Newcomers: The People of This Place

A couple looking at the Anishinabek exhibit
Visitors looking at cultural artifacts in Newcomers: The People of This Place exhibit
Visitors exploring cultural artifacts in Newcomers: The People of This Place exhibit


More than 45 ethnic groups now call West Michigan their home. Newcomers: The People of This Place is the Public Museum’s newest major permanent exhibition. It includes more than 600 artifacts and images dating from the first French fur traders to the latest influx of refugees escaping wars and others seeking a better standard of living. Each object tells a fascinating story about our newcomers: stories of work, play and families; of religion and prejudice; cultural traditions and more.

The popcorn truck was improvised by an Armenian cabinet maker who came here in 1914 to escape Turkish massacres. His popcorn wagon and popcorn trucks were familiar sights in downtown Grand Rapids for generations. For years, the word “popcorn” was virtually synonymous with “Armenian” in Grand Rapids.

The ornate Baldacchino or “ornamental canopy” was made by a sculptor in Grand Rapids in 1922, commissioned by immigrants from Sicily. Forty men from Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church would carry it in an annual procession through the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhood.

The winter coat and alarm clock were David Bishow’s first new possessions when he moved here in 2000 to escape war in his African homeland. The young Sudanese man had never needed either item in his life before. They became his cherished symbols of a better life in Grand Rapids.

Interactive maps and photos show where different groups of newcomers settled in West Michigan. Compare the typical jobs and wages of three different immigrant groups. Photos, artifacts, and short video clips highlight different rites of passage concerning birth and death, coming of age, marriage, and holidays. And every group of newcomers brought a great recipe. Viva la difference!