I was both delighted and astonished to be awarded a British Academy postdoctoral fellowship. My project is called ‘Migrant Materialities’. The research focuses on the material culture – that is, the objects, visual culture, all manner of physical materials – of contemporary forced and undocumented migration in Europe. I am particularly keen to document what migrants bring with them, what they are forced to leave behind or discard, how these assemblages change according to journeys and living situations. I conceptualise migrant material culture in the context of social and interpretive theory that recognises the importance of material culture to all human life. My aim is that this work will be participatory and collaborative – working and listening with refugees rather than working on or speaking for. I hope this work will help to shed new light on what it means to be forcibly displaced from your home and that this can lead to improved advocacy for refugees and better, more humane policies for managing mass-displacement.
Here comes the academic bit!
Thirty years of anthropological research in material culture studies has shown that there is a need to move beyond anthropocentrism to recognise the agency of objects, not as passive things given meaning by humans, but active constituents (Harman, 2002). Such thinking has influenced the development of Contemporary Archaeology – approaching the modern world using archaeological methods and theory – which has increasingly highlighted how archaeological methods can usefully expose injustice and evolved to concern issues of advocacy for those involved (cf. Dé Leon, 2015). Some projects have sought to work collaboratively with non-expert communities in order that living people take ownership of heritage narratives. In this way, we start to develop dynamic and specifically archaeological interpretations that respect the integrity of things at the same time as enhancing rights for people in the present. By studying the material culture of forced and undocumented migration with migrants themselves we might form a fuller picture of the ‘heritage corridors’ that it co-produces (Byrne, 2016). Such a project could produce a radically new kind of public archaeology that intentionally mobilises material culture as a form of advocacy; one that genuinely ‘translates’ into improved social policy (Zimmerman, et al., 2010).
More than 53% of the world’s refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia (UNHCR, 2014). Millions of people risk their lives to make treacherous land and sea journeys to Western and Northern Europe, to escape war, other violence and intolerable poverty, to find family and apply for asylum. Mass forced and undocumented migration is then an international political and socio-cultural phenomenon with a history stretching back to antiquity and beyond (cf. Malkki, 1995), and simultaneously, an urgent contemporary issue made up of millions of individual‘tragedies’ (Miller, 2008). Stuck between polarising discourses of humanitarianism versus securitisation (Fassin, 2012), studies of forced and undocumented migration often become dematerialised, weighed down by politics and statistics. What is less well articulated is its hybrid material nature (cf. Dudley, 2011, Hamilakis, 2016). The experience of forced migration is co-constituted by the landscapes, borders and blockades that migrants must journey within and across; new environments, unfamiliar forms of transport. Migrants must take with them only things that they can carry, the bare essentials and small personal mementoes. Forced to discard and swap objects, migrants must re-use and adapt materials to cope with the challenges that they face. These actions are inherently material and, in times of displacement, even the smallest of ‘things’ become hyper-important, making the study of the material culture of forced and undocumented migration paramount.
‘Migrant Materialities’ grapples with the core research question: what role is played by material culture in the experience of forced and undocumented migration in Europe?