Assembling cultural heritage of forced migrations in Europe

How is it possible to reinforce historical imagery with strong humanistic message?

 Is it possible to use it for forging intercultural cohesion in the European societies that have experienced inflow of global migrants with dissimilar historical knowledge and historical consciousness?

These questions have been addressed to old and new European cultural institutions in charge of promoting inclusion and democratic cultural outlooks.  Migration museums have experienced a tectonic shift from the traditional national-centered heritage institutions to the present-day multifunctional, multisensory and multivocal heritage spaces engaging various stakeholders.

Activities of migration museums do not automatically mean increased integration of present-day migrants, as the mission of these heritage institutions is broader than that and they target a wider public. Although iconography of contemporary migrations is quite well-established worldwide, the task of forging migrant-sensitive heritage is not that easy to realize on the local level. It has been observed that global migration has been primarily addressed in temporary exhibitions and not as a part of main museum collections. Nevertheless, preliminary findings of SO-CLOSE suggest that institutionally articulated heritage of historical forced migrations has a good potential to contribute to socio-cultural cohesion and inclusion of new migrants in a number of ways.

Expulsions and forced migrations have been recurrent forms of political violence in Europe. Their transformative potential has been admitted in the middle of the twentieth century by bringing into global circulation a novel legal concept, refugee. Other terms associated with forced migration that emerged in the 20th century are genocide and ethnic cleansing. As an internationally recognized crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, genocide has often been accompanied by practices of forced relocation. Thus, the three concepts, refugee, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, constitute a significant part of the toxic European legacy of the 20th century, a legacy that is pan-European in its geographical scope, global in its historical impact and universal in its symbolic appeal. However, a positive pillar and counter-balance of this legacy should not be forgotten, namely, the discourse and practices of human rights protection which nowadays are at the core of humanitarian migrant reception.

The histories of past expulsions therefore invite themselves to creating heritage, as they exemplify violation of human rights and demonstrate consequences of confrontative and stereotype-ridden politics in Europe. A recurring conceptual node is the figure of a suffering refugee, whose human dignity has to be restored and humanity acknowledged. However, although this humanistic position is expected and justified, it may pose a challenge if turning into the sole principle of heritage initiatives and representations. Not only does it potentially deny the personal agency of the migrant, but it also superimposes the concept of suffering.

Another aspect for determining what and who should be elevated as a consensual heritage object, is readiness to envisage all migrants as deserving of solidarity without differentiation. This problematic has been especially pertinent in view of the political and institutional efforts to distinguish between “voluntary” and “forced” migrations of the 21st century. In reality the distinction is far from clear-cut. Those who are classified as refugees and asylum seekers – that is “forced” migrants – can seek to expand their life opportunities and transmute to economic migrants, especially once they have reached a place of relative safety. Conversely, not only open political violence and wars, but also poverty and inequal life chances trigger what is called “survival migration.” Thus, contemporary migration in many parts on the world, including immigration to Europe from conflict zones, is of “mixed” nature. This makes the idea of selection of untainted, “deserving”, morally transparent and pedagogical cases for the purpose of heritage presentation increasingly problematic. At the same time, complexity, and non-linearity of the stories, comprising details about multiple actors, routes, and choices, may interest broad audiences to extend their knowledge about the topic and emotionally invest into it.

Migrant heritage whose ascent has been heralded in academic publications since the beginning of the millennium, is still in the state of assemblage and elaboration. Nevertheless, basing on the analysis of material coming from partner cultural institutions of SO-CLOSE, we can make conclusions about emergence of several workable and appealing approaches to migrant heritage – in particular, narrative and montage – as both an input and output of activities of cultural heritage institutions. This study is in progress and will be published in an article by the end of the project.