Australian museums are using empathy to challenge assumptions about ethnic identities.
Museums in Victoria and South Australia are taking a new approach to examining migration, with recent exhibitions designed to help people understand others and challenge their views about other cultures.
The museums’ work has been showcased internationally by ADI’s Deputy Director and Professor of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies Andrea Witcomb at the University of the Aegean and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Athens.
Prof Witcomb’s presentation traced the ways in which Australian museums have engaged with the historical legacy of migration – a topic that is particularly relevant to Greece’s own history of migration and its role in the current refugee crisis in Europe.
“Both the Migration Museum in Adelaide and the Immigration Museum in Melbourne have long taken a stand to include British migration alongside all the other groups in their exhibitions,” Prof Witcomb told the audience.
“Both have continued to acknowledge the prior occupation of the land, as well as critique immigration policy.”
However, it was only when the Immigration Museum developed a new exhibition, “Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours,” that exhibitions were used to create a greater degree of empathy by helping people explore their own biases and assumptions about others.
Prof Witcomb explained that this new approach to staging exhibitions broke down the way ethnicity has traditionally been represented.
“Previously, ethnicity was something that belonged to someone else – the other. With this exhibition, everyone’s ethnic identity is explored, in ways that break down distances between self and other,” she said.
“With the new approach, visitors are able to use the exhibit to inquire and explore their relationships with different groups of people.”
“Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours” opens with a video art installation, “Welcome,” by video artist Lynette Walworth.
At the end of a long narrow corridor, visitors find themselves being “welcomed” by individuals and groups of people who use their bodies to make gestures of welcome and friendliness or, alternately, push the viewer away.
“A range of emotions and dispositions are on display, from happiness to anger, trust to fear, love to hate,” Prof Witcomb said.
Prof Witcomb was involved in a small pilot project, led by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Dianne Mulcahey, to gain insights into how a group of school students experienced the exhibition.
“The students’ experience as they moved through the display shifted from making judgements about the people in the video to feeling that the people in the video were judging and discriminating against them.”
She added that the students were surprised by their reaction and had to take time to think about it.
A video installation of an everyday racist experience on a Melbourne tram evoked a similar response.
“The students remarked how the exhibitions and their placement in the museum left them with a new appreciation of the history of how we relate to others and what this might mean to their own daily lives in the present,” Prof Witcomb said.
She said visitors were challenged at the end of the exhibition by Lillian Watson, a Gangalu elder, artist, educator and Aboriginal activist in the north eastern state of Queensland, not to regard tolerance as a solution to racism.
“Her words, ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,’ embody the need to recognise our common humanity and to work together for the same end.
“In helping people understand all the different ways in which we practice our identity and mark ourselves as different from others, the exhibition provides insight into our behaviours and the cultural reasons for them.”
The exhibition also offers strategies for change, giving grounds to hope that little changes in behaviour matter and are achievable, Prof Witcomb noted.
“We are capable of understanding and changing our practices, and museums can give people the agency to do so. They can also provide a way of thinking about how to go about it,” she said.
“We just have to overcome the fear of living side by side with strangers and learn to welcome them.”
This article was published by Deakin Research on 15 May 2017.
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