Background to the Early Collections

Museum Victoria holds a modest but significant collection of material relating to the policies, processes and personal experiences of migration to Australia, and particularly Victoria, from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Artefacts include letters, diaries, promotional publications, photographs and personal artefacts which can provide researchers interested in this subject with a rich and well-documented resource – and with the layer of personal connections not often associated with similar items in libraries and archives.

There are stories from English, Scottish, Irish, and German nineteenth century migrants, and Chinese and Japanese narratives from the late nineteenth century which help to trace generations of subsequent family stories, despite the onslaught of the White Australia policy. There are also stories of English, Italian, Greek, German, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Scottish migrants from the early twentieth century which collective demonstrate the cultural diversity of Australia’s migration history well before the post-World War II migration boom.

These varied narratives represent urban and rural settlement, assisted and non-assisted migrants, people of multi-faith backgrounds, solitary migrants and families, chain migration, return migration, prisoners-of-war and internees. The material also relates to the processes of migration from application to departure and includes details of voyages by ship and plane; personal belongings brought, created and purchased; luggage; items of work, domesticity and artistry; objects for maintaining connections to homelands; documentaries of migrant life through writings, film and photographs and community and organisational experiences.

Historical Context

In 1803 there was a failed attempt to establish a convict settlement at Sorrento on the Victorian coast. Whalers and sealers sailed the coastline from the 1820s and settlers made their way overland from New South Wales and across Bass Strait from Tasmania in the 1830s, establishing a thriving pastoral district. In 1851, the discovery of gold in central Victoria transformed the fledgling frontier town of Melbourne into a heaving, instant city that would become by the 1880s one of the world’s great international cities. By 1861, half a million people had descended upon Victoria. Migrants were predominantly British but substantial numbers arrived from Europe and also from China. Anti-Chinese legislation came and went but was reintroduced in the 1880s and cemented by the new Federal Parliament through the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act.

During these decades and into the 1930s, state, federal and British governments provided assistance to British migrants while prohibiting migration from Asia and introducing quotas on selected European countries during the 1920s. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, migration all but ceased. It is within this context of population growth, economic ebb and flow, Federalism, racially-based policy, Indigenous dispossession, nation-building and cultural development that the Museum’s migration collections can be placed and the histories personalised.

For more information about the Museum's nineteenth and early twentieth century collections, refer to the curatorial essay: 'Collecting Narratives of Migration: Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Collections at Museum Victoria, Melbourne' which can be accessed under the Associated Downloads section.

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