MHC Forum 1999
The title of today's paper was inspired by a contemporary Australian craft object which recently caught my attention, compelled me to look more closely and stop to reflect on what I saw. It was a memorial lamp of heat blackened mild steel and silver, etched and saw pierced. On it, inscribed in Hebrew, were the words, "the world weeps when a fruit tree is cut down" by Yalkut Ravini. It was described as Memory Container 1- Aspect of Life 1999 and is the work of Leah Teschendorff.(1)
The Memory Container was an intricately worked, beautiful, strong piece. You could illuminate its interior with a candle. On the outside, blackened and tempered by the fires of life, on the inside the capacity to make sense of it all through the representation of the internal fire, the light of life. The memorial lamp, through the candle and its flame was forged to house the essence of man or woman. When a beloved died, the lamp was kindled. On each anniversary of the extinguishment of mortal life, the continuation of the life of the spirit was remembered by the rekindling of the light within the lamp.
When I saw the Memory Container, I was in the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne. I had gone to visit the Museum in preparation for developing this paper because I wanted to look more closely at the growing phenomena of ethno-specific museums and the challenge these held out to so-called mainstream museums and their practice. I was not sure quite what to expect and thought setting aside a couple of hours would do the trick. Instead, Dr Helen Light, the Director came in search of me when she realised I was still wandering around after closing time and we hadn't yet had our scheduled meeting. I had totally given myself over to the stories of the people living within the Museum and was getting to know them and their lives intimately. I was seeing them as people not exhibits.
I had begun my internal journeying with the exhibition where I discovered the Memory Container. The exhibition was titled Blessed be the Work. Australian Contemporary Design in Jewish Ceremony 11. This was as near perfect an exhibition as you get in its conception, its processes, its coherence, in the participation of the artists as co-creators as well as creators, in the excellence and exquisite sensitivity of its objects; their individual aesthetic attraction and their coming together in an integrated whole.
Excellence may be something we dispute and have difficulty in defining but rarely do we have difficulty in recognising it when it confronts us. I saw it in both inherent beauty and fineness of execution; in a memorial lamp, a spice container, a Torah cover, betrothal rings, a honey set.
Perhaps for me what was most important was the capacity of the exhibition and each object in it to reach out and touch the observer, to draw the observer into a special sacred space, to move them, to inspire them and to move them on. The exhibition revealed insight after insight and story after story. I scoured the interpretive text attached to each object for a glimpse of those stories and I was not disappointed. The stories were accessible. They invited discovery whether or not the observer's frame of reference had included Jewish faith or ritual. I was moved by the stories.
There was clearly something special in the way the artists who developed these chosen ritual objects, spoke of their artistic intent, the layers of meaning with which their work was invested, the twin notions of time honoured tradition and contemporary relevance with which they struggled. These last two seemingly paradoxical elements came together time and time again.
The challenge for the artists, it seemed to me had been to bring the two together in ways that transcended specific cultural and religious knowledge and forged connections between the diverse groups of people who would read the work. A difficult enough task but compounded by the fact that many of the artists themselves had had little previous contact with Judaism or Judaica. They were not always delving into personal heritage for knowledge, familiarity or inspiration. They undertook extensive research and briefing sessions and had access to the resources of the Museum and to an expert reference group to develop their ideas and execute their designs respectfully, in accordance with Jewish ritual requirements.
As artists wanting to show and say something meaningful and highly personal through their work, they had to both include and engage their audiences. Some of the observers of their work would have intimate knowledge of the rituals the artists themselves were interpreting, others would have none. The artists had to interpret their own interpretation in a language accessible to their audience.
To do this, it seemed to me they were struggling with all of the elements that go to make up Migration Heritage in its complexity. It is fitting that the Memory Container became for me a metaphor of Migration Heritage.
Migration Heritage no less than any other legacy, record or history is already filtered. Others have already made decisions on what is appropriate and what is desirable to be revealed and how it will be presented, what might be provoking and what might be stimulating and most significantly, what might be excluded. This latter defines heritage by omission.
All of us wear filters, we are all interpreters. We may be casual or avid or one-off museum, gallery or performance goers. Whatever the circumstances of our being an audience, we are likely to interpret any performance or exhibition on the basis of how well informed we are about it and from the perspective of our own particular idiosyncrasies and prejudices.
Curators have a different role. They operate within the frame of the bigger picture. They interpret and move between the worlds of the artist, the artist's work and context; and the observer.
This means they too have the responsibilities of translators but they will also often be mediators. At best, they are in a position to create and strengthen bridges of understanding between maker and observer. They have the opportunity to either limit or contribute to establishing networks and connections between past and present and to inspire participation in shared culture making for the future.
In this paper I would like to explore the sometimes seemingly disparate elements of Migration Heritage and how these might support the building of the bridges and weave the web of connections. I will develop three strands of thinking. The first is an exploration of the terms which can blight or enhance our understanding and our responses to Migration Heritage. The second is an exploration of the need to create connections and the ways in which the connections are created. The third will explore and move beyond the confinement of traditional containers of Migration Heritage into the development of new shared spaces. Throughout I will draw on the metaphor of the Memory Containers that made such an impression on me at the exhibition.
In keeping with the purpose of this paper I will give most attention to looking closely at the concepts and key words we use in this field on a day to day basis and strive to extend our thinking of them as far as possible. Either we will reconstruct our notions or reaffirm our understanding of them and consider their implications for our practice.
It may be argued that Migration Heritage is no more and no less than a memory container which holds a particular set of memories related to migration. A vessel which holds, perhaps even idealises or romanticises the past. I would argue that neither Migration Heritage nor Memory Boxes are just coffins or containers for a dead past. Heritage is not simply a repository or a keeping box of cold ashes.
Let me first make a distinction between Migrant History and Migration Heritage. Migrant History, in some of its past incarnations has been a much more limiting concept, even though often fuelled by goodwill and a desire to include. At worst it has been represented by the obligatory, traditional timeline which begins in the 1950's and stops short at the borders of cultural preservation and conservation. Preservation and conservation, along with the word museum and the word exhibit, have frequently borne the associations of death and irrelevance, doomed to share the fate of the dinosaurs. They toll with the sound of joyless obligation and burden.
This does not mean that museums, exhibits, preservation and conservation are unimportant, it means that museums cannot limit notions of heritage to a stultifying notion of history through chronology and expect to capture the imaginations and engage the minds and hearts of younger generations. History is at its best when we remember that embedded within it is the word story. Anna Malgorzewicz, Director of the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, recently said, "There is an immigration story in the life or family history of every non-Indigenous Australian." Her vision for the Museum is underpinned by this fundamental belief in story and the paramount need to make the stories accessible. Reliance on objects can limit rather than enhance the story. The story is more than the objects of history. In this context, oral history becomes increasingly important.(2)
The word heritage is perhaps the primary word deserving of our attention because it is the noun embedded in the concept of Migration Heritage. By being the naming word in the concept it defines its parameters. The Macquarie Dictionary (3) (on p 831) defines heritage as "that which comes or belongs to one by reason of birth; an inherited lot or portion. 2. something reserved for one:" To me this inheritance is unique to each of us. Our inheritance is a legacy or a sacred trust handed down by our ancestors and predecessors. We inherit the consequences of who they were, their experiences, their wisdom, their learning and their choices and circumstances.
However, there is also a sense of timelessness, continuity and future in the concept of inheritance. We do more than passively receive our inheritance of memories, experiences, ideas, attitudes and values. Every minute of our existence we are questioning this inheritance and shaping it by our own contribution as living story and mythmakers. In doing this we make decisions which shape and mould the inheritance of those who will come after us. The inheritance we receive and that which we leave behind is both our experience and our expression of culture, individually and collectively.
Furthering the connection that our inheritance is our culture, it is worth investing time in this word that has as many meanings as there are disciplines. Archaeology has a meaning for it, history has a meaning for it, anthropology has a meaning for it, biology has a meaning for it, psychology has a meaning for it and sociology has a meaning for it. The Macquarie Dictionary(4) has twelve meanings listed under culture, some disciplines investing it with at least two meanings!
The origins of our word culture come from the Greek words for good act or action, derived from the growing or cultivating of plants and animals and extending the meaning to the cultivating and growing of children. The reference to good invests the actions of nurturing growth with a positive value and sacred responsibility. The Latin roots, evident in the word agriculture, also originate in the practice of tilling or cultivating the soil, with the aim of growth resulting from such cultivation. The Latin extends the metaphor for growth through education, refinement and enlightenment. The sociological definition argues for culture to be understood as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another.(5)
This latter is about the expression of culture and is the definition most frequently applied generically to culture. In that frequent usage, it is all too easy to forget its meaning goes back to the inherent goodness of actions which nurture growth. The origins of culture as the expression of the need to grow, develop, improve and strive for enlightenment need to be reinstated in the way we think of the term and use it. Heritage is about reflection, relevance and spirit, more to do with the celebration of ancestral resilience and its wisdoms than depiction or replication of past history. Most importantly this focus of heritage as a web of living, changing connections needs to drive and permeate our practice as creators, curators, directors, and administrators across all areas of the arts.
When we review and collaborate with others in our practice, we realise that we do not always have a shared understanding. Despite being professionals in the field, we do not always interpret the notions of culture and heritage in the same way. Sometimes the shared understandings come from unexpected quarters.
Recently I was privileged to talk with Singye Namgyel, the Director of the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies at Semtokha in Bhutan. English is the official language of Bhutan and the Dzhonka language is taught as a subject at school. Most children grow up speaking at least 2 languages including English but often speak 3 or 4 languages.
I asked how the word for culture was understood in Dzonkha. I was told that despite the fact that the Institute has a Cultural Studies Course, a responsibility to preserve cultural heritage, and "despite saying how rich it was for years"; last year for the first time ever, they conducted a workshop to define Heritage and Culture.
Heritage was defined first. It was seen as that which is passed down, both tangible and intangible, ranging from monasteries and stupas to songs, dances, beliefs and practices. As much information is passed down in the oral tradition, the Institute has a responsibility to record, document and protect. Already questions of priority in selection, who had the authority to decide significance, and for whom heritage was being protected were being confronted, particularly in respect of the heritage of numerically small ethnic groups living in Bhutan.
Notions of promoting heritage were beginning to coexist with notions of sharing it through its promotion. However, the idea of promotion when linked to tourism was proving to be a double-edged sword. It was seen as forcing change through the adaptation of heritage such as traditional dance performance to the needs of consumption patterns which required such performances to conform to both authenticity and the time frame of tour bus operators. Tourism, while driving change, ironically also demanded the preservation of a form of heritage that would otherwise change and evolve in its own way and in its own time frame.
Culture in Dzonkha is lamsurl. This was initially described as "a way of life based on Buddhist principles." However, taking the components separately, lam means the right way or path, the path of good, of betterment and enlightenment. Surl means the practice, the pursuit and expression of the way. Within it is contained the inherent tension between tradition and growth. It is curious but somehow reassuring in its continuity that the same notions of striving for goodness, growth and enlightenment - surely components of spiritual development as well as the development of the mind and body, are considered essential to the understanding and practice of culture.(6)
It seems that through our institutions, we have more often than not separated the twin spirits of creativity and spirituality intrinsic to culture, divorcing the act of creation from the sacred act which the early Greeks saw it as being. The Memory Containers brought me back to that connection and its fusion with Migration as the metaphor for the journey of the spirit. Migration and Heritage came together as I imagined the physically dangerous journeys involved in transporting and protecting treasured ritual objects.
In my mind's eye I saw people fleeing persecution on the basis of their beliefs, taking with them what was most important to their sense of identity and faith, choosing to take what would sustain and nourish them spiritually. I saw others, not fleeing but choosing to immigrate to Australia or America, with a sense of excitement, deciding on what to discard of an old life and what to take into a new life, protected through their journey by their sacred treasures. It should be noted that the sacred can be found in the act of courage as much as in ritual objects.
In further exploring Migration as part of Migration Heritage, it needs to be noted that Migration is used as an adjective.
It describes a particular type of Heritage. It refers to a specific aspect of the cultural legacy, that of the process of Migration or is it Immigration?
We have in Australia today, the Migration Heritage Centre of New South Wales, the Migration Museum of South Australia, which describes itself as a "museum of immigration history"(7) and the Immigration Museum and Hellenic Antiquities Museum of Victoria. As well, there are a growing number of specialised community based museums such as the Jewish Museums in Sydney and Melbourne, exhibiting different emphases and priorities; and two Chinese-Australian museums in Victoria. All have in common the representation and expression of particular ethnic groups, the impact of immigration and emigration on ethnic identity and the continuing impact on successive generations.
Strictly and perhaps pedantically speaking they are all about Australian Immigration and Emigration. Emigration is the process of leaving one's native land to settle in another country or region. Immigration is the process of coming to another country with the intent to reside and settle there permanently. Migration has a greater sense of the temporary about it, as in the passing over of migratory birds. To migrate is to pass periodically from one region to another. So Migration carries within it the idea of internal movement, not movements from one country to another. It can therefore accommodate population shifts across states and regions within Australia. These shifts may or may not have anything to do with immigrants from overseas, or be caused by the legacy of immigration.
The Immigration Museum in Melbourne uses the word Immigration very deliberately because it is seen to more accurately reflect the issues with which they deal. Their theme is, the journey begins; leavings, journeys, arrivals settlings and impacts.
Through "impacts" particularly, the Museum has made great strides in consciously addressing the impact of immigration on indigenous peoples of Victoria, an area often dealt with inadequately and uncomfortably as it is assumed that there are tensions, possibly best skated over, between indigenous groups and immigrant groups. The story of Merle and Alick Jackomos is a particularly moving and interesting one with which to approach such difficult issues. Their story shows how connection between the two groups can bring out the finest in human beings.(8) This museum aims to celebrate not only the immigration experience, but also our developing Australian identity through the expression of our cultural diversity. Its brief in expressing cultural diversity allows it to deal legitimately with issues relating to indigenous peoples, rather than having to artificially fit them in somewhere while dissociating immigrant and indigenous experiences.
The first statement one reads on the inside front cover of the Museum's information booklet, says: "The peoples of the Kulin nation have always been connected to this land. For over two centuries Aboriginal people and immigrants have shared history. We recognise this past in both its losses and achievements, and invite you to work towards a shared future that respects all cultures."(9) This sets the tone of the journey and invites the observer to play their part.
Despite this, current usage tends to use immigration and migration interchangeably. This can create uncertainty for curators mounting exhibitions on related themes, making it difficult to resolve terminology, orientation and consistency issues. By the same token, it forces thinking about what is meant rather than proceeding on the basis of assumption or the easy way out.
Migration continues to gain currency in this debate, perhaps because it has a sense of the temporal and of fluidity, of movements backwards and forwards rather than one-way traffic. With increasing globalisation, through technology and travel, the world is becoming a more accessible place and its young people are seeing themselves as world citizens, more nomadic than earlier generations. They are perhaps less likely to call anywhere home, shaking off the heritage of forbears who may have made a virtue of territoriality and ownership.
It is interesting to note the journey of the National Museum of Australia with respect to Migration History. It's opening exhibition relating to the processes and consequences of migration in Australian History, has shifted in focus. Having begun life as Journeys, it appears to have moved to the exhibition title of Currents, offering a distinctly more unsettling perspective. It seems to throw migrants headlong into the powerlessness of a destiny which transports them in a set pattern, despite their choices. This approach challenges and departs from past practice and there is much to be gained from tracking such themes of the empowerment and disempowerment of the human condition, through the vehicle of migration history in this case.
There are other elements of Migration Heritage, which challenge curators to take on this reflection on the human condition. The processes of Migration in all its forms begin with home, for which we can read the metaphor of self, and with home/self under threat. It's elements are disconnection and severance from home, the search for a new home, the continuing journey of discovery, the struggle underpinning this, the reaching out to initiate new connections and finally the reconnection with home/self, now understood in a very different way.
In essence, Migration in all its forms is a metaphor for the journey of the self and the collective and perhaps this needs to be done more explicitly than in the past. If this were better understood then Migration Heritage would be less likely to be marginalised to that which is obligatory and tackled without much enthusiasm. Perhaps curatorial practice would best be served by an emphasis on what happens to people, as a result of their disconnection from the known and familiar, rather than the perfunctory stops or locations of the journey made to a new country. This latter belies the complexity of who they are and what circumstances brought them to their starting points as well as their finishing points. The personal story, preferably in the protagonist's own voice, with its emphasis on the affective is more likely to be of interest to the observer and more likely to make the point of connection.
I believe this need for connection with each other, while being respectfully seen as distinct and different from each other, drives people and nations. It is appropriate that it also drive curatorial and performance practice in the area of Migration Heritage.
One inhibitor to this happening is that increasingly, the Arts and the cultural institutions which house and display them, just like education previously, is being called upon to reflect life, offer opportunities for making meaning and sense out of life, preferably served up in palatable and accessible form in order to restore a sense of purpose and direction to society. It has become a fact of life that everyone seems to want his or her slice of the pie and there are never enough resources to go around. To see the Arts as the next panacea or social cure-all is to deny the complexity of the world in which we live. These are limiting views of the world which divests institutions of their responsibilities to audiences. The Arts are diminished if they do not contribute to making sense of the complexity of the diverse, sometimes simultaneous, worlds we inhabit and the connections that we seek with each other.
Qin Zou was born in China, migrated to Australia and is now studying Jewellery and Object Design. Her design for the Blessed be the Work exhibition was a betrothal ring, reminiscent of a pagoda, she describes as utilising "the scroll shape symbolising the Torah scroll...the foundation of Jewish culture... on the base is a tree shape combined to represent a life of love forever. Sun, moon and cloud represent the end of time."(10)
Meredith Rowe and Georgia Chapman of Vixen Australia designed the Chuppah for Blessed be the Work and called it a Canopy of Garlands. They described their marriage canopy simply but eloquently as "Fragments of culture, colour, texture, joined together to symbolise union."(11)
Miyuki Nakahara was born in Japan and completed a degree in gold and silversmithing in Melbourne. She has created a set of six boxes varied in shape and size and minimalist in design. She says 'they function individually, but when stacked in a particular order, form a traditional turret spice container...these are memory boxes. The memories are inscribed on the boxes in various ways. Each box contains a folded insert on which the image of a particular spice has been repoussed. The insert creates a secret compartment. Perforations in each box allow the smell of the spice to escape."(12)
All these artists are extending themselves to reach out and make connections with the culturally unfamiliar and the unknown. Dr Helen Light notes in the catalogue that "what distinguishes some of this work is the merging of the maker's own cultural traditions with the Jewish object...This is perhaps the future...as [Australia] is enriched through the influence of the merging of cultures that make up our pluralist country."(13)
It should not be surprising then that Migration Heritage is entitled to equal if not prime time and attention from public institutions such as Museums and Galleries. Given that it represents a metaphor for the human condition of growth and discovery, the stories it evokes are powerful and can create connections across cultural boundaries. It is further entitled to a rightful place because of its significance within the Australian narrative and its active long-term and ongoing contribution to the evolving narrative of Australian identity, Australian nationhood and the Australian politic.
The history of migration and its consequences have been with us since European settlement. Contrary to what many exhibitions confine themselves to showing, it cannot be solely presented as a phenomenon of the fifties, crystallised in the Snowy Mountains and with barely a cursory reference to its earliest legacies and its current patterns, changes and influences on Australia as it approaches the new millennium.
I welcome the changing emphasis I see in Museums to tell stories. We go to Museums and Galleries to be moved and inspired, to feel as well as to learn. We do not want to be preached at, socially engineered, converted or told what to think. We know when stories are authentic and when they have been dressed up. We want our imaginations and our minds to be stimulated and we want to reach our own conclusions. The challenge for curators and institutions is to reflect stories genuinely and make sure their museum spaces provide the openness necessary for dialogue.
The National Museum of Australia is breaking new ground by taking a multidisciplinary, thematic approach rather than an exclusively chronological approach to history. The development of a sense of pride and ownership of Australia will invest the three themes, our land, our stories, our people. These themes will be showcased in a purpose built Museum complex on Acton Peninsula on Lake Burley Griffin.
Museum shells are the largest of memory containers. They hold the essence of our cultural heritage as Australians. The internal and external spaces can of themselves create feelings of intimacy or alienation, of inclusivity or exclusion. Ethnic groups have traditionally felt less than welcome in museums. They have not seen themselves reflected there or when they have been, they may have been relegated to an unobtrusive hidden corner. The predictable response to exclusion is to establish one's own space where the power balance is reversed. This is particularly so with some older established groups who now have enough financial support and the political power coupled with the imprimatur of community backing to do it, to commission and write their own histories and to build their own museums.
Museums themselves are diverse and their roles are coming under increasing scrutiny for relevance, accessibility and inclusivity, particularly in a context of economic restraint which has become a seemingly permanent condition of life. They come in all locations, shapes, sizes and types. They can be local, regional, national or state based. They can specialise in visual arts, performing arts, anthropology, social history, natural history, maritime themes, botany, geology, children, medicine or zoology.
There is no reason why the already existing diversity of museums cannot accommodate, at the very least in principle, the co-existence of ethno-specific or immigration museums along with Indigenous Keeping Places. In fact this is already happening. Museums with what was once seen as limited market appeal are carving out their spaces in the greater museum context and taking their constituencies with them.
Increasing partnerships between communities, government, museums and other cultural institutions and the business sector may become a necessity for survival. Partnerships between institutions particularly can have real positive benefits and in some instances could usefully take the shape of Memoranda of Understanding to help delineate roles and focus collection policies as well as create jointly curated exhibitions and broaden professional development eg through staff exchange programs.
A further scrutiny of role relevance for museums questions whether or not museums need to be venues with a rationale for collecting. Should communities be left with custodianship and be supported to document and protect their heritage collections instead? This is the direction being taken by the NSW Migration Heritage Centre.(14) Its focus is on connecting rather than collecting. It's role is to create networks, partnerships and opportunities for joint participative decision making between communities and existing institutions, rather than to be itself the repository of tangible heritage.
Another school of thought is that museums have a responsibility to collect for the future and should not relegate the task to ethnic communities who may not be resourced to undertake it. One possible option is to display items that communities feel ill equipped to store or display. Another is for museums to look after collections as caretakers; researching, documenting and displaying but with a clear understanding that the community retains ownership and the knowledge is disseminated. Different cultural institutions will have different priorities, resources and skills available to them but it is essential that the dialogue be opened to determine inclusive notions of heritage in collaboration with all stakeholders,
This is not an overnight process. It must be underpinned by trust developed over a long period of time. Viv Szekeres, the Director of the SA Migration Museum said recently, "It took us fifteen years to earn respect and trust and it was based on asking permission, a history of working respectfully and acting with reciprocity. " Her philosophy has been to talk with communities and seek their expertise on issues other than as well as collections. She sees the quality of the relationship as being in the "how" of relationship, rather than having a shopping list of objects or desirable memorabilia suitable for a particular collection. While fifteen years to build trust may sound daunting, it makes opening up the dialogue an urgent imperative.(15)
It is refreshing to see that the National Museum of Australia sets itself the challenge, among a number, of "providing a forum for continuing dialogue and becoming a testing ground for new concepts; fostering critical thinking by engaging in controversial or contested topics and encouraging visitors to form their own views...and remaining a trustworthy place, inspiring the confidence of visitors." The only way to meet these challenges is in a highly consultative and collaborative way.
Some museums will be able to engage more easily and perhaps more appropriately in establishing dialogue on certain aspects of Migration History than others. The SA Migration Museum developed Twist of Fate, a confronting exhibition based on putting the observer in the place of the refugee and dealing with such unchartered areas for museum goers as torture and trauma. This was a brave, unprecedented step and I suspect that at this time in Australian museological development, it could only have been done as successfully as it was by an immigration specific museum operating from a base of enormous community trust built up over a very long period of time.
Many "mainstream" museums would never take the risks associated with developing such an exhibition. It is much safer for some Museums to deal with non-confrontationist issues containable under the label of history. If we want museums to move us however, we must take the risk of confronting unsafe emotions.
Australia is moving to a time where it must engage with issues of Migration History that are not particularly safe, for the sake of the industry's growth. Like most living things, if museums are not growing then they are dying. The risks can be offset however. Museums can increase the safety of their holding environments, by setting up a neutral "third space" for discussion and reflection.(16) This is the space where we stop being them and us and recognise that each of us, no matter how different, are all of us. This is the space where inclusivity is in integrated in spirit and practice.
Perhaps the most unsafe issues are the torture and trauma experiences of refugees. Understandably, those who become part of such exhibitions prefer to dwell on safe arrivals rather than unsafe passages and their contributions must be respected and treated with the utmost sensitivity.
Marginally less unsafe themes may take up notions of language and language loss effected by immigration. As a starting point they could take the quotation "They shouldn't be allowed in if they can't speak English." This could be developed through an examination of the consequences of government policies on successive generations that were prevented from speaking their languages. This theme of the interventionist part played by government in the era of assimilation could be equally important for both indigenous and immigrant groups. Both groups were engaged in the development of Australia's National Policy on Languages in the 1980's, a highly contentious document. This policy which most Australians no longer remember or are suspicious of is now being used by other nations eg Israel and Sri Lanka as a blueprint to develop similar policies in those countries.
Another unsafe theme is that of interracial relationships. Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janisewski in their exhibition, Greek-Australians in their own Image, presented a photographic image of a family in the Northern Territory.(17) One partner was Indigenous and the other an immigrant from Greece. There is definitely a story there waiting to be told. It was not uncommon for immigrant males to marry Indigenous females, finding solidarity and commonality as outsiders from so-called "mainstream" society. Little attention has been paid by museums to notions of ingroup and outgroup that encompass Indigenous and Immigrant interaction in Australia. These connections could not even have been safely voiced two generations ago.
Other possibilities for providing a point of departure from the safe and often traditional on Migration History, can include the impact of migration heritage on generation X, tracking notions of ethnic identity, language, connection and competing belonging. There is another rich vein to be tapped in examining the links between political correctness and migration heritage. None of the topics I have mentioned to date can be considered safe topics.
Engaging with the sacred can be as confrontationist and threatening as dealing with torture and trauma. Indeed the two can be strongly linked. What is doable for one museum is not so easily doable for another. Community expectation and willingness to engage can be the deciding factor. For instance, the Jewish Museum can, in perfect context and because of its community base, develop an exhibition such as Blessed be the Work, which engages deeply with the spiritual as well as the creative.
This does not mean that engaging with the sacred should be the exclusive provenance of one museum or gallery. It means that museums must share power with their constituencies and the constituencies they wish to attract. It means forming partnerships with diverse Australian communities as well as with other cultural institutions. It means that curators, directors and writers do not curate, direct and write for themselves and their peers, but for and with their audience. Museums and galleries should not only be safe places for unsafe conversations,(18) sometimes perhaps they should carefully and knowingly create the unsafe spaces of Twist of Fate to engage and grow with their audiences. As a result they will grow new audiences.
I began with the Memory Box inscribed with the words, the "world weeps when a fruit tree is cut down". When a fruit tree is cut down, the memory of it is lost as well as the tree itself being lost. The fact that it is a fruit tree means that it had the potential to grow and bear fruit, fruit which would provide sustenance and nourishment for those who chose to pluck and ingest it. Fruit which would ensure its own propagation and survival, life beyond the tree's life. Migration Heritage is just such a fruit tree. When we ignore or cut down the fruit tree we lose the nourishment and the potential to grow as well as the memory of what we have lost. We cannot afford to cut down the fruit trees and to lose the memories which may help us shape our future as well as reflect our past. We need to cherish the sacred gifts they offer us, and plant and nurture new seedlings for those who follow us.
1 Ravini, Yakl: "Leah Teschendorff" in blessed be the work Australian Contemporary Design in Jewish Ceremony 11, (Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne 1999), p38
2 Verbatim excerpt from transcript of discussions between the Directors of the SA and Vic Museums and the consultant in August 1999 at the Immigration Museum Melbourne
3 Macquarie Dictionary, p 831
4 Macquarie Dictionary, p 455
5 Macquarie Dictionary, p 451
6 Based on transcript of discussions between Singye Namgyel, the Director of the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies at Semtokha in Bhutan, key UNE staff and the consultant in August 1999 at the University of New England Armidale
7 History Trust of South Australia: Various publications and leaflets advertising the Migration Museum of South Australia eg current leaflet, Migration Museum Adelaide South Australia, which in part states, "The Migration Museum is still the only museum in the country to tell the story of the countless thousands of people who left everyone and everything they knew to start life again in Australia...Emigration really is the risk of a lifetime and here you can relive the stories...history connects with the present and is brought to life...You will learn something of the immigrant in us all...[the Museum] encourages involvement and participation by inviting South Australian community groups to tell their own stories in the Forum-Community Access Gallery. "
8 For further details, see Immigration Museum Melbourne: A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, Lao Tze (Museum Victoria, Melbourne, October,1998), p 25
9 For further details on the directions taken, see Immigration Museum Melbourne: A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, Lao Tze (Museum Victoria, Melbourne, October,1998)
10 Qin Zou in: blessed be the work
Australian Contemporary Design in Jewish Ceremony 11, (Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne 1999), p 41
11 Vixen Australia in: blessed be the work
Australian Contemporary Design in Jewish Ceremony 11, (Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne 1999), p 40
12 Miyuki Nakahara in: blessed be the work
Australian Contemporary Design in Jewish Ceremony 11, (Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne 1999), p 34
13 Dr Helen Light in: blessed be the work
Australian Contemporary Design in Jewish Ceremony 11, (Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne 1999), p8
14 The brief of the Migration Heritage Centre of NSW is to invite ethnic communities to identify what is important within their own cultural heritage and to seek the best ways to preserve this heritage for future generations across the State. A key feature of the projects it is undertaking is the emphasis on local decision making about what constitutes cultural heritage.
15 Verbatim excerpt from transcript of discussions between the Directors of the SA and Vic Museums and the consultant in August 1999 at the Immigration Museum Melbourne
16 Joseph Lo Bianco et al: Striving for the Third Place. Intercultural Competence through Language Education. Language Australia. 1999.
17 Alexakis Effy and Janisewski Leonard: Greek-Australians in their own Image (exhibition) State Library of NSW
18 Concept attributable to Elaine Heumann Gurian, formerly curator at the Holocaust Museum in Washington