Museums, objects and memories of historical and contemporary migration.
An interview with Dr Susannah Eckersley, Lecturer in Museum, Gallery & Heritage Studies at Newcastle University
With the Museums Association’s annual conference taking place this week in Glasgow, we turn our attention to MCH’s Dr Susannah Eckersley and her current role as Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany.
Conference themes this week include museums as places of sanctuary and refuge and as public spaces for debates around migration, identity and the refugee crisis. Susannah’s research compliments those themes well with her project analysing the responses of museums and their audiences to migration.
Susannah has also contributed to the ‘thinking through migration’ website and toolkit for museums, which will be presented at the Museums Conference this week http://thinkingthroughmigration.com
Project title: Affective authenticity? Museums, objects and memories of historical and contemporary migration
This project analyses the responses of museums and their audiences to migration, in connection with material traces of these pasts, linking traumatic memory theories with material culture theories. It explores the potential affective power of ‘authentic’ objects in the museum context in influencing how contemporary audiences situate themselves in relation to constructions of the past.
Researcher: Dr Susannah Eckersley, Lecturer in Museum, Gallery & Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, and from October to December 2016 Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam, Germany, as part of the Leibniz Research Alliance ‘Historical Authenticity’.
Could you tell me a bit about the work you’ll be doing during your Fellowship?
During the Fellowship in Potsdam I will be undertaking new empirical research on contemporary and historical migration, the ways in which it is presented and addressed by museums, particularly in Berlin, and how this is received by audiences. I will also be using the libraries of the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam and the Institute for Museum Research in Berlin, and making the most of being away from my normal workplace to focus on some writing.
And when did you first become interested in the role of museum in relation to displacement and forced migration?
Probably mainly during my time working as a researcher on the MeLA project – a European Commission funded project on European museums in an Age of Migrations (http://www.mela-project.polimi.it/) – which I worked on from 2011 to 2015. Within the Newcastle team working on MeLA, I focussed on the overall question of the connections between migration and museums, looking not only at ‘Migration Museums’ as such, but perhaps more accurately, at how migration – as ever-present within human history – is a part of every museum, whether the museum recognises this or not. In addition I took individual responsibility for undertaking research on displacement and forced migration as one of several forms of migration, investigating this through an analysis of various museums. My existing knowledge of German museums, and of the German history of displacement and forced migration following German border changes at the end of World War II put me in an excellent position to examine this issue through a number of German case studies.
Can you point us to some examples of projects that you feel responds to the difficult heritage of forced migration in a particularly interesting, or challenging way?
There are currently a great many museum and heritage projects focussing on migration, particularly in response to the ‘refugee crisis’, to the point that in some circles it has – I’m sorry to say – almost become ‘fashionable’ to work on migration.
Nonetheless, there are projects which seem to be laying new ground for museum and heritage work in Germany, with migration apparently acting as a kind of catalyst for change – one example of this, I would suggest, is Multaka, a project developed by the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin together with young Syrians (http://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/museum-fuer-islamische-kunst/collection-research/research-coopeation/multaka.html).
A newly-opened museum I visited recently which covers the long history of migration, displacement and resettlement in Germany is the Museum Friedland (http://www.museum-friedland.de/de/). This takes a photographic and archival approach to presenting migration, but interestingly, as it is located on the edges of one of Germany’s main Grenzdurchgangslager (Border Transit Camps) it not only works together on projects with (and for) those living temporarily in the camp, but also offers a ‘Museum Trail’ – sensitively carried out walking tours of the transit camp and town, focussing on sites of relevance to historical migrations and the contemporary migrant experience. These tours are led by individuals with personal experiences of the camp, either migrants themselves, inhabitants of the small town within which the transit camp is embedded or volunteers and staff at the camp.
Other projects dealing with forced migration specifically, include the controversial plans for a Centre against Expulsions (http://www.z-g-v.de/), which has long been the subject of debate both inside and beyond Germany, due to its history of problematic political connections and challenging ideological standpoints. The more recent Foundation for Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation (http://www.sfvv.de), under the umbrella of a committee from the German Historical Museum and the German government, are currently developing a new documentation and exhibition centre in Berlin as a response to this controversial initiative, so it will be particularly interesting to see how this develops.
I take it you’ll be looking at the response of museums in Germany in particular. Is there something distinctive about the German response for you? Why Germany?
My interest in recent German history stems from my undergraduate studies in German, as well as from my own personal background as a bilingual, British-German dual national. Germany has experienced so many extremes of political, social and cultural orders and disruptions over the past century, and this has inevitably had an impact on the whole of German society, its politics and its culture. Museums – institutions at the intersection between society, politics and culture – offer a fascinating insight into this past, and its continuing impact on the present. The way in which Germany responded to the recent ‘European refugee crisis’ and the large numbers of people seeking refuge was unique within Europe, but has also had serious political consequences. While it has acted as a catalyst for previously unseen large-scale public displays of divisions within German society and politics (for example PEGIDA and the AfD), it may also be a catalyst for change within society and in museum practices, recognising the need for and value of dialogue both within and beyond the confines of the museum. The recent influx of refugees and migrants is inevitably changing German society at a speed and in ways which had perhaps not been considered, but which open up the possibility for new ways of – and the necessity for – thinking about belonging and identity.
What will you be reading over the coming months? Which texts do you find yourself referring to most regularly when you’re writing?
Of course, I will make sure that I read those German-language publications on the topics of migration, museums, belonging and identity which are not available easily in the UK, but I will also be going ‘back to basics’ to re-read some of the key works in heritage and museum studies as well as critical and cultural theory – the multiple day-to-day demands of teaching, university administration, Erasmus coordination, student support and research project management which I am temporarily leaving behind can crowd out the mind, so this is a wonderful opportunity to refresh my intellectual faculties!
The Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam, has put out a call for fellows in 2017. More information can be found at http://www.leibniz-historische-authentizitaet.de/en/start/