Migration and Museums: Or, The Past is Safe, but Irrelevant

In this month’s editorial of the UK Museums Journal, Simon Stephens writes about museums ‘Exploring the rich stories of migration’. It is the first official nod to a major issue of current public debate in the UK that I have read from a leading museums organisation. For this, I appreciate the editorial and I give respect to Simon for having put onto the official radar what so far no one has responded to. Thank you for that.

However, the editorial’s examples are also an illustration of some things that I’ve been mulling over in recent months, particularly the question of why I feel that museums may already be irrelevant with regard to many current, and very pressing issues of our modern societies.

The editorial states that ‘[museums] are often brilliant at exploring untold stories, including the experiences of immigrants to the UK’.

The first example is Norfolk 2000, which used the Norfolk Museum Service’s archaeological collection and commissioned contemporary artists to respond to ‘historical immigration’, with an upcoming exhibition in May. I don’t know if the artists themselves are immigrants (I hope so) or what their final pieces are about [1]. However, in my opinion as an immigrant to the UK, the project’s focus on historical immigration, and workshops on the Romans and Anglo-Saxons, plays it far too safe to have any relevance to my experience, or any meaning in introducing the argument of the benefits of immigration into the current debate [2].

The editorial also refers to the impending opening of the Huguenot Museum in Rochester, telling the story of Huguenot refugees to Britain in three themes of Persecution, Refugees, and British Huguenots today [3]. The editorial notes, ‘Interestingly, the MP for Rochester and Strood is Ukip’s Mark Reckless.’ Now that, right there, is the point that actually interests me too. How will the Huguenot Museum respond if Reckless is re-elected in May? Will they make it clear that their MP would make it as difficult as possible for another French person to enter the UK? How will they ensure their museum doesn’t become a bitter irony, and a place that would seem frankly ridiculous and irrelevant given this context?

And then the editorial mentions the Migration Museum. Poignantly, this ‘museum’ doesn’t actually exist physically (yet). It’s a project whose activities to date may have been limited, but they are actually relevant to my experience as an immigrant to the UK today.  The ‘100 images of migration’ exhibition was crowd-sourced, and thus included responses from many immigrants to the UK themselves. It gave a wider perspective of experiences, from the mundane to the expected to the unusual. And Michael Rosen’s recent first annual public lecture provided a frank and critical analysis of the negative tone used in current UK public debate on immigration. This is the stuff we need if we’re serious about making a relevant contribution to exploring the rich stories of migration.

So what the editorial and its examples crystallized for me is the following: looking into the past with the intention of exploring a contemporary issue really doesn’t work. You can maybe use the past as context, or as an example, but nothing will replace engaging with what is happening right now. And without making that connection directly, and without responding explicitly to the contemporary experiences of people today, you are leaving a void that someone else will fill for you. With regards to immigration to the UK today, that void is the fact that too few voices are speaking out against the anti-immigration rhetoric of the major parties and the media. Museums’ silence just adds to that. It’s not objective. It’s not impartial. It does actually take a stance. It says, ‘We’re okay with that.’

Are you?

Notes

[1] Their contributions to the blog don’t really say, but they also don’t make the connection to immigration very obvious.

[2] This, apparently, was at least originally the intention. Emma Reeve, the project manager, was quoted here as saying: “Immigration can be a contentious issue for some; this project will hopefully show many how beneficial it has been for Norfolk, and continues to be.”

[3] Again, these themes do not suggest immediate relevance to modern-day immigration.

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4 thoughts on “Migration and Museums: Or, The Past is Safe, but Irrelevant

  1. Great post, Nicole, thank you! Museums communicate with what they do and with what they don’t do, but, unfortunately, they don’t always understand this or they claim to be “neutral”. Here’s also a text I wrote recently regarding museums taking a stance: http://bit.ly/1CoyZKU

  2. Hi Nicole,

    Thank you for mentioning us in your blog. I’d just like to reply to a couple of your points:

    1. ‘ I don’t know if the artists themselves are immigrants (I hope so)’ –

    The aim of Norfolk 2000 is not to single out any particular group but to encourage local people to think differently about other who live amongst them. The artists were selected on the strength of their applications, not for their country of origin.

    2. ‘the project’s focus on historical immigration, and workshops on the Romans and Anglo-Saxons, plays it far too safe to have any relevance to my experience, or any meaning in introducing the argument of the benefits of immigration into the current debate’ –

    As you state, yes the focus of the project is on historical immigration, but this does not mean it is irrelevant to the County of Norfolk as it is today. The aim is to place modern day immigration into an historical context and show how similar situations have occurred in the past, leading to great benefits for Norfolk.

    As part of the workshops, we asked people to respond to several themes by bringing objects of their own to discuss with the group. This led to many interesting conversations on themes such as language, trade and societal status, all using the archaeological objects as prompts for starting a modern conversation.

    The workshops may have been focussed on the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons (and also the Norwich Strangers), but each workshop picked out elements which were particularly relelvant for the people of Norfolk (e.g. The Strangers, migrants from the Low Countries, introduced the much loved Canary, mascot of the Norwich City football team)

    I would be very pleased to talk to you more about Norfolk 2000, and answer any more questions you may have. I would also be very pleased to meet you at one of our exhibitions. As a current MA Student, I would be grateful for your guidance on how future projects I may be involved with could be improved.

    Kind Regards,

    Emma Reeve

    1. Hi Emma,

      Thanks for responding to the post and sharing more information on the Norfolk 2000 project. I appreciate your efforts on the project, and I look forward to hopefully reading the evaluation at some point in the future. Do keep me posted. If I make it down to Norfolk while the project exhibitions are on, I will certainly attempt to see them for myself. Just a couple of more thoughts that I had reading your comments:

      “The aim of Norfolk 2000 is not to single out any particular group but to encourage local people to think differently about other who live amongst them. The artists were selected on the strength of their applications, not for their country of origin.”

      The question is of course what the criteria were for assessing the strength of artists’ applications. If, as I was under the impression, it was contemporary migration the project wanted to contextualise, then I would consider it an essential criteria for the artists to have personal experience of migration, or indeed immigration to the UK. ‘Country of origin’ may play a part in that, but in itself it is neither an experience nor knowledge of anything.

      I’m a bit puzzled now by the aim of encouraging ‘local people’ to think differently about ‘others’. Who are the local people? Who are the others? You will be aware that this sounds like one group is singled out after all (local people) while another is excluded (others). The concept of ‘others’ is also deeply troubling to me. Assuming that ‘others’ means ‘immigrants’, this conceptualisation reinforces the underlying problematic attitudes we’re currently experiencing toward immigrants in the UK.

      “As you state, yes the focus of the project is on historical immigration, but this does not mean it is irrelevant to the County of Norfolk as it is today.”

      Possibly not, but it’s irrelevant to the discussion about contemporary experiences of immigrants to the UK. While this history may be relevant to ‘local people’ as part of their ancestry or sense of place, it’s not the history of immigrants who have arrived much, much more recently and who are faced with a variety of contemporary issues. But I take the point that the project aim didn’t include them.

      “The aim is to place modern day immigration into an historical context and show how similar situations have occurred in the past, leading to great benefits for Norfolk.”

      As I wrote, that’s fine IF clear and explicit comparisons and connections are made to the present day. Overall, I think the recourse to ‘the past’ is often superfluous though (see below), and seems to me to stem from the view that museums derive their relevance solely from engagement with the past. I don’t think so. I think a backwards focus makes museums increasingly irrelevant overall, not just with regard to this discussion. But that’s a different topic.

      “…each workshop picked out elements which were particularly relelvant for the people of Norfolk (e.g. The Strangers, migrants from the Low Countries, introduced the much loved Canary, mascot of the Norwich City football team)”

      I did note that workshop, but didn’t want to get into that. Alas, I’m glad you’ve raised it. ‘The Strangers’ – What a name! To me, that just opens up endless opportunities to question attitudes to immigration, and also from the perspective of discourse analysis the ability of official history to sanitise even blatant racism. I would love to see an examination of why those workers were called ‘The Strangers’. We have a tendency to focus on the feel-good factors, such as those migrant workers’ immortalisation through the canary on the modern football team’s badge. And yet here we are, conceptualising immigrants as ‘others’. Why do we even have to bother talking about ‘The Strangers’ in the context of migration, when clearly this dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ still exists today? UNLESS we’re going to ask awkward questions about the name, and how this relates to contemporary attitudes to immigration, it seems of little relevance in this context (but not in the context of just local history. I’m sure local people enthusiastically trace their ancestry back to the 16th century and these folks).

      I was also reminded of the controversy around using Native American mascots in US American and Canadian sports. Obviously the Canary is different, but I think the parallels lie in the ways in which the dominant culture has appropriated a symbol, and takes it as ‘proof’ of its (historic) acceptance of the minority culture. Having called them ‘The Strangers’ I have my doubts about that (contemporary) acceptance. I’m not writing this to have a go at Norfolk or the Norfolk 2000 project, but to highlight how we often in museums and history white-wash what could challenge the stories we tell ourselves, thus missing an opportunity to hold up the mirror to society that I think museums should be.

      Thanks,
      Nicole

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