Update: Pier 21 to become a national immigration museum

When Pier 21 blows out the candles on their 10th anniversary this Canada Day, they’ll be happy to receive national museum status -- just annouced -- only the second national museum in Canada outside Ottawa.

UPDATE: After this story came out on June 25, Prime Minister Harper visited Pier 21 with his ministerial cohorts and Premier Dexter to make an announcement: he has conferred national museum status to Pier 21. Pier 21 becomes the second national museum outside Ottawa. It will be officially called "Canada's National Immigration Museum."
How momentous is this news? Read the following story.

For someone who's spent time with auditors, Marie Chapman is in an upbeat mood.

"We've had a perfect storm of positive results," says the director of marketing, sales and development at Pier 21, self-described as Canada's immigration museum.

Since 2005, the non-profit cultural institution has operated in the black, a rare state of affairs in the Canadian museum world. This year, Pier 21 has come out $187,000 on the plus side, Chapman reports.

Pier 21 runs on a relatively small annual budget of just under $2 million. Various revenue-side line items show increases, with some reaching new record highs. For example, fundraising brought in $850,000; the gift shop---at 800 square feet, it's small by national museum standards---tallied $193,000 net, though it has a cruise terminal next door.

The only decrease: admissions, which fell only "slightly," in line, Chapman points out, with tourism numbers in the province.

In the museum's 10th year, an anniversary it will mark on Canada Day, Pier 21 has reached a transition point in its evolution. "We want to tell stories of immigration," Chapman says. Moreover, they want to explore immigration history outside the years (1928-71) the red-brick building at the south end of Halifax's waterfront operated as an official immigration "shed," an unfortunate but historically accurate term---"from First Contact right through to now."

In doing so, Chapman says, the museum will illustrate both progress and failures in Canada's immigration policy and actions.

To expand its scope, Pier 21 staff have such plans designing a full schedule of thematic exhibitions, hosting more travelling exhibitions and continuing to develop and upgrade permanent ones.

Still, they don't want to simply fill the place with artifacts, dioramas and displays, Chapman says. "This is a place of stories, not a place of stuff."

Creating a travelling exhibition on immigration to Canada that could cross the country comes with significant costs, points out Bob Moody, CEO of Pier 21 Society, the name given to the staff, management and volunteers that run the place. "To do that properly is between $400,000 and $500,000."

The dream of expansion goes back to 2003, when the museum developed a strategic plan with the aid of outside consultants.

"The most important recommendation was 'tell the larger story of immigration,'" Moody recounts. "If you look at it long-term, the people who came through Pier 21, as significant as [that group] is, are going to die.

"But if you tell the larger story of immigration, with the Pier 21 years as the sort of crown jewel, then you're going to appeal to all Canadians, not just the one in five we claim have a direct connection to Pier 21."

According to that plan, Pier 21 staff would learn to "run everything here like a business," Moody says. The institution also committed to raising roughly $7 million on its own to create an endowment---a big savings account.

"We're very close to completing the $7-million target and details will be announced before the end of 2009," Moody says.

Another aspect of the plan: to approach all three levels of government for financial support, based on the fact Pier 21 was already out there drumming up its own cash. The province agreed to give an asked-for $3 million, paying it out in installments of $1.5 million in 2005 and 2008 through its Office of Economic Development. Moody's also quick to point out that Pier 21 has worked with the Office of Immigration and Department of Community Services through the museum's Welcome Home to Canada program, which gives "newcomers" a six-month work term at the museum, provides workplace and language training and places them in jobs throughout the community.

As part of a group of representatives from cultural institutions, including Symphony Nova Scotia and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Moody met with Darrel Dexter during the recent provincial election campaign. "The session we had with Mr. Dexter was very encouraging," he says, adding Dexter made it clear he saw the group as "part of the economic success story of Nova Scotia."

, Moody believes an NDP government values Pier 21. "They see this as an investment," he says. Of course, it's too early to say how Percy Paris (Waverly-Fall River-Beaverbank), the newly named NDP minister of Tourism, Culture & Heritage, will see this relationship.

A partnership with HRM has been slower to form. "I guess we've been frustrated that the city hasn't been in the position to receive investment requests like ours," Moody says carefully, adding: "So it's not just us."

During meetings between the museum and the municipality, HRM delivered this message: "Wait 'til we get the [HRM] Cultural Plan." Then, Moody says, the message from HRM has changed: "'Now, we've passed it, but we don't have any funding to go with it. We aren't organized staff-wise to do the analysis.'"

Following its 2003 plan, Pier 21 asked HRM for $500,000, according to Marie Chapman, who says it's gone "nowhere" over the intervening six years. "Then they chuck money at stuff," she says, invoking the up to $300,000 HRM put into the July Paul McCartney and KISS shows on the Common.

"HRM has provided 100 percent tax exemption [status to Pier 21]," says Andrew Whittemore, HRM manager of community development, in an email. "If renewed at this level in 2009 the cost is expected to be in excess of $100,000. However this could change through any program re-design."

The municipality has also given $10,000 through its Community Grants program and a previous $500,000 in 1998---the year before the museum opened---through its Capital Pledges program.

And, finally, Whittemore writes, HRM's "[Cultural Plan] supports the concept of cultural clusters, of which the SeaWall District, which includes Pier 21, NSCAD, the future Farmers' Market, artist studios, etc. is certainly becoming realized."

This leaves the federal government. Again, starting with its original strategy several years ago, Pier 21 sought federal funding (set between $6 and $10 million), first approaching the short-lived Paul Martin Liberal government in its last days. Then the Harper Conservatives came to power.

At the same time another shift occurred: The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, located in Winnipeg and conceived by the late Izzy Asper, head of CanWest, was granted national museum status, the first outside the nation's capital. Originally, the Museum of Civilization, Museum of Science and Technology, Museum of Nature, National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa held the distinction.

The designation, which requires change to the National Museum Act and cabinet approval, means an institution becomes a Crown Corporation and gains access to operating and capital funds through the Treasury Board, explains Marie Chapman.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights received the national stamp of approval in 2007. "When the door opened," says Chapman, "we thought we'd be a very logical person to walk through that door."

They're still looking through a crack in that door, despite having made presentations directly to three different ministers of Canadian heritage in Harper governments, most recently James Moore, who visited Pier 21 earlier this year.

A request for an interview with the current minister prompted a response from Deirdra McCracken, the director of communications for his office. "The file is currently under consideration. When there is something to announce, we will do so," says McCracken in an email.

Four local MPs were contacted too. Geoff Regan (Halifax West) didn't respond, though his Liberal colleague Michael Savage (Dartmouth-Cole Harbour) did, as well as the NDP's Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore) and Megan Leslie (Halifax)---all to say they support Pier 21's application to become a national museum but hadn't been asked by the museum to get involved.

"To be blunt, heritage issues haven't been at the top of anybody's radar [over] the past year," says the museum's Marie Chapman. "There's an awful lot of other things at the top of a government agenda, particularly a minority government agenda."

Asked why, if they're already self-sustaining, the national museum status is necessary, Bob Moody responds: "Well, there's so much more we could do. We're doing it now, but it's not easy. It's a struggle."

Pier 21: Canada Day and 10th anniversary celebrations, 1055 Marginal, free. Travelling exhibitions, The Canoe: A Canadian Cultural Icon and Acres of Dreams: Settling the Canadian Prairies, on until September 7, $8.50.

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