The Migration Museum in Adelaide and its diverse communities: “Reasons to Remember” in solidarity through difference
Since 2012, Western Europe has had to reflect on its openness towards newcomers. Some political leaders have capitalized on the influx of refugees to praise the model of a modern secular state with Christian morals, and called for a protection of national security against non-Christian dwellers. Others have advocated for more welcoming policies, still without questioning the concept of borders and citizenship. In the public sphere, many have also expressed their solidarity to displaced people, often reminding that some populations within Europe were also forced to flee and relocate, like the Jews during the Nazi Reich, or German settlers in Poland after the Second World War, to name just two.
On the other side of the planet, in Australia, recent migration movements have also stirred political responses: the federal government has engaged into forceful upstream campaigns at home and abroad to dissuade people intending to enter the country. At the same time, the Australian foreign policy and its military violently keep refugees at bay by interning them in offshore camps located on surrounding islands or even on foreign territories like Papua New Guinea. Yet, Australia has been a country of arrival for many different communities during its modern history.
Museums are sometimes seen as old institutions, displaying dusty objects that only interest a selected few. However, they do have an important societal function, as they often present debates and help shape public opinion on contested issues. The Migration Museum in Adelaide, and its take on migration, proves an interesting point in case. It reminds us of all the different contexts presented above and proposes a multidirectional perspective on migration and settlement. In the following, I will explore in more detail how this is done and what kind of trajectories are drawn between different experiences of displacement and oppression.
Who is a migrant?
Comparing experiences of migration and exile is productive for a broader understanding of a world of borders that affects many different communities in different ways. It also helps reflect upon the use of certain wordings. Take the word ‘refugee’ for example: in 2009, it was used by journalists for internally displaced US Americans as a result of Hurricane Katrina, and taken as an insult by many of those who had to leave their homes. They argued that this denomination sounded as if they were not full US citizens. In Germany, ‘Flüchtling’ (refugee) is largely used in mainstream media, while many NGO activists more often opt for ‘Geflüchtete’ (the one who fled), arguing that the suffix -ling might infantilize the concerned individuals. Finally, a stark distinction in European political discourses is still made between “refugees” and “migrants,” allowing arbitrary deportations of those who flee from non-statist violence, corrupted regimes, dire living conditions or poverty.
It is with a look at this problematic terminology that the Adelaide Migration Museum begins its informative panels: “We have many words to describe those who leave one country to live in another. Emigrants are those who have homelands, immigrants are those who have newly arrived. We also speak of colonists and pioneers who came in the first years of the new colony. Settlers are immigrants who ‘settle down’ and establish themselves in their new country. For Aboriginal peoples, all the newcomers were invaders who took their lands. The word we use depends on the story we tell and who is telling the story. There are many stories, many objects and many voices in this gallery.” The museum thus enables visitors to understand from the beginning, that each term implies a slanted perspective on history, and that the museum has allowed different perspectives to find their place in telling stories of migration to the Australian continent.
Invasion/Migration: “(a)salt waves” and “aggrocultural advances”
In the so-called settler colonies like the USA, Canada, Australia or Aotearoa New Zealand, the histories of pristine “settlers” have indeed acted as bulwarks for the mythical births of those nations. Too often have Indigenous peoples been relegated to the status of natural beings, justifying the exploitation of their lands, genocidal policies and segregationist fencing. The entrance hall of this museum features a serial work of art by Darryl Pfitzner Milika. Seven of his paintings capture watersheds of the invasion of Australia by White settlers: after the “(a)salt waves” and the “aggrocultural advances”, Aboriginal Australians have had to suffer from nuclear tests in the bush, the stealing of their children, and continuous discrimination. On the opposite wall, the map of Aboriginal Australia issued by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies reminds of the actual diversity of languages and cultures of Indigenous Australians despite the flattening of all those differences under one English word: “Aboriginal.” The map also pictures the voyages undertaken by James Cook, Abel Tasman, Matthew Flinders and others as arrows approaching the shores of the continent, refusing the narratives of “discovery” whose maps had pictured Australia as Terra Nullius, bare of borders and peoples (see image).
There is still strong resistance from Australian descendants of Europeans to critically engage with their history as ‘invaders’ – let alone as ‘settlers.’ In politics and mainstream culture, ‘invasion,’ ‘discrimination,’ ‘genocide’ and ‘disenfranchisement’ are terms that are still rarely used when telling the history of the country. Less than a hundred metres away from the Migration Museum, the neighbouring State Library and its pompous Morlock wing still presents a myth of the “discovery” of the Australian continent by European ships, a viewpoint on history that is still largely taught in schools as well. In this regard, the Migration Museum offers a more refreshing stance on the history of settlement in Australia.
Dictation tests in Hungarian for immigrants to Australia
Later, those settler colonies like Australia have also experienced incoming populations. These newcomers – no less “new” than what settlers were a few centuries earlier – have in turn been victims of racist policies of restricted naturalisation, as well as discrimination for being non-British dwellers. Later in the gallery, the era of the White Australia Policy (1901-1973) is addressed. The museum shows the similarities in status between non-White settlers and Indigenous people, reminding that “some British subjects, such as those from India, Ceylon or Fiji, were thought to be ‘aliens’. The Naturalization Act of 1903 stated that no ‘aboriginal native of Asia, Africa, or the Islands of the Pacific, excepting New Zealand’ could be naturalized. Southern Europeans too were considered less desirable immigrants and in the 1920s Australian authorities limited the entry of people from Malta, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Albania.”
To illustrate this racist policy, museum visitors are invited to experience this discrimination at the border by putting themselves into the shoes of twentieth century immigrants with different backgrounds and taking the “White Australia Walk” (see image). The enforcement of the Immigration Restriction Bill in 1901 imposed arbitrary language tests to immigrants that could “exclude anyone whom immigration officials thought unsuitable.” The dictation tests given to an individual could indeed be in any European language. With that absurd (but devilishly efficient) method, an immigrant from Japan could be given a test to prove his/her non-existing skills in Hungarian, and be accordingly refused entry into the territory, or deported. This test was used up until 1958. Faced with many of those dead-ends, visitors are invited to reflect upon the unabashed mechanisms of discriminative power at the border. Even if the interactivity proposed by this “game” is limited and quite simplistic, the idea of translating the frustrating experience of migrants through role-playing relies upon feelings of empathy that might contribute to raising awareness on the racist delimitation of the Australian nation at its margins. In a similar vein, the BBC (“Syrian Journey”) and the UNHCR (“Against All Odds”) have also used the format of so-called ‘serious games’ to point at the barriers of Fortress Europe that refugees from Syria are facing.
While non-British immigrants could not obtain the status of citizens of Australia, Aboriginal people also continued to be cast out, and had to wait until 1965 to be able to vote in all federal states. In the first part of the museum’s permanent exhibition, I was also puzzled by the fact that graphs showing the partition of the Australian population in ethnic or linguistic groups did not feature any information on the number of Aboriginal people in the population. This absence was explained later: only in 1967 did a change in the constitution enable the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the census; a late, but important recognition of their citizenship in their own land.
A participatory museum
Up until the end of the twentieth century, museums allocated little room for minority groups to express their particular perspectives. These quintessentially European institutions provided one perspective only: they mostly praised the achievements of white men of science who, despite their achievements in the quest for knowledge, also perpetuated clear-cut oppositions: ever since the Enlightenment, the perspective of rational, modern Europe would generally exoticize foreign nations, and/or relegate them to the realm of nature, to a backward past, which was especially the case for Indigenous peoples and women from the Global South.
Recently though, some museums have discovered that they inhabit spaces where multiple communities coexist, and that these communities have a say when it comes to occupying the public sphere. The Migration Museum is a “participatory museum,” the director, Mandy Paul, asserts. “It is embedded in durable work with communities at its core, and it is normal practice for us ever since the beginning” (the museum was founded in 1986). A community space is indeed left at disposition for community-based exhibitions. Unfortunately, “the sole statement that the forum is open mostly attracts nostalgic, fairly homogeneous and structured groups who do not thoroughly engage in questioning their own identity,” Mandy Paul observes. As a result, the museum has now decided to proactively reach out to other communities that did not or could not present an exhibition of their own. All in all, those special community-based exhibitions have been largely contributions from members of particular linguistic, national or religious groups in South Australia, such as, for instance, Russians, Latvians, South Bhutanese people, or Muslim women. But the museum also recently hosted an exhibition on the local LGBTQ community, thus addressing ‘diversity’ in its full sense, not only referring to a given region of origin, but considering broader dimensions of the term regarding gender and sexual preferences. This reminds us that museums also bear a social responsibility in the public sphere: by engaging with diverse local communities, opening up their space to different voices, and integrating diverse views on race, class, gender, religion and identity, museums can question normative frameworks and, as cultural institutions, act for social cohesion by promoting diversity.
Eighteen memorial plaques
The reality of cosmopolitan metropolises like Sydney or Melbourne, and the increasing number of foreign students enrolling in Australian universities shows that, despite great efforts to limit immigration, the Australian population grows more and more diverse. Confronted with multiple audiences, the Migration Museum in Adelaide has taken on the task of addressing them. It confronts and remembers a generally racist history of white domination in a multidirectional way. Multidirectional memory designates forms of collective memory that express solidarity with different histories of oppression instead of competition. Groups that only wish for the prevalence of certain traumatic histories over others operate in forms of memory that are, in the long run, counter-productive, because they often tend to sacralise a given history while belittling other contexts. Emphasizing difference and solidarity rather helps all kinds of populations to talk about their past in relation to each other.
The entrance yard of the Migration Museum proposes an example of this kind of multidirectionality: on the wall eighteen memorial plaques are displayed. Each refers to a singular context of persecution that has forced populations into exile. Jews, Palestinians, Istrian Italians, Donauschwaben, Bosnians, Croatians, Serbs, Pontic Greeks, Slovenes, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Tatars and Bashkurts, Vietnamese and Filippinos, victims of the British child migration schemes and victims of the Armenian genocide, are all remembered next to each other.
The Museum’s explanatory plaque reads: “Many of our immigrants were forced to leave their homelands and seek refuge in Australia. The Migration Museum wishes to thank those who […] have shared their Reasons to Remember.” The presence of those different – but sometimes related or even entangled – histories of exile can be criticized for flattening scales of importance and suppressing the significance of numbers. At the same time, this helps shedding light upon the actual weight of exile in individual and collective (familial) experience. It also points at various governments that have compelled people to leave their homes, some committing crimes against humanity, some simply enforcing discriminatory policies.
The interior of the museum shows that emigrating to Australia and settling down there has never been easy. It also addresses the suffering of Aboriginal Australians under European-Australian rule. Outside, those memorial plaques occupy a space that stresses both the similarities and the differences between those histories of migration. Next to this wall stands an acknowledgement to the Kaurna people, the local Aboriginal community and rightful owners of the land. Visiting the Migration Museum and experiencing its community-based approach is edifying: not only do multiple histories of oppression and exile start to appear connected; our awareness on continuous strategies of exclusion, deportation and discrimination is raised.
 In Latin: “nobody’s land.”
 Here I refer to people living on the Australian continent, not Australian citizens.
 See Michael Rothberg, (2009). Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford University Press; (2011); and from the same author, “From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory,” Criticism 53:4 (Fall 2011), 523–548.