State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 36 December 1985


The Italian Historical Society Collection

Since late 1983, a large archive of photographs and documents about Italian settlement in Victoria has been added to the collections of the State Library. This has been the work of the Italian Historial Society, an organisation which is a part of CO.AS.IT., the welfare agency which provides many services for elderly Italians in Victoria. To date the Society's collection work has focussed on the years before 1945, thereby drawing attention to the depth of the local Italian heritage. An interest in collecting photographs and documents grew naturally out of an oral history project undertaken by the Society with elderly migrants who had come to Victoria in those earlier years.
The establishment of this collection is significant for several reasons. It has enriched the State archive in an area of previous weakness, that of twentieth century migrant experience. It has been a co-operative project between the Library and an outside organisation, making best use of the talents of each, and working together in the acquisition and preservation of material. It has also offered a striking example of how family memory can, through the process of collection and display, become community heritage.
The success of this transition from private memorabilia to public resource was dramatised by the first exhibition of this material, held at the State Library in March 1985. Called “Victoria's Italians 1900–1945,”the display brought together photographs, documents and oral history, under ten themes: “Terra Nativa”, A Trip Across the World, Our Daily Bread, Banners and Banquets, Concertos and Curtain-Calls, Italians and the Church, Portraits, Restaurants and The Second World War. The exhibition consisted, above all, of amateur snapshots, of intimate images from family albums. What happens when these personal documents are made to tell a grander, international story?
Many people who gave their photographs and documents to the collection felt a thrill of recognition when they saw their material on display. The exhibition area was filled with talking, pointing, reminiscing people, and was the site of many a family reunion. Some people felt that the inclusion of their material in the State archive was a sign of a more general acceptance. As one donor wrote: “anything that will make Australia and its history greater in the eyes of the world we are happy, after all my brother and myself were members of the armed forces in the 2nd world war seeing service in the Pacific …” Like the war experience, this gift of his past was an affirmation of his adopted citizenship. It made his own story part of a national story.
The emotional commitment shown by donors of this material springs partly from the caring and personal nature of the Society's collection work. Because the Society's project grew from an oral history programme, their interest is primarily in people rather than in relics. It is no surprise, then, that the exhibition was a collection of stories as much as a collage of images. Through research and annotation, much work has been done to retain the family context of donated items.
It was natural, too, that any portrait of the Italian community before the war would carry an air of intimacy. It was a vigorous and active social group, but small enough for a family photograph also to capture a community moment.
Quite apart from its importance in recording Italian heritage, this collection programme has illustrated the significance of that often neglected historical source, the snapshot. Blurry, sometimes poorly composed, and intensely personal in its concerns, the family snapshot has not readily been seen as a prime subject for preservation in public archives. But the burst of Italian migration to Australia between the wars was a social movement contemporaneous with the Box Brownie. The collection tells us almost as much about popular photography as it does about Italian settlement and, in doing so, suggests that the products of the humble box camera offer us the most telling source for this period.
There is something timely about this retrospect. Italians in Victoria are ready to affirm that they have a local, as well as an imported, past. The wider Australian community is thirsty for stories of other cultures in its midst, especially for those which make the “multicultural” phenomenon seem less than modern. These needs, and the success of the first initiative, have encouraged members of the Society to embark on the second phase of their collection work. They are now seeking to document the experience of Italians in post-war Australia. Together with the Library, they are working towards a bicentennial exhibition in early 1988. It will be interesting to see how this broadened canvas, and the sheer size and diversity of post-war mass migration, will complicate the task of collection
and perhaps threaten the intimacy and detail which give the earlier photographs easy access to a wider significance. By tackling this contemporary period, and by developing their collection in this way, the Italian Historical Society is attempting a more difficult task, yet in terms of the shared heritage of Australians, also a more central one.
Tom Griffiths

At the Bouverie Street Kindergarten, Carlton (Courtesy of Mr F. Del Monaco)

This illustration is unavailable for copyright reasons.