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.