14 March 2024

Museum to preserve the migrant stories that helped shape the Illawarra is a step closer

| Kellie O'Brien
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old photo of people walking through parkland, with steelworks in background

Rina Montgomery (nee Filippi) (left) with a friend walking from Cringila with a view of the steelworks in the background c. 1930s/’40s. Photo: Courtesy Migration Heritage Project, from private collection.

A goal to establish a museum 23 years ago to share the migrant stories that helped shape the Illawarra may finally come to fruition for the Migration Heritage Project.

While still in the early stages, Migration Heritage Project chair Franca Facci said those involved were working towards gaining interest and support to establish a large contemporary museum in the region, called the Museum of People and Industry in collaboration with other organisations, and hopefully BlueScope and other large industries.

“What we’re hoping is that we might be able to secure some space as part of the BlueScope master-planning process in Port Kembla to establish a large and significant contemporary museum of our people and industry,” Franca said.

“We’re hoping that kind of museum would incorporate not only the story of our migrant community, but also our Indigenous history and the history of our industry.

“So looking at how our industrial history has really shaped our city.”

Franca said the original idea for a museum two decades ago soon evolved into an “online museum” when they realised the cost and manpower required.

She said the work they had produced for the online museum would now serve them well for a physical contemporary museum.

“Now, with all the resources we have collected and developed over time, that can be showcased in an actual physical locality, but told in a modern way,” she said.

“So we’re not talking dusty cabinets of little objects, we’re talking video presentations and immersive technology to be able to tell the stories of our community.”

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Franca said they were working now to develop a strategy to gain funding for a business case after socialising the concept for about a year in preparation for the unveiling of the BlueScope master plan.

“People are saying, ‘We deserve something like that’,” she said.

“We really need to acknowledge that we have a unique story to tell and people are interested.”

The idea for the museum arose in 2001 when Franca, through her role with a multicultural health service and the Italian community, met the head of a Macedonian group, questioning: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a museum?”

She said they decided to form a committee and the Migration Heritage Project was born to define, record, protect and promote migrant heritage in the Illawarra.

“We decided early on that we weren’t going to try to set up or get a building for a museum because we learned from all the experiences of the other small museums around the district that it’s really hard work to get enough money and enough people to be able to maintain the building,” she said.

The project transitioned into an “online museum” to showcase exhibitions, research projects, and thematic histories.

“It’s served us well because we haven’t had to raise money and find the energy and people to volunteer for a building,” Franca said.

Through grants, philanthropic support and volunteers, the project has curated exhibitions, conducted workshops on how to preserve your history, produced publications and released the book Every Story Counts.

Franca said research projects included their first Wollongong Art Gallery exhibition, Celebrations: Spirit of Communities, to their most recent exhibition on migrants and cycling for the 2022 UCI Road World Championships.

“We did a lot of work on the textile, clothing and footwear industry in Wollongong,” she said.

“It employed a lot of migrant women in that workforce and we had a lot of stories and memorabilia from that project.”

Franca said one volunteer worked on the pioneers before the world wars, showing how it wasn’t only British and Irish immigrants who arrived.

“One of the things that is really evident whenever stories are shared is that there’s a much more intense and personal understanding of the story of another person,” she said.

“I think for those of us who share our stories as migrants, one of the things that it does is it validates our experiences.

“People start to feel a sense of pride in the fact they were able to tell their story and that people were actually interested.

“You feel more connected to the community because you can see that people value who you are and your experiences.”

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She said what resonated with her was the courage and resilience of people who had come to the Illawarra under different circumstances.

“Post-World War II refugees and migrants had to leave their countries, whether it was freely or forced, because the poverty was so great in Europe at the time after the war,” she said.

“To be landing literally with just a suitcase – which everyone always says – and finding work in really strange industries if you think about the Port Kembla steelworks and you think most people came from rural areas.”

She said it was also seen in people setting up small businesses “regardless of which decade it is, and for which reason”.

“I think those experiences have really built what the Illawarra is today,” she said.

“When you have elders – parents, friends, family, neighbours – who have that kind of attitude to life, a positivity and a willingness to build a new community, you can’t help but be affected by that.

“For me, a highlight of living in this region is that we have all that history and we’re standing on their shoulders.

“It makes for such an amazing, creative, innovative and resilient community that’s very egalitarian.”

To share your story on the website or volunteer, visit the website.

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