Museums urged “to do migration differently”

Rebecca Atkinson, 09.11.2015
The challenges of addressing contemporary issues
Museums have been urged “to do migration differently” by addressing contemporary issues and avoiding clichés.

The different approaches to addressing migration stories in museums were discussed at a session at the Museums Association’s Conference & Exhibition in Birmingham.

Sophie Henderson, the director of the Migration Museum project, Rhiannon Mason, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University, and Avaes Mohammed, who is leading a project for the thinktank British Future, all shared their thoughts on how museums can “do migration differently” during the session, which was chaired by Cathy Ross, an honourary research fellow at the Museum of London.

All the speakers highlighted the fact that although many museums already deal with migration in their displays, this is often limited to immigration and told through personal stories rather than through exploring the numbers – or within wider issues of empire, colonialism and global economic imbalances.

In her introduction to the session, Ross asked whether museums had fallen into “tired clichés” about migration and avoided current debates.

Mohammad later that the traditional “celebrating diversity” approach was passé and “only serves a liberal sense of what is right”.

He said museums should not try to be advocates for immigration but “drive and reflect culture” and acknowledge some people’s anxiety about the issue.

“A story without conflict is just a lecture, and lectures are disengaging,” he added. “[Museums] shouldn’t remove the conflict.”

Henderson shared plans to find a permanent home in London for the UK’s first migration museum, which, if realised, will provide a forum to discuss migration, address misconceptions about immigration and promote greater tolerance across society.

Mason shared findings from the MeLa research project and raised a series of questions for the sector.

She warned against displays that emphasis a story of “happy multiculturalism” and also urged museums to not just look at migration to the UK but address the bigger picture of global migration in history and today.

“Personal stories are good at breaking down stereotypes and humanising the other, but [they can leave visitors] numb to migration numbers,” she said.

The questions she posed to delegates included: who are migration displays for and what is their role (to integrate, to educate, to foster tolerance or all of these)?; Should migration stories be inserted into dominant narratives or separated out? Are permanent exhibitions the best way for museums to keep up with the pace of change? And how can museums engage with wider debates about migration, including visitor responses to displays?

“The most difficult challenge for museums is how far they should get involved in the politics of migration,” Mason said. “Museums are spaces for dialogues, but what does that mean to deliver on and what are the limits of that dialogue?

“Museums need to be reflect on these issues, and understand the challenges.”

Update
10.11.2015

We reported Avaes Mohammed as saying museum should try to be advocates for immigration. In fact he said museums should not try to be advocates for immigration. The piece has been changed to reflect this.

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