Histories of Public Histories: Migrants and Refugees

My brain is still happily buzzing from last night’s IHR Public History Seminar on the question, ‘What is public history in light of the refugee crisis?’ (a intro to the event from Kathleen McIlvenna can be found here). With thoughtful and engaging responses from the different perspectives of academia (Prof Peter Gatrell, Manchester and Prof David Feldman, Birkbeck), museums (Susie Symes, 19 Princelet Street), and humanitarian organisations (Juliano Fiori, Save the Children), the roundtable raised common problems and tensions in the representation of refugee pasts and presents.

The dangers of conflating the current ‘refugee crisis’ with past crises (and perhaps even adopting that language) was a major theme – one that has been pulled apart skilfully in recent months by Jessica Reinisch. Another was the tendency in ‘pro-refugee’ discourses to emphasise refugee contributions to society (think of the UNHCR ‘Einstein was a refugee’ poster shared widely online) as justification for their acceptance – or is this, as Susie Symes pointed out, an important ‘hook’ to engage people in a conversation, and ultimately to challenge assumptions about refugees?


The need to simplify these important discussions down to sound-bite or caption size in public debate means compromises between impact and context are often unavoidable. A recent example is the widespread celebration of Germany’s welcome to refugees – as Klaus Neumann shows, historical context is all too often lost in the rush for a good-news story (and a feel-good image). So how can public historians, or those making history in public, respond to current migratory movements? What role can the past play in the interpretation of the present?

A starting point offered by Peter Gatrell is to look to the ‘history of the public history of refugees’. Citing examples of exhibitions and memorials that have been constructed by those who have been displaced from their homelands, by philanthropic organisations wishing to encourage public support for refugees, or by governments eager to display their histories of welcome, Gatrell asked us to consider whose voice is heard in these displays, and underlined the problem of homogenising a diversity of experience into an emblematic refugee story.

Luckily, for public historians today, there is a long and rich history of individual exhibitions, memorials, and even entire museums devoted to the experiences of people who have made lives in new countries. These representations can form a kind of reference library of ideas and models for public history projects.* In the Australian context, which has been the focus of my research, thirty years of exhibitions about migration have weathered changing political climates and hardening views towards refugees and asylum seekers. Curators and museum managers – many of them migrants or refugees themselves – have made bold decisions about whose stories to record and whose objects to collect. These decisions can ultimately shape what is seen as ‘national heritage’, even though it might only become apparent decades later.

For instance, far-sighted museum workers from the fledgling National Museum in Canberra in the 1980s acquired a fishing vessel called the Hong Hai for their collections. The boat was a recent arrival to Australian shores, having pulled into Darwin harbour in 1978 with thirty eight passengers fleeing Vietnam. By the time the National Museum of Australia officially opened in 2001, the 90,000 Vietnamese refugees that had been resettled in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s were an established part of Australian society, and the journey of the Hong Hai became one of the feature stories in the exhibition Horizons: The Peopling of Australia Since 1788. The display of another refugee boat, Tu Do, at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, also attests to the importance of these decisions.

I wonder what objects and stories are being collected now?

*recent publications which record and analyse this ‘reference library’ of representations:

Eureka Henrich, ‘Museums, History and Migration in Australia’, History Compass, Vol. 11, No. 10, Oct 2013, pp.783-800

Katherine Goodnow, Museums, the Media and Refugees: Stories of Crisis, Control and Compassion, Berghahn Books, 2008.

Laurence Gourievidis (ed), Museums and Migration: History, Memory and Politics, Routledge, 2014.

Christopher Whitehead, Katherine Lloyd, Susannah Eckersley and Rhiannon Mason, Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe, Ashgate, 2015.


3 thoughts on “Histories of Public Histories: Migrants and Refugees

  1. clairelhayward

    Reblogged this on IHR Public History and commented:
    Eureka Henrich (University of Leicester Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship in Medical Humanities) has blogged some thoughts on the ‘What is Public History in the light of the recent refugee crisis?’ seminar, 21/10/2015.

  2. Peter Gatrell

    Hi Eureka, Thank you for taking the trouble to post this response (even if it mangled my name!). It’s very helpful to be reminded of the Australian dimension. Peter Gatrell


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