Montreal Botanical Garden: Magic of Lanterns

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Last year in fall, I had the chance to go to Montreal for a few days during reading week to see my boyfriend. At that time he told me about a current lantern exhibition where he wanted to take me to. He has been there twice with his family when he was a teenager. Though, what could be the historic, sociocultural and political linkages to this place and what were the motives of us going to see the Magic of Lanterns festival in the Montreal Botanical Garden?

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Every year in fall, the Chinese Garden in the Montreal Botanical Garden lights up in a new theme for the Magic of Lanterns festival. Over 900 hundreds of different hand-crafted Chinese silk lanterns brighten the space, the paths and the pond in the garden. Mythical creatures, animals, human figures and boats on the pond attract visitors from all ages. In order to organize this huge event, the preparation starts the year before in fall, where the team in Montreal design the lanterns and send the order to China. Fast forward to spring, the lanterns are being handmade by artisans in the Shanghai region according to the drawings from Montreal. The lanterns are then shipped during May and June. When the lanterns arrive during the month of July and August, the lanterns are installed by technicians in the Chinese Garden and ready for the Magic of Lanterns in September and October.

The Montreal Botanical Garden was founded in 1931 by botanist Brother Marie-Victorin and open to public in 1936. The Montreal Botanical Garden has one of the largest collection and facilities in the world: “22,000 plant species and cultivars, ten large exhibition greenhouses, thirty thematic gardens and vast Arboretum” according to Parks Canada. Furthermore, Parks Canada highlights that it became a national historic site of Canada in 2007, not only because of its enormous collection, but also because of its devotion to scientific, educational and social functions. But why would Brother Marie-Victorin decide to establish such a large garden and open it to the public in 1936.

Uwajeh & Ezennia found that landscape and gardening in an urban environment have been classified to be an “evidence of history and cultural achievements…” amongst others. They describe such place would give the residents the opportunity to experience nature in the urban area and feel connected to the community.

The company for light installation, MK Illumination, also states the following: “Light art and light sculptures … can be used to tap into historical events, bring local highlights to the attention of visitors, and bring important cultural experiences and values to life.”

When we were walking through the garden, we could recognize the legendary creatures, animals and fishermen recreated in lanterns of the Chinese culture. Inside the garden were also traditional Chinese pavilions and houses. Descriptions were often found along with the piece or plant on display. For example, the age of the bonsai trees was fascinating, as the trees were ranging from 20 years up to 100 years old. This cultural exchange between China and Canada does not only attract visitors through the light installations, but it also gives people the opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of China while enjoying the art.

Still, why are we going to art exhibitions, such as this artistic light festival? There are three different visitor types according to Kirchberg (2020), namely the contemplative visitor, the enthusiastic visitor and the social visitor. The contemplative visitor usually likes to visit the exhibition alone, because they do not want to be disturbed and have a profound knowledge about art to examine the art they are seeing. The enthusiastic visitor, on the other hand, likes to discuss about the art, especially a famous piece where they have seen somewhere before, such as in catalogs. The social visitor also likes to chat, but not necessarily about the art. They mainly go there because they enjoy the companionship. Kirchberg points out that contrary to what most people think, it is not the contemplative visitors who are in the majority, but the enthusiastic and social visitors. Their motives could be that they want to see certain works of art again, that they try to feel comfortable in the environment even without understanding the art, or that they just simply want to be close to a friend who is enjoying it with them.

The Ming dynasty inspired Chinese Garden in the Montreal Botanical Garden is the biggest of its kind outside of China and first opened in 1991. Le Weizhong, a famous architect and landscaper from the Shanghai Institute of Landscape Design and Architecture, designed the concept and led the construction from 1990 – 1991. In order to build the garden, 120 containers of material were shipped from Shanghai to Montreal. Gouvernement du Quebec notes that the active collaboration between Quebec and China could be linked back to the late 1970s, when Quebec started to invest more in the business with China, who was its second strongest trading partner. Ever since then both have also been exchanging in “culture, education, tourism, science and technology”.

To conclude, all the historical influences, from Brother Marie-Victorin’s founding of the Montreal Botanical Garden to the gardening in China’s ancient dynasties, have contributed to the present annual event Magic of Lanterns. Such event, which has also evolved through the political and economic trade-offs between Canada and China, has enabled the exposure of Chinese culture to the public and help people feel connected as they gather. The facts from Kirchberg’s research have also shown a clearer overview of the types of visitors to art exhibitions, which helped me to connect our unconscious motives to the visit. The personal ethnography was difficult to write, not only because I never wrote one before, but also because it was tricky to determine what our motivations were, in addition to then finding the supporting information. However, it was interesting to discover more about the historic, sociocultural and political aspect, as well as unravel more about ourselves. Ultimately, it was a rewarding experience.


  • Couture, P. (2011). KIROUAC, CONRAD (baptized Joseph-Cyrille-Conrad), named Brother Marie-Victorin. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 17. University of Toronto/Université Laval.
  • Espace pour la vie montreal. (2020). Admission fees for only one museum. Retrieved 27 March 2020, from
  • Go! Montreal Tourism Guide. (2016). Go! Montreal Tourism Guide. Retrieved 21 March 2020, from
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  • Gouvernement du Quebec. (2013). Active collaboration between Québec and China!. MRIF – Ministère des Relations internationales et de la Francophonie. Retrieved 23 March 2020, from
  • Info board for Magic of Lanterns (2019), Sept. – Oct. 2019, Montreal Botanical Garden.
  • Kirchberg, V. (2020). Why Do People Visit Art Exhibitions?. [Video]. Latest Thinking. Retrieved 23 March 2020, from
  • Lao Horizons Travel. (2019). Boun Lai Heua Fai (Illuminated Boad). Retrieved 25 March 2020, from
  • Maggie Hiufu Wong, C. (2019). More than just mooncakes: A guide to Mid-Autumn Festival. CNN. Retrieved 25 March 2020, from
  • MK Illumination. (2019). How light art transforms cities and public spaces. Retrieved 28 March 2020, from
  • Montreal Chinese Garden Society. (n.d.). Chinese Garden. Espace pour la vie montreal. Retrieved 23 March 2020, from
  • Parks Canada. (2007). Montréal Botanical Garden National Historic Site of Canada. Government of Canada – Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Retrieved 21 March 2020, from
  • Uwajeh, P. & Ezennia, I. (2018). The Socio-Cultural and Ecological Perspectives on Landscape and Gardening in Urban Environment: A Narrative Review. Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs (JCUA).
24 May 2022

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