SOAS University of London

Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

Dealing with Difference: representations of migration in European museums

Chris Whitehead (Newcastle University)

Date: 6 March 2013Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G51

Type of Event: Seminar

This paper, emerging from the ‘Museums in an Age of Migrations’ (MeLa) project funded by the European Commission (, focuses on representations of migrant experiences in European museums, considering themes such as homeland, dislocation, struggle, adaptation and cultural tradition. Adapting place identity theories, I consider the complex politics involved in the representation of migrants in ‘receiving states’, involving, on one hand, the impulse to recognise and historicise the presence of migrants and diaspora groups in centres like London, Amsterdam or Berlin and, on the other, the conferral of identity on the ‘host’ country (e.g. as multicultural, liberal, tolerant etc.). This dynamic exists in a social context of heterogeneous attitudes to multiculturalism which find expression in museums, as in the Amsterdam Museum where one display pertains to the murder by an Islamic fundamentalist of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, pointing to the limits of tolerance and the possible fallacy of peaceful multicultural integration. Within this political and politicised sphere of representation I examine displays involving the use of migrants’ possessions to emblematise cultural displacement and survival; such objects are set alongside personal stories about how and why individuals moved from a homeland, towards settlement in an (initially) alien land with which they have to forge relations of belonging. In some displays we find narratives of seamless adaptation and integration, and in others we find unconcluded narratives of struggle and separateness. This analysis underpins consideration of museums’ roles in negotiating and representing a network of interacting place identities: migrants’ ‘homeland’ and post-migration identities and the identity conferred upon the ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ states. At stake in this account of personal stories and networked identity constructions are critical questions about the charged representational politics of folding the guest into the host, the other into the self, refashioning the ‘we’ of whom and to whom the museum speaks.

Organiser: Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

Contact email:

Contact Tel: 0207 898 4434