Europe, Blurred: Migration, Margins and the Museum


  • Kerstin Poehls Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany



Migration, museum, exhibition, Europe, map, object, reflexivity, meta-narrative


More and more museums all over Europe are discovering migration as a topic for exhibitions. These exhibitions on migration question notions of objectivity or of European universalism. This article looks at a broad range of recent exhibitions and museums that address the topic of migration. Taking into consideration their varying scope and institutional context, this text argues that exhibitions on migration tell several stories at once: Firstly, they present stories of migration in a certain city, region or nation, and within a particular period of time. For this purpose, curators make extensive use of maps – with the peculiar effect that these maps blur what seems to be the clear-cut entity of reference of the museum itself or the exhibition. To a stronger degree than other phenomena that turn into museal topics, ’migration’ unveils the constructed character of geographic or political entities such as the nation or the European Union. It shows how, hidden below the norm of settledness, mobilities are and have always been omnipresent in and fundamental for European societies. Secondly and related to this, exhibitions on migration add a new chapter to the meta-narrative of museums: implicitly, they challenge the relevance of the nation - specifically, of both the historical idea that initiated the invention of the public museum (cf. e.g. Bennett 1999) and the political fundament of European integration today. They provoke questions of settledness, citizenship, or contemporary globalisation phenomena that are equally implicitly put on display. The consequent effect is a blurring of the concept of the nationstate. Finally, migration as a museal topic conveys a view on how the institution of the ’museum’ relates to such a fuzzy thing as mobility, thus provoking questions for further research.


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Theme: Exhibiting Europé