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Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions: exhibition launch

Jack Thompson, the Hon. Jenny Macklin, Shane Mortimer, Christine Harms and Andrew Sayers, 15 November 2011

ANDREW SAYERS: Welcome everybody to this evening’s opening here at the National Museum of Australia of the exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions. My name is Andrew Sayers and I am the Director of the National Museum of Australia.

Our Auslan interpreter this evening is Deborah Hayes. I would like to advise that there is a hearing aid induction loop in the Hall so, if you require hearing assistance, you can use the T-switch on your hearing aid and also to advise that tonight’s proceedings are being recorded for Museum and Commonwealth government purposes.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and welcome Shane Mortimer who will shortly welcome us to his country.

On behalf of the Museum, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the Hon. Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; Mr Jack Thompson; members of the National Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants Consultative Forum; and representatives of the Alliance of Forgotten Australians. I would like to welcome Caroline Carroll and Eris Harrison, representatives from Care Leavers Australia Network, and I would particularly like to welcome Joanna Penglase, co-founder of Care Leavers of Australia Network. The International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, I would like to welcome Harold Haig, the secretary. I would also like to welcome Mr Jim Luthy, the President of Care Leavers of Australia Network, and Mr Ian Thwaites, assistant director of the Child Migrants Trust, and all members of those organisations. Danny Gilbert, the chair of the National Museum of Australia, and Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, who are our partners with the National Museum in this history project, along with the Australian National Maritime Museum represented here this evening by Michael Crayford.

And most importantly I would like to welcome all of those present who have spent time in children’s homes and institutions and I know that many of you have travelled a long way to be here this evening - welcome.

When we started this exhibition two years ago, the only object that we had in the Museum’s collection was a fundraising button. Most of the objects you see in the exhibition have been donated or lent by those who have spent time in the homes. You have given us your precious objects, your photographs and your stories. You have made this exhibition. I thank you for your generosity and your trust.

We welcome you here this evening and we also remember those who have spent time in homes and institutions who are not with us tonight, those who have taken their own lives or those whose lives were taken from them too soon and those who as adults are still incarcerated - you are not forgotten.

This exhibition is about giving a voice to those whose voices were for so long silenced or ignored. You won’t find the voices of staff or families or others concerned, only those who were children in the homes. It’s their time to be heard and to be believed. We have been very fortunate that so many of those who were in the homes have shared stories with us and on the Inside exhibition blog, which has been up now for more than 12 months in the lead-up to the exhibition.

We know that we can’t tell all of the stories of the 500,000 children in the probably 800 homes and institutions that existed in the twentieth century. What we have here is part of bringing this story into history. We would like to acknowledge the Minister and her Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs who have funded this exhibition.

We would also like to thank the National Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants Consultative Forum whose guidance and support have been so crucial to the development of this exhibition.

There are several organisations that also deserve our thanks including the Alliance of Forgotten Australians, the Care Leavers of Australia Network, the International Association of Former Child Migrants and Their Families, and the Child Migrants Trust. We thank them all for their generous support.

Many people have worked on this exhibition over the past two years. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the Museum’s curatorial team of Jay Arthur, Adele Chynoweth [applause], Karolina Kilian, and to Julie Gough and Freeman Ryan Design who have worked to effect a design which is sensitive, appropriate and powerful. Thank you.

We are committed to telling the truth so we are aware that the exhibition and this evening’s proceedings may arouse difficult feelings. We do have counsellors here this evening. If you have spent any of your childhood in out-of-home care and feel you need the services of a counsellor this evening, please feel free at any stage to approach one of our visitor services hosts, who are team members of the Museum wearing the black and grey shirts on which ‘Where our stories live’ are embroidered, and they will be able to direct you to a counsellor.

I would now like to welcome to the Museum Mr Shane Mortimer, Ngambri elder, who will welcome us to country. [applause]

SHANE MORTIMER: Thank you, Andrew. The Hon. Jenny Macklin, Mr Jack Thompson, Mr Danny Gilbert, Mr Andrew Sayers and all of the National Museum of Australia team and volunteers who work so hard to mount such exceptional exhibitions as this Inside exhibition you are about to see.

My name in Walgalu is Mingo, which means grass tree. My people are the Ngambri people, the people for whom Canberra is named. Many Aboriginal people claim this land to be their own. I can only speak for my own people. It is with abiding respect that I acknowledge all of the Aboriginal people of this land, their elders, past and present, and I bid you all welcome to country.

Special guests and ladies and gentlemen, please raise your hand if you are Indigenous - fantastic. Now everybody raise your hand because you are all indigenous to somewhere. And what is indigenous you are generally very proud of - you are proud of your origins.

Exhibitions such as Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions are a clear demonstration that Australians are ready to identify the mistakes of the past, correct them and progress to embrace and be proud of all things Indigenous, not just the people.

It is with great pleasure that I stand before you today very proud on behalf of over 400 members of my Aboriginal family and in particular my mother in her 80th year, the oldest of all of the Ngambri people. Ngambri in our Walgalu language means ‘cleavage’, the space between women’s breasts - a good place to work and live, Andrew.

Inside reminds me of the former Australian government’s Aboriginal Protection Board policy that saw my grandmother and her six siblings taken from their mother at the Brungle mission, somewhere between Gundagai and Tumut, and set off to the cold hard charity of St Joseph’s and St John’s Catholic orphanages in Goulburn. Goulburn residents recall stories of the orphanage children going to school without lunch, without shoes, without warm clothes. In fact, one man told me that he used to pack an extra sandwich every day for one of the boys at St John’s because they had no food. It was really very harsh.

Leaving Brungle was the last time my grandmother saw her mother. Florence Ellen Lowe died within weeks of her children being taken away absolutely broken hearted. Their eldest brother ran away and was never seen again. They were denied their family, their language, their culture, their environment. The girls were then dispatched from Goulburn to a Catholic girls’ home, for want of a better word, in La Perouse near Sydney. The treatment was so harsh that the siblings formed a pact never ever to reveal their Aboriginal background and they took that secret to their graves. As a result, they were assimilated, married Europeans, went separate ways, had their own children and never really spoke to one another again. My mother and her cousins grew up blissfully ignorant of their Aboriginal background and culture - the policy worked.

Now put yourself in my shoes being told that we are an extinct race, get over it. The ACT former chief minister stated that native title is extinct in the ACT. The 400-plus blood relatives of the Ngambri people that I represent are scattered throughout the continent. Our culture denied, our country overrun, our ecosystem decimated - Ngambri land today is no longer capable of producing food or water enough to sustain its population.

But out of that adversity comes opportunity and we have discovered that, since the 1992 High Court of Australia Mabo decision overturned the notion of terra nullius, giving common law native title rights to the land belonging to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Not even the Commonwealth has clear title to the land that the seat of government is on.

Sir Gerard Brennan, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, handed down the Mabo decision. He laughed when I told him that the ACT claimed that native title was extinct. The Walgalu language is spoken on a daily basis in the Snowy Mountains and can be recorded and taught for future generations. Men and women knowledge holders of our people still reside among us in our Walgalu language area. The remnant vegetation of the area still exists and can be a great resource to feed millions around the world.

So I say to you: be proud of all things indigenous to you and of the people on whose land you reside. Look ahead ten generations, 222 years is all it took European infusion to get to this point.

Congratulations to the National Museum of Australia team. It’s a phenomenal exhibition and Jenny, a great initiative, thank you very much. Fantastic initiative. [applause]. (Native language spoken) Welcome to Ngambri country.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Shane. I would now like to introduce one of our greatest actors, one of the great friends and supporters of the National Museum of Australia from way back and someone who has deep personal connections with the stories told in this exhibition. Would you please make welcome Mr Jack Thompson. [applause]

JACK THOMPSON: Thank you very much. Thank you for honouring me by asking me to be here for the opening of this exhibition. Thank you, Jenny, for supporting this extraordinarily important exhibition.

There are two reasons why I am here. I was invited far too many years ago to be a part of the establishment of a national museum and for many years we fought to have such a museum created. In the end, it is here. The importance of the National Museum is that it is only here in this country that we tell the tale of who we are. There is a line of my father’s poetry: ‘I have what I have had, say I. We are all the sum of all those things that go to make us up, and this nation is the sum of all those things.’

More recently, we have agreed to face some of the things in our past which we have decided previously we would bury and deny, forced to by all sorts of circumstances, including a monumental guilt. We denied not only our personal aboriginality, we denied what it was that brought us here. A lot of people would wish to escape that by decrying this as, for example, the black armband view of history. But if we are to deny all suffering, if we are to ignore all the pain, all the error, all the cruelty, then we will deny half of history, including the Anzacs. We are prepared to embrace the awful carnage at Gallipoli and we have recently been game enough, gutsy enough to embrace a torrid, cruel history that brings us to this time and place. It is not as if it is not full of moments of great comradeship, of great love, of great affection and of great heroism.

But if we do not recognise the fundamental inhumanity and cruelty exhibited in this exhibition, the awfulness carried out in the name of God and goodness, then we will ignore the fact that it didn’t happen in the last century, it happened in this century and in many parts of our society continues to happen. Let us look this thing in the face; let us deal with it. Thank you for this exhibition. Thank you for asking me to be a part of it. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Jack. I would now invite the Hon. Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, to open the exhibition.

JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you very much, Andrew. If I could first of all say to Shane thank you so much for your very heartfelt welcome to country. We all join today, all of us here today, in acknowledging you as an elder, in acknowledging all the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are here today, and we also acknowledge the ancestors and elders past. I can only say the way in which you talked to us today demonstrated your true understanding of what we are about tonight.

I want to say to Jack: thank you very much for the way in which you bring us all together in the way that you have just spoken to us. Thank you for your love of the Museum - give him another clap. [applause] We know you love the Museum but we also know that this comes because of a very personal understanding of what so many people here today have been through, and it is very special for everybody for you to be here.

To Danny Gilbert, thank you for your leadership of the Museum. We know that this is a national treasure and we know that it is in extraordinarily safe hands. Thank you for the leadership you show.

I do want to acknowledge all of the survivors who are here tonight - all of you who have come from so many parts of Australia. This is for you and for all the people who couldn’t be here with us tonight. [applause]

A few of us - Caroline Carroll, Harold Haig, Ian Thwaites, Jim Luthy, Joanna Penglase and I - went through the exhibition this morning, and it was very difficult. I decided not to go and have another look this afternoon because I wasn’t sure I would be able to speak to you if I did. I am sure when you go you will see the enormous dedication that those from the Museum have shown in putting together this very significant exhibition. To all of those wonderful advocates who I have just named, thank you so much for your leadership. You are very special. [applause]

There are a few others who haven’t been able to join us tonight for different reasons. I want to acknowledge Leonie Sheedy, Margaret Humphreys [applause] and someone who I know is very special to you all - the former senator Andrew Murray who couldn’t be with us tonight. These and others are very special people who have done so much over such a long time to shed light on each and every one of your experiences in institutions.

And of course now tonight we can add to these wonderful advocates the National Museum. We now have people in this Museum: Mike Pickering, Jay Arthur, Adele Chynoweth and others who have put this exhibition together [applause]. They too have joined the ranks of wonderful advocates for the forgotten Australians and the former child migrants.

Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions does tell the stories that have been left untold and for many remain untold. They are told, as you will see in a moment, with the most beautiful accuracy but also very, very chilling poignancy. Their telling itself is so important. Through this exhibition these stories will over time continue to form part of the patchwork of our national memory, the way in which all of us understand our past, both now and into the future.

It is true that what happened to these children, to all of you, must be acknowledged. It must be confronted and, of course, must be better understood by all of us because what happened to these children, to you, must never happen again. [applause] Hiding these stories from ourselves has gone on for long enough.

Two years tomorrow, as so many of you remember, the Australian government acknowledged the forgotten Australians and the former child migrants and acknowledged your experiences and we did say sorry. I just want to say again: we said sorry for the brutality - and it was brutality - and for the injustices inflicted on you as children who were placed in our collective care; we said sorry for the lack of warmth, the lack of love and affection which you deserved just like every other child in our country. And I know this meant so much to you. We said we believe you; we believe what you have been telling us and we believe you now. [applause]

We acknowledge what happened was real; and we are very sorry that what was real was forgotten - not forgotten by you but forgotten by too many. But you are now remembered. Of course the apology helped to open so many hearts and I think very importantly the hearts and ears of the nation to your stories, to your courage and to your determination. That is really what led to the apology, and that courage and determination is what has led to this exhibition. It is your exhibition, yours, and is dedicated to all of you. Inside will make certain that the stories of the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants will be heard and will not be forgotten.

I would also like to acknowledge the oral history project which records the stories of survivors, and this too will make sure that these stories are preserved in perpetuity. I would like on behalf of everyone here tonight to thank the National Library for their dedication and work to preserve your stories. [applause]

One of our jobs, in addition to making sure that this exhibition took place, is also to continue our support for CLAN, for the Alliance of Forgotten Australians and the International Association of Former Child Migrants and Their Families, to continue to support the very important work that you do, counselling and supporting your members and their families. I do want to say a very big thank you for that work, because nobody else could do it in the way that you do. Please give them a big round of applause. [applause]

One of the things we committed to at the apology was a national find and connect service to help family tracing and support services right across Australia. Tonight I am very pleased to be able to announce some further progress on the find and connect service. The national Find and Connect web resource to help care leavers search for their records has gone live today. [applause] So you can get online and make use of that very important service. Of course it will grow with time.

We know how important it is to continue to unearth the stories that are critical for all of you, to know your own history, to know who you are, to know where you came from, who it was that brought you into this world. Telling these stories helps all of us recognise your experience and understand it that little bit better.

There is a story of a small teddy bear that features in this exhibition. Jeanette Blick owned this teddy but, as soon as it was given to her, it was taken away. Jeanette wasn’t allowed to cuddle her teddy at night. It is so symbolic of the harshness and brutality and also the absence of love and warmth in children’s lives. Posted underneath Janette’s story on the website for this exhibition is this note: ‘Auntie Janette, you and Auntie Pat gives us all strength by not only surviving what you have been through but also being brave enough to face it and bring it into the light for all to see. Stay strong.’

Strength and courage do define you and allow your stories to be told. We hope that through this exhibition more survivors find the strength to tell their stories so that we as a nation find the strength to confront this very dark chapter of our past and strengthen our resolve to never ever let this happen again. [applause]

Six years ago the Care Leavers Australia Network, so well known to us as CLAN, called for this exhibition. They said, ‘Let our histories be visible.’ They wrote this in their submission to the Senate inquiry into the forgotten Australians, and I love this quote:

Get the dinosaurs out of the Australian Museum and dedicate it to the orphanages and children.

And that is what the National Museum has done. I am pleased to launch this exhibition and dedicate it to those children. Thank you. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, minister. I know there are several of you who would like to make presentations to the minister and there will be an opportunity to do that after the formalities have concluded. I would now like to welcome to the National Museum Christine Harms. Christine spent 13 years in Nazareth House in Brisbane and she is singing Eagles wings, a song dedicated to those who were with her in Nazareth House and in Nazareth Houses all around the world. Would you please make welcome Christine Harms.

CHRISTINE HARMS: Thank you. This is really emotional. I won’t talk long. Hello to all the Queenslanders here. Thank you to the Museum for liking my song and asking me to perform it here. Hey Sue, my very best sister and my very best friend in 13 years at Nazareth House at the back. Who would have thought this would happen. I think of you, Wilhelmina, who threw me out of the choir constantly. There you go.

SONG SUNG:

I have walked through the valley of the shadows.
Been crucified in the name of love.
I carried the cross of my yesterdays
My heart was hurt with so much pain

CHORUS
On eagles wings I will fly
Soaring high above in to heavens skies
The past is but the future is mine
I’ve learnt to live one day at a time.

VERSE
The dice rolls and the numbers fall
Gamblers play for dreams
Some lose them all
There are those on avenues tonight
With battle scars that come with the price.

CHORUS
On the eagles wings I will fly
Soaring high above into heavens skies
The past is but the future is mine
I’ve learnt to live one day at a time.

VERSE
I’ll let the rain wash the sorrow from my heart
As I lay down these weary burden of my past
I have stood and I face the eye of the storm
I am peace full, I am reborn

CHORUS
On the eagles wings I will fly
Soaring high above into heavens skies
The past is but the future is mine
I’ve learnt to live one day at a time. On the eagles wings I will fly
I’ve learnt to live one day at a time. I’ve learnt to live one day at a time.

[applause]

God bless everyone.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Christine. Tomorrow between 11 o’clock and 2 pm in this Hall you will have an opportunity to hear Christine perform again with two other musicians from the Forgotten Australians, Leanne Hawkins and Graeme Evans.

Finally, guests here tonight are the first to view this exhibition. We know that many have come on a long journey, a journey of both distance and survival. We would like all those who grew up in homes and institutions to be the first to experience the exhibition which is in the gallery just behind the column to the left.

Only 100 people can go into the space at any one time and I appreciate there is a lot to see and experience, but the exhibition is on show until 26 February next year. It’s free admission and we hope to see you again and as many Australians as possible to hear your voices and to understand your stories. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 1 March 2012