I’ve just visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, Australia. It is based in one of the city’s grand buildings, and one which is tied to the subject matter: the old Customs House. There is an enormous amount of space and the exhibits, text and interactive bits are all very well thought through. It starts with a video looking at the drivers behind migration, war and conflict, disaster, a better life, family and freedom. None is over or under emphasised, or made out to be more or less valid than the others. I learned about the infamous Dictation Test, a proxy for discrimination on the grounds of colour that lasted until 1958, and wanted to learn more about Caroline Chisholm, who apparently devoted her life to making conditions better for new immigrants to Australia and died poor and almost forgotten in London.
Virtually the last exhibit was an interactive modern immigration interview with different prospective immigrants. The voice of the immigration officer was realistically weary and cynical (and oddly British sounding – the fine Basil Rathbone/Alan Rickman tradition of playing the bad guy, I guess) and the actors playing the immigrants were suitably nervous looking, and angry or relieved when they heard the good or bad news at the end. I recommended that my couple were allowed in, but they were to be refused it turned out. Australia doesn’t need South African soap actors and travel agents, apparently.
The overall impression was of a country that recognises the importance of immigration in its past and present.
All this presents an interesting contrast with the London museum of immigration, 19 Princelet Street. It is based in a fantastic, historic building at Whitechapel that has been home to Huguenots, Jews and Muslims over its long life and which tells its own story. The museum itself is only open a few days per year and is literally falling part for lack of funds. It is well worth a visit, but the circumstances of the museum tell a story of a country in denial about the importance of immigration — and emigration — both past and present.
People move. Get over it!
Finally on the holiday news front, I have survived an apocalyptic triple bill of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (for a bit of local Armageddon flavouring – it is set in Melbourne). Cheered me up no end, I can tell you. It struck me while walking round the immigration museum that what the man and boy in The Road endure is an only slightly exaggerated version of what many people suffer around the world today. It doesn’t take a global event to trigger that level of physical and mental suffering. Haiti is just the latest and most prominent example, sadly.
Normal blogging service will resume shortly, I’m sorry to say.