Crossing through memory spaces

It struck me immediately. A boat bursting into the museum, coming to a stop partly outside the room, partly inside the exhibition. An erratic object that captures your attention. It is disturbing, upsetting, offending, at the same attractive, an object on the spot.

The photo of the rowing boat I took is from the permanent exhibition at the Foundation ‘Haus der Geschichte’ in Bonn. It depicts a refugee boat, an original, authentic object that physically documents a current challenge in contemporary history. The Foundation ‘Haus der Geschichte’ is proud of its big and striking key objects which we all know from the media and their remediated images and sounds – the most recent one is the refugee boat from the island of Malta that was given to the organisers of the exhibition in 2017. Along with several used grubby lifejackets from the island of Lesbos it is on stage and marks the end of the tour which leads you through the history of the second half of the 20th century to the historical events of the early 21st century. Zygmunt Bauman titled his last essay ‘Strangers at our door’ in which he mirrored what media often and wrongly call a ‘refugee crisis’. From a long-durée perspective, we know: The trajectories of flight, expulsion, migration, the experiences by women and men being at the thresholds, partly outside, partly inside, are fundamental constants of history.

The Bonn curators claim that their objects help people ‘experience history’. They focus on authentic objects which were left behind by the former actors, which now bear the imprint of historical events and developments and which remind museumgoers how we happen to be what we are, individually, as communities as well as societies.

Although our network deals with ‘media, memory, and migration in the Baltic Sea Region’ the eye-catcher at hand represents several features which are at the centre of our studies – the interest in migratory processes in the long century of mass-mediated communication up to now, the conviction how important mnemonic processes and their communicative practices have been in societies of immigration, and our focus on a maritime space, a communicatively constructed space called the Baltic Sea Region.

Hans-Ulrich Wagner, June 2018