West Edmonton Mall Presents History... Sort of.

As someone born and raised in Edmonton, I have spent an embarrassing amount of time at West Edmonton Mall (WEM) during my pre-teen and teenage years. Surely, I am not the only one. After all, where else can you go for shopping, roller coast riding, skating, swimming, and mini-golfing all in one? Perhaps too much time spent at the mall has dulled me somewhat to the touristy attention-grabbers that fill WEM. How many times have I walked past the giant ship in front of the movie theatre with the fire-breathing dragon and not batted an eyelash?

However, I recently had a revelation. As I was walking around the main food court not too long ago, near the Taco Bell and the mini-golf course, I noticed something that struck me as strange. There was a man guarding the food court! A man made out of marble, looking noble and important, and yet completely out of place. He was, after all, surrounded by people eating all-you-can-eat Chinese food and Toonie Tuesday chicken at that time. This oddity got me thinking of the other things in the mall that I have never bothered to pay any attention to but perhaps should.
With this in mind, I went back to the mall very recently with a different goal. This time, I wanted to see WEM in a different light and explore it as a historical space. No, I certainly do not mean that WEM is akin to a museum or an exhibit. However, I do believe that ‘the mall’ nevertheless presents history, although for different reasons, and with different intentions and methods. In order to explore this idea, I had to also rethink how I viewed the mall in general and ask new questions about the design, its history, its function, and the relationship being built between consumers and the building. In other words, I stopped being just a shopper for a day and put on my history student thinking cap.

Finding history?

Firstly, however, I needed to see what the mall actually offered historically. For this, I walked through the mall like I usually would, just keeping an eye out for anything I could deem ‘historical’. This is what I found and thought were the most significant: The Santa Maria, the statue of oil workers in Alberta, the vases in WEM’s Chinatown, and the statue of Augustus Caesar.
The Santa Maria is the most prominent and well known of these four. Built in 1986 during Vancouver’s World Exposition, the ship is advertised to be an exact replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship in 1492 in his first trip across the Atlantic. It is the main attraction in the indoor lake of WEM and is hard to miss. Connected to the boat are pirates (eye patches, wooden legs and all) that climb from rafts to the ship, presumably to cause trouble.

Far from the ship is a bronze statue of three oil workers, in the middle of working. It is located right outside of the Sportchek, in front of the smaller food court, surrounded by benches. It is the focal point of a small ‘common area’ for people to sit.  
WEM’s Chinatown, which consists of TnT Supermarket and a few restaurants, clothing stores, and nail salons, is a relatively new addition. Near the other displays (a koi pond, a bridge, fake rocks) are three display cases. Two are filled with a large, single, ornately decorated vase. It too is close to a common area.
Finally, in front of the food court just steps away from the Santa Maria is the marble statue of Augustus Caesar, the mythical roman emperor. A replica of the famous statue of Rome’s first emperor, the statue is marble and sits on an elevated podium, staying true to how it was shown then. Like with the oil workers and the vases, the statue is flanked by places to sit.  


Similarities and Differences

These items are most obviously all ‘historical’ because they are old or are replicas of old things. However, they have very little in common on the surface. Geographically, the sculpture of the workers is local history while the others are not. The time periods of each work do not match up either since the Santa Maria is from the 1400s, the vases from the 1800s, and the original Augustus Caesar statue is over 2000 years old. They couldn’t be much more different from each other in what they are in their original function, aesthetic, and meaning.
However, they do share commonalities because of their place in West Edmonton Mall and the implications that are thus attributed to them. One commonality they all share is that they are all separated from their context. In none of their surroundings did I find explanations for what they were. While the Ming vases did have a little plaque saying simply what they were, there was no explanation for why they were important or why they were even there to begin with.

The oil workers and the replica of Augustus had no explanation or sign at all. As a little experiment, I asked a few of the tables sitting around Caesar if they knew who he was. Other than a couple of guesses that he was either Roman or Greek (and one guessed ‘Thor’, believe it or not), none of the people I asked had any idea. This brings up questions: Why put them there if they are not meant to be understood?
The white circle around it is a comfy
place to sit for tired shoppers.
In addition, on some level, they share a function: the statue of the oil workers and Augustus Caesar acted as focal points for a common sitting area while the Ming vases were close enough to the general sitting area of Chinatown. The Santa Maria is an attraction in and of itself, but there are several places around there to sit (i.e. Booster Juice, Cinnzeo, Chapters) that have it as the main view.

West Edmonton Mall as a ‘Consumer Utopia’

Let us explore the function of West Edmonton Mall.WEM is not just a shopping center. Its sheer size, available services, various attractions, and overall abundance make up what Hopkins calls a ‘consumer utopia’ in his article, “West Edmonton Mall: Landscape of Myths and Elsewhereness.” It basically has one function: to sell. And it sells by relying on a very specific consumer-seller relationship based on ‘elsewhereness’. Walking through the mall, one is lifted from Edmonton and placed in somewhere new and exciting – Europa Boulevard or Bourbon Street, for example. This is all part of the fantasy of WEM. Afterall, the mall's hotel is called Fantasyland, which is the epitome of this idea. In Fantasyland, people can decide between rooms that are decorated after various themes, such as the 'Roman room' or the 'African room'. Another great example of this is this plaque near the vases in Chinatown. They are on the buttresses of the arch that is made to look like a temple and also a physical marker for the entrance to Chinatown. Its translation reads, "Hundreds of Items, Hundreds of Choices, Hundreds to look at, but you will never get tired!" It quite literally uses the exotic to push for consumerism.
Most things in the mall are clearly fashioned after this sense of elsewhereness. For the Santa Maria, the Ming vases, and the statues of the oil workers and the replica of Augustus Caesar, the items play on myth and stereotypes of places in order to communicate fantasy. The term ‘fantasy’ is appropriate because the original is based on myth and is non-existent as is. This applies to the ‘Chinatown’ most clearly, although another good example is Europa Boulevard.
Everything falls back to the desire for capital. Ever try to find a water fountain in WEM? Or looked around for a clock to check the time? Both of these are difficult to find because they purposefully lead to more money spent – quite simply, one is forced to buy a drink and go back to shopping because time flies when you forget about it.

The Bottom Line

WEM is well oiled machine and the strange historical additions in it are just another part of it. Therefore, I suspect that the very aesthetic of having history there to represent a very general place or time trumps their actual individual meaning. In other words, they become just another advertisement or commodity for the ‘larger picture’ of WEM’s fantasyland. The Ming vases just become something Chinese to put in Chinatown to prove that it is, in fact, Chinatown. 
However, on a slightly more subconscious level, these items could also communicate more specific values and ideas that are unique to them. By this I mean that their aesthetic may communicate in a way that subtly pushes the consumer to associate that with the mall itself. For example, the statue of Augustus Caesar is generally understood to communicate values like justice and rationality. The statue was an idealized version of the emperor, created with the intention of glorifying him and his position. It was actually part of Roman propaganda at the time. While this meaning may be lost on most shoppers, perhaps they would pick up on the majesticness and greatness of the statue, thus associating it on some level with their shopping experience. Similarly, the Santa Maria might connote ideas like danger, curiosity, and adventure.
Yet I am aware that one of my examples does not fit into this mould. The statue of the oil workers is very much situated in Alberta. In fact, it seems to be one of the only homage to historical Alberta in WEM.  It's almost awkward in a sense amidst big ships and marble statues. The workers are very human, their expressions aren't fantastical. It does seem out of place.
There are other references to the west, like the Wild West Shooting Center and the Antique Photo Parlour, for example. I hesitated to add these to my list at the beginning of this piece because they are individual stores instead of part of WEM’s ‘common areas’. However, I do find it interesting that some store owners are using some of these same ideas for their own business profit as well.


As a historical space, WEM adds to the idea that history can be a commodity, more focused on economic gain than for its own sake. Nevertheless, it does present history by working within stereotypes, with the theme of 'fantasy' always in the background.
www.wem.ca for a bit of background and a few of the pictures.
"West Edmonton Mall: Landscape of Myths and Elsewhereness" by Hopkins for The Canadian Geographer. It was first published in 1990 and is available online.


  1. When I was younger I too spent a lot of time at WEM, living in the suburbs west of WEM. I took all these representations for granted not really registering what they were or meant beyond the Santa Maria being “a boat” or the Ming Vases being “Chinese designed vases”. However, what strikes me now as an adult when I walk through the mall is that all these “historical pieces” are from great empires. Ceaser from Rome, the Vases are of the Ming’s, the Boat of Spain.

    In the wake of reading the a Working People in Alberta: A History, and while considering, as an adult, the economic make-up of Alberta I often thought the statue of the laborers was an ode to Alberta’s “Oil empire” and “Edmonton’s Working Class Aristocracy”. Who so conveniently empty their pockets at WEM.

    Another observation, like all these empires listed above, WEM’s owners have long been trying to build their own retail property empire. Perhaps Ceaser, The Mings and Isabelle and Ferdinand helped to inspire them.

  2. West Edmonton Mall use to be the largest mall in the North America, I believed that most Edmonton residents would have a good memories about going there. And all those memories would be part of the WEM history. And I also think the decoration of the building also indicates that Canada is a multiculture society!

  3. I never really paid attention to the historical artifacts littered throughout the mall until I had start university and really began to focus on history. One time when I was at WEM a year or two ago with my family, I recall sitting in the food court and describing the scenes on the breast plate of Caesar and their meanings to my mother, but also saying how aghast I was that this statue, even if it was a repilica, was next to a Taco Bell. Being a classical studies major I had studied the Caesar statue and ones like it, so I felt a deep connection with the statue finally after seeing it so many times.

    It is certainly odd to see history like that in a shopping mall and many do not take notice of it, like I did before, but it is interesting to introduce history in that way to the general populous. But I'm still not happy that Caesar is next to a Taco Bell...

  4. When I moved from Vancouver to Edmonton, my cousin mentioned to me that Edmonton only has one huge Mall called "WEM". I was very facsinated by the Mall; however, as I made regular visits then became ordinary. However, after reading your blog, I had a chance to pay attention to all those historic artifacts and maybe pay another visit and this time being more consciouse about its history.

  5. @11223344 - that's a great point about the WEM owners taking inspiration from them! The ultimate nod to capitalism!

    @Kaitlynn - I know what you mean about Caesar. Once you learn about him and what the statue represents, it's almost laughable that he's two meters away from Taco Bell.

  6. Sadly, I have also become sensitized to the "history" in WEM. Much of it doesn't even apply to Edmonton, or even to Alberta for that matter (except for the oil worker statue), and I am curious about WEM's choices. (If only Caesar knew...). But perhaps the choices convey a more subtle meaning as 11223344 suggests!

    In general, I wonder if becoming sensitized to history around oneself is a common phenomenon, and I agree with khushbo that things that were once fascinating become ordinary with time. (Do Parisians even look up at the Eiffel Tower anymore?) I find I can always tell when someone is new to either WEM or one of the city's other attractions. They take a ton of pictures and stop at everything, but I love seeing them enjoy themselves. Sometimes I stop and try to see things through their eyes and it's refreshing.

  7. Apologies - the above should read "desensitized," lol!

  8. When I was in Berlin, I met a group of Poles who took the train to Berlin for a short weekend trip - aka a party weekend. When we were walking around Berlin, I would take a ton of photos and marvel at all of the cool buildings. One of them who spoke English fairly well told me that it was nice to have someone around who noticed them because they were too used to the architecture to care anymore.

  9. This is a great article! Thanks so much for posting it! I actually have been interested in learing more about bell - west edmonton mall 1. Any extra information about this would be great! Thanks so much again!