Snakes in the laundry and other migrant hostel horrors

13 February 2017

Snakes in the laundry, dreary meals of mutton and a British reluctance to shower are just some of the memories shared in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s latest exhibition, A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories, a national touring exhibition developed and presented by the National Archives of Australia, which opens on 18 February 2017.

At the end of the Second World War, the Australian Government believed the nation needed a larger population if it was to survive and grow. As well as welcoming displaced persons, it launched a major campaign to entice other immigrants to Australia.

Queensland Museum Network Director and CEO Professor Suzanne Miller said that with hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in the country, housing was at a premium.

“Former army and air force camps were converted into hostels to provide temporary accommodation while immigrants found homes and job.

“The images in this exhibition were taken by government photographers and used to promote Australia overseas as an ideal destination,” Professor Miller said.

National Archives curator Amy Lay said while A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories is based around photographs held in the National Archives collection, it is the human recollections, both good and bad, that bring this exhibition to life.

“People recalled the tastes, the sights and smells (including the ‘rotten’ scent of mangoes) which, on our companion website Destination: Australia, evoked memories and strong responses from other immigrants.

“Such memories, with their depth of personal emotion and culture shock, give us an insight into what it meant to cross the world in hope of a new life,” Ms Lay said.

One woman, 14 years old when she left England, recalls her mother ‘crying and shaking’ as they boarded the ship, leaving their extended family sobbing on the wharf. They had little hope of seeing each other again.

As the family waited in Brisbane for ‘processing’, her mother murmured, ‘Whatever have we done, John?’ and later described the migrant camp as ‘this hellhole’.

More than 7.5 million immigrants have arrived in Australia since the Second World War.

While some immigrants returned to their country of origin, the vast majority have chosen to remain, enriching our nation’s cultural diversity. Today about 46 per cent of Australians were born overseas or born to migrants.  

A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories is open at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville from 18 February to 30 April 2017.

Visit www.mtq.qm.qld.gov.au for further details.

The Museum is open daily from 9.30am – 5pm and will be closed on Anzac Day.