When you begin life as a port, play an important naval role in a world war, and provide a landing point for tens of thousands of ocean-crossing immigrants and refugees, your history and art is going to be influenced by the sea. This is probably truer for Halifax than for any other city in Canada I can think of, and if there is any question in anyone`s mind, two museums and an art gallery will set the record straight.
The Pier 21 Immigration Museum was my first stop in Halifax. This newly nationalized museum is housed in the dockside building that served as the processing facility for tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees from 1928 to 1971. Newcomers fleeing famine or war, seeking relief from religious persecution, or simply attracted by the promise of free agricultural land passed through this building and often right onto a train to take them west. Not everyone was allowed into Canada, either here or elsewhere and the museum carefully acknowledges that Canada’s immigration policy over the years has been a mixed bag of racism and targeted exclusion. There is an area where visitors are invited to add their story of coming to Canada on baggage tags – many I read were written by adults recalling arriving at Pier 21 as children before and after the Second World War.
Everyone arrived here by steamship, and once settled, sometimes returned to their home country to further settle affairs or retrieve family members. A significant exhibition explains what happened on one such return voyage. In May, 1914, the Liverpool-bound Empress of Ireland was working its way down the Saint Lawrence River when at 2 am it was struck by a Norwegian freighter loaded with coal, ripping the side of the Empress wide open and causing it to sink in less than 15 minutes, taking as many as 1000 lives with it. At the time, it was characterized as Canada`s Titanic. A chart notes that the survival rate for the crew was 60%, for male passengers in first class 49%, for female passengers in first class 32% (much lower for both in second and third class, and for children 3.6% (all were in second or third class). So much for evacuating women and children first!
Life on the water is further described and celebrated at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, although here too tragedy is never far – there are some 10,000 shipwrecks in the region, from pirate ships to wartime boats to the Titanic itself. The museum is very proud to have one of the only surviving deck chairs on display. The December 1917 Halifax Explosion is also thoroughly explained, the result of a collision in Halifax Harbour between a freighter carrying relief supplies bound for Europe and a freighter absolutely packed full of high explosives also heading for Europe. The explosion was the largest human-caused explosion in history until the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan. To balance all this maritime destruction there are numerous display cases with large-scale models of ocean liners, lots of marine artifacts, and a temporary but massive seaside-themed scene built entirely with LEGO.
Last stop: the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Here the nautical theme continues in one of the ongoing exhibitions with sea-themed artwork from the permanent collection, everything from seagulls to ships and the power of the sea. Many other exhibitions are squeezed into the gallery which encompasses two floors in one building and four in another, connected through an underground passageway. Free admission on Thursday nights.