Heritage Making and Migrant Subjects in the Deindustrialising Region of the Latrobe Valley

This blog went on the backburner in 2020, like most things. But some of the research (or, at least, the solitary writing) continued. The following is an extract from an upcoming ‘micrograph’ (they’re a thing), currently titled “Heritage Making and Migrant Subjects in the Deindustrialising Region of the Latrobe Valley”.

In March 2007, in the small deindustrialising town of Morwell in Australia’s south-east, a local group with a post-WWII migrant background launched a public park. In itself, this was not a unique occurrence. The region is dotted with public parks. But this particular space is unique: the Gippsland Immigration Park was conceived, designed, launched and managed by locals who seek to commemorate, memorialise and celebrate migrants and migration to the region of Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley. In Australia’s largely Anglophone heritage landscape, such a community-initiated migrant heritage space warrants attention. As a multi-form open-air space, the Park is a platform etched with many contested and intertwined histories: it engages directly with circulating narratives around industrialisation, migration, and working lives. And it was created in a context familiar to many Western immigrant-receiving nations: in the wake of privatisation of primary industries and widespread unemployment. As the former coal-fired powerhouse of the State of Victoria, and a magnet for migrant workers, the Latrobe Valley was acutely affected by socio-economic changes from the late 1980s. The Park therefore presents a unique opportunity to explore migrant subjectivities in the context of historical change. Given the contradictions of recent politics in self-proclaimed multicultural nation-states—and an increasingly heated identity politics that draws on essentialist notions of race and ethnicity—as researchers, it is our task to interrogate the spaces and structures that exist for migrant community groups to voice their own histories of immigration and settlement. How do communities remember migrant labour in post-industrial places? The case study of the Gippsland Immigration Park offers a means to unpack the Latrobe Valley’s recent industrial and post-industrial history, and to examine the shared and layered community histories of that place in a liberal multicultural nation-state. This is both a migrant and an industrial history.

This book argues that community-initiated migrant heritage harbours the potential to challenge and expand state-sanctioned renderings of multiculturalism in liberal nation-states. In this search for alternative readings, community-initiated migrant heritage is positioned as a grassroots challenge to positivist state-multiculturalism. It can do this if we adopt the migrant perspective, a diasporic perspective of ‘settlement’ that is always unfinished, non-static, and non-essentialist. As mobile subjects, either once or many times over—a subject position arrived at through acts of mobility, sometimes spawned by violence or structural inequality, which can reverberate throughout subsequent generations—the migrant subject position compels us to look both forwards and backwards in time and place. This is a perspective that can also be mirrored in the migrant subject’s approach to heritage and memory, which are similarly non-linear, both materially and culturally determined, and manifest in both tangible and intangible ways. Migrants bring unique subjective temporalities to history making. The aim of this small monograph is to rescue this sense of migrant subjectivity, and thus the migrant’s institutional and historiographical subjectivation. It consciously reimagines alternative and even oppositional histories of post-war migration to Australia, as well as migrant and working-class orientations to liberal multiculturalism. The monograph draws on the Gippsland Immigration Park as a springboard for such histories and the socio-political work that they can do.It reads against the grain, or searches for silences and gaps in the tangible and intangible heritage on display.

What does it mean to centre and explore migrant subjectivity, and what perspective does it offer in this work? It means adopting, at moments, the viewpoint of individual pasts, presents and futures, and the meaning that one makes from this milieu. It means privileging ‘ordinary’ storytelling and dispelling empirical or positivist and deterministic understandings of migration history and liberal multiculturalism. In the context of this work, it also means imagining one (of many) potentially radical subjectivities. In relation to understandings of multiculturalism, it rejects a top-down or institutional approach to the subject matter. Finally, centring migrant subjectivity means turning our critical attention to experience, memory and emotion, as historicised processes. This approach recognises the important role experience and emotion play in the representation and circulation of collective memories in commemorative contexts.

Adopting the perspective of migrant subjectivity, I argue that migrant (and therefore marginal) heritage processes and constructions have the potential to lay bare the intersectional histories that make up the collective identity of a place. That is, migrant heritage draws upon memories of displacement, mobility, and settlement that necessarily intersect with changing economic or material conditions. Migrant heritage, approached from the perspective of migrant subjectivity, can also stress the key relationship between labour security and intimate family needs; and the historic role of state and institutional structures in shaping daily life. A focus on migrant subjectivity also underlines the central role of emotion and nostalgia in heritage and heritage making processes. These nostalgic and sometimes ambivalent responses with and to heritage create possibilities for interpretation that engage with the politics of representation and recognition in multicultural nation-states.

To offer this local history through a migrant perspective is a productive challenge: it functions as a platform to explore alternative grassroots expressions of multiculturalism from working class, migrant peoples, and to explore their subjective and emotional engagements with wider-circulating historical narratives about the region and the nation’s past. The inescapable interconnectedness of labour and migration is a key part of retelling and reimagining this public history. Through this mutual inclusivity (of labour and migration), the migrant subject memories espoused at the Park run counter to those that appear in official documentary records and Authorised Heritage Discourse about the region and the nature of its industrial heritage significance.

The Gippsland Immigration Park, as a heritage place, a monument and tribute, a communal meeting point, and an open-air exhibition, is active in the making of local, national and transnational histories. In reading against the grain, or in choosing the settle in the gaps the Park contains, alternative visions of multiculturalisms emerge. The creation and exchange of nostalgic memories of regional community pasts enables transformative possibilities for interpreting the future heritage of this post-industrial place and the role of the migrant subject in it. These alternative readings are worth exploring as examples of the agency of marginalised and marginal voices, highlighting who can or cannot make interventions into well-circulated Australian public histories and official heritage decisions, which conceal past and present inequality and race-based discrimination.

This extract is from a text in Cambridge University Press’s Elements Series in Critical Heritage Studies, for publication in 2021.


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