Hungry? Get a taste of food and culture with Dishing Up Toronto

Dishing Up Toronto Logo

What goes better with storytelling than incredibly tasty food? The Toronto Ward Museum’s signature program, Dishing Up Toronto, aims to create space for locals to tell their stories of migration using food as a vehicle for storytelling. The process of planning and developing the tours spanned nearly three months as museum staff (including myself and co-founder Gracia Dyer Jalea) worked with the museum’s institutional partners Heritage Toronto, the Culinaria Research Centre, and Kapisanan to help train and provide tools for four local Torontonians to be able to develop and deliver their own unique food and storytelling tours.

The dynamic duo of Leo and Arlene Chan, local food blogger Aisha Silim, and emerging arts professional Joyce Voegler participated in three workshops and a dress rehearsal as part of their training for the tours. During this process, the Toronto Ward Museum acted as a supporting and guiding force in terms of working out logistics and providing suggestions, but ultimately it was up to the tour guides to decide where they wanted to hold their tours, which local restaurants and businesses they wished to feature, and how their migration story would be highlighted using food. Within this model, the tour experience is different than might be found at a more traditional museum, where there is an interpreter leading the tour and telling the story. With Dishing Up Toronto, tour goers are hearing directly from the people who lived these experiences. In other words, the Toronto Ward Museum worked to create space for immigrants to be able to tell their own stories, in whatever manner they were most comfortable, without interfering or changing what the guides wanted to accomplish during their tours.


Arlene and Leo's Tour

Arlene Chan discusses how lichees are an important part of her migration story during ‘A Wok in Chinatown.’ Photo Credit: Sophie Burke.

I think the most poignant example of how this process differs from other museums can be found by examining the third tour in Dishing Up Toronto, which was led by Aisha Silim and was titled ‘A Taste of Ramadhan’. During the workshop process, it became apparent that the dates for the tours fell within the month of Ramadhan. Aisha, therefore, couldn’t eat during the day, when the tours were originally scheduled. However, she came up with the brilliant idea of hosting an Iftar at her aunt and uncle’s house, thereby inviting participants to join her and her family in breaking fast for the day. This tour had a similar vibe to League of Kitchens, where people are invited into a person’s home and have the chance to sit and eat together, which can be a very memorable and intimate experience. One of the participants commented that they enjoyed the “feeling of camaraderie, being able to explore migration stories in an intimate and safe space with great food and even greater conversationalists.” Throughout the evening, Aisha and her family served various tasty dishes that explored aspects of their family’s migration story, and there was much lively discussion as others joined in to share their own experiences of migration. The exchange of stories, ideas, and laughter made for an incredibly memorable experience, which is what the Toronto Ward Museum aims to do in all of its programming.


Aisha's Event

Participants gathered in a circle to hear and share stories of migration with Aisha and her family during ‘A Taste of Ramadhan.’ Photo Credit: Sophia Burke.

Dishing Up Toronto managed to highlight 14 local businesses and restaurants, to reach an audience of approximately 2.4 million people through media coverage, and to engage both locals and international visitors during the tours. These numbers mark a strong beginning for the Toronto Ward Museum’s programming, and we are looking forward to finding new ways to engage local Torontonians in telling stories of migration. Larry Ostola, Director for Museums & Heritage Services, and Acting Director for Arts & Culture Services, Economic Development and Culture at the City of Toronto, attended Leo and Arlene’s ‘A Wok in Chinatown,’ and commented that “The tour was very well done with top notch guides and was a fascinating blend of history, culture and food.” Feedback like this indicates that we are on the right track, however there were some challenges during the tours, as nothing goes perfectly the first time. Some participants weren’t fond of how personal the storytelling became as the tour guides shared their own experiences, and although the participants were encouraged to share their own stories of migration with the group, some were just too shy! Participatory experiences in museums are becoming more common, however we will have to continue to build a framework for our programming which will help participants engage in those experiences more fully.


Joyce's Tour

Joyce interviews local restaurant owner, Diona Joyce, during her ‘Balikbayan Renaissance: Kain Na! Filipino Food Tour.’ Photo Credit: Sophia Burke.

We were very happy to welcome City of Toronto Councillor Mary Fragedakis, on Joyce’s tour. She commented, “It is just wonderful how the Toronto Ward Museum wraps together fabulous food, history, culture and learning into a truly enchanting experience.” This project is something new for Toronto’s culinary tourism sector, as it offers unique, individual perspectives on the city, as well as highlights local businesses and restaurants that are often not included in other culinary tours. Overall, this pilot project was a success, and we are looking forward to improving some areas of the process in the future, to continue training guides, and developing more tours.

Dishing Up Toronto continues this November with more food and storytelling at the Pasquale Brothers warehouse in Etobicoke. Join the Pasquale family, founders of the Unico brand, on the eve of their company’s 100th anniversary, and uncover the family stories behind one of Toronto’s most recognized food brands.

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Anja Hamilton is a Master of Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto, and has spent the past summer interning at the Toronto Ward Museum. She is interested in participatory experiences in museums and looks forward to starting her career. In her spare time she can be found knitting and eating too many plates of nachos.

“Pathways to Toronto”: a collaborative partnership

The “Pathways to Toronto” online exhibit is the product of a unique and innovative collaboration between the Toronto Ward Museum (TWM) and students and scholars at the University of Toronto, Canada. The project originated in Dr. Donna Gabaccia’s seminar “Digital History: Pathways to Toronto” at the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto Scarborough. Beginning in September 2015, this course taught upper-year undergraduate students about digital methods and approaches to the study of history, focusing on immigration to Toronto over the past two centuries. Each student chose one “Pathway” story of a person whose travels and relocations brought them to Toronto. Some students researched historical figures while many others interviewed living people, including their own parents and relatives. Students in the Master’s level course “Global Cultures and Museums” (iSchool, University of Toronto) took up the “Pathways to Toronto” project in January 2016. Working in groups, their central task was the interpretation of six “Pathways” stories chosen by the TWM from among the fourteen projects developed by the Digital History students. The MA students also conducted some further historical research and curated storyboards to pitch for the final online exhibition. At each level, nearly every student responded in post-project evaluations that the “Pathways” project was a challenging but rewarding experience.

Collaborative work is central to the creation of museum exhibitions, and public engagement is increasingly important to universities. Yet partnerships between museums and university students are less common, and the work done in undergraduate classrooms is rarely hosted by cultural institutions. This work is clearly worth doing. For all their hard work, students gain tangible professional experience that can be featured on their resumes. The “Pathways” project had many pedagogical benefits; it brought curatorial, digital, and collaborative work into the undergraduate history curriculum, and incorporated historical research and theory into the professional Master’s program in Museum Studies. There are also incentives for educators, including the chance to bring invention to pedagogy, to create original content with students, and to develop interdisciplinary and productive partnerships outside of the university. At an administrative level, many universities are stating their commitment to community outreach. In funding and promoting partnerships with cultural institutions, universities can prepare their students for work after graduation, provision their faculty in the production of innovative scholarship, and sustain meaningful engagement with public and institutional communities. Meanwhile, in curating and hosting university work, the museum develops unique content, grows their audience and engages in community outreach, builds links with academic partners, and supports the career development of students. There is the hope that such inventive programming will attract funding and/or sponsors for cultural institution; ideally, the success of “Pathways” will encourage other museums, including more established institutions, to pursue similar collaborations.

The TWM is not a typical museum. It’s new and run by a small but growing and committed team. It’s a digital and interactive space centrally dedicated to inclusivity, social justice, and civic engagement. Moreover, the TWM is distinct as a community-led effort to establish a cultural institution that searches, invites, and creates space for these kinds of partnerships. The museum’s mission and philosophy complement the theoretical and practical approaches of the two university classes, namely, to “develop the interpretive frameworks and storytelling techniques for a digital exhibition while reflecting critically on a series of concepts and their histories: globalization, immigration, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, diversity, mobility, and many others.” A strong alliance developed around this core mission between the faculty leads and TWM’s founder, Gracia Dyer Jalea. They attribute the success of their co-management of the “Pathways” project to their shared critical perspectives as well as to continuous and amicable communication.

The project faced some challenges. Its timeline was constrained by the framework of the university semester. Each course benefitted from a project management approach on the part of faculty. Staying on track meant sticking to a workback schedule built around coursework; faculty, staff, and the TWM shared work online (email and Google Drive) and communicated over conference calls and in-person meetings. The TWM partners visited the classroom to hear student presentations and provide feedback at the beginning, middle, and end of the term. The project leadership described seamless communication at the planning level; at the same time, some students reported wanting more in-class consultation with their TWM partners and a more concrete vision of the final format and design of the exhibit. As with many creative experiments, the final form emerged from their work.

“Pathways to Toronto” was a successful pilot project. The hard work and creativity of the students is at the centre of this success. In post-project interviews, the leadership also highlighted the contributions of specialists and support staff. This project benefited greatly from the expertise and labour of the Digital Scholarship Unit at the University of Toronto Scarborough, notably Lydia Zvyagintseva, Digital Scholarship Librarian for the Humanities, and Deputy Chief Librarian Sarah Forbes. Lydia worked with Professor Gabaccia in the design and instruction of “Digital History” and was central to the execution of this first phase of the project. Sarah Hamdi, Digital Communications expert for the TWM, likewise played a pivotal role in the second phase of the project; she acted as consultant, designer, and technical lead for the final online exhibit. The project team also included Stephanie Cavanaugh, first hired as a research assistant (Digital History Curricular Enhancement and Assessment project at UTSC) and subsequently engaged by the TWM as Historical Research Consultant for the exhibit. In addition to the work of the students, professors and institutional partners, a project of this scope requires project management and administration, design and technical support, research assistance, consultancy, marketing and communication.

In the final evaluation process, the professors, students, specialists, and partners at the TWM shared their recommendations for best practices in university-museum collaborations:

  • Establish a clear mission, audience, and format. What does the host (museum, cultural institution) expect from the final student project? Do these expectations mirror the course requirements, or will subsequent work be required to ready the final project?
  • Get funding. Apply for classroom grants to bring on support staff, who are invaluable as teachers, consultants, and experts in their respective fields; these include librarians, digital experts, research assistants, information specialists, project managers, designers, etc.
  • Do essential paperwork early. Secure complete and signed consent forms, confidentiality and copyright license agreements at the beginning of the project. Record and share contact information for all participants.
  • Set clear roles and expectations for all participants before any coursework begins. Will the students do primary research? Conduct interviews? Use digital tools? Act as interpreters and curators? Do they have a say in the final layout and design?
  • Schedule check-in points at the beginning, middle, and before the end of the project timeline. Agree on the parameters of communication between all parties. Have a clear consultation process between partners.
  • Establish working definitions of key concepts and terminologies, especially in interdisciplinary partnerships. Professional and theoretical vocabularies differ between academic fields, and are not always familiar to public audiences.
  • Record the process. Keep notes and conduct periodic evaluations with all participants (we used Google Forms). This is important for communication between partners, creates a shareable archive of the process for your colleagues and community, and may be useful in applying and reporting to funding institutions.


Stephanie M Cavanaugh Profile Photo

Stephanie M. Cavanaugh is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Early Modern Conversions project at McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas. Her primary research focuses on religious conversion, migration, and the formation of identities in the sixteenth-century Spanish world. Stephanie earned her PhD and MA degrees in History from the University of Toronto and a BA in History and English from the University of New Brunswick, in her hometown of Fredericton.




Toronto museum of migration set to launch this Summer

The Toronto Ward Museum is a museum without walls dedicated to telling Toronto’s migration history through the life stories of migrants to the area. Using the city as its canvas and through interactive and event based programming, the Museum invites audiences to engage with stories of migration from Toronto’s past. Through its programming it asks audiences to connect these stories, not only to their own personal history, but to current day issues affecting newcomer communities today.

Focusing on personal narratives, the Museum seeks to build bridges between individuals, communities and generations by reflecting on the shared experiences that has motivated migration to Toronto, while also acknowledging how these lived experiences have and continue to shape the city.

Recognizing that the stories and voices of marginalized communities are seldom privileged and are often underrepresented in institutions dedicated to sharing this history, the Museum strives to create inclusive spaces and opportunities that enable individuals from across the city to share their stories and to have those stories heard, valued and seen as being vital to our understanding of Toronto’s history.

By partnering and collaborating with the Museum, individuals are supported in their efforts to share their stories with the public and are invited to co-develop and deliver the Museum’s programming.

Partnering with institutions like Pier 21 has been vitally important to our growth and development as an organization. In the past two years we have learned a great deal from our partners who come from over four different sectors: heritage, arts and culture, academia, advocacy and settlement. Quite simply put we cannot have accomplished what we have done in the past year without their generosity, guidance and support.  Since our inception, we have benefited greatly from the diverse sectors, communities and voices engaged in our work.

This year, we’re pleased to announce that we are set to launch our first set of programs, which include:

  • Pathways to Toronto (Launch: May 2016), an interactive online exhibition that explores the various factors that have influenced migration to Toronto over the past two centuries. Through the life stories of six individuals the exhibit invites the viewer to contemplate the motivations, journey and settlement of newcomers to the area and asks them to consider the role that policy, community and multiculturalism have played in helping to establish Toronto as one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. The exhibit was co-produced by undergraduate students from Historical and Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough and graduate students at the University of Toronto’s iSchool Museum Studies program.
  • Dishing Up Toronto (June 22-25, 2016), a series of food and storytelling tours set to launch in June. In collaboration with Culinaria from the University of Toronto Scarborough and Heritage Toronto, Dishing Up Toronto is a series of food tours that will take audience members to pockets of the city that will be introduced through the life stories of local residents who have developed and who will lead the tours. Dishes selected by local residents will help bring their migration stories to life and will function as a point of departure for sharing and critical reflection around questions of identity, migration, home, citizenship and belonging.

And much more!

Through food, art and digital media we hope to engage diverse audiences from across the city, making this history both accessible and exciting.

To learn more about the Museum, our partners, and our programming, please visit:


Gracia Dyer Jalea is a co-founder of the Toronto Ward Museum. For the past 9 years she has worked as an educator, fundraiser and arts and culture professional. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Studies and World Religions from McGill University and a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies from Concordia University. Traveling is her passion. She has travelled to over 28 countries across 5 different continents, and as a self professed Trekkie cannot wait for a time when she can travel among the stars.