Challenging perceptions on migration through cutting-edge research

Refugees: Forced to Flee, the new exhibition at IWM London, explores a century of refugee experiences, from Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews and the Kindertransport, to the Calais Jungle and the treacherous Mediterranean crossings. Taking place at IWM London and IWM North, Refugees explores refugee experiences throughout history and ongoing issues faced by those affected through two major exhibitions, a series of events and a new site-specific art commission at IWM London from world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei.

A major new exhibition Refugees: Forced to Flee opened its doors to the public at Imperial War Museums (IWM) London at the end of September, featuring cutting-edge research from the AHRC and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

We caught up with Professor Laura Hammond, Challenge Leader for Security, Protracted Conflict, Refugees and Forced Displacement for the UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund to find out more about the research behind this acclaimed national exhibition.

Laura, thank you for speaking with us today. Can you tell us more about your involvement in the project?

As GCRF Challenge Leader, I was already involved in mapping and prioritising the ESRC and AHRC migration portfolios and so I was familiar with the key projects. We started with a potential longlist of projects and together with the IWM narrowed it down to seven.

Part of this process involved considering whether the research would lend itself to visual and arts-based elements suitable for the exhibition, its potential to tell a story, as well as the types of outputs that could be created. For example, the ‘Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat’ project led by Professor Vicki Squire, has been transformed into a series of neon constellations by artist Indrė Šerpytytė which represents individual refugees’ journeys across the Mediterranean.

A visitor to Refugees: Forced to Flee views a newly commissioned artwork by artist Indrė Šerpytytė. © IWM

Why do you think the exhibition is so important, especially in the current times?

The exhibition takes a 100-year block of history and helps remind us that refugee movements and crises are not a new phenomenon. It’s really powerful in the way that it shows how refugee displacement has been a major feature of British and European (as well as global) history over the past century, and how much of that movement has been as a result of conflict.

What value do you think that arts and humanities and social science research can bring to this global challenge?

One of the things that the exhibition does really well is that it tells the individual stories of people who have been displaced throughout the entire process. The exhibit covers enormous ground and equips visitors with a broad understanding of the challenges refugees face.  

Many of the research projects that have been included in the exhibit provide a human face to the stats while also offering context to the journey – from why  people are often forced to leave, what it feels like to have to flee for one’s life, to what happens when they reach their destination.

The research breaks down the experiences of refugees and enables visitors to follow these journeys as they move through the exhibition.

How were the research projects chosen? Were there particular themes that you had in mind?

Some of the projects offer much-needed context, while others help to complement the IWM’s collections. For example, the IWM already had a collection on Belgian Refugees from the First World War but Principal Investigator, Professor Alison Fell’s project on Tracing the Belgian Refugees helps to provide the longer-term experiences of these refugees and their British hosts; it’s a great marrying of different approaches. The research projects really help to strengthen and add to the collections.

As a UK centred institution, the IWM doesn’t have as much on displacement in countries where the UK has not had a direct involvement, particularly countries of the global South. Some of the AHRC and ESRC-funded projects have helped to bring a more global view to the exhibition.

Visitors view a series of newly commissioned sculptures by artist Grace Schwindt. © IWM

What have been some of the key takeaways from this collaboration with IWM?

This has been a fantastic collaboration which has highlighted how we can reach new audiences with the research we do. It’s also been a great experience for the researchers in terms of learning how to synthesise and extract information that will appeal to public audiences.

It was essential that the stories could be told with enough information so that they couldn’t be misconstrued and so that people with limited knowledge on the subject could readily understand and appreciate the information and perspectives being presented. These are human stories, not highly technical political discussions.

The researchers were involved in every aspect of the planning and were able to provide feedback at each stage, from screening the images that were to be used, to proofing the text displayed on the walls. It was an entirely inclusive and consultative process.

Each project had a slightly different treatment – for example, the amazing zoom animation North Star Fading, created by Positive Negatives and based on the stories of four Eritrean asylum seekers, was all ready to go, while in other cases, assets such as videos and infographics had to be created.  Each researcher received a draft of what was proposed to be included and how, and then attended an Immersion Day to discuss the exhibits in more detail.

Were there any challenges that you had to overcome? 

Covid-19 obviously presented a massive challenge; not only did the museum close to the public but the installation still needed to be completed as the lockdown was enforced. This meant that the exhibition had to open later than planned (it was originally due to open in early April) but we are very lucky in that the exhibition will be open for several months (24 September – 24 May 2021). The IWM has a great website and they’ve put a lot of the recordings and images online. They’ve really had to think creatively in terms of how to make a physical exhibition more accessible to people who can’t visit, and how to engage with the museum public in different ways.

The exhibition is part of Refugees, a free season of exhibitions, artistic commissions and immersive events and so a lot of these events have also had to move online.

What advice would you give to other researchers looking to team up with cultural institutions and see their work featured in exhibitions?

My key advice would be to go into it with an open mind and be as flexible as possible. It’s important to remember the needs of both parties and remember that you have to be able to tell a story through your research. In this instance the IWM really respected the research and didn’t curate it too much. They wanted visitors to make up their own minds rather than telling them what to think. These seven projects also lend themselves well to the exhibit. I hope that more researchers will consider creative engagement, either as a research methodology or in its dissemination, and foster this approach of interdisciplinary research.

A museum visitor explores Refugees: Forced to Flee. © IWM

What are your hopes and aspirations for the exhibition?

I hope audiences feel moved by the exhibition and that it provides the basis for much-needed compassion and understanding of what refugees have (and continue) to go through. People rarely think of refugees as the human faces of war but hopefully this will help to change these perceptions. We need a ground-swelling of public support to help achieve a well-informed asylum policy, and I believe that this exhibition has come at an important time.

You can read more about the research that helped to underpin this major exhibition in this special booklet. The exhibition combines new research and real-life experiences with photographs, oral histories, documents and objects. To reserve your free timed ticket to the exhibition click here.

Laura Hammond is an anthropologist (PhD University of Wisconsin-Madison), her research interests include food security, conflict, forced migration and diasporas. She is Challenge Leader for Security, Protracted Conflict, Refugees and Forced Displacement for the Global Challenges Research Fund, Head of the London International Development Centre’s Migration Leadership Team, and Team Leader for the Research and Evidence Facility (Horn of Africa Window) of the European Union Trust Fund for Africa. She is also Chair of the Independent Advisory Group for Country Information.

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