Canada’s National Immigration Museum expanding online
Capturing Canada’s immigrant experience, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 reveals emotional stories through digital storytelling, oral histories, online initiatives and more.
The second largest country in the world expects to welcome close to 250,000 immigrants in 2013. Canada was built on the efforts of newcomers: Since 1869, Canada’s immigration programs have helped build a community of citizens valued around the world.
Often referred to as Canada's version of America's Ellis Island, Pier 21 is a National Historic Site which was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971. Today, Pier 21 hosts the Canadian Museum of Immigration — Canada’s only national museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Opened in 1999, Pier 21 was built to recognize the individual, often challenging stories of immigrants who arrived through the Pier and the migrants who have come after. Exhibits document the stories of war brides, refugees, evacuee children and Canadian military personnel who passed through Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971.
In 1999, the pier was reconditioned and reopened, filled with interesting interpretive exhibits that evoke the uncertainty and angst of the immigration experience.
Inside the Museum’s main exhibition hall, visitors are invited to go on a guided tour with knowledgeable interpreters, view an emotional 30-minute multimedia presentation, Oceans of Hope, (housed in ship-like theatre) and take a virtual train ride across Canada while listening to firsthand accounts of newcomers’ experiences in Canada. As well, the original doors of the immigration facility are still intact and a tour highlight, particularly for those making a pilgrimage to the place where they first set foot in Canada.
An immigrant’s perspective
“I immigrated through Pier 21,” said George Zwaagstra, a 72-year-old volunteer at the museum, “I came to Canada in 1951 because things weren't prosperous where I was coming from in the Netherlands.” George knows firsthand the struggles of the immigrant experience and now provides captivating tours to visitors of the museum.
George came to Canada at age 17.
“It was more of an adventure for me and a bit shocking for my parents.”
He revealed that when he first came to Canada, he struggled like many of the visitors he greets everyday at the Museum, “When I first came here, I worked on a farm as part of my sponsorship and then I joined the Air Force in Canada.”
Eventually finding a career at the Canadian Broadcast Company where he worked making studio sets for television programs but was eventually laid off. “I worked as a carpenter for several years and then retired”.
After visiting Pier 21 with his wife, he decided to volunteer providing his welcoming and informative tours of the Museum.
“People from all kinds of backgrounds come to the Museum, some because of Pier 21 and others are new immigrants,” said George.
The Museum has had prominent visitors from Prime Ministers and the current Canadian Minister of Immigration, still George believes the biggest contribution can come from the elders who immigrated through the Pier, “The parents and grandparents who came through Pier 21, they have stories to tell and we should share them.”
Now, the Museum is now looking to innovative ways to share these remarkable stories ways that can bring the immigration experience together for people across Canada.
Located on the east coast of Canada, some residents on the other side of the country have never had a chance to visit the Museum. A trip to the Museum from Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada, is a five and half hour flight and can be very expensive.
Pier 21 is looking at ways to bring immigrant communities across Canada together and is looking towards the future. The Museum is undergoing a period of transformation and expansion in order to reach out to Canadians across the country and tell the complete Canadian immigration story.
“Collective imaginings of our past regarding immigration and multiculturalism are cornerstones of Canadian popular memory and history,” said Steve Schwinghamer, Historian, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. “The experience of immigration and settlement is also a real and immediate part of many Canadians’ lives.”
The Museum is well into the development of its Interpretive Master Planning, which will inform the many different ways they engage with Canadians—through exhibitions, research, collections, programming, social media and more.
“This will serve as the roadmap for the Museum’s future direction,” Marie Chapman, CEO, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, said.
Looking to increase their presence and capacity to share the immigrant experience, the Museum is actively building partnerships and developing online programs that will bond all Canadians.
Pier 21 has set its sights of the central role that immigration has played in the building of Canada. The Museum hosts exhibitions which explore themes of immigration, cultural diversity, cultural heritage and identity.
“As people come through the Museum they share what they had to go through to get to Canada,” George, a Museum volunteer, said.
“It is because of this Museum that all of these stories are being told. I write down these stories and we keep record of them.”
Keeping record of these moving and heartbreaking tales of what people had to leave as part of their journeys to Canada are part of the Museum’s appeal.
“Beyond comments and feedback responses, we invite our visitors with personal experience as immigrants to participate in our oral history program,” said Steve Schwinghamer, Historian, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Visiting Pier 21, an historic ocean immigration facility, brings out memories for many immigrants. Limited by the time available to the visitors, the Museum seeks contributions to the oral history program to their collection.
“Oral history is a method of interviewing that hinges on an open and collaborative approach: our interviewers work to help our participants tell their story in the way they want to tell it. Our oral history participants will often spend a few hours exploring their memories with our staff,” said Steve Schwinghamer, Historian, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Another highlight for Pier 21 was an exhibition hosted in 2005, Quilt of Belonging. Canada’s multicultural heritage is often represented as a tapestry, a unique patchwork of people, histories and traditions.
Hundreds of ordinary people helped stitch the quilt. “It was truly remarkable to see and host this special work,” said Marie Chapman, CEO, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
The Museum has taken to the road to connect with communities who wanted to be a part of a national gathering of immigrant stories.
Fascinating stories will be told through the help of a Digital Storytelling Workshop. During the three to five day workshops, participants have the opportunity to reveal their stories and learn how to create digital stories firsthand.
Through candid personal narratives, still images, video and sound, immigrants will be able to be a part of the Museum’s online digital story gallery.
Now as the Museum looks to the future and expanding their online presence, George a well-liked volunteer at the Museum feels the importance of these powerful exhibits, “It is unbelievable, people get emotional explaining their story with me and open up to me about their stories coming to Canada.”
George continued, “Pier 21 is important because this is the only place, a Museum about immigration in Canada.”
These historic fascinating stories of migration to Canada will continue to be told by the Museum, through exhibitions, programs and online.