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

Continue reading

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

Restoring hope and a fishing boat called ‘Freedom’

With all the rain in Sydney recently, you could be forgiven for forgetting what blue sky looks like. But for the Lu family, who arrived in Australia in 1977 on the Vietnamese refugee boat Tu Do, the colour sky blue is forever etched in their memories as the colour of freedom.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, South Vietnamese businessman Tan Thanh Lu pooled resources with friends and built a fishing boat, Tu Do (meaning Freedom), to escape Communist Vietnam. Mr Lu painted the boat sky blue to blend into the ocean and to evade authorities and the notorious Thai pirates who preyed on boat people. Continue reading

Through the eyes of a 13 year old

Spectacles issued to Mall Juske (née Karp)
ANMM Collection

An Estonian woman remembers what it was like being 13. In 1991, Mall Juske described what she saw 42 years earlier on board SS Cyrenia, rolling into the harbour at Fremantle. It was a bright and sunny Sunday as she ‘took a stroll in the town’. She saw a wedding celebration at a church and recalled ‘all those fruits’, milk bars and shops full of handbags. All this must have stood in stark contrast to the young girl and her family’s previous experiences and four-year wait to come to Australia. Continue reading

Object of the week

 ‘History, Fate, Destiny’ – the story of a Vietnamese refugee

30 April 1975. This date marked the end of the Vietnam War, with the fall of Saigon to Communist forces and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. From the late 1970s thousands of Vietnamese fled from the new Communist regime, escaping in small boats to the United States, Canada and Australia. The first Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arrived in Darwin in 1976.  By the end of 1979, 2,011 people had undertaken the perilous sea voyage from Vietnam to Australia.  Many more died trying.

The first wave of boat people arrived at a time of dramatic social upheaval in Australia. This was a time of spirited debate about our involvement in the Vietnam War, the new concept of multiculturalism, the breaking of many of Australia’s traditional ties to Britain and the forging of new links with Asia.  Despite some opposition from the wider community, the relaxation of immigration restrictions meant that most were allowed to stay.

In 1987, 12 year old Thi Nguyen, her parents and 25 relatives escaped from Vietnam in a small fishing boat. After spending two and a half years in a Hong Kong camp, they were allowed to migrate to Australia. Seven years after she left Vietnam, Thi created three boat sculptures to represent her family’s perilous voyage. She submitted these for her Higher School Certificate examination at Burwood High School in 1994.

'History' boat sculpture - ANMM collection

Thi named the three sculptures ‘History, Fate, Destiny’ and made them out of a selection of materials to give each of the boats a unique quality. The boat sculpture ‘History’ (00019948), is the largest of the three vessels and made from unpainted clay. It is bound with leather, string, bands of writing and adorned with gold chains. A gas ring serves as the support for the boat. For Thi, ‘History’ is symbolic of Vietnamese culture and the past. ‘Fate’ represents the fears and desperation experienced by refugees; and ‘Destiny’ embodies survival. Together, the boats tell a powerful story about the traditions, fear and endurance of Vietnamese boat people.

 ‘My refugee boats are an interpretation of my direct experience when leaving Vietnam. The three boats, History, Fate and Destiny symbolise the delicate uncertainty of the captive human struggle in the sea of life.’  – Thi Nguyen, artist

If you would like to read more about Thi Nguyen’s three boat sculptures, you can search our collection on-line.

Designing the SIEV X memorial

On 18 October 2001 a decrepit, overcrowded fishing boat embarked from Sumatra, Indonesia, carrying more than 400 asylum seekers who had fled Iraq and Afghanistan. It foundered the next day en route to the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island, drowning 353 people – 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. The boat would come to be known as SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown).

According to survivors more than 100 people remained alive in the water that night when two vessels arrived and shone searchlights, but failed to rescue anyone. Only 45 people were eventually rescued, by passing fishermen. Ten years on controversy still surrounds the sinking of SIEV X. Despite a number of Australian Senate motions a full independent inquiry into the tragedy has yet to be held.

To acknowledge the 10th anniversary, the Australian National Maritime Museum is displaying a compelling collection of student designs for the national memorial to SIEV X in Canberra in X for unknown – SIEV X memorial designs.

The concept for the memorial emerged through a nationwide art project coordinated by a group of friends from the Uniting Church. In 2003–04 students from more than 200 high schools learned about SIEV X and responded with designs for the memorial.

Their designs reflected a powerful emotional and intellectual engagement with the story of SIEV X and captured a range of feelings – empathy for the plight of young refugees, disbelief at the lack of media coverage of the incident and anger at the nation’s treatment of asylum seekers. A selection of these designs, including the winning concept by Brisbane student Mitchell Donaldson, is displayed in X for unknown.

Mitchell Donaldson design

SIEV X memorial concept by Mitchell Donaldson, 2004. ANMM Collection Gift from SIEV X National Memorial Project.

Mitchell’s design consisted of a series of painted wooden poles forming the shape of a boat and running down into Lake Burley Griffin. He says, ‘I designed this memorial to make people think about the mistakes we made when the boat people needed help. It’s partly on land and partly in the water to represent how close the people were to safety. There are 353 bars, which is the number of people who died. The bars also represent that people were trapped. The low bars on the side show they could have been saved if we’d helped them.’

SIEV X memorial

The SIEV X memorial, based on Mitchell Donaldson’s design, in Weston Park, Yarralumla, 2007. Photographer Belinda Morgan Pratten. Reproduced courtesy SIEV X National Memorial Project.

In 2007 the memorial, comprising 353 wooden poles decorated by schools, churches and community groups across Australia, was installed temporarily in Weston Park, Yarralumla, where it still stands today. Stretching over 300 metres, it is a haunting reminder of the scale of loss of life in 2001. Project organisers currently have a three year permit for the memorial, with hope it will become a 20 year permit.

X for unknown – SIEV X memorial designs is on display until 20 November 2011.

Kim Tao
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration