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"Only Connect": the heritage and emotional politics of showcasing the suffering migrant

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Christopher Whitehead, Dr Francesca LanzORCiD


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What should the perspectives of the museum be when representing refugees and suffering migrants, and how should it position visitors emotionally? Should the perspective be a coolly cognitive, from-above view of the globe, with arrows on the map to represent flows of people; or a distressing eye-level view into the life and struggles of a migrant; or even an embodied experience in which we visitors are subjected to a simulation of the duress that refugees live through? If museum producers seek to alternate between these, what are the techniques of this, and how and why should they negotiate and manage their different politics, effects and affects? This chapter addresses these questions in reference to recent trends in the representation of illegal migration in museums and exhibitions, attending in particular to the representational potentials and politics of display. Some of these potentials and politics are relatively new, as museums and exhibitions gradually borrow and mix technologies and techniques from other cultural forms, such as the videogame. We explore some of these using visits of our own, building on theories of positionality in museums and in moral spectatorship to bring together different understandings of how and why visitors are positioned by displays to respond affectively, cognitively and ethically. A significant question that arises here concerns the social power of museums and, in particular, what it is that experiences of empathy do therein: drawing on empathy scholarship we ask what are the liabilities and effects of fostering empathy in the museum, both on the individual and on wider society?

Publication metadata

Author(s): Whitehead C, Lanz F

Editor(s): Mark O'Neill and Glenn Hooper

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Connecting Museums

Year: 2019

Print publication date: 18/10/2019

Online publication date: 16/10/2019

Acceptance date: 02/08/2018

Publisher: Routledge


Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781138490024