Audio: Moya McFadzean on collecting migrant stories at Museum Victoria
Date recorded: 25 Aug 2014
Migration is a complex, varied and universal experience that has impacted directly, or indirectly, on all Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous for nearly 230 years.
We have been migrants, been related to migrants, known, worked with, and married migrants, been part of diverse communities and held opinions on policies of colonialism, migration, refugees and multiculturalism.
Some of us are newly arrived. Many of us swept in during the post-World War II boom and many of us traced ancestry back to the earliest arrivals. Whatever the story, whatever the connection, and regardless of the passage of time, there is one constant. We are our family narratives, and sooner or later most people go searching for meaning, for understanding, through uncovering their ancestry.
Public archives and libraries offer the paper trails to help people. To help trace people, their origins, their birth, marriage and death dates. Their ships, their places of settlement, their work, their children. They can also house gems in personal diaries and letters, photographs, artworks, and even artefacts.
The Museum offers another layer. Since 1990, we have been documenting through objects, images, diaries and letters, and oral histories, the personal experiences of the people who have arrived in Australia, most particularly in Victoria, since the 1830's. We have also collected material relating to policy making, protest, processing, racism, and multiculturalism. But the personal stories are what we are focusing upon today.
This presentation will offer you an insight into our collections of migrant narratives. What we collect and why. The challenges of representation and documentation, and our work to make these collections and stories broadly accessible.
I also hope to demonstrate that seemingly simple or ordinary objects can be symbols of extraordinary experiences and can be of great emotional power. That our family archives all contain such material that should be both cherished and utilised by family historians to add flesh to their ancestor’s bones.
Finally, I'm highlighting the types of materials that for many of you, as family historians, may be of research relevance and interest. And all images, you will see, are from the Museum's collection, unless otherwise stated.
So, I'll just briefly set the context for our migration collections. As I mentioned, we commenced dedicated collecting of migration-related material in 1990, with the museum's first curator of migration. This marks almost 25 years of collecting in this area, young in the museum's 160 year history, but significant in the history of museums generally whereby focused immigration collecting has been the exception rather than the rule.
Even more exceptional was the establishment of an immigration museum in Melbourne in 1998, part of Museum Victoria. The second museum of its kind in Australia and still unusual in world terms.
It was the opening of the immigration museum that gave the museum's migration collection work a permanent public profile and increased collecting activity, which continues energetically to this day.
The collections of some 8,000 items span over 180 years and aim to represent cross-cultural migration experiences across that time. From the earliest Port Phillip settlers, such as the Henty family, to the most recent refugee arrival, such as Congolese refugee artist Nickel Mundabe Nigadwa.
Needless to say, some periods and cultural groups are better represented than others.
The post-war period is well-covered, with material relating to British and European migrants. Including English, Italian, Greek, Polish, Dutch, Hungarian, German, Finnish, Austrian, Latvian, Estonian and Maltese.
We nave stories of English, Greek, German, Albanian, Bulgarian and Scottish migrants from the early 20th century. Chinese and Japanese stories from the 19th century, which can then trace generations of family stories despite the onslaught of the white Australia policy.
We have stories from English, Scottish, Chinese, Irish and German 19th century migrants. And a smattering of Armenian, Albanian, Turkish, Argentinian, Kurdish, Vietnamese, Chilean, Japanese, Guinean, Sudanese and Congolese people who have all settled, since the 1960's through to as recently as 2009.
Stories represent urban and rural settlement, assisted and non-assisted, people of multi-faith backgrounds, solitary migrants and families, chain migration, return migration, prisoners of war and internees.
The material relates to the process of people's migration from application to departure. Voyages by ship and plane. Belongings, personal belongings brought, created, and purchased. Luggage, of course. Items of work, domesticity, artistry. Objects for maintaining connections to homeland. Migrant-life documentary through writings, film and photographs. Community and organisational life. And the list goes on. And for every one of those objects and photographs I've just shown you, we have documented a personal story. Each different, valuable, and enlightening in its own way.
Now, this list is not exhaustive and some cultural groups have many stories represented. And we have gaps and absences too. Contemporary migration is underrepresented. We need more stories from the Middle East, from South Asia, from parts of Africa, and South and Central America.
Filling gaps is always a challenge because it requires resourcing for what we call proactive collecting. When we tend to barely have time to assess and process the many, many donation offers we receive constantly. Which, of course, tends to be the objects and stories from people who are ready to donate, or who recognize their experiences as worthy of preserving. It tends to be the post-war generation.
Nevertheless, the collection is clearly rich and diverse, much of it well-documented, and most of it is available for viewing on the Museum's collection on the online website.
Through all of this collecting activity, what underpins it all is the importance of what we call provenance. Most objects can only speak through the voice of the people that owned, used and made them. And by documenting these personal stories, we people our history of migration and gain significant insights into the broader narratives of migration. And most importantly, we find ways to connect people, through empathetic responses and new understandings.
So what I'd like to do for the rest of this presentation is take you on a journey through the collections, or perhaps I should say a sprint, and even then it'll only touch the surface, through the lives of a broad selection of people told by themselves and their objects of meaning. And I'll group them together in object or narrative types so that we can see how these objects and stories criss-cross time and intersect with each other in often unexpected ways.
The very nature of migration, identifying, processing, recording, corresponding, lends itself to paper-based material. Our collections contained passports, vaccination certificates, application forms, official correspondence, information booklets, shipboard ephemera, ship and plane tickets, baggage labels, and more from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Such material illustrates how immigration processes have evolved over time. How transportation has changed and how promoting Australia as a migrant destination has changed, both in terms of the opportunity sold and who is being encouraged. But, there's more than general historical context here. Much of this material is supported by the personal narratives that accompany them. The story behind the passport photo.
I'd like to highlight two recent acquisitions, both post World War II British stories that illustrate how two seemingly rather dull stacks of letters, receipts, minute books and application correspondence, enable us to document the migration and settlement experience of three families. Which also represent one of Australia's largest immigration schemes and influxes of people.
First, we have James and Mary Ward and their three children, who arrived in Melbourne on the Stratheden from Yorkshire in December 1961. They were one of a number of families sponsored by the Burke Road East Malvern Methodist Church as part of the ‘Bring out a Briton’ scheme.
It was part of a Commonwealth Government initiative, which offered subsidised ship fares, accommodation and support, to encourage migration from the UK to Australia after World War II and communities were encouraged to get involved.
The East Malvern Church's support included temporary accommodation for assisted families in the neighbouring house. Consequently, we have material relating to the family's application processes and shipboard journey. And their story intersects with the Barlow family, who were involved in the Church's ‘Bring out a Briton’ committee, and rather romantically, the connection resulted in the marriage of a son and daughter from each family. So we also have minute books and correspondence relating to the committee's activities with the Ward and other families, which sheds important light on community activity.
All in all, the collection amounts to around 380 separate items, including photographs and a few objects. It provides an excellent research resource and has strong potential for telling personal stories and setting broader political and social contexts in exhibitions and online.
So specific items include aerogram letters, remember those, from Betty Barlow, wife of Alex Barlow Secretary of the East Malvern ‘Bring out a Briton’ committee, where she gives news of her family's activities and the hot weather they're having in Australia. Letters of ‘sponsorship offer’ to the Ward family from the church. A committee minute book. A Bring out a Briton badge, as worn by Betty Barlow in the photograph…that one I showed you, on the bottom right-hand corner there…where she's escorting a sponsored family from the ship. And even a layout of the church house sent to the Ward family to show them how comfortable they will be.
And secondly, we have the story of Barbara and John Woods from Buckinghamshire, England who had married in 1955 and were living in commission housing with extended family. They successfully applied for the ten pound assisted-passage scheme and migrated to Australia on the Fairsea from Southampton in 1957. They had four children and built their house in Lawlor and went on to open their own drapery store there.
This collection of nearly 180 items tracks the family's story from decision to leave, through the whole application and departure process, their voyage and their settlement. From first house, to first child, to first car, to first business, to first phone milk delivery, first dog registration, electricity and sewerage connections. Thus, not only is this a wonderful migrant collection, it is a marvellous snapshot of Australian suburban life and another rich research archive, and remarkable in the fact that it has survived at all. How many of us have kept our first phone bill?
Migrants have frequently been excellent documenters of their own stories. Letters, diaries, postcards, annotated photo-albums, and even narrated film, bring the personal voice to the past. Written usually at the time of the event, they reflect the feelings and emotion of the moment. They give us glimpses into the lives of the writers.
Most of our collections of autobiography, if you like, are travel writings. They may be written to provide information to those left behind. Routine to fill idle hours during long monotonous days at sea. A form of therapy to soothe anxieties and enable the writer to reflect on events of, or unfamiliar experiences. Certainly during the 19th Century when ship voyages could take three months and even later journeys on liners up to six weeks, these were endeavours viewed as momentous, marking both a physical and emotional separation from home and family. Most people had never left their countries before.
The museum holds a small but significant collection of shipboard diaries, both 19th and 20th Century, all at this point written in English by migrants from the UK and Ireland. Some of these diaries, as well as letters, are also written post-settlement, providing fascinating glimpses into, in particular, early Melbourne life.
We have a diary written by MP O'Shea, an Irish migrant sailing to Melbourne in 1857. His descriptions are fully of energy and offer colourful insights into life in steerage.
‘The old scoundrel of a cook is drunk today again, and buried the rice and, and burned the rice, which had to be thrown overboard. Well what a night it's been, such falling, tumbling, crashing, and uproar. Boxes, hat ca, cases, carpet bags, wash bases, dishes, plates, pans, bottles, knives, and forks, all rolling and clattering about in the most confounded confusion within. On examination, I find we have representatives of 17 different nationalities on board. English, Irish, Scotch, Welsh, Yankee, French, German, Polish, Hamburger, Austrian, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Prussian, Greek, Australian, and perhaps more if I could discover them.’
We also have a letter written by 23 year old Rebecca Sarah Greaves in 1851, whose family settled from England on the Plenty River near Heidelberg, which reveals the complex feelings of loss and separation as well as the excitement and adventure felt by newly-arrived migrants. As well as the hard work involved in establishing a rural property from scratch and how families dispersed to find work.
It includes useful details about the cost of land, crops, stock, and supplies. The letter contains a wonderful description of the excitement and chaos caused by the gold rush, as well as a calm, yet dramatic picture of threats posed by bush fires.
My favourite quote from the letter which hints at Rebecca's independent spirit is as follows, ‘Everyone has left town to go to the diggings. There is not a man or boy to be seen in the town. Even the gents at the bank are off to the diggings. Such an uproar was never known in the colony before. Not a ship can leave the bay, for as soon as the ships get in port, the sailors are away to the gold mines. If I were only a young man, would not I go to the gold digging? And even now I feel half inclined to dress in men's clothes and go. I'm certain if I could not dig, I could rock the cradle, only I should be afraid they would know I was not a man, as I should not like to part with my curls.’ God love her.
And we have a photo journal compiled by Benjamin Wattling, just after arriving in Australia with his wife and children on the SS Australia in 1951 from England, which matches short commentary snippets with photos. ‘Such is Perth, in pack by Swan River, at Beck Cafe where we had our first Australian meal. And what a meal, boy oh boy, an absolute banquet.’ The comment possibly reflects the post-war austerity conditions in England from which they'd come.
So as you see, from this small sample from the collection, that we have a preponderance of English recorded experiences, and this seems to mirror many Australian public collections. One wonders if migrants from other countries did not document their experiences, or perhaps those that did have not survived or been passed into state collections.
Our collections hold many examples of seemingly ordinary objects, representing significant, even extraordinary experiences. And I'll show…I could show you hundreds of such examples.
With post-war Italian migrant Giuseppe Minniti, we have a very modest vessel for carrying personal fits. He had made it himself to carry items given to him to pass onto others already in Melbourne. And he inscribed his name, ship and destination on the lid.
We collected this case from a second-hand store back in the early days of building the collection, and we knew nothing about it.
Recently, the family saw the case on our collections online website, got in touch, and brought their now very elderly father into the immigration museum to see the case on display, donate a few photos, and to record his story. So suddenly the object now has a life 16 years after first entering the museum's collection. And the family now know that the object and stories are preserved at the museum. It was quite an emotional moment and has proven to be even more moving as Giuseppe passed away only a few months after telling his story and seeing his case.
On the other hand, we have a plain red vinyl suitcase inscribed with the owner's name, refugee camp, flight details and destination in Melbourne. It was purchased by Vietnamese refugee Cook Lan in 1978, after surviving escape with her husband in a fishing boat from Vietnam, with funds from selling her wedding ring. She was determined not to arrive in her country empty-handed. We also have the fisherman's clothes she wore to escape and the tiny photo of her sister and children who did not survive the journey.
I'm sorry, I went a little bit too far.
From the object alone, we can deduce that it has travelled, or at least had intended to travel on a Qantas flight from a Malaysian refugee camp to Australia to a migrant hostel in Melbourne. With this information, the suitcase provides a vehicle through which to delve further, into the migrant hostel in Melbourne, the refugee camp in Malaysia, the processing and managing of refugees, the handling of thousands of boat people picked up by ships and deposited in refugee camps on remote islands after the Vietnam War, and how people were identified, recorded, processed.
But the suitcase cannot convey they human element on its own, but its owner can, who preserved the case, donated it to the Museum Victoria Collection and collaborated in its display.
So this rich, poignant and rare collection symbolises the courage and desperation involved in the refugee experience. It is difficult to acquire objects from refugees. Many people carry little, if anything, with them and what they do is often lost or thrown away.
The objects, photos and oral-history interviews that have been conducted with Cook hold significant contemporary meanings. Cook's suitcase may have important lessons for us in understanding the plight of today's refugees and revealing the continuity of the refugee experience.
And we have a Limerick lace wedding veil imported and worn in 1854 by Janet Scrimgeour, a Scottish migrant, a migrant woman, who then passed the veil down through five generations and some thirty descendants.
In the words of Jean Ballington, Janet's great-great-granddaughter, ‘this veil originally belonged to my great-great-grandmother, Janet Scrimgeour, who migrated to Victoria from Scotland in 1854. It connects me to her. Such a special person during my childhood years and to many of the women in my family. I wore the veil at my own wedding in 1958, so I too am part of its long tradition’.
One object connecting a string of women in one family across 100 years.
Most of that collection documents the everyday experiences of migrants across time and culture. But a few do stand apart as examples of when material culture holds genuine power, symbols of human courage, resilience and survival, and I want to share a couple of examples with you. And Cook Lan's suitcase was one such example.
Another item of enormous power is the uniform worn during World War II by a 17 year old Polish boy at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, we think arrested because his father was a political agitator. So not Jewish in this case. But here is a symbol, instantly recognizable, of the millions murdered and those who survived to try to piece together new lives in new places.
Mr Gornea had little shared his experiences. He was just not able to talk about them. And he had died before the donation was offered to the museum. So his uniform and his liberation identity card must stand both silent and yet speaking volumes.
Another object of poignant power are a set of house keys, grabbed by a Hungarian couple as they locked their front door and fled their home in 1956 after the Soviet invasion, but never to return.
Another is a blanket, which belonged to Bull Bullcook, and was carried as a childhood memento by his mother, as his family travelled on foot across three countries from Saddam to reach safety in the 1990s. The blanket had been on loan to the immigration museum for display, but it was an object of such preciousness to the family, it took some time for them to decide that they could part with it. And for that, we're very grateful.
A weaving loom, made by Latvian men for a Latvian weaver from discarded timbers, found in a displaced person's camp in Germany after World War II and brought to Australia. It became a working symbol of cultural maintenance in a new land.
And finally a collection of exquisite items, most prosthetic or injury related miniatures crafted by refugees in Thai refugee camps in the 1980s, collected by a Department of Immigration processing officer. We will never know who the makers were or what happened to them, but these objects remain poignant symbols of war, which resonate with relevancy even today. And they've also enabled us to represent a lesser told story, that of the government staff who've been part of the selection and processing of migrants and refugees over time.
So these people made Australia their home and all have left a piece of themselves in the museum.
I thought it might be interesting to highlight for you a couple of examples of material relating to stories, which are held in multiple collections.
Migrant stories don't always fall neatly into one library, or one museum, or one archive.
So for example, Susannah Nichols migrated to Australia with her husband William, two children and Uncle John from England in 1923. They came supported by the Empire Settlements scheme, jointly launched in 1922 by the Australian and British governments to encourage white British families to come and settle in rural Australia.
Susanna and Will were both teachers, but settled in Pearcedale on the Mornington Peninsula to try farming. This was Will's bright idea, not Susanna's. Like so many of their compatriots during the 1920s, they were ill-equipped for farming, failed, and returned to teaching. Sadly, Susanna died in 1926 and Will returned to England with the family.
The museum holds personal affects and photographs, which belong to Susanna and Uncle John. Poignant symbols of attempts to build and furnish a home in regional Victoria, including a soup bowl, candlesticks, prayer books and carpentry tools.
The State Library holds a collection of photographs and letters Susanna wrote home to her family, which reveal her homesickness and stoicism and enable us to attach a personal voice to our objects.
And a quote from one of those letters. ‘If this place, climate and freedom were just transplanted to England and us with it, and within reach of you all, I could be absolutely happy.’
The letters also enable us to make real connections between Susannah's voice and our objects, in this case the furniture-making tools. ‘We have all we need and if our tables are packing cases on legs, and our chests of drawers are Karo tins and cases cut long ways, we can cover the defects with a cloth and hanging a drape in front of the tins, and there you are.’ Oh, sorry, there was the quote.
A second example is the Gung family. Sidney Lui Gung migrated to Australia from China in about 1900 at the age of 20 or 22 years, just before the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which would have made his immigration almost impossible, and it was already very difficult. He married Yam Ping, known as May Lui Gung, in 1912 and they had seven children. Sidney spent most his life in Melbourne, living in or around Carlton working as a cabinet maker and a fruit merchant. He died in 1954.
The Museum has a close relationship with Sidney's grandson, who has over the years donated documents, photographs and objects, which relate to two generations of the Gung family, including as you see here an abacus, claypot steamer and mah-jong set.
The National Archives holds records relating to the family's movement between Australia and China over the years, which has assisted us to piece together the story.
And finally, the Museum holds a large collection of objects and photographs relating to German pastry cook Karl Muffler, who migrated to Melbourne in 1930, established himself in pastry businesses in Brunswick and Prahran, and married a German migrant before he was interned as an enemy alien at Tatura in 1939.
His daughters donated pastry-making tools, handwritten recipe notebooks, qualification certifications, as well as drawings and other material Karl made at Tatura.
The national archives holds records relating to Karl's initial arrival and his internment, including the reasons for his immediate detainment, and recording his movement and release.
So consequently, public institutions can actively complement each other's collections and help curators and researchers to piece together migrant's stories.
So in conclusion, my aim today has been to offer you an insight into the breadth and diversity of the Museum's migration collections. It is a theme that will always offer opportunities to grow, in terms of strengthening existing areas, as well as representing new ones.
Many of our items are the kinds of things you might all have at home, which are helping you with your own family research, or simply providing emotional connections to ancestors.
The object should be cared for and treasured, as we do our utmost to when families no longer can, and we feel there is a place for that story in helping us to represent the diversity of migration experiences in Australia.
So a diary allows us to hear a voice from another time. A teacup allows us to hold a handle where the original owner had once placed their hand. A dockside photograph reveals facial expressions of hope and fear. A registration certificate with a hand print, preserves an ancestor's physical presence in an immediate, quite confronting way. And a suitcase, yes a suitcase, captures a moment of decision and severance from homeland.
The Museum's collections are living collections and an invaluable community resource, which we are working hard to make increasingly available online.
For example, we are currently digitising every page of our collection of migrant diaries and letters, all of which will be available on our website next year.
And beyond the personal and intimate, when we stand back, all these hundreds and hundreds of stories create interconnected, interwoven narratives, which provide insights into who we are as a community, where we have come from, and who and what will shape us into the future. Objects, photographs, oral histories, documents and diaries, help us to keep these personal stories and larger historical narratives real, tangible and constant.
'insights into who we are as a community, where we have come from, and who and what will shape us into the future'
– Moya McFadzean
About this recording
Listen to a diverse range of migrant stories as Moya McFadzean, Senior Curator at Museum Victoria, presents a session at Family History Feast 2014.
Moya underscores the importance of migration's role in Australia's history, and highlights the assistance that public libraries and archives can offer in helping family historians trace the journeys of family members to Australia.
Moya describes the types of material in the museum's collection that might be of relevance to researchers, and touches on the truly diverse, multicultural nature of Australia's migrant stories, representing all nations and faiths.
Most importantly, Moya draws attention to the highly personal stories contained in the museum's migrant narratives, from the moving and emotional to the practical, including the visas, travel applications, voyages and luggage involved in reaching a new home. An increasing number of these stories can be found on the Immigration Museum website.
Hear more from Family History Feast 2014
- Jenny Harkness on FamilySearch: Don Grant Lecture 2014 (video)
- Liz Denny on researching the records of Chinese miners on the Ballarat goldfields (audio)
- Andrew Griffin on Australia's non-British migrants (audio)
- Diana Hookham on multicultural family research (audio)
- Walter Struve on on German family history resources (audio)
Dr Moya McFadzean is Senior Curator of Migration and Cultural Diversity at Museum Victoria.