Forgotten Australians @ the NMA

My article in the Chronicle this month is about the 'Forgotten Australians' exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.
Australians No Longer Forgotten, The Chronicle, 17 January 2012

Hugh McGowan was born to a single mother in Scotland. Lacking any support, she gave him up to a boys’ home in Glasgow. One day the children were asked if they wanted to go to Australia. Twelve year-old Hugh initially agreed, but then changed his mind and told the ‘cottage father’ he didn’t want to go. He still remembers the reply: ‘Too bad, you’re going’.

Hugh is one of half a million ‘forgotten Australians’, who were raised in institutional homes. I met him at the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition, Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, where he showed me through the gallery and told me his story. Hugh told me that there was a lack of warmth – tough physical labour, corporal punishment, and sometimes even sexual abuse. And at the harshest of times, Hugh said, there was never a father to gently put his arms around you.

If you don’t gasp a few times when going through the exhibition, you’re not looking hard enough. A video depicts young children at Bindoon in Western Australia doing dangerous jobs like blacksmithing and tiling. A hand-drawn map of the layout of Bentleigh Children Home in Victoria shows red crosses where terrified children would hide to avoid abuse. An official sign from another home tells visitors that they are not to hold the babies.

Institutions were sometimes run by well-meaning people, but even then vital parts of childhood could be lost. Ryszard Szablicki said that some time after he left the Melbourne orphanage where he grew up: ‘I heard … people standing singing around a cake that had candles stuck in it. I didn’t even know what was going on.’ As another boy said of the institutions, only ‘intermittent humanity was provided’.

In 2009, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a national apology to the forgotten Australians. Mr Rudd admitted, ‘whatever I might say today, the truth is, I cannot give you back your childhood. … But what I can do with you is celebrate the spirit that has lived within you over the decades.’ He promised that the Australian government would help trace lost families, provide counselling, and hold this exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

So if you have a spare hour this summer, head down to the National Museum of Australia, and help ensure that the ‘Forgotten Australians’ become ‘the Remembered Australians’.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com. The National Museum of Australia’s exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions runs until 26 February.

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