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Harsh but Hospitable Australia

March 3, 2010

These giant words took on additional meaning for me on my way back from visiting Melbourne’s Immigration Museum yesterday. And they reminded me of a quotation from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which tells the story of William Thornhill, a man convicted of theft and shipped off to Sydney to serve a life sentence in the early 1800s:

He had the feeling that some slow engine had been set in motion: wheels turning, cogs meshing greasily. New South Whales has a life of its own now, beyond any intention that any man–the Governor, even the King himself–might have.

It is dizzying to think about all that has happened in this place during the 200 years that have elapsed since that (fictional) quotation. But the Immigration Museum manages the task quite well, with thoughtful, honest, and poignant exhibits.

At first glance this institution is focused on history, but you can’t help thinking about today and tomorrow as you move through it. You’ve gotta love a museum that asks these questions (which I scribbled down in my notebook while passing through):

  • What kind of society do we want?
  • Is Australia a southern outpost of British culture? Or is its identity bound to Asia and the Pacific?
  • Is there a ‘typical’ Australian? Or does the very idea of ‘typical’ deny the diversity of our society?
  • How does Aboriginal identity fit into the idea of Australia as an immigrant nation?
    Can different cultures maintain their identities while participating in a ‘national’ identity?

Both the Immigration Museum and Grenville’s book point to an interesting paradox in Australian identity. Australia is harsh and inhospitable. Yet it has offered refuge and opportunity for millions of people seeking lives they could not lead at home. You cannot spend time here without noticing these apparently dissonant themes, and appreciating the way they come together.

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