Museums, migration and environmental history

My talk will provide an overview of migration history in Australian museums. I will then move on to a discussion of the intersections between migration, Indigenous and environmental histories through examples from my current work as part of a team redeveloping the environmental history gallery at the National Museum of Australia.

Disclaimer: What I say today represents my personal views, not the views of the National Museum of Australia. It draws upon my work as a curator at the NMA and Immigration Museum, research and interviews conducted for my PhD and while I was a Research Assistant to Professor Andrea Witcomb on the ARC funded Discovery Project: Collecting Institutions, cultural diversity and the making of citizenship in Australia in the 1970’s, DP120100594. I’ve also drawn upon the writings of Eureka Henrich, Ian McShane, Margaret Anderson, Viv Szekeres, Moya McFadzean and others.

Museums and migration

Public museums were established in each capital city of each Australian colony by 1891 and their purpose was to ‘represent “the world” and to instruct citizens’ (Healy, 1997, p.84). Some were natural history museums which included anthropological collections of ‘other’ peoples from around the world, some were museums of technology (which included displays of ethnospecific mining technology) and others incorporated libraries and art collections. Australian museums were not historical in focus nor did they have a concept of the nation until after World War IRegional historical societies collected items of historical value, which mostly had connections to early explorers, pioneers or prominent local families who wished to legitimise their family by giving it        social significance (Anderson, 1991). These sometimes included objects from local ethno-specific minorities, such as Chinese or German material.  

The creation of the earliest ethno-specific community museums and archives coincided with the rise of interest in local histories and the migration of Baltic refugees after World War II. The Baltic refugees had a strong sense of cultural and national identity and dreamt of returning to their respective countries of origin so they created organisations to collect their culture and history in exile.  Examples include The Lobethal Museum and Archives which opened in 1956. It documented the lives of Prussian Lutheran settlers during the 19th century. The Estonian Archives of Australia were established in 1952, the Australian Lithuanian Museum and Archives in 1961 and the Latvian Museum in 1970.  Some of this material has since been repatriated, such as Adelaide’s Latvian Music Archives.

The concurrent development of social history and multicultural policy during the 1970s meant that Australian museums tended to represent migration history and cultural diversity together. As noted by Viv Szekeres, both the Pigott Report Museums in Australia (1975) and the Galbally Report on Migrant Programs and Services (1978) were seminal influences on Australian museum engagement with migration history, multiculturalism and cultural diversity.

As I wrote in my AMHN blog, the lead up to the sesquicentenaries of the founding of Victoria in 1984-5 and South Australia in 1986 as well as the Bicentenary in 1988 enabled state-run museums in these states, as well as the Australian National Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Australia to recast their respective state and national identities as being inclusive and pluralistic by collecting and displaying migration history. Two migration museums opened – the South Australian Migration Museum in 1986 and Victoria’s Immigration Museum in 1998. And more ethno-specific museums appeared, such as the Jewish Museum of Australia in 1982, Museum of Chinese Australian History in 1984 and more recently the Islamic Museum of Australia in 2014.

The earliest object to be consciously collected within the framework of migration history is the Hong Hai, a Vietnamese refugee boat which arrived in Darwin in 1978 was collected by the NMA in 1981. Much of the material collected in the 80s and 90s was from post-World War II European and Vietnamese refugee communities. Suitcases, national costumes, objects related to work and business, material made in refugee camps, souvenirs from countries of origin and migration documents are common. Efforts were made to collect material relating to pre-war ethnic minority communities, such as Chinese, Castellorizian and German or Prussian material. From the 1990s onwards, there have been efforts to include material of the English in migration history collections. Museums, libraries and archives also collected and displayed racist and anti-racist material and material related to government policies.

Today, however migration history in museums is being reconsidered with the redevelopment of a number of major institutions. The Powerhouse Museum no longer includes social history, let alone migration history in its remit. The Multicultural Museums Victoria are also rethinking their future relevance to second and future generation migrants. In a future expansion of the Australian War Memorial, Operation Border Force’s role in turning back asylum seeker boats may be included. This would align with the shift towards a multicultural framework that includes border security.  In light of this uncertainty around representing migration history as a separate theme in Australian museums, I’ve moved towards thinking about how migration history and migrant stories can be interwoven with other strands of Australian history as well as thinking through the roles that ethnic, migrant and multicultural histories play in maintaining white supremacy and settler colonialism. I will now proceed to outline some thoughts on the ways in which migration history intersects with Indigenous and environmental histories.

Migration, Indigenous and Environmental histories

All migrants to Australia are colonisers and environmental humanities academic Deborah Bird Rose (2004) has written that the process of colonisations as being a ‘dual war’ against Indigenous peoples and nature. Colonisation resulted in genocide of Indigenous peoples and ecocide in terms of the destruction of nature.

According to Andrea Smith, ‘Orientalism’ is a key logic which is connected to settler-colonialism. Colonisers ‘othered’ natural and human threats to the colonial project, including predators, Indigenous people and people perceived as potential colonial rivals such as Chinese people. In Van Dieman’s Land, for instance, colonisers placed bounties on both thylacines and Aboriginal people in 1830. Carol Freeman (2014) has written about the way that thylacines were ‘Orientalised’ in visual representations during the 19th century – they were made more vicious, wolf-like and portrayed with exotic tropical vegetation. This parallels the ‘Orientalising’ visual and literary representations of Asian, especially Chinese ,people at this time (Walker, 1999). The second bounty on the thylacine passed into law in 1887 with the assistance of Members of Parliament who wanted to get rid of the ‘yellow agony’ and introduce anti-Chinese immigration legislation in Tasmania later that year (Paddle, 2002).

Post-World War II migration and its relationship to industrialisation also can be understood as a continuation of the colonial process. An example of this is the the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme which was conceived as a way to protect east-coast electricity supplies from possible Japanese attack towards the end of the Second World War. Post-World War II migrants were brought in to increase the population as a defence move against possible Japanese invasion and their labour was used for this nation building project to provide electricity to east coast communities and more water for inland agricultural communities (McHugh, 1995). The Scheme drowned Aboriginal archaeological sites and had devastating impacts on human and non-human communities downstream when 99% of the flow of the Snowy River was cut off at Jindabyne in 1967 (Seddon, 1994; Miller, 2005). Researching and speaking with scientists,  local Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal townspeople in Dalgety and Orbost over the last few months has indicated to me that while the Snowy Scheme is commonly described as being the ‘birthplace of multiculturalism’ there also needs to be an acknowledgement of the environmental and human costs of the Scheme, as well as a need to respond effectively to these costs. Since 2002, environmental flows of between 11% and 21% have flowed down the Snowy River and there have been efforts to rehabilitate the area affected by the Scheme. I think that the discipline of migration history can sensitively and productively engage with the both the celebratory and uncomfortable aspects of migration, enabling us to explore the multiple roles that migrants and migration play in Australian history.

I’m also in the process of rethinking of the role of individual migrant stories in an exhibition of environmental history. I would like to include objects and photographs from Olegas Truchanas a post-war Lithuanian Displaced Person who worked with the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. Putting himself at risk with his employer, Truchanas was able to work against the conventions of post-war industrial development through a series of audio-visual lectures about the potential drowning of Lake Pedder in the Hobart Town Hall during the early 1970s.

Truchanas’ philosophy demonstrated a desire to get out of a mode of existence which Ghassan Hage describes as ‘generalised domestication’ … where otherness is always an otherness that is instrumentalized and perceived to exist “for me” and move to a different mode of existence, possibly a more mutualist mode of existence which ‘points to a way of being where otherness exists “in me” or a possibly a reciprocal mode of existence which ‘highlights a dimension in which otherness exists “with me”. This “withness” is the withness of the offering. The other is always already in a state of giftedness in relation to me’ (Hage, 2017, p.120).

Decolonising migrant histories requires a cultural shift. Rather than a narrative of national progress or a migrant contribution narrative, what I’m interested in doing is bringing the coloniser/migrant, environmental and Indigenous strands of history together to encourage the visitor to pause and think about our relations with each other and with the land we all live upon. Rather than gazing at each ‘other’ as we tend to do in museums, I want visitors to shift their gaze to look in the same direction, to take responsibility for the difficult aspects of our past and begin building a future together.

Karen Schamberger



Margaret Anderson, ‘Selling the past: History in the museums in the 1990s’, Australian Historical Studies, vol.24, no.97, 1991, pp.130-41.

Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: ethics for decolonisation (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2004)

Carol Freeman, Paper Tiger: How pictures shaped the thylacine (Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014)

Ghassan Hage, Is racism an environmental threat? (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2017)

Chris Healy, From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, (Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1997) 

Siobhan McHugh, The Snowy: The People Behind The Power (Angus & Robertson, Pymble, 1995)

Claire Miller, Snowy River story: the grassroots campaign to save a national icon (ABC Books, Sydney, 2005)

Robert Paddle, The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002) 

George Seddon, Searching for the Snowy: an environmental history, (Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994)

David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939 (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999)

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