The Gift: art, artefacts and arrivals

Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra | From 16 August 2017
Curators: Glenn Barkley & Holly Williams

Museum of Australian Democracy Collection

Museum of Australian Democracy Collection

About the exhibition:

As a nation, Australia reverberates with the legacy of migration.  A true melting pot, with citizens from over 34 countries, migration has driven some of the most contested and complex debates since Federation. Through the lens of personal objects, artworks and stories, The Gift acknowledges the important role post-war migrants have played in the social, political and cultural life of Australia.

After the trauma of the second world war, migration to Australia accelerated.  Between 1945 and 1955 approximately one million migrants arrived here, escaping the tumultuous period of fascist rule in Europe. 

Championed by the immigration minister of the day, Arthur Calwell, migrants from the United Kingdom were primarily sought, with Europeans making up the remainder. One of the pivotal elements of the exhibition is a toy koala given by Calwell to 6-year-old Isobel Saxelby to celebrate her arrival as the 100,000th British immigrant in 1949. 

At the time, the contentious White Australia policy was in full effect and immigration of refugees from outside of the United Kingdom and Europe was for the most part non-existent. Calwell himself supported the tenets of the White Australia mindset that saw Australia as a predominantly English colony. Even for Jews escaping the devastation of the Holocaust, migration to Australia was curtailed in discreet ways. Despite this, the Jewish community quadrupled in size between 1939 and 1961. 

Through the artwork of four Australian artists The Gift champions the individual stories of these Jewish migrants. Linde Ivimey, Hedy Ritterman, Lousje Skala and Linda Wachtel have made artworks that celebrate the resistance and tenacity of the Jewish community who overcame the horrors of the Holocaust whilst acknowledging this history and commemorating its ongoing legacy in a new land.  Each artist has used a symbolic object sourced from friends and family and has then created a new artwork that reflects back something of the aura and meaning of this object. In most instances the new works are displayed alongside their source material. 

The Gift invites visitors to consider what meaningful gifts they would offer to a new arrival of this country and what quality they most value as an Australian. 

Against the long shadow cast by the second world war, The Gift acts as a timely reminder of the fragility of democracy and how it is a principle that must be constantly nurtured. At the heart of the promise of a better life, is the gift of democracy itself. 

Participating artists: Linde Ivimey, Hedy Ritterman, Lousje Skala and Linda Wachtel