Curating “the European refugee crisis”

The RUPC was pleased to host the seminar “Curating ‘The European refugee crisis’” with our visiting research fellow Dr Karina Horsti, from the University of Jyväskylä.

In the seminar, Dr Horsti considered the proliferation of exhibitions that display objects discarded by migrants and rescuers at the European border zone over the last few years. Particularly wooden migrant boats and orange life jackets have come to symbolize the dangerous and often fatal border crossing to Europe. In addition, identity documents, photographs, and other objects have made their way into art installations, galleries, archives and museums across Europe. In this seminar, I examine the social life of these objects and ask how museums and artists situate them in their narratives. I also discuss some of the reasons why curating these objects has become so popular right now.

Dr Horsti argued that symbolizing suffering by means of objects (such as shoes, clothes or suitcases) is a well-established practice in museums dedicated to genocides and in memorial sites of destruction and disaster. Exhibitions that document past violence and wrongs are often used in countries going through transitional justice and reconciliation. However, since the so-called “refugee crisis” is not over, it is important to ask, what does an approach that memorializes on-going suffering and death mean politically and ethically. This is important particularly as the people who display and look at the objects are implicated in the deaths at the border via the governments of their countries. The critical potential of the objects as testimonies of death and survival at the border is disturbed by the present-day context where the border is simultaneously militarized and humanitarianized. The objects discarded by migrants can turn into relics of European humanity, of the so-called humanitarian bordering.