Indigenous and Migrant Heritage Places: ‘Immigration Park Australia’ design

In a 2002 article for the Journal of Intercultural Studies, Joseph Pugliese argued that migrant communities, working within heritage legislation, do not “do the homework” of consulting with local Aboriginal communities as to the meanings of a place and the Aboriginal history it possesses, or its ongoing associations to local Aboriginal groups. Pugliese interrogated the absence of Indigenous heritage values mentioned in the Australian Heritage Commission’s Migrant Heritage in Australia Kit, which was released in the early 2000s:


After decades of neglect, during which the concept of migrant heritage was largely absent from the concerns of the Anglocentric heritage and conservation bodies in this country, the value of migrant heritage was finally acknowledged as constitutive of the cultural history of Australia. My concern … is to contextualise the burgeoning movement to identify and preserve migrant heritage places in the context of the ongoing colonial relations that still dominate and shape Australian culture. In particular, I want to draw attention to the failure in the Migrant Heritage kit to register the issue of Indigenous history and heritage as something prior to both Anglo and migrant heritage concerns.[1]


This “burgeoning movement” fizzled out somewhat, and arguably the heritage and museum industries have moved towards approaches that favour ‘integration’ and larger canvasses that privilege ‘transnational mobility’, rather than community voices. But, I think Pugliese’s critique has relevance, and is worth revisiting in the present context.


I also wanted to be mindful of my practice—as a public historian collecting migrant people’s histories of place—to not perpetuate settler-colonial frames of thinking and being in place. The historiographical aim to recognise all migrants as implicit in the colonising process and the displacement of Indigenous peoples, and to effectively work towards ‘decolonising’ migrant historiography, has been demonstrated recently by Francesco Ricatti’s work on Italian migration.[2]


When it came to analysing my case studies, I had Pugliese’s critique in mind. The example of Immigration Place Australia in Canberra was an interesting one. It doesn’t exist, and may never exist, given its financial difficulties and the public controversy over its funding. In late 2018, the ABC reported that the ‘immigration charity’ behind this idea for a ‘land monument’ in the Parliamentary Triangle was subject to an AFP probe. The Immigration Place Australia (IPA) board argue that the 1.24 million it received in donations has been spent on accounting, auditing, consultancy and advertising.


The IPA describes itself as an incorporated not-for-profit organisation, and contains an all-male board of prominent business people. The are ‘assisted’ by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Many of them were migrants who arrived in the post-war era from the UK or Southern and Eastern Europe. Other “prominent individuals”, also united by wealth and public standing, have lent their support to the IPA by accepting roles as Ambassadors, including CEO of World Vision Australia Tim Costello and retired jurist Sir James Gobbo. Novelist Peter Skzynecki and fashion designer Carla Zampatti add artistic flair to the list of Ambassadors. Newer migrant arrivals and refugee-background individuals are noticeably absent. All this information is available on their website.


But maybe none of that is relevant to my concern here: does this project (regardless of whether it exists or not) “do the work of consulting local indigenous groups for their views on the place’s heritage value? I think this is worth asking of this project because it was to appear in a space reserved for lauding the Australian nation-state and its political institutions (the Parliamentary Triangle), a space that contains the markers of Australian democracy and Western ideas of progress. The promotional material stresses the prestige and privilege of its placement:

The Australian Government has reserved a prestigious site of 854 square metres for Immigration Place in the Parliamentary Zone in Canberra. The site is adjacent to one of Canberra’s oldest government buildings – the 1926 East Block currently occupied by the National Archives of Australia – and faces Kings Avenue which defines the eastern edge of the National Triangle.[3]


Putting aside the financial motivations and practices of the Board, the IPA’s emotional and commemorative aims broadly reflect those voiced by similar monuments to migration around the country—like the heritage park at the former Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre, and the Maritime Museum of Australia’s ‘Welcome Wall’.[4] They are all-inclusive gestures to the importance of migration to nation-building, which attempt to nullify considerations of structural difference and ongoing inequality. Thus, as an example of migrant heritage, within a national and highly regulated space (by the National Capital Authority), it is worth considering.


So, back to the design. The design competition for the IPA was awarded in 2015—to a team headed by architect Callum Morton. The winning design is detailed online, on the Immigration Place Australia website. Some within the design team have their origins in the post-war migration boom; it also includes Paul House, a Ngambri-Ngunnawal custodian.


The IPA’s initial invitation for submissions to the design competition did not mention indigenous ownership or indigenous attachment to place. However, the IPA Committee ultimately decided on a design that integrated a Ngambri spirit woman into its plan [see photo below]. The Ngambri are one of the Aboriginal clans who claim connection to the Canberra region, including the Snowy Mountains. Many Aboriginal people—including those from the Ngunnawal people (comprised of a number of smaller groups), who are recognised as the traditional owners of the ACT—were forcibly removed from their land by Government in the 1900s in a process that saw the land divided up into settler estates and pastoral leases. Today, in addition to the Ngunnawal, many traditional Aboriginal languages or clan groups are associated with the ACT and the surrounding region. Since 2006, non-Ngunnawal families take part in indigenous cultural heritage work for the ACT under the Heritage Act 2004 (ACT). The terrain is not uncontested. The IPA’s decision to include a Ngambri spirit woman directly engages with local concerns and local indigenous attachments to place and belonging. That is to say, the monument’s design operates on a number of scales: as not only a national monument to the successes of migration and settlement, but also a local place with local attachments that pre-date European colonisation, and that are continuing.


The announcement of the winning design was accompanied by the following statement:

The sculptural expression presented interprets and melds immigration with our indigenous history and looks forward to a progressive Australian future. The form and materiality inherently suggests movement and is evocative of an ancient Australian place and time. The design team suggests that ‘the changing narratives of migration…cannot easily be told in a linear way. Migration is a highly complicated and effectively fragmented experience.[5]


I spent some time thinking about these words from the IPA Board. The last couple statements reject a linear narrative of migration and settlement—a narrative most often embraced in institutional settings—but they seem in contrast to the first statement about looking forward to a “progressive Australian future” . Perhaps this wasn’t the space to workshop questions of reconciliation and structural inequality, but presumably any “progressive Australian future” that “melds” (and embraces) Australia’s history of Indigenous survival, would need to tackle these issues. At the least, I commend their inclusion of indigenous histories in Australia’s future—given that the Australian heritage industry and archaeological practice was once charged with ignoring post-contact Indigenous histories, and casting Indigenous attachments to place as prior to European incursion on the land, and therefore safely ensconced in that ambiguous space of ‘the past’. And still, Indigenous cultural heritage, post-contact (non-Indigenous) heritage, and environmental heritage often appear in legislation as separate and contained, which hinders layered, integrated and inclusive approaches to heritage management.[6]


At the most basic level, the winning design, and the IPA Board’s embrace of it, fulfils Pugliese’s suggestion that migrant heritage should flag Indigenous history and heritage as something prior to both Anglo and migrant heritage concerns. But as I said, the project has been halted. The website hasn’t been updated in a few years (although the section allowing people to contribute a story is active and thriving). I therefore don’t known how much consultation with local Indigenous communities will occur, aside from their initial work with Paul House as part of the Callum Morton design team.


I have offered a hopeful reading, given the paucity of popular and political discourse in Australia about Indigenous sovereignty and the ongoing legacies of dispossession. The cultural practice and process of making heritage is also shaped and, to a degree, limited by prevailing collective (and often state-sanctioned) narratives about migration and multiculturalism. This is not envisioned as a contest of one narrative over another, but rather a complex process of sometimes overlapping and intersecting values and beliefs about the past, present and future, and how they should (or shouldn’t) be represented in heritage places.


We should continue to ask the hard questions when constructing and interrogating our heritage places: How might a place be inscribed with prior Indigenous heritage value in a sensitive manner that enables empathetic discussions about forced or voluntary mobility and ethical settlement in a multicultural nation-state that is not yet reconciled with its Indigenous past or present?


[1] Joseph Pugliese, “Migrant Heritage in an Indigenous Context: for a decolonising migrant historiography,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 23, no. 1 (2002): 5-18.

[2] Francesco Ricatti, Italians in Australia: History, Memory, Identity. Springer, 2018.

[3] Jury Report, Immigration Place Selection Competition (Canberra: 2015).

[4] For more on Australia’s Migrant Walls, see: Eureka Henrich, “Paying Tribute: Migrant Memorial Walls and the ‘Nation of Immigrants’,” in The Culture of Migration: Politics, Aesthetics and Histories, edited by Pultz Moslund, S., Ring Peterson, A. & Schramm, M, (I. B. Tauris, 2015), 327-346 19.

[5] IPA Jury Report, Immigration Place Selection Competition (Canberra: 2015).

[6] Bell and Elley, “Whose heritage is it?” Australian Heritage Strategy, Commissioned Essay, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012). Accessible at:


*There’s a lot more research I need to do around the IPA – these are the starting points, and my thinking around the project.


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