Politics are on exhibit at migration museums, not history

foriegn-policyMuseums around the world are now trying to teach the virtues of immigration. But their simplistic stories do citizens a disservice.

Article in Foreign Policy

“Why are there frontiers when we’re made of the same flesh?” asked the voice of a male Afghan asylum-seeker. The recording echoed down the hall of Paris’s National Museum of the History of Immigration as part of an exhibition titledFrontiers,” which ran from November 2015 through July. This summer also saw a brief exhibition in East London titled “Call Me by My Name: Stories From Calais and Beyond,” developed by the Migration Museum Project, which hopes to build a museum that seeks to “put Britain’s migration story at the forefront of national consciousness,” according to the promotional material.

Both are part of a recent wave of efforts by Western museums and curators to grapple with migration and the people who undergo it. The museumization of migration,” as one academic has put it, is a significant shift in the history of museums. But the resulting exhibitions deserve as much attention for how they obscure the West’s new relationship to migrants as for how they clarify it.


The first of these new museums was the Migration Museum in Adelaide, Australia, which opened its doors in 1986. The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration opened in 1990 in the United States; it was followed by the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, which was founded in 1998. In 2004, the Museum of the History of Immigration in Catalonia was inaugurated in Barcelona, Spain. The idea has since picked up speed, together with the rate of people crossing borders and making new homes. Canada and several European countries — Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Switzerland — have all seen the establishment of institutions that document the history of migration.

The focus on the newcomers, or those leaving, is a departure for museums. In their various ways, they have traditionally told a story about nation-states, not individual actors like the migrant.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, museums sprang up all over Europe and in different ways gave a visual form to the identities of the new nation-states that hosted them. The British Museum, the first national museum in the world, may not have showcased British culture, but it was the first public institution to use the word “British” in its name, when it was founded in 1753, and was probably intended to embody the values of the new state, which had been created in 1707 in a political union between England and Scotland. There followed the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, which played a role in forging a Magyar identity; the National Museum in Prague, which promoted Czech interests under the Habsburg dynasty; and Copenhagen’s museum, which was established as part of a Danish identity promotion effort. Many were inspired by the Louvre, which was founded by the National Assembly in 1793 during the French Revolution and was explicitly political, seizing the king’s art collection — before he was executed — and displaying it for the public.

But if nation-building museums are political projects, so, too, are migration museums. At a time when migration has become one of the most divisive subjects in the Western world, France’s immigration museum has the following mission: It will “contribute to the recognition of the integration of immigrants into French society and advance the views and attitudes on immigration in France.” The Migration Museum in Adelaide states its aim is a “deeper understanding of cultural diversity in order to promote greater social harmony.” The promotional material for the Migration Museum Project in Britain argues that it will help persuade the ambivalent public that migration is a good thing and is filled with photographs of cheerful immigrants beaming out at you from its pages.

The German academic Joachim Baur has been critical of migration museums, arguing in The Museumization of Migration: Immigration Museums and the Staging of the Multicultural Nation that they just represent a new iteration of the mission to promote national identity.

Immigration is used by these museums in service of portraying host nations as multicultural and tolerant. As a consequence, they tend to idealize and simplify the immigration experience for ideological purposes.

Consider the “Frontiers” and “Stories From Calais and Beyond” exhibitions in France and Britain, respectively. They shared one core message: the idea that “we are all migrants.” The promotional material for Britain’s Migration Museum Project declares: “If you peel back the layers of anybody’s family history, you will find a migration story.… At first, there was no one in Britain, and then people came. We all have some sort of migration story — it just depends on how far back we go. And that is something that unites us all.” As evidence, it cites, among other examples, both 17th-century European Protestants and African slaves escaping slave transport ships to Britain.

But although it’s probably true that everyone, or at least every family, has some kind a migration story, those stories may not have much in common with one another. Were the European Protestants and African slaves both technically migrants? Yes. But they came for very different reasons, and their experiences upon arrival varied wildly, so much so that classifying and discussing them together obscures the historical reasons why particular migrations occurred. Indeed, despite the proclaimed intention to highlight individuals’ stories in “Frontiers” and “Stories From Calais and Beyond,” it was, in fact, far from clear in either who the people featured arriving and leaving were or why they had been traveling.

The message that “we are all migrants” suggests a retreat from a story about the nation determined by its existing elites to one where the nation is made up of migrants. That national story is evidently difficult to tell. Both exhibitions neglected to touch on why the migrants and refugees chose a particular nation and their impact on it — why did people decide, in difficult circumstances for example, to go to France? Why Britain? How do those two nations differ from each other? These questions are neither raised nor answered.

With many migration and emigration museums, there is a tendency to present a reassuring story: the good migrant or refugee fleeing a serious but generalized threat from “over there,” the positive impact newcomers have on their host country (the food! the fashion!) without reflecting on that host country. This can overlook a more complex reality exploring the precise reasons why migrants and refugees leave; the more troubling and difficult problems they encounter as they travel and upon arriving; as well as the feelings and actions of those in the host nation who are uncomfortable or hostile toward immigrants. And, as tempting as it is to ignore the feelings of those who are uneasy about immigration, or who feel like it threatens their way of life, their point of view shouldn’t be simply airbrushed out of these displays for the sake of a political agenda.

At a time when migration is shaping the West in new and profound ways, a museum that explored the phenomenon in all its messy complexity would be useful. But the story told by our present migration museums is unconvincing and incomplete — and as unlikely to persuade migration skeptics as the original Louvre was at convincing the French peasantry that it had a stake in the treasures on display.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images