Book review | Museums, Refugees and Communities
In 2016, Anna Chiara Cimoli and I created the blog Museums and Migration. The refugee “crisis” was a hot topic and many museums, whatever their subject matter, expressed their concern and wished to find ways to be more useful both for newcomers and local communities. The rate of initiatives, very intense at the time, has gradually faded. Although migrants and refugees are still dying in the Mediterranean, they are no longer such a top concern for most of the cultural sector.
That said, the issue has not gone away and there is an ongoing need to help build conditions for the inclusion and development of diverse individuals and communities. Domenico Sergi’s book comes at a moment where there is a great need to evaluate what has been done in these past years, take advantage of lessons learned and consider ways of respectfully and sustainably moving forward.
The author acknowledges from the start that “refugee displacements present a specific set of theoretical, ethical and methodological complexities”. There are a number of essential issues that the book invites us to consider: changing agendas and performative statements; a colonising attitude on behalf of museum professionals; matters of power and authority when dealing with subjects, stories and objects; attitudes of empathy and reciprocity; and a new kind of exoticism as some museums step into territory usually held by social work.
In chapter three, titled Pathos and Agency in Museum Refugee Work, refugee testimony is discussed as “the most exploited representational strategy” and is regarded as a therapeutic tool for healing. Refugees are defined by, and limited to, their traumatic experiences – “they need to be fixed” – while their capacity for self-determination is put into question. Sergi warns of the potential retraumatising effects of retelling past experience. At the same time, focusing on past suffering, ignores present structural inequalities. Sergi invites us to consider whether the projects developed by museums “effectively increase people’s agency” or if they are “simply raising the ‘right-based’ image of museums”.
In chapter five, Politics and Practices of Engagement Work with Refugees, Sergi queries another stereotypical approach, which is a notion of “community”, where all refugees, despite their backgrounds, become a homogeneous group. In doing so, “museums can unintentionally further mechanisms of exclusion, exacerbating existing conflicts among refugee populations”, asserts Sergi, instead of taking into account their individual lived experiences, priorities and needs, and giving them the opportunity to question, reinvent and negotiate ideas of community and belonging in their own locality on their own terms.
Chapter seven, The Body of Objects, was the one that touched me the most, as Sergi puts his own practice into question. Considering that participants usually have no agency in deciding what is up for public debate, he admits that he thought it was inappropriate to disclose his sexual orientation when asked about his love life by a participant in a meeting. There is “an ethical question regarding administration of power and knowledge. My omission challenged issues of reciprocity in the field.”
In his conclusions, the author, following museologist Wayne Modest, invites us to move from “the deep cultural” to “the deep human” and have more public debates on forced migration. He advises us to create a closer link between public programming and community engagement strategies. At the same time, as museums professionals, we should acquire the skills needed to untangle the complexities concerning intercultural practice. Sergi believes that “unconditional hospitality” must be seen as a core principle of today’s museum ethics.
Maria Vlachou is the executive director at Acesso Cultura and a cultural management and communications consultant