Museum Victoria's collection contains a variety of artefacts which create and/or perpetuate subtle or overt stereotypes. Though there are many types of prejudice in material objects, this collection focuses on cultural, racial and national stereotypes, although gender and socio-economic stereotypes may also be discernible.
Racial and cultural stereotypes have permeated material culture, being especially prominent from the nineteenth century until the 1960s, and even, on occasion, up until the present day. Although a sensitive topic, museums and other centres of learning have come to see the value of these objects in both tracing cultural representations of diverse peoples over time, and in advocating cultural sensitivity and understanding. This collection contains a variety of artefacts which create and/or perpetuate subtle or overt stereotypes. Though there are many types of prejudice in material objects, this collection focuses on cultural, racial and national stereotypes, although gender and socio-economic stereotypes may also be discernible.
The collection includes over 200 items and is still growing, including objects relating to advertising and branding, cultural appropriation and reappropriation, children's play, tourism, and immigration, ranging from the early 1800s to the present day. The variety of artefacts relating to this topic reveals how widespread these representations have been in creating and maintaining ideas of cultural superiority in society both explicitly and implicitly. There are toys and games, product packaging, flyers, posters, books, theatre programs, national dolls, clothing, lantern slides, and photographs. Museum Victoria holds a large range of children's toys, some of which perpetuate cultural stereotypes; these include golliwogs, marionettes, cards games, and fancy dress costumes. While many children may not have understood the negative connotations, toys can reflect the attitudes of parents who purchased, the companies who manufactured them and the behaviours children may then digest. The Museum's Australian Children's Folklore Collection Archive, a separate, internationally-recognised collection which also addresses some of these themes, provides a non-material record of prejudice and stereotyping manifested in the rhymes, games, taunts, insults and riddles of children in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The tourism industry has actively promoted and utilised national stereotypes for economic gain, knowingly recreating and reproducing images which conform to the preconceptions a traveller may have. A selection of Australian postcards in the collection illustrates this by using images which portray Aboriginal culture as homogenous. The advertising industry also draws upon a range of stereotypes to attract consumers by giving their products 'authenticity', resonating with widely held preconceptions, and be memorable through humour, and even controversy. Products including packaging, posters and magazine advertisements showcase the role of consumerism in spreading stereotypical representations. The aim of advertising is to be noticed, meaning that even if advertisements receive bad press for derogatory stereotypes, they are still receiving attention; thus inappropriate imagery remains an issue today.
Amongst other motivations, global events from the abolition of slavery through to the civil rights movements, have provoked those in positions of privilege and power to find overt and insidious ways to try to maintain the status quo. Stereotypes were also sustained through the use of caricatures in thousands of everyday objects, in order to belittle and demean people deemed to be 'different' whether in terms of culture, race, gender, ability, sexuality or socio-economic position (Pilgrim, 2013). In Australia, both Indigenous Australians and new waves of migrants have frequently become the target of cartoonists and illustrators, photographers, advertisers and consumer product designers and manufacturers. Of particular interest are stereotypical images and words on consumer packaging, so much a part of people's everyday lives and made to seem innocuous and inoffensive through this very ordinariness: lolly and biscuit packets, tins of floor polish and motor oil.
Moreover, cultural interactions will inevitably result in the adopting of diverse cultural styles, practices and traditions. With the increase in transmigration and globalisation, the interaction between cultures has increased and has become an almost unavoidable [and not necessarily problematic] phenomenon. In some cases, for example the use of Aboriginal Australian motifs in a Laminex product, this can be seen as 'cultural appropriation': taking from a culture which is not one's own with little or no knowledge, experience, respect or traditional context (Fager, 2005). When elements of a particular culture are taken and used inappropriately, it can create or entrench cultural generalisations. It can also lead to the 'freezing' of certain cultures as 'primitive' and without contemporary relevance (Haffenreffer exhibit, 2012). However, this has also seen the reappropriation of words, images, stereotypes and objects which may have been considered derogatory, but have now been embraced, celebrated and re-interpreted by the identifying group. The 'Wogboy' and 'Woggirl' numberplates in the Museum's collection are examples of this practice. Another example is the 'Acropolis Now' souvenir tea set relating to the comedy series based in Australia featuring characters with Spanish, Greek and Australian background. They acknowledge their national stereotypes and use humour to show how ridiculous those stereotypes were when portrayed in reality.
Cultural representations in material culture can evoke mixed reactions from their users, consumers and audiences: nostalgia for a childhood toy, offense at a caricature, fondness for a familiar souvenir, guilt or shame for a former association. Education, empathy and respect towards historical and contemporary cultural differences will reduce acceptance of and tolerance for potentially insulting cultural, racial and other human characterisations. But controversy and debate will persist according to different perceptions: what amuses one person, offends another. Consequently, as the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in the USA has found success in 'using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance', it is this approach that Museum Victoria's 'cultural stereotypes' collection aims to adopt (Pilgrim, 2011).
Patrick Brantlinger, ''Black Armband' versus "White Blindfold" History in Australia', Victorian Studies, 46:4, 2004
Davil Pilgrim, curator of Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (refer to museum website, 2013)