Multiculturalism under the microscope in Melbourne Museums (2) – the Immigration Museum or If I was white

I walk along City Road, across the river and towards the restored Old Customs House, now the Museum of Immigration. It’s easy to find. Large banners advertising Identity, Yours, Mine, Ours, with portraits of men and women representing multiracial Australia, hang over the elegant façade. Identity, Yours, Mine, Ours is the title of the much-praised new gallery.

The Immigration Museum, Melbourne

I sit down to watch the Museum’s introductory film on the many reasons people migrate – to escape war, conflict and natural disaster, find freedom, join family and for a better life. Images merge into each other. A Chinese vegetable hawker, a tear stained face of a young Somali girl, Jewish refugees still wearing the star on their lapels, a proud British couple building their first bungalow and a joyous, reunited Ukrainian family.

‘Some carry a suitcase,’ says the text. ‘Others wait for a shipping container. Alone or surrounded by a family it is a step into the unknown.’

“Aren’t suitcases a bit of a cliché,” I had asked Moya McFazdean, the curator, the previous day.

“That depends on the suitcase,” she answered. One suitcase held by the Museum belongs to a refugee who sold her gold wedding ring to buy it. She didn’t want to arrive in Australia empty handed. Ordinary objects. Extraordinary stories.

The time line, Immigration Museum, Melbourne

I move into the next room where panels highlighting the key events of each decade cover the walls. Some of it is familiar by now but some is new  or is reframed. The experience of Indigenous people is integrated throughout. ‘Bunjil, created this land,’ asserts the confident, opening text.

William Buckley second from the right in a top hat

I am drawn towards a print of Aboriginal people holding spears. Among them is a white man in a top hat, also holding a spear. It seems he is William Buckley, a convict escapee who was sheltered by the Wathaurong people. But such hospitality was not reciprocated. Thousands of Aboriginal people were massacred in the 1840s. In the 1860s they were confined to missions and reserves. In 1901 the Federation was established but only in 1967, after a referendum, were Aboriginal people able to vote. 1971 saw the first land settlement. In 1997 the Bringing Them Home report condemned the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. In 2008 the government apologised for policies and laws that inflicted, ‘profound grief’ to Indigenous people. A troubled history and one that this Museum, like the Migration Museum in Adelaide, believes cannot be divorced from the immigration story.

Cases in the middle of this time line illustrate the diversity of people  who live in  New South Wales.Nickel Mundabi Ngadwa, who fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a woodcarver. Inside the case are fine African masks and animals, connecting Nickel to his roots. But there is a kangaroo too.

The case for Nickel Mundabi Ngadwa

The Eid brothers, Youssef, Romanos and Tansa from Lebanon, ran a successful taxi business in Melbourne for decades. Romanos was known as, “king of the airport.”

Case for the Eid brothers from Lebanon
Merle from the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Settlement and Alick Jackomos with their children

Some of the most interesting cases are in the next room. Merle from the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Settlement met and married Alick Jackomos, son of Greek immigrants. Alick’s parents expected their son to marry a girl from the island of Kastellorizo. Even a Greek girl was not eligible material. But Merle and Alick’s love won through. Years later both received the Order of Australia for their campaigning work on Aboriginal rights.

Simcha and Elcon were smuggled out of Russia with the help of their mother at the height of the pogroms. After hawking in Melbourne’s streets they opened a drapery shop in 1911 on Bourke Street, creating a sensation by putting wares on open display and distributing a catalogue in the outback. Myer, the business empire, was formed.

The liner, Museum of Immigration, Melbourne

But the main focus of this stately, central room is the sleek shell of a liner. ‘The journey remains one of the most memorable of any migrants experience.’ says the text. But in my experience this is not always true. “I can’t remember anything about the voyage,” admitted one child migrant I interviewed.” I’ve blocked it out. It was just so painful.”

Fittings of the liner, Museum of Immigration, Melbourne

I pass though the cramped quarters of a clipper sailing boat of the 1850s when it took 70 – 80 days to reach Australia. ‘Immerse yourself in the experience,’ says the text. Squashed in a berth with my whole family, surrounded by filth and disease, my two year old develops scarlet fever. ‘“Why did we have to leave home,”’ she cries. I have nothing to say. Things get better as I progress to the steamship of the early 20th century and the ocean liners from the 1950s.The trip is shorter and the accommodation has definitely improved. ‘It was just like a holiday. The only thing that spoilt it was that everyone was seasick,’ one passenger says. That is unless you are a refugee from Indonesia in a very different kind of boat. ‘It’s a dark world. The boat was floating on the sea the whole night – everyone thought they would die.’

Interactive game about sea and air travel to Australia in different decades

Pertinent questions are posed in the next  gallery? Is Australia a southern outpost of British culture or bound to Asia and Pacific? What is a ‘typical Australian’ and how do Aboriginal identities fit into the idea of Australia as an immigrant nation? Can different cultures maintain their cultures while participating in a national identity?

Contemporary concerns are highlighted too. The long-term detention of asylum seekers. The treatment of people who arrive by boat. Decrease in funding and support for multiculturalism since the 1990s. Concerns about population growth, the equity or otherwise of immigration policies and fears of right wing political parties.

I attempt a 50 word dictation test from the 1940s, a key instrument of the White Australian policy. I soon give up even though it’s in English. The speaker goes too quickly! How much worse to do it in a language that is unfamiliar.

I enter an immigration booth and sit next to a young American boy, aged 10 perhaps.

“You can help him,” says his mother.

But the boy needs little help. He is a confident immigration officer considering the fate of Jassum Ahhami who participated in the failed uprising against Sadam Hussein. Jassum and his family fled to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia following the execution of his father in 1990 for anti-government activities.

Personal details about Jassum Ahhami in the interactive game on immigration

The young immigration officer leans over and presses, ‘No’

Saying no to entry to Australia

His mother and I turn to each other.

“Why?” we ask in unison.

“He contradicted himself and couldn’t remember some of the details,” says the young immigration officer.  “And besides his father fought against the government.”

Fortunately, on this occasion, the Australian immigration officer is less severe but the fate of the rest of Jassum’s  family remains in question. We sit there spellbound as  he pleads unsuccessfully on behalf of the rest of his family, including his elderly mother.

Exhibitoon of and by the Scottish community in the community gallery

In the corner of this floor is an exhibition about the Scottish community. ‘We’re ethnic too,’ says the revealing text. This is the community gallery space which houses temporary galleries, co-curated with different groups. It is the quotes that reveal the complexity of notions of belonging, identity and empathy. ‘Australia offered an identity that could be put on like a new jacket.’ ‘My sacred places are a long way from here and that gives me an even greater appreciation of Indigenous Australians’ emphasis on place and relationships.’ ‘

Identity, Yours, Mine, Ours on the top floor of the Immigration Museum, Melbourne

Identity Yours, Mine, Ours, on the top floor, has been developed in close cooperation with young people from different backgrounds. It has a clear purpose to make us, ‘recognize our own prejudices and work together to overcome them.’ Childhood taunts and questions are not always so innocent. Ethan, aged 7 asks his mother, ‘why does she wear a towel on her head.’ Maeve, aged 4, gives her doll a ‘normal’ skin colour.

The things children say

We should, according to the text, discuss difference with children, focus on empathy, make it about the child, expand horizons about what is normal and be a role model.

How far do foreign dolls define or reduce identity?

Dolls in national costume are questionable as they can define or reduce identity. The controversies over the Black and White Minstrels and gollywogs are all too familiar. Evidently the latter enjoyed a revival in the 1990s in Australia.

Gollywogs – friend or foe?

Then my cross-cultural antennae start to founder. ‘Wog’ I know as a term to be avoided at all cost so I am surprised to see it being used as a badge of honour by Koraly Dimitriadis, a young man of Greek origin.

‘It would literally be like someone ripping my identity from me.’

A badge of honour?

Wog, in the Australian context, can evidently be used to describe someone from a Mediterranean background. And what are Creole Cream biscuits, Piccaninny floor polish and Black Sambo floor polish. Do they really exist or do I just not get the joke?

Of course I will be called racist! Pamela Hanson’s speech.

We move from playground taunts and teenage identities to the problematic world of politics.I listen and respond to Pamela Hanson’s tirade against multiculturalism; to John Howard’s speech about border security when the Tampa was lying ashore with hundreds of refugees; to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Indigenous families whose children were taken from them, to Mick Johnson’s appeal for reconciliation and acceptance of Aboriginal’s spiritual link to country. I accept, support, cringe and feel ashamed in equal measure.

Confrontation on the bus – what would you do?
Appropriate or inappropriate body language? Watch out for the signals.

I join a Swiss couple in a film to watch four different versions of a confrontation on a bus between a young black man speaking on the phone in a language other than English and a white man.A young woman with a child and an older woman, perhaps of Chinese origin, look on nervously. Should you intervene in such a situations, when and how?

First impressions on meeting someone new

I move on into passport control and fail a citizenship test but only just. I’ve learnt quite a lot in the last few weeks. I test my assumptions on meeting people for the first time – guess, before I press the buttons, about what they wear, like, eat and do. First impressions, as I come to appreciate, are not to be trusted.

First impressions on meeting someone new

Do such interactive approaches succeed? It is hard to know but it is gratifying to learn that the Museum has commissioned longitudinal research on the impact of stepping into the shoes of the immigration officer, the newly arrived refugee, those experiencing racism and those perpetuating it. That is if the latter ever come through the door. But then this gallery concerns all of us. As Lilla Watson, at the entrance,  states, ‘If you have come here to help you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your intention is bound up with us then let us work together.’

So how would a Museum of Immigration in the UK differ from the Melbourne  model? How would we intertwine the experiences of people who have lived in Britain for generations with those who have come more recently? Would a government-sponsored museum in Britain allow such criticism of past and present policies, be free to uncover such problematic histories and confront such prejudices? The Immigration Museum is sponsored by the state not the national government that determines immigration policy. Melbourne prides itself on its liberal stance.

National Gallery of Victoria

I walk out into the sun and along Flinders Street. I need to clear my head, to quench my aesthetic thirst. I walk round the ground floor of the   National Gallery of Victoria and admire paintings by Indigenous artists of the landscape, ‘country’ as it is known.

And then I see it. A work by Vernon Ah Kee from Brisbane, If I was White. Each panel  seems to say it all.The overall effect is devastating.

Section of ‘If I was white’ by Vernon Ah Kee
Section of ‘If I was white’ by Vernon Ah Kee
Section of ‘If I was white’ by Vernon Ah Kee
Section of ‘If I was white’ by Vernon Ah Kee
Section of ‘If I was white’ by Vernon Ah Kee

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