Navigating the museum as a person of mixed-race heritage in Australia

By Karen Schamberger


I was fifteen when I saw her in an art gallery. Dark hair, dark eyes, light skin, well-rounded and not quite fitting any ethnicity. Her name was Rita Lee and she was an artist’s model in Sydney in the early twentieth century. Her mother was of Chinese descent, like mine. And her father Spanish. He was European, like but not quite like, my Austrian father. But I only found out her family background later when I was volunteering at that art gallery.

Meeting Rita Lee through several paintings and etchings was a revelation. Here was a woman who looked similar to me who was portrayed in all her sensual beauty. But she was still exotic. Norman Lindsay painted her in colonial dress from the 1880s or naked and seductively posed. While finding Rita helped me stop wishing I was blond and skinny, she couldn’t help me with ideas, figuring out what I wanted to do with my life or how I might deal with people or happenings in the world around me. We were superficially similar but lived very different lives in completely different times. She might have been Norman Lindsay’s muse, but she could not be mine.


Where are you from? was a common question.



While I studied history at university, I also began volunteering and then gained paid work in customer service at the Australian Museum in Sydney. This is where explaining my difference became a part of my job. Where are you from? was a common question. Sometimes I felt like a living exhibit but I realised during our conversations that the diverse range of visitors who asked me this question were just as interested in the people who worked at the museum as they were in the exhibits of dinosaurs or birds that I was guiding them through. Looking back now, I can see these experiences as encouraging an interest in the processes of the museum — Who made these exhibitions? What influenced them? Why and how did they make them? Who did they make them for?

A growing interest in my mother’s heritage encouraged me to volunteer with the Chinese Australian Historical Society. There I learnt about Chinese Australian community and individual histories as well as how a community group negotiates relations with a museum. For my Master’s degree, I was fortunate to intern at the Australian National Maritime Museum and the historical society president saw this as an opportunity to promote the stories of its members. So, I helped to organise a History Week event which involved a collaboration between the historical society and the Maritime Museum.



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Guna Kinne display, Australian Journeys gallery, National Museum of Australia, 2009. Photo: Karen Schamberger


While I continued volunteering with the historical society, I gained my first curatorial position at the National Museum of Australia, working on the Australian Journeys gallery. This exhibition is about Australia’s transnational connections to the world. My colleagues observed that I seemed to live the subject I was researching and interpreting. It was difficult not to. It was through meeting post-war migrants and working out how to interpret their stories for the museum’s collection and exhibition that I came to understand more about my parents’ migration experiences even though the time and circumstances of migration were different. It was these interactions, combined with working with my colleagues at the historical society that helped me find a sense of belonging to the Australian national community.



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First Impressions, Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours exhibit, Immigration Museum, 2011. Photo: Karen Schamberger



But my new-found sense of belonging was challenged when I moved to Melbourne to take up a position as project curator for what became the Identity: Yours Mine Ours exhibit at the Immigration Museum. Research for this exhibition exposed me to theories and histories of race, racism and anti-racism and I didn’t feel like I belonged in Australia anymore. I didn’t like learning that my presence on this land continues Indigenous dispossession. I didn’t like feeling scared of the white supremacist and nationalist movements I was researching. I didn’t like the limitations of government policies and laws I needed to interpret in the exhibit. But eventually I realised that interpreting difficult subjects comes with responsibility. I had power, so how should I use it?


We had catalogued racist material but hadn’t catalogued anti-racist material…


One thing I could do was look afresh at our collection. We constantly reinterpret our collections as we read new scholarship, are influenced by the world around us and our own experiences. We find gaps in the collections we care for and new topics to pursue. I realised that anti-racist actions, including protests, were not well-represented in our collection because we hadn’t catalogued or collected material under this term. While the museum had been conscious of collecting objects that represented a diverse range of people who had migrated to Australia, we hadn’t consistently examined relations that people have with each other, particularly across difference. We had catalogued racist material but hadn’t catalogued anti-racist material, so I added this term to the database. This enabled me to collect anti-racist ephemera which we used in the exhibition. I also hope that it opened up opportunities for future collecting and research into the history of anti-racist activism in Australia. This could help our audiences to understand why and how justice has been fought for in the past and present.

Thinking through the processes of collecting and exhibiting was what I was able to do through a PhD: Identity, belonging and cultural diversity in Australian Museums and research assistant work on an ARC project: Collecting Institutions, cultural diversity and the making of citizenship in Australia since the 1970’s. Both projects have taken me into the archives of a number of museums and I have been fortunate to interview a number of current and former museum workers and volunteers. I learnt about the rise of social history and the interest in representing previously marginalised histories in Australian museums.  However, I found nothing about diversity in the museum workforce in Australia, about how that might be valued or encouraged. Nor what it might mean if there was more diversity, both in terms of people working in museums and the power relations between them. There was lots about having multicultural subjects but nothing about being a multicultural institution. The museological theory I read emphasised the role that museums could play in changing society by taking up social justice causes and centring the experiences of marginalised people with whom they work. I think this could go some way towards becoming a culturally diverse institution where diversity is not restricted to ethnicity but included sexuality, different abilities, etc.


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‘Unwelcome Wall’, Vessels to A Story, Library at the Dock, Melbourne, 2016. Photo: Karen Schamberger


As I finished my thesis, I was fortunate to participate in an exhibition called Vessels to A Story, co-ordinated by RISE: Refugees Survivors and Ex-detainees. As a non-refugee working alongside other non-refugees and forced migrants, I could not tell a personal story nor could I ask to represent someone else’s personal story. Instead, the work I made critiqued government policy — specifically the aliens power of the Australian constitution (Section 51 xix) which enables mandatory detention and deportation. The work was called ‘Unwelcome Wall’ and listed the names of people Australia has deported and recent boat turn backs. It was inspired by the migrant ‘Welcome Walls’ at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney and Western Australian Maritime Museum, Fremantle. It was not intended as a critique of these ‘Welcome Walls’ but rather a complement or a juxtaposition to them.

Since the History Wars embroiled the National Museum in controversy in the early 2000s, though, I realise it is harder to critique government policy from within an institution. As I wrote this post, the Federal government released its new multicultural statement. A statement that moved the pendulum back to the language of integration which we used in the 1960s; reintroduced the word ‘race’ into a government policy after it had been successively removed from laws and policies since the 1970s; and removed the language of equity and social justice in order to emphasise the language of security and terrorism.


As someone who identifies as a person of colour but can pass as white, who experiences both privilege and oppression, and who is personally and professionally committed to cultural institutions, this is emotionally and intellectually fraught territory.


As someone who identifies as a person of colour but can pass as white, who experiences both privilege and oppression, and who is personally and professionally committed to cultural institutions, this is emotionally and intellectually fraught territory. Where museological theory wants us to be open to difference, government policy now wants Australian people to be frightened of and assimilate it. Where theory encourages us to centre the voices and agency of the oppressed in order to encourage structural change in our society, this policy wants us to centre the view of the oppressor in order to reinforce their power over ‘others’. Navigating these dissonant frameworks of government policy and museological theory will require imagination, a willingness to listen and a strong sense of purpose. It means that if we are in a position of power we need to amplify the voices of people who are marginalised, inside and outside of the museum, while ensuring their safety. Historically marginalised people can’t do this work alone. We need allies and accomplices who are willing to think and act critically and strategically in collecting institutions that belong to all of us.


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