Benalla Migrant Camp Photographic Exhibition, Benalla

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Benalla Migrant Camp Inc.

All exciting community projects begin with an idea that captivates people’s hearts and imagination. The idea that led to the formation of Benalla Migrant Camp Inc. and which reignited the public interest in the Benalla Migrant Camp’s History, was the immensely popular launch of the Benalla Migrant Camp Photographic Exhibition on Australia Day 2013.

The launch formed part of the Australia Day Celebration, which in 2013 had the theme ‘We are one’. The theme was set by Benalla Rural City’s Australia Day Committee to honour the memory of migrants in Benalla, and in particular to commemorate the estimated 60,000 European migrants who from 1949 to 1967 lived at the Benalla Migrant Camp.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Bruce Pennay who is the Albury historian accredited with the national heritage protection of Block 19 at Bonegilla, highlighted the importance of preserving this - our very own - part of Australia’s post-war migration story. Benalla was important he said, simply because it was designed as a ‘holding camp’ for single women with children and the families of men who were sent away to work.

The Kaffee und Kuchen also launched the Benalla Migrant Camp Photographic Exhibition. The launch exhibition featured about 100 photos contributed by twenty-two migrant families, including a number of items and artefacts. Dr Pennay acknowledged that the exhibition provided a uniquely personal historical insight – something Bonegilla was unable to do because of its sheer size and immense numbers of migrants.

The drawing power of this modest exhibition was an amazing result and keen media interest kept the exhibition in people’s minds for months after the launch. Over the nine advertised opening days 1,500 visitors came from all over Victoria and expressions of interest to participate streamed in. More information about the photos came to light with every opening day.

With over 40 families enthusiastically involved in the project, it seemed inconceivable to us to not keep going. How could we have just packed up the exhibition to be again, lost to the Benalla community?

When in April 2013, Benalla Migrant Camp Inc. formed with the overarching vision to preserve the memory of the camp for future generations, we decided to make our first priority to continue to make the exhibition accessible to the community.

We also prioritised finding a place to house the exhibition permanently on the former migrant camp site.

As part of our incorporation we shaped our objectives as:

• Lobbying for State Heritage protection for the remaining nine huts – the only way we could see would ensure original camp buildings were not removed or destroyed.

• Seeking professional advice about creating a wonderful visitor experience from what we were collecting, using modern visual and sound technology.

• Working with Bonegilla’s Block 19, as well as other migration tourism sites

• Keeping the exhibition open for the entire year, both by appointment and also with regular monthly openings whilst measuring visitor numbers.

We have had a busy, rewarding year. Listed below are our most important achievements:

1. ‘Growing’ the exhibition

We have made a personal connection with over 100 people, representing 80 families that once lived at the camp. Through this connection, we will be able to give future generations an authentic and moving account of daily life at the camp.

We have collected and scanned around 500 photographs depicting life at the camp. We have recorded 30 stories in writing and one story on film.

We have secured a copy of a 1967 camp map from the Public Records Office in Melbourne.

We have obtained funding from Benalla Rural City to ‘translate’ this map into an interpretative map with a legend describing the uses of various buildings and areas.

We are collaborating with well-known photographer Helga Leunig to create a series of contemporary still-lifes and portrait photographs of the migrants who are telling us their stories. We have found a 2 minute full colour home movie of the camp at the National Film and Sound Archives in Canberra.

We have searched the National Archives in Canberra, and found 48 Bonegilla Cards of the Benalla migrant families we are working with.

We have engaged Bonegilla’s historian Dr Bruce Pennay to write a thematic history of the Benalla Migrant Camp so that our exhibition’s labels and interpretative material is accurate and in context with Bonegilla.

We have a wonderful collaboration with researchers from the Benalla and District Historical Society, who are combing through the Benalla Standard/Ensign of 1949-1967 to provide our exhibition with even more historical material.

2. Protecting the last remaining buildings

• In April 2014 we successfully applied for a State Heritage protection assessment through the Heritage Council of Victoria. We then assisted the heritage assessor Deborah Kemp with historical information and images. We are now waiting for the result.

• As part of the Benalla Airport Advisory Committee I have attended meetings and continued to lobby for the protection of the BARC Huts whilst the heritage assessment is pending.

3. Finding a permanent exhibition site

• We made a successful presentation to all Councillors in October 2013, asking for in principle support from Councillors to support us in finding a permanent place on the site. Councillors were unanimously supportive of our plans.

• We successfully applied for a FRRR grant for a design concept for a future exhibition including a memorial. We engaged exhibition designers Thylacine group, their 17 page report was ready in time for submissions to the Benalla Airport Redevelopment Master Plan.

• I acted as the BARC Hut user group representative on the Benalla Airport Advisory Committee and attended bi-monthly meetings as well as a 2 day planning workshop to take part in the discussions leading up to the Benalla Airport Redevelopment Plan.

• I liaised with the other BARC Hut users to attend Council planning meetings and together we achieved the zoning of the BARC Hut area as an Arts and Culture Hub. Benalla Migrant Camp Inc. now has a clearly marked area for an exhibition on the Benalla Airport site, near the Benalla Aviation Museum (captured in the Benalla Airport Redevelopment Masterplan which will guide any future works done on the site).

4. Marketing the exhibition

• We have been interviewed for the Channel 10 Weeknights TV program four times, we have been featured on ABC Radio and we have had numerous media releases published in our local paper.

• We have had a professional metal sign made advertising our 2014 opening hours at BARC Hut 11.

• We commissioned postcards, brochures and a stand up banner.

• We exhibited our photos as part of the Piers Festival of Migration at Princes Pier, Melbourne (upon invitation by Multicultural Arts Victoria) over the Australia Day Weekend in January 2014.

• We successfully lobbied Council to have the exhibition included in the Benalla Rural City Economic Development and Tourism Strategy 2015-2020 as emerging tourism product in the arts and culture segment.

• We won the Benalla Rural City Community Event of the Year 2014

• We partnered with Swanpool Cinema: they advertised the exhibition before each movie, whilst we advertised their movie screenings through a mail-out and posters.

• I spoke at Benalla Probus, Benalla U3A and I was the keynote speaker at the Benalla Library AGM 2014.

• We were nominated as finalists in the Benalla Business Network Awards under the Arts and Culture Award.

• We opened the exhibition by appointment for four family groups and for St Joseph’s Primary School, as well as once a month. Therefore the exhibition has been open to the Benalla Community over 20 days, when they are welcomed by our keen volunteers.

• We created and continually updated an exhibition blog with visitor photos and updates.

5. Linking to Bonegilla and other migration tourism sites

We have met with Bernadette Zanet of the Bonegilla Experience (Wodonga City) and we have agreed to compare notes and stay in touch.

Mike and I visited the Adelaide Museum of Migration, the Albury Library Museum, the ‘A Place Called Home’ Exhibition in Canberra (where we met with the curator) and the Urinquinty Memorial.

We need your help

You will agree that the work we have done so far, is an enormous time commitment. We have also funded all travel and phone expenses ourselves.

We have realised that the workload to progress the exhibition, which is mainly carried by myself and Mike is not sustainable. Thus our appeal for help to you: if you have skills you think can assist us, come and talk to us. We are particularly keen to find a group of people willing to organise a reunion event or who can help us fundraise.

Thank You!

I want to close with a heartfelt thank you that goes to all our supporters Benalla Rural City and the Benalla Lakeside Craft and Farmers Market. Tricia Vale who is our pro bono accountant.

Benalla and District Family Research Group Inc. and the Benalla and District Historical Society. The following individuals, businesses and volunteers have also made significant contributions:

Monger and Tomkinson

Matt Davis, Benalla Signs

Brian Pianta

Mary-Lou Terry

Bronwyn Forman

Chris Dunster

Joe Zajac

Ibby Berry

Christine Heywood

Susi and Ed Nawrocki

Monique Francis

Meredith Paez

Anna (Castles)

Gert Brunner

Ludmila Walsh

Sharon Zimmermann Kirsten Hein

Dagmar Meierott

Stephanie Merry

Marian Treacy

Jack and Jane Coyne

Barb Dewsnap

Dawne Tonks

Maree Hanlon

Jenny Campbell

Len Pike

Andy Donaldson

My last and special thanks go to my fellow committee members Mike Smyth (Treasurer and Secretary) Sophie Arendt, Andreè Klopsteins and Anna Castles for their unfailing support and good advice over the past 18 months.

Sabine Smyth (Chair, Benalla Migrant Camp Inc.)
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Benalla Migrant Camp Photographic Exhibition reviews

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11 reviews
  • Benalla Migrant Camp is an incredible labour of love, ongoing and living memory, and site-specific history. It was an absolute honour to be able to walk through the site, look at the items on... 
    Benalla Migrant Camp is an incredible labour of love, ongoing and living memory, and site-specific history. It was an absolute honour to be able to walk through the site, look at the items on...  more »
  • Such a great place to get a perspective on how migrants felt in their first few weeks. Entry is free which was a pleasant surprise. The lady we talked to was both informative and enthusiastic 
    Such a great place to get a perspective on how migrants felt in their first few weeks. Entry is free which was a pleasant surprise. The lady we talked to was both informative and enthusiastic  more »

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