Contribution to literature on human rights, museums and refugees

This volume contributes to the literature in a number of ways. It addresses questions raised in relation to museums’ relationship with human rights debates; it addresses concerns around museum activism; and it also enters into a well-established academic discourse around museums and migration by offering an analytical focus specifically on work with and about refugees. The new social movements of the later 20th century and the global influence of human rights discourses have given rise to increasing calls for museums to represent the rights of marginalised groups in a more equitable and fair manner (Sandell, 2011: 131). The principles of human rights, which have inspired struggles for justice since World War II, underlie such demands (O’Neill and Silverman, 2012). This has led to questions of whether museums should contribute to social justice issues, extendgovernment policy priorities or participate in protesting human rights abuses (Labadi, 2018; Sandell and Nightingale, 2012).

Groups whose histories and identities have been silenced or misrepresented by museum narratives are increasingly demanding a voice in museum displays and programmes. A growing number of institutions across the world are increasingly engaging with these debates, notable examples are the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Federation of International Human Rights Museums - set up by the International Slavery Museum of Liverpool. The first iteration of the Contemporary Art and Human Rights Programme developed by Glasgow Museum Service is also illustrative of museums’ attempts to frame debates around refugees within a wider human rights framework (see Bruce et al., 2007). As discussed by Janes and Sandell (2019: 6), museums cannot be blamed for the asymmetry in the ability of all groups to exercise their rights, but neither are they disconnected from it. According to Sandell (2017: 192), museums play an unacknowledged and overlooked part in shaping the ‘social and political conditions within which human rights are negotiated, continually recast and disseminated, constrained or advanced’. Message’s (2013) documenting of the African American and American Indian civil rights-related social and reform movements’ activities on the Smithsonian Mall throughout the 1960s and 1970s is a notable example.

Sandell (2012) argues that museums are now highlighting their ability to function as fora for representing the rights, differences and viewpoints of diverse communities. However, he also notes that little is known about the social consequences of museums’ increasing engagement with human rights and pointed to the need for more in-depth empirical investigations of rights processes within specific settings (196). This book aims at filling this gap, exploring museum work with refugees in the context of European asylum policies and specific local environments. In discussing museums’ commitment to human rights, Anderson (2012) also posited that ‘cultural rights’ - defined by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as ‘the right to freely participate in the cultural life of a community’ - should equally be of concern to museums. The author argues for an ethically based understanding of social engagement, asserting that museums must fulfil their duty to provide access to culture, creativity and reduce inequalities in social participation (217). This is particularly crucial for refugees whose cultural rights as non-citizens are increasingly questioned by wider sectors of society. This volume contributes to the debate around refugees’ cultural rights, discussing the profound differences in how such rights might be exercised across Europe.

This research seeks also to contribute to the growing concern about activism in museums. The diversity and wide-ranging applications of museum activist practices are discussed in a recently edited volume by Janes and Sandell (2019). Lynch’s (2019: 120-122) chapter in that volume, for example, references relevant working practices with refugees. As discussed

Museums, refugees and communities 5 by Sandell (2012), museum activism is by no means a new concept, but one which still generates a range of criticism and tensions among academics, practitioners and institutional bodies. The latest attempt of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to update the definition of museums at its last 2019 biennial conference in Kyoto is illustrative in this respect. The new definition, which has now been deferred, describes museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures.” The definition also stresses championing “human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.” Ahead of the conference, twenty-four ICOM national branches, including France, Italy, Spain and Germany, objected to the new definition, with some critics arguing it was too ideological. Throughout this volume, I adopt the definition of museums presented at the 2019 ICOM conference in claiming that museums are not and neither can nor should be neutral. As argued by Janes (2015), the notion that museums should be neutral is supported by the false argument that museums should not alienate government and private funders. Sandell (2007: 195) also notes that ‘there is no neutral position and exhibition-makers face choices concerning the ways in which they develop narratives’. However, despite this increasing understanding of the museum as both non-neutral and active in shaping the way we perceive the world, there remains a ‘persistent anxiety among museum workers in negotiating these concerns’ (Janes and Sandell, 2019: 8).

In relation to museum work with refugees, Westerman (2017: 32) claims that ‘while exciting, bold work by daring artists and institutions is occurring in many communities, [...], there is an ongoing strategic chess game between boldness in inclusive cultural work and fearful self-censorship’. One of the most widespread preoccupations of museums advocating for a particular vision of society is the potential risk of moralising didacticism which closes down any potential for debates. According to Sandell (2007), when museums step into advocacy territory, it is important to investigate more closely the ethical frameworks they adopt. In response, Marstine (2013) suggested to move towards a contingent, adaptive and improvisational model of museum ethics, where the ethical frameworks embraced are not in the service of corporate agendas but are, instead, a social practice constantly negotiated through debate. Considering the ethical ambiguity and contestation which characterise refugee debates, the question of whether museums should or could adopt a particular moral standpoint on refugee displacement is an issue that I seek to explore in this volume.

This book fits within a well-established body of research on museums and migration. Publications in the museums and archive sector have addressed the complexity of global mobilities as a multi-layered phenomenon encompassing a diverse array of factors and experiences (Johansson and Bevelander, 2017: 9-29; Levin, 2017: 1-26). Scholars have also investigated cosmopolitan identities in national museums (Hutchison and Witcomb, 2014; Mason, 2013; Schorch, 2015), analysed migrationhistories (Gouriévidis, 2014), addressed the interplay between places, identities and museums (Whitehead et al., 2015) and discussed the representation of migration within contemporary artist practices (Walsh et al., 2014). Contributors have also emphasised how museums, libraries and archives can support migrants in specific settings (Johansson, 2015; Labadi, 2018; Levin, 2017; lervolino, 2013) and how museums can foster language learning and employment opportunities for migrants and refugees (Clarke, 2010: 138-164; Golding, 2009; Labadi, 2018; Sandell, 2007; Sergi, 2014: 209-219).

However, these contributions are vastly concerned with migration as an all-encompassing analytical category. This monograph builds on museum studies, sociology, anthropology and forced migration studies to offer an exclusive analytical focus on museum work with and about refugees. The growing number of articles recently featured in professional magazines attest the need for a more comprehensive investigation of the topic: Museum Practice, the online magazine published by the UK Museums Association, featured two articles on working practices with refugees (Nightingale, 2008; Museum Practice, 2013); MuseumNext also devoted attention to working practices with refugees around the world (Coates, 2019); Museums-ID reviewed recent exhibitions and volunteer programmes with refugees (Bird, 2018; Hicks, 2019).

My project builds on previous contributions on the politics of refugee representation in museums (Bruce et al., 2007:10-11; Lohman, 2008; Marfleet, 2008; Stevens, 2009), contemporary arts (Levin, 2017; Mazzara, 2019) and new media (Goodnow et al., 2008; Skartveit and Goodnow, 2010). Philip Marfleet’s “Forgotten by History: Refugees, Historians and Museums in Britain” (2008: 17-29) explores the roles of history and memory in museums, tracing the lack of exhibition history and objects related to refugees in Britain. Rein (2019) discusses the way difficult stories from a nation’s past might be used to allow different cultures to develop empathic connection with each other. I will expand these contributions focusing on how museums’ exhibitions and displays can develop more affective approaches to counter mainstream refugee narratives. The edited collection by Levin (2017) has dedicated chapters exploring the politics of refugee representation in the museum and archive sectors. Westerman’s (2017: 31-47) chapter, for instance, focuses on museums work with refugees in the US; Michaels’ (2017: 205-222) chapter explores the relation between commemorative sites and nation-building projects in the context of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum; Light’s (2017: 329-347) chapter on the Archive of Vietnamese Boat People in Australia explores the potential of using immigrants’ material heritage. The edited book by Janes and Sandell (2019) has a dedicated chapter on museums’ response to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ by Vlachou (2019: 225-261); in the same volume, targeted refugee projects are also discussed by Lynch (2019: 120-122).

In comparison to this proliferation of references on the representation of refugees, publications on community engagement practices with refugees are limited. A monograph (Labadi, 2018) recently investigated museum work with migrants and refugees within an overarching focus on language-learning initiatives. When engagement practices with refugees in museums are a primary focus, contributors largely address this work through the prism of trauma studies (Lynch, 2001; 2008; 2014; see also Nightingale, 2014: 109). Recently, more subject-centred approaches have come through the investigation of skill-development programmes with refugees (Bird, 2018; Jordans, 2015; Macdonald, 2019: 331-332; Nmeir, 2017; Weber, 2018). However, these projects have failed to investigate the politics and practices of community engagement work with refugees and the dynamics ignited by museums when entering this space of engagement. In this volume, I expand previous contributions on the interdependency of the ‘frontier’ between community settings and the museum (Golding, 2009; Golding and Walklate, 2019: 1-18).

In this book, I also re-claim the centrality of artefacts in community engagement initiatives (see Dudley, 2010,2012; Golding, 2010). I argue that objects can prompt the emergence of refugee lived experience, contributing in turn to more critical approaches to museum work with diaspora groups. The expanding literature on material culture of exile and subject-object movements should also be acknowledged (Appadurai, 1986; Dudley, 2007, 2010; Parkin, 1999). Recently, ethnographic museums, in particular, are paying increased attention to contemporary refugee displacements (see Appadurai, 2017; Von Oswald, 2017).

The emergence of ‘borderline archaeologies’ in Europe is prompting discussions on the potential of ethnographic museums to meaningfully contribute to the debate about refugee mobilities (see Hicks, 2019; Hicks and Mallet, 2019; Racic and Ceplak Mencin, 2019). A chapter of this volume addresses these concerns by looking at how materialities of exile can help re-imagine the ‘post-ethnological’ museum (Clifford, 2016; see also Harris and O’Hanlon, 2013). As discussed by Mark O’Neill (2006), museum work around social inclusion does not preclude the possibility of a return to the object as a point of departure. People’s wealth of life experiences can be brought to bear on objects, creating new forms of knowledge; knowledge the museum can learn through its task of generating meaningful experiences. Therefore, re-claiming the centrality of artefacts does not mean a return to the 19th-century cabinet of curiosity, where collections were exposed to detached contemplation.

Instead, such a re-claiming seeks to ‘creatively enhance the twenty-first-century museum visit, keeping open visitors’ possibilities to reflect creatively, even transformatively, upon both things and themselves’ (Dudley, 2012: 12). Following Golding (2009: 130-131), I also argue that museum objects can draw attention to today’s human rights debates, as such have complex biographies and contain stories of appropriation and cultural construction. In this context, I will expand previous contributions which address museums as creative spaces for respectful dialogical exchange and intercultural understanding (Bodo, 2012: 184; Golding, 2009: 2; Pecci, 2019: 206).

Drawing from the above-mentioned publications and practices, my research fills these gaps by considering the politics of representations of refugees in museums and the pitfalls and opportunities of engagement work with refugees. This study represents a departure from previous contributions as it integrates more wide-ranging considerations on the impact of refugee policies on museums’ practice and the influence of refugee identity politics in community engagement practices to cite a few. In this volume, I engage with academic publications beyond museum and heritage studies, to encompass key texts from philosophy, refugee studies, anthropology, sociology, material culture studies and social policy. I adopted a multidisciplinary framework, which is dictated by the research questions and the ethical and methodological implications of the subject of this study. I hope that this approach makes the research relevant to a wider readership, whilst contributing to research on museum and heritage studies by integrating other disciplines’ existing publications on refugees.

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