Syringes and suitcases: using objects to tell stories about health and migration

Which objects do we most often associate with historic and contemporary migration journeys?

Ranking highest in most people’s responses is usually a suitcase or travelling trunk. The migrant as someone carrying their life in a case is both a poignant and easily understood symbol, so it is easy to see why it has come to represent human migration as a kind of visual shorthand, eg. people + old-fashioned suitcase = migrants. Passports and other identity documents have also come to represent migration journeys across national borders, and the personal mementos kept by people leaving home indefinitely now populate the mantelpieces and attics of countless homes, as well as the collections of migration museums around the globe.

What we tend not to think of are the everyday essentials packed for comfort or health during the journey, or for use in the place of destination. When the ability to bring possessions is limited, these types of objects are prioritised over the more symbolic or sentimental. Syrian refugees whose belongings were documented by Guardian journalists in 2015 had packed pain killers, bandages and lemons to ward of seasickness, along with water and food to sustain them on the boat journey to reach Europe. In my own research into the health experiences of migrants and Displaced Persons arriving in post-war Australia, there are examples of people who brought syringes, needles and other personal medication and equipment, pregnant women bringing bandages, dressings and ointments for the birth and care of their children, and people going to great lengths to conceal seeds and other foodstuffs important for their health and wellbeing. The uncertainty surrounding what would be available in Australia was a major factor in these decisions.

These health-related objects are less likely to survive in families and be passed into the collections of archives or other cultural institutions, making them difficult to find and exhibit. The reasons are fairly obvious – the materials are brought to be used, not saved! And even when they survive, people are unlikely to recognise their potential value for researchers. The objects I’ve located so far are largely the result of museum collecting practices in the 1980s and 1990s, when government policies of multiculturalism enabled curators to secure some of Australia’s post-war migrant heritage for future generations. Other items were donated to museums by migrant’s children or descendants. But even though they are relatively few, they are incredibly important. Without personal objects, it is tempting to limit the nexus of migration and health to one which only involves screening for disease, or as a process where migrants are the subjects of government policy, rather than active agents in the maintenance of their own health and that of their loved ones.

For these reasons I’m delighted to be launching this website, along with a virtual exhibition, ‘A Full Healthy Life? Migration and Health in Post-War Australia’. Together they form part of a public engagement programme, Migration, Health and Wellbeing: Past & Present, which aims to share some of the objects and stories that I’ve come across in my research, and to open up a discussion about the ways that health can shape migration journeys across generations. Stay tuned for more blog posts on the research project, connect with us on Twitter @migrant_health, or get in touch if the themes of the project resonate for you or your organisation. We’d love to hear your story. 

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