Diaspore Italiane – Italy in Movement was a collaboration between CO.AS.IT. Melbourne; The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College (City University of New York); and the Mu.MA – Istituzione Musei del Mare e delle Migrazioni in Genoa.
The final session of the three-part symposium took place in the northern Italian city of Genoa from June 27 to 29 and was titled Between Immigration and Historical Amnesia.
The event brought together intellects and academics from every corner of the globe to impart their knowledge, lend their expertise and explore notions of Italian identity in all contexts defined by mobility.
One of the talented minds present at the symposium was Melbourne’s very own Katrina Lolicato, who’s undertaking a PhD at Deakin University.
An oral historian, Lolicato is formally vice-president of Oral History Victoria and co-founder of The Foundling Archive, an organisation documenting and communicating contemporary Australian perspectives and experiences through oral history and public projects.
In Genoa, Lolicato presented a lecture on “The younger ones just aren’t interested” Vs “Give us an opportunity to show you and we will surprise you every single time”. Perspectives on the Third Generation: between a history of otherness and another Australian Identity.
It’s a topic which she’s particularly familiar with and interested in, given that she’s a third-generation Italo-Australian herself.
“All of my grandparents come from Italy,” she said.
“My mum’s parents come from Abruzzo and my dad’s parents are from Sicily and Calabria.”
The first of her generation, Lolicato shared a strong bond with older members of her family and heard the stories of the first generation, who are now ageing or sadly gone.
“I got to see the early vibrant side of the Italo-Australian community,” she said.
“A lot of my grandparents’ brothers, sisters and friends all came out as well so I had a really strong understanding of the network and how everybody was connected.”
Lolicato is one of around 255,226 third-generation Italo-Australians.
Less than 18 per cent of this group speak Italian, nearly 45 per cent are of mixed ethnic heritages and many are still accustomed to being asked: “Where are you from?”
While “Chicano” or “Creole” denote the new, quintessentially American cultures that emerged from generations of ethnic, linguistic and cultural mixing, and the Japanese language formalises the diasporic experience with words like “Issei”, “Nisei”, “Sansei”, “Yonsei” and “Gosei”, signifying generations since movement, no word exists in our multicultural vocabulary to account for Australians who do not identify with an Anglo cultural context.
Consequently, third-generation Italo-Australians are placed precariously between Australia’s multicultural narrative and an imagined “Italianness” imported by their grandparents.
In her presentation, Lolicato addressed the question: “Regarded as both nostalgic and disinterested, are we stuck in the past or is there something about our contemporary social positioning – our own experience – that maintains our connection?”
She also explored the role of community museums in legitimising the unique emerging assets, attitudes and worldviews of this group of people.
While the third generation of Italo-Australians is the “new” generation, Lolicato argued that members of this group are still heavily influenced and defined by their Italian heritage.
“The data says that our connection to the culture in terms of family is still really strong and in fact getting stronger, while things like language might be decreasing because we no longer speak it at home as our grandparents are no longer alive,” she said.
“We still feel uniquely Australian.”
It’s quite unusual for an academic to be immersed in the research they’re conducting, as is the case with Lolicato: the product of chain migration and mother to multi-ethnic children, she is firmly placed within her own research.
Lolicato said this experience has taught her more than she expected.
“I began the research thinking that I had a privileged knowledge,” she explained.
“But I had great conversations with people from all across the diaspora and from different cohorts and age groups, to really nut out how we see each other within what other people might consider a homogenous group.
“We’re so different and I’ve learnt a lot, all of which only strengthens my argument that we’re our own unique culture.”
Lolicato said the research has made her feel even more Italian.
“It’s made me really think about why it’s important to maintain that identity rather than it being something that I always thought was imposed on me,” she added.
“I can say that I am Australian but that I have an amazing background and that we as a community have a lot to offer.”
The research discussed in Genoa is part of Lolicato’s PhD, which explores how ethno-specific museums can maintain relevance into the future as Australia becomes more ethnically and socially diverse.
Lolicato is in the final stage of completing her PhD with the support of CO.AS.IT., and conducted much of her research within the context of its Museo Italiano.
Her interest in this topic was sparked in 2015, when she and her sister curated the exhibition ‘Italian-Australian: Creating Culture/Defining Diaspora’ at the museum.
The exhibition involved conducting 50 oral histories, which raised questions within Lolicato that she felt a desire to explore in more depth.
“The employees at CO.AS.IT. have been really generous with their time and I have interviewed everybody who’s employed with the Italian Language, Heritage and Culture Department,” Lolicato said.
“That was the first step: really nutting out what the museum and the Italian Historical Society (IHS) wanted to achieve in the future and how they saw their enduring role.”
Lolicato then conducted interviews with people who had participated as exhibitors or co-creators at the Museo Italiano, followed by four focus groups that looked at the current exhibition and what that exhibition said to them.
“I was looking at how the exhibition made them feel and whether or not it made them feel connected to the museum itself,” she explained.
Lolicato combined that research with analysis of the history of multicultural policy in Australia to create a theoretical background from where multicultural museums can continue exploring.
Following four years of research, Lolicato is now writing up her PhD.
But what exactly did she find?
“I was really surprised by how, whether they worked in the museum or were an audience member, people could really feel multicultural policy working on them – they could feel their identity or how people treat them,” she said.
“They didn’t like being pigeonholed as ‘multicultural’, but at the same time, people also didn’t want to just disappear into ‘Australianness’.
“There’s a sense that we want to remain unique and identifiable but we don’t want to be beholden to this idea of being halfway Australian, halfway Italian.”
In terms of the museum trying to create a community, Lolicato said people were particularly passionate about being able to contribute and produce exhibitions and work with the museum to create something from their perspective.
“I also found that everybody seems to have a drive towards the future,” she added.
“It’s not really about preserving the past so much as wanting to use the past and our unique heritage to combat things like sustainability and overconsumption.
“That was found in all participants, from museum employees to students of Italian.”
On a personal level, Lolicato said her research revealed a desire within her to have a place like a community museum where these issues can be explored.
She concluded: “I realised that the museum and CO.AS.IT.’s role could be important in us learning more about ourselves and how we can be valuable beyond the stereotypes that define us.”