Written by Susannah Eckersley
Lecturer in Museum, Gallery and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University


QUESTION: What is home?

What is home? ‛Where is home?’ might be a more familiar question! In the context of migration, it is crucial to understand the idea of ‘home’ and how this word is used variously by different people, at different times, in different places, and/or in different languages.

These well-known English sayings about ‘home’ easily illustrate the key ways of thinking about and understanding how different people may think about what ‘home’ means:

  • The castle: home as a defined and tangible place, with responsibilities and rights of ownership or custodianship.
  • Where the heart is: home as an emotional and intangible feeling, connected to individual and often sensory experiences, memories and attachments.

For many, a sense of ‘home’ is composed of a combination of the tangible and the intangible, and it may be that an individual simultaneously has more than one ‘home’ in either sense of the word. However, within different communities and in different places, one form of understanding ‘home’ often predominates.

For example, in some cultures and social groupings it will be more common for several generations and branches of the same family to live in close proximity to one another, often never having left the area within which they were born and grew up. In this situation the tangible ‘home’-place dominates, because it is where all of the intangible feelings have been and continue to be focused and are physically as well as emotionally situated. People’s sense of home can often be connected to place identity and how we define ourselves in relation to the places that we come from or live in.

In some cultures and social groupings mobility and change will be more common, with individuals moving or migrating to follow opportunities for work and study or due to external pressures such as conflict and displacement. In this situation the people, objects, experiences, sounds, smells, tastes and other intangible feelings of ‘home’ associated with them become more dominant, because the individual is no longer fixed emotionally or geographically to a single place, and/or because their ‘home’-place is no longer reachable by them.

In contemporary life, in particular within cities, these two differing approaches to the meaning of ‘home’ are coming into greater contact with one another. This can be an opportunity for learning, for celebrations of diversity and cultural richness (see also multiculturalism, interculturalism, transculturalism and cosmopolitanism), but may also lead to expressions of alienation or isolation around who does or does not belong (see also social divisions, racism).

There is also the sense of ‘home’ as ‘homeland’, a country or region of origin. The German word Heimat is sometimes used in English to describe the emotional, perhaps even sentimental idea of belonging to and longing for a particular ’homeland’. While this will be a geographically situated, tangible place, Heimat is also strongly connected to emotive and sensory attachments to place, such as through food, music, traditions, language or dialect.

The intangible feelings associated with ‘home’ may not always be positive ones, or even be straightforward binary positive-negative ones (whether for migrants or for those who have remained in their ‘home’-place), in fact ‘home’ can be a site of trauma. A person who has lost their ‘home’ or who has left it behind during conflict may desire to return, but at the same time want to stay away to avoid difficult memories. Individuals who have encountered violence within the ‘home’ may associate it with danger, while for others it may be a safe haven from the world outside. The experiences of, and associations with ‘home’ will be unique to each individual, being just as layered, complex and ‘in flux’ as a human life course itself.

For museums, this means ensuring that museum displays, texts and activities do not make assumptions about how ‘home’ should be understood by their audiences (or by target groups within their potential audience), but rather recognising the potential range of associations with the idea of ‘home.