When I was three years old my father’s cousin gave me a dirndl – a traditional Austrian/ Bavarian dress. It was his way of saying ‘You’re one of us, now.’ My father had migrated from Austria to Australia some fifteen years earlier. This was his cousin’s first visit to meet the family my father had created on the other side of the world. A short time later, my Chinese Malaysian mother gave me a samfu – a traditional Cantonese form of clothing. Both items of dress are about being claimed by and later, the desire to belong to different sides of my family and two different cultures. But I fit neither of them. Besides outgrowing both of these childhood forms of traditional dress, I’ve often found their respective adult forms impossible to properly fit my Eurasian body and face.
Rather than writing about books, which shaped my view of history, I’ve chosen to write about objects. Perhaps because I cannot squeeze into these clothes for idealised cultural bodies, I’ve spent a lot of my career seeking to unpick stereotypical representations of migrants and their objects.
Often when I assessed objects for inclusion in the collections or exhibitions of museums, I looked for personal biographies entangled with the object’s biography. Recycled woollen threads in a national dress revealed the desperate circumstances of a refugee camp and the desire to hold on to one’s homeland in the face of annihilation after World War II; the incorporation of Australian flowers into a traditional Latvian weaving indicated a desire to belong in a new place; the absence of a traditional dress revealed a husband’s power to enforce the Australian government policy of assimilation at home; a costume never worn reminded parents of their hopes for a son who died too soon; and the addition of pieces of fabric ensured a mother’s hand-embroidered blouse could fit her daughter.
None of these stories can be fully contained in narratives of colourful dances and festivals. Nor are these stories representative of entire cultures or nations or even just migrant contribution narratives.
Choosing what aspects of a person’s story to emphasise and how to show it to the general public, lies in the hands of the curator and exhibition team who have an exhibition brief to work to. I like to work from the object and personal story up to the institutional frameworks, choosing what to emphasise and what to leave out, sometimes adjusting those frameworks or finding different ones.
The frameworks we choose can unintentionally dominate and remove the uniqueness of the personal stories they are meant to highlight. For instance, utilising one type of object to represent different peoples experiences, such as suitcases for migrants or boats for refugees. Public programs where visitors can try on ‘traditional’ costumes or imagine how to metaphorically or physically ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ are also ‘othering’. Often these activities are intended to inspire empathy but in fact, they do the opposite, turning a person’s biography into an ‘experience’ that audiences are encouraged to consume. A culture, like a person’s life, does not exist to be tried on and discarded. Emphasising the specificity of the personal story and the significance of relationships, rather than the exoticness of the ‘other’, can help visitors to think about how to meaningfully and respectfully relate to ‘other’ people in their own personal networks.
My role as a curator is often to draw out a different angle to a story we have shown before as well as to find new stories. Sometimes, the lack of a specific personal story meant that I rejected an offer of donation or did not select it for display. There isn’t always the time or resources to find more information or construct a narrative that goes beyond a superficial or well-worn story. The longer an institution collects in a particular area, the more selective they have to become. They also need to think about new frameworks under which to collect and communicate aspects of Australian history.
As a public historian I have tried to dig beneath stereotypes and common narratives that come with collecting and displaying migrant objects. Clothing reveals just as much as it hides, including things that the wearer might not want to see. In the past, I have worn my mother’s Malaysian kebaya and sarong. It reminds me of the continuities as well as the gaps between us. I could be an image of the migrant’s child continuing culture in a new place but with an Australian face. I could be an example of a second-generation migrant success story. Unlike my mother, I have benefitted from a tertiary education. In both academia and museums, I was and am better paid than my mother who worked in factories and as a cleaner. But I can’t button and zip up that kebaya and sarong at the moment. We still have the same job security where contracts and casualisation, not permanency, are the norm.
Karen Schamberger is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. She is currently expanding her horizons through her work as part of the exhibition team developing a new long-term environmental history gallery. She recently completed her PhD: ‘Identity, belonging and cultural diversity in Australian museums’ and previously worked as a research assistant at Deakin University and the University of Wollongong. She has also worked as a curator on the ‘Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours’ exhibit at the Immigration Museum and the ‘Australian Journeys’ gallery at the National Museum of Australia.