‘The beautiful Balts’ – 70 years on

Letter from W H Barnwell to Konstancija Brundzaite, 1947. ANMM Collection Gift from the Australian Lithuanian Community 00003842

Letter from W H Barnwell to Konstancija Brundzaite, 1947. ANMM Collection Gift from the Australian Lithuanian Community 00003842.

At the museum, we hold a rich collection of ephemera, which refers to written or printed materials that have short-term use, like letters, postcards, brochures, invitations and greeting cards. Many of these items go on to acquire a lasting historical or social significance, such as a letter that was sent to a passenger on the former troopship USAT General Stuart Heintzelman in 1947. Continue reading

Remembering the White Russians

White Russians Eugene, Ilia and Katherine Seiz in Harbin, China, 1940s. Reproduced courtesy Natalie Seiz.

White Russians Eugene, Ilia and Katherine Seiz in Harbin, China, 1940s. Reproduced courtesy Natalie Seiz and Andrew Seiz.

One of the things I find most interesting about Australia’s immigration history is how political events and uprisings on the other side of the world can have a flow-on effect and shape our own history. Take for example the October Revolution in Russia, which occurred 100 years ago today on 7 November 1917 (or 25 October in the old Julian calendar) and would lead to the exodus of the refugees known as White Russians or white émigrés.

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The elusive Mrs Cherry

'I do some soothsaying', from Mrs Cherry’s illustrated journey from England to Australia on Ormonde, 1931. ANMM Collection 00029325.

‘I do some soothsaying’, from Mrs Cherry’s illustrated journey from England to Australia on Ormonde, 1931. ANMM Collection 00029325.

I have recently finished reading Umbertina by Helen Barolini (1979), a classic novel about migration and identity as explored through the lives of three generations of Italian-American women. In the 1870s the title character, a Calabrian goatherd, commissions an intricate woven bedspread for her wedding to Serafino Longobardi. With its traditional design of grapes, fig leaves and ivy, ‘the bedspread was the one thing she would bring to her new home [in New York] and she wanted it beautiful and strong, to last forever’ (p 44). Circumstances force Umbertina to sell her treasured matrimonial bedspread, and decades later it ends up on display at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with the label, ‘Origin: Calabria. Owner unknown’ (p 407). It’s a powerful reflection on the loss of cultural heritage and provenance, and the silence that characterises so many women’s stories and migrant collections.

In our own museum’s immigration collection are two intriguing watercolour albums that were created by traveller and amateur cartoonist, Mrs M E Cherry, in the 1930s. Together they contain more than 100 vibrant illustrations that capture Mrs Cherry’s voyage from London to Adelaide on Ormonde in 1931–1932, and her travels in the South Pacific and the south of France in 1932–1939.

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Meeting the descendants from a disaster at sea

Samuel Elyard, Burning of the Barque India, c 1841. Watercolour on paper, 41.7 x 55 cm. ANMM Collection 00004246

Samuel Elyard, Burning of the Barque India, c 1841. Watercolour on paper, 41.7 x 55 cm. ANMM Collection 00004246.

One of the museum’s most-requested paintings for public viewing is a dramatic watercolour by Sydney landscape artist Samuel Elyard (1817–1910) titled Burning of the Barque India (c 1841). Recently we arranged a viewing for cousins Catherine Bell and John Grant. Their great-great-grandparents John Scott Grant and Ann Grant (née Kilpatrick) were survivors of the ill-fated migrant ship, which caught fire and sank in the South Atlantic Ocean on 19 July 1841.

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The Little Guys: Puppets and Creating Harmony

Lois Carrington and her Little Guys. Image: Graham Tidy / Canberra Times.

Lois Carrington and her Little Guys. Image: Graham Tidy / Canberra Times.

“The more meetings there are, the more exchanges that take place between nations, the better individual relations are : collaboration, solidarity and comradeship are no longer empty words, but the foundations for a better understanding of human problems and a bringing together of nations.”

Dr. Vesely, 1932. Cited by Margareta Niculescu, “Once again… UNIMA”, in UNIMA 2000, UNion Internationale de la MArionnette (UNIMA), Charleville-Mézières, 2000, p.9

Lois Carrington (nee Griffiths) was a lover of language, she studied Russian, French and Latin at university, her other passion was teaching. It was a natural fit for her to answer the Australian government’s call for teachers to help smooth the transition to Australian life for the influx of post World War II migrants. So in 1949, fresh out of university, passionate and with few resources, Lois began her career to teach English “on the way”, aboard migrant ships and at reception centers across Australia.

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The End of a Watermark: Changes to our Permanent Gallery

Watermarks exhibition gallery, when it opened. Image: ANMM.

Watermarks exhibition gallery, when it opened. Image: ANMM.

The museum is undergoing an exciting change to its permanent galleries. After more than 15 years, on 29 February the Watermarks Gallery set its sails for the last time (pardon the pun). The gallery first opened in 2001 and told the story of how water and the ocean plays a vital role in the lives of all Australians and how the coast has inspired our recreational lives.

Our new permanent gallery exhibition, ULTIMATE DEPTH: James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, will open in late 2016. Continue reading

A migration story in stitch

One of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection is a charming needlework sampler made by 19-year-old assisted immigrant Julia Donovan on board the Carnatic in January 1879. Immigration records show that Julia arrived in Rockhampton, Queensland, from England on 5 February 1879, and presumably went into domestic service in the growing port town.

Needlework sampler made by Julia Donovan on board Carnatic en route to Australia, 1879

Needlework sampler made by Julia Donovan on board Carnatic en route to Australia, 1879

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Apologies, anniversaries and hidden histories

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the British Government’s apology to former child migrants who were sent to Commonwealth countries through government-sponsored child migration schemes.  It also marks the return of our travelling exhibition On their own – Britain’s child migrants for a final showing at the museum before it begins a UK tour later this year.

On their own - Britain's child migrants

On their own – Britain’s child migrants

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Waves of migration returns on Australia Day

The museum’s award-winning digital projection Waves of migration returns this Sunday, Australia Day, to once again illuminate the museum’s iconic roofline with a rich tapestry of migration stories drawn from our collection.

Waves of migration illuminates the roof of the museum in Darling Harbour

Waves of migration illuminates the roof of the museum in Darling Harbour

Waves of migration explores the history of migration to Australia and the compelling stories of those who’ve come across the seas – from British convicts and early settlers, to Jewish refugees and displaced persons; from post-war European migrants and Ten Pound Poms, to Indochinese boat people and seaborne asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Continue reading

Suitcases, boats and bridges

Last week I was invited to speak about the museum’s work at the Suitcases, boats and bridges: telling migrant stories in Australian museums workshop, organised by Dr Nina Parish from the University of Bath and Dr Chiara O’Reilly from the University of Sydney. The workshop brought together academics, museum professionals and museum studies students to discuss how migrant stories have been collected and articulated in a number of Australian museums, ranging from large government-funded institutions such as ours, to smaller regional, suburban or volunteer-run museums.

Suitcases and boats in Passengers, the museum's permanent exhibition about Australia's immigration history. Photographer Andrew Frolows

Suitcases and boats in Passengers, the museum’s permanent exhibition about Australia’s immigration history. Photographer Andrew Frolows

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History and knitting

Magda and Anu Mihkelson wearing knitted hats in Sweden, 1948

Magda and Anu Mihkelson wearing knitted hats in Sweden, 1948. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson

Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a wonderful collection of textiles, handcrafts, photographs and family heirlooms donated by Anu Mihkelson, who as a toddler migrated from Sweden to Australia with her Estonian parents Oskar and Magda in 1948.

The Mihkelson collection is one of the museum’s richest collections relating to Australia’s post-World War II immigration history. Some of the material will go on display later this year in our Passengers Gallery but in the meantime I thought I would show you a few pieces from the collection that combine two of my favourite things – history and knitting!

Anu’s mother Magda Mihkelson was an accomplished knitter who used her needlework skills to help contribute to the family income. She knitted traditional Estonian Haapsalu lace scarves and intricately-patterned cardigans to order, both while part of the vibrant Estonian refugee community in Sweden in the 1940s, and later amongst the rural migrant cane-cutting and mining hubs of northern Queensland, where Oskar Mihkelson worked.

Oskar, Anu and Magda Mihkelson in Sweden, 1948

Oskar, Anu and Magda Mihkelson in Sweden, 1948. Magda wears a knitted angora bolero. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson

Magda was such a prolific knitter that she even knitted up all her leftover wool as the family travelled by train from Sweden to Genoa, Italy, to board the Lloyd Triestino liner Toscana for the six-week voyage to Australia.

Magda knitting beside Anu on Toscana en route to Australia, 1948

Magda knitting beside Anu on Toscana en route to Australia, 1948. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson

Anu has written a poem about her mother’s knitting that speaks volumes about women’s work, war and displacement, the industriousness of migrants, and the adaptation of European cultural traditions to the Australian context. She has kindly allowed me to reproduce the poem here and I hope you enjoy it.

Knitting 
Anu Mihkelson

She knitted when the house was asleep
Occasionally at the child in the cot she would peep
Peace around her to concentrate
With each item a little more money to make.
Jacquard, chevron, cable,
Samples set out on the table
Haapsalu scarves to slip through a wedding ring
Others to wear by those who sing
At an Estonian Song Festival.

Haapsalu scarf knitted in lily of the valley lace pattern

Haapsalu scarf knitted in lily of the valley lace pattern. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson

Colourful gloves, bonnets, socks,
Patterns counted off graph-paper blocks,
Traditional snowflakes respecting the trust
Of Estonia left behind, in war’s dust.
In Sweden she did this in earnest
For she was a refugee
And her work was done for a fee.
In Estonia it was a woman’s art
To knit, crochet and dress smart
But then in 1944 with her life she fled
Knitting needles now clicked the feelings not said.

Anu's colourful knitted hat

Anu’s colourful knitted hat. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson

The nickel plated needles are worn
Paper ends to hold the stitches, now torn;
Small double-pointed needles
For socks and mittens and cable sweaters.
Crochet hooks in different sizes –
Later the handkerchiefs won prizes.

Anu's pink knitted jacket

Anu’s pink knitted jacket. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson

All the pieces tell a story
Of migration, and someone else’s war glory
My pink jacket and blue skirt with straps
Other cultures fused
The Christening shawl not used
Since I grew and needed a skirt.
All packed in a trunk
I close the lid,
On all she did.

Anu's blue knitted skirt with straps

Anu’s blue knitted skirt with straps. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson

Life was not to be a failure –
Off again, this time to Australia.
At Tully and Mission Beach
For her family safety was within reach
Swim trunks of merino
White angora bolero
Jacket with cherry bunches
Many hours she hunches
The pattern was wrong
It took so long
The client’s payment seemed a song.

Magda's knitted jacket with cherry bunches

Magda’s knitted jacket with cherry bunches. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson

Then off to Mount Isa we went
There eight years were spent.
Days were hot and dry
Still, there was wool –
And the winter nights were cool
She knitted, ready for a southern clime,
Sydney … it was time.

Anu sewing and Magda knitting in Mount Isa, 1957-58

Anu sewing and Magda knitting in Mount Isa, 1957-58. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson

You can read more about the Mihkelson family’s incredible journey from Estonia to Australia via Sweden in Anu’s books Three Suitcases and a Three-Year-Old (Kangaroo Press 1999) and The View from Here (self-published 2011).

Kim Tao
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration

Stories of growing up in Australia

Earlier this month I was delighted to receive a copy of the new book by award-winning author Nadia Wheatley called Australians All: A history of growing up from the Ice Age to the apology (Allen & Unwin 2013). The book explores the history of growing up in Australia through 80 personal stories, ranging from prominent people such as Ethel Turner and Eddie Mabo, to many lesser-known Australians.

Australians All cover

Australians All by Nadia Wheatley. Courtesy Allen & Unwin

The stories are set against a chronology of significant events including the arrival of the first boat people, the gold rush, the Great Depression, the two world wars, the Vietnam War and the national apology to the Stolen Generations. They are woven together with a rich selection of historical images as well as evocative new illustrations by artist Ken Searle.

In Australians All, Nadia Wheatley has effectively situated personal lived experiences within a broader context of local, national and international histories. This helps to reinforce the notion that history is not a series of disparate events but a fascinating intersection of stories, causes and effects that have resonance in both local and global communities. Wheatley has also succeeded in drawing out shared childhood experiences across place and time, cultures and generations, and because of this I think Australians All will become a very valuable social history resource for young readers today and in the future.

Tu Do by Ken Searle

Illustration of Vietnamese refugee boat Tu Do. Copyright Ken Searle. Courtesy Allen & Unwin

One thing that makes this book even more special is that it features the story of sisters Dzung and Dao Lu, who fled South Vietnam with their family in 1977 in the fishing boat Tu Do, which is now part of our museum’s floating vessel collection. Dzung and Dao’s father, Tan Lu, had built Tu Do (meaning ‘Freedom’) at the end of the Vietnam War, specifically to escape life under the new communist regime.

Lu family on Tu Do

Tan Lu (left) and Dzung and Dao (standing and sitting on hatch) on Tu Do, 1977. Photographer Michael Jensen. ANMM Collection

Prior to departure in September 1977 Tan staged an engine breakdown so that surveillance of Tu Do would be relaxed. He installed a more powerful replacement engine and his group of 38 passengers set off in the dark. Dzung, six, and Dao, four, had been given cough medicine to keep them quiet, and chaos erupted several hours out to sea when they realised Dzung had been left behind! They returned to find her, crying and mosquito-bitten in the mangroves. The voyage resumed, with Tu Do eventually making landfall near Darwin on 21 November 1977. The Lu family were transferred to a migrant hostel in Brisbane and were later granted asylum.

Dao, Dzung and Tuyet Lu

Dao and Dzung Lu with their mother Tuyet, 2010. Photographer Andrew Frolows. ANMM Collection

Dzung and Dao Lu were among the 137,000 Indochinese refugees who were resettled in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. Their story, along with others in Australians All, highlights the importance of childhood journeys and experiences in shaping, and understanding, our national history. The museum is pleased that this story will be more accessible to younger audiences.

The restored Tu Do at the museum

The restored Tu Do at the museum, 2012. Photographer Andrew Frolows

The fishing boat built by Dzung and Dao’s father is now displayed at the museum’s wharves and stands as testament to the courage, hope and ingenuity of all refugees. You might like to visit Tu Do during Refugee Week, which runs from 16-22 June 2013, and celebrate the many contributions made by refugees to Australian society.

Kim Tao
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration

A chance encounter in Albury

Last week I went to Albury to install our travelling exhibition On their own – Britain’s child migrants at Albury LibraryMuseum. This lively venue is the only regional stop in our national tour, which has so far taken in Adelaide, Melbourne, Fremantle and Canberra.

While Albury was not a major destination for British child migrants, it does have strong links with Australia’s immigration history because of its proximity to the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre near Wodonga. Bonegilla (1947–71) was Australia’s largest and longest-operating migrant reception centre and many of the post-war migrants who passed through it later settled in the Albury-Wodonga region.

Border Mail article, 1950

Border Mail article, 1950. Pam Wright is front row, second from right

I was fascinated to discover that a small group of British children was sent to St John’s Orphanage in Thurgoona, in the outer suburbs of Albury, in 1950. The 22 girls sailed on Asturias and their arrival was reported in the Border Mail under the misguided headline ‘Orphans arrive here to start their life afresh.’ One of the youngest in the group, five-year-old Pam Wright, was told she was an orphan, even though both her parents were alive. She says, ‘The day before I was shipped, I was with my father.’

Pam’s father tracked her down in Australia and tried to claim her but was told she had been declared a ward of the state. After pleading his case to politicians, Pam was eventually released into her father’s care. In 1990, 40 years after being sent from England, she was finally reunited with her mother. You can hear more about Pam’s story in her interview with ABC Radio.

Curator Kim Tao and Pam Wright at the exhibition

Curator Kim Tao and Pam Wright at the exhibition, 2013. Photographer Jules Boag/Albury LibraryMuseum

Pam spoke eloquently about her experiences and their enduring impact on her life at the official opening of the exhibition on 23 February. I spoke of how stories like Pam’s reveal Albury’s connections to broader national and international narratives of child migration. I also mentioned how the exhibition has created opportunities for many former child migrants to reunite with family, friends and the material culture relating to their migration. But I never expected the drama that would soon unfold!

As I led visitors on a tour of On their own, I could hear the commotion at the back of the group when a visitor, Connie – who by chance was visiting from WA – rounded the corner and saw her younger sister Beryl in a photograph in the exhibition. Once her shock and excitement subsided, Connie realised that she too was in the photograph, along with her three brothers. All five siblings were sent to the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra, south of Perth, and this photograph captured them on the very day they arrived in Fremantle on Ormonde in 1950, the same year as Pam Wright.

Children with belongings, 1950. Connie (L) and Beryl (R) with their three brothers

Children with belongings, 1950. Connie (L) and Beryl (R) with their three brothers. State Library of WA 005080D

I had been intrigued by this photograph since I first saw it in the State Library of WA back in 2009. It was part of a collection of well-constructed arrival photographs, surely designed to encourage continued government and public support for the child migration schemes that were once considered generous philanthropy but are now widely condemned as flawed social policy. I was interested in the subjects of this well-composed photograph – the boys in their distinctive striped Fairbridge ties; the girl on the left, who we now know is Connie, with her Orient Line suitcase – but I never expected them to be a family group.

Connie and Beryl with their photo in the exhibition

Connie and Beryl with their photo in the exhibition, 2013. Photographer Kim Tao/ANMM

This latest encounter during the national tour of On their own once again reinforces the value of telling personal stories and presenting living history in museums. It also demonstrates the wonderful role museums play in collecting this history, making it accessible and reconnecting people with their heritage and material culture. Here’s to Connie, Beryl and chance encounters.

Kim Tao
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration

On their own – Britain’s child migrants is showing at Albury LibraryMuseum from 23 February to 28 April 2013.

Testing, testing … a sneak preview of our rooftop lightshow

Last Friday night the museum’s designer, Hamish, and I braved the record heat, blustery winds and rain in Sydney to attend a test run of the museum’s dynamic new lightshow, Waves of migration.This thirteen-minute animated show explores immigration to Australia and the compelling stories of those who’ve come across the seas to this nation of migrants. It premieres at 8.30 pm this Saturday night, Australia Day, on the roof of the museum – marking the first time the façade of our building has been used as an extension of the exhibition space.

Lightshow projection on museum roof

The museum’s roof becomes a canvas for the Waves of migration lightshow

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Golden years: Stories and snapshots from an Olympic champion

John Konrads with an unidentified swimmer

John Konrads and another swimmer in a pool at the US National Championships in Ohio 1963
Photographer: John Konrads
ANMM Collection

All eyes may be on the London 2012 Olympic Games at the moment, but my attention has been caught by what is commonly recognised as the golden years of Australian swimming. Photographs and other swimming memorabilia collected by John Konrads over his swimming career from the late 1950s to early 1960s, are being progressively published online. They not only document the career of an inspirational Australian swimming champion, they also reveal details of life with the Australian Olympic team during the glory days of Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser, Jon Henricks and Linda McGill. Continue reading