According to the most recent UNHCR statistics, there are currently a record 70.8 million people living in situations of forced displacement globally. Often perceived in purely political and economic terms, we know far less about the objects, buildings and places which co-constitute forced displacement. This is the focus of a new ‘deep-mapping’ project which will run between January and March 2020, undertaken in collaboration with START (Students and Refugees Together), a charitable organisation which advocates a ‘strengths approach’ to refugee support (Butler, 2005), and Dr Sana Murrani, Associate Professor of Spatial Practice and Founder of the Displacement Studies Research Network (DSRN), at the University of Plymouth. Co-designed with refugees based in Plymouth, our project enables us to document the material dimensions of their lived experiences – that is, the objects and things with which they are rebuilding their lives.
A key question for us is how knowledge of such materiality, obtained using collaborative archaeological cultural heritage methodologies, can be translated to better inform policy and simultaneously mobilised to counter negative narratives about displacement and refugees.
Experiences of forced displacement always have a material dimension i.e. they involve particular buildings, places, routes, journeys, and objects, all of which can be documented archaeologically. By studying such material culture – housing, journeys, small personal belongings – with the people for whom this is lived reality, we gain deeper insight into the unique role which ‘things’ play in helping to sustain and transform people’s sense of belonging, identity, and mental well-being.
Plymouth needs this kind of work and understanding. It is a large city in south west England where the population is a staggering 96% white British! Yet Plymouth is also a city in which people from all over the world are being temporarily located by the Home Office, while they await their asylum claim decision. A combination of immigration policy change, planning failure, and a lack of ‘clustering’, has resulted in many people feeling isolated in a city which has severe problems with racism (Burnett, 2011). The Knowledge Exchange Fellowship (funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund and the Social Sciences Division at the University of Oxford) expands on my current British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and also builds directly upon Dr Sana Murrani’s highly successful architectural project, ‘Refugees Mapping Memories: Creative Recovery’ (Murrani, 2019). The Fellowship affords the opportunity for me, an academic, to learn directly from START’s community-based model of empowering refugees to help themselves to resettle, a model which won the European Parliament’s Citizen’s Prize 2017.
Refugees and START are fully involved in the co-design and implementation of every stage of this research. Together – refugees, START staff and students, Sana and I – our aim is to capture the empirical conditions of forced displacement in Plymouth, by using ‘deep-mapping’ approaches to housing, journeys, support services, and objects such as small personal mementoes, clothes, culinary objects etc. Using a range of participatory methods – drawing, photography, audio recording – the team will document the range of material culture through which the past is remembered and the future imagined. In this way, migrant material culture is mobilised as a form of social activism (Stottman, 2010), to better understand the options open to refugees in relation to integration and self-reliance.
Burnett, J., 2011. The New Geographies of Racism: Plymouth, Institute of Race Relations.
Butler, A., 2005. A strengths approach to building futures: UK students and refugees together. Community Development Journal, 40(2), pp. 147-157.
Murrani, S., 2019. Contingency and Plasticity: the dialectical reconstruction of the concept of home in forced displacement. Journal of Culture and Psychology.
Stottman, M. J., 2010. Archaeologists as Activists: can archaeologists change the world?. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press