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Arthur Calwell collection

The Arthur Calwell collection includes a number of highly significant objects which attest to the high regard held for Australia’s first Minister for Immigration (1945-49), Arthur Calwell, by various members of the Displaced Persons communities which he was instrumental in admitting to Australia.

They are also rare items of material culture stemming from the early years of immigration to Australia from places such as the Baltic states and the Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of World War II. For example, the carving on a box given to Calwell by a Lithuanian group living in a resettlement camp at Bathurst in 1948 represents the ‘Hill of Crosses’, a site in Lithuania (near Siauliai) which during the nineteenth century became associated with resistance to Russian occupation of Lithuania. Its use here is significant in indicating the persistence of Lithuanian political nationalism in the face of Soviet occupation, and links Arthur Calwell with Cold War themes of nationalism and the significance of contested sites of memory in maintaining national feeling among emigrant Baltic communities in Australia. The contents of the box, a group of bookmarks hand-made in traditional craft style, indicate also the straitened means of that immigrant community and the ingenuity of migrants in producing small items of memorabilia from usually recycled materials. Another hand-carved box was a gift from members of the Ukrainian immigrant community, and represents the key role played by the United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA) in bringing Displaced Persons to Australia in the period after World War II. Other objects stem from the Jewish and Chinese communities in Australia, as well as other Baltic groups.

The collection also includes highly personal material which tells of Calwell?s family life, his life-long involvement in Labor politics, his role as a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and his personal religious convictions. Prominent among the latter are his regalia as a papal knight and devotional objects relating to the 1928 International Eucharistic Congress in Sydney, an important occasion in Australian Catholic history and the largest religious event in Australian history to that date.

The collection is significant as a whole because it tells a story about a leading Commonwealth parliamentarian of the middle decades of the twentieth century. Arthur Calwell was Minister for Information in the Curtin and Chifley governments, 1943-49. His early elevation to the ministry, so soon after entering the House of Representatives in 1940, attests to his importance as a Victorian Labor leader during the 1920s and 1930s. After then also serving as Minister for Immigration, 1945-49, he succeeded Dr H.V Evatt as Leader of the Opposition in 1960 and led the Australian Labor Party until 1967. He came within a few hundred votes of winning the 1961 election. His papers are held by the National Library of Australia and the National Archives of Australia. Considered alongside the museum’s collection of personal memorabilia, this dispersed Arthur Calwell collection makes up a rare and important archive of political and parliamentary history. The collection at the museum uniquely links the personal with the political, thus affording an opportunity to conduct research of a rounded story of this important parliamentarian.


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