The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #27 - Ethnics, Aussies and Poms: migration museums and the creation of identity in Australia

As a historian, Eureka Henrich is obsessed with the idea of change. In her research, she is interested in changing attitudes towards national identity and migration history. These are often apparent in museum exhibitions, the main objects of her study. The museum is seen as a legitimate arbiter of authority: hence why she as a historian finds them powerful.

Australia a nation built and changed through migration. There are two museums of migration - they are the earliest migration museums in the world, and might prove a constructive model for future migration museums. They might also function as evidence for the changing attitudes towards migration.

In 1986, South Australia celebrated Jubilee 150. Most of its activities perpetuated the standard tale of a jubilant colony. But one does not - this is the Migration Museum, which sought to display the histories and lives of non-Anglo-Celtic migrants. Non-British migrants after the Second World War were expected to shed their historic identities and ascribe to the Anglo-Australian way of life. It became very apparent, though, that this was not happening, and by the 1980s this was replaced with multiculturalism.

This was also part of the process of Australia divorcing itself from its historically homogenous Anglo identity. The rise of social history and women's history in the 1970s meant that an increasing number of people were interested in the everyday person, rather than the pioneers. It was the perfect time to explore other histories in a Migrant Museum.

In such a narrative, the British became merely the first in a long line of migrants, and the idea of the White Australia which was so long maintained is critiqued with an interactive. Curators also wished to contest the idea that South Australia was colonized peaceably, suggesting that genocide was committees against the indigenous people of Adelaide. These displays have been critiqued as merely displaying 'enrichment' narratives - adding to the historic story rather than changing it. But in this period, exhibitions like this had a very practical aim - to show that being Australian did not amount to going to cricket matches, eating meat pies, and having deep seated imperial leanings.

Forward twelve years, and all the way to Melbourne. This was a much more populated area. The communities formed by migrants mean that Victoria is the only state where the Labour Party founded 'ethnic' wings. Multiculturalism, therefore, found a strong foothold; but eventually, it would retreat from this idea.

In 1998, Melbourne was to hose the International Council of Museums, and was rushing to complete the Immigration Museum, housed in the Old Customs House, in which to host the event. It was not designed to be a museum about 'Them', but about 'Us', evidence of the political climate of the time, dominated by multiculturalism and shared history. Politicians such as Pauline Hanson, who overtly acted against cultural diversity, provided a counter against which to develop a popular and inclusive migration story.

At the Immigration Museum, they aimed to show the immigraiton narratives which lie at the centre of all non-native Victorians; the mainstream population was therefore welcomed into the migration story. The displays were designed to be emotionally affective, and personal stories were a centrepeice.

What was the reaction to this more inclusive version of the migration story? It seemed to some (mainly museum professionals and academics) as though they had attempted to sidestep the more gritty issues, and depoliticise the situation. But visitors seemed to find it useful and engaging.

Established twelve years apart, and with some ideological differences, these two museums offer us an opportunity to see how attitudes towards the different elements of Australian identities have changed, and how museological practice has itself altered. The South Australian Museum failed to engage with the British Immnigrants; but it did establish some of the fundamental tenets of displaying migration histories. In the 1980s, they  were also freer to do more innovative and interesting displays and activities - there were no critical museology courses, or anything akin, in Australia at the time. The Immigration Museum in Melbourne was born in a larger institution, in the world of the internet.

But both share a fundamental desire to create unity of the migration narratives, as well as the need to recognize the diverse histories of migrants which prodice their marginality. Their abilities to shape identities, personal, institutional, and national, are limited by the contexts within which they are found, and the people living in Australia who may never acknowledge their migrant ancestry. Perhaps there is a need to move away from migration, and towards issues that concern us all - the right to be recognized, to be valued and the right to live.

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