Accepted Paper:

Negotiating memories in material culture: the case of a refugee vessel, a tuna boat, and a museum collection object  
Xavier Leenders (Western Australia Museum)

Paper short abstract:

The Western Australian Museum holds within its collection a Sri-Lankan asylum seeker vessel known as Bremen. Emerging from multiple histories, contexts, and social imaginings, this paper considers the possibilities which arise when this piece of material culture occupies a space of reflection.

Paper long abstract:

It was a cold winters day in 2013 when, to the surprise of those in the Geraldton port and foreshore café, a small Sri-Lankan tuna boat motored into the harbour. With 66 Sri-Lankan asylum seekers on board, the vessel was decorated with a makeshift sign: "We want to go to New Zealand. Please help us". Five years later, many of Bremen's inhabitants have either returned to Sri-Lanka or are interned on Manus Island, and Bremen now sits within the Western Australian Museum's collections.

By interrogating the memories left adrift on this vessel, this paper will explore the possibilities which arise as this piece of material culture occupies a space of reflection. Bremen emerges from multiple histories and contexts. As a piece of material culture, its genealogy traces Australian nationalism, the Sri-Lankan civil war and even the Deutsche Bank. Now, as a museum collection item, some might argue that Bremen's story is 'dead', killed by the nation building and colonial practices that enforce the State's sovereignty over those that cross the border. Others might claim that to think of this object only as the remanent of a tragic journey is to preclude the life-giving character of Bremen: to make real those whose stories are often silenced. Here, I argue that we can understand forms of material culture, like Bremen, not only as memorialisations of various (and sometimes divergent) social imaginings, but as sites of discourse, with which we might interrogate and play out these imaginings in political life.

Panel P18
Bringing the past to life: narratives, practices and spaces of memory-making