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'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project - engaging and linking communities

Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis
Australian History Museum
Macquarie University
NSW 2109 Australia


'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project was established 20 years ago by photographer Effy Alexakis, and historian Leonard Janiszewski. We are researching and documenting the Greek-Australian historical and contemporary presence both nationally and internationally - books, research articles, multimedia displays, successful international touring exhibitions and a documentary for television, have resulted. In 2001, the project became an associate of the Australian History Museum at Macquarie University. We provide lectures, photographic exhibitions and workshops both within the University and as an outreach activity, as well as maintaining our on-going research. That the Australian History Museum has incorporated our project within the University is both unique and significant. Projects dealing with ethnic groups have tended to be marginalized, but our current situation facilitates the mainstreaming of such research and recognition of the cultural and ethnic diversity and hybridity of Australia's past. The project acts as a conduit between the Museum, the University and Greek-Australians, and then engages the broader community through the activities arising from the research relationship. Our current research project - '"American Beauties" at the Niagara Café' - which will result in the production of a major book and touring exhibition, provides an excellent example of this process and how such a relationship can successfully provide previously untapped documentation and material to university museums and collections.


Australia is often publicly applauded and characterized, nationally and internationally, as a prominent example of cultural diversity (referred to as 'multiculturalism' in Australia - the recognition of both the maintenance and development of more than one culture within its social structure). The nation's population claims over 200 different ethnicities in regard to origin. Over 20% of Australians were born overseas, and other than English, Italian is the next most popular language followed by Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Vietnamese (Burn 2002).

Marginalization and Insufficient Engagement

Yet, within national and state archives, libraries, and even museums - including university museums - together with the grand narratives of Australia's past, little, or only token recognition, is generally given to the significance which cultural diversity and hybridity has had in developing the Australia of today. Groups from non-English speaking background have, as a result, been effectively alienated, marginalized and left broadly unacknowledged within the symbols and pre-eminent events and developments of Australia's history. Collecting and research institutions have been insufficiently engaged with ethnic communities, and overall, have made only tentative attempts to understand what matters to these groups, their effects upon the broader canvas of Australia's past, or offered any practical support to researchers within the community sector who were attempting to obviate such failings. Moreover, when collecting bodies have directed their attentions towards these marginalized groups, their strategies, for the most part, can only correctly be labeled as PR campaigns, with limited outcomes following the high profile launches and distribution of glossy pamphlets (Burn 2002). Significantly, budget allocations specifically assigned towards the on-going costs of preservation, cataloguing and displaying of any material collected from such campaigns, appear to be undernourished when compared to the PR campaign funds themselves, and dramatically more so when compared to that allocated to material of British-Australian origin held by the institutions.

The Antithesis

At Macquarie University in Sydney, the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project, working in association with the Australian History Museum and the Department of Modern History, is the antithesis of this situation. Indeed, this bold and dynamic partnership is unique in its field of research and collection, firmly facilitating the obvious need to mainstream material from groups of non-English speaking background. The Project acts as an effective conduit between the Australian History Museum - together with its associated scholars and students - and the Greek-Australian community. It then seeks to engage the broader Australian and even international community, through outreach activities arising from this special relationship: collaborative touring exhibitions and museum displays; organizing public lectures by prominent Greek-Australians; the development of teaching videos for both public and institutional use; and, potentially, a web-accessible database.

In Their Own Image

The 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project was instigated in 1982 by Sydney-based documentary photographer Effy Alexakis. I, Leonard Janiszewski, joined her the following year in my capacity as an historian of Australia's social and cultural past. Our aim "was to provide a rounder, more complex and detailed, social, cultural and historical image of Greek-Australians, than any previously attempted" (Janiszewski & Alexakis 1989) and in the process, to circumvent the notable absence of collected material on the Greek-Australian experience evident within museums and archival collections around the country. Such material was to be found in the homes of Greek-Australians, both within Australia and overseas, "where family snapshots, letters, diaries, private official papers, memorabilia, and living memory lay awaiting a researcher's investigative interest. The well known dictum of British historian Richard H. Tawney, that 'historians need... stronger boots', was to be well evidenced by the magnitude of our task and our blistered feet" (Janiszewski & Alexakis 1989). As suggested, the key to our subsequent success was personal contact. We went out and worked 'with' and 'amongst' our subject, the Greek-Australian community. Preconceived notions and stereotypes were cast aside as was the institutional attitude of engaging the community only through publicity campaigns and waiting for them to respond. Furthermore, as indicated by the project's title, 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians', we commenced gathering material and stories which were of importance to our subjects.

Over the past twenty-one years the Project has painstakingly gathered an extensive archive encompassing: recorded oral history interviews; historical (Fig. 1) and contemporary (Fig.2) photographic and cinematographic material, private and official documents and published works; and memorabilia. The collection is recognized as one of the most comprehensive in Australia on a group from non-English speaking background. It has produced a number of national and international touring socio-cultural history exhibitions - the principal exhibition bearing the same title of the project was developed in partnership with the State Library of New South Wales - two major books, numerous published articles, conference papers and a documentary for television.

A Working Partnership

So, in early 2001, when the project was invited to form a working partnership with the Australian History Museum and the Department of Modern History at Macquarie University, it brought with it a long and on-going engagement with the Greek-Australian community, together with a significant archive and an extensive record of production in both exhibition and publication output. The union was certainly innovative. It not only had placed a successful community-based project which focused upon a marginalized ethnic group, within the critical scholarly environment of one of Australia's leading university's, but it had placed it directly within the heart of the two bodies whose mission it was to research and collect material detailing Australia's past. This was something very new and challenging within the existing milieu of neglect in regard to the collection of historical material from marginalized ethnic groups. With a wonderful link forged, the Project was now in a position to submit its material directly for broad scholarly examination and interpretation, teaching and museum display, as well as the creation of new collaborative touring exhibitions, partnered publications and joint material collection.

Empowering Links and Potential Revelations

The relationship has been empowering, not only for both the Project and its University partners, but also for the Greek-Australian community and the broader Australian public. Responses from many sections of Australia's Greek community have clearly revealed a sense of liberation by what they view as the start of their long awaited acceptance or inclusion upon the larger stage of representing Australia's past within museum and historical narratives.

Encouraged by the project's partnership at Macquarie University, it appears to many Greek-Australians with whom the Project is involved, that their voices and material culture - evidencing almost two centuries of a Hellenic presence in Australia - will now not remain as limited curious anecdotes in museum displays or hidden amongst footnotes in historical publications. For the broader Australian community, there is the potential recognition that by throwing such concentrated light upon the history of an ethnic community within a university museum and scholarly research context, the process will reveal the "cross-cultural transmissions and transformations" upon the development of mainstream Australian culture and history (Teo 2003).

An Enterprising Lead

Such has been the effect of the Project within its new museum and academic environment, that its research, collection and interpretative methods are now being praised as exemplary templates through which the research and gathering of material from other groups of non-English speaking background can be engaged. This praise has been voiced both within and outside the University - by academics and cultural activists - and it seems that similar community-based projects may seek to develop links with other university museums and collections who wish to follow Macquarie's enterprising lead.

Current Research

Our current research project, '"American Beauties" at the Niagara Café', provides an excellent example of how such a working relationship can successfully provide previously untapped documentation and material to university museums and collections and what outreach activities can then be attained. The project looks at the Australian 'Greek café' as a key element in the Americanization of Australian eating and social habits during the twentieth century. For the past two years we have been undertaking oral history interviews (in English and Greek) with those who ran, worked in and frequented these cafés, copying their historical images, photographing the interviewees, traveling to sites of Greek cafés to document what remains, and acquiring café tableware, signs, menus, confectionery tins and boxes and printed café advertisements. We have traveled some 10,000 km so far. From this material a display within the Australian History Museum is being mounted, lectures on the Greek café have been provided for the Department of Modern History, information and images are being entered into a database for accessibility to scholars and students, and an internationally touring exhibition on the subject is to be designed and assembled - the exhibition will be undertaken in partnership between our Project, the Australian History Museum, a major New South Wales cultural institution, possibly the Power House Museum or the State Library of New South Wales, and probably the Macquarie University Art Gallery. A companion book and education kit will accompany this show. Appropriate venues in the United States are currently being negotiated, including Ellis Island Immigration Museum, New York, and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.

Engaging Communities

'Engaging communities' is at the heart of what the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project does - it engages and then cross-links the university community, the Greek-Australian community, the broader Australian community and even the international community. In the process, part of Australia's cultural diversity and hybridity is acquiring greater visibility within the museum and historical narrative context.


1. Leonard Janiszewski is a Research Fellow with the Department of Modern History at Macquarie University. Effy Alexakis is Senior Photographer with the Center for Flexible Learning at Macquarie University. Both are facilitators of the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project which operates under the auspices of the Australian History Museum and the Department of Modern History, Macquarie University. Address: Department of Modern History, Macquarie University, New South Wales, 2109, Australia. Tel: +61 2 9850 6886 Fax: +61 2 9850 6594 Emails:,

2. Janiszewski, L. & E. Alexakis 2003. 'American Beauties' at the Niagara: the marriage of American food catering ideas to British-Australian tastes and the birth, life and demise of the classic Australian 'Greek café'. Keynote Address: Out There? Rural and Regional Conference. National Trust of Australia (New South Wales) Conference. 10 March 2003, National Trust Center, Observatory Hill, Sydney. Unpublished manuscript.


We would like to thank Professor Di Yerbury, Vice-Chancellor, Macquarie University, for her personal encouragement and on-going firm support of our Project, including the provision of our attendance at this Conference. We are also grateful to the Australian History Museum at Macquarie University and our respective departments - the Department of Modern History and the Center for Flexible Learning - for their much needed assistance and confidence in our work. Personal gratitude is generously acknowledged to both UMAC's Chair, Peter Stanbury, the Vice-Chancellor's Office, Macquarie University, and our close friend and Project colleague, film-maker, Michael Karris, Center for Flexible Learning, Macquarie University, for their advice and help.

Literature Cited

Burn, M. 2002. Melting pot or monoculture: archives and cultural diversity in Australia. Archives and Marginalized Groups. Australian Society of Archivists Annual Conference 2002. August 2002. Accessed on 16th August 2003.

Janiszewski, L. & E. Alexakis 1989. "'Greek-Australians: In Their Own Image' National Project and Touring Exhibition - taking constructive action.: In M. Birtley & P. McQueen (eds) New Responsibilities: Documenting Multicultural Australia Conference. 11-13 November 1988, Melbourne, p. 29. Melbourne: Museums Association of Australia Inc., Victorian Branch, and the Library Council of Victoria.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. 2003. "Multiculturalism and the problem of multicultural histories: an overview of ethnic historiography." In Hsu-Ming Teo & R. White (eds) Cultural History in Australia, p. 153. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

© September 2003
Leonard Janiszewski & Effy Alexakis
Australian History Museum
Macquarie University
NSW 2109 Australia