Representation and memory of migration

Dirk Rupnow, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Innsbruck; Gwénola Sebaux, Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers; Bettina Severin-Barboutie, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen; Meryem Youssoufi, Université Ibn Zohr Agadir; Zaïha Zeroulou, Université de Lille 1
24.05.2018 - 25.05.2018
Kaja Skowrońska, CITER project, Université de Nantes

Since the 2000s the memory of immigration is more and more present in public discourse in Europe. The representations thus created invite a series of questions: What role do those images play in the production of national identities? What is their relationship with the memory of different groups? What events are remembered and why?

The objective of this international conference was to explore the links between representation and memory through the lens of immigration. A central theme was the relationship between remembering past events and imagining a common future; as well as the way those issues relate to questions of social cohesion.

The keynote given by DIRK RUPNOW (Innsbruck) underlined the difficulties of adequately representing migration. Indeed, the politicization of the subject makes the very terms of the debate difficult in use. Attention must be paid to the gaps and silences of history: immigration is still often absent from collective memory and the migrant appears, in the words of Alfred Schutz, as a “man without history”[1]. Our scientific histories must also be taken into account: a close link exists between the history of scientific research in the West on the one hand, and the rise of nation-states and the establishment of colonial empires on the other. We must also reflect on the historical tendency to limit analysis to national frameworks.

The keynote opened a discussion about the actors involved in producing the representations of migration, and about their mutual interactions and power relations. The idea of a ‘post-migratory’ society was also the subject of a lively debate, revealing its ambiguity: aimed at including migration in national narratives, it carries a risk of invisibilisation of present migrations. From the offset, the ambivalence of the attempts at representing migration was manifest, and a tension was shown between the will to recognize the voices of immigrants and the risks of essentialization that is implied.

The link between the present and the past, the complexity of positioning in a politicized landscape, or the ambiguity of the terms and concepts used to think of the memory of migration were recurring themes during the conference. The presentations gravitated around three main themes: identifications and self-identifications of the actors; discourses and narratives; and lastly, institutions, infrastructures and spaces where these narratives are produced and disseminated.

The issue of identification is complex for migrants and their descendants. In discussing it, one must account for the multiplicity of identities, but also for the various, intersecting processes that produce them: from administrative assignations, through the contradictory injunctions existing in society, to the self-representation strategies chosen by migrants. The case of Kurds from Turkey settled in the West of France since the 1970s, analyzed by COLINE RONDEAU (Angers), showed identifications shaped by an interplay between a community and public administration. The variety of qualifiers used by the administration, the discrepancy between formal statuses and lived identities, and the multiplicity of ways of experiencing those identities, all lead to a certain invisibilisation of this community. The complexity and the multiplicity of identities can also be seen in the experiences of youth with an immigration background living in French pavilion suburbs studied by ADRIEN BENAISE (Lille). Those young people are subject to racialization processes and seek to negotiate their position at an intersection of race and class, demonstrating how complex becoming French can be for those of foreign descent. An equally complex position is occupied by the group analyzed by GLORIA PAGANINI (Nantes): Italian citizens from Moroccan immigrant families who migrated to France. This double migration and temporary loss of social status are often part of a family project conceived in hopes of eventual upwards mobility. Thus, those three presentations showed the inventiveness and the multiplicity of trajectories of migrants and their descendants. At the same time, they depicted a context marked by arbitrary administrative assignations, by the persistence of racialization, and by a certain gap between the migrants’ lived experience and the images existing in the public sphere.

This last element – namely discourses and perceptions of migration – was also specifically examined. FRANCESCO PONGILUPPI’s (Roma) paper demonstrated that this discourse can sometimes take the form of a lack of discourse. Italian communities in the Levant, mythologized by the fascist regime, were then barred from historiography, demonstrating how the memory of a community can find itself at the mercy of the political and geopolitical factors of the moment. Another insight into the connection between a historical moment and the representations of immigration was offered in ONUR ERDUR's paper (Berlin) on migrants in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Taking a photo of an immigrant holding a sign that reads “We are also the people” as a focal point, the paper was a reflection on what the memory of immigrant communities can say about the identity of the German people, the conditions for becoming a member, and this nation’s position in relation to others. It brought to the fore the link between the inclusion of migrants in narratives of the past and their inclusion in present day society. The issue of inclusion was also visible in STEFAN GOCH's (Bochum) reflection on migration in the Ruhr basin. Based on a statistical study, it questioned the image of the Ruhr as a crucible, showing an important differentiation of life situations linked to the history of immigration. Finally, the presentation by FELIX WIEDEMAN (Berlin) addressed the issue of narratives of migration through an analysis of storytelling in historical writings around 1900. While different types of narratives can be distinguished, they all present striking parallels to today's discourses, where migration is either seen as a danger, or valued solely for the benefits it provides to the host society.

The way in which migrations are presented, or hidden, in national narratives is thus closely linked to a society's ability to include migrants and their descendants. Today, many institutions and initiatives seek to promote inclusion through an emphasis on better representation. Museums were the form of infrastructures of collective memory that attracted the most attention during this conference. MARKUS WALZ (Leipzig) gave a presentation on the specificity of local and regional museums, arguing that they present the history of those who are ‘from here’, thereby excluding newcomers. Attempts at inclusion often portray migrants in a culturalized manner that perpetuates otherness. Regional museums and exhibitions were also the object of VERENA LORBER’s and MICHAELA TASOTTI’s (both Salzburg) presentation describing the “Diversity in museums, focusing on migration and gender” project in Styria as an example of cooperation between researchers and museum managers. The presentation by FRANCESCO FEDERICI (Venizia) focused on individual exhibitions rather than whole museums, centering around a comparison between two exhibitions about immigration to and from Italy. In both cases, a fragmented vision of Italian past points to a complex national identity. SANDRINE LE CORRE (Paris) reflected on the link between the past and its contemporary, artistic reinterpretations, through an analysis of the works of contemporary art in the collection of the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris. These works, presenting vague, uncertain images, can be a way of reflecting the state of inbetweenness that marks the experience of migration and thus of questioning the ability of museums to show that experience completely. While exhibitions on the topic of migration have become more common, HANS PETER HAHN and FRIEDEMANN NEUMANN (both Frankfurt am Main) argued that museums still fail to produce adequate representation. This may be due to an unresolved tension between the museum’s historical role as a reflection of a homogeneous nation, and the more recent desire to showcase diversity. Methodological nationalism is never questioned, nor is the essentialization of cultural difference, and the experience of migrants is always seen as an exception. Those exhibitions fail to cross boundaries, reifying differences instead.

Another type of institution examined were archives and documentation centers. SANDRA VACCA (Köln) discussed the activity of the Documentation Center for Immigration in Germany (DOMiD), which seeks to preserve the memory of immigration by collecting objects and testimonies. This opened a discussion about the definition of an object of migration, characterized by its story rather than its nature. Making migration visible can thus be a matter of altering the way preexisting collections are viewed. This theme was reflected in JÜRGEN LOTTERER’s (Stuttgart) presentation on municipal archives, which also underscored the lack of unofficial documents related to migration. This explains the crucial role in the expansion of archives of ‘cultural brokers’ who can help others to cross cultural boundaries.

Museums and archives, although crucial, are not the only places where representations of migration are produced. Other actors are present and other, less formal, initiatives exist. The media is one of these actors, as demonstrated by CONSTANTIN ECKNER's (St. Andrews) presentation on the West German press coverage of immigration in the 1980s. Passing through alternative phases, newspapers gradually attempted to position themselves as opinion leaders and to set the tone for the debate. Nowadays, traditional media are not the only ones influencing public reactions to immigration. However, NAIMA AABCHANE (Agadir) emphasized that new media are not without risks, as illustrated by the spread of dehumanizing images of the ‘migrant crisis’. The role of this type of media in creating representations of migration remains highly ambiguous. The example of social media reminds us that the representation of migration is also created ‘from below’, as illustrated even more clearly by JANINE SCHEMMER’s (Klagenfurt) presentation on the daily and artistic practices in the Friuli. In a region with a high emigration rate, festivals and artistic projects have been set up, collecting testimonies and placing this periphery closer to the center of European attention. Another alternative space where representations of migration are produced is the world of football, analyzed by ALBRECHT SONNTAG (Angers). In this highly symbolic area, where memory is extremely important, more and more people share a positive perception of players with immigrant background, rising hopes for social integration of immigrant populations.

To conclude, several central points can be noted:

1) Links between the memory of the past and the representations of the present were a common theme in all the papers of this conference. They appear as the source of a number of difficulties facing any attempts to represent migration in the public sphere.

2) Indeed, a significant proportion of the actors involved – museums, archives, cultural institutions – have their roots in a past closely related to the rise of the nation-state. A tension thus exists between this national framework and the desire to showcase diversity and movement. The historical processes that led to the creation of the institutions in question anchor them in the era of nationalism and have long led them to neglect mobility.

3) Nevertheless, migration is omnipresent, not only nowadays, but throughout history. Therefore, representing it does not mean adding a new element to the realm of known facts, but rather reintegrating a part of reality into our representations that has long been overshadowed. Rather than creating specific frameworks for the representation of migration, the solution might lay in including it in existing narratives. This would imply discussing the context in which migration occurs, and exploring its links with the history of European nations. A process of unlearning preconceived ideas, which still seems far from accomplished, would be necessary.

4) This is all the more important because the link between past and present goes both ways. While the past is read in the light of the present, images of the past provide tools for the interpretation of the present. It is therefore crucial to question what our narratives show and what they leave out, as the representations thus produced can have very real consequences for the lives of migrants and their descendants.

Conference Overview:

Michel Catala (Directeur Alliance Europa, Félicien LEMAIRE coresponsable de CITƐR, Nantes): Eröffnung

Dirk Rupnow (Innsbruck): Migration – Erinnerung – Repräsentation. Stand der Debatte, Herausforderungen, Perspektiven (Migration – Mémoire – Représentation. État du débat, défis, perspectives)

Session 1: Mémoire collective et politique de l’histoire /Kollektives Gedächtnis und Geschichtspolitik

Session chair: Gwénola Sebaux (Angers)

Markus Walz (Leipzig): Lokal- und Regionalmuseen als (unfreiwillige) Agenturen des „Othering“ (Les musées locaux et régionaux comme institutions (involontaires) de construction de l’Autre)

Francesco Pongiluppi (Rome): Entre le mythe et l’oubli : Mémoire(s) de l’émigration italienne en Méditerranée orientale (Zwischen Mythos und Vergessen: Erinnerung(en) der italienischen Emigration im östlichen Mittelmeerraum)

Coline Rondeau (Angers): Invisibilité et mémoire des Kurdes de Turquie dans l’Ouest de la France depuis les années 1970 (Unsichtbarkeit und Erinnerung der Kurden aus der Türkei in Westfrankreich seit den 1970er Jahren)

Session 2: Mémoires et lieux de mémoire de la migration / Erinnerungen und Erinnerungsorte der Migration

Session chair: Zaihia Zeroulou (Lille)

Onur Erdur (Berlin): „Wir sind auch das Volk“ – Mauerfall, deutsche Einheit und die Perspektive der Migration, 1989/90 („Nous sommes aussi le peuple“ – Chute du mur, unité allemande et perspective de la migration, 1989/90)

Adrien Benaise (Lille): Les „entre-deux“. Expériences et représentations des jeunes pavillonnaires racisés („Dazwischen“. Erfahrungen und Repräsentationen von jungen, rassisierten „pavillonnaires“)

Stefan Goch (Bochum): Repräsentation und Erinnerung der Migration im Sozialraum – Das Beispiel der Zuwandererregion Ruhrgebiet (Représentation et mémoire de la migration dans l’espace social – L’exemple d’une région d’immigration : le bassin de la Ruhr)

Gloria Paganini (Nantes): Nuovi Italiani / Nouveaux Italiens de Nantes : exploration d'une trajectoire contemporaine (Nuovi Italiani/ Die neuen Italiener von Nantes: Erforschung einer zeitgenössischen Route)

Sandra Vacca (Köln): Auf der Spur von Migration – vom Sammeln und Erzählen unsichtbarer Geschichte(n) (Sur la trace des migrations – Collecte et récits d’histoire(s) invisible(s))

Erika Thomas (Lille): Screening of short documentary entitled "Traversées de la mémoire" (28'), selected in the Best Short Documentary Film category at the Amnesty International Festival Au Cinéma pour les Droits Humain (PACA Languedoc Cors), March 2018

Visit of the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery

Session 3: Infrastructures de la mémoire collective / Infrastrukturen des kollektiven Gedächtnisses

Session chair: Bettina Severin-Barboutie (Gießen)

Francesco Federici (Venise): Exposer la migration : parcours muséographiques de l’identité italienne (Migration präsentieren: Museographie der italienischen Identität)

Sandrine Le Corre (Paris): Esthétique de l’entrevoir – La collection d’art contemporain du Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris (Flüchtiges Erkennen. Moderne Kunstsammlung des nationalen Museums der Geschichte der Immigration, Paris)

Verena Lorber / Michaela Tasotti (Salzburg): Musealisierung von Migrationsgeschichte(n). Ein Forschungsprojekt zur Einschreibung von Migration ins kollektive Gedächtnis (Muséalisation de l’histoire (des histoires) migratoire(s) – Un projet de recherche pour inscrire la migration dans la mémoire collective)

Felix Wiedemann (Berlin): Migration und Erzählung – Wanderungsnarrative in der Geschichtsschreibung um 1900 (Migration et narration – Narratifs migratoires dans l’écriture de l’histoire vers 1900)

Session chair: Dirk Rupnow (Innsbruck)

Jürgen Lotterer (Stuttgart): Stadtarchiv und moderne Migrationsgeschichte – Regionalität, migrantische Selbstorganisation und der „cultural broker“ im Prozess der lokalen Überlieferungsbildung (Archives municipales et histoire moderne de la migration – Régionalité, auto-organisation migrante et le cultural broker dans le processus de transmission locale)

Hans Peter Hahn / Friedemann Neumann (both Frankfurt am Main): La muséification de la migration – Une politique culturelle sur une base discutable (Die Museifizierung der Migration – Kulturpolitik auf fragwürdiger Basis)

Session 4: Médias et Public / Medien und Öffentlichkeit

Session chair: Meryem Youssoufi (Agadir)

Naima Aabchane (Agadir): Nouveaux médias et migrations (Neue Medien und Migrationen)

Constantin Eckner (St. Andrews): Schicksale und Schlagzeilen: Westdeutsche Medien als Erzähler und Akteure der Migrations-geschichte(n) (Destins et gros titres : Les médias ouest-allemands, narrateurs et acteurs de l’histoire /des histoires migratoire(s))

Janine Schemmer (Klagenfurt): Der Grenzraum als Laboratorium. Alltägliche und künstlerische Praktiken im Umgang mit historischen und gegenwärtigen Migrationsprozessen im Friaul (L’espace frontalier comme laboratoire. Pratiques quotidiennes et artistiques dans le traitement des processus migratoires historiques et actuels à Frioul)

Albrecht Sonntag (Angers): Dans la mémoire collective du football, la migration est visible (Im kollektiven Gedächtnis des Fußballs ist Migration sichtbar)

Visite du Château des Ducs de Bretagne / Musée d’Histoire de Nantes - Castle Museum

[1] Alfred Schutz, The Stranger: An Essay in Social Psychology, in: American Journal of Sociology 49/6 (1944), pp. 499-507.

Tagungsbericht: Representation and memory of migration, 24.05.2018 – 25.05.2018 Nantes, in: H-Soz-Kult, 22.10.2018, <>.