. There are primitive terra-cotta jugs and votive dolls that have survived centuries of burial. These show animal motifs and/or sophisticated geometric patterns that were used centuries later on elaborately decorated gold and silver flasks and personal adornments. Persians and Greeks dominated periodically, and eventually Thracian style and cultural independence declined. But the artifacts of that civilization are magnificent.
The museum boutique has been turned into a little Bulgarian bazaar. Some items are reproductions, including copies of ancient coins ($30) with intricate reliefs on one side and Bulgarian museum nameplates on the other, and a limited selection of reproduction metal plates. There are also T-shirts ($11 to $13) and books about ancient Thrace, Greece, Persia and other civilizations.
Best of all are the folk crafts from contemporary Bulgaria, including colorful rugs (about $180 for a 3x5-foot rug), bouquets of artificial flowers made from leather strands that have been twisted and woven into blooms ($30 to $300), satin-lined wooden boxes with folk patterns burned into their covers ($20), stringed instruments called Gadurka ($115), records of Bulgarian music ($7 to $10), exact reproductions of Bulgarian icons ($150 and up) that include cracks in the wood.
Artist Veneta Simeonova's original miniature icons of enamel painted on gold-plated silver ($1,595) are unusual masterpieces; there are also original sculptures by Bulgarian artists Emil Popov and Dimitar Rashkov.
Culture and Art Books
The Palais de la Civilisation's bookstore, in separate quarters, is well-stocked with books about Bulgaria, other cultures and different schools and periods of art.
Montreal's Botanical Gardens, 4101 E. Sherbrooke St., a living museum with more than 26,000 species of flora, always provides a breath of fresh air. You'll see roses, cacti, banana trees and a jungle of exotic plants.
The bonsai collection, including miniature trees from China, Hong Kong and Japan, is one of the world's finest. The exhibition is permanent, but individual trees are constantly being rotated in and out of the show to keep the display fresh and intriguing.
The boutique's collection of books on bonsai and other horticultural subjects is superb. In addition, there are lovely vases ($6 and up) for blooms from your own garden, as well as beautiful colored-glass sculptures of flowers ($24).
Memo pads and notebooks have delightful floral motifs. And a collection of delicate jewelry features tiny flowers pressed between layers of acrylic and fashioned into rings ($5), pendants ($7), bracelets ($10) and earrings ($11). There are also floral colognes ($10) and potpourri. Larger items include prints with floral motifs and plaques made from pressed flowers, leaves, and bits of wood ($13 to $235).
The Museum of Decorative Arts, 2929 Jean d'Arc St., is in the Chateau Dufresne. This opulent building, once a private home, is an ideal setting for the museum's permanent and bimonthly exhibitions of furniture, tableware, textiles and other decorative arts from 1850 to the present.
The small but fine boutique doesn't sell antiques, but contemporary gift items ranging from $1 to $175, include beautiful glassware, modern office gadgets, ceramics by Goyer-Bonneau, and modern jewelry crafted by Canadian designers exclusively for the shop. The text and coffee-table books on design and architecture, ranging from $3 to $100, would be a welcome addition to any art lover's library.
Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.