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Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe: Peoples, Places and Identities

0 Comments 🕔26.Nov 2015

The focus of this edited volume, published as part of the European Commission-funded project, European Museums in an Age of Migration (MeLA), is how museums and heritage sites represent the challenging issues associated with global migration (past and present).This four-year project sought to reflect on the role of museums and heritage in the twenty-first century and, in particular, to identify, as Whitehead et al. write in the acknowledgements, “innovative museum practices that reflect the challenges of the contemporary processes of globalization, mobility and migration” (xix). Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe: People, Places and Identities effectively captures the decisions that museums face as they attempt to make sense of the complex, ever-changing nature of European identity and belonging, and challenge the assumption that identity is fixed and stable. I admire the ambitious nature of the project, and if it does not immediately answer all the questions it poses, one should remember that this is just one of many texts produced as part of the MeLA project, and should be considered as such. Even as a standalone book, however, it has much to recommend it, although it is somewhat diminished by some poor editing and the lack of a conclusion, which might have more helpfully drawn together some of the strands of thought this book develops over its eleven chapters.

The book’s purpose is to argue for “a renewed sense of the museum as a vital space for public discourse and formation in the context of social contests over places and social divisions within them that are inextricably related to issues of belonging, migration and difference” (1-2). This emphasis on “public discourse” is particularly timely and relevant considering that Europe is currently facing one of the largest population movements in its history as people flee conflict and human rights abuses in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Darfur and Somalia (BBC News 2015). Within this context, there is growing dissent across Europe in response to the supposed threat that migration poses to society. The UK media, in particular, has been saturated with coverage of the “swarm” of migrants bringing crime and human tragedy in their wake, often using inaccurate and provocative language such as the nonsensical term “illegal immigrants” to describe refugees and asylum seekers (Briant 2013). There is evidence of a connection between the public’s perception of immigration as a “problem” and sensationalist media coverage (ICAR 2012). Conversely, it has also been suggested that a “pro-immigration” stance is being used to censor “those who do not possess such values” (O’Neill 2010). This wider context of how immigration is experienced within Europe reverberates throughout the chapters of this book. What stance can, and should, museums take on migration? How far can museums respond to a rapidly changing and complex situation? Perspectives in this volume come from academics, researchers, and (refreshingly) museum practitioners, which makes for a lively and varied response to these issues.

Chapter 1, “Place, Identity and Migration and European Museums” sets the theoretical underpinnings for the volume, making the case for place as the “fundamental epistemological structure and referent within museums” (7). The authors provide a detailed overview of terms and concepts associated with the study of migration in museums that helps readers navigate the volume. The liberal use of case studies helps enormously to contextualize these concepts within museums, and provides clarity to the authors’ purpose and approach. While there is not room to do justice to the range of perspectives explored here, I was struck in particular by the question of whether museums can and should present a wider range of views on immigration. As the authors explain, museums have tended towards encouraging visitors to feel empathy for the migrant, “who comes to stand for migration” (45). It is suggested, rightly, that museums could do more to represent the complexity of responses to migration, including presenting dissenting voices and perspectives from those who exploit global mobility for their own gain. Another challenging issue is how far museums can change attitudes towards immigrants. The authors appear to stop short of believing in museums as activist organizations; in their view it is not the role of museums to “eradicate or harmonize” differences and unequal power relations in society, but rather to contribute to greater social awareness “through their power to prompt empathetic responses and historical understandings on the part of those who feel that their lifestyle or beliefs are threatened by influxes of people” (54). These discussions provide a compelling introduction, setting the scene for the following chapters.

Chapter 2, “From Migration to Diversity and Beyond: The Museum of London Approach” is the first of four reflective pieces by museum practitioners examining the ways their institutions have represented and interpreted migration and globalization. The four museums represented here (Museum of London, Amsterdam Museum, Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne and Museum of Copenhagen) all take a clear stance on presenting migration as a changing, but continuous, characteristic of these cities. First, Cathy Ross provides an overview of how the Museum of London’s approach to diversity and migration has changed over the past twenty years, reflecting both the changing nature of immigration and changing approaches among the museum staff. Ross is honest about the continuing challenge of reflecting the contemporary city: only two years after a major redevelopment of the Galleries of Modern London, Ross considers that “the way the museum represents and imagines diversity for gallery visitors needs a more fundamental re-think” (76).

Jakob Ingemann Parby, curator of the Museum of Copenhagen in Denmark, raises a similar concern about reimagining migration within an urban context, and promotes an alternative discourse to the idea that immigrants are “a potential threat to Danish culture, the Danish welfare system and the cohesion of Danish society” (124). Kyle Little and Iain Watson of Tyne and Wear Museums, UK, are even more explicit about the values which drive their practice: a commitment to community engagement and social justice behind the decision to develop a new permanent migration gallery, Destination Tyneside (83-205). They point out the challenges of demonstrating its impact at the level of a community or population, which is necessary if we are to understand more clearly the role museums play in changing attitudes and values about migration.

Annemarie de Wildt, curator of the Amsterdam Museum, provides a range of examples of how the museum has tackled multiculturalism and super diversity in Chapter 8. The institutional forces that encouraged the Amsterdam Museum to represent multiculturalism and challenging social topics within its displays are less clear; however, the examples provided here are very inspiring, particularly the museum’s willingness to take a political stance on contemporary social issues, for instance, disrupting a display on Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the seventeenth century with an intervention on transatlantic slavery that included “the opinions and emotions of descendants of slaves now living in the Netherlands” (226). Such approaches reveal how museums can help us understand the consequences of history in the present day.

Chapter 6, “Negotiating Place, Heritage and Diversity: Young People’s Narratives of Belonging and Exclusion in Scotland” stands out because it captures the attitudes and experiences of young people towards multiculturalism. One of the questions that resonates throughout this book, but which is not immediately answered, is how do museum visitors respond to the narratives presented in museums? The author’s research on young people in Scotland and their responses to images of Scottish national identity used by museums in the representation of multiculturalism’s impact, reveals an interesting separation in their minds between national distinctiveness, represented by what might be seen as stereotypical images of Scottish national heritage, and “everyday” images, which include ethnic diversity and multiculturalism. National identity, then, is about establishing difference and authenticity; furthermore, where diversity was not part of the young person’s immediate experience, it was often dismissed as not “properly Scottish, and challenging to the young person’s ‘perceived essential’ nature of these places” (179). Lloyd suggests that a deeper understanding is needed of “the reasons why visitors may ignore or ‘resist’ institutional representations of place as constructed and shifting” (149).

Chapter 10, “Constitutive Others and the Management of Difference: Museum Representations of Turkish Identities” by Christopher Whitehead and Gönül Bozoğlu, is especially thought-provoking as it explores the presentation of Turkish migration to Germany from the perspective of both Turkish and German museums, contrasting the narrative development of Turkish identity and its “treatment within displays and interpretation of a number of historical moments” (253). If any clear example is needed of museums’ lack of objectivity, then this chapter is very helpful in reinforcing reality as it exists. The museum is not a “passive vehicle for hegemonic expression,” but offers instead “political-cultural resources for the constitution of identity and society and for the negotiation of societal division – for a historical sorting out of who we are now, and who we are not, and for modelling accounts of the world that might allow us to live with ourselves and our pasts” (280). This is the closest thing to a conclusion the book offers. The remaining chapters explore migration from the perspective of Italian Museums (Chapter 11), museums and exhibitions in Germany (Chapters 9 and 4), and European museums more generally (Chapter 3).

Overall, I enjoyed this book and its determined effort to explore the role that European museums might play in helping us come to terms with the impact of changing patterns of migration and globalization. It suggests that museums are becoming much more sophisticated in how they think about and represent migration, and the reflective pieces from museum practitioners are especially absorbing. The lack of a conclusion, however, is a lost opportunity to draw together the many questions that these chapters raise. In particular, what impact are museums having on debates about migration in Europe? Who are museums speaking to? Do those who visit museums see immigration as a valuable and necessary part of life, and do they consider themselves as cosmopolitan? (Research conducted as part of MeLa’s sister project, Eunamus, suggests not, however (Dodd et al 2012)). I look forward to reading more of the outputs from the MeLa project, which I am sure will further elucidate the issues raised here.

Reviewed by Ceri Jones, University of Leicester

Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe: People, Places and Identities
edited by Christopher Whitehead, Katherine Lloyd, Susannah Eckersley and Rhiannon Mason
Hardback / 325 pages / 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4724-2518-8Muse


“Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Media.” Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees Briefing.

Briant, Emma. “The UK media needs to stop referring to refugees as “illegal immigrants.”’ New Statesman, September 28, 2015.

Dodd, Jocelyn, Ceri Jones, Andy Sawyer and Maria-Anna Tseliou. Voices from the Museum: Qualitative Research Conducted in Europes National Museums. Eunamus Report No. 6, Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012.

O’Neill, Brendan. “The problem with the ‘pro-migrant’ lobby.’” spiked-online, September 17, 2015.

“Why is EU struggling with migrants and asylum?” BBC News, September 21, 2015.

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