Viv Szekeres worked at the Migration Museum in Adelaide first as a curator (1983–1986) and then as Director (1987–2008). More on Viv Szekeres
How interesting to be thinking about museums and multiculturalism at a moment when the idea of Australia being importantly and centrally multicultural is fast disappearing. When I first joined the Migration Museum in 1984 there was an incredible sense of optimism and energy in my field of interest which was, and still is, the history of immigration and settlement. This energy came from an understanding that the demographic changes that followed Australia’s mass migration program after the Second World War had created a society for which ‘multicultural’ was a true descriptor. However, ‘culturally diverse’ became a more commonly used term to refer to the many different ‘ethnic’ cultural identities that had joined Australia’s predominantly Anglo-Celtic society. There was nothing subtle about the analysis. In the public mind multiculturalism was synonymous with immigration.  Anglo-Celts were the ‘mainstream’ and ‘ethnic’ minorities were the ‘other’. I am also ashamed to say that the cultural identities and histories of Indigenous Australians, the first peoples of Australia, hardly featured at all.
We (a small group of museum workers) were fairly intoxicated with the possibilities of collecting stories and objects from an ever-increasing pool of people who now felt confident enough to claim, even proclaim, their cultural origins, and who knew they didn’t need to be stuffed to be in a museum. It is always difficult to pinpoint the origins of change in a society as complex as ours, but there were two reports commissioned by the Australian government in the 1970s that were seminal. They not only captured and described a prevailing reality but also had a long-term effect on the museum industry and on the wider society. The Pigott Report, Museums in Australia, was published in 1975  and the Galbally Report on Migrant Programs and Services was published in 1978.  They were totally unrelated to each other. Pigott articulated ideas about a grassroots history and community museum movement; Galbally highlighted the existence of communities of shared interests and pasts and raised awareness of issues about cultural identity. Viewed in retrospect and together, these reports have influenced and changed the way many, perhaps even most, museums operate across Australia today.
The Pigott Report identified that the majority of museums in this country were local and had been founded in the 1960s. In brief, it reported that this was the result of a quickening interest in Australian history and identified this interest as a ‘movement’ whose influence lay outside the capital cities.
At the 1998 the International Council of Museums (ICOM) conference in Melbourne I was asked to give a paper about regional museums in a multicultural society  and took my audience on a brief, imaginary excursion to visit a ‘typical’ local museum in a regional centre. It was housed in an old courthouse and run by a local historical society. My ‘fictitious’ museum was not entirely serious, though it was based on conversations that I had enjoyed with Geoff Speirs, who was at the time the Museums Officer for the former History Trust of South Australia’s Museums Accreditation and Grants program.  I described the membership of the management committee of my local museum as predominantly Anglo-Celtic. Neither was it fiction when I also described this group as being like hundreds around the nation who cared passionately about history, which was why they had been prepared to work as volunteers for long hours over many years. I concluded that, on the whole, the version of history that they presented was a pioneering and settler story that excluded both the ‘ethnic’ and Indigenous stories of their region. To reinforce my point I added that, even though women often outnumbered men on the management committees, the history being told was from the perspective of white, Anglo-Celtic, Protestant men who also tended to be middle-aged and middle class.
Even by the late 1990s my description was probably not far off the mark for the majority of local museums staffed by volunteers. One notable exception was the Pioneer Women’s Hut in Tumbarumba (NSW). However, there were two museums in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills in South Australia that might be seen as exceptions in terms of reflecting more culturally diverse regions. The museums in Tanunda and Lobethal were developed in the early 1960s by local historical societies whose memberships were either descendants of the early German settlers who had retained their Lutheran, East Prussian origins, or those who strongly identified with the region and took an interest in its history. 
The Barossa community especially had a sense of pride in its German origins. This was in spite of periods of persecution as enemy aliens during both World Wars, but particularly the 1914–18 war. Their consciousness of the past meant that the material culture of everyday life had been valued and kept by individuals and families and often ended up in museum displays. The Lobethal and Tanunda museums certainly had strong connections with the East Prussian ‘ethnic’ origins of the regions, but I am not sure that we can call them ‘ethnic-specific’ museums, as they seem more connected to the ‘local history museum movement’ of the early 1960s described by Pigott.
It would be some years before the next group of community museums emerged on the museum scene in Australia. The Lithuanian Museum opened officially in 1967 and the Latvian Museum in 1972, both in Adelaide. These museums were established by two groups of Displaced Persons (DPs), who were refugees from the Second World War. They had formed the Lithuanian and Latvian associations in 1949 to continue their cultural heritage and traditions. As Galbally was later to report of many similar groups, especially from Eastern Europe, they had an active choir, folk and dancing group, arts and sports group and language school. Mara Kolomitsev, the current curator of the Latvian Museum, says ‘the establishment of the museum emerged in the 1970s as the next step’.  But even for communities that already had other cultural activities, establishing a museum was a huge commitment.
The Latvian and Lithuanian DPs in Australia, however, had a strong sense of cultural and national identity, which flourished especially during a brief period of national independence between the two World Wars, an independence which ended under Soviet and German occupation during the Second World War, and USSR annexation over the following five decades.
Probably the Latvian and Lithuanian DPs, together with others from Eastern Europe, believed that Soviet occupation would be short lived. While they waited to return to their homeland they kept their patriotism and nationalism alive with folk dancing, singing and other arts and crafts. As the years passed, the Baltic States’ diaspora clung to its conviction that independence must surely return to their countries. In Adelaide, the establishment of these museums can be seen both as a symbol of the pursuit of cultural continuity and as a means of keeping alive and in the public arena the injustice of Soviet occupation. By the time Lithuania regained its independence in 1990 and Latvia in 1991, Lithuanian and Latvian DPs and their descendants were well established in Australia.
The Ukrainian Museum opened also in Adelaide in the late 1970s to ‘mark 30 years of settlement’ of Ukrainian DPs.  It was the responsibility of the Ukrainian Women’s Association, who bought a small property near the Ukrainian Community Hall to house their artefacts and archives for the ‘benefit of the wider Australian community’.  Lydia Rostek, one of the volunteer curators, said ‘the symbolic and creative aspects of culture, such as ethnographic material that includes costume and embroidery has always been the domain of women’.
According to Margy Burn, the Estonian community developed its own historical archives in Sydney as early as 1952, but did not open a museum. People from South Australia’s Polish community also had a strong sense of their history and cultural identity and formed an historical society in the early 1980s. It was not until the late 1990s, though, that they opened a small social history museum at Polish Hill River in the Clare Valley, where Poles, who had arrived in the colony as early as 1838, had settled.
According to Professor James Jupp in his book Immigration, the public declaration of Australia as a multicultural nation was made by Al Grassby, the Minister for Immigration in the Whitlam government. It was a term taken from Canada where it had been in use since 1968. By the mid-1970s Ethnic Communities Councils had formed in most Australian states. Both Liberal and Labor politicians began to recognise that there was an increasing electoral force amongst immigrant communities. Jupp suggests that Fraser’s most important initiative was to implement the Galbally Report of 1978.  Amongst Galbally’s recommendations was official support for community languages and media, the establishment of migrant resource centres, and SBS as the ethnic radio and television broadcaster, and the establishment of an Institute of Multicultural Affairs.
The previous government policies of assimilation and integration of new migrants into mainstream Anglo-Celtic culture were seen to have failed. It was clear that by the early 1980s there was widespread consensus, particularly amongst communities of non-Anglo background, that Australia was a multicultural nation. It was now acceptable to have an ‘ethnic’ cultural identity in addition to being Australian, without fear of ostracism or racism. This shift is reflected in the opening of two museums by the Chinese and Jewish communities.
Chinese and Jewish immigrants had begun to arrive along with the British in 1788. A small number of Chinese men arrived as indentured labourers, convicts and free settlers, and were followed by much larger numbers after the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s. The first Jews to arrive were a handful amongst 750 convicts who were transported from Britain on the First Fleet.
Nearly 200 years later in 1977 Rabbi Ronald Lubovsky suggested the establishment of a Jewish Museum of Australia. It opened in Melbourne in 1982 and was followed two years later by the opening of the Holocaust Museum, also in Melbourne. That two museums dedicated to Jewish history should open in Melbourne is hardly surprising, for it has the largest number of settlers of Jewish origin in Australia and, outside of Israel and the USA, probably the largest number of Holocaust survivors. The other community with a long history of settlement in Victoria was the Chinese. They opened a museum of Chinese history, also in Melbourne, in 1985. In a very real sense, all of these museums were community initiatives. However, the Chinese Museum did receive development funding from the state government as part of Victoria’s sesquicentenary, whereas both Jewish museums were funded from their own constituencies.
I would suggest that this flowering of community-initiated museums, begun in 1967 by the Lithuanians, was a direct consequence of a new public and community consciousness about the future identity of the nation. The communities involved in developing these museums had a number of factors in common. Their members had been settled in Australia for at least 30 years; certainly long enough to produce new generations who would probably not have been aware of the histories of persecution and oppression that their families had experienced in varying degrees of awfulness. As Carol Duncan said, ‘Museums can be powerful identity defining machines’.  The main function of a museum is to preserve the material evidence of the past, but in the process it also legitimates that past. I would argue that the arrival of a ‘clutch’ of new ethnic-specific community museums came from an increased confidence of belonging. Their previously tenuous hold on membership of the wider society was more secure and could be celebrated, promoted and enjoyed.
Like the Chinese Museum in Melbourne, the Migration Museum in Adelaide was another sesquicentenary project, but this time a South Australian celebration. The idea for the museum in Adelaide was the result of recommendations made to the state government by the Edwards Report. It said that ‘given 25% of the State’s population had been born overseas … there had been little attempt to preserve and display items with migrant history, little or no research into ethnic cultures’ and ‘a failure to inform the public about them’.  Edwards also added that ‘there was a need to recognize the tremendous contribution immigrants have given to South Australia in its social, economic and cultural life’.  The Migration Museum opened to the public in 1986 under the auspices of the former History Trust of South Australia, a statutory authority established in 1981 to ‘accumulate and care for objects of historical interest’ and ‘to manage and administer museums’. 
In the history of the development of museums that presented immigration and settlement history and reflected multiculturalism, the arrival of the Migration Museum was a significant event. It heralded a change in the agenda nationally for museums and multiculturalism. Firstly, it was an acknowledgement by a state government, through an ongoing financial commitment, that the history and culture of immigrants was worth collecting and keeping. Secondly, it gave control to an independent organisation without a vested interest in a specific ethnic culture. The Migration Museum might involve ethnic groups but they would not run it. Whilst there was local and community support for the idea of a migration museum, there was probably also a certain amount of scepticism amongst local ethnic communities as to whether it would work and what political line it might take. But the social and cultural capital that came from government support and the fact that the government bureaucracy maintained a ‘hands off approach’ has enabled the museum to weave its way through the complexities of ethnic politics, enlarge its audience, and maintain its independence and momentum.
In 1988 ‘a landmark conference’  was organised by the Victorian Branch of Museums Australia and the Library Council of Victoria for ‘museums, libraries, archives and historical collections towards a national agenda for a Multicultural Australia’. As the conference convener, Morag Loh, said in her welcoming address to New Responsibilities – Documenting Multicultural Australia, ‘we are gathered here from all over Australia and represent a diverse range of institutions and community groups. Our concerns are of national significance’.  It was the first time that national and state institutions and community groups had come together to present papers about the importance of documenting and collecting the history of immigrants and ‘ethnic’ cultures. By the time the conference papers were published six months later, the organising committee was able to inform readers that ‘they may like to note that the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, released the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia on 26 July 1989’, and that the National Agenda ‘has taken up recommendations put forward by the Conference’. 
This was heady stuff, especially as it was followed by the establishment of the Federal Consultative Committee on Cultural Heritage in a Multicultural Australia. The Committee’s long title might have been a bit convoluted but its task was simpler: to assess whether or not the collections and public programs of collecting institutions reflected the nation’s cultural diversity and the contribution made by immigrants. The committee met between 1990 and 1991, but it was hard to make much headway. It was clear that collecting the material which might reflect Australia’s cultural diversity was definitely outside the current practices and policies of most collecting institutions.
But during one quite intense discussion on this committee, I came to realise that up until now cultural diversity had been defined as being exclusively the domain of ‘ethnic minorities’. When the definition was expanded to include class, gender, age, religion, region and sexuality as well as ethnicity, there was a seismic shift away from the folkloric and anthropological approach which equates ‘cultural difference’ with the exotic and quaint. The wider definition was much more suited to a social history approach, which focused on individual and collective stories and interrogated the idea of tradition and nationalism in an historical context, rather than accepting it as an unchanging reality of ethnic culture.
I have argued elsewhere that social history is one of the more democratic disciplines in that it has opened the academic door for historians to study the history of ‘ordinary people’.  For museums in the 1980s interested in Australia’s post-Second World War immigration history there were virtually no academics who were interested in this aspect of Australia’s past, with the exceptions of Professors James Jupp, Jerzy Zubryzcki and Mary Kalantzis. The dearth of secondary sources meant that curators interested in telling the stories of non-English-speaking migrants had to go out into communities to search for this history themselves. One of the positive outcomes of this practice was that the process of engaging with individuals and community groups also brought people into the museums to participate and take ownership of the way their story would be told. It also influenced policy in some museums, which provided an exhibition space for communities to tell their own stories in their own way, in some cases without it being filtered through the curator’s interpretation. 
From the late 1980s until the late 1990s there was a veritable explosion of exhibitions about immigration and settlement history in museums large and small across Australia. When the Powerhouse Museum opened in 1988, funded by the state government of New South Wales and the federally funded Australian National Maritime Museum opened in 1991, both included important exhibitions about the contribution to society made by immigrants and their cultures. In the museum industry multiculturalism was an accepted part of Australia’s cultural history. At museum conferences there was now an identifiable group of museum curators and directors with an interest in the history of immigrants. Ironically, it was also a period during which the concept of multiculturalism came increasingly under attack, especially from conservatives in government as well as in some academic circles.
There was definitely some nervousness from the Department of Arts, Sport, Environment, Tourism and Territories (DASETT), the Australian government department then responsible for museums, and at the Council of Australian Museums Association conference in 1990, I was asked to address the issue of ‘whether or not culture-specific museums promoted separatism and the creation of a ghetto mentality’.  I was not entirely surprised by this request, given that criticism of the Labor government’s policy of multiculturalism was regularly making headline news in the media. The attack was being led by Professor Geoffrey Blainey, who had accused Hawke in 1988 of ‘turning Australia into a nation of tribes’. 
Those who agreed with Blainey must have been horrified when two more ‘culture specific museums’ opened. In Bendigo in 1991 the Golden Dragon Museum presented the local history of the Chinese, and in 1992 the Holocaust and Australian Jewish History Museum opened in Sydney. This was followed in the same year by a groundbreaking collaborative exhibition project developed between the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Italian Historical Society Co.As.It, and the Museum of Victoria at its Swanston Street building in Melbourne. Bridging Two Worlds: the Jews and Italians of Carlton captured the way two communities had developed. Carlton reflected the unique aspects of both Jewish and Italian culture, but had grown its own Australian-Jewish-Italian identity which was inclusive and multicultural in the truest sense of the word.
In 1996 a public review at the Western Australian Museum supported the installation of a major exhibition called A New Australia: Post War Immigration to WA, and in Darwin another state-funded museum opened Sweet and Sour, an exhibition about the Chinese at the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory. But at the same time there was a new assault on the concept of multiculturalism. John Howard won the federal election and promptly closed the Office for Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research. Pauline Hanson, the new Member for the seat of Oxley, repeatedly called for ‘multiculturalism to be abolished’.  In Adelaide A Twist of Fate, an exhibition about refugees and racism, opened as a direct critique of the broader political agenda of the Australian government and a reminder that ‘anyone, anywhere and at any time can become a refugee’. 
Ignoring the new federal political agenda regarding multiculturalism, the NSW and Victorian state governments supported new museum initiatives in 1998 dealing with immigrants and refugees. A ‘virtual museum’ at the Migration Heritage Centre opened in Sydney ‘to research and promote the contribution made by immigrants to the State and the nation’.  In Melbourne, the Immigration Museum opened in the splendid Old Customs House. The project was strongly supported by Jeff Kennett, who was then Premier of Victoria and who also enthusiastically supported the establishment of a Hellenic Archaeological Museum in the same building. One could call this political opportunism, depending on your level of cynicism, but since Melbourne almost certainly had the largest population of immigrants from Greece it probably made good common sense.
It is significant that, for all the growing recognition of the contribution made by immigrants to Australia, the only other museum in Australia entirely devoted to immigrants and their culture, other than the Migration Museum in Adelaide, was the Immigration Museum. There was one notable difference between the two. In Adelaide, the Migration Museum as a division of the History Trust had complete intellectual freedom and independence to plan, research, develop and mount its own programs; whereas the Immigration Museum in Melbourne became a venue managed by the Museum of Victoria. Historical research, curatorial control and exhibition planning remained firmly with the parent body. But with two museums of immigration history in Australia this was clearly not just a ‘politically correct fad’ that would go away.
Ian Galloway, the Director of the Queensland Museum, summed up one of the reasons why immigration history might have become such a popular theme for so many museums when he said that, ‘Developing diverse audiences is one of the key priorities of the Queensland Museum’.  For museums trying to meet performance targets and constantly increase visitor numbers, attracting new audiences became essential to long-term survival. Exhibitions about immigrants seemed to be popular, particularly with visitors from non-English-speaking backgrounds.
One important issue, which had an impact on museums, was the growing awareness of the Reconciliation movement and Indigenous history. The public conscience and consciousness was almost certainly raised by the boycott by Indigenous people of the celebration of Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988. Invasion, it was said, was nothing to celebrate. Whilst there had been Aboriginal membership of ethnic Advisory Councils from 1989, multiculturalism was often criticised because it did not seem genuinely concerned with Aboriginal issues.  In terms of museums that presented programs about immigration history and cultural diversity, there was a certain amount of confusion as to how to represent Indigenous issues. On the whole museums solved the problem by sidestepping it. They mounted exhibitions about Indigenous people and separate exhibitions about immigrants.
By early 2000 it was clear that former Prime Minister Keating’s vision of Reconciliation as the way forward for the recognition of Indigenous people had ground to a halt. But some of us working in the museum industry had become committed to this vision, and began to explore ways in which immigration history might address Reconciliation as part of a wider historical perspective. If immigration and settlement history was analysed as an ‘outcome’ of British colonisation, then this could allow the story to include not only the impact that settlement had on Indigenous people, but also the reality of Aboriginal survival and the role of Indigenous people in the nation’s history and the current debate about national identity.
These were certainly some of the issues that faced the National Museum in Canberra when it began to develop its exhibitions. Jerzy Zubryzcki, one of the leading architects of Australia’s multicultural policy, was employed in the 1980s to provide the framework for the National Museum’s multicultural collecting which he had ‘focused around the experiences of specific ethnic groups’.  But when the National Museum officially opened in 2001 as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations, there was some disappointment that the ‘migration section’ was ‘small, constrained and sometimes misleading and inaccurate’.  Perhaps it was harder on a national scale to build meaningful and ongoing relationships with community groups and individuals that formed the heart of exhibitions on cultural diversity in other locally based museums.
How far have we come since the Lobethal or Lithuanian museums opened in the 1960s? I believe there would be few Australian museums of history today that would produce programs that completely ignore the role of immigrants in the development of Australia since the Second World War. Some museums have curatorial units where the level of scholarship and experience rivals any Australian university history department. Many museums now have collecting policies that represent the culturally diverse nature of society, and research practices that are more inclusive of the constituencies they represent.
But on the whole the celebratory aspects of immigration history and multiculturalism have been easier to present than some of the more difficult and complex issues. In spite of programs such as Getting In at the Immigration Museum, and exhibitions that explore the origins and consequences of racism at the Jewish and Chinese museums, there have been few museum programs that have dared to go beyond the superficial and the safe. Yes, there are obvious constraints. Individuals and community groups trust us with their stories and often their secrets. There are limits to how much we can reveal to the visiting public. The internal divisions within communities and the centuries-old antagonisms that still survive here are hidden and silent. Even the generational differences that can be found in most cultures are tucked away out of sight.
However, if we were to do an audit on museums that present programs about immigrants, refugees and multiculturalism, I believe that the majority have weathered and survived the attack on history which has been dubbed ‘the history wars’.  Most museums have avoided a return to interpretations which are exclusively from ‘the white Anglo-male position’. We have mostly ignored an exhortation  to stick to ‘the ‘happy migrant story’ which is now firmly in a category labelled ‘the construction of myth’. With some exceptions, the majority of museums have been immune to changes in policy and attitudes that since 1996 have undermined the multicultural reality of Australian society. We may not use the word ‘multiculturalism’, but exhibitions are still being developed that explore the concept.  The history that is presented in most of these exhibitions is an inclusive history. It has the power to touch people on an intellectual as well as an emotional level. It gives voice to people who have previously been silent. Above all, it has made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to the debate about who is Australian.
1 The Fitzgerald Committee was appointed to review immigration policy under the Hawke government. Quoted in James Jupp, Immigration in Australian Retrospectives, Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 109–10.
2 Museums in Australia 1975. Report of the Planning Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, chaired by PH Pigott.
10 Margy Burn, Assistant Director-General, Australian Collections and Reader Services, National Library of Australia, ‘Melting Pot or Monoculture: archives and cultural diversity in Australia’, paper presented at the Australian Society of Archivists Annual Conference 2002, Past Caring? – what does society expect of archivists?
17 Margaret Birtley and Patricia McQueen (eds), New Responsibilities – Documenting Multicultural Australia, a record of the conference for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historical Collections, ‘Towards a National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia’, 11–13 November, Melbourne, 1988.
21 Dr Peter Cahalan, the Director of the Constitution Museum, first introduced community access spaces in Australia in 1978. They were introduced in the Migration Museum in 1986, in the Powerhouse Museum in 1988 and in the Immigration Museum in 1998.
29 Louise Douglas, Rachael Coghlan and Mat Trinca, ‘An Australian Journey: building a National Museum in a Multicultural Society’, The National Museum of Australia presented at the Large/National Museums in A Global World Conference, Copenhagen, 2007.
31 The ‘History Wars’, as it was known by the media, was a debate between academics about interpretations of history and whether there was a ‘single national narrative’ about Australian history that should be told.
32 In 1995 a federal politician from the Liberal Party representing a South Australian electorate, after being taken around the Museum, wrote to the Premier of South Australia complaining that the Migration Museum was a ‘museum of misery’ and ‘should tell the happy migrant story’.
Viv Szekeres worked at the Migration Museum in Adelaide first as a curator (1983–1986) and then as Director (1987–2008).
Cite as: Viv Szekeres, 2011, 'Museums and multiculturalism: too vague to understand, too important to ignores', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/VSzekeres_2011.html ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6