Melbourne Stories and Tips

The Immigration Museum - the still-living modern history of Australia

The heart of the city - Collins Street Photo, Melbourne, Australia

I got used to the "newness" of Australia.

You know the feel and smell of something when the wrapping has just been taken off--that was the feeling I got with this country. Everything is new and unused. This is made evident in the excellent Immigration Museum, which charts the movement of the worlds peoples to the blank page of Australia since its discovery in 1770. And since many people visit Australia and then decide to move here, it is one of the world's most relevant museums, its recent history given poignancy in the thousands who make this country their home each year.

Opened only in 2000 and given the thumbs up from Bill Bryson in his "Down Under" bestseller, I have to join the chorus of appreciation. To get there, take the train to Spencer Street station, step outside onto the aforementioned street and head right to the Yarra river. There on Flinders Street 2 blocks east is a colonial building, just opposite Melbourne Aquarium. Opening times are 9:30am to 5pm; cost is $6 ( Inside is a grand staircase connecting three floors of exhibits and on-site is a gift shop, cafeteria, and small cinema.

Australian cities are so new that the history is actually here and now. But the museum starts at the founding of Melbourne in about 1820 or so with Bradman and Hawkmen who traded shells with the nearby aborigines. But it was only from about 1830 onwards that immigration really took off. The British government would give you "assisted passage," paying for your trip around the world, with the promise of land at the end of it. A reconstructed ship showed conditions aboard ship in the 1830s (hammocks and oil lamps), the 1910s (overcrowded and mainly Irish) or the 1950s (spotless bunk beds and pyjamas). But the story of hope, expectation and nervousness applied to each experience.

As the decades progressed, it became obvious that some immigrants were more welcome than others. Fear of being swamped by the Chinese after "the gold rush" led to a "white Australia" policy that lasted until the 1950s. The experience of those who had arrived since the Second World War was still recent, and there were many photographs and testimonies from those people. You got a sense of adventure as they stopped off at Cape Town, Aden or Bombay and experienced a foreign culture for the first time. I was struck by the photos of those who came down the gangway on arrival and the expressions on their faces. Several showed worry, wondering if swapping their old life for a new one was such a good idea.

Melbourne got the majority of ship landings, as it was that little bit closer than Sydney. Station Pier was the main area of disembarkation and the exhibits showed its 150-year history. The colour photos from the '60s and '70s made those decades just seem like yesterday. A couple of my mum's relatives came over in the '50s (the blonde side of the family), and I found myself putting myself in their position. Could I live in Australia? What would it take for me to immigrate? The power of this museum makes you question things. Could Australia be your home? Could you immigrate?

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