Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Without Consent: A Review of the Travelling Exhibition About the History of Forced Adoption in Australia from 1950-1975.

Australia's prime minister Julia Gillard. Photograph: Mark Graham/AFP/Getty Images (source).

By Guest Author: Kylie Carman-Brown, BA Hons, PhD
When it comes to acknowledging the impact of adoption on children, Australia, I am proud to say, leads the world.

In 21 March 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered an apology on behalf of the nation to all those who were affected by the practice of forced adoption. Since that historic day, the National Archives of Australia has worked to produce a website and a national touring exhibition. The exhibition was launched two years later, and Ms Gillard agreed to open it.

As a historian and an adoptee, I’ve had a strong interest in the project. The day after attending the apology, I wrote and asked them if I could help in any way. It took a while, but I ended up writing website content, and I have also loaned objects. It’s been a curious process, being both a participant in the creation of the exhibition and one of its subjects. It has brought more pain and grief to the surface to be healed, which is necessary but unpleasant, and at the same time, I think it is one of the most worthwhile projects I have ever been involved with.

The exhibition and website was one of the recommendations from the Senate Enquiry in historic adoption practices. The task was given to the National Archives of Australia, with an incredibly short lead time. The Archives was instructed to have an exhibition ready to open for the second anniversary of the apology. Given that the National Archives had limited material on which to draw from in their collection, the task was more than daunting.

Much of the first year was spent in detailed research and consultation in multiple locations across the country. Attendees at events were asked what they wanted the website to do for them, and what the key themes or stories that the exhibition should address. From this solid base, a curator was appointed to bring the exhibition to fruition. Curator Amy Lay faced an unusual dilemma. Usually, exhibitions are object rich and curators begin their process by assembling large object lists and then whittling them down. Amy faced exactly the opposite: a dearth of objects and a wealth of paper.

The layout of the exhibition was therefore a crucial aspect of the project. The perimeter spaces of the exhibition provide the narrative of the social milieu that produced the forced adoption system, while the inner curved panels in a figure of eight cradle the more personal stories. The entry, contrary to expectations, is a space that belies the more serious material in the body of the exhibition. Visitors are greeted with a video of Julia Gillard giving her speech on a large screen TV, surrounded by a halo of flowers.

Fabric flowers were given out to all participants at the Apology, and the ones used in the exhibition were the remainder of what were used on the day. There are not the flowers that were donated by participants at the ‘altar’ on day of the apology. While that might have been ideal from an authenticity point of view, from a practical point of view it was not doable under the time frame because each individual flower would have needed a conservation assessment.

From the entry space, visitors can also see the long wall of photos. It’s a wall filled with photos of all kinds of people, and all ages. These were gathered from the section of the website where people could upload their own stories and photographs. The intention of the wall is to break down the perception that it only happened to other people, and it also leaves space for people to bring photos that they wish to donate to the National Archives collection.

If there is a weakness to this exhibition it is that it is very text heavy. This stands to reason. Given the amount of shame that surrounded the topic, and the grief and loss right at the heart of the experience, there are only a few objects. One is a friendship ring, given to a mother by her boyfriend. It counters the myth that the women that lost children to adoption were sluts or whores. Research in Australia shows that the majority of women were in consenting relationships. There’s an incomplete baby jumper. The mother went into labour before she could finish it. Symbolising the difficulty that many adoptees have with relationships and trust is my own broken wedding band, and there is a painting called Forget Me Not by Nicole Porter, who uses art to work through her own experiences of grief and loss as an adoptee. Finally, there is a beautiful quilt, sewn by a group of mothers who had successfully found their lost children.

The second counter to the wordiness of the exhibition is the use of video. At strategic points throughout the exhibition, visitors can stop to view short films. The films cover a range of experiences, including Senator Rachel Siewart who headed the enquiry that recommended the exhibition. Finally, at the end, there is the pause space, where visitors can sit and reflect on their experience of the exhibition and their experience of adoption.

Readers of Lost Daughters may also be interested to know that in addition to the exhibition, the Australian government has also contracted the Australian Psychological Society to prepare professional training courses for any professionals treating people affected by forced adoption. While the training remains voluntary, it provides some hope for adoptees to be able to find someone they don’t have to educate first.

Between these two innovations, Australian adoptees have hopes for growing public and personal understanding of what it means to be adopted. Because it certainly isn’t all roses.


For the main entry page to Forced Adoptions at the National Archives of Australia:

For the module for adoptees,

For the national apology

Kylie Carman-Brown, BA Hons, PhD

Kylie participated in the development of the website by provision of content, and has loaned objects for the exhibition. She writes and gardens in Canberra, Australia.