The Museum’s role in citizens engagement

By Rohini Kappadath
Immigration Museum // Source: Museums Victoria
Rohini Kappadath

For more than twenty years, Melbourne’s iconic Immigration Museum has explored and celebrated Australia’s rich cultural diversity. Following a distinguished career in business, General Manager Rohini Kappadath has led the transformation of the museum and expanded the way Immigration Museum collaborates and represents communities to produce more meaningful, engaging and culturally nuanced experiences.

In this article, Kappadath considers the responsibility of museums and cultural institutions to better reflect Australia’s rich multicultural society by increasing active participation in social discourse and to be leaders in community engagement.

Old Customs House, 1840s
Current Immigration Museum

As societies change, so must museums, to reflect histories and current realities.

Museums house the cultural soul of a nation. In fact, museums are culture in action and they are effective when rooted in their societies, when they grow from their communities and are able to provide vision for the future.

The dramatic rate of change in the 21st century, followed by an unprecedented global pandemic, has led many museums to redefine their operating models at breakneck speed. We, as leaders in the cultural sector, must adapt with the times but not so much so that we lose our way.

Core to Melbourne’s Immigration Museum (IM) is intentional support of difference and multiplicity of cultures.

Diversity Arts Australia’s Shifting the Balance report found there is currently a gap in the rhetoric supporting cultural diversity and the reality of cultural representation in Australia.

This means there are still Australians who visit our museums, art galleries, theatres and cinemas who don’t see their own stories. They do not feel included or visible.

Immigration Museum has been actively considering notions of representation. We regularly ask ourselves critical questions—Whose stories are we telling? Whose stories are we not telling?

And how can we amplify under represented voices?

IM is embedded in Melbourne’s CBD, in one of the most diverse geographies on the planet. With over 220 languages spoken, Melbourne includes global citizens—making all our local work intrinsically international.

Since opening in Old Customs House in 1998, IM has welcomed over 2 million visitors worked with over 80 communities highlighting the city’s origins, and sharing stories of those who have migrated here and their positive influences in cultivating a multicultural city.

The museum’s 21st anniversary in 2019, offered a timely opportunity to reflect on how to improve audience connection, and extend the impact of IM’s important work and mission. At a time when fault lines between ‘us’ and ‘others’ were being challenged in global discourse, IM reflected upon the role the museum played in fostering greater understanding and connection between people.

Atong Atem; To be Real // Image Courtesy of Museums Victoria // Photography by Ben Healley

In 2019, IM commenced an ongoing process of consultation, working towards a revitalisation plan that reflected community aspirations for the museum.

As IM embarked on this journey there was acute awareness our future lay in expanding and strengthening creative and collaborative approaches to cultural participation.

While IM remains committed to exploring and sharing Victoria’s migration stories, we also seek to explore contemporary Australian stories that look at what it means to live together in a society that is increasingly diverse and constantly evolving.

A new vision “People connected to a shared humanity, embracing diversity for a just future” evolved through consultations and shaping content and experiences. It amplified our role in building cultural understanding and human connection.

Living this vision, calls on the museum to be a provocateur, to boldly raise issues around social justice and hold powerful conversations that address them. It encapsulates the belief that a museum with an engaged citizenry, is a power that can indeed change the world, one visitor at time.

■ A Museum that is Of by for all

Sharing stories, life experiences and skills in a welcoming social environment is completely integral to the IM’s purpose.

In 2018 IM joined a global movement OFBYFORALL, aimed at helping institutions become FOR their whole community, by becoming representative OF them and co-created BY them.

Being a part of this Global Change Network program has amplified the ability to lead inclusive change.

As a result, the museum has supported and initiated projects that are inspired by actively listening to the needs and aspirations of communities.

A new vision for community engagement is articulated that builds on our past work and relationships.

Visitor at the Immigration Museum // Source: Immigration Museum

The team at IM are developing more experiences under a co-creation model, working collaboratively with producers, artists and collectives from diverse backgrounds through direct empowerment and the sharing of research and expertise. This includes partnerships with key institutional collaborators such as the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Multicultural Arts Victoria.

By engaging a broad range of communities, the shared stories go beyond a person’s ethnicity and look to explore the many ways people choose to identify. IM are actively exploring engaging and including the histories and perspectives of First Peoples, LGBTQIA+ communities, those with a disability and so many others.

This work is not always easy or comfortable. In some cases it requires handing over agency to the ‘knowledge holder’.

Becoming You Exhibition

It is essential that the approach is genuine and authentic, and requires awareness around questions such as: Who has the knowledge? Who drives the conversation? Who creates and shapes the narrative?

It invites and welcomes the voices of the community into the spaces.

Our newest exhibition, Becoming You: An incomplete guide, reflects this inclusive ethos as did the LOVE exhibition in 2018. Becoming You brings 71 stories told through first person voice, reflecting the rich diversity and reality of Australian life.

They include well known people in various fields: Lidia Thorpe (Gunnai-Gunditjmara Greens Senator for Victoria), Alice Pung (author), Jason Johannisen (AFL footballer), Alan Duffy (astronomer), Atong Atem (photographer), Osamah Sami (comedian), Frances Cannon (illustrator), Sally Capp (City of Melbourne Lord Mayor), Tasneem Chopra (cross-cultural advisor, Muslim women’s activist), Kris Pavlidis (ECCV), Santilla Chingaipe (filmmaker), Jen Jewel Brown (music writer), Harriet O’Shea Carre (climate strike activist) and others.

Immigration Museum: Becoming You // Source: Museums Victoria

Australians of diverse first or second generation’s cultures and countries of origin and faiths are represented: Scottish, Irish, Bosnian, Greek, Sudanese, Filippino, Italian, Cambodian, Indian, New Zealand, Polish, English, Zambian, Dutch, Malaysian, Iraqi-Iranian, South African, Chinese, Burmese, Mexican, Indonesian, Kenyan, Bangladeshi; Ashkenazi Jewish, Catholic, Muslim.

First Peoples stories representing the voice of diverse First Nations people from across Wurundjeri/Dja Dja wurrung/Ngurai illum wurrung; Boon Wurrung/Wemba Wemba; Gunnai-Gunditjmara; Yuin; Butchula; Yorta Yorta/Wemba Wemba/Taungurung, Gunnai-Kurnai; Wurundjeri/Dja Dja wurrung/Ngurai illum wurrung/Gunnai; Ngarrindjeri.

The aspiration is that content and experiences at Immigration Museum holds a mirror up to our society and contributes to progress by calling attention to social issues and encouraging conversation and change.

Communal Garden at Immigration Museum // Source: Museums Victoria
■ IM as a good neighbour

Museums like IM are becoming places for people to foster human connection.

Recently residents of the Port Authority Building overlooking the Museum, and with whom IM shares a boundary, took over the care of our garden boxes that were originally part of an exhibition called Grow. Gather. Share.

This project is about ‘creating community’. Neighbours who did not speak to one another—have now been getting to know each other through the vehicle of IM’s Garden Boxes.

This project took 8 months to form and is an example of the Museum playing a meaningful role in the lives of its community. There are positive implications of this project for well-being, social cohesion and mental health.

■ IM as Educators and Agents of Truth

Museums have a privileged position of trust that we uphold and care for.

IM is committed to being a safe and welcoming space, presenting unbiased information aimed at educating and fostering understanding.

Prior to the pandemic, several schools visited the Museum daily as a trusted source of knowledge about our migration history in the Victorian School Curriculum.

Today a Museum can be a safe space for conversation between allies, adversaries and strangers, these conversations can inspire a more socially connected and civically engaged museum.

Under the Oliver Tree

The annual event Under the Olive Tree encourages greater understanding between two communities that have historically been in dispute. Musicians from local Jewish and Arabic communities meet under an olive tree (a symbol significant to both cultures) engaging in a joyous musical celebration that aims to unite across cultures.

■ IM as a champion of Diversity

IM’s annual IFTAR dinner, presented in collaboration with Benevolence Australia and Moroccan Soup Bar is a reflection of championing diversity. This initiative brings together diverse voices for a ceremonial gathering as Muslims break their daily fast during the month of Ramadan. The aim is to spread the message of unity and our shared humanity, and raise awareness and understanding of the positive values underpinning Islam.

The Museum’s public programming and education teams take great care to ensure that new voices are amplified to tell positive stories of the work being done within diverse communities.

IFTAR dinner at Immigration Museum 2018

It is crucial for museums to bring many views together around the table. Greater diversity means richer, more authentic, culturally nuanced and meaningful arts and cultural experiences coupled with a shared sense of belonging for everybody.

Cultural and creative sectors are among the most impacted by the global pandemic due to closed borders keeping out interstate and international travellers.

Long term downturns in tourism may lead museums to increase attention to the needs and interests of their local communities, leading to a deeper connection.

The public enriched by the wondrous discovery of their local Museum could be just the unintended consequence of a global pandemic, that many of us who work in the creative sector, would dearly love to see.

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