The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Monday, March 31, 2008

New Walk Museum - immigration exhibition

I went to New Walk Museum over the weekend which is currently undergoing some refurbishment, but hidden at the back of the museum there was an exhibition I knew nothing about, exploring the experiences of three immigrants to Leicester. As I was chatting about with Amy and Ceri last night, what Leicester is famous for today is it's multiculturalism - The subject of immigration and integration is as we all know are hotly debated, and the exhibition I didn't think explicitly addressed this debate - which maybe it could have done. What it did do was explore the human experience of being forced to leave one country and make a life in another. One of the participants fled her home country of Rwanda with only the clothes she was wearing and her bible, both were exhibited in the gallery. The bible which was incredibly fragile and obviously very precious to its owner, got me thinking about what it means to display objects that obviously carry great personal meanings for somebody and the best way of conveying this meaning? I felt very thankful to all of the participants who took part in this exhibit for allowing me an insight into their lives. And although I am not an immigrant to the country I am not a native ‘Leicesterian’ and could see common themes emerging about integration into a new place. One criticism though - I would have been nice to have seen the museum space used more effectively as a forum for discussion here. I don't think (from what I saw – please correct me if I’m wrong) there was an opportunity to leave comments for example.

I'm interested to hear if anyone else has seen this exhibition what they thought? Exhibitions about this theme are not uncommon in museums at the moment, what's the impact of these I wonder? What do they do well and what do they not do so well?

5 comments:

Amy said...

I haven't seen the exhibition, but - more generally - I sometimes wonder who these kinds of display are 'for'. Do they genuinely encourage a more diverse audience, or help to change/improve community understanding? Hmmmm - I think there might be a postdoc in this Anna - hint, hint. ;)

Mary said...

Thanks for posting about this Anna. I'm currently writing a report for a thinktank about the representation of migration across the UK heritage sector, so I'm always on the lookout for examples of exhibitions.

The question of who they are for is hugely important, and under-addressed. My feeling is that such exhibitions can have an impact on changing people's views and in getting them to see beyond the headlines about immigration. If we don't think museums can do this then you have to wonder what you think they can do. And I've seen this myself as a volunteer. Opening up a space for discussion is crucial though and it's a shame this doesn't seem to be the case. A comments board / book is the minimum: why not use the exhibition as the catalgyst for a series of talks about 'migration: fact and fiction' or 'who are refugees?' etc.

Where a project has been carried out in a genuinely collaborative manner (the recent Refugee Heritage Project by the London Museums Hub is a good example of this ) then the evaluations show benefits across the board, for both community members (measured in terms of the 'generic learning outcomes' often) and for the wider community (in terms of the 'generic social outcomes'). But sometimes I do wonder whether they are just a tick-box exericse for the museum, keen to meet targets imposed by the regional hubs.

One of the most useful articles I've read on this subject is by Laurella Rincon on a project undertaken with refugees in the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden (http://www.museumsnett.no/alias/HJEMMESIDE/icme/icme2005/rincon.pdf). Her observations revealed the extent to which the benefits were certainly not equally distributed between the institution and the participants.

Mary said...

p.s. sorry to hog this post but I'd be interested to hear of any other small exhibitions of this sort, especially in local museums. 'Discover Tyne & Wear' is touring Tyne and Wear Museums Service at the moment. But are there any more?

Amy said...

Just as an aside, there is an opinion piece by Kiran Singh that touches on this issue in this month's Museums Journal (April, p. 19). He questions the trend for museums to 'try or pretend to shift power back to people' through these sorts of community-based exhibitions, asserting that - for the most part - they lack 'real uncensored discussion'. He feels that very little institutional control is given over to community groups during the curation of these exhibitions: 'Most museums prefer it if they pick the panel, choose the themes and then persuade "the community" what they want to hear'.

I'm really interested to visit the New Walk exhibition now! Fingers crossed I'll make it tomorrow.

Amy said...

Ah, I meant to say Mary, completely off the top of my head (and I could be mis-remembering it) I think there is a museum in Copenhagen (the name escapes me - Mette, help?!)which puts visitors through an scenario which is meant to replicate the experience of deportation. I've never been, and received the info second-hand, several years ago, so apologies for vagueness! Anyway, apparently it's terrifyingly 'real'.