Migration Memories

About the research

The purpose of the Migration Memories research was to explore the practical dimensions of making museum exhibitions that might create empathetic contact between very different histories and experiences. The project was informed by several key theoretical concerns and discussions.

Critiques of the Australian ‘multicultural’ migration exhibition such as that provided by Ian McShane (2001) and Andrea Witcomb (2006; 2009) offered a basis for selecting content that would show the historical complexity of migration and suggest that cultural diversity is an active and productive engagement rather than a static tableau of cultures. Ruth Phillips’ discussion of collaborative exhibitions and the examples of these that follow in Brown and Pears, Museums and their Source Communities (2003) as well as examples offered in other collections such as that edited by Karp, Kratz, Szwaja and Ybarra-Frausto (2006) informed the project’s interest in working collaboratively with participants. Paolo Friere’s approach to community education based on exchange between teachers and learners in which all are ‘knowers’ (1973) was also influential in this regard. The research also took up Tony Bennett’s use of the term ‘dialogic’ to describe an interactive, democratic form of exhibition (2006) and, like many museological discussions, was also inspired by James Clifford’s idea of the museum as a ‘contact zone’ (1997). Andrea Witcomb’s discussion of the varying success of exhibitions in realising such ‘dialogue’ (2003) pointed the research to the importance of the representational strategies used in exhibition design and form. Here it also worked from Elspeth Probyn’s discussion of empathetic contact across difference through the human capacity to imagine (1993), and sought practical direction from writing about creative practice such as that by Bell Hooks (1991) and Paul Carter (2004;1994). Bell Hooks insists on the agency of subjects and, as a creative writer, uses the strategies of specificity and embodiment to achieve this. As a writer and historian, Paul Carter insists on the perspective of place and uses the ‘fold’ as a metaphor for historical interaction in the local context (1994). Theoretical frameworks for understanding representational form such as Bakhtin’s ‘dialogics’ (Klages, 2006; Vice, 1997) also provided a platform for addressing interactivity at the level of design. 

Migration Memories connects particularly with scholarly work on museum practice. Its focus on local and personal migration histories also engages with issues relevant to Australian migration history, history and memory, life story and autobiography. Its practical interest in imaginative representation and formal strategies of visual and aural design is related to creative practice-led research.

Research methodology and process

The research process had two dimensions: making the exhibitions, and documentation and analysis of the methods of exhibition making. In making the exhibitions, what the research particularly wanted to do was explore how theory may work in practice. To this end it made two experimental exhibitions, each in a small regional Australian locality with a rich and distinct migration history, and displayed them together at the National Museum of Australia. In documenting the methods of exhibitions the research was principally interested in qualitative material based on a reflexive approach. Key methods were discussed with participants and exhibition visitors. Photographs, material created through the process of development and the exhibitions themselves provide documentation of the processes, interpretive strategies and stylistic devices that were also explored. 

Making the exhibitions

The methods used in making the exhibitions were based on the position that content, process and form are closely interrelated and that intentions for an exhibition must be followed through each. To achieve the intention of representing migration as a heterogeneous experience taking shape in the context of time, place and prevailing discourses, the research established a suite of approaches to content, development process and exhibition design. In summary these were:

  • a focus on migration history rather than migrant cultures;
  • an interest in cultural diversity as expressive of interaction between different people rather than a description of people who are different from the dominant culture;
  • a focus on personal understanding of migration experience in relation to historical context;
  • a focus on specific local migration histories and the material qualities of place;
  • the use of collaborative methods of exhibition development with participants and professionals;
  • the use of design strategies within visual and aural media that would engage audience imagination, support the agency of personal experience and suggest a sense of connection between the exhibits and with viewers.

Migration history and cultural diversity

In Australia ‘migration’ is often thought of as applying to people who arrived as part of the Federal Government’s massive post-war immigration program from 1946 into the 1970s. ‘Migrants’ is often used to describe a particular group of people, generally those who came from non-English speaking countries in this period of mass immigration even though many also came from Britain. These understandings are often part of migration exhibitions in Australian museums.

Alternatively, Migration Memories saw migration as an historic theme. It took the position that Australian history since 1788 has been shaped by the arrival of people from elsewhere – more specifically, by the way relationships between newcomers, and between newcomers and Indigenous people, have been managed, negotiated and changed in the context of prevailing discourses and political structures. The research also wanted to show cultural diversity in terms of interaction between different groups of people in this migration context – interaction that may vary from violence to generosity, reinforce the status quo or change it. Migration exhibitions in Australia were initially developed to celebrate and raise awareness about the many different non-British cultures in Australia.

Personal and local perspectives  

To show migration as something that touches the lives of all Australians, but is experienced differently across time, place and cultural background, the material for the research exhibitions concerned local and personal perspectives on migration in the frame of wider migration history. An important consideration in this approach was the idea that the detail of specific local and personal histories provides evidence of history. Historical context was not provided in the abstract but in relation to the evidence of experience and in the words of the curator as a particular named identity. The personal histories were selected to highlight critical local migrations. They were also provided in the words of particular identities – both telling and reflecting on the experience that was significant to them. Artefacts were selected by individuals to express that experience rather than because of their value as cultural items – though sometimes there was a strong connection between the two. Specific local context was provided through brief introductory material and the use of contemporary and historical photographs and maps. By grounding and embodying different views and experiences of migration, the exhibitions intended to create tangible contact points between them.

Collaborative exhibition development

Following through the intentions to create exhibitions that highlighted individual perspectives in historical context, the development process involved reciprocal and collaborative work with local community organisations, individual participants – the ‘storytellers’ – and professional designers and photographers. Collaborations with organisations and individuals are very much part of the landscape of contemporary museum exhibition making but the intentions for the Migration Memories exhibitions required a particular approach. Because the focus was on distinct individual perspectives rather than categories of difference such as ethnicity, the project did not consult ethnic organisations as representatives of particular kinds of migration experience. It preferred to connect with such organisations through individual participants if appropriate from the participant’s point of view. The first community points of contact were community organisations concerned with the locality as a whole. These were historical societies and community welfare organisations. Collaborations with designers and photographers are less usual in the museum context. For this the project drew on models such as those used in theatre, other arts based projects and ethnographic film making

Design strategies

Migration Memories took the position that formal strategies of exhibition design are as vital to fulfilling exhibition intentions as content and development process. For instance, graphic devices such as quote marks, italics and shading construct hierarchies of text. Migration Memories experimented with showing text authored by the curator and individual storytellers in an egalitarian, conversational relationship. The first names of the authors were used with their respective pieces of text and spatial relationships as well as other devices such as font and size of typeface were carefully considered in graphic presentation.

Another important aspect of design was to invite an audience to step into the exhibition on their own terms. In fabricating the exhibitions the idea was to create them display on a human scale so issues such as the height of panels and the extent to which it was possible to move around and through them, were taken into account. Such approachability was important in achieving connection between audience and material. Similarly, devices that invited audiences to feel as well as think about a situation were used. For instance the particular quirks of an individual’s turn of phrase were retained in text, and items created by the storyteller, such as a sketch of a childhood place drawn from memory, were included. Images such as this were juxtaposed with memories and feelings rather than explained. This method of presentation was seen as important in creating space for audiences to imagine what the storyteller’s experience meant to them. Working collaboratively with designers from an early stage in the exhibition making process was a critical part of exploring these strategies.

Documentation and analysis

Documentation of the research that provided material for analysis included:

  • discussions with individual participants and community organisation members
  • reflections on the experience by designers and photographers
  • discussions with exhibition visitors
  • curator’s journal notes
  • briefs and project plans
  • notes of meetings
  • drafts of display ideas and designs
  • the exhibitions themselves
A reflexive and dialogic approach was used in recording conversations with participants, community organisation members, practitioners and visitors. For instance, the curator conducted three electronically recorded interviews with each individual participant during the process of developing their individual displays. These focused respectively on decisions about inclusions and focus of the display, decisions about the design, and the experience of seeing the display as part of a whole exhibition. Across the interviews, the process of development was discussed with attention to how the relationship with the curator was developed and negotiated over time. Open-ended conversational methods of collecting responses from visitors were used with the intention of finding out what audiences ‘made’ of the exhibition rather than what they ‘thought about it’ at an evaluative level. An interest in inviting a literal ‘making’ had to be shelved due to budgetary and time constraints. Discussion with audiences in the exhibitions own localities and in a removed ‘national’ environment suggested many more questions about representational strategies in relation to the agency of the local. 

The exhibitions themselves provide a rich text for analysis from perspectives that concern changing understandings of Australian migration history and experience as well as those interested in museum exhibition practice. The website project is a further iteration of the exhibitions, using another frame for display and discussion, and in this sense extends the research into a further phase.

For further discussion of the research see Discussion papers (link)


Bennett, T. (2006) ‘Exhibition, Difference and the Logic of Culture’, in Ivan Karp, Corinne A. Kratz, Lynn Szwaja and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto (eds) (2006) Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations, 46-69, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Carter, P. (2004) Material Thinking, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Carter, P. (1994) ‘From Collage to Fold: A Poetics of Place’, Periphery, no. 20, pp. 3-7.

Clifford, J. (1997) Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin.

Hooks, B. (1991) ‘Narratives of Struggle’ in Philomena Mariani (ed.) Critical Fictions: the Politics of Imaginative Writing, 53-61, Seattle: Bay Press.

Karp, I. Kratz, Corinne A., Szwaja, Lynn and Ybarra-Frausto, Tomas (eds) (2006) Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations,  Duke University Press, Durham & London, p.63.

Klages, M. (2006) Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, London and New York: Continuum.

McShane, I. (2001) ‘Challenging or Conventional?: Migration History in Australian Museums’, in Darryl McIntyre and Kirsten Wehner (eds) Negotiating Histories: Conference Proceedings, pp122-34, Canberra: National Museum of Australia.

Phillips, R. (2003) ‘Community Collaborations in Exhibitions: Towards a Dialogic Paradigm’, in Laura Peers and Alison Brown (eds) Museums and Source Communities, 156-70, London and New York: Routledge.

Probyn, E. (1993) Sexing the Self: Gendered Positions in Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.

Vice, S. (1997) Introducing Bakhtin, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Witcomb, A. (2003) Re-imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum, London and New York: Routledge.

Witcomb, A. (2006) ‘How Style Came to Matter’ in Chris Healy and Andrea Witcomb (eds), South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture, Monash University ePress, pp21.1-21.13.

Witcomb, A. (2009) 'Migration, Social Cohesion and Cultural Diversity: Can Museums Move Beyond Pluralism'? Humanities Research, 15 (3) in press.