Italian Museum tells Melbourne migrant story

Travelling Well | Words: Ronald Millar | Photos: Anne Morley | Posted on 08 January 2018

The Museo’s diverse collection illuminates the Italian experience of settling in Australia. 

Besides modern tourism, there’s been no mass migration from Australia to Italy, or anywhere else. No entire families arriving hopefully in Valtellina or Puglia to start a new life, with everything they own in one case. So a museum in Carlton about traffic in the opposite direction is interesting.

Not the big museum in the Exhibition Gardens, but a lesser-known one in Faraday Street, the Museo Italiano. 

The Museo is an elegantly designed and sensitive installation of objects that reflect the intimate detail of settlement here by different waves of Italian Australians. This movement mostly began in the 1850s gold rush, developed steadily between the wars when America curtailed its migration program, and accelerated after World War II, following instabilities in Europe.

collage of interior and exterior of italian museum in carlton
interior of cabinets at italian museum

This museum has collected the touching remnants and memorial scraps of elsewhere, the small personal treasures that survive: religious tokens and small shrines, dolls, cherished photos of people and places that had to be abandoned; the painful reminders of early struggles with culture and language.

There’s a christening dress made in 1916 (and often borrowed back to be used for subsequent births) by a mother for a child who soon died. Nearby is a cabin trunk that had to be made from someone’s family bed. 

At the entrance, portrait busts of Dante and Marconi begin the permanent display. At once you hear the urgent sounds of adventurous embarkation on a great sea trip; of excited children, of emotional partings. Passengers get advice about what not to do on arrival, including blaspheme, because blasphemy was thought (unreliably) to be almost unheard of in Australia.

A nice selection of specialist tools, musical instruments, restaurant equipment and delicate embroidery make the point.

Many of those from agricultural communities took the least popular urban jobs, saved money and meant to go back. Yet most stayed, later sending for other family members, but the culture shocks (sometimes mutual) for arrivals during and just after World War II must have seemed insuperable.

Wartime internment in Australia of prisoners (plus other Italians and some European Jews who had been living in England, designated as aliens, and sent here on ships such as the Dunera) complicated the issue. Even some Italians who had been here and naturalised for years were interned. As the perceived wartime threat diminished, this gradually changed.

The installation’s engaging introduction leads to films, old newsreels and videos about the migrant experience, the skills imported and those developed. A nice selection of specialist tools, musical instruments, restaurant equipment and delicate embroidery make the point. 

Italian Museum Guglielmo Marconi bust statue
interior screening room at the italian museum

There’s something mysterious that could be a coffee percolator or a duck press, and there may still be communal wooden tomato crushers like the one here. More informative is a thoughtful timeline: three rows of photographs, each charting Italian connections to local, international or Australian events.

The most spectacular success stories here are individual: professional, artistic, corporate, but just as remarkable is the diversity of pioneering families (merchants, builders, craftspeople, restaurateurs) who influenced the way we live in Australia.

Some Melburnians had their first impression of things Italian via a Gaggia espresso machine (there’s one here) or by pumpkin ravioli in a Lygon Street cafe. Mine was the four-cylinder music of a Grand Prix Gilera, ridden full-bore around an airstrip. Exotic machinery, new tastes in food, wine and fashion, a touch of European sophistication: the Italian influence on our lives now taken for granted makes it vital to see where it came from. 

This museum, along with the Italian Historical Society, is housed in a large complex called COASIT. This includes a large resources library, plus there’s a comprehensive language teaching and cultural program for schools and adults.

It took Rome years to make up its mind, by which time the priest was dead.

Of course, there have been and are many Carltons: the early Italian-Australian and Jewish occupants, the student and academic Carltons around Melbourne University, the recent down-sizers, the rash of high-rise apartments as well as magnificent 19th-century architecture; even the chic macaron-from-Brunetti’s Carlton. All call for separate histories.  

It could all have been very different. In 1676, an Italian priest in Manila who had been talking to some Dutch explorers asked Rome to make a mission settlement in the great south land. He sent a map. It took Rome years to make up its mind, by which time the priest was dead. The idea lapsed, or a mainly Italian Australia might well have been asking for successive waves of Anglo-Celts.  

 A taste of Italy

Five reasons why Carlton remains the centre of Italian culture in Victoria

  • University Cafe (257 Lygon Street) was one of Melbourne’s first espresso bars and a meeting place for new arrivals.
  • Stop in at Tiamo (303 Lygon Street) for pasta or cross the road to Brunetti for coffee and biscotti.
  • Lygon Food Store (263 Lygon Street) set up in the 1950s as a grocer selling Italian goods.
  • San Remo Ballroom (365 Nicholson Street) opened for weekend dances in 1966.
  • Piazza Italia, in Argyle Square, is home to the Italian Festa, with its famous waiters’ race, and all Lygon Street dons Ferrari colours at Grand Prix time.