The German MA’s Recommendations for Representing Migration

A couple of weeks ago, the German Museums Association (Deutscher Museumsbund) published recommendations for museums on how to include and represent migration and cultural diversity in their work.

I was really impressed by two key concepts that frame the entire document:

Migration is the Norm

This is a fact that is evident when we burst open a fear-infused discourse about migration. The recommendations make brief reference to the history of migration through the ages, and conclude early on: ‘Migration is thus the norm in history’ [1]. There appears to be an acute awareness and acknowledgement of fears of migration too. The document takes a clear position: ‘To recognize this diversity as the norm is a task that we must perform daily and long-term in our society.’ [2]

The recommendations also highlight that there are various forms of migration: migration can be within one country, it can be temporary or long-term, it can be motivated by the economy or a desire to experience new cultures, it can be voluntary or forced. In other words, no two migrants are the same, and that’s not just because they may come from two different countries of origin.

Migrants and Non-Migrants are Alike

The recommendations place centre-stage an audience segmentation model that I had never heard of, but which seems eminently adopt-worthy after an admittedly casual read: the Sinus-Milieumodel (or Model of Milieus) [3]. The model identifies milieus on the basis of similarities in values, lifestyle/taste, and socioeconomic circumstances. According to the Museumsbund document, subsequent studies have shown that milieus are not determined by people’s migrant status. Rather, they cut across populations (i.e. migrant and non-migrant) which seems self-evident, but now we also (apparently) have empirical proof. And thus the recommendations state, ‘”People with migration background” do not exist as a homogenous target audience…They are represented in all social milieus.’ [4] They further make it clear that any orientation toward a target audience should therefore not be based on migration (p. 23).

I have previously questioned the usefulness of the concept of target audiences. It’s not something that I find discussed often in the UK, so this unambiguous statement regarding migrant groups (part of the British BAME concept [5]) is very refreshing.

The remainder of the document contains practical suggestions on how to start introducing migration as a ‘norm’ into a museum’s work. Some will be familiar to those of us in the UK and the US, around participation and community engagement. And where there might be the danger of slipping into tokenism, the document includes further really good points: For example, when reviewing collections, ‘collecting practices should be reconstructed and deconstructed’ [6], in other words, not just inviting source communities to comment (although this is recommended too), but to contextualize how collections came about in the first place, and what this says about historical (West/Not-West) world views – something that isn’t as often talked about over here in the UK. The aim is to cease the ‘dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’’ (p. 14), which is a really important point to highlight.

From a British/US perspective, some underlying structures may seem slightly odd in the document [7] but overall, this is a really helpful guide that gets museums thinking about migration and how to reflect it in their practices. Now that I’ve come to identify myself as a migrant in Britain, I really appreciate the integrative approach this document reflects. This is not about ‘targeting the other’: the document makes clear that integration is a reciprocal process [8]. And that’s so true.


[1] Migration ist also der Normalfall in der Geschichte. (p.8)

[2] ‘Diese Diversitaet als Normalitaet zu erkennen, ist eine Aufgabe, die sich im gesellschaftlichen Miteinander taeglich und langfristig stellt.’ (p. 7)

[3] You can read the study that first introduced this model here (in German). It was developed through a narrative enquiry/hermeneutic exploration of lifeworlds methodology, so there were no preemptive categorizations that jumped out at me – but again, I’ve not thoroughly analysed it yet.

[4] ‘”Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” gibt es nicht al seine homogene Zielgruppe… Sie sind in allen sozialen Milieus vertreten. (p. 11)

[5] For non-British readers, the acronym stands for Black Asian Minority Ethnic, and generally covers colour, nationality, and ethnic/national origin. In theory, it would be split before it is used to define a target audience, but in practice it generally serves as a catch-all for a variety of museum offers. The issue is obvious: the concept and general application clouds the diversity of the groups clustered under the term, and thus hampers the way we discuss each group, their needs/interests/barriers, and the offer we put together to engage (with) them.

[6] ‘…die urspruenglichen Sammlungskontexte zu rekonstruieren und zu dekonstruieren…’ (p.13)

[7] For example, it too suffers – in my opinion – from the lack of the integrative power of interpretation as the discipline of (loosely defined) facilitating engagement, be that through exhibitions or public programmes. The continued split between ‘exhibitions’ (Ausstellungen) and ‘presentation’ (Vermittlung) is hindering, but at least there are signs that it’s starting to get addressed.

[8] p. 7. I’ve been thinking about how integration goes both ways quite a bit over recent months. I used to feel firmly integrated into British society and culture. This was my home, I knew more about Britain than I knew about my native Germany (which I left nearly 20 years ago). Since I’ve been cast as ‘the migrant’ in British media and public discourse, with comments permeating even into my personal and professional life, I can honestly say that I no longer feel integrated. I’m daily retreating further into my European-ness (first) and German-ness (second), and while other migrants may feel inclined to fight this negative discourse, I find myself wondering more and more whether I have a future here. That’s not just a sad thing to have happened to me as a person, but also, in my opinion, to Britain.

6 thoughts on “The German MA’s Recommendations for Representing Migration

  1. Nicole:
    Thanks very, very much for sharing and summarizing this report. Timely stuff. Do you know if it’s available in English?

    1. Hi Jane,

      Glad you found the post interesting. I’ve had a dig around their website and unfortunately it looks like this one isn’t available in English. Sorry!


      1. Thanks for checking. As I mentioned you’re post was very timely. I recently participated in an event the provided university students with opportunities to network with leaders from the local business and nonprofit communities. A majority of the students participating were foreign students and a number of them commented that while they were interested in becoming involved with the local heritage community, they worried that because they were clearly “not from here” they might not be welcomed. It really made me stop and think. In my corner of the world, we are extremely proud of our cultural heritage, which is fantastic. But those comments made me wonder whether pride can sometimes get in the way of inclusivity.

      2. Hi Jane,
        Thanks for sharing that experience. It would be really interesting, wouldn’t it, to explore their comments further with them: what was it that made them feel like they might not be welcomed? Is it in fact something that the sector is doing, or is it something more widely in society, or is it a perception they have based on something else entirely?
        I’m also very intriqued by the question you raised, noting that your part of the world (it’s Australia, isn’t it?) is ‘extremely proud’ of its heritage, but can this get in the way of inclusivity? How do you see that pride being expressed, especially at managed sites and museums? I do feel at the moment in the UK that the narrative used in various exhibitions (especially, but not only regarding WWI) is very nationalistic – which is less about ‘being proud’ of one’s heritage, and more about the framing of difference, moral superiority, exclusion of alternative perspectives etc. I’d be interested to read your views on how ‘pride’ is expressed where you are!

  2. Nicole:

    I’m across the pond in Newfoundland.

    It will definitely be interesting to explore the students’ comments further. My hunch is that they are based, at least in part, on wider, societal issues, but I have no direct evidence to back that up. Retaining immigrants is an ongoing issue in Newfoundland and the subject of much study. People arrive, but tend not to stay. And I’m not sure we can blame that entirely on our weather!

    As for how pride is expressed … We define ourselves as a “distinct culture”, which obviously requires a differentiation between “us” and “others”. Here, it’s not unusual for someone to ask “Where do you belong?” or “Who do you belong to?” instead of “Where are you from?” It’s generally thought of as a quaint colloquialism, but the underlying implication is that whoever is being asked, doesn’t belong here.

    I’m not so sure about moral superiority. Rather, I’d say our pride is partly a response to a perceived threat i.e. that our distinctiveness can be easily erased by more dominant, mainstream cultural forces. That probably has a lot to do with being a small, island population. Someone much wiser than me once said that there are two types of island cultures – those that look out and those that look in. Newfoundland definitely looks in.

    As for how all of this is expressed in museums and heritage sites, I’d say … uncritically. Best leave it at that!

    1. Hi Jane,
      Newfoundland! Sorry :-).
      That’s so interesting, I’d never heard of Newfoundland’s issue with retaining immigrants. If you have a snappy study you’d recommend as an introduction, I’d be interested in that – especially the reasons that are uncovered/studied.
      That’s also a good point about perceived ‘colloquialisms’ that we may think are ‘quaint’, but really they might make others feel excluded. Of course, there’s also a fine balance – it might truly be quaint and loveable, and one would not want to lose it. It’s a tough one, but an important issue to think about. For me it’s starting to become all about a) accepting that cultures change and b) being in dialogue with one another.
      Thanks for sharing!

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