On 15 June 2018, Migrating Culture: Global Curation between Past and Present was held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter. This half-day symposium was a collaboration between the Design History Society and the Programme in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, and marked the inaugural event in a new DHS series aimed at wider partnerships and public engagement. It also followed closely on the re-opening of the RAMM World Cultures gallery in May 2018, where the African collections have been redisplayed in a critical dialogue with histories of colonialism and commerce. Looking ahead to the 2018 DHS Annual Conference on Design and Displacement, presentations explored the dynamics of curating cultural history in the context of global migration. Speakers drew on their curatorial practice as well as interdisciplinary research in anthropology, design history, postcolonial studies, and philology in order to address debates surrounding social inclusion, co-production and the ethics of displaying narratives of forced displacement.
The first speaker of the afternoon was Domenico Sergi, Community Engagement Coordinator and Curator of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum, who presented on "The materiality of exile: ethics and practice of co-curating with young refugees". Focusing on the rescuing, collecting and exhibiting of Boat 195, a refugee boat that carried over 250 people from Libya to Italy in 2016 (now on display in the newly installed Horniman World Gallery), Sergi discussed the ethics of working with refugees and community partners in light of forced mobility, as well as the shared histories of the Mediterranean. This was particularly striking with respect to the relationship between people and objects, and questions of agency in constructing narratives of material dispossession through co-curation. Christina Zetterlund, Associate Professor of Design Theory at Linnaeus University, followed with "Constructing the Migrant: The Case of the Roma in Sweden". Zetterlund looked at government plans for a museum of migration in Sweden, examining the ways in which distinct Roma communities have been constructed as 'migrants' to serve a revisionist history of national identity. In placing such policies in dialogue with self-organised displays of the Roma Cultural Centre in Malmö, Zetterlund raised a series of provocative questions about the role of craft and cultural history in critiquing contemporary political agendas.
Nur Sobers-Khan, Lead Curator for South Asia at the British Library, continued these debates surrounding historiography and migration as a construct. Based on her curatorial work at the British Library and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, she presented "Cataloguing Epistemologies: Case Studies in the Collecting and Display of 'Islamic' and 'South Asian' art and manuscripts". Thinking about Perennialism and the Enlightenment structures inherent to museums, Sobers-Khan examined the ways in which Islamic art and manuscripts are categorised in the UK and Middle East, in light of colonialist practices as well as diasporic identities.
The final speaker of the afternoon was London-based curator and researcher Nicola Stylianou, who discussed "Fashioning Africa at Brighton Museum: Creating a new collection of African fashion to decolonise museum practice". Stylianou also considered issues of colonial history and contemporary diasporic cultures, with a focus on the collection of contemporary African textiles and collaboration with community partners. In doing so, she questioned the extent to which the museum can ever be decolonized, pointing towards the tendency of co-production practices to privilege institutional voices and exert control over objects. These debates fed into the concluding roundtable panel, co-chaired by myself and DHS Student Officer Lydia Caston, which featured a lively discussion surrounding the reinforcement of cultural and material hierarchies in curatorial practice, and the implications of such in facilitating wider public engagement with historical and contemporary objects of migration.
On behalf of the Programme in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, I would like to thank the Design History Society for their support in making this collaborative event possible.
Sabrina Rahman DHS Membership and Outreach Officer