The Melbourne Museum reveals the stories of Australians who spent their childhood in institutional 'care'
From the 1920s to the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Australian children unable to be cared for at home wound up in state and church run institutions. Many spent their entire childhoods there and many experienced awful abuse and neglect. Until very recently, it was a history the wider Australian population knew almost nothing about. These children have come to be known as the Forgotten Australians.
"You will have met someone raised in a children’s home, whether you know it or not," says Dr Jay Arthur, curator with the National Museum of Australia. Although the story of the Forgotten Australians is relatively unknown, "it is the story of tens of thousands of Australians, possibly the man next to you on the tram… a neighbour or even a family member."
Arthur admits that initially she was as ignorant as everyone else – "and I’m a historian and I work in a museum."
"I didn’t know that kids were medically experimented on, it shocked me," she says, referring to the University of Melbourne’s deeply unethical use of orphans in experimental drug testing. "I didn’t know that kids were at risk of being raped. Or that they didn’t have proper nutrition." Arthur gradually began to notice how small many Forgotten Australians are, often a consequence of childhood malnutrition.
"I didn’t realise so many people had been in homes. I didn’t realise they weren’t orphans." They were called 'orphanages’, but 90 percent of children had living parents or close relatives, just not the welfare to support them at home.
"Until Whitlam brought in the single mother’s benefit, if you were a parent and your husband shot through or your wife died, and you didn’t have a mother or auntie to look after your kids, you had to put them in a home. That’s it."
The assumption – by institution staff, the government, the Australian public, and ultimately by many of the children – was that they were bad kids from bad families, unloved and unwanted. When they tried to talk about their experiences they were routinely disbelieved, ignored or punished.
The National Museum of Australia has curated an exhibition that finally acknowledges this hidden history. The exhibition, on tour to the Melbourne Museum, details the difficult personal experiences of those who spent time in institutional 'care'.
Not all homes were bad, says Arthur, but none of them were safe. Not every child was poorly treated, but they were all put at risk. “How could we have been so careless with children’s lives?”
Dr Arthur says there are several services that provide support for Forgotten Australians, including:
Photo: Stuffed bear given as a Christmas present to a child in Orana Methodist Home, Melbourne, Victoria 1960s. Soon after it was taken away without explanation. Acknowledgement: Jeanette Blick.