Migration and the European Museums

Today I attended an interesting seminar organised by the “Centre for Museology” at the University of Manchester. The speaker was Chris Whitehead, Professor of Museology at the University of Newcastle and its paper was titled “Dealing with Difference: Representations of Migration in European Museums”, focusing on one of the research strand in the EU project “MeLa*European Museums in an age of migrations“. The paper focused on representations of migrants in European museums: it discussed the multiple ways museums relate to places, how stories of migrants are included in some European museums (I found particularly interesting the case of the DNA in Amsterdam), and how visitors react to such stories.

However, in this post I’d like to think more about an observation that was made in the final Q&A. During the talk, we had heard about many examples of representations of past migrations. Some of this display went back to the slave trade, and tried to show how modern society was born also out of the exploitation of many groups of people. Of course, such displays had been received in various ways by visitors – and it was emphasised the risk of denying the cruelty of this system, in favour of an “happy-ending”. Others displays focused on more recent migrations, and narrated their histories from the first struggles to the assimilation. By the way, the structure of this narrative is another point that caught my attention, and I may end up with another blog post on this matter (so, keep an eye here!). Anyway, to sum up, I’ve mentioned past migrations, more recent ones, but…what about the present ones? In the Q&A time, there was a quick mention of new political refugees, but the point was not explored further.
As far as I know, contemporary migrants are not represented in museums. The same thing can be said also of contemporary problems. When I look at exhibition of contemporary histories, I can find histories of fashion, music, cinema stars, and even politicians, etc. Just to cite an example of the latter, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in 2015, is already planning tohonour President Barack Obama, and it has already started to collect materials from his two successful electoral campaigns.
Briefly, I struggle to think of contemporary histories represented in museums, beside those of famous people and those that enter the museum through the language of art. When historical events enter the museum, they are often sacralised, or at least mythicized. They gain a new ‘aura’ and seem to lose their first upsetting aspect, they may also become symbols. Anyway, I don’t want to enter now the huge debate on how we make history, how do we speak of the present, and how the present becomes history.
So, let’s go back for a moment to my starting problem. Where are contemporary migrants in museums? For example, where are all the stories of the refugees that have arrived on the European side of the Mediterranean after the Arab Spring? Both the British Museumand the V&A have acquired photos of the Arab Spring – again, ‘photos’, significant / symbolic / artistic representations of these events. They have not told us the lives of those affected by the events: those people are just subjects of these photos, not protagonists of the narratives.
After all, I’m again back there. Museums do not tell contemporary stories through the same frameworks they use for past stories. When we observe migrants’ stories, I’ve learnt that museums can exhibit documentation of the slave trade, and point out to its long term consequences (with all the ‘risks’ that may arise from such narratives). Museums can exhibit personal stories of ‘assimilated’ migrants and of communities of migrants, and display how after some difficulties, those people have adapted to the new environment. By the way, also in this case, I believe that there are more successful stories of immigration, rather than stories of failure and conflict (also during the seminar Chris told that there are silences on some problems). Surely, museums seem to find much more difficult to make sense of contemporary migrants, maybe even to speak of them. Like for recent events, it can be argued that there should be a certain time before these stories can enter the museum. Probably, it is again a matter of waiting and the moment to talk about them will come. But, I wonder, is this all?
In conclusion, this seminar has led me to question what types of representations of the contemporaneity are allowed to enter the museum. Aside from the specific case of migrants, what does it take for an event to become exhibitable? Through which processes should it pass? Do museums wait for its decontextualisation or are museums themselves responsible of this decontextualisation? Or, better, where is the balance between society’s and museums’ assimilation of ‘events’?
I don’t know, and probably I’d better go back on history and heritage studies.
Or to Mircea Eliade’s “Terror of History” idea.
Or maybe I could just take it easier and look at the debate about the MoMA’s new collection of video games.

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