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09.00  "Like Satires of Creation, We Move North, Gazing at Europe and Brazing the Dazzling Sahara Sun": Diasporic Imagination and Heritage in the Era of Mass Migration

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This paper will consider how the notions and definitions of heritage (both tangible and intangible) are changing, due to the recent and on-going forced migrations from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. The recent “refugee crisis” (brought to national and international attention via media reports) has highlighted not only the extent and depth of a vast humanitarian crisis but also a complex socio-cultural phenomenon that, without doubt, will have an impact on the way cultural heritage is defined, interpreted, and used by local (both hosted and host) communities in Europe to forge new cultural and collective identities. As human beings we desire to feel attached to and be rooted in a particular place. However, when individuals or entire cultural groups are forced to leave their homes and countries (due to armed conflicts or poverty) and resettle in another country, a deep sense of estrangement and the feeling of nostalgia for the ancestral home become predominant. Museums can certainly support refugee groups in overcoming this estrangement by assisting them to recreate a sense of place and negotiate their identities in their new home. In order to do so, it is essential that museums understand and define the new forms of diasporic heritage so that they can construct new narratives of belonging and identity. 

This paper will look at the changing notions and perceptions of heritage through the diasporic imagination and in the era of mass migration: the concept of “diasporic imagination” will be used primarily to indicate the reinterpretation of the past (even a very recent one), on the basis of the experienced memories of displacement. Specifically, I will focus on local communities (that are hosting and supporting refugees from Africa and the Middle East) and museums in the North-West England, which already have a tradition of supporting diasporic groups and displaying diasporic heritage. The study will be informed by interviews with members of the local refugee communities, representatives of local cultural organizations and museum and heritage professionals, and it will address the following questions: What are the new notions of heritage in the era of mass migration? And how can the diasporic imagination be used in museum narratives to help refugees overcome the trauma of forced migration? 

I will argue that the forced migration we are currently witnessing is the beginning of a new heritage paradigm, which would need, once again, a new cultural and civic recognition in museums and related heritage institutions. Within this paradigm, diasporic imagination is a key element because it can trigger a (positive) process of memory recollection and identity redefinition that allows refugee groups to culturally re-assert their history, memory, and traditions in the hosting context. 

Therefore, by considering a contemporary social and cultural phenomenon (mass and forced migration) and the ways this phenomenon is changing the definitions and understandings of cultural heritage in Europe, this paper will contribute to the current discussions on the social and cultural reconfiguration of heritage, within and outside museums.

Dr Anna Catalani


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