Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Refugees’ Museum/Museum of Marco Polo

11th September 2015

One poignant aspect of the European refugee crisis is the knowledge that some day someone will make a museum out of it.  Because museums and remembering are born out of strong stories – and this refugee crisis is the biggest, strongest, bleakest story of our generation.

Museums are good ways to tell a refugee story.  The objects get infused with feelings and charged with memory.  Their meanings change and become enormously significant.  Every small object – a toy, a shoe, a coat, a photo – counts.

Already you can see the shape of this museum.  There will be journey-stories – the trains, the vans, the sea crossings on the dinghies.  There will be stories of what they brought with them – bags, suitcases, rucksacks – all of which are the language of migrants.  And there will be the stories of how their possessions diminished by the day, washed away by the waves or abandoned on trains – until all they have left are the clothes they stand up in and what they remember.  The Museum may not have many artefacts, but it will probably be far better documented – although also far more messily documented? – than the great migrations of the past.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram will all see to that.  And all these will be the resources of the new museum-makers.

And – because this will be one or two generations down the line – different ways will have grown up through which the story will be told.  The next generation (or maybe the one after because it takes several generations for the trauma to recede) may sew it or sing it or remember it through food.  Certainly it will be a story that’s repeated again and again.

The Museum of Marco Polo is just back from the far North of Scotland where the past is in the land, in rocks and stones and cairns and abandoned villages and in anonymous fishermen’s graves dug down into the sand that mysteriously someone is still tending.  Every culture remembers differently and museums shift and change their form accordingly.

And so the new Migrants Museum may be in a building. But just as likely it will be a Trail or a Songline, something that exists as music, or as paper in the hand, or as marks on the ground, something that maps and remembers the journey.

Depending on what happens in Syria in the next 100 years it may be a triumphant museum – a museum that say, ‘Look. we survived’ – or a small and defiant memory, a museum that says, ‘We shouldn’t forget’.

And it will of course be a Museum of all those who received the refugees – our chance to be in a Museum.  I’m hoping that we’ll give the museum-makers two generations down the line good reason to judge us generously.