Earlier this week I went to go see the Dites Donc Dow! exhibit. Half because I drink beer every now and again, half because it’s not all that common to be able to go see an exhibit on a Monday. Since this one is in a school, it’s open Monday to Friday 10 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock at night. I do believe it is the first time I ever had to be buzzed in by a security guard to see an exhibit, but it was easy enough. He asked me what I wanted to do, I said see the exhibit, I got in, everyone went home happy.
As it is a historical exhibit, I’m not going to duplicate things by going over the history of the Dow Brewery. Suffice it to say there is an awful lot of it online (here, here, here and here). Plus there is an awful lot more online that deals with the deaths in Quebec City in 1966 due to massive consumption of cobalt sulfate by heavy drinkers of Dow, due to their being more than 16 times the amount of cobalt sulfate than there was supposed to be. (here, here, here, here, and here). And then there are the pictures (here, here and here). I didn’t bother looking at eBay, because I figured it would just be a complete time waster. Surprisingly, I could only find two ads for Dow Beer on YouTube
Plus the whole idea is for this to be a review, not a proxy for going to see the exhibit. Another reason why I’m not doing anything other than making oblique links, is that up until I started looking on line, I was quite charmed by the exhibit and I’d kind of like to keep that sensation. It’s a tiny exhibit. Maybe 150 square feet in total, very bright, full of lots of memorabilia and other cool stuff – I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t make it to the opening, in retrospect there probably was a lot of beer floating around, although I have no idea what brand they would have served.
I think a large part of why I was charmed was that for whatever reasons, I entered the exhibit backwards, and got waylaid by a wrestling match from sometime in the late 50s/early 60s. They had this display set up to look vaguely like a bar with three taps and in order to see one of the screens you had to pull a tap. Ingenious!! That way the videos weren’t on an endless loop, and it definitely made the whole thing feel very interactive. So, I went and pulled the first tap, and because Dow sponsored wrestling on TV back then the complete show started. I won’t spoil it and tell you who wins. Although I was confused by the fact that the portrait of the three men drinking beer used as a background was of men drinking Export and 50, and not Dow or at least some generic beer in a glass with no label.
The other two screens show some Dow TV ads and something like home movies from taverns “back in the day.” Again being able to watch them consecutively and from beginning to end was a pleasure. I particularly liked the one which was a complete rip-off of the James Bond opening sequence, but probably done for $20. After that I was smitten.
I then wondered around with a really silly smile on my face, looking at all the old bottles they had on display,
all the old print ads they had on display,
and ultimately it was just kind of nice being able to sort of let all this nostalgia just wash over me. Back when I was younger, I always had a soft spot for Dow (which was available as a brand of beer up until 1998). It, like Frontenac, wasn’t easy to find, but when I did come across a depanneur that carried it, I’d buy it, especially if it was in a quart bottle. From where my generation sits, you really can’t get more old school than that. Drinking Dow out of a quart bottle in 8 oz glasses, and adding some salt anytime the head on the beer got too flat for your taste. I don’t quite know where I developed the taste, but…
After wandering around looking at all the objects, I sort of scanned the wall tags that had all the text about the history of Dow Beer – for the most part when I go to see exhibits I do not go to read stuff on walls, I much prefer doing that outside. Indoor reading is best done with a book or computer screen. And then went on my merry way.
It wasn’t until afterwards, when I started doing some research for this review that I realized that the sensation of charm that I got was solely due to the fact that it was small, well lit, had multimedia stuff that I could control and had a lot of empty bottles. After seeing what was available online
Stuff like the above, that I started to realize that Claude-Sylvie Lemery, Mathieu Trépanier and Michel Simonsen (the researchers behind the exhibit) probably were severely hampered by a tiny budget, or at least I hope that they were severely hampered by a tiny budget. Because after seeing what was available on line, and then going back and looking at what they were able to present, I became more and more disenchanted.
A couple of things to point out.
Just about all the text is on the panels and walls, above is a shot of one of the panels about the history of the building. I have no idea why they decided to duplicate the dates (on all three panels the dates were duplicated). The panels themselves were at knee level, as if designed for elementary school children – although somehow I can’t see an elementary school taking a field trip to learn about beer. And then I have a vague memory (but no photos) of them explaining how beer is made. When I’m going to learn about the history of the Dow Brewery, I don’t give a rat’s ass about fermentation.
While it’s all fine and dandy to give a history of the National Breweries (of which Dow was a major part) and illustrate it with bottles and labels from the various breweries. The white bottles and irregular placement of the bottles made it extremely difficult for me to figure out who who was responsible for what bottle/label combination and the white bottles were extremely jarring to view.
And here, while giving lip service (49 words) to marketing, they don’t label any of the objects which leaves the viewer in a state of limbo trying to decide whether the objects are pretty with no clue as to when or why they were made. It becomes even more disheartening when you realize that they are all from one collection, which probably does have some information about the various objects.
Then finally, I think what disenchanted me most was the way they handled the deaths of the men in Quebec City
Using one of the larger panels in the entire exhibit along with the largest typeface in the exhibit, they proceed to gloss over the entire event. After 46 years I do not understand the compulsion to continue to hide things. If I can find out that the Dow Brewery in Quebec City was using 16 times the amount of cobalt sulfate as they were at the brewery in Montreal, I’m fairly certain Ms. Lemery, M. Trépanier and M. Simonsen could have as well. Instead of glossing over the event, it would have been a perfect place to actually name the victims. Instead of continuing to condemn them more than half a century later as nameless alcoholics. Instead of reproducing parts of barely legible articles from the newspapers of the time, what about possibly showing the episode of Tout le Monde en Parlait or finding out where they got their source material from?
My basic rule of thumb is that if I can find more information online than is given in the exhibit, and then use that information to point out mistakes in the exhibit, no matter how much I want to believe, it’s no longer a charming exhibit. Ultimately, the objects they display are nice and give a certain (very nice) sense of nostalgia for me – depending on how old you are, and where you were when you learned to drink you might not have the same visceral reaction to objects from your early adolescence – but that doesn’t make for a great exhibit.
Ultimately, I think it is Bergeron Gagnon inc.‘s responsibility. They are listed as doing the production and the exhibition design, so while I can easily see the researchers having the information, but the producer/designer vetoing things. But as I haven’t asked who did what, I really have clue. If anybody were to ask me (and nobody has, nor do I expect anyone will) for the next time they try to do a history of the Dow Brewery, a larger space should be used while less, much less words should be used. I’d label absolutely every object on display with as much information as I could get, and have a larger variety of objects on display but most importantly I wouldn’t gloss over the dozens of deaths in Quebec City in 1965 and 1966.
Despite my harshness, if you’re in the neighborhood with 15 to 30 minutes to spare, you should poke your nose in, if only to get the visitor count up, so that they continue to use the space for exhibits in the future. There is always hope.
Dites Donc Dow!
Carrefour d’innovation INGO
355 Rue Peel, Montréal, Québec
For a while (I can’t seem to find how long the show is up, but I guess at least through the summer, if not longer)