The National Museum is considering acquiring an asylum seeker boat, similar to this one that arrived on Christmas Island in November. Photo: Sharon Tisdale
Canberra's National Museum of Australia is considering adding an Indian Ocean asylum seeker boat to its collection of artefacts.
An assistant curator has travelled to the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island and held talks with authorities there about the possibility of the museum acquiring a boat used to carry asylum seekers to Australia.
The museum already has a vessel, the Hong Hai, which was used to carry refugees from Vietnam to this country during the “boat people” era of the 1970s and 1980s and a spokesman for the institution told Fairfax Media that it was absolutely appropriate that asylum seeker issues should be represented at the museum.
Former National Museum senior conservator David Hallam with the Vietnamese refugee boat Hong Hai, already in the museum's collection. File photo: Richard Briggs
Modern asylum seeker boats are usually dilapidated Indonesian, and more recently Sri Lankan, fishing boats and any acquisition could be further complicated by the routine destruction of people smugglers' boats by Australian authorities.
Asylum vessels are often towed into deep water by navy ships, or moved under their own steam, before Customs removes any fuel left on board and sets them alight.
Museum spokesman Dennis Grant said the idea of the acquisition was originally discussed in late 2012 by museum director Andrew Sayers and former ACT chief minster Jon Stanhope who is now Administrator of Christmas Island.
Mr Grant said the institution did not expect the proposed acquisition to be controversial.
“It [the asylum seeker issue] is part of our history and anyone visiting the National Museum of Australia will understand that our history is mired in controversy,” Mr Grant said.
The museum says the idea is in “its early days” but the curator, who recently returned from the island, is drafting a report on the viability of the acquisition after holding meetings there with Mr Stanhope and his staff.
“It would look at what is there, what is available, what the complications might be about quarantine issues for example,” Mr Grant said.
“We'd have to establish the legal status of these things, as in who owns this stuff.
“The report will raise a number of issues that would then be explored in much more detail and anything in relation to this would be done in consultation with the island authorities and the Department of Immigration.
“There may be other materials as well, what we call material culture, other objects like parts of boats.
“So the curator is establishing what is in the realms of possibility.”
The Hong Hai, a rickety Vietnamese fishing trawler, arrived in Darwin in 1978 carrying 35 asylum-seekers who had fled the communist regime in their homeland.
The vessel was acquired by the museum in its early days in 1983 and is in the institution's storage depot in the north Canberra suburb of Mitchell along with dozens of large-scale items in the collection.