Immigration Museum Explores Identity and Belonging


immigration musuem

There’s an elderly couple respectfully examining a teapot from Japan. There’s a group of middle-aged men discussing passports. There’s a young, bright woman talking to a group of school kids about the history of migration in Australia.

The Immigration Museum’s permanent exhibition Identity: yours, mine, ours signals a shift away from their usual focus on migration to exploring issues of identity for those in Australia.

Lead curator of Identity Moya McFadzean said it was exciting to make a “contribution to the discussion and debate around identity and belonging”.

“We wanted to attract more young people to The Immigration Museum, particularly people aged 18 to 25,” McFadzean said. “The museum has evolved with technology and the multimedia installments in Identity reflects this.”

“I think identity and belonging is still a relevant issue in Melbourne and Australia.”

Photo - Peril Magazine, Ellen Wu
Peril Magazine, Ellen Wu

As you walk down the tunnel-like entrance to the exhibition, a life-sized figure beckons you to come forward. A few seconds later, the figure morphs into a different person, frowning intensely with their arms firmly crossed. There is no sound except for soft whispers and giggles, but don’t be surprised if you find it hard to walk past.

“I was really excited about the exhibition because it addresses very contemporary issues,” McFadzean said. “The exhibition explores the notion of personal and collective identities.”

“The narrative of what it means to not belong in society is also an important aspect of the exhibition,” she said.

In the first room there is about 150 objects from “popular culture, racist and anti-racist ephemera, religious and sporting items, Aboriginal historical and contemporary cultural material” according to the Immigration Museum’s website.

The display aims to challenge the visitor’s idea of immigration, beyond the conventional stories of migration.

The multi-award winning Tram Scenario asks the visitor to take on a role: the racist, the victim or the bystander. Through the scenario, the visitor is shown the unique perspective of one individual.

“I think the issue of belonging is in some ways even more complicated in 21st century Australia. People are more open about who they are and it’s much more complicated for an individual,” she said. “In today’s society the issues around ethnicity, gender and sexuality can manifest themselves in different ways too, like on social media.”

“This challenges society more, and it makes it harder to define what Australian means as a national identity.”

“The exhibition really aims to show more personal stories, as a collective society,” McFadzean said. “We worked with lots of different people to create Identity to get a diversity of voices.”

New York based photographer Scottie Cameron created a collage of Melbournians on Little Collins Street.

He quoted the participants saying when they felt they belonged and what their identity was.

“Hopefully through simple image making my work shows diversity and cultures coming together to shine light on the fact that although we have some subtle differences here and there, at heart we are all incredibly similar,” Cameron said.

He said his work was relevant to Melbourne because it showed a “broad spectrum of different cultures” at the same time displaying how we are all “engaged with one another in a human way”.

“Seeing things like the exhibition allows people to understand migration, identity and belonging a lot more,” Cameron said. “I think people can get some perspective without being overwhelmed or confused by what is sometimes shown in mainstream media.”

“My work with The Immigration Museum was so rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to show this incredibly diverse range of people and cultures.”

Photo - Peril Magazine, Ellen Wu
Peril Magazine, Ellen Wu

Before you exit the exhibition, there is a final spherical miniature area. Children are laughing and singing in a circle around the visitor. The walls are blurred and mirrored to allow visitors to feel caught up in the action. Written along the walls are old nursery rhymes, quotes from children about belonging, and questions about identity.

Some of the old nursery rhymes talk of the racial ideas of the time, such as the original “Eeny meeny miny moe”. While the exhibition casts a light and explores racial identity from the past, there is also a distinct theme of questioning notions of belonging and what identity means moving into the future.


More information on the Immigration Museum’s exhibition can be found here.

Ellen Seah

Author: Ellen Seah

Ellen Wu is an Australian RMIT journalism student. Ellen was born in Melbourne but her parents are immigrants from Malaysia and China. She volunteers on SYN community radio and writes for Digital Niche's online blog. You can follow Ellen on Twitter @Ellen_RMITLS