Migration exhibits as sites of learning: Refugees: Forced to flee.
By CEID Blogger, on 4 October 2023
Imperial War Museum, London
By Isabella Hogg
When you think about migration what do you picture? Every migrant’s story is different and museums can aid in the telling of these stories while providing places of inclusion for those who migrate. Many museums host exhibits detailing the different experiences of migrants. New Land, New Hope exhibit in the Migration Museum in Adelaide, for example, shows how refugees express their experiences through interviews. Other exhibits, such as the Keepsake exhibit in the Migration Museum in London, show the stories of migration through object biography, which is the history and interactions that the objects have experienced. One exhibit that has included sound, art and object biography is the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibit in the Imperial War Museum in London, which ran from 2020-2021. The central aim of this exhibit was to provide first-person narratives detailing migratory experiences.
Historically, many museums have adopted a Eurocentric approach to the display of artefacts. One of the first recorded museums was Lorenzo de Medici’s gem collection in Florence. Here the main objective was to store objects rather than provide a public space of learning. The first museum that was opened to the public was the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which was established in 1683, with the aim of providing a space to expand people’s knowledge on topics such as the natural world and allow people to enjoy the collection. Changing the museum environment to a space which was open to the public transformed the nature of the museum from a space of storage to a place of learning. However, this was often to the detriment of those who had been colonised; many of the artefacts that were displayed were either looted or forced from colonies. The 19th century saw many empires compete in the acquisition of artefacts as a means of displaying wealth and power, with little understanding of the meanings and cultural significance of the artefacts that were acquired. Many museums today hope to correct the mistakes of the past. Migration museums that are centred around the voices of migrants themselves can be considered examples of postcolonial spaces of learning, as they seek to address the exclusion of knowledges from the Global South and the Eurocentric portrayal of the cultures and life of people from those countries.
An accompanying exhibition to the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibit provided visitors with immersive film of refugee camps within Greece, with the intention of showing the lived realities of refugees living there. When people were asked their feelings about what they had seen, they stated it was moving and humanising, a sharp contrast to media portrayals of refugees which often mask the reality of everyday experiences within the camps and contribute to refugee feelings of exclusion. In reference to Syrian refugees, for example, the media was seen to display them in three contrasting ways: as dangerous and a burden to society, as helpless and in need of aid, and through humanising stories with the intention of gaining empathy. These different depictions of refugees can contribute to the formation of stereotypes based on western views. Museum exhibits such as Refugees: Forced to Flee can help counter over simplified western constructions of refugees.
The exhibit has also utilised art and music and the creation of soundscapes to provide more immersive experiences, which can aid in the learning process and help form emotional connections. Other museums have used similar methods to engage visitors, including the Paris-Londre Music Migrations exhibition in Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in Paris, which explored the power that music held in providing migrants with a voice and the ability to make their mark on the culture and society within Paris and London.
Exhibits that are based on collaborations with refugees and migrants also construct environments that can elicit feelings of self-reflection among visitors, who may relate personally to the stories that are told. One such experience was recorded by Briony Fleming who felt a connection to the We Are Movers exhibition in The Migration Museum in London. While walking through the exhibit she was reminded of her experience of migrating from Ireland to England and the sense of fear of the unknown that existed at the time. When such connections are formed it can aid in the understanding of other people’s experiences.
The Imperial War Museum collaborated with the British Red Cross to bring the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition to life. The display of objects that were distributed to refugees within camps around the world, including tinned food and hygiene products, along with plaques detailing their significance allowed for the stories of these items to be told to the visitors. However, as the objects were provided by the Red Cross, rather than by migrants or refugees themselves, they may not be an accurate representation of what was provided to each refugee within the camps and may only tell a partial story.
The Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition can be seen as offering a new learning environment for visitors. The accompanying film exhibition offered an alternative learning experience for those who value immersive activities as engaging and thought provoking. By utilising a postcolonial lens within the museum environment, the voices of those who are often misrepresented or unheard can be projected more authentically to an audience, allowing their stories to be told; for museums to truly have a postcolonial perspective it is important that these voices are not censored or overlooked.