Posts Tagged ‘refugees’


Next month, I will represent ICOMOS ICIP at the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants through Culture. In preparation, the organisers have posed three questions [1] for each participant network to respond to. As I collated the response from ICIP’s network, it’s been really interesting to revisit the various initiatives and writings I’ve come across over recent months, and read through what colleagues sent me. I’d like to share some of the thoughts and questions that have come up for me personally during this process [2].


Migrant doesn’t equal migrant

The term really is too often used to cover what are vastly different motivations for and experiences of migration. These groups cannot be lumped together. That they all ‘live away from their country of origin’ no more predicts their needs and desires than does having red hair for British people. It may seem a convenient segmentation, but it neither reflects reality, nor does it provide a helpful framework for thinking about migration and its demands on our professional heritage practices.


Living in an ‘Age of Migration’

The MeLa project spoke of an ‘age of migration’, and its final report notes that although migrations have always taken place, ‘due to improved possibilities for physical and virtual movement today they have grown in quantity, rapidity and complexity’ (p. 8). Migration today is constant, fluid and global, and it seems to me that this in particular necessitates a more differentiated understanding of, and thus professional response to, the specific type of migration we want to work with, if indeed we continue with this targeted practice at all [3]. But there are other questions too that arise from the idea of an age of migration:


Heritage Assimilation?

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in their publication Towards the Integration of Refugees in Europe (2005) notes that historically, states used a ‘strategy of assimilation’ regards third country nationals (p. 14). Through assimilation, ‘refugees’ values and norms would be substituted with values and beliefs of the host society’ (ibid). I wonder if many of our current professional heritage practices regards people from third countries are rooted in concepts of assimilation. In other words, as we offer guided tours for refugees and programmes where they can learn more about ‘our’, the ‘host’ country’s history and heritage, are we in danger of creating structures that ask newcomers to adopt this heritage and make it their own? [4] Is this also at the core of the following:


Fighting for resources

I read the suggestion in an article [5] that migrated groups are ‘in competition’ for representation in museums. Heritage here emerges as distinct parcels belonging to distinct groups, that my heritage isn’t your heritage, and if my heritage is represented that means yours isn’t. And of course to some extent that is how heritage works; scores of writers have noted the exclusive nature of heritage [6]. But could this also be more than a question of representation? Could this be the result of an ultimately assimilatory understanding of heritage, and one that becomes increasingly problematic in an age of migration: the idea that the ‘host’ heritage should and will stay the same, with newcomers expected to either buy into it or create their own, separate heritage in this new place? How would this all change if we adopted a different view of heritage altogether?


Heritage Integration?

The ECRE writes that integration (as opposed to assimiliation) is a ‘dynamic two-way process’ (see above, p. 14) that requires of both sides action and adjustment. What could integration mean then for heritage, and consequently professional heritage management? Would this be a kind of give and take between ‘old’ residents and ‘new’ residents, whereby they create a new, shared heritage, in which some common elements remain, and others change? While professional practices may necessarily have to start off with showing what heritage in the host society is like at the moment of arrival, do we then need practices that adapt and change as new heritage is created once refugees become settled?


The Integration of Refugees and Migrants through Cultural Heritage (Management) Practices

I suppose what I’m grappling with in all of the above – and I am not suggesting I have any answers here – is my deep dissatisfaction with current professional practices that compartmentalise and historicise migration and create a ‘migrant’ heritage that, while possibly represented, forever remains separate. If we are indeed in an age of migration (and I think we are) then this is not a sustainable path forward. Telling a balanced story, or ‘polyvocality’, as MeLa calls it (p. 25), is still in my view the best approach in interpretation to show all aspects of heritage, but this is not about inclusion, or more specifically integration, this is primarily about representation. To arrive at integration, we might need more – but that’s the part I’m not sure about yet. Thoughts welcome.




  • Question One: Which 5 recent initiatives in Europe (or elsewhere) best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What have been the key success factors in these initiatives?
  • Question Two: What are the best ways to organize cultural activities to promote the inclusion of refugees and migrants – immediately on arrival (first six months), and in the longer term (after six months – the normal time limit for asylum procedures in the EU)?
  • Question Three: What are the 5 strongest arguments which can be made by civil society, on why and how to use culture to promote the integration of migrants and refugees? How should these arguments be framed, to justify investment in culture?

[2] This is very much one of these posts where I’m putting my thoughts out there to make sense of them. I’m fairly new to reading migration studies and migration/museum research, so bear with me and do point me to stuff you think I should consider.

[3] Although I would again argue against any segmentation on the basis of one attribute. Incidentally, so does MeLa’s report (p. 50).

[3] I want to quickly, and emphatically, add that I am not in the least devaluing those activities. Refugees in particular appear to find these very offers, of learning about the existing history and heritage in their new home, very helpful and important. It seems to be a way of familiarising themselves with this new place, to make sense of it, before they can even enter the phase where they can add their own heritages. I’m also intrigued by mapping projects, and tours that are guided by refugees, all of which actually may go a long way toward creating a new, integrated heritage, through connection to place.

[4] Small, S., 2011. ‘Slavery, Colonialism and Museums Representations in Great Britain: Old and New Circuits of Migration.’ In: Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 9(4), pp. 117-128, p. 125

[5] See for example Waterton, E. 2010. Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 9.


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Recently, I heard Emma Jane Kirby’s piece on the British Museum’s acquisition of The Lampedusa Cross in October 2015. It highlighted some of the frustrations I have with current approaches to museums and their practice, certainly in the UK, and I’d like to ponder that a bit further in this post.


Just a quick background to the cross first: On 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying refugees sank before the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only about 150 of the over 500 refugees onboard could be rescued. A local carpenter met some of the survivors in his church, and feeling helpless in the face of their suffering, he made crosses for them from the wreckage of their boat. He continued to make crosses, and the BM commissioned one of them. He then donated it to the museum.


In the radio piece (see also the BM’s press release), the curator notes that the museum ‘ is a reflection of the society around us.’ However, this emerges as a fairly one-dimensional reflection. Again the curator: ‘…refugees and migrants have nothing, they’re kind of invisible in the record.’ The cross, therefore, is first a record, and predominantly of refugees. And what it records is a very narrow aspect of refugees’ experiences. The press release describes the cross as a record of ‘the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe.’ This then is the main story that the cross can tell, and which is why the museum had to collect it. The curator said, ‘…that is the most important thing about the museum, that we tell stories about all people in all parts of the world’. The interpretation (or ‘curator’s comments’) on the Collection online entry only adds to the above that the cross stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island of Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores’.


I haven’t yet seen how the cross is displayed and interpreted at the BM. Judging from the visitor reactions in the radio piece, it’s along the lines of the above. And the above to me is an example of how museums prune the contemporary relevance of objects and miss an opportunity to actually contribute to what moves and changes today’s world in this very moment. The BM press release in fact suggests that the real purpose of collecting the cross lies in the future. The curator said it’s ‘to make sure in 200 years’ time…our descendents can make an exhibition to show what happens now.


There are a few things here that deeply unsettle me. Firstly, as I live in this present that appears set to tear Europe apart and lead, as far as I can see, most likely to another war, I’m really not that concerned about anyone’s ability to make an exhibition about this period in the future. If that’s really all that museums are about, then they do nothing for our present.


Secondly, the stories that we’re geared up to ‘pass down to future generations’, of tragic refugees and helpful locals, also present a worryingly sanitised picture of what’s going on at the moment. I wonder, in collecting the cross, are we actually trying to make ourselves feel and look better? The curator expressed her hope for how the object would be perceived in the future like this: ‘…the children and grand-children of people caught up in these desperate migrations, and their children and grand-children will know that we did notice what was happening, that we did care, and that we did try to reflect the crisis, the desperation, but also the hope in the collection that we make for the future.’


In this story, we can identify with the helpful people of Lampedusa, and express our sadness for the plight of the victim-refugees. In reality, however, we are all collectively engaged in writing a parallel story right now, one that maybe doesn’t make us look as good: About an Italy unable to maintain the Mare Nostrum rescue operation it launched precisely in response to the Lampedusa disaster, because an unhelpful Europe refused to support it. About Britons’ attitudes toward refugees that are among the least welcoming in Europe. About Germany, where over one million refugees arrived in 2015, now wondering whether she can integrate successfully the old and new arrivals from sometimes very different cultural backgrounds.


Why are these stories not mentioned? Are they not what represents the real depth of the Lampedusa Cross, and its relevance today? Is it good enough for museums today to ignore these issues of the present and defer critical engagement and judgment to the future? Is it good enough for museums to declare that they reflect contemporary society while knowingly excluding other stories that are equally associated with an object, but far less comfortable? Can we hide behind justifications of immediate material connections?


The carpenter that made the Lampedusa Cross appears to have hoped that having it in the British Museum would make a difference in the current crisis. According to the curator he wondered, ‘…is this enough then to break down the wall in the hearts of people who are still indifferent to this crisis?’


The way the cross is viewed and discussed at the moment I would have to say: It’s unlikely.

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Buried in a commentary in this month’s Museums Journal was a reference to the programmes offered for migrants and refugees at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England [1].

Migrants are more and more becoming part of the social fabric of almost every country around the globe, and certainly in Western Europe and North America museums are called upon to do their bit in assisting integration.

But how to go about it?  The V&A offers a series of free tours and accompanying worksheets that help learners of English to engage with the exhibition while also practicing their English skills.  The ‘Citizenship Tours‘ go one step further and enhance students’ knowledge of British history through a visit to the British Galleries.  This latter example in particular is a striking reminder that museums are meant to capture a country’s history and culture.  In visiting a museum, therefore, migrants may get a sense of what their new home country is all about [2].

Canada, a country with a long history of immigration, also has many museums that offer programmes for migrants.  To make access particularly easy, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship has implemented a Cultural Access Pass for all new Canadians.  The pass gives them and their families access to Canada’s museums free of charge for one year.   Similar to the British V&A, some museums offer special programmes for English learners, such as the Museum of Vancouver.

But to me, the most exciting programmes are those that involve migrants either as curators, guides or artists in the museum.  At the Portrait Gallery of Canada a 2009 exhibition showed self-portraits that 17 recently immigrated families had created in collaboration with an artist.  The self-portraits were meant to express their changing identities now that they had settled into a new environment and culture.  Not only will this programme have strengthened language skills and shown these families and other migrants in their community that the museum is interested in them and therefore a welcoming place to visit.  The exhibition will also have made their existence, their experiences and their cultures visible to the Canadian-born communities.

A somewhat similar programme at the V&A gives even greater power to migrants.  The My V&A tours given by refugees allow them to select objects from the exhibition that remind them of their own stories.  Using the collection as a starting point, the guides then tell that story to the visitors who have joined their tours.  They provide a unique and personal look behind what may otherwise simply be an object in a glass case.  Again, the primary objective for the refugees presumably was to improve their English and apply it when guiding a tour.  But for the visitors this is also an invaluable experience both in terms of learning about what is on display and about the refugees that have joined their community.  Museum programmes for migrants can therefore be more than a mere public service to support integration.  They can strengthen social cohesion and reveal the human stories behind collections.


[1] Felicity Heywood, ‘From where I’m standing: Museums should shout louder about these powerful stories.’ Commentary, Museums Journal July 2010, p. 19.

[2] Do you sense a slight criticism here?  I suppose I am feeling that rather than capture and communicate such a distilled sense of place, too often museums have isolated objects from the histories they have been part of.  Rather than creating a feel for the culture in question, therefore, museums often leave me puzzled by a disintegrated bombardment with information on artistry, materials and epochs that I tend to forget even before I’ve reached the exit.

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