Monday, 21 May 2012

Immigration Museum

Another place we visited was the Immigration Museum.  It was a pretty interesting place; I'd never thought of how many ways one could look at immigration issues, in spite of the fact that I've always been fascinated about the reasons behind my ancestors immigrating from Ireland to Scotland to Oklahoma (or Australia); or from Germany to Minnesota for that matter.   One of the main themes I took away was that Australia has struggled with deciding on a consistent immigration policy; it has been quite 'only white Brits need apply' off and on over the relatively short history of the country.  One could stand up and shout 'racist!' but I think every developed country fears being over run by immigrants willing to work for a lot less money, people bringing strange cultural and religious views and perhaps a different set of values.  As with Native Americans and the dominant white culture in the US (well, it still was when I last lived there; not sure how things stand nowadays), Australia has had to face up to Aboriginal people's issues.  

Much like the US - and come to think of it, Britain - Australia has become a haven for people fleeing war and disasters, religious or political persecution, all the usual reasons people leave their homes.   There was a really moving video, called Leaving Home, at the entrance to the museum that recounted the many incidents around the world that precipitated the mass migration of peoples.  Those of us who have had the luxury of remaining in our homeland - or of immigrating for the sheer pleasure of it - are extremely fortunate.

One exhibit showed a wide range of skills that immigrants brought with them, from complex knitting machine designs to shoe making to photography and journalism and many more.  Each display introduced visitors to an individual and told a bit about their life in their home country and how they employed their skills - with samples included on display -  in their new home. 

Another exhibit was quite upsetting.  Britain had a policy of shipping unwanted children to the four corners of the earth even as late as 1967.  These children may or may not have been orphaned; many were in care because their family couldn't afford to raise them or because of abuse or neglect.  Some were sent abroad to situations as bad or worse than the ones from which they came.  Many were told they were orphaned or alone when in fact they had living parents or siblings still in Britain.  One exhibit allowed various men and women now middled aged or older to tell their stories.  Some of the 'Home Children' were emotionally scarred by their experiences, others were grateful for a new start in a land of opportunities.  It seemed to depend in part on how tough-minded a child was as well as whether or not they landed in a good or tolerable situation.   I found the whole thing terribly depressing, particularly because the authorities felt that telling lies was appropriate policy.  I'm unbelievably naive, I know.

Detective-Inspector John M. Christie

One of the more fun exhibits was about the Old Customs House.  You know about Customs:  they look for recreational drugs, expensive paintings on which one must pay duty, unlicensed herbal medicines and the like?  I nearly got fined on my first trip to Australia when a customs officer found two plums in my bag - I honestly thought I'd thrown them away on the plane.  I got a long lecture and it was not a pleasant experience.  Anyhow, at this exhibit I read about numerous tricks people used in the past to smuggle things in:  false-bottomed boxes, jackets with hidden pockets and for a while ladies carried items buried in the fur muffs they carried to keep their hands warm (I remember having one of those when I was a child).  I enjoyed reading about John Christie, called Australia's Sherlock Holmes.   He was apparently good at disguises and though the police force didn't seem to appreciate them (they thought his means too devious), his talents were well used by the Customs Department.  One story told that his disguise as a tinker was so good that the owners of an illicit distillery enlisted his help to repair their still...bad move.  You can read his reminiscences for free here.  I've added it to my list of e-books to download!

Do you like visiting museums when you're on holiday?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do like to visit museums when I travel but DH does not care for it as much. You write about the motives behind immigration with sensitivity. My office mate teaches English as a Second Language so I am often privy to the stories of the students she teaches. Their stories are often so poignant to me. Many of them were professionals in their home countries and for lacking of knowing English have basically begun at the bottom of the employment ladder again. I read recently that Caucasian babies are now in the minority in the US.