Panel 4.

Material Culture and Museums: Uncovering the Subaltern

Chair: Prof. Tim Winter (Deakin University)

This panel will explore how museums can act as platforms to translate material evidence and experiences into culture and displays that build on the collective and social memory of war. In particular, these speakers will ‘uncover’ hidden histories that have previously been overlooked, through artefacts and other evidence. 

Speaker 1.

Mr Garth O'Connell (Australian War Memorial)

Aboriginal Australian Prisoners of War in Singapore

Among the thousands of Australians taken prisoner by the Japanese during the Fall of Singapore in 1942 were at least thirty Aboriginal Australians.

As members of the Australian forces these men served as equals among their non-Aboriginal Australian brothers-in-arms, whilst back in Australia their families suffered greatly as second class citizens in their own land.

The Japanese were initially confused with these darker Australians and they unsuccessfully attempted to subvert several of these men to work against their mates.  Some of these Aboriginal Australian soldiers died during their brutal enslavement and they are buried at Kranji cemetery and other cemeteries in Thailand and Burma.

Within this diverse group of prisoners is the first Aboriginal Australian soldier to be decorated for combat valour during the First World War and two brothers of a famous post-war Aboriginal Australian author and poet Kath Walker.

This presentation will highlight this unique facet of the Fall of Singapore and the little known relationship that Aboriginal Australia and Singapore have together.

Speaker 2.

Mr. Alan Jeffreys (Imperial War Museum, London)

Far East Civilian Internee Signature Embroideries from Singapore and Hong Kong

Approximately 41,000 of the 130,000 Western civilians who were captured and interned in South East Asia during the Second World War were women. Their ‘voice’ is often forgotten compared with the dominant male discourses and historiography of the war, particularly the experience of the soldiers and those captured as Far East Prisoners of War.

The research for this paper will focus on the signature embroideries held in the Imperial War Museum, along with the associated private papers, made in both Changi and Sime Road camps in Singapore and in Stanley Camp in Hong Kong. These embroideries show how the women not only acknowledged their internment but also how they recorded it and used their skills to make memorials to those interned. By highlighting the existence and significance of these embroidered records this paper demonstrates the unique value of these textiles as historical sources.

Speaker 3.

Dr. Janda Gooding (National Museum of Australia)

Broken Families: British evacuees to Australia 1941-42

In December 1941, Singapore was already crowded with British and European civilians who had fled before the advancing Japanese forces as they moved inexorably through Malaya and Penang. Equally, thousands of Malayans had taken flight and were heading towards the city. Pressure of scarce food, water, accommodation and services was exacerbated by bombing raids. In late December confidence that Singapore could be defended was weakening and anyone who could arrange passage, was taking the first ship they could get and evacuating. This paper follows the story of some of those British civilian families who left Singapore and relocated to Australia; their personal circumstances and how they were received and managed in Australia. In particular I examine the story of a British family that had been in Singapore from the 1850s: the evacuation of a mother with her three young children, the capture and subsequent death of her husband on the Burma Thai Railway, and eventual permanent settlement of the family in Australia. What might these personal experiences tell us of the impact of the conflict across nations and of the declining influence of the British Empire in the Singapore story?

Ms. Fiona Tan (National Archives of Singapore)

Assembling Archives: Displaying diverse perspectives through archival collections at the Former Ford Factory

Archives often approach the past through structured and complex records, often associated only with those patient enough to systematically comb through at times massive volumes of seemingly ordered chaos for that one piece of information they are looking for or the persistence of an archivist to arrange and describe them completely without compromising the principle of provenance. Situated within a site that has deep historical meaning, Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies, an exhibition within the Former Ford Factory is unique in that it uncovers and assembles stories to tell this difficult history through such an archival lens. This paper reflects on the experience of an archives in curating an exhibition, and through it, uncovering stories and diverse perspectives that might have otherwise remain untold.