Museums should be the places to display and discuss uncomfortable histories and realities. We must abandon our comfort zones and inspire audiences. To achieve this, exhibitions, often designed around a particular period or culture, also need to apply multiple but related narratives, using shared challenges and visions to extend its ‘community’ and arouse resonance. The Swiss National Museum once had an exhibition called ‘Displaced’ in 2016/2017. It used ‘illustrative biographies’ to address stories of displaced people who experienced violence, war and persecution. Visitors of the exhibition were enabled to put themselves ‘in the shoes’ of those displaced peoples, thereby exploring (at least to an extent) how they might feel having to escape their homeland.
‘Own history’ and ‘personal memory’ nowadays has also become powerful objects in museums. The artist Ai Weiwei followed the refugees’ path and collected 2046 pieces of clothes from the Idomeni Refugee Camp, forming the exhibition ‘Laundromat’. It captured the daily life of refugees, working as evidence to display the cruel reality that many refuse to see. These daily necessities are more likely to engage the audience and link different communities.
Then why would REFUGEES visit museums? And how can museums help them? Four Berlin museums - the Museum of Islamic Art, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, the Collection of Classical Antiquities and Museum of Byzantine Art and the German Historical Museum - started a project called ‘Multaqa: Meeting Place Museum - Refugees as Guides in Berlin Museums’ in 2015 to train refugees from Syria and Iraq as museum guides. It established dialogues between different cultures and provided an opportunity to promote the integration of mixed groups. Under this circumstance, museums are more than just places for collecting and exhibiting; they are also spaces for learning, communication and identity building. Through interactive projects, from the bottom up refugees become the producers and co-curators of local museums. They can strengthen their sense of belonging and explore their life value in these new environment, integrating into local society better; simultaneously, more mixed groups, including refugees and immigrants, could be attracted to museums. On the other hand, local residents and even tourists from different countries and regions can have a better understanding of the mixed groups and work through and overcome misunderstandings and concerns as much as possible. After all, refugees are also ordinary people; they also have passion for life and dreams and aspirations for the future.
This piece of art portrays the life path of Bea Green, one of the children on the Kindertransport. It is storytelling, but it is more than storytelling; it is also the reflection of the current refugee crisis. Tom Berry uses the waves around Green to symbolize refugees, who are numerous but largely ignored. The artist, like Berry, encourages us to think more broadly about what constitutes displaced people. Artists today have a strong desire to face social reality that is not always humane. They to understand and reflect upon the world critically, and yet… perhaps because of this… their key message to their audiences and to future generations nonetheless still promotes tolerance and offers hope.
Museums have a natural symbiotic relationship with society. This reciprocity does not only exist in those glass cabinets; it exists in the entire space of museums. And the connection between museums and society is manifested not only in display, but also in interpretation and multiple engagement, paying more and more attention to current realities for everyone, in their uniqueness, speficity, and complexities.
By Yanan Hao