Using museums to combat racism

Volume 8 Number 5 May 14 - June 9 2012

Yin Paradies, in the evocative Tribute Garden at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, where the names of more than 7000 immigrants to Victoria are displayed. Photo: Peter Casamento
Yin Paradies, in the evocative Tribute Garden at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, where the names of more than 7000 immigrants to Victoria are displayed. Photo: Peter Casamento

With racism continuing to pose significant challenges for young Australians, a group of Melbourne researchers is working with Museum Victoria to shed light on the problem and increase acceptance of diversity in schools. By Gabrielle Murphy.

Dr Yin Paradies’ cultural background is as diverse as his research is varied.

Coming to Melbourne from Darwin about five years ago, Dr Paradies, who identifies as an Aboriginal-Anglo-Asian Australian, has qualifications in mathematics, computing, medical statistics and public health, as well as a PhD in social epidemiology. His current research focus is on the health effects of racism and on anti-racism theory, policy and practice.

“Racism is a pernicious problem with serious but poorly understood consequences for both affected individuals and society,” Dr Paradies says.

“About a quarter of people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and a similar proportion of Indigenous Australians, have experienced racism in the past year. We have evidence to suggest experiences of racism are on the rise.”

Now working out of the Melbourne School of Population Health in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences as a Senior Research Fellow, Dr Paradies is the recipient of a long list of awards and scholarships including the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship.

He is one of the doctoral graduates from universities around the world to be awarded an inaugural McKenzie Fellowship from the University of Melbourne to further his innovative research and build and lead cross-disciplinary collaborative research activities within and across faculties. Last year his achievements as one of Australia’s outstanding young scientific researchers and communicators were recognised with a prestigious Young Tall Poppy Science Award from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science.

In his current position, Dr Paradies is involved in a range of research projects, and is forming links with policy-makers and practitioners to improve our understanding of and ability to combat racism through collaborative research and teaching across the academic, government, non-government and community sectors.

A case in point is the Australian Research Council funded linkage project being conducted with partners across the University of Melbourne, Deakin University, Museum Victoria and the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, which will use museums to counter racism and increase acceptance of diversity among young people.

The project team includes Dr Paradies’ School of Population Health colleagues Dr Naomi Priest (a specialist in child public health) and Associate Professor Margaret Kelaher (an expert in health policy, programs and economics), cultural anthropologist Dr Emma Kowal from the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, Professor Fethi Mansouri, who occupies the Chair in Migration and Intercultural Studies in Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Museum Victoria’s Senior Curator of Migration and Cultural Diversity, Dr Moya McFadzean.

According to Dr Paradies, racism occurs in over 70 per cent of secondary schools, and presents a significant issue for students and teachers alike.

“But not enough is known about the issue,” he says. “And although very under-researched, it’s clear that racism is a critical concern in the lives of many Australian children and young people, with schools a key setting in which racism occurs.

“School programs, particularly those provided by public institutions such as museums, are ideally situated to address racism and promote the acceptance of diversity.”

The ARC Linkage project will explore how high school students and their teachers understand racism, diversity and identity and determine how museum exhibitions like ‘Identity: yours, mine, ours’, currently being shown at the Immigration Museum, can reduce racism and increase acceptance of diversity among high school students and their teachers.

“The University of Melbourne study offers a valuable opportunity to test one of the principal objectives of the Identity exhibition,” says lead curator Dr McFadzean.

“It will challenge students’ attitudes towards racism and discrimination and more broadly, engage with the question of the genuine role museums can play in engendering social change.”

The project uses a combination of survey, interview, focus groups and ethnographic methods to assess changes over time in attitudes, knowledge and beliefs, and skills and behaviours. The research partners believe it also offers a unique opportunity to undertake the most comprehensive and representative study to date to focus on racism, diversity and identity among secondary school students in Australia.

The research results will be used to develop best-practice web-based educational materials and a teacher-training program around racism issues which will, in turn, inform Museum Victoria’s ongoing secondary school education programs and provide enhancements for future exhibitions.

‘Identity: yours mine ours’ is a permanent exhibition open daily from 10 to 5 at the Immigration Museum.