‘Unending Absence’: Bringing Emotion into the Museum Experience

By Maria Tumarkin, The University of Melbourne

Leaving Home exhibition. Source: Museum Victoria Photo: Jon Augier
Leaving Home exhibition. Source: Museum Victoria. Photo: Jon Augier

I often wonder how other first-generation migrants feel about immigration museums in their second homes. And let’s call them ‘homes’ not ‘places of (re)settlement’, OK? In these museums, I find myself feeling alienated. The problem for me is not a representational deficit – my family are Eastern European migrants circa 1990; we left our home at the Cold War’s end (the first Cold War’s end, I should probably say these days) and, as such, our experience is neither central to this country’s history nor actively whitewashed.

What’s absent for me in museum spaces is a sustained account of the emotional realities of being an immigrant. How it feels to leave your home behind, thinking you might never see it again, to wake up and go to sleep not knowing what any part of the future looks like, to feel intensely grateful and bereft all at once, to be a child growing up in the shadow of your parents’ displacement.

In museums I have visited in Australia and elsewhere, immigrant experiences are sliced up into narratives of departure and arrival, unsettlement and resettlement. Distilled into timelines and policy shifts. Emotions are not entirely absent: visitors’ hearts are meant to mobilise when encountering stories of specific individuals or families. One fate, one face, can cut through in a way more generalised accounts can’t. We know that. Except my heart rarely gets tugged.

Motivations wall: Leaving Home exhibition: Immigration Museum Source: Museum Victoria Photo: Jon Augier
Motivations wall: Leaving Home exhibition: Immigration Museum. Source: Museum Victoria Photo: Jon Augier

Partly it’s to do with the familiar tropes (against all odds, from rags to riches, etc.) that tend to over-determine the way individual lives are narrated, pushing them into an artificial shape I cannot trust. Partly, I am reacting to a sense that these stories barely scratch the surface, that they are miles away from capturing the thick, lived experiences of being an immigrant.

For many immigrants, particularly outside the developed world, trauma and grief are both inescapable and transformative. To speak of people’s lives with the grief and trauma either edited out or pushed to the margins – as things to be overcome on the way to a bright future – is to tell fibs. Worse, it is to do violence to the psychological and emotional realities of being an immigrant.

You can say that museums are not set up to grapple with the enormity of the psychological upheaval migration engenders. For that we have literature, music, film, history. It’s certainly how it’s been up to now, but it is changing.

For a number of years now I have been having coffee with Moya McFadzean, senior curator at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. We meet to talk about the lasting psychological imprints left by migration and how to make space for a reckoning with these imprints – how to do it in a modern museum that operates under complex pressures and needs to offer points of connection for visitors who are vastly unalike in their backgrounds and motivations. ‘Unending Absence’ was born out of these conversations and out of Moya’s willingness to bring difficult emotions into the space of a museum.

Our idea is to add a new interpretive layer to the Melbourne Immigration Museum’s permanent exhibition through scripted audio pieces/soundscapes – giving visitors a choice whether to engage with the additional layer of meaning. For now, we have audio pieces that visitors can listen to on their own devices while walking through the exhibition. In the future, we are hoping that as the number of audio pieces grows (there are six at the moment) the museum will offer visitors devices containing audio files and flag specific spots at which what they are listening to directly intersects with what they are looking at.

I have been working with sound artist Thembi Soddell on creating immersive, experiential sound pieces that speak from inside the immigrant experience and bring to life migrant interiority. In my scripts – I think of them as nonfiction poems – I draw on hot, poetic language in contrast to the permanent exhibition’s cool language of exposition and explanation. I am trying to catch times and spaces of immigration before they are translated into an assortment of familiar narratives and tropes. I use allegory, direct address, transposition, metaphor, irony, rudeness. I use parables and allusions.

Sound is powerful and intensely intimate; it gets under our skins and can transport us to other places and times. Sound, of course, is also a catalyst for remembering. Thembi is not illustrating my words with sounds, nor is she producing ambient sonic environments. Rather, she is creating spaces for listeners to have their own experiences – to fall into pockets of affective intensity at various points in the exhibition. Falling in is a way of opening up to feeling things in your body, to remembering deeply, to being unsettled and occasionally pierced.

We are also interested in expanding ways of experiencing time in the museum.

Usually museum time flows in a chronological progression, punctuated by ‘case-studies’ wrapped in time bubbles. We make time flow differently. For instance, in the piece entitled ‘Journeys’ (our longest piece at present) our intention is to slow time right down. We want visitors to dwell in the space and time between two worlds, between a departure and an arrival – to experience what it might be like to take a leap of faith, jump without a parachute, be precariously balanced between hope and dread.

To listen to the full playlist, click here

We are also interested in complicating and politicising the idea of a migrant journey. The direct and emotionally charged take on the psychological realities and legacies of the immigration experience is a way of speaking to the current moral crisis around refugees. The present-day refugee situation cannot but reconfigure our ideas about the migrant journey. Working with sound helps us to move away from a migrant discourse that is tamed, non-threatening and framed as an explicable and controllable narrative. We are interested in bringing wild and powerful emotions into the space of a museum without trying to control fully the way they might circulate into that space and transform it in the process.

‘Unending Absence’ is a collaboration-in-progress between Maria Tumarkin (CHE Honorary Artistic Outreach Associate, 2015–2016), Moya McFadzean (senior curator at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum) and sound artist Thembi Soddell. The project is supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Maria Tumarkin is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She is the author of Traumascapes (Melbourne University Publishing, 2005), Courage (Melbourne University Publishing, 2007) and Otherland (Vintage, 2010). All three books were shortlisted for major literary prizes. Her next book, Axiomatic, will be published in May 2018 by Brow Books. Maria’s work on sites of trauma has influenced researchers worldwide. Her essay ‘No Skin’ was shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize of Literature in 2015. Maria has been involved in wide-ranging artistic collaborations – among them her ongoing work with artist Sally Smart (Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, VCA). In 2013–2014, Maria was a Sidney Myer Creative Fellow in humanities.

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