Going Back: How the Migration Museum Began

Today migration museums are dotted all over the world – from Buenos Aires to Bremerhaven, New York to Norway. Rewind just thirty years and this particular breed of museum was nowhere to be found – nowhere, that is, but Adelaide! As the Migration Museum celebrates its 30th birthday, I’d like to take you back to where it all began, back to the 1980s. Whose idea was it to create a museum about the arrival of people to South Australia? What approach did they take, and how was the new museum received by Adelaidians?

Image: bronze sculpture of couple in front of buildings

The Migration Museum in Adelaide, 82 Kintore Avenue.

But first, a short disclaimer – this time travel into the past is not a personal memory (I was only a two at the time!) It draws on research undertaken towards a PhD some years ago, a highlight of which was interviewing those involved in the museum’s genesis. Their memories, combined with the historian’s classic sources (piles of reports and records!) reveal how the first museum of migration came about.

The Ethnic Museum

The earliest clues as to the origins of the museum can be found in a series of State Government reports between 1979 and 1981. The subject of these reports was the South Australian Museum, then crammed with collections and long overdue a revamp. Part of the proposed remedy was a suite of smaller social history museums, to be governed by a new body – The History Trust of South Australia. One of these new museums was to be an ‘ethnic museum’.

The Ethnic Museum idea reflected the importance placed on multiculturalism in policy development at the time, especially in regards to education and cultural heritage. The report’s author imagined a place that would provide information on different ethnic groups, preserve their important objects and promote the values of tolerance and understanding. Exhibitions were to include separate displays on ‘Italian, Greek, German, Northern and Southern Slavic, Asian, Other Mediterranean Cultures and Other European Cultures’. By 1982, the position of museum director was advertised, and a working party was assembled. Together, their decisions would set the path for the future museum.

South Australia’s Immigration Story

Instead of exhibiting the cultures and histories of various ethnic groups, the working party and the first museum staff took a radical decision – to tell the story of migration and settlement in South Australia from the arrival of the first British colonists to recent refugees. The opening galleries of the ‘Migration and Settlement Museum’ (chosen to better reflect the subject matter) covered 150 years of South Australian history, highlighting major themes in the migration process to emphasise commonalities, rather than differences. Leaving home, packing, journeying and arrival, as well as homesickness, hardship and homemaking were to be found in all eras from the 1830s till the 1980s. This chronological approach also encompassed difficult moments in Australian history – were early pioneers also invaders? How did the White Australia Policy operate? Do some migrants still face discrimination? In a year which also saw the celebration of Jubilee 150, the founding of the proud and free British colony of South Australia, this was a risky and potentially controversial approach. Would people come?

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A guest at the official opening of the Migration and Settlement Museum talking to Curator Viv Szekeres.

A Happy Birthday

Premier John Bannon officially opened the Migration and Settlement Museum on 23 November 1986. The day marked the culmination of four years of work from the museum staff, including collaborations with many South Australian communities whose stories were featured for the first time in a state museum. Some performed at the opening ceremony, lending song and dance to what was by all accounts a very happy birthday. The press coverage was also positive. The Advertiser reported Bannon’s observation that ‘the museum didn’t try to cover up the unpleasant aspects of early migration’. Another journalist wrote that ‘despite its origins in London, and its British base, SA was multicultural almost from the colony’s inception’. And as the opening days stretched into months and years, healthy visitor numbers reflected a public interest in this fresh telling of the State’s past. Since that time, the museum’s exhibitions, education programmes and other activities have continued to be infused with the passion and energy of museum workers, both professionals and volunteers, as well as the community members who work with them. Now, 30 years since that birthday, there is a lot to celebrate!

If you’d like to join us to celebrate at 2pm on Sunday 27 November 2016, contact the Migration Museum on 820 7570.

Image: crowd of people in front of stone building hung with colourful banners

Opening of the Migration and Settlement Museum, 23 November 1986.

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