By Kimberley-Joy Knight, The University of Sydney
As I hold in my hands the book proofs for the ‘Treasured Possessions’ project, I get a strong feeling that this will become one of my most cherished objects. Inside its pages are oral histories collected, over eight weeks, during a series of workshops on the history of emotions and material culture, held in Dapto, New South Wales. The project encouraged its participants, seniors aged 65–94, to reflect on treasured objects from their own lives as a way of connecting with the past and with others. Using my research on the history of emotions and material culture, we encouraged the participants to think about the past in new ways, and with ‘things’. As I turn the pages, I am taken back to the experience of listening to the oral histories. While the seniors recounted the special memories and intense feelings that their items evoked for them, many would tenderly touch, stroke or pat their objects as they talked. Both their words and gestures demonstrated the importance of materiality.
While memory is fragile, treasured possessions might be seen as devices for storing the past and the feelings that were experienced at particular moments. The physicality of objects provides a defence against fleeting memory and precarious identity in a mutable world.[i] Rather than viewing them as containers of the past, we might view treasured possessions as channels that lead us through emotional connections to times, places, events, persons and sensations. When the stories behind cherished items are told, material culture can take on a new significance for the observer, transferring or inducing emotions beyond the context to which they were originally connected.
Each treasured possession in this collection unlocks different emotions, thoughts, ideas and experiences; these states of being might have been lost without the histories that are told in this exhibition and its accompanying book. The exhibition takes the observer on a journey through several thematic strands that highlight some ways of exploring and understanding the complexity of emotions and material culture. For example, some of the items are connected to a particular time and allow us explore themes such as the emotions associated with war and migration. Other objects demonstrate how possessions can locate us within personal networks and become powerful mediators in our relationships. It is a deeply moving exhibition because the participants from the project lead us through some of their most profound life experiences and show us how emotions make history.
People attending the exhibition will see how powerful histories can unfold through objects and emotions. The collection shows how treasured possessions are able to elicit an emotional response from both the owner and the observer. In addition, the exhibition seeks to challenge how we think about the past and what we think with. Treasured possessions are rich sources of human experience because they transcend time and can be loci for a multiplicity of feelings and memories. I hope that the exhibition and book will encourage others to reflect on their own treasured possessions and consider how emotions are an important part of historical study.
The following are excerpts from the ‘Treasured Possessions’ publication produced in conjunction with the exhibition. These stories explore the beloved objects of participants who that formed part of this collaborative project.
Mirella Roso (née Letter) Most treasured possessions– Two keys belonging to a trunk
My treasured objects are two keys to the trunk that kept my family’s belongings when we came to Australia in 1949. I keep them in a special box with other objects that I hold dear. Most of the time these keys remain dormant in that box, however the times when I do look at them and reflect on their history, they make me sad. It is as if they have a power over my feelings. The memories of my life in Italy come flooding back as if it were only yesterday when we departed. We were all happy there with family and friends who loved us.
I was 8 years old on the day we departed from Genoa on the passenger ship The Surriento. That was a very sad time for all my family. When we arrived in Australia we did not speak one word of English. The first couple of years that we were here were really hard. We lived with our relatives with whom we didn’t have a happy relationship. The way things worked out during that time was actually quite dramatic and traumatic and I believe that it has affected me. My happiest childhood memories are still over in Italy and the keys are a link to those times. I keep them with other objects in my special box and I always feel content knowing exactly where they are, but at the same time they make me sad because I reflect on their history together with the large, beautiful olive green trunk to which they belong.
The trunk was made of strong cardboard mâché embedded in a thick webbing material to give it extra body and timber bracing to make it stronger. It also had a removable box shelf for holding smaller items such as lingerie and personal wear. We paid our own way to Australia. To do this my father’s sister, who was already in Australia, told him to sell one of the properties that she still owned in Italy and use the money from the sale to pay for our voyage. My aunt told him not to worry about paying it back until such a time that we were settled and could afford it. From this arrangement, everything evolved.
Disagreements began almost immediately when my aunt’s family insisted that my father begin repaying the debt within one week of us arriving in Australia. My father did not agree to do this. He had trusted his sister to honour their agreement but it was not to be, unfortunately, he had signed a promissory note that did not have a start date. My father had a wife and three children to support. The issue became a source of some very serious arguments, my father was garnisheed and this led to more anger and bitterness. My father’s sister did not support him at all even though he was supposed to be her favourite brother. At that time everything had been turned over to her son and he was the unsympathetic boss. The fact that my father, years earlier, had gone to Abyssinia as a volunteer soldier specifically to earn money to get his sister out of bankruptcy, was all forgotten.
The ill-feeling continued, the situation was quite shocking for us and I heard my father say several times that if the ocean had been a road we would have walked back to our home country. Over the years, my mother never forgot about those issues and blamed my father for trusting his sister and signing the promissory note without a start date. As a young girl, the trauma and betrayal experienced by my family in our first two years in Australia was in stark contrast to the loving, happy life we had left behind in Italy. I think this is why these keys hold such a special place in my heart, as a connection to a happy past and a reminder of what we were subjected to after our long sea voyage to a new country.
The trunk stayed with my parents for many years and then later, when my husband was transferred to Whyalla in South Australia, they gave the trunk to me to carry some of our belongings. Upon our transfers we would always move to government rental accommodation and manage with limited furniture. I turned the trunk into a small, very handy wardrobe for my little girl’s clothes and shoes. When we moved from Whyalla, I left the trunk behind for another family because they needed it; I knew they would make good use of it.
Even though our lives improved greatly after the initial years, my feelings are that when you are a migrant you never fit in properly. I have been in Australia for 66 years and you would think that I should feel that this is my home, and it is, but I know that I have loyalty to two countries. You never forget where you were born.
Della Pippen Most treasured possession–My pendant
My treasured possession is a pendant. My eldest son, Peter, found the stone at Lightning Ridge. My husband then found it in the glove box of his car after Peter died and had it made into a pendant.
Peter, our elder son, resigned from the Wollongong National Bank in 1968 in order to study at the Melbourne Bible Institute. In his first week, when attending a lecture, he collapsed and was rushed to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. After receiving the message, we drove all night reaching the hospital early in the morning to find our son packed in ice, two fans blowing cold air over him, and a sheet over him. On the fifth day, Peter came out of the coma. He was blind and couldn’t walk or speak. My husband returned home from Melbourne after a week and I stayed another 3 weeks. Before I left, Peter was moved to Caulfield Hospital. Within these three weeks he was able to walk even though he couldn’t see. I stayed with the Principal and his wife at the Bible College. That was a hard time for us.
Eventually, Peter’s sight and speech came back, though he had to do speech therapy. We were advised by the doctors to leave Peter in Victoria instead of bringing him to New South Wales as they knew his case, which is written up in the Australian Medical Journal. We knew he would be well looked after, all the students wanted to visit him, so a roster was in place with many people praying for him. It was hard for the family leaving Peter. We drove Friday nights, returning Sundays for a while. As he slowly recovered, our time between visits became longer. Peter came back to New South Wales by plane and went to Hornsby Rehabilitation Centre.
Peter went on to study at Baptist Theological College; he was also a student pastor at Baptist Church, Parramatta. He then worked at North Rocks Deaf and Blind Children’s Centre and was a Welfare Officer at the Adult Deaf Society in Stanmore. He died in his sleep on 8th December 1975, aged 27 years. He had a short life, but he had a good life.
Peter had found the stone at Lightning Ridge in 1974 or ‘75 and showed the stone to his father and me. After Peter died in his sleep, his father found the stone in the glove box of Peter’s car. He took the stone to a jeweller’s to be made into a pendant. I received the pendant on Mother’s Day 1976.
I’m sure my husband had the pendant made in memory of our son. It was a lovely surprise receiving it on Mother’s Day. It was lovely because it was like a Mother’s Day gift from my son too, that’s why it means such a lot to me. After my husband died in 1981, I wrote on a business card of Peter’s that I would like the pendant to be passed down to the eldest daughter in the family.
I remarried in 1991. In 1996 the Saturday before Mother’s Day, my second husband and I went for dinner and a show at the RSL. On returning home we found all the lights on and neighbours came to tell us that our home had been broken into and that they had phoned the police. We rang Port Kembla Police Station to report the items missing. We’d lost the box that I kept my jewellery in and many other things had gone too.
The following day, which was Mother’s Day, a detective came from Port Kembla Police Station. He handed me a plastic bag saying: We think we have a thief with a guilty conscience. The bag contained jewellery, which had been left on the bonnet of a police car. The jewellery inside the bag matched the description I had given them. Although the detective thought it was a thief with a guilty conscience, I think about things a bit differently. I had left Peter’s business card in the jewellery box saying that I wanted the pendant to be passed down to the eldest daughter in the family. I wonder whether the person who found it knew my son’s name because Peter was a welfare officer and a student pastor, and he used to go into Parramatta Gaol to talk to the men. I wonder if someone recognised the name. I was happy to receive most of my jewellery back, especially my pendant. I didn’t get the other things back, like my rings, but I got the most important thing back. Strangely, I got the pendant back on Mother’s Day. The pendant is very special. I still wear it even though it got a bit damaged when it was stolen.
Hear more about ‘Treasured Possessions’: Dr Knight’s interview with Patricia Karvelas on ABC RN Drive.
See more photographs from the ‘Treasured Possessions’ project on Flickr.
Read more about Treasured Possessions here.
The ‘Treasured Possessions’ exhibition is free of charge and is open to the public until 2 September 2016 at the Community Access Gallery, Wollongong Art Gallery, 46 Burelli St, Wollongong 2500, NSW.
‘Treasured Possessions’ benefited from a Liveable Communities Grant (LCG) from New South Wales Government’s Department of Family and Community Services (FACS), and received support from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). We are grateful to both of these organisations for their financial assistance as well as their wider support and encouragement. We would also like to express our thanks to Dr Angela Hesson from CHE at The University of Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria, who travelled all the way from Melbourne to give a fascinating talk about her forthcoming exhibition on love and how to prepare an exhibition.
Kimberley-Joy Knight is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Sydney. She graduated MA and MLitt in Medieval History from the University of St Andrews and received an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) doctoral fellowship for her PhD research on the gift of tears (gratia lacrymarum). Kimberley’s main CHE research project, entitled ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, explores how love, sexuality and desire were understood, expressed, and enacted in Medieval Norway and Iceland (c.1100–1500). Her other current CHE projects are ‘Emotions in Legal Practices: Historical and Modern Attitudes Compared’ and ‘Treasured Possessions’.
[i] Richard Grassby, ‘Material Culture and Cultural History’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.4 (2005): 591–603.