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Reshaping The World: Migration, Refugees, And Forced Displacement

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Image of an exhibit with two figures shown standing with children
Two-Thirds Of The 65.3 Million People Displaced Worldwide Are On The Move Within Their Own Country. More Than 80 Percent Of The Other Third Have Been Taken In By Their Neighboring Countries. The Fictitious People In The Swiss National Museum’s “Displaced” Exhibit Talk About Their Fates And Their Perspectives. © Swiss National Museum

“Refugees and displacement are likely to become a defining issue of the 21st century.”Alexander Betts, director, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

Mass migration, driven by conflict, oppression, political upheaval, climate change, environmental disasters, and economic distress, has been described as “the defining issue of this century.” These traumatic relocations reshape the lives of the people who are displaced and of their new host communities, and spark both the best and the worst of human behavior. Museums can use their influence to build bridges between established residents and newcomers—to ease fears, build trust, and find common ground. And new migrants can help museums reexamine their relationships to place, to heritage, and to social transformation

Migration is a constant in human history, but the scale of current involuntary migration is colossal. Last June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons surpassed 65 million—the highest number documented since the aftermath of World War II. Some migrants meet the definition of “refugee” as established by the 1951 UN convention: someone fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion. More than half these refugees are children, who are particularly vulnerable to the upheavals of exodus and resettlement. Many other displaced persons, dubbed “survival migrants,” are fleeing economic collapse or food insecurity.

The world is beginning to see significant numbers of “climate refugees” as well, as communities are driven from their homes by changing environmental conditions. According to estimates by the United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration, between 50 million and 200 million people—mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen—could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change. Last year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would devote $48 million to relocating the Native American residents of Isle de Jean Charles further inland—the first of many Louisiana communities that will need to be resettled in coming decades. If America’s last “great migration” was the exodus of African Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North, the next may be the shift of residents of low-lying coastal regions all around the country to the interior due to rising sea levels and the increasing frequency and severity of storms.

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Recent waves of immigration test the capacity of many countries to provide food, jobs, housing, and basic security. These strains often trigger backlash from people in new host communities who fear for their own livelihoods, safety, or traditional ways of life. This in turn has led to a resurgence of nationalist, often right-wing movements in many countries—both mainstream political parties and groups on the fringe. Dominating the national and international stage and shaping politics across the globe, the challenges abound: whether to welcome or discourage migrants, how to share the responsibility for accepting and resettling refugees, and how to navigate the inevitable changes to local culture.

Image of a table with several screens showing people's faces
“If All Relationships Were To Reach Equilibrium Then This Building Would Dissolve,” A 2016 Exhibition At Mima. Courtesy Of Mima

The same stressors that drive forced migration—financial crisis, unemployment, civil conflict, terrorism—can make people lose their capacity to recognize others’ humanity. Across the world we see communities struggle to determine to what extent “outsiders” should be encouraged or forced to conform to local norms. Controversies over clothing, always a powerful symbol of cultural identity, exemplify these strains, with many European countries outlawing or considering banning face veils in public places or modest “burkini” bathing costumes on beaches. Such bans have been met with legal challenges asserting the primacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the basic principles of human rights, but legal decisions alone can’t resolve the underlying cultural conflicts. Empathy toward migrants declined in the months after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015, and in Australia the Scanlon Foundation has documented a decline in empathy and social trust that has in turn fueled antimigrant attitudes.

Many believe that there is an urgent need to shift the public and political view of refugees as a burden to refugees as a resource. All too often, communities focus on the crime, disease, and general moral decline some fear will follow in the wake of immigration. These fears persist even in the face of research to the contrary. It is well documented, but less well publicized, that migrants can act as sources of economic and social revitalization. Two-thirds of the economic development and economic growth of cities is determined by population flow, and migration is a major driver of demographic change. In Detroit, which has resettled more Iraqi refugees in the last decade than any other city in the United States, the Global Detroit initiative has documented the power of immigrants to revitalize and stabilize declining urban neighborhoods. Bolstered by these findings, a coalition of 18 Rust Belt cities in the declining industrial Midwest of the United States is encouraging immigration, including refugee resettlement, to spur economic development and reverse declining populations.

The success or failure of communities to welcome, support, and integrate migrants will resonate for decades to come. Migrant children entering school may need support to overcome trauma, master new language skills, and navigate new cultural expectations. In most of Europe, the refugees from the 1990s-era wars in the Balkans are now reaching senior positions all through society; the children of current migrants may be our future leaders. On the other hand, failed policies lead to self-propagating cycles of tension and fear. Ten years after the urban riots of 2005, France continues to suffer cultural and economic fallout from the practice of effectively segregating migrants and refugees into poor suburban ghettos.

A couple of women are looking down at an exhibit on a table.
Olafur Eliasson: Green Light: An Artistic Workshop Coproduced By Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary. Installation View: Tba21-Augarten, Vienna, Austria. Photo: Sandro E.E. Zanzinger/Tba21. 2016. @Olafur Eliasson

As members of museums’ communities, migrants and refugees bring their own particular needs, notably to remember and preserve their history and culture even as they settle into their new country. Migrants may need language and job training as well as advocates to promote tolerance and understanding within the host community. They may need help recovering from trauma. Museums, through their collections, can provide context and historical perspective around the migrations shaping their communities. And in so doing, they can promote the kinds of personal encounters, dialogues, and empathy that promote healing and ease the fears and tensions between refugees and established residents.

Addressing migration gives older cultural museums a way to connect their mission to current events and new community members. For example, the original audience of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, included Czech refugees who fled to the United States during World War II as well as the 1960s. While the Czech and Slovak population of Cedar Rapids is shrinking, the city is home to a growing number of new refugees, notably from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the museum is responding with a series of events that includes a summit to promote art and cultural initiatives serving local refugee and immigrant communities. As a museum staff member noted, “We have to respond to current issues and make a Czech and Slovak Museum relevant to people who aren’t Czech and Slovak.”

Serving a community that includes recent migrants and refugees may require museums to adapt their hiring and training. Understanding the difficulties of conflict and conflict resolution can require a skill set unfamiliar within traditional museum professions. Museums may adapt by hiring people from nontraditional backgrounds, developing new training, and giving representatives of migrant communities meaningful roles in determining how the museum serves their needs. And all museum staff may need training to deal productively with anti-immigrant attitudes directed at the community, visitors, or the museum itself.

Exterior shot of the Call Me By My Name exhibit written on a brick wall outside the gallery
“Call Me By My Name: Stories From Calais And Beyond,” An Exhibition Examining The Humanity And Complexity Of The Ongoing Refugee Crisis, Staged By The Migration Museum Project In London. © Branding By Garden, Courtesy Migration Museum Project Www.Migrationmuseum.Org

Museums and Migration ( was created by Anna Chiara Cimoli and Maria Vlachou as a place to bring together current museum thinking and practice regarding migration and the refugee crisis.

Museums, migration and cultural diversity: Recommendations for museum work. Published by the German Museums Association, translated into English by the Network of European Museum Organisations, 2015.

Museums and Migration: History, Memory and Politics, Laurence Gourievidis, ed. Routledge, 2014. An international compilation of essays on issues and challenges; engaging with cultural diversity; and migration history and personal narratives in museums.

The MeLa Books Series, available as free digital downloads, includes several titles related to museums and migration, including Museums in an Age of Migrations. Questions, Challenges, Perspectives, by Basso Peressut, Luca, and Clelia Pozzi, eds. Politecnico di Milano, 2012.


Asylum seeker: a person who seeks safety from persecution or serious harm in a country other than his or her own, and applies for refugee status under relevant national and international laws.

Migrant: a traveler who moves from one region or country to another.

Refugee: a person who is involuntarily absent from home or country; an exile who flees for safety; a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable  or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (1951 Refugee Convention Act).

Forced migration: the coerced movement of a person or persons away from their homes or home regions.

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