Alice Johannsen, woman of the mountains
By Ingrid Birker, with help from Tania Aldred
Alice Elizabeth Johannsen was born in 1911 in Havana, Cuba, but she was raised in the mountains of Norway and the Adirondacks of New York State. She also worked most of her life at two major cultural institutions sited under two small mountains in the Monteregian chain. She was a geologist, naturalist and educator. She was the daughter of well-known skier Herman-Smith “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, who introduced Nordic skiing to Canada. In 1984, when I first met her at her home on Mont Saint-Hilaire, she introduced herself as the “imam of the mountain” and immediately took us to see the glacier-scraped rocks she had picked up in Norway and the Laurentians. These mountain rocks were passed around and launched her vibrant three hour nature walk around the site. At the time she was already officially retired but was still active leading educational tours and providing nature interpretation. Her lifelong love of geology, nature, museum education and recreation was infectious and it started young.
Alice studied at McGill University when the worst of the Great Depression was in swing, and had to withdraw due to financial strain. McGill University granted her a small emergency loan for tuition, allowing her to stay and complete a B.Sc. with Honours in 1934. Her first job after graduation was an apprenticeship in Outdoor Nature Education at the Newark Museum in New Jersey (1935). When she returned to Canada a year later she came with a Carnegie Fellowship in Museum Training which she used to get on-the-job training at the National Gallery of Canada, to travel with a roaming museum and art gallery in Manitoba, and to study outdoor folk museums in Scandinavia. She returned to McGill University in 1939 as a Demonstrator for the Zoology Department and worked part-time at the Redpath Museum becoming Assistant Curator to T.H. Clark in 1942. Thus began her forty year career at the University that had floated her with a little financial help as a struggling student ten years earlier.
In 1949 she was appointed Assistant Director and Curator of Ethnology at the Museum, and in 1952 she was named Director of University Museums. As Director, she emphasized the importance of the role of museums in public education and has been credited with creating extension services for museums in Canada. She was also one of the founding members and President of the Canadian Museums Association 65 years ago. The idea to put together a Canadian Museums Association (CMA) came just before Canada got involved in the Second World War. Attempts to officially organize, however, were thwarted by timing: a lack of funding, the war and the fact that each museum in Canada was concentrated on its own daily existence. By 1947, the tide changed, when a small group of farseeing museum professionals gathered at Musée de la Province de Québec. According to the historical notes on the CMA website, this group had a two-hour meeting with delegates from 13 museums, presided by Alice, and founded the CMA in order to advocate for Canada’s museums, art galleries, and sites of historical significance. All of the issues that were to develop in later decades were raised at this first meeting: training, membership requirements, professionalism, and advocacy. Over the next five decades Alice would steer the CMA to address these issues while simultaneously directing the Redpath Museum.
In 1972, the Redpath Museum was closed to the public and Alice was appointed Director of the Gault Estate where McGill gave her property to live. It was on this property that Alice helped establish the Mont St. Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre which is now named after her as the Alice Johannsen Pavilion. The Nature Centre / Centre de la Nature du mont Saint-Hilaire also continues to exist today as a separate non-profit organization that works in partnership with the University and a wide range of other local groups to protect the ecological and patrimonial integrity of the mountain and its surroundings. In 1978, the Gault Estate and its immediate surroundings were designated the first Canadian Biosphere Reserve in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program. The groundbreaking negotiations and politicizing have been attributed to Alice’s far reaching influence as a Canadian cultural ambassador.
She retired from the post at Mont St. Hilaire in 1980; however, she continued to live on the Gault Estate property. During her father’s lifetime Alice acted as his manager and he lived with her on Mont St. Hilaire. After his death in 1987, she began writing The Legendary Jackrabbit Johannsen (1992) and began the construction of an addition to his family home which would house the Jackrabbit Museum & Nature Trail, located in Piedmont, Quebec. The Museum is now closed, and many of its artifacts were acquired by the owner of a brasserie in St. Sauveur to decorate his premises, as a mini-ski museum.
Alice Elizabeth Johannsen died January 2, 1992 at the age of 80. Before her death she donated her property to Mont St. Hilaire in order to enlarge and protect the existing preserve. It is now officially recognized and protected as a Natural private reserve under the natural heritage conservation act by the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs du Québec. In 2000, the Gault Estate was officially renamed the Gault Nature Reserve to better reflect the conservation mission that organized its management.