Melbourne Immigration Museum

19Mar08

I’ve never been very curious about my origins.

I feel slightly ashamed to write this, although I’m not sure why I should. I think it has something to do with the romantic notion of ‘knowing who I am’. It seems ignorant to know nothing about my roots. In truth, my origins seem so vague and intangible that it’s hard to summon much enthusiasm. My ancestors were mostly Irish, my parents tell me. And Welsh. Some Scandinavian, perhaps, but this is less certain.

I can say with confidence that I was born in Australia. My passport and drivers licence clearly state that I am an Australian citizen. Despite this, whenever discussions about nationality take place, I am left feeling faintly uncomfortable. This puzzling feeling surfaced again during my recent trip to Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. However, by the time I left, the reasons for my unease had become much clearer to me.

The definition of nationality implies that there is something fundamental that I share with my compatriots, so I ask myself, what do I share with my fellow Australians? The Immigration Museum clearly illustrates the fact that, as a people, we do not share any common history or traditions. Can it be that there is a way of life to which we all aspire? I’m sure that this can be debated, but to me it would seem not. When I think of the Australian people, the sense of having no ties of any significance that unites us creates a feeling of isolation and alienation that I find difficult to dispel.

This anxiety in regards to Australian identity has been characterised throughout Australia’s history by a great ambivalence towards immigration. Successive waves of immigration have created the powerful but ill-defined notion of the ‘other’; immigrants or ‘aliens’ which have often been excluded or marginalised.  During the 19th Century, immigrants were predominantly European, and restrictions were placed on Chinese immigration. These restrictions were symptomatic of ongoing fears about Asian immigration, and arguably indicate the beginnings of the White Australia Policy, which was to remain a cornerstone of Australian immigration policy for almost a century. In the 20th Century, wartime concerns prompted the regulation of German, Austrian and Italian immigrants. Japan’s involvement in the Second World War reinforced the White Australia Policy. Following the war, Australia was met with a flood of European immigrants. However, during the 60s and 70s, the White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled, prompting a significant increase in non-European immigration. Then in 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled that native title exists over particular kinds of lands, and that Australia was never terra nullius. This decision drew new attention to the question of Australian identity and immigration. It highlighted the fact that early European settlers were simply the first wave of immigrants to Australia’s shores.

It seems that the concept of the ‘other’ has shifted throughout Australian history, often in parallel with the racist attitudes, political interests and domestic concerns of the times. The importance of historical context in defining immigration policies is illustrated by the Museum exhibit, Getting In, which allowed me to understand the significant impact these policies had in shaping the population, and how they reflected public consciousness over time.  The Immigration Museum allowed me to explore the course of Australian identity throughout its development into a versatile and intricate concept.

In 2006 the Australian census revealed that of a population of around 20 million people, 24% were born overseas, and 45% have either been born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population accounts for only 2.5% of the Australian people.  Australian identity, rather than being somehow distinct from that of ‘aliens’ or ‘others’, has evidently been characterised and defined by more than two centuries of immigration.

This was my realisation as I left the Immigration Museum, and although it has always been known to me that we are a multicultural nation, it never dawned on me that, free from the limitations of other perceived ‘Australian values’, diversity is something that we all share. It is this aspect of Australian identity that I am happy to embrace.

On that note, make sure you check out Cultural Diversity Week.

Cultural Diversity Week
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