By Irina Stanciu-Casin
Having never been to a museum in Hamilton, I felt the need to do a little digging into the different sites available for visitation to get a good grasp of what Hamilton has to offer. I was entranced by the virtual tours offered on the city of Hamilton’s website used to advertise their civic museums and ended up looking through all of them relatively quickly. Many sites will have to be put off until this following summer as they are only open seasonally, and the quantity of civic museums open year-round was limited. I wondered if there were any additional heritage sites not advertised on the website’s museums link, and later ended up on a third party website (tourismhamilton.com) that had a longer list of Hamilton museums under their ‘What to do’ tab. It was here that I found the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre (WAHC) and was intrigued by their approach to conveying the heritage of industrial workers who worked and died building the foundations of industry in Hamilton through the display of artifacts, modern art, and memorable events. I was confused as to why this museum was not advertised on the city of Hamilton’s website, despite its captivating subject matter, and decided to visit the museum in person in order to find out more. This post will consist of an overview of my visit, a discussion on how the WAHC approaches heritage, and how they cater to various demographic groups.
The museum was just a short bus ride from McMaster, tucked away in a family neighbourhood just 5 minutes from Jackson Square. The museum is located within an important heritage building, the Custom House, which was used in the 1800s to regulate trade into the Port of Hamilton. I quickly noticed that the exterior of the building was not equipped with a wheelchair accessible ramp, however once indoors I was immediately made aware of the building’s accessibility services including an elevator and ramp through the remainder of the stairs at the entrance. The friendly staff provided valuable information on their exhibits and noted that I am free to explore the museum at my leisure, though they do have guided tours for larger groups.
The WAHC has numerous permanent exhibits and one non-permanent exhibit which rotates every four months out of the year. Each exhibit I encountered had ample information either presented in a colourful fashion on the walls or through pamphlets that visitors were free to take home. The museum consisted of three floors, with the main floor being the primary attraction for visitors. Once I made my way upstairs and saw the final parts of the museum, I was met with warm smiles by the museums staff who answered any additional questions I had.
Heritage and the WAHC
Serving to preserve, honour, and promote the culture & history of all working people. – WAHC
Initially investing over $1.5 million in the restoration of the Custom House in the late 1990s, the WAHC began as a private institution concerned with honouring and preserving the “the historical, cultural and contemporary experience of working people in their diverse identities” (WAHC Mission Statement). The WAHC managed to stay true to their mission statement despite limited funding from private donors and the city of Hamilton, by displaying contemporary art and material culture pertinent to the heritage of Hamilton Steel and industrial workers. Heritage, as defined through their exhibitions, is the acknowledgement of the past and present of Hamilton’s industrial workers, commemorating, and respecting those who worked, built, and died for the industry.
The WAHC approaches the concept of Heritage at both the individual and societal level. Individuals from the past and present are represented through photographs in the main hall to create a continuum of cultural heritage for local steel workers, maintaining and displaying records of individuals who worked for or were influenced by the steel industry. The presence of contemporary photographers such as Andreas Rutkauskas in his project entitled ‘Petrolia’ notes the impact of industry at the societal level, looking at the intersection of industry and culture in Canada in the ‘Chemical Valley’. Rutkauskas’ series displays the dense social landscape of First Nations sites as they converge with abandoned chemical facilities. Finally, published newsletters and magazines for steel workers emphasise the lived experiences of steel workers and display pertinent information regarding the culture of the work experience in the steel industry.
As the WAHC is not part of the Hamilton civic museums, it lacks a virtual tour program online and must maintain its own website for tourists, donors, and others interested in the WAHC. The staff noted the WAHC’s reliance on private donors and the city of Hamilton for both financial support and museum content. The museum recently launched their first app available for Android and Apple named ‘Worker’s City’ for anyone interested in learning about “the streets, parks, factories, and neighbourhoods where Hamilton was made” (workerscity.ca/mobile-app). Despite having a limited budget the WAHC has no entry fee, allowing anyone interested to pay a visit during open hours. Museum staff further noted that walk-in traffic is largely composed of local adults and they often host guided tours for school groups and social events for local workers, artists, and anyone interested. For instance, this march break, the WAHC is hosting a four day camp for children aged 8-12 to learn about the Custom House and the heritage of Hamilton’s workers.
In terms of the content, there exists variation in exhibition presentation that caters to both younger and older individuals. The “Shuttered” exhibition, housing contemporary artists for a limited time, is a more mature subject where touching the exhibit is not permitted. Other aspects of the museum offer demonstrations on how knitting machines work, and allow visitors to touch and listen to industrial workers’ processes, such as using a conveyor belt. Varying forms of media are always used within the context of engaging and captivating guests of all ages in this museum, while staying true to their mission statement in creating awareness and honouring the hard work of the founders of the industry and all those who contributed to making Hamilton the city it is today.