By Chris Whitehead 

This post is a response to Bryan Sitch’s Radical Objects: A Refugee’s Life Jacket at Manchester Museum  

Migration as a primary focus for museums only has a recent history, with particular development over the last decade or so. In that time, we’ve seen the development of migration museums focusing on emigration, immigration or sometimes both, and of discrete permanent or temporary displays in larger pre-existing institutions – typically social history and maritime museums. Between 2011 and 2015 I was a researcher in the European Commission-funded research project on ‘Museums in an Age of Migrations’, reflecting EU concerns about migration as a critical issue for Europe. The situation was worsening, but we did not know then just how critical it would become.

Before this explosion of interest, museums were not free of the traces of migration. It just wasn’t that explicit – and still isn’t – in many institutions. In fact, museums of all kinds are structurally configured by the movements between places, and over time, of people and peoples, goods, species and ideas. Even institutions as apparently rarefied and unearthly as national galleries can be seen to weave together stories about how artists travelled, influenced one another, found livelihoods and inspiration in new places. Otherwise, in ethnographic collections we may find – alongside the wondrousness of the objects and the different world cultures they represent – a material index of curatorial travel to other places in which the politics and circumstance of empire and colonialism are subtly but powerfully present.

Cravens collection of archaeological and ethnographical objects, University of Buffalo. Photo Mehrdad Hadighi

Such museum stories turn out to be shot through with migration – if only we know how to find it. Institutions like Manchester Museum are in the process of reflecting on their holdings to understand the permeation of migrations of all sorts – human and non-human – within the make-up of their collections: to find migration where we might least expect it. At the same time, as the lifejacket acquisition shows, the museum staff are making efforts to represent the contemporary, and often disturbing realities of migration. Indeed, in early 2017 the curatorial team invited me to spend time with them, talking through strategies for thinking through migration in the museum, in the existing collections (from Ancient Egypt to natural history) and in future plans. (In the same spirit, the website thinkingthroughmigration.com, aims to help museum staff get to grips with migration in working with their institutions, collections, exhibitions, programmes and audiences.)

Suitcase – Adler Koffler, Brown Cardboard, circa 1957. Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY

Before the Refugee Crisis, museums with an explicit interest in migration tended to display suitcases as iconic pieces of exhibition scenery, as a way of showing what it means in human terms to migrate. This prompts a kind of identification game for visitors: if you had to leave home forever, and you had to put all of the material possessions that you can take with you, as it were your whole life, in a suitcase, what would you take? This identification game brings home the emotional effects of moving around the world, a sense of the privation this can involve (for some), and the sense of how (some) people reduce their possessions to the bare minimum before beginning life again. Lifejackets play a similar, yet more extreme role.

A Perilous Crossing’ display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Life jackets on loan from the Canadian Museum of Science and Technologies.
Photo from the collection at Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (DI2016.101.2)

Collecting a lifejacket is a strong but not unusual act. I’ve seen them in a range of institutions. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, includes a lifejacket designed not for seagoing but for use in a backyard swimming pool, but which was nevertheless callously given by people-smugglers to a child for the ‘Perilous Crossing’ from which the exhibition takes its name. The top floor of the Museo del Mare in Genoa is home to a large permanent display entitled ‘Memoria e Migrazioni’ (Memory and Migrations). Here there are some lifejackets, scattered in one of the boats used for the crossing to Lampedusa along with a range of other possessions taken by refugees, as if only the objects remain, and not the passengers (tragically, this is not an infrequent occurrence). The newly-opened, European Parliament-funded House of European History also displays one, along with a video testimonial from a refugee reflecting on his journey, the friends he lost on the way, and the then-and-now of his life. In this museum, the lifejacket signals once again the primary importance for Europe today of the Refugee Crisis.

Zahed Taj-Eddin’s Shabtis: Suspended Truth. Image courtesy of Manchester Museum.

Of course, there are problems of space and borders – how to accommodate the flow of migrants, who should be responsible for them and what this means for domestic politics in many countries (including the UK) where anti-migrant sentiment can run high and change the course of elections or referendums. The Refugee Crisis has bolstered views that both European and national identities and values were ‘under attack’ by cultural others. It fostered tension about quotas and responsibilities that were not simple quantitative matters, but went to the heart of contests about the civility of the European Union and its role in the world. But a lifejacket tells us something else. After use, it is worth little, and may be discarded. There’s something corporeal about it; it’s meant, after all, to fit a body – putatively to save a life – and this might well make us think about ourselves, and what it would be like if we were wearing one, in the situation that the refugees endure. The lifejacket is a symbol and a provocation, reminding us that the Crisis isn’t just a matter of global politics but is also about human lives and the desperate conditions from which people try to escape.

Manchester Museum’s decision to collect and display a lifejacket is an attempt to negotiate between different scales and realms. The ‘bodyness’ of it reminds us of the humans forced to make the journey and invites us to identify, perhaps to empathise, and to think of migrations not as abstract arrows on a globe but as people, suggesting that in other circumstances our lives too might be like theirs. Museums have this job to do: they need to help us to translate global issues into the space of a life –  to bring things home, as it were. But we must remember that this isn’t just about global issues and human lives; it is also about history. The Refugee Crisis comes from somewhere – a set of complex and concatenated stories that go far back and implicate many actors across time and space. Alongside all of the human suffering, we need to communicate this too, otherwise people’s empathy won’t be accompanied by any meaningful historical consciousness that allows for thoughtful and informed political understandings today.

Zahed Taj-Eddin’s Shabtis: Suspended Truth. Image courtesy of Manchester Museum.

Meanwhile, the choice to display the lifejacket against a backdrop of ancient Egyptian collections is about negotiating between realms of public communication. For some visitors, the place for a lifejacket and an upsetting story about refugeeism is not the museum, but newsmedia. Perhaps for some, the museum of ‘old things’ is a refuge (no pun intended) from all of that. A place to ‘switch off’ from the depressing stuff on the news and absorb oneself in a safe past. And yet, as museums might help us to see, the past was never a safe place, and history is happening now.

Christopher Whitehead has professorships in museum and heritage studies at Newcastle University and the University of Oslo. He has published in diverse areas, including museum history, the theory and practice of art interpretation, museums and migration, and memory studies. He is currently working on books on analysing display in museums, and European heritages and identities. He co-ordinates the Horizon 2020 CoHERE project (Critical Heritages: performing & representing identities in Europe) and the Newton Fund ‘Plural Heritages of Istanbul’ project.

This post is a response to Bryan Sitch’s post Radical Objects: A Refugee’s Life Jacket at Manchester Museum 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *