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Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Rebecca Atkinson on an expanded museum that explores how immigration has shaped Canada

Nearly a million immigrants arriving in Canada between 1928 and 1971 came through Pier 21, an ocean liner terminal and immigration shed in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It also served as the departure point for 368,000 Canadian military personnel during the second world war.

Following several decades as an underused warehouse facility, the pier became a designated National Historic Site in 1997 and was turned into an interpretation centre.

It now houses the Canadian Museum of Immigration, which opened in 2011 as the country’s sixth national museum. Its aim is to explore the experiences of immigrants as they arrived in Canada, as well as the contribution they have made to the country. The museum reopened in June following a CAD $30m (£15m) expansion.

How has the museum changed following its redevelopment?

Marie Chapman: The museum has doubled its exhibition space to 1,672 sq m and features two new permanent displays – the Pier 21 exhibition and the Canadian Immigration Story – created to respond to the museum’s fresh mandate to encompass all immigration
to the country up to the present day.

Both exhibitions take a thematic approach and offer low- and high-tech experiences, including visitor-created content. The Pier 21 exhibition takes advantage of the historical authenticity of the site. Re-creations allow visitors to experience how immigrants would have arrived when it was an active immigration shed.

Highlights include immersive exhibits, such as a cross-section of a large wooden crate packed with items that immigrants would have brought to Canada, a period costume dress-up area and trunks that share children’s perspectives of immigrating to Canada.

The Canadian Immigration Story exhibition explores the personal, collective and political
histories of immigration to Canada from 1604.

Key exhibits include a multimedia interactive projection of a world map showing immigration waves to the country, a visitor-generated content mosaic, an opportunity for visitors to take a Canadian citizenship test and displays that let visitors smell, touch and see how immigration has influenced everything around us, from our global palate to our favourite pastimes.

How does the museum encompass contemporary immigration?

Events and policy decisions on contemporary immigration are always evolving, and time needs to pass before we can address events from a historical perspective. This is why the museum chose to display content up to 2001, the year that marks the enactment of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

But the venue does feature first-person oral history clips and quote excerpts up to the present day, which share the experiences of individuals. The design of the hall also allows for changes of content to present our evolving immigration story.

How are personal stories collected and presented in the museum?

The collecting focus is on first-person accounts. Our exhibitions feature audio points where visitors can listen to compelling oral history clips.

Quote excerpts begin every text panel to help share the diversity of experiences, and oral historians are gathering personal immigration stories onsite and from cross-Canada trips, all of which contribute to our growing oral history programme.

Visitors are also invited by our front-of-house team to share their immigration experiences, and we are collecting written accounts, which can be submitted through the museum’s website or sent via post or email.

What is the Welcome Home to Canada programme?

Finding meaningful work in a new country often presents multiple challenges. Barriers to employment include non- transferable foreign credentials, lack of Canadian work experience and language barriers.

The objective of our Welcome Home to Canada programme is to break down these boundaries and create more options by providing work, facilitating continuous learning, building professional networks and increasing participants’ confidence, optimism and hope about their future in Canada.

Since June 2004, the programme has helped about 160 people from more than 50 countries gain work experience at the museum and therefore enhanced their employment opportunities and eased their integration in our community.

Do you have any favourite highlights in the museum?

The gateway in our Pier 21 exhibition is one of my favourites. It is the place of first and last footsteps, a space filled with emotion, and it always makes me think about those who crossed that threshold.

It still has the original doors, brickwork and other architectural features, so you can really feel as though you are walking in the footsteps of those who came before.

In the Canadian Immigration Hall, I enjoy watching people react to the stories in our Belonging section. There are stories of shameful moments in our country’s history, such as race riots and internments.

On the other side of that area are objects of belonging, where newcomers tell stories of when they were made to feel welcome. This is where the museum shines, in presenting both the good and the terrible moments in a balanced, thoughtful and engaging way.

I have overheard many people say, “I didn’t know about that”, as they read these panels, and that is when I feel that we got it right and that we are doing our job well.

There is a session on how museums portray migration at the Museums Association Annual Conference in Birmingham, 5-6 November.

Project data

Cost $30m (£15m)
Main funder Government of Canada
Architects David Agro; Luc Bouliane; Michael Grunsky
Main contractor Bird Construction Group
Exhibition design Lord Cultural Resources; Origin Studios; Richard Lewis Media Group
Fabrication Kubik
Project management MHPM


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