Immigration Museum "Identity: yours, mine, ours"

Monica Zetlin

Immigration Museum

MUSEUM VICTORIA PO Box 666, Melbourne 3001, Australia

Melbourne, Australia
Museums Australia (Victoria) Award for Large Museums 2012

Identity: yours, mine, ours. An exhibition at the Immigration Museum

Museum Victoria operates three museums, Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks and the Immigration Museum. The Immigration Museum opened in 1998 and is located in one of Melbourne's finest 19th century buildings in the heart of the city, the Old Customs House.
The Immigration Museum's charter is to explore the histories of migration to Victoria from the early 19th century, to be broadly representative, to demonstrate that we all have a migration ancestry unless we are Indigenous, to recognise the impact of migration on Aboriginal peoples, to celebrate and promote our cultural diversity in all its forms, and to do all this through a variety of collections, exhibitions, education and public programs and activities.

After 12 years of representing Victoria's migration histories, stories and contemporary issues, the Museum wanted to insert itself more firmly into the community conversations about diversity, inclusivity, prejudice, and racism.

The Museum wanted to be more contemporary, to reflect our society as it is and has become, to emphasise our diversity in all its forms, how individuals, families and communities interact and define themselves in Australia today, beyond the narratives of migration. It felt time to be more proactive, braver, more explicit in our social messages and perhaps to even reach some new audiences - the socially active and aware, young independent audiences, while maintaining our relevance to our older audiences and our schools. Finally, we wanted to take the opportunity for a new and creative way to incorporate more Aboriginal stories and experiences into the Immigration Museum.

An exhibition about identity in contemporary Australia was an ideal platform to launch this approach.  Opened in 2011, the exhibition Identity: yours, mine, ours focuses on how our cultural heritage, languages, beliefs, and family connections influence our self-perceptions and our perceptions of other people - perceptions that can lead to discovery, confusion, prejudice and understanding.

Through the complicated lens of belonging and not belonging, Identity aims to champion cultural diversity in all its complexity, challenge racist attitudes, and promote positive social change. 

As a current and open-ended topic, Identity lent itself to a contemporary emphasis while still allowing room for historical narratives, and it enabled us to engage in the dialogue around what we mean by difference and diversity, belonging and not belonging, individuality and collectivity. It is conceptual, personal, individual, subjective, organic, and multiple. Thus the exhibition has no one single voice; it asks lots of questions and certainly does not provide all the answers. It is hoped that visitors find something that moves, inspires, or challenges them, makes them curious, surprised, amused, or angry - and preferably more than one of these responses.

The exhibition had a budget of around $1.1 million, just over 200 square metres, a two year development timeframe and was to be long-term - about an 8-10 year life span. This allowed us to build momentum slowly, while enhancing the visitor experience for existing visitors as well as attract new audiences.

The exhibition poses many challenges both practical and theoretical. How to keep such a complex topic current for the long term? How do we attract the audience which traditionally shied away from the Immigration Museum and for whom this subject is essential to their everyday lives? The use of key multimedia experiences was one of our most powerful tools. It allowed us to be challenging, and on occasion confronting, or even humorous, without being too didactic or emphasising the voice of the Museum.

On entering, visitors are faced with a life sized projection at the end of a long dark corridor. Ahead of them, groups of people from various social and ethnic backgrounds stare at them. Some people are looking kindly and welcomingly; some are wary and almost hostile. Straight away we are immersing the visitor in an emotional experience where they are faced with the feeling of belonging, or not belonging. "First Impressions" is the first key theme of the exhibition, and is expressed partly through a large multitouch table where visitors can explore in more depth, the kinds of experiences people have when being stereotyped and how first impressions are often misleading.

Moving through to the next theme "People like Me" we employed the use of multiple first person videos, allowing for a diversity of voices and experiences. Most of these videos featured people who had a direct connection to the objects on display.
Considered a core experience, the video interactive "Who's Next Door" explores the themes of "People like Them". Visitors are asked to put themselves in the place of various people involved in a subtle but aggressive situation of racism. A situation which sadly continues to play itself out in the public domain every day.

These are only a few of the multimedia experiences on offer, and along with the striking graphic design, beautiful object displays and innovative text, combine to create a truly unique and thought provoking exhibition.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of Lead Curator, Dr Moya McFadzean, to the content of this paper.


Browse by year

Browse by category

Browse by country

View all