Read Between the Signs: 150 Years of Language in Toronto

2017, Canadian Language Museum, History, Temporary Exhibit
anniversary, archival photos, bilingual, history, landscape, language, linguistic landscape, linguistics, neighbourhood, photography, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, streetscape, Toronto, urbanism
About This Project

Date: May 3 – 25, 2017

Partner: Canadian Language Museum

Venue: Glendon Gallery, on the Glendon Campus of York University – map

Project Members: Jocelyn Kent, Christine Pennington, and Katherine Wilson


Read Between the Signs: 150 Years of Language in Toronto was a bilingual exhibition created in partnership with the Canadian Language Museum, highlighting the Toronto’s changing multilingual landscape over the past 150 years. Through the use of archival and contemporary photographs Read Between the Signs encouraged the consideration of Toronto’s streetscapes and what it means for languages to be rendered visible, or invisible, in one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world.


Read Between the Signs was about Toronto’s diverse linguistic history, with an intention for the exhibition to travel, thus in its broadest sense, the intended audience was Toronto as a whole, including various multicultural communities. Its initial display was at the Glendon Gallery, on the Glendon Campus of York University, therefore the exhibit aimed to engage one of the CLM’s main visitor-bases: high school and university students. Through participation in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, the exhibition aimed to also attract artistically-inclined adults and photography connoisseurs.


The exhibition was first displayed at the Glendon Gallery, on the Glendon Campus of York University, which is operated by the CLM. These were an intention for the exhibition to travel to facilities such as libraries, located within the Toronto area, and be remounted at the Glendon Gallery as appropriate for visiting groups.


Planning for Read Between the Signs began for the Master of Museum Studies students in September 2016. The project was pitched and selected in September 2016. The majority of the content creation took place between October 2016 and March 2017. This primarily included finalizing themes, sourcing photographs, researching and writing panels, and compiling census data. The exhibition opened May 3, 2017, with installation taking place in the week prior.


The exhibition primarily used photographs. Archival photographs were obtained from the City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Archives of Ontario, Ontario Jewish Archives, and the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. Contemporary photographs were obtained from Flickr (photograph by Michael Gil), Jocelyn Kent, and students in an undergraduate linguistics class at the University of Toronto. A video from the Endangered Languages Alliance Toronto highlights the diversity of minority languages spoken in Toronto.


Text panels highlighted themes that emerged or were represented by the photographs. A panel on pre-Confederation Toronto was accompanied by a historic painting, instead of photographs, due to the early date. The majority of text panels were also accompanied by census data infographics chosen and compiled to provide a visual representation of the top languages spoken in Toronto during the time period represented by that panel and a set of photographs.


A large map of Toronto functioned as an interactive component, which allowed visitors to physically highlight their homes and spoken languages, encouraging more personal connections between the exhibition content and their own experiences in Toronto.


We would like to thank the Canadian Language Museum, especially Dr. Elaine Gold, for the support and partnership throughout this project.We would also like to thank the Faculty of Information, including Professor Matthew Brower, and Teaching Assistants Rebecca Noone and Hillary Walker Gugan, for their support and guidance in creating Read Between the Signs. We want to acknowledge the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival for allowing us to participate as an open exhibition.


Additionally our gratitude to all everyone who helped guide us through our research including Christina Kramer and Roberto Perin, and our translators, Floriane Letourneux, Brock Tremblay, and Danica Sherman for their work on this exhibition. Finally, special thanks to the students in Elaine Gold’s First Year Seminar, Languages of Canada: Identity and Culture, for their participation in this exhibition.