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12.00  "Home is Everywhere and Nowhere": The Critical Heritage of Migration and Belonging in Contemporary European Museums

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11:00, Saturday 4 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

This paper will analyze presentations of and identifications with scales of “home” and belonging in European museums, which address (hi)stories of migration and displacement in their displays. It will examine these through the lens of place identity theories, object and display interpretation, and the idea of the “exhibitionary complex.” Empirical research explored visitors’ emotional responses to museum “past-presencing,” and their individual or collective memories of the dark heritage of migration and displacement, which are characterized by the challenging nature of home as both “everywhere and nowhere.”

Using “home” primarily in the emotional sense of “Heimat,” a feeling of belonging to a place, a group of people, or a culture, rather than merely in the literal sense of a birthplace or a place of residence, this paper draws on research that examined the scales of understandings of home as presented by different European museums that address issues of migration. Using approaches from heritage studies and museology, place theories, identity theories, migration studies, representation, and display analysis, it analyzed a variety of museums in relation to understandings of “home,” belonging, and identity in today’s Europe. Empirical research—including semi-structured interviews with museum professionals, site visits to museums; focus groups with visitors and non-visitors; accompanied group museum visits—was undertaken as a form of “heritage ethnology.” 

This paper will examine questions such as: How do visitors and non-visitors of different backgrounds see their understandings of home reflected in the same museum? In what ways are specific objects used to evoke or relate to ideas of belonging? How are concepts of home or belonging interpreted and reflected both via the display of individual objects and within the overall “exhibitionary complex” of the museum? 

The paper will look not only at belonging in terms of the city/region/nation/Europe as a home, but also in particular at questions arising from moving to a “new home” from an “old home,” and the issue of “lost” home(land)s. What individual and collective memories or emotions (expected or otherwise) may be roused by these museum presentations and what dissonances are addressed or hidden in them? The paper will also explore how the experience of a group visit to a museum can become part of the process of “memory work” within the temporary “micro-community” of the group, following Halbwachs’ statement that: “it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize and localize their memories…” (1992).

This paper will therefore explore the multiple meanings and understandings of belonging in a Europe characterized—both historically and today—by migration and displacement, bringing together the fields of museum/heritage studies and memory studies with theories of identity and place to generate new insights into the political, social, and cultural realities of contested heritages of feeling “at home.”

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