Workshopping Migrant Heritage in Australia: Pilot Projects and New Directions

A number of things have become apparent to me over the last week. First: the institutional, government-funded interest in creating methods to make ‘heritage’ more representative, and to increase migrant community involvement and engagement with existing structures of heritage management. This is evident in reports, pilot projects and ‘kits’ launched from the early 1990s, starting with the Australian Heritage Commission’s 1993 project Migrant Heritage Places in Australia, the NSW Migration Heritage Centre’s work (including the 1999 Rich rewards: Ethnic communities consultation in rural and regional centres pilot program), and ending, it seems, with Heritage Victoria’s 2011 report Victoria’s Post 1940s Migration Heritage. I suspect many of the models and suggestions espoused in these reports (in which references to ‘ethnic groups’ and community visibility now read as somewhat dated) continued in some form within subsequent initiatives around community engagement in heritage practice. In all of these reports, however, I haven’t been able to discern any concrete change to existing heritage lists, legislation, or levels of community engagement.  For one, the Victorian Heritage Register is still woefully unrepresentative of the State’s (and country’s) diversity. Furthermore, our major collecting institutions still lack written, visual and oral material on migrant, diasporic and multicultural Australia—and that includes material from those post-war migrant groups deemed ‘success stories’ in the national imagination.

All these reports are keen to foster community ‘engagement’, and some of them contain pretty fundamental ideas that have the potential to shake up what we know of the heritage industry (as expert-led, and monumental/tangible), but they are all bound by a national historiography, and confused, it seems, by more complex issue around diasporic identity and changing, generational attachments to places, that may or may NOT (more importantly) have positive connotations. They’re essentially offering some good models for boosting community engagement, but for some reason, these models haven’t been standardised across the sector, and nor is there a clear … infrastructure (in the words of Nonja Peters) for ‘communities’ (loosely defined) to initiate their own heritage projects on migration. The latter might also be a result of reduced government funding and competitive grants, however.

The second thing to become apparent to me, also led in large part by revelations from reading the 2011 Heritage Victoria report, is the need for a workshop. This workshop is, yes, modelled on countless previous ones coordinated by people like Helen Armstrong and the NSW Migration Heritage Centre, but unlike those, it is initiated and coordinated by academic outsiders—I’m neither a member of a ‘community’ nor a government institution who’s come into a community to extract data. And its aims are different: I want to test the development of orientations to heritage since the release of these reports, and to calibrate (test or compare?) conflicting definitions of heritage identification, interpretation and management. Again, I’m presuming there is a disconnect between community, grassroots and ‘migrant’ (or diasporic and multicultural) heritage and institutional deployments of heritage (however much it has been expanded and imbued with ‘community engagement’ aims over the last few decades). This necessitates that I a) revisit and expand my interviews with community groups, like Gippsland Immigration Park Committee, and Benalla Migrant Camp Inc. and b) the official reports and guidelines, to understand both perspectives, before jumping into this workshop. At the moment, it’s scheduled for September 2018. This initial workshop will focus on Victoria, bringing in representatives from Heritage Victoria, the Victorian Heritage Council, the Immigration Museum, as well as community groups attached to FECCA, Gippsland, Benalla, and many others). It’s complicated again by my desire to bring in public historians working with groups like the Foundling Archive and Way Back When, who’ve in many ways perfected the practice of collaborative and/or participatory action research, partly advocated by the 2011 Heritage Victoria report. Hopefully, subsequent workshops will expand from this initial Victorian one.

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