Culture: Museums and Newcomers - Thinking Outside the (Glass) Box

By Guylaine Spencer

BIf you're new to Canada and want to gain useful skills, make new friends, decide on a job path, find work and learn more about your new country, you might consider taking a closer look at museums. Many of us think of them as buildings full of objects in glass cases, but today's museums offer experiences that could surprise you.

BMichele Ly, a college student, has gained much from getting involved with her local museum. She began volunteering at the Markham Museum while in high school. "The museum is a good place to learn," says Ly. "I learned more about the museum, but I also improved other skills. English, for example. In grade 10, I heard from a friend who was volunteering at the Museum already that it was a good way to practice and improve English skills. I also wanted to improve my English and this is what made me originally apply to be a volunteer at the museum. Since then I've found that volunteering has given me work experience, more confidence, the skills to speak up, and helped me decide on a career. I'm now pursuing an Early Childhood Education degree. Volunteering also helped me make friends. The museum is a warm place to be."

BAndrea Carpenter, the Program Coordinator at Markham Museum, has watched Ly blossom into a role model and potential mentor for other volunteers. The museum has about three hundred volunteers who help prepare material for arts and crafts programs, teach children how to make crafts, and lead games at summer camp programs, among other things. "With a growing community around us and the diversity of that community, families are looking for something a little different," explains Carpenter. The museum is developing a youth mentorship program and is working with other institutions to create a model for museums in Canada that want to reach out to new Canadians. Their partners are Scarborough Museum which is the lead on the project, McCord Museum in Montreal, and Surrey Museum.

Helping out at museums is a way to make new friends from many different backgrounds, which which means that volunteers also gain experience and comfort in Canada's multicultural workplaces. This looks great on the resume. Short on time but still want this benefit? Museums all across Canada offer a variety of programs where you can mix with different cultures. At the Canadian Museum of Civilization (in Ottawa), for example, children work together to produce a giant puppet show at a summer camp. The Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton offers Sunday Tours for Tots where children can participate in art projects. Adults wanting to mingle for social or career-related networking can try the Connecting nights at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, or the Café scientifique evening at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

You could even find your first Canadian job at a museum. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax has a program geared to providing six-month job place¬ments for recent immigrants. Since 2004, the Welcome Home to Canada program, working with numerous community services, has helped more than 125 newcomers from over 40 different countries gain paid work experience. Employees can also get mentoring and language upgrading where needed.

Of course the traditional educational role of museums is still very important. Museums offer a quick, easy and fun way to learn more about Canada. Visiting historic homes and seeing objects owned by early Canadians will give you a feel for Canadians of previous generations, many of them just like you, who struggled to start a new life in a new land. This is certainly true at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, or any of the pioneer villages across the country, like Heritage Park Historical Village in Alberta and the Colony of Avalon in Newfoundland where guides in period costumes teach and entertain.

Because Canada is a land of many cultures, museums reflect that. You can learn more about Francophone Canada at the Musée de la civilisation de Québec in Quebec City or the Fortress of Louisbourg in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. The New Iceland Heritage Centre in Manitoba highlights the experience of early Icelandic newcomers.

Interested in becoming better acquainted with the First Peoples of Canada? The Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay in British Columbia won an award for the Best Overseas Tourism attraction for 2010 by the British Guild of Travel Writers – pretty impressive. The Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon gives visitors the chance to learn about the historic bison hunt, view an active archeological dig site, and watch dance performances.

Nature and environmental issues are two topics that deeply concern Canadians. The Canadian Museum of Nature, the Musée Maritime de Tadoussac and the Montreal Biodome are just three examples of museums exploring these issues.

Popular sports, of course, play a huge role in Canadian culture, and several museums honour them, with the biggest being the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. How much do you know about Canadian culture? A great place to discover Canadian art is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, at the numerous provincial galleries across the country, and in smaller galleries like the Emily Carr House in British Columbia. Learn about "CanLit" (Canadian literature) at the Anne of Green Gables Museum on Prince Edward Island and Chiefswood National Historic Site in Ontario (the former home of Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk poet). Many museums offer programming like movies, storytelling sessions, lectures and panel discussions. The Acadian Historic Village in New Brunswick even features a dinner theatre.

Although some museums are free, others charge an entry fee. Did you know that newcomers may be eligible for a one year pass for free admission to many museums? Ask about the Cultural Access Pass. Participating regions include museums in Toronto, Montreal, the National Capital Region, Kitchener/Waterloo and Vancouver/Victoria. For more information visit the Institute of Canadian Citizenship (ICC) website.

Another way you could get in free is to do volunteer work at your museum. By donating some hours like Michele Ly, you may find yourself rewarded many times over.