Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

The Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton Ontario is a unique museum and art gallery that sheds light on the often hidden history of working people.

Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

Hamilton, a.k.a Steel City, is known as a working class town, so it's the perfect setting for a quirky little museum and gallery devoted to labour.

Housed in a 19th century former Custom House, the building alone is a worth a visit.

front view of Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

Although it's small in size, the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre does pack in a lot of historical information. The displays include photographs, text and memorabilia related to the labour movement (membership cards, strike buttons and posters, banners, etc).

buttons at Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

One permanent display, Gateway to the Workers City, approaches the history of Hamilton from the working person's perspective -- the development of industry, immigration, the creation of unions (including the famous 1946 Stelco strike), and, on a more personal level, the recreational life of workers at Hamilton bay (when it was still safe to swim in Lake Ontario!).

exhibit at WAHC, Hamilton

There's also Punching the Clock which is -- you guessed it -- about factory work.

This work of art, entitled Monument to Workers Injued and Killed on the Job, by Paul Cvetich (1989), is actually a model of the final piece that hangs in downtown Hamilton in front of City Hall.

Monument to Workers Injured and Killed on the Job, Hamilton

I love this display on office workers, with all the vintage office equipment.

office display, WAHC

Tucked into a corner of the main floor is a small display on the building itself, which has a very colourful past. Completed in 1860, it began as a Customs House and has been used over the years for many different things: a school, a homeless shelter, a YWCA, a factory, a martial arts school. It opened as a museum in 1996. It's said to be haunted and Haunted Hamilton offers ghost tours of it on occasion.

Temporary exhibits at the Workers Art and Heritage Centre

The museum hosts a few temporary art exhibits every year. For example, in 2008 they hosted one called Red Flags Red Skin: Aboriginal Working Stories which featured the work of Tania Willard, a young artist from BC. The single-panel comic-book illustrations told the poignant and mostly unknown story of the labour history of Native Canadians -- everything from mining to farm work to "skywalking" (building many of the steel skyscrapers of North America) to union activism.

Another show from 2008, The Migrants' Journey, by Terry Asma and Katrina Simmons showed photographs of Mexican workers along the Mexican-American border.

In 2011 there was an exhibit about the history of nursing as a profession in Hamilton, and an interesting photo exhibit by professional photographer George Hunter who documented industrial workplaces for many years.

More recently they've explored the changing face of James Street North in Hamilton through photography exhibits by local artists.

Visiting the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

The museum rents its space out for events, including weddings.

They have a small gift shop selling books, plus some free pamphlets and booklets with information about walking tours.

For details about hours and exhibits, see the Workers Arts and Heritage home page at

You may enjoy

Wellington County Museum - This building is a former poorhouse. Part of the exhibits tell the story of its former residents and the way the issues of homeless and poverty were handled in the past.

Distillery District Toronto - This former Victorian industrial area is now a cultural/entertainment neighbourhood. You can still see remnants of 19th century workplaces here along with some of the preserved tools and photos of the workers.

Ontario Travel Secrets  > Ontario History > Workers Art and Heritage Centre