Conference Review: “Cultural Heritage and Migration: New Methods and Historical Contexts” (Stockholm, 15-16 May 2019)

With more than 250 million international migrants around the world, professionals working in the heritage sector in Sweden, and Europe are becoming increasingly aware of their need to expand their competence on issues related to migration to meaningfully engage with both new and existing populations (International Migration Report [IMR] 2017, p. 1). To address this concern, the Swedish National Board of Antiquities, with support from the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage and Global Change, organized an international conference at the City Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, on 15th and 16th May 2019. The conference aimed to create a space for academics, artists, and cultural heritage professionals alike to share and explore ways to approach the relationship between and multiple dimension of cultural heritage and migration.

In the welcoming speeches of the conference, Lars Amréus, director general of the Swedish National Board of Antiquities, and Pascal Lievaux, chair of the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage and Global Change, raised their concerns about the responses to migration and the continued need for efforts to strengthen and promote research and training cooperation across Europe on matters of cultural heritage and the challenges demographic changes can generate. They framed heritage as a right, a right for people, migrant or other, to have a stake in and to relate to. A right to connect to a nation’s past. Though what was left unaddressed then, was the selective nature of a national narrative and its obliviousness towards differences. For whose memory does a national narrative evoke? Whose remembrances are lost? Who decides what gets represented? How are competing narratives or tensions between majority and minority populations addressed?

Furthermore, understanding what is meant by the right to heritage is necessary to define the scope of those rights, not just to whom they extend. For what is done to include migrants or people of migrant descent in a right’s based cultural heritage? How much influence do migrants, people of migrant descent, minority populations or indigenous communities subjected to forced migration or relocation, have in the development of research methodologies and production of knowledge? To what extent are those whose lives are directly affected by migration, namely recent migrants, been included in these matters?    

While the realities of migrants seem to be largely ignored, archaeologists moving beyond the modernist past present divide have begun to consider more carefully the contemporary worlds of migrants (De Leon, 2015; Hamilakis, 2018; Hicks & Mallet, 2019; Holtorf, Pantazatos & Scarre, 2019). Instructive here is the work Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet (2019) have conducted at the former migrant Calais ‘Jungle’ camp. In his conference keynote speech, Dan Hicks, professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University and curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, outlined the traces of human experience at the Calais border, by expanding on the thinking of only intangible heritage in relation to migrants to the co-production of landscapes (Hicks & Mallet, 2019). Hick’s vernacular photography documents the routine acts of hostility towards migrants, such as the destruction of their tangible things, as well as the changes to the landscape over time. Following these traces turns the images into a form of witnessing, a witnessing of “new collectives on the ground” (Witmore, 2006, p. 51). Multiple shots, then, document the undocumented, and, over time, sequence life at the border. One way to think about this witnessing is, in Hick’s view, as a form of photographic testimony that neither interprets nor takes a political position on what happens at a site but merely shares what is. An objective and neutral testimony of contemporary life at the edge. However, in what ways does the sharing of a heritage context that involves the lives and deaths of migrants help their well-being or that of people of migrant descent who share similar memories? For Hicks, archaeology can help make sense of the contemporary world, particularly that of migrants, and a documentary archaeology can re-define the museum as a space for making sense of both the present and the past, but for whose consumption? To what extent has an archaeology of migrants considered how re-collecting traumatic memories impact recent and not so recent migrant children and adults exposed to a dehumanizing hostility at borders? Does it consider the difference who re-assembles and re-tells the migrant experience can make?

Considering what our archaeological abilities (can) offer communities entail laboring with the entrenched colonial legacies of our doing and taking disciplinary and practitioner responsibility for them (Atalay, 2006; Moro-Abadia, 2006; Trigger, 2006). In her talk, Hester Dibbits, professor of Historical Culture and Education at Erasmus University of Rotterdam and Amsterdam University of the Arts, approached the need for white middle-class academics to become aware of their colonial positionality by developing a way of thinking about heritage making that connects a heritage item to the multiple people that might feel connected to it, and the emotions they feel in connection to it. A collaboration with Marlous Willem they call “emotion network.” A map to re-imagine meaning as meanings. In practice, it can create a space for dialogue between people with diverging or complementary feelings, depending, perhaps, on where in the process of networking you find yourself and build expertise among academics working with people in diverse spaces (Rana, Willemsen & Dibbits, 2017). Could “networking” place too much of an emotional burden on minorities? When power imbalances feel, what efforts are made to make “networking” a safe space? How do experiences of trauma in recent migrants and their children, as well as historical trauma among descendants of violent treatment impact their participation and well-being both during and after it? Fataneh Farahani, associate professor of Ethnology and Wallenberg Academy Fellow at Stockholm University, spoke in her presentation about her ongoing research on the limits of hospitality, meaning the restrictions and stipulations placed on the migrant guest’s latitude of action. The limitations on their ability to, for example, mourn or define their cultural heritage. How can the power dynamics between the host and guest in Farahani’s work influence what happens in Dibbits and Willem’s emotion network?

Lizette Gradén from Lund University and Kulturen’s Museum offered a different strategy for engaging with minorities in her presentation on museum entrepreneurship. For Gradén, minorities do not want representation, what they want is for museums to advocate for them. However, economic restraints tend to limit the sort of work institutions can do, and how they do it. Therefore, rather than framing heritage as a matter of cultural history, Gradén proposes framing it as a matter of economy. The argument being that thinking in terms of economic value, as is the case at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, MN, US, can help museums generate the income they need to focus on developing their institution in areas that could benefit minorities. In Sweden, heritage professionals tend to work with minorities from a top-down perspective, with temporary exhibitions that rarely have a substantial impact on the institutions themselves nor the groups with which they seek to work. Gradén, therefore, suggests inviting new Swedish citizens to create their cultural heritage and framing it as she does. But if institutional responsibility to confront problematic colonial legacies is displaced, what support is there to strengthen and help meet the specific challenges existing local community museums face, and minorities to create their cultural heritage? Furthermore, what incentives to decolonize our institutions and practices exist if profitability is the driving factor?

In contrast to approaches that position minorities as the subject of study and recipients of knowledge, Amelia Tham’s approach to heritage making at Fisksätra Museum began as a grass root initiative centered around what collaborating with the local community could add to rather than take from it. Could such an approach create meaning for those living in Fisksätra, a diverse Stockholm suburb with more than 120 nationalities represented? With the local community proposing new initiatives and projects, compensating participants for their work in making the museum through their participation, and raising awareness on issues that matter to them, what began as a pop-up museum gradually developed into spaces of co-production that serve a useful purpose to the community. Fisksätra Museum is rare in its approach and reach, but also a needed force in sustainability transitions in Sweden.

Counter-memories and stories that surfaced in several of the presentations, especially those that examined, as Atalay (2006, p. 283) describes it, “the colonial lens through which archaeological interpretations have been built”, and/or possess a double vision, meaning the added (in)sight that comes from sharing a migration or colonized experience. Fataneh Farahani, associate professor of Ethnology and Wallenberg Academy Fellow at Stockholm University, and Laura McAtackney, associate professor of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Aarhus University, centered their brief but excellent presentations on colonial interactions between European nations, and with migrants in contemporary Europe. While Charlotte Hyltén-Cavallius from the Institute for Language and Marit Myrvoll, Director at Várdobáiki Sámi Museum related historical cases of internal forced migration and relocations, involving the Roma in Sweden and Sami in Norway during the 20th-century, to contextualize the present conditions for these two communities.

Drawing from artistic practices, artist and activist, Saadia Hussain, asked who gets to be creative in Sweden? Her question ran through several of the presentations given and discussion held at the conference. Academics, cultural heritage practitioner and artists asked, who gets to create and not merely be a recipient of knowledge created elsewhere? In her project: ‘Fittjas systrar tar plats,’ Hussain challenges the image of a Stockholm suburb by visualizing bodies often absent from Swedish public space through a large-scale mural in Fittja. However, she does not work alone either, but alongside minorities (or others) that share her experience of marginalization. In the process of creating her artwork, she embraces not only her experiences but also her skills as an artist and shares both with people to create communal art pieces that extend notions about who gets to create, for whom they create, and where creation takes place (Atalay, 2006:283).

Another innovative approach to working with memory, identity, and migration unfolded during a conversation with Jaqueline Hoang Nguyen, artist and artistic researcher at the College of Arts, Crafts and Design and the Royal Technological Institute, and Ulrika Flink, curator at the Settings and Konstfrämjandet at Grafikens Hus. In her project, The Making of An Archive, Hoang Nguyen explores the discrepancy between the bodies visible in national archives and those in the testaments of past presence in the vernacular photographs minorities keep with them. In contrast to Hick’s documentary photography, Hoang Nguyen takes what began as a search for an answer to why people like her migrant father were absent from the Canadian national archives, and transforms it in the creation of a counter-archive built with and for people of color that recovers the experiences and memories found in multiple spaces about cultural life in Södertälje and Hovsjö.

Michael Barrett, Ph.D. in Anthropology and curator of Africa at the Swedish Museum of World Culture, and Josette Bushell-Mingo, head of the Department of Acting at Stockholm University of the Arts and founder of the National Black Theatre of Sweden, closed the conference with an excellent discussion on the conversations cultural heritage and museums professionals need to have to support the Afro-Swedish community in their efforts to recover knowledge about people of African descent in Sweden. In their absence from cultural institutions, and the multiple spaces cultural heritage operates, Afro-Swedes are taking it upon themselves to find the traces and narrate the histories of people of African descent. From the emotional dimensions of decolonizing heritage for minorities to what the future is for the more than 40.000 artifacts from the African continent in the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, Bushell-Mingo and Barrett, along with the actors from newly founded National Black Theatre of Sweden, lead us into areas of specific concern for this community and in so doing opened cultural heritage to future potentials.

Atalay, S. (2006). Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice. American Indian Quarterly, 30(3/4), 280–310. DOI: 10.1353/aiq.2006.0015

De Leon, J. (2015). Land of Open Graves – Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Hamilakis, Y. (Ed.). (2018). The New Nomadic Age: Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing.

Hicks, D. & Mallet, S. (Eds.). (2019). Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond. EPUB: Open Access.

Holtorf, C., Pantazatos, A., & Scarre, G. (Eds.). (2019). Cultural Heritage, Ethic, and Contemporary Migrations. London: Routledge.

United Nations. 2017. International Migration Report 2017. Retrieved from

Moro-Abadia, O. (2006). The History of Archaeology as a ‘Colonial Discourse’. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 16(2), 4–17. DOI: 10.5334/bha16202

Rana, J., Willemsen, M., & Dibbits, H.C. (2017). Moved by the Tears of Others: Emotion Networking in the Heritage Sphere, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23(10), 977–988. DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2017.1362581

Trigger, B. (2006). The History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Witmore, C. (2006). Comments on Julian Thomas (2004): Archaeology and modernity. New York: Routledge. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 39(1), 49–52. DOI:10.1080/00293650600703712