Migration and museums

A version of this post was originally written for the graduate seminar “Framing Migration,” taught by Prof. Deniz Göktürk of the UC Berkeley Department of German. In this post, seminar participant Aster Hoving reacts to an essay by German cultural anthropologist Barbara Wolbert, “Studio of Realism: On the Need for Art in Exhibits on Migration.”

Wolbert’s piece analyzes the exhibition Projekt Migration, a collaboration between the art world and academia that “comprised a variety of research projects, art works, events and film programs. The assorted activities focused on the history of labor migration since the 1950s and the accompanying social changes.” Aster connects Wolbert’s problem of musealization to the websites of two historical sites, now museums, of migration to the US: the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) in San Francisco and the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island in New York City, comparing the way they archive and frame migrant experiences. 

Two museums in the United States that provide a national history of immigration, are the AIISF and the Ellis Island Foundation. Both also offer a website through which a visitor can access (part of) the collection of the foundations. In order to compare the way in which the respective museums organize their online material, Barbara Wolbert’s critique of immigration museums is useful. Wolbert’s critique of Projekt Migration in relationship to the Angel Island Foundation and Ellis Island Foundation brings to light that the latter offers a binary narrative of migration, while the Angel Island Foundation succeeds in avoiding this.

Wolbert has argued that using objects in order to represent migrant workers in museums, and the thereby seemingly unchanged appearance of these items, leads to a sense of a “continuation of a reality of labour migration”. While this does move a history of migration into the present of the audience, at the same time it categorizes the museum visitor as subject with non-migration background, putting a dichotomy of us and them into play.

According to Wolbert, the institutional authority of a museum is not capable of providing the stories inscribed in the objects within the “presumed historical distance” that characterizes a museum. A museum transforms “musealized” objects into representatives of a generalized story of migration. Wolbert argues, instead of an authoritative institution providing a grand narrative, for the presence of a clear voice of an author in an exhibition.

This voice is most present in the works of an artist: “[w]hen scholars of contemporary history, academic and other, show objects in order to represent labour migrants’ lives and lifestyles in their exhibitions, they avoid being part of the picture they create with their displays. While an artists name has to appears on the label of an artwork [….]”.

An artist, by intervening and taking responsibility for that which is on display, makes the “cultural space” between object, artist and viewer visible. Wolbert therefore argues that for an exhibition to comment on, or to question reality, it needs to be defined by having a author, and not be overarched by an authority.

In the light of Wolbert’s critique, the AIISF in San Francisco is interesting. The foundation provides visitors with a database of personal narratives of migration. Not represented is the voice of the archivist who composed this collection, which would be missing according to Wolbert’s standard in order to avoid a grand narrative. Even though this is the case, the Angel Island collection is not (as seems to be the case in Project Migration) composed of objects, but of narratives. Even though these narratives might be presented as objects/artifacts, each of the parts of the archive tells a particular story about a particular experience, avoiding the generalization of the migrant experience.

There are two more traits of the archive which can be appreciated. First is the option to “submit your story” on the webpage of the archive. This option breaks with the us and them binary described by Wolbert, and addresses the archive’s audience not as a native part of a pre-established culture, but as a subject with a particular migration experience. The second trait can be found when scrolling through the filter options: in the “year of arrival” category, a visitor can also select the option “born in the USA.” This creates a more multifaceted image of migration, where the migration experience is not one which is figured as a journey from one point to a strange destination, but one that can also be experienced in the country of birth.

A museum website that contrasts with the one of the AIISF is the website of the Ellis Island Foundation in New York. This website also contains an archive of personal stories. In the case of the Ellis Foundation, this archive is not composed of written, but of oral and transcribed narratives. The Ellis Island Foundation systematically collects interviews with migrants to the United States. The website offers the option to filter the archive. A visitor can choose to either browse “immigrant” stories, or “United States government employees” stories.

This organizing of the archive into stories of the stories of “us” and “them”, offering the visitor two sides of a story, emphasizes cultural difference and thinking into binary oppositions. Keeping Wolbert’s argument in mind, this presents the presumed audience of the archive of the Ellis Island Foundation either with the position of the native or universal migrant. This option of the archive is a symptom of what Wolbert would describe as “authority”, and therefore, the Ellis Island Foundation would benefit from taking the website of the Angel Island Foundation as an example.

Aster Hoving is an undergraduate student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

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