How and why should your museum engage with migration?

We need only watch the news to see that we live in an age of migrations. Species, humans, peoples, objects, practices and ideas migrate. But they always have. And while there is a world that we still recognize, they always will. Although migration is constant in world history, what does change are its conditions and effects. For example, we see the Refugee Crisis as the catastrophic result of global conflict. Borders are easy to cross for some of us and impassable for others, sometimes leading to humanitarian crisis and despair. Migration plays out across international politics, across divided lands and in people’s lives. In the confusion and the clamour of voices it can be difficult to hang on to a sense of common humanity, as people feel that their ways of life are threatened. Disengaging with migration, or glossing over its challenges, risks detaching museums from a central social concern at all scales from the local to the global. So what can we do in our museum practice to respond to the phenomenon of migration and its complex challenges?

QUESTION: How and why should your museum engage with migration?

Museums can’t ‘solve’ the problems associated with migration. (And it isn’t always helpful to see just the ‘problems’!) But they can engage with migration issues, creatively, constructively and in a way that helps to build social awareness and safer spaces of debate. Maybe you have never thought of your museum as a migration museum. Or you might think that migration is a theme for other museums to deal with. But the likelihood is that your museum is already structured by migrations and by the travels of people and things, because they made its history, holdings and interests possible. And it probably contains collections, ideas, tools and potentials for thinking through migration: as a constant in our history; as a source of division, richness, tension and opportunity; as something that changes our lives and the places in which we live; as a reference point for identities past and present.

This toolkit, focused particularly on displays and interpretation, aims to help your museum to think through migration, to develop:

  • a more central social role
  • greater inclusivity and relevance
  • new audiences
  • closer engagement with critical issues that affect everyone’s lives
  • new perspectives on your institution and its collections and resources
  • inspiration for new displays, exhibitions, initiatives, events and programmes.

Migration has inevitable connections with some of the most pressing issues in European societies, such as the mobility of people, multiculturalism, diversity, equality of opportunity and social cohesion or division. Museums have the potential to play an important role in exploring these issues, and many do so in responsible and thought-provoking ways.

Historical and contemporary migrations form part of the stories that enable individuals, communities, regions, cities, nations, and Europe as a whole, to develop and express senses of identity. The common thread within such diversity is that identity is formed in relation to people, place and culture. Museums, whether they are consciously emphasizing this thread or not, provide a space for expressions of attachment to place, to cultural objects or rituals, to people(s), through their collections, exhibitions, programmes and events. This can often provide a positive sense of belonging. But we also need to remember that some people’s migration stories are ongoing and for them migration may not be a matter of choice. They may have identities imposed upon them, suffering because of displacement from home, discrimination and inequality.

What can we do to represent different migration stories, and understand their links to contemporary identities? How do we deal with tensions and conflicting identities? Can we develop new historical and contemporary social awareness and attitudes among our audiences? You might want to do this as an end in itself. If you believe that museums should have a strong social mission, might it help – in however small a way – to create a more egalitarian society?

The exercises and examples contained in this toolkit are intended to help you think through migration in relation to various aspects of museum practice. You can work through ideas relating to your museum mission, audiences, collections, displays, objects and the difficulties and challenges, sometimes constructive, and sometimes controversial, which can arise when we think through migration in museums. Alongside this you will find case studies from different museums and explanations of some key ideas and nutshells from the latest critical thinking around museums and migration. These can form points of reference for practice in your museum.