Representing Migration in Inclusive Museums

The Humanity House

Inge Zlatkou


In an era of globalization, characterized by a constant exchange of information due to the Internet breaking down national barriers and driving a high level of mobility among individuals who become members of multicultural societies, the definition of “national” is itself being challenged.[1] Concepts such as “world heritage” and “world society” demand a reexamination of the museological approaches used to interpret the material heritage that museums preserve and display. Museums, as organizations including art museums, should represent universal values instead of national interests.[2] Many nations today are polyethnic; they are shaped by the numerous backgrounds of their habitants at their geographical location. This will only become more pronounced. Predictions by both the International Organization of Migration and Xenia Chryssochoou, a professor of social psychology, claim that we will see an increasing number of multicultural and maybe even global societies throughout the twenty-first century.[3]

Yet national references are a common fact in a variety of museum types, used as a way to group demographic themes and exhibits. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow divided its collection in galleries, some of which are named after national references, like the “French Art Gallery.” The National Archaeological Museum of Athens, in order to refer to its collection on its website, uses expressions such as “ancient Greek ceramics.”[4] The National Museum of Ireland categorizes part of its collection as “Irish Art 1670–1835” and uses expressions in its exhibition such as “Irish easel painting” and “Ireland’s finest practitioners.” This approach leaves open questions. What is Irish? Does “Irish” refer to the products produced within Ireland or by Irish people? And thus, who is Irish? Is this type of identity related to gene pools, personal identification, or adoption of nationally approved marking customs?

In the current era of increasing migration, where people change countries for various reasons, elements such as national identity often fail to sufficiently describe an increasing segment of the population. More precisely, today’s period is characterized by “multiple” yet sometimes incompatible identities and national boundaries that are being challenged.[5] Therefore, if a museum (independently of its type) aims for social inclusion, it needs to take into consideration the contradicting nature of today’s multicultural societies and the approach of the national identity as a static idea.

When people are able to choose their collective identities to an extent, should museums still represent heritage and people based on national borders?[6] Or, borrowing from Christopher Whitehead and Rhiannon Mason’s question: “What are the new dimensions of identity construction and production in museums whose physical place is fixed but whose audiences, with their changing heritages and cultures, are not?”[7] These questions are without doubt very broad for the length of this paper; therefore I will examine the representation of migration in museums, as their topic (the immigrants) is connected to museum inclusivity. In order to delve into the topic of migration in museums, I will focus on the case of the Humanity House, which belongs to a specific type of museum, that of migration.[8] This museum will be compared and contrasted with other museums, with the aim to spot the complexity of the national identity references in a museum.

The migration museum is a contemporary and relatively recent phenomenon that is growing in popularity. A significant number of them exist today, the majority of which have emerged since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This type of museum, which deals mostly or exclusively with migration, is recognized by various organizations, including UNESCO.[9] Dr. Claire Sutherland, researcher of Nationalism and National Building, explains how these museums play a significant role to the contemporary definitions of the nation and its identity through the representation of migrants and crossing borders.[10] They are also able to create the difference between “us” and the “others”—a construction that nations want to maintain. This strong drive to uphold this construction is the reason that a museum of this type was selected.[11]

From this perspective museums have a challenge of representing nationality-based thematic groups while taking into account the significantly different experiences and events that migrating populations undergo. What can other types of museums, such as art museums, learn from migration museums about adapting their interpretation of their collections in a way that is relevant to concepts such as global migration and detachment of national identities?

Museums and social inclusion

Questions connected to the changes and drifts in societal structures are important and topical for museums that have gradually shifted from being sites of “worship” and nuclei of cultural cohesion into “public services and social agents,”[12] signifying that their service to society is among their primary goals.[13] This newer role is reflected and in some ways imposed upon other museums by its presence in the latest definition of the museum, put forward in 2007 by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). According to ICOM, a museum is “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development.”[14] This demonstrates the need to move from the traditional referential role of the museum towards one that is more dynamic and evolutionary, capable of affecting social and cultural change.

Today the social role of museums is tightly connected to inclusion, according to scholars such as Jens Andermann and Silke Arnold-de Simine, with many having explicit inclusion objectives among their strategic aims (such as being addressed to and accessible by individuals with different nationalities, races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and physical and mental abilities).[15] This notion is connected to the different financial and societal factors that urge museums to address a wider audience and its audience’s need for representation.[16]

Social inclusion in museums deals with the inclusion of socially disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as immigrants, in the museums’ narrative.[17] The Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO), while describing inclusion, emphasizes the acceptance of individuals and their different characteristics, which should be represented by museums without the intention to adapt them to dubious norms.[18] One example of such a norm is the use of nation-related vocabulary as a lens through which we observe and interpret cultures, and thus also people.[19]

The need to evolve museums beyond these dubious norms is clear, according to museologist Giovanni Pinna. He states that contemporary museums are capable of mirroring society and its transitions and, more specifically, of representing the “otherness” that occurs when different cultural, ethnical, and national populations blend together, as seen in today’s multicultural societies.[20] According to Pinna, when museums represent a specific social body, according to their inclusive role, they should be aware of both the collective and the individual identity of a person.[21] This cannot be done, for example, if museums are restricted to operate through a “nation as a lens” model.

Fig. 1. A typical Dutch home recreation at the Humanity House Museum.

Museums and national identity

Among the goals of many of the first government-funded public museums was the promotion of national unity based on a commonly shared national identity among the citizens. This identity relied on a supposedly common heritage and its continuity through the centuries.[22] However, the general public and various educational institutions seem, even today, to ignore that nations are a very recent phenomenon, introduced around the beginning of the twentieth century.[23]

Collective identities such as a national identity are highly dependent on the interpretation of heritage, and heritage is connected to a specific place and its representation.[24] An example of this is the fact that people refer to places and cultures of the pre-nation era, as “ancient nations” (e.g., ancient Greece), meaning that what they consider national is something that happened in the past in this particular area, which only nowadays belongs to a particular nation’s geographical territory. This “place identity” is constructed upon the demarcation of a geographical area (usually under the name of a nation), the adoption of its history, and the identification of its present and future as that history’s continuity.[25] A nation is connected to a specific place; people, on the contrary, especially due to migration, are not. This justifies the fact that there are many individuals who have double nationalities, and others who feel connected to many different countries, and therefore cannot identify themselves as belonging to just one particular nation.[26]

EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, a museum with remarkable interactive exhibits and that is inclusive to all ages, intends to “tell the story of the 70 million worldwide who claim Irish descent.”[27] By using the phrase “claim Irish descent” the museum already goes a step closer towards inclusion: a person can claim an identity, which highlights the fluid and subjective nature of identities. Moreover, the word “descent” leaves open the possibility for multiple nationalities attached to a single person. Thus, the use of this word correlates migration and national identity and is perceived to support the fact that a person might feel connected to the place they come from, while at the same time they might also feel connected to a new place.

Many well-established museums that have historically been crucial in shaping the national identity of the country in which they are located (often serving a wider geopolitical agenda), are naturally conflicted if they wish to adopt the inclusivity definition and operating model discussed earlier.[28]

There are many contemporary examples of museums with strong national focus in their heritage. For instance, the British Museum, which claims to be a “Universal Museum” (meaning that it displays collections from all over the world), still carries a name that is connected to the representation of the nation, in this case, Great Britain.[29] This name implies an ownership of the collection by the British government, as well as a reminder of the colonial past of the country.[30] Most often, the museums that are still dominated by the interests of the nation to which they belong are historical, cultural, and ethnological museums like the British Museum.[31] According to Pinna, European museums of all sizes still refer to people’s national identities, using them as a way to maintain the “power by the dominant ethnic classes and groups.”

In fact, identity includes a wide range of human activities, like religion, ethnicity/nationality, and common interpretations of a conjecturally shared past—topics that are commonly presented in museums. More specifically, heritage is one of the elements used to construct collective identities. Most importantly, identity (both collective and individual) is commonly used as a static idea, whereas in reality it is a concept that is constantly altering with the passage of time.[32] The museums of the late nineteenth century generally represented the identity of the people as if it were fixed in time.[33] National identity, in particular, is a concept that is formed upon a supposedly common past, demanding that people act as a group when they feel threatened.

Museum professional Christina Johansson touches upon the need for the reflection of individual characteristics in museum narratives and suggests the replacement of references to group identities with individual stories and social interactions.[34] These two aspects of individuality and interactive experiences that museums should adopt in the place of collective identities such as the “nation” (according to Johansson) are demonstrated in an example of a migration museum, the Humanity House, in The Hague.

The Humanity House: an analysis of the visit

The Humanity House is intentionally completely detached from any national, ethnic, or other type of collective identity characterization, and thus does not refer to people of a specific culture or nation; rather, it seems to target a generic Western audience of around ten years of age or older.[35] The museum deals with forced migration, which is defined as a “forcible, compulsory… movement of people from one area or country to another by military or political means.”[36] Certainly, forced migration is a critical issue that can involve violence and victims, and is generally a negative experience for the people involved. Despite the unpleasant nature of this topic, a migration museum has the capability of creating “multiple points of reference and identification” for its visitors.[37]

Fig. 2. Non-reflective mirror in an exhibition room at the Humanity House Museum.

The museum was established in December 2010 by the Dutch Red Cross and receives support from the City of The Hague and the European Commission. It claims to constitute a place where the visitor can “see, hear and experience the human story behind disasters and conflicts.”[38] More specifically, it offers its visitors the opportunity to experience a hypothetical situation in which they are living as an exemplary family in the Netherlands. The family must evacuate their home, as advised by a sudden radio announcement claiming that the country is under an emergency situation. The whole concept is rather convincing: visitors enter only few at a time, and are given at the entrance a copy of their identity with their photo on it, a migration paper with personal details, and a necklace with sensors that activate different points of the exhibition. Afterward, they head downstairs and enter a typical Western European house (bike at the entrance, laundry area, small and comfortable living room), where they are informed about the emergency situation (fig. 1). Details like the distinguishing radio announcement soundtrack or the laptop on the table showing a Facebook newsfeed occupied by posts regarding the incident contribute to the immersion of the visitors in the scenario. Following a claustrophobic path with exhibits that further construct a feeling of uncertainty and disorientation, similar to what refugees experience, visitors are led to a border crossing point, where they follow the typical procedure of showing their personal documents and being treated in an interrogative way by the hypothetical border officer.

An interesting contribution to the uncanny feeling is a small room before the border crossing, where the visitor is unable to see their reflection in the mirror (the mirror is in reality an opening between that room and an identical room in reverse), accompanied by a label in Dutch on the wall with the words, “You do not exist without papers” (fig. 2). Once visitors cross the hypothetical border, where there is no indication about the country they have entered, they are welcomed by the Red Cross organization in a room filled with migrants’ files. There they have to find the file with their last name initial and attach to it the migrant paper they were given previously, hoping that the Red Cross will be able to reunite them with the rest of their family (fig. 3). Later on, the visitors’ path leads them to a space where different, smaller rooms are located, placed in the interiors of big shipping containers. One of these recounts the experiences of a refugee of unknown nationality who shares his personal story through a recorded interview. At the end of the exhibition is a room with additional personal stories of refugees and further references to the work of Red Cross. The indicators that this museum is associated with its founding NGO are strong, and could be interpreted by some in a way that contradicts with its neutrality, projecting Red Cross as a sole savior, or perhaps aiming to increase its funding from donors.[39] Throughout the visit, the visitor’s path is indicated by arrows on the floor. There are also plenty of interactive exhibits and rooms with staged environments, such as a room in which a refugee is interviewed, which also contains some of his personal belongings and headphones, accompanied by visual material about his story (fig. 4).

Overall, the Humanity House concentrates on migration as a phenomenon, aiming to represent refugees inside a curated environment as people who are grouped together not by their common ethnicity or place of origin, but by their shared experiences. This absence of references to national borders is aligned with the Red Cross, whose mission is about “providing assistance without discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions.”[40]

Fig. 3. Red Cross offices recreation at the Humanity House Museum.

In contrast to abolishing national labels, EPIC uses the Irish diaspora as a starting point for its narrative and examines migration as part of the Irish identity. Supporting or promoting a national identity through a museum, whether its focus is on migration, like EPIC, or on art, like Kelvingrove, requires further examination of the concept of “nation” within the context of this paper. To delve deeper into the subject of museums and migration, a further analysis of the approaches used to represent migration within the Humanity House museum follows, divided into five categories: Experience, Immersive space, Iconic objects, Personal stories, and Museum events.


A keyword that could describe a visit to the Humanity House, which is also present in its mission, is “experience.” Through its exhibition spaces the museum intends to recreate the experience of migration and adapt it to the lifestyle of an average person who lives in the Netherlands, or that of a similar Western environment. The exhibition consciously avoids reference to any specific case of migration, in order to urge visitors to live their own story of forced migration based on commonly shared experiences of real-life refugees. According to Chryssochoou, global societies consist of people coming from multiple ethnic/social groups and nations, and therefore there is a need to focus on the relationships between the different individuals.[41] As such, the Humanity House blends together different identities, isolating the common feeling of people being forced to leave their homeland and enter a foreign environment, unaware of what awaits them.

According to cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall, the national unification process is based on the convergence of a key set of cultural levels of the population, such as gender, social class, and race, focusing only on the creation of a “large national family.”[42] This fact is reflected upon museums when they display, for instance, migration solely based on the people’s countries of origin. Nevertheless, there are examples of museums which provide a broader definition of diversity in a multicultural environment. One of these is the Museum of World Culture, as described by Johansson. The museum, apart from references to the ethnicity of the multicultural Swedish society, includes references to people’s sexuality, generation, and gender, with addressing global issues as its goal.[43] Another example is the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, a contemporary art museum that challenges its visitors to “think about art and its place in the world.”[44] The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam also aims at telling a story about humankind, including universal themes like mourning, celebration, prayer, and conflict.[45]

According to architect and lecturer Francesca Lanz, though, what is common for European migration museums is to approach the representation of the history of emigration as a part of the local history; a part that can be linked to the strengthening of the local and national identity.[46] For example, EPIC focuses on stimulating the feeling of pride in their visitors by highlighting the achievements that “Irish” people in diaspora have made throughout the years. In contrast, the Humanity House, unrelated to any particular region or nation, intends to present forced migration as an experience that unites all refugees, regardless of their nation, placing them together under the umbrella of a commonly shared traumatic experience.[47] Moreover, the museum uses the experience of “border crossing,” a curatorial theme that functions as a base for the unfolding of the museum’s narrative, which is developed chronologically. The theme of border crossing, according to migration scholar Joachim Baur, can have a multilayered interpretation, as it can tackle issues of inclusion and exclusion, referring to the nature of wanted and unwanted migrants. Additionally, the theme of “travel” can be understood as a metaphor of transformation and change.[48]

Fig. 4. Audiovisual material and personal objects at the Humanity House Museum.

Immersive space

Furthermore, both the Humanity house and EPIC use the concept of “immersive space” to communicate their narrative. Immersive spaces are full-scale exhibitions that visitors can walk through and employ “theatrical techniques, including original furniture and replicas, lights, sounds, reconstructions,” and “interactive devices, audio and video testimonies,” where the visitor is no longer a “spectator” but a “character/actor” inside the story, according to Lanz, who served as Assistant Coordinator and Dissemination Manager in the EU-funded research project MeLa – European Museums in an age of migrations.[49] In order to achieve this, both museums use state-of-the-art technology. At present an increasing number of different museum types are turning to immersive spaces for their exhibitions, and many studies claim that multisensory immersion increases not only the engagement of the visitor with the collection, but also enhances the creation of a memorable museological experience, as filmmaker and museum scholar Maggie Burnette Stogner claims.[50] The interactive nature of the exhibits is of great value, according to educational studies. As professor of science and museum education George E. Hein states, in order for learning and meaning-making to be efficiently achieved, the visitor has to interact or “attend to do something.”[51]

Immersive spaces are already commonly used in representing migration, as they transform the museum into a means to provide a realistic experience, recreating spaces such as ships, trains, station halls, and border checkpoints—the latter two appearing also in the case of the Humanity House.[52] The museum visit becomes a space of engagement and interactivity, where senses such as seeing, hearing, and touching are stimulated. More specifically, the Humanity House includes exhibits whose activation depends on the visitors’ actions, such as the handling of identity documents with the border officer and the Red Cross files that transform the visitor into an active element of the exhibition. Stogner believes that immersive experiences inside the museum space are effective in their role towards the visitor’s relation to the content of the exhibition, since they provide “discrete experiences” without external disturbances.[53] Overall, Lanz believes that using immersive spaces in migration museums is a significant way to force a feeling of unity upon a phenomenon that is connected to diversion.[54]

Iconic objects

Particularly in the representation of migration, immersive spaces contain a variety of objects that are visually connected to the dramatization of the visitors’ experience and offer an immediate connection to the theme of migration. These items are called “iconic objects.”[55] According to Lanz, they are usually personal belongings of refugees, such as travel documents, luggage, passports, clothes, and baby toys—all categories present throughout the Humanity House visit. The reason behind their usage is neither of historic nor artistic value, but rather their capability to influence the exhibition’s scenography and evoke a more personal relationship between the visitor and the people being represented at the museum.[56] Iconic objects can be either real-life objects, like inside the imitation house at the beginning of the exhibition, or have an indirect, secondary, or referential nature, like the audiovisual material inside the small room with the refugee’s personal story.[57]

Personal stories

The Humanity House, via exhibits like the refugee’s personal story, uses personal stories as a way to represent migration. By introducing visitors to the story of a nationally and ethnically unidentified refugee about his journey to Netherlands, the museum achieves the presentation of a subjective point of view for this particular person and his experiences, without sharing specific, generalized statements limiting the attention, degree of empathy, and interest of visitors.

Generally, people tend to have specific images of a typical citizen of a nation, usually reinforcing stereotypes that originate in media and educational institutions, such the museums.[58] What needs to be highlighted is that nations are an “imagined”[59] entity that was invented by particular—mainly political—interests with no fixed place in time.[60] Commonly, autobiographical elements in an exhibition like the one above, offer the chance to people to express their voices as well as “close systematic gaps in the heritage.”[61]

Museum events

Lastly, the Humanity House museum communicates the topic of forced migration through a variety of events, such as talks, educational programs, and temporary exhibitions, that take place there.[62] In that way, emerging topics of migration are addressed and specialists in the field get the chance to share their knowledge and experiences with a wider audience. The events are advertised through the museum’s website and social media. Such initiatives are a common characteristic of migration museums.[63] Although it is not considered a migration museum, the Tropenmuseum has responded in a similar way to the relevant topic of forced migration waves from Syria by hosting a temporary exhibition called Aleppo.[64] Instead of focusing on the national identity of the people, the exhibition portrays the city of Aleppo, deconstructing stereotypes that view it only as a war zone. The exhibition uses curatorial approaches similar to those of migration museums, such as iconic objects (house keys belonging to a refugee) and personal stories (former city residents share their personal stories as tour guides).


All the above practices related to museum curating demonstrate a trend towards a personalized involvement of visitors within the context of the museum visit, as well as an intention to portray messages through individual stories and objects, rather than generic narratives. This fact introduces new dimensions on how museums are able to engage their visitors in the era of the inclusive museum, an era where people are not referred to by the nationality mentioned in their passport but by the sum of their individual characteristics and experiences.

Contemporary museum goals such as “inclusion” need to be constantly reexamined by museum scholars, bearing in mind that the society that the museums want to represent is rapidly shifting towards the direction of multiculturalism.[65] In this paper I attempted to highlight some aspects of the challenging nature of the use of national identity as a way of representing migration in a “socially inclusive” museum.

Living in a period of constant migration within Europe, many museums are dealing and will continue to deal with topics related to migration, in keeping with remaining relevant to their society. Thus, museums will come across sensitive decisions related to the representation of objects, stories, and people that are characterized by crossing borders and shifting between national identities.

Museums that deal with migration (both exclusively and partially) can either be attached to national references, like EPIC, or evolve beyond them, as in the case of the Humanity House. Due to the reasons mentioned above, national references should be handled with extra attention by museum professionals, as they might unwittingly convey messages about national unification, therefore risking visitor alienation and failing to serve as mechanisms for representing the dynamics of the evolution of national identities in contemporary multicultural societies.

In this paper I aimed to demonstrate examples conveying the complexity of the static national identity approach versus the dynamic nature of inclusivity-focused museums that are constantly reinventing themselves. I primarily presented examples of the curatorial practices that are used within the Humanity House migration museum; practices, such as the use of iconic objects, immersive and interactive spaces, autobiographical elements, and personalized experiences, that are detached from national references and aim for a more universal approach to migration. Such practices appear to be more easily adaptable, if not already adopted, by other types of museums, such as art museums.

As the Network of European Museum Organisations suggests, “The ‘museum for all’ might well remain a utopian dream, but the ‘museum for as many as possible’ should become a reality. In order to achieve this goal, new strategies for museum work are needed for museums of all categories and sizes.”[66]