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A Week in the Life of a Museum Interpreter…

As I returned for my fifth summer at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, I wondered if I was pushing my luck. After all, doing the same work for a summer job several years in a row is more than likely to get dull and repetitive. The Museum, however, is a wonderful place frequented by many fascinating people. Not a week goes by without something remarkable happening. This constantly reminds me that, although I am generally doing the same type of work each summer, there is no end to the new and exciting experiences. I would like to share some of the remarkable experiences from my last summer at the Museum.

“I just want to see her name on a piece of paper.”

One of the things I love about the Museum is its emphasis on one’s personal story. No matter who you are, you have a story and we are here to honour that.

I frequently meet people who want to look up their personal immigration information, or that of a relative. One day, a man came up to me and mentioned that he was stopping by to see if we had anything on his mother. I enquired about her details—her country of origin and her date of arrival—to gauge the probability of us having information for him.

A black and white archival image of a ship docked at Pier 21.

S.S. Walnut, 1948. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (DI2013.1293.2).

The more he told me, the more I realized that we may have difficulty finding information. As I tried to explain this, he looked at me and simply said, “I just want to see her name on a piece of paper.” The sentence struck me with its accuracy. People come to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 because we aim to recognize the story of the individual. Something as simple as a name on a list can bring a person to tears. In my time here, I’ve come to realize that a name on a piece of paper symbolizes so much more than letters on a page. It is validation for individuals; it says “We remember you. Your story is important to us.”

Fortunately, for this particular man, his search for a “Name on a piece of paper,” was not in vain. At the last minute, he mentioned that his mother had arrived on the Walnut, a ship featured in our permanent exhibition. It was very satisfying to see that, not only did we have his mother’s name on paper; we had even more to show him about her journey to Canada.

“This sounds like what happened to...”

There are ways of getting more out of a Museum visit than what is directly available. For example, visitors can compare and contrast stories in the Museum with their own experiences or general knowledge and see how they relate to each other. It is always satisfying to see visitors engage with the content in this way; it shows how we are relevant and can reveal many fascinating new perspectives.

One week, I gave a tour and a workshop to a group of high school students. At the end of the day, we had some time to debrief and discuss their visit and experiences. Oh boy, was I ever impressed with them! Not only did they understand and empathize with the stories we shared, they even made a connection between Museum material and current events.

We discussed the challenges that arise when immigrants or refugees arrive in Canada not speaking English or French. To give the students an idea of what it would be like, I asked them some questions in Spanish which none of them understood. Afterwards, their teacher said, “This sounds like what happened to…” and went on to describe current immigration-related stories in the Canadian news media. She brought up poignant examples which well-illustrated the relevance of Canada’s immigration history to present-day happenings. The comparisons effectively brought home this message for the students.

“I just love a challenge!”

I got to take part in a tour for a special guest the same day as the school group. For this particular occasion, Ruth Goldbloom*, a former Trustee here at the Museum and a driving force behind Pier 21’s restoration gave the tour with me, sharing many of her personal experiences.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth many times and almost every time I heard a different story about her involvement in the founding of the Museum. This time, I got to hear the full story about how she raised $9 million dollars to open our doors. From badgering government officials incessantly, to meeting the challenge of raising several thousand dollars in a single day, Ruth did more than I ever imagined an individual was capable of doing. The best part, though, was her final comment on the saga: “Oh, you know me, I just love a challenge.” Well, she certainly was up for the challenge, and I’m glad that she brought the rest of us with her.

A smiling lady stands next to standing next to the Ruth M. Goldbloom story.

Ruth Goldbloom, O.C., O.N.S., standing outside the Museum at Nation Builder’s Plaza.
Photo by Danny Dechtiar.

*Bloggers' Note: Ruth passed away in August 2012 but her spirit will always be part of Pier 21. Her memory will continue to inspire others, like me, who are passionate about sharing the Canadian immigration story.

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Mariana about her experiences as a Visitor Experience Interpreter at the Museum during the 2012 summer season.