Refugee House at St Fagans

St Fagans: National History Museum, Cardiff

Sioned Hughes and Owain Rhys, 15.10.2012
Refugee House was a temporary exhibition featured as part of a programme of events in June to celebrate Refugee Week at St Fagans: National History Museum.

The project was a collaboration between Oasis Cardiff (an organisation that aims to help refugees and asylum seekers integrate into their local community), Gwent Association of Voluntary Organisations (through Newport’s Young Asylum Seekers Support Service) and St Fagans. It was funded by Arts Council of Wales.

Central to the project was the idea of the house as a narrative. St Fagans is an open-air museum with more than 40 re-erected buildings that tell stories about the lives of their former inhabitants.

The refugee and asylum-seeking community developed this concept in a series of workshops to recreate the interior of a refugee house typical of the temporary housing provided for asylum seekers and refugees living in Wales today.  

In the Refugee House a bedroom shared between two people of different religious and cultural backgrounds highlighted issues around personal space and privacy. Tupperware in the kitchen showed how difficult it was to share a fridge and keep different foods apart.

With little or no English, all junk mail was kept as something that might relate to someone’s case. Throughout the house the community explored the line between “grubby” and “worn” – keen to show the reality of their living conditions, but anxious not to be labelled as “dirty” or “unclean”.

The exhibition was participatory; users were invited to sit on the sofa to watch TV footage of community members talking about their lives and citizenship tests were taken at the kitchen table. The hallway notice board was filled with visitor comments.

Community members also “lived” in the space and engaged users and staff in some challenging conversations about myths and stereotypes.

The evaluation and learning outcomes following the project will inform the approach adopted in future temporary community-curated exhibitions at St Fagans.

Some of the visitor comments: “Fantastic way to stimulate discussion on what it means to be an asylum seeker, esp, as you can talk to the people themselves!” “I am concerned, distressed and feel guilty, that I can’t personally help! An eye opener to reality!” “It brings home the comparative poverty that refugees are expected to live in while awaiting a hearing.” “Disappointed that St Fagans should be pandering to a minority in this way! Fact: there are more Muslims in the UK than there are Welsh. If they all moved to Wales we’d have Sharia Law + this museum would be cleared to make way for a mosque. Get your priorities right + promote Wales instead!”

Sioned Hughes is curator of politics, trade and religion and Owain Rhys is curator of contemporary life at St Fagans: National History Museum