Making Migrant Heritage – What is it?

This blog intended to provide updates about the project ‘Making Migrant Heritage’ – but so far, it has done very little of that! I’ve instead shared some research and reflections on public events around my book on the history of Bonegilla and postwar migrant reception. Bonegilla is a prominent part of the commemorative landscape around migration in Australia. No project that claimed to analyse ‘migrant heritage’ could ignore Bonegilla, surely!

But what is ‘Making Migrant Heritage’? The rationale for the project grew out of a concern that too little scholarly attention had been paid to how ‘subaltern’ publics, including the ‘migrants’ who are the subject of many exhibitions and commemorations, actively create and publicise their own ‘heritage’. The heritage studies literature includes work on community engagements with heritage, which has been informed recently by studies into audience reception, and affect and emotion as experienced in museum and heritage spaces (Witcomb 2013, 2012; Smith 2015, 2017; Cooke and Freize 2014, 2015). But I wished to explore community uses of history and heritage by looking not only to consumption, but also to construction: to examine those who actively seek to have their migrant heritage made public. Few case studies have been conducted on the migrant community groups within Australia—self-defined not only by country or origin or ethnicity, but sometimes by experience or generation. And from what I had observed in regards to Bonegilla, many have taken an active role in making their own heritage public.

I set out under the assumption that a combative relationship existed between these ‘grasssroots’ publics and the ‘authorised heritage discourses’ established, expounded and propped up by heritage industry ‘experts’ and institutions. Of course, I also believe that ‘publics’ have the power to interject, undermine and complicate institutional narratives around migration and reception in Australia—considering both the material and discursive outcomes of these interactions. I had seen this occur with Bonegilla and Benalla, especially when it came to individuals (generally the second generation) inserting their (refugee) family history into more celebratory and progressive narratives of postwar migration.

Laurajane Smith’s scholarly work and public surveys reveal that outside the ‘expert’ or institutional idea of heritage (as material things to be preserved and managed by authorised bodies), understandings of heritage encompass the familial, and, most obviously, the intangible and intimate (rather than exclusively nationalist and material or monumental). It’s an obvious point to make: that ‘publics’ do not view heritage the same way as the experts/professionals/institutions that determine the policy landscape of current heritage practice in Australia and beyond (especially other nations that adhere to ICOMOS charters). How then do these two conceptions of heritage and heritage value come into contact, and what might their results be?

My initial model for ‘Making Migrant Heritage’ is narrowly focused on how community groups across Australia engage with and interpret official heritage practices and language in order to make their migrant and settlement pasts more public (through listings, grant applications or public-facing outputs).

I assumed that these case studies would be easy to find—that I would find these so-called ‘grassroots’ groups (I envisioned those without the involvement of local council or academics) who would be the main actors in publicising their heritage and applying for grants. But were my ideas too dichotomous? Did my model, inherent in the questions I posed, prove unsustainable? As a historian, I should not have expected the ‘evidence’ I came across to fit seamlessly into my model—no matter how progressive my assumptions and hypotheses were about the potential of subaltern voices to shake-up the conservative impetus of heritage discourses in Australia.

The heritage/public history landscape in Australia, particularly around ‘migrant’ heritage, cannot be totally encompassed by my dichotomous model of engagement. Many relationships abound: between invested individuals with or without a migrant or familial connection, public historians and academics of migration, members of local councils (who may also have a migrant background), socially-conscious businesses, or, yes, heritage agencies, public institutions, and state governments.

My initial case studies are:

  1. Gippsland Immigration Park (with a committee of volunteers, supported by local people, business and State and Federal Government grants);
  2. The Dutch Australians at a Glance (DAAAG) digital resource (initiated by academic Nonja Peters from Curtin University), and other related Dutch-migrants in WA projects.
  3. Relevant migration projects funded/aided by the Foundling Archive, Brunswick (a public history company offering platforms, resources and archival services to community groups).

I’m really looking forward to speaking with people involved in these heritage efforts about the development and history of their various initiatives. My focus on understanding discursive interactions (between the subaltern/grassroots and the ‘AHD’) remains, as does a consideration of the material and affective outcomes of these interactions.

Please comment if you have any queries/suggestions/objections!

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