Living Transcultural Spaces and Gippsland Immigration Park research

I’m in the middle of my first full teaching semester at ANU. And while I’m loving teaching the course ‘Introduction to Cultural Heritage Management’, my research plans for early 2018 have been totally derailed. It wasn’t unexpected. But now it’s Easter break, and I’m attending this fabulous symposium at Melbourne’s Museo Italiano: ‘Living Transcultural Spaces’, the first in a series of conferences across three continents. ‘Diaspore Italiane – Italy in movement’ will be held in Australia, the United States, and Italy. And the programme is fab! I’m especially looking forward to keynotes by Joseph Pugliese, Rita Wilson and Loretta Baldassar, and a roundtable on Italian-Indigenous relationships. The symposium afforded me (pushed me?) the chance to return to some research I conducted in early February, before teaching began.

The Gippsland Immigration Wall and Park is one of my case studies as part of this ‘Making Migrant Heritage’ project. The grassroots’ organising committee (originally the Italian Australian Co-ordinating Committee for Gippsland) have been incredibly generous in responding to my emails and agreeing to interviews. In February, I finally visited the site in Morwell, Victoria. As a community-initiated project that successfully acquired State and Federal funding, the project offers a model for future community-initiated immigration heritage, which is sorely lacking in the Australian heritage landscape.

It’s worth returning to the original aims of the wider project here: Making Migrant Heritage asks how grassroots community groups and individuals with a common investment in post-war migration and settlement approach, interpret and redefine official definitions of heritage values and heritage significance in the process of making their post-war migration places and related stories more public. Now, the Gippsland Immigration Park Committee has been repeatedly successful in gaining grants from local, state and national funding sources since 2007, including grants under the Victorian Heritage Grants scheme and PROV local history grants scheme. When encountering these schemes, how did the memorial and the committee interpret ‘heritage significance’ and ‘social value’, and did these interpretations in any way challenge or align with more official (and nationally-orientated) definitions? These were the original questions—and they stem from my interest in ‘social value’ as deployed (or ignored) by the heritage industry and its ‘experts’. But I also found myself asking questions about the wider (official) appeal of such a memorial/monument/tribute to migration, one that had the potential to conform so neatly with a governmental multiculturalism that depoliticises difference and structural inequality, and erases ethnicity in favour of a narrative of harmonious tolerance.

I’m still working through their applications and the interview material. But, in my paper for the ‘Living Transcultural Spaces’ conference, I focus on the extant memorial, and the possibilities it harbours for challenging multicultural heritage discourses. The plaques that appear on the walls focus on labour (men’s labour, mostly) and implicitly comment on the industrial decline of the region. The closure of Hazelwood is the latest example. We’re familiar with histories of immigration that stress migrant contributions to Australia’s post-war development, and this monument taps into that narrative about economic progress. However, the wall and its plaques also offer intimate stories of the working lives and mobility of respective migrant cohorts—a history that doesn’t shy away from the structural inequalities and constraints placed on specific cohorts of post-war migrants, and one which speaks to the constant mobility of their working lives as assisted migrants bound by a two-year work contract with the Commonwealth. It’s a narrative often glossed over in other examples of migration heritage, including Bonegilla, which stresses ‘becoming Australian’, as if it were a linear process beginning with migration and ending in settlement.

I found the Gippsland Immigration Park focused on the state of being ‘migrant’. After speaking with the Gippsland Immigration Park Committee, I see that it did so in conscious reflection of the thousands of post-war migrants who arrived but did not ‘settle’, who moved across the country according to work contracts, or who left Australia, some to return to family, after the end of their work contracts. There’s a lot more to unpack at the Gippsland Immigration Park—including the platforms it has created for other, intimate retellings of migration, mobility and transcultural exchange—and my paper in Melbourne next week attempts to do so. I’ll be expanding on this paper when I present at the History Seminar Series at ANU on 18 April. Stay tuned!

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