Food for Thought: Mediating Immigration Histories through Artifact and Technology

By Noor Bhangu**

Model of Pier 21, located at the beginning of “The Pier 21 Story.” Photo credit: Lauren Bosc

I was recently invited as a Research Assistant to participate in a workshop on Re-thinking the Museum through Collaboration and Community-Based Curatorial Practices. The workshop took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia from April 24-26, 2017, and brought together graduate students, professors, museum workers, and local community members. As part of the workshop, we attended a guided tour of The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The museum is located in a section of Pier 21, historically used as a dock and one of the few sheds on the East Coast to process immigrants to Canada from 1928 and 1971. Opened as a public museum on Canada Day, 1999, the site was described by Jean Chrétien, then Prime Minister of Canada, as a monument to the people of Pier 21, who by joining the Canadian family became the “envy of the world today.”[i] It was not until 2009 (and Stephen Harper’s conservative ministry) that the museum was established as a new Crown corporation and re-designated a national museum, whereupon it was also asked to articulate the broader story of immigration to Canada, extending beyond the history of the people processes at Pier 21.[ii] The museum reopened its doors to the public in June 2015, following a six month long, $30 million expansion.[iii] “The Pier 21 Story,” its main permanent exhibition, was updated and revised while a new exhibit, the “Canadian Immigration Story,” was added to accommodate for the other (previously unrepresented) immigrants who, according to Bob Moody, the CEO of Pier 21 Society, transformed Canada into a “country of immigrants.”[iv]


Remarkably, these administrative revisions and extensions of the past two decades are still visible in the two-storeyed structure, which struggles to make space for contemporary demands while still seeing itself as monument for a specific past. The first floor houses temporary exhibitions, such as “Canada: Day 1” and “Mosaic: Identity and Community Connection,” and the second floor holds the permanent exhibitions, “The Pier 21 Story” and “Canadian Immigration Story.” Our group’s visit began on the second level through the permanent exhibitions, and finished with a shorter wander through the temporary exhibitions on the first floor. Regardless of the direction chosen at the beginning of the visit, the museum projects feelings of nostalgia and hope upon its visitors. These feelings are mediated through the tone of the didactic panels, the reliance on sentimental artefacts in some parts of the exhibition, or even in basic timelines set up in an attempt to enclose disparate historical events within a one-directional narrative. Nostalgia for a shared past and hope for progress are evoked, perhaps, in a desire to mitigate and move away from difficult stories, which don’t celebrate but challenge the idealized history of immigration in Canada.

View of the Atlantic Ocean from Pier 21. Photo credit: Lauren Bosc.

Our hour-long guided tour of “The Pier 21 Story” began with us peering down at a glass-encased model of the pier, with the guide pointing out the historical significance of each section and its correspondence to galleries within the exhibition. Following a brief introduction of the history of this space, we moved to an open room revealing the terrifyingly cold and blue Atlantic Ocean outside. The quick aesthetic shift between the miniature model and the open room alerted me to the historic monumentality of the ocean, which alongside the architecture remains one of the features connecting the past with the present. Floor-length windows had been installed in the museum to provide panoramic access to the landscape while keeping the visitors at a seemingly comfortable distance from the world outside. Standing close to the windows, I tried to imaginatively locate the former site of Africville or the Mi’kmaq settlement of Turtle Grove, sites I knew we would be visiting over the course of our workshop. The guide took me out of my reverie by returning to a time when this bleak corridor of the pier served as the first bit of Canadian “land” touched by the recent arrivals, some of whom, she joked, were ready to return after their initial exposure to the Canadian weather. As we know, countless migrants were rejected in the process of immigration and had to endure arduous journeys back to their countries of origin from these and other docks. The reasons for their returning had little to do with their trouble with the weather and more to do with the nation’s trouble with them as people.

Besides the museum’s proximity to the ocean, the architecture itself is used to legitimate the dominance of the permanent exhibition “The Pier 21 Story” (read between the lines as the white immigration story). In his paper, “Grounds for Exclusion: Canada’s Pier 21 and its Shadow Archive,” Jay Dolmage cites Gareth Hoskins when he writes that, “the very architecture of the museum is the key artifact.”[v] According to our guide, many of the museum’s collected stories are not located in this introductory exhibition because they are not directly connected to the architecture of this building. Architectural and historical relevance become a convenient way to not speak of the troubled histories of Canada’s past, which include the erasure of Indigenous communities, the displacement of black Canadian communities, and the turning away of my own Sikh people aboard the Komagata Maru, whose stories I’m assured are kept elsewhere in the museum. Rather than opening up conversation about these troubled histories, we are told about the charming arrival stories of Europeans, at least those that were not excluded for being of the, “dark type and poor physique.”[vi]

Lagging behind the group, I catch snippets of the next story, which is about some travellers illegally bringing in various wines and meats, hidden in their pants and hats and hairdos, in an effort to prepare for the foreign tastes of the new country.[vii] We are led to a fantastic display of sausages, bursting out of their plastic containers. These colourful meats, alongside the narratives embedded in them, are difficult for me to digest as I vividly recall my own food history. During our first years in Canada, between ages 10 and 12, my mother used to pack potato paranthas with some mango pickle for my lunch, a typical, if not boring, meal for my brother and I when we attended school in Punjab, India. Some days, I felt, it was easier to suppress the smell of cold paranthas and go hungry than entertain the looks of annoyance from my peers, who didn’t have the capacity to feign curiosity beyond our first few weeks as foreign children. Stacks of paranthas and jars of pickle were not taken out of our suitcases when we arrived in Canada, instead, these symbols of difference made us vulnerable to exclusion after we had already entered the country. The museum’s interpretation of arrival stories fails to recognize that the censorship of diversity, in taste or skin colour, moves beyond the initial encounters of immigration processing and into real life experiences of immigrants.

Interactive timeline from the “Canadian Immigration Story.” Photo credit: Lauren Bosc.

Following this feeling of indigestion, I began to look forward to exploring other exhibitions in the museum that we were promised contained different and more contemporary stories.Our guide left us in the first room of the “Canadian Immigration Story,” where a large interactive timeline was set up to take the visitor through various years, starting around the 13th century. Each year briefly articulated the historical context and laws that were passed or the nationalities of the incoming immigrants of the year, while some years went so far as to comment on the presence/absence of Indigenous people in relation to the new immigrants. When it was my turn, I touched the timeline to bring up 2003, the year when my own family entered Canada through the Vancouver International Airport. Colourful lines jumped across the screen, connecting Canada with other parts of the world. After a few minutes of mute staring, I realized that there was not much for me to take in. The screen merely held arrows, dates, and a generalization of the immigrant experience in the 21st century.

New museums like Pier 21, also known as 21st century museums, are shifting in the content they present as well as the medium of presentation in hopes that diverse people will look to the museum as a space for dialogue and representation. In her book, New Museum Theory and Practice, Janet Marstine problematizes the shift of wanting to “accommodate different experiences” for different audiences in the shared space of the museum by locating it in the museums’ desire to “fulfill their role as the guardians of the [narratives].”[viii] Even as museums begin to make space for different communities and difficult histories, they still hold on to their right to author and direct these narratives.

In theory, the technological engagement of the new interactive displays should allow for the multidirectional learning experience that the Pier 21 story attempts to create. The flatness of plastic sausages and early European immigration narratives is exchanged for open networks. The machines, with their multiple screens, histories and personal stories, assumingly give the audience the power to search and construct their own meanings. The task of educating is transported from the museum to the audience, suggesting that it is now up to them to carry out the difficult work of learning. And the work can be difficult. How can we decide which story to listen to, and for how long before moving on to the next station? But how much agency does the storyteller or museum visitor really have if the stations are radiating around the dominant, teleological narrative of the timeline? The “Canadian Immigration Story,” has two large timelines, one that is interactive and one that is static. Here the museum tries to make up for its lack by pooling together diverse stories and encouraging us, the visitors, to make inspired connections. But, in the end, we are left to straddle this ideological and technological separation between the museum’s two permanent exhibitions.

During our group’s visit, a number of local participants remarked on the changes in the museum’s physical appearance since they had seen it last. Compared to its older model, the newly renovated and expanded museum was much bigger and held a lot more content. After exploring the second exhibition and many of its small interactive stations, I began to understand that this newly constructed gallery was no more than a storehouse of compensatory narratives and new technologies. Bigger is not always better, especially when we consider the stories of immigrant women trying to stuff their hair with pungent meats. Rather than expanding around dominant narratives, museums would do better to re-think and re-present stories that are already there in the shadow archives, if they really care to live up to their aspirations to present the diverse histories of Canadians, including immigration experiences.

[i] Colleen Jones. “Halifax celebrates gateway to Canada, Pier 21.” CBC News. July 01, 1999. Accessed May 17, 2017.

[ii] See:

[iii] Melanie Patten. “Halifax’s Pier 21 uses new technology to tell historic immigration tales.” National Post. November 2, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2017.

[iv] “A National Museum of Immigration to be formed at Pier 21!” Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Accessed May 18, 2017.

[v] Jay Dolmage. “Grounds for Exclusion: Canada’s Pier 21 and It’s Shadow Archive.” In Diverse Spaces : Identity, Heritage and Community in Canadian Public Culture, edited by Susan L. T. Ashley, 100-21. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. p. 104.

[vi] Ibid., 109.

[vii] “The Pier 21 Story,” heavily relied on artifacts and replicas to thread together the histories and experiences of people who came through Pier 21. Artefacts were placed under glass, while the replicas were openly displayed to captivate the visitor and animate a romantic past.

[viii] Janet Marstine. New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. p. 102.


**Noor Bhangu received her Bachelor of Arts in History of Art from University of Winnipeg, where she is currently working on her Master of Arts in Cultural Studies: Curatorial Practices. She focuses primarily on South East Asian, Central Asian and Middle-Eastern artists who interrogate gender, religion and diaspora in their work. After the completion of this program, she intends to pursue a PhD in contemporary Islamic Art.