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People of the Pier, 1921-2014

Often when interpreting a historic site we are challenged with engaging visitors to visualize what our site would have been like in the past. Why is this site significant? What did it look like? But most importantly, who were the people?

Three ladies are dressed in wartime costumes, all laughingly pointing in a different direction.

Interpreters Ann-Marie Begin (Red Cross) and Daisy Ramsden (Salvation Army) assisting in providing direction to Laura Carter (wearing popular clothing of war brides).

Groups like the Red Cross, Sisters of Service, and Salvation Army volunteers greeted the numerous immigrants and provided them with warm smiles and assistance during their first day in Canada. Today you are still greeted with a warm smile by our interpretation staff and volunteers, some of whom passed through this very site as landed immigrants.

Our Museum’s Permanent Collection has a small Working Collection, which includes replica and historical objects that our staff use and invite people to touch. These items are separate from the Artifact and Archival Collections that are also part of the Permanent Collection.

Some of the more popular pieces with the staff are a replica female Salvation Army uniform complete with bonnet, a Red Cross uniform, Immigration Officer Uniforms, and some clothing that was popular amongst war brides.

One of our interpreters, Ann-Marie Begin, has given us an inside scoop on her experience in using items from our Working Collection:

“I really enjoy interpreting in costume because I find that it piques the curiosity of visitors and encourages them to ask more questions during a tour. I also find that wearing a costume makes me and the visitors focus on the details of the people who wore that uniform, which is nice because it opens the door to tell stories from our collection about the staff of Pier 21 and the people who interacted with them. Being able to tell personal stories makes the tour more interesting and more relatable, so I find people enjoy the tour more.

A young woman wearing an old-fashioned Red Cross costume stands next to a glass case where a similar costume hangs.

Interpreter Ann-Marie Begin posing next to a Red Cross apron from the Second World War (A2004.1.9)

The challenge of wearing a reproduction uniform is that it isn’t always clear how it is meant to be worn. For example, we have a military Nursing Sister’s uniform in the working collection that appeared to be complete. However, I later noticed hooks on the ends of the sleeves, which after some research I discovered may have been there for attaching gloves. I find that when interpreting in costume here at Pier 21, these small missing pieces do not matter too much. If we were interpreting what everyday life was like for Haligonians in the 19th century, having accurate reproductions of clothing would be more important because features of the clothing, such as corsets or petticoats, could either facilitate or complicate the performance of everyday tasks. However, since Pier 21’s time period is so recent, having someone in an incomplete uniform is enough because it gives visitors the general idea of what it would look like, and more importantly, it encourages them to imagine Pier 21’s time and the experiences of people who were here.”

Interpreters enact a typical scene from old immigration days, the female dressed in a war-bride costume is handing a document to a costumed immigration officer seated at a desk.

Interpreter Scott Stewart (Immigration Officer Uniform) processes Laura Carter (wearing popular clothing of war brides).

The people of the pier have so much to tell, and after doing much more research than necessary for this blog, I am pleased to notice that our interpreters today help our visitors in a similar way to the volunteers of the immigration shed. In the Pier 21 era, Red Cross volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone was accounted for as they waited in line, receiving young children and babies and bringing them to the nursery, and assisting people with language barriers. Linda Zambolin, a Red Cross volunteer, recalls, “You were doing so little, it was very simple tasks that we were performing such as washing a child’s face, giving him a band aid or giving an elderly person a place to curl up for a couple of hours with a blanket, pillow and a cup of coffee” (Oral history 02.04.29MLZ with Mario and Linda Zambolin). Similarly, more than once I have noticed our interpreters going out of their way to ensure that our guests receive the same treatment. We have seen interpreters quickly find Band-Aids for little children, speaking both English and French at once, and giving directions to our two exhibit spaces. We are proud to say that the spirit of the People of the Pier is still alive and well within our walls.

And now for a SNEAK PEAK on two exciting features of our renovated Pier 21 Exhibit, to open in May 2015!

Artifact sneak peak! This Canadian Red Cross Society volunteer pin will be on display in our new Pier 21 Exhibit beginning in May 2015.

A round Canadian Red Cross Society patch is placed on a ribbon.

Volunteer identification pin worn by Julianna Wolff at Pier 21, 1950s. (A2002.2.1)

Exhibit interactive sneak peak! We will have an interactive station where people can try on reproduction uniforms representing the various staff and volunteers at Pier 21 (left). The surrounding area will be pared with one oral history listening station, graphics and artifacts on display (right).

Red Cross Navy and Army dresses hang and there is a mirror on right side.
A blue board explains the immigration journey.