Belongings: Oral History, Objects and an Online Exhibition

Janis Wilton

Abstract

The New South Wales Migration Heritage Centre was established in 1998. Since 2003 its physical presence has been located within Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and it has had the strategic brief to record the memories of ageing migrants before their stories are lost. The Centre is, however, a museum without a collection; a heritage authority without heritage sites; a cultural institution whose main presence is in cyberspace. Among its high profile projects is one entitled Objects through time and another Belongings. Both focus on the ways in which objects can convey aspects of the migration experience. Belongings, the focus of this article, presents the remembered experiences of people who migrated to Australia after World War II, and seeks to highlight significant features of their experiences through asking them to share their memories and to nominate and talk about significant objects. As a project it grew out of movable heritage policy work within state government agencies, and its initiators – John Petersen, Kylie Winkworth and Meredith Walker – were central players in this development. It was also inspired by the National Quilt Register of the Pioneer Women’s Hut at Tumbarumba.

With its object-centred approach and accompanying edited interview transcripts, Belongings provides a focus for exploring the messages and emphases that emerge when oral history interviews concerned with migration have the specific brief to ask about material culture and its significance. Belongings also enables an exploration of the layering of those messages that emerges when object captions are located back in the context of the oral history interviews from which they were extracted. As a virtual exhibition, Belongings also provides the opportunity to consider the challenges for museums (virtual and real) when they need to condense the richness of migrant oral histories and life stories to captioned objects that can be put on display.

Keywords

Museums, Online Exhibitions, Migration, material culture

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