Towards a Migration Museum: Memory, Archive and Representation

With the support of the Goethe Institute, Anadolu Kültür organised an online workshop on 6 May 2022 as a collective effort to undertake multi-faceted discussions on archiving and representations of migration and migrant experiences. In this article, I will try to convey the topics discussed in the workshop, to elaborate on the controversial issues a little more, and to seek answers to the question as to which pathways can be taken on the way to a migration museum and documentation centre, an idea we explored during the workshop from different aspects.

Migration is one of the main building blocks of societies. The fact that people have to leave their homes, sometimes alone or in groups, to go to other places leaves deep traces both in the communities of destination countries as well as in the countries left behind. In recent decades, as political and economic upheavals have deeply impacted the entire planet, forced migration movements have become even more significant. Regardless of who migrates and why and how, each migration movement is spread over a long period of time, progressing in zigzags, and encompasses a lot of hope and despair. [1]Parla, A. (2019). Precarious Hope: Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey. Stanford University Press. Keeping an archive of migration movements also provides an opportunity to think about and discuss these experiences from different aspects. The oral history study Archiv der Flucht [Archives of Asylum] conducted with 41 people who took refuge in Berlin from different regions and on different dates shows the uniqueness of each journey, it also shows the importance of the socio-political context as well as people’s individual experiences in making the migration decision, acting upon this decision, and in the settlement process.

Keeping the archive of the migration experience and representing its place in the collective memory with different tools are very valuable in terms of establishing the social sphere and rethinking the individuals within this sphere. Based on these archival studies, one of the places where the relationship between migration and memory is embodied spatially is migration museums. A migration-oriented museum and documentation centre also provides ample opportunities in terms of giving visibility to the diversity that has emerged with the migration movements – one of the most important phenomena of today’s societies, exploring ways to live together and nurturing public debate.

Migration museums: A site of memory or a chance of encounter?

Migration museums serve as a very valuable gateway to discuss diversity – one of the defining features of today’s societies – in the public sphere with its social, cultural and political dimensions. Yet, the history of migration museums is quite recent. After the National Museum of Immigration opened in 1976 on Ellis Island in New York, which is the gateway to the US, a country founded through immigration, from the 1990s and 2000s onwards, various museums have been set up in other receiving countries.

There are also a few migration museums in Turkey, and just like their counterparts in the Western countries, they are dedicated to immigrants rather than emigrants. The Çatalca Population Exchange Museum inaugurated in 2010, the Bursa Migration History Museum opened in 2014 or the Eskişehir Migration Museum, under preparation for a long time, have two common characteristics: They all are quite recent, and they exclusively focus on immigration. These museums are dedicated to immigrants (muhacir) and exchangees (mübadil) from the Balkans or the Caucasus; in other words, they deal with “desirable” [2]Since the end of the 19th century, Turks and/or Muslims living in the lands lost by the Ottoman Empire, mostly from the Balkans, migrated to the new territories of Turkey. These immigrants, who … Continue reading migrant groups, those that have become an integral part of the national identity. Yet, as much as it is a receiving country, Turkey is also a sending country. That’s exactly why the question as to which actors will establish a migration museum and with what vision and perspective is of pivotal importance. The choice of the main themes and sub-themes in a migration museum reveals the institutional, ideological and artistic tendencies of that museum.

One of the most substantial consequences of migration is the encounters with people moving from one place to another. The social and cultural interactions, which occur as the groups recently arrived to a destination country come together with the settled population in a physical space, make migration movements go beyond a mere geographical phenomenon. The new urban life that comes along with migration manifests itself as a dominant element in the collective and individual memory, changing the perception and habits of the immigrant regarding time and space. In this changing and transforming space, what is remembered and what is forgotten, what objects were brought along with migration and which ones have changed meanings during the migration journey, which ones have been preserved and deemed worthy of representation, do all give cues about the relationship between collective memory and migration.

Pierre Nora, in his book Realms of Memory, argues that museums and archives are among the typical sites of memory where memory is embodied in one place. [3]Nora, P. (2006). Realms of Memory. Translation: M. Özcan. Dost Kitabevi. Visualization plays a pivotal role in sites of memory, including museums, where objects are arranged in a certain systematic logic and in relation to one another by means of memory techniques or mnemotechnics as called by the ancient Greeks. Meanwhile, Artun (2017) reminds us that museums emerged as institutions that preserve objects against ravages of modernization. So, how can a dynamic phenomenon such as migration, capable of connoting new meanings and practices with its social and political implications, be represented in a museum that can be considered as a “site of preservation”? Sociologist Zeynep Karakılıç, one of the participants of the workshop, reminds that museums – as a site of memory – should not be places that are static or frozen in time; on the contrary, they should be dynamic spaces that evolve with tense and therapeutic encounters. Having written his master’s thesis on Bursa Migration Museum, Sercan Eklemezler also highlights the importance of museums as a space for encounters: “However, these spaces are not just archives where cultural identities are stored and exhibited; they are sites of memory where subjectivities and objectivities collide, allowing for countless encounters and new meanings and remembrance processes arising from these encounters for each individual in the culture.” [4]Eklemezler, S. (2018). Toplumsal Hafıza ve Mekân: Bulgaristan Göçmeni Kadınların Deneyimleri ve Bursa Göç Tarihi Müzesi [Collective Memory and Space: Experiences of Women Immigrants … Continue reading

Objects will undoubtedly occupy an important place in such a memory space, as objects serve as the carriers of collective memory. According to Nuri Bilgin, it is possible to see objects as sites of memory: “Objects themselves constitute sites of memory where our own memories are embodied; objects are even tantamount to the memory itself, considering the human stories behind them”. [5]Bilgin, N. (2013). Tarih ve Kolektif Bellek [History and Collective Memory]. Istanbul, Bağlam Yayıncılık. During the workshop, Lorans Tanatar Baruh talked about the Ottoman Bank Museum [6] experience, noting that although objects are important for museums, they are not sufficient on their own; and reminding that the objects to be exhibited in a museum derive their strength from the stories originating from documents, testimonies and other supporting materials. This particular contribution actually brought up a point that everyone at the workshop agreed: A museum must always be accompanied by an archival and documentation study, in other words, the museum must be designed as a multi-faceted centre right from the beginning. Meanwhile, Nevin Soyukaya, the coordinator of the Diyarbakır’s Memory project [7] undertaken by Diyarbakır Association for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets (DKVD) in collaboration with Anadolu Kültür, reminded that archives are an important tool for a more subtle and active representation in museums and emphasized that a research and documentation centre is crucial for telling the stories of the objects to be exhibited in the museum and for reflecting the sounds and diversity behind the objects.

As quintessential elements of museums, objects serve as the carrier of memory, both as materials that accompany the migration process and with their ever-changing quality throughout the migration process. Yet, it is also obvious that collecting, classifying and archiving objects entails a process of decomposition as well as creation of hierarchy. As academic Gülbin Özdamar put it during the workshop, the questions as to who will choose the objects, with what cultural codes and within which ideological framework, directly determine the theme of resulting exhibition. In other words, the choice of objects and how they are displayed are also manifestations of the ideological conception and context in which that institution is located. This brings us to the issue of representation, which among others forms the crux of the debate over migration museums.

The issue of representation

One of the topics discussed during the workshop was the problem of representation with respect to experiences of migration. What do migration museums represent, how do they represent? While these questions may seem simple, they contain multifaceted and comprehensive ideological and political choices. As an issue cross-cutting other themes such as inclusion, exclusion, domination, this very topic raises other types of questions including how to incorporate the issue of migration to museums in countries with a rich legacy of migration such as Turkey, how to represent the history of migration as well as the experiences of migrants, and how to engage different visitor groups in the museum. During the workshop, participants from different disciplines discussed how migrants’ stories and experiences could be collected and represented.

One of the reasons that complicates the issue of archives and representation is that migration is not only a social or cultural phenomenon, but also a “political” issue. The inequalities as well as relations of domination implied by politics here span over a vast area, from border policies to integration practices, racism and exclusion practices. Relations of domination with respect to migrants can take symbolic as well as overt forms. Zeynep Kıvılcım, one of the participants of the project Archiv der Flucht, offers clues about this symbolic violence when she makes the point that immigrants who have recently come to Germany with the new wave are forced into “victimisation performance” in the host community and are attempted to be reduced down to a passive victim image. Researchers have also pointed to multi-layered inequalities behind stigmatizing expressions such as “immigration problem” or “refugee crisis”, widely used today especially by Western countries. [8]There are many studies on this topic one can refer to, including: Holmes, S. M., & Castañeda, H. (2016). “Representing the ‘European refugee crisis’ in Germany and beyond: Deservingness … Continue reading The histories of countries, their colonial legacy, immigration and identity policies constitute the key pillars of racism. When rights-based approach weakens and racism is on the rise, it is essential to give visibility to the political nature of the issue against the backdrop of the representations in the media and academia that try to categorize immigrants as “victims”. Migration museums offer ample opportunities to bring visibility to this historical legacy and to contribute to democratisation processes by creating a platform for discussion around these issues. One of the ways to achieve this is to give a voice to those who have experienced the process, namely migrants and their children.

An “international museum of migration” for Istanbul

One of the ideas raised during the workshop was the establishment of a migration museum in Istanbul. However, everyone had their own answer based on their perspectives when it comes to the question as to which group(s) should be the focus of this museum. Should such a museum focus on migrant workers and their children who went to Europe from Turkey, or those internal migrants who have moved to Istanbul extensively since the 1950s; on Kurds forcibly displaced after the violent conflict in the 90s, or Syrian refugees and irregular migrants who have recently arrived in Turkey?

During the workshop, the strongest demand came for the establishment of a museum and documentation centre in Istanbul that would chronicle the [labour] migration to Germany, as last year marked its 60th anniversary. Ali Eliş, who took part in the Virtuelles Museum der Migration project in Germany, and Ahmet İyidirli, a member of the People’s Democratic Federation and SPD, noted that they were looking for a counterpart to discuss the idea of an international museum of migration to be established in Istanbul in 2018, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the [labour] migration from Turkey to Germany. They have initially dreamt of housing the museum at Sirkeci Train Station; however, there have been issues about the possible use of that site, which also indicates the sensitive nature of the relationship between the actors who are to establish the migration museum. Explaining the necessity of a migration museum, Ahmet İyidirli emphasized that every state is trying to rewrite history in its own way, whereas the voices of migrants should also be heard while telling history. Ali Eliş also pointed to the imperative to act swiftly without losing the first generation, in an effort to capture the memory and archives of the [labour] migration from Turkey to Germany and transfer it to the younger generations. According to İyidirli and Eliş, if such a space is designed not only as a museum but also as a documentation centre, it can act as a bridge between countries, societies and generations.

One of the places mentioned as an example of museums and documentation centres with the mission to convey the experience and memory of migration and to nurture public discussion was DOMID (DOMiD e.V. – Dokumentationszentrum und Museum über die Migration in Deutschland / DOMiT—The Documentation Center and Museum of Migration from Turkey), founded by four people who left Turkey and took refuge in Germany after the 12 September 1980 coup. This example has been mentioned as one of the well-functioning institutional models with research projects and conferences in addition to its collection and archive.

Digital exhibition formats, which gained momentum thanks to the advancing technologies and pandemic-driven experiences, also came to the fore in the workshop. Several examples were cited with respect to the use of new technologies in exhibitions, including domains employing digital tools such as Archiv der Flucht, [9] or social media accounts used in the DiasporaTurk [10] and work which was part of the Dikenden Sığınak (Thorn Shelter) [11] exhibition held at Depo. Although these digital projects offer great advantages such as the ability to reach a much wider audience regardless of time and place, where and how these works will be stored in the future, in other words, the issue of sustainability and preservation of digital archives has been put forward as a question waiting to be answered. Sociologist Besim Can Zırh, one of the workshop participants, also touched upon the ownership issue of the materials exhibited on DiasporaTurk’s twitter and instagram accounts, a domain that has almost turned into a museum in its own right. According to Besim Can Zırh, although it is meaningful for popular culture that the young generations of families who have migrated to Europe publicize the material belonging to their elders through social media accounts, it falls short of delving deeper into the issues; hence research centres are needed to be able to interpret this kind of to-the-point materials in various dimensions.

Who can be the founding members of a migration museum?

Who will take the lead in the founding of a migration museum and who will be the main implementer of this initiative? Addressing these key questions will make it easier for us to find answers to the other questions mentioned above. The majority of the migration museums across the world are founded and financed by municipalities. Whereas in Turkey, we see various actors undertaking this mission: While the Bursa Migration Museum [12] was established by the Bursa Metropolitan Municipality, Lausanne Treaty Emigrants Museum [13] was founded by the Foundation of Lausanne Treaty Emigrants.

Many participants in the workshop underlined that a migration museum should be owned by more than one institution and group, and that local governments should take an active role in this process. In addition to public institutions such as the Ministry of Culture and municipalities, it would be beneficial to get support from cultural centres, civic initiatives and international organisations to overcome some of the problems that may be encountered during and after the establishment process. However, this multi-stakeholder structure can also be a source of potential problems. For every organisation or group will inevitably put forward their own priorities and preferences, their institutional, intellectual or political preferences will also affect the design of the exhibition/archive/museum. The debates about how to represent the diverse nature of migration and how to establish ideological, political and economic power relations during this representation can get quite contentious. So much so that, some museum ideas have failed as they could not overcome such discussions at the establishment stage.

To have a better understanding of possible tensions between actors, we can recall what happened at the opening of the National Museum of the History of Migration in Paris. After many years of preparations, the Museum sparked great controversy when it opened its doors in 2007. The decision to house the Museum at the building of the former colonial museum as well as the recent election of Sarkozy as the president of the Republic and his political decisions have all played their part. Known for his attitude of securitisation and exclusion of migrants when he served as the Interior Minister, Sarkozy established the “Ministry of National Identity and Immigration”, which did not exist before, in a highly controversial move, as soon as he assumed office as president in April 2007. Eight scholars sitting at the Scientific Council of the Museum resigned from their posts, as they called this ministry “unacceptable”, criticising the approach that considers immigrants as a national problem.

15 years after this incident, and a month after the workshop we organised, I was in Paris, at the said National Museum of the History of Migration. I had the opportunity to reflect on the migration museums, archives and representation issues discussed during the workshop, while visiting an exhibition on a very sensitive subject in this very migration museum, which has been at the core of political and intellectual debates since its founding. The exhibition “Jews and Muslims of France from the colonial period to today: Less cliché, more history” (Juifs et musulmans de la France coloniale à nos jours) [14]For further information on the exhibition held at the National Museum of the History of Migration in Paris between 5.4.2022 and 17.9.2022, please see … Continue reading opened at the museum in April 2022, deals with highly-charged issues for the French society and state, such as the history of colonialism, minorities and assimilation policies, through a very rich content.

One of the two pieces that impressed me most in the exhibition was Satif and Guelma Monument by Kamel Yahiaoui, depicting the French state’s massacre of Muslims who revolted in Algeria in May 1945, demanding independence. Portraying dozens of people whose faces are not visible in 17 rows and 19 columns with oil on canvas technique, this painting moved me not only because it reminds me of the tens of thousands massacred by France in Algeria, but also because such a work can be exhibited in a museum established by the French state. The other piece was a quote from Derrida, the Algerian-born French philosopher of Jewish descent who was stripped of his French citizenship due to a snap decision [15]The Crémineux Decree (Décret Crémineux) of 1870 was a law that granted French citizenship to Jewish population residing in French Algeria. Unlike in the case of the “native Muslims” of the … Continue reading by the Vichy government during World War II. While the words of this prominent philosopher, and his far-reaching works have lasted longer than the short-lived ministry founded by Sarkozy, they also illustrate the traumatic impact the French state’s decision had on the lives of individuals:

“When I was 10, I lost my French citizenship during the Vichy regime, and for the few years I was excluded from the French school, I became part of the so-called indigenous Jews. The Algerians of that time showed much more solidarity than the Algerian French. This has been one of the tremors of my life.”

In lieu of conclusion: My dream museum

Migration is not a mere act of moving from one place to another; the people who set out this journey fit more complex feelings into their suitcase rather than their belongings. The museum in my dreams is the one that acknowledges how difficult it can be to pursue the intended migration, and how differently the experience resonates for those who somehow end up on the road and reach their destination. Concurrently, my dream museum will have such a design and exhibition layout that reminds us how each migration journey inherently involves constant change and rebuilding, not only for those who set out [for a new destination], but also for those who are left behind and those that are already at the destination. It is a museum that shows the patterns emerging in the fluidity and ambiguity that define today’s migration phenomenon, always leaves the audience in a state of uncanny, and makes them question their own state.

Despite all the challenges we raised in the workshop, it is possible to have a museum and archive that deals with the phenomenon of migration and its experiences in all their complexity, making visible not only the hardships and grievances, but also the resilience of migrant individuals and communities in the face of the difficulties they are exposed to. It is our hope that the discussion we had with the participants who came together through the workshop will pave the way for a migration museum that will contribute to building a peaceful and just common future for Istanbul.

Didem Danış

Translated by Burcu Becermen



1Parla, A. (2019). Precarious Hope: Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey. Stanford University Press.
2Since the end of the 19th century, Turks and/or Muslims living in the lands lost by the Ottoman Empire, mostly from the Balkans, migrated to the new territories of Turkey. These immigrants, who played a significant role in the founding of the new republic, served the purpose of reinforcing the population weakened as a result of long wars, both in terms of quantity and quality. Having played an important function with respect to the homogenisation policies of the new republic, Muslim immigrants were defined as “population masses whose adaptation is desirable” in the Turkish Resettlement Law of 1934. They were also acknowledged as “desirable” by the founding cadres of the new republic. In the early republican period, inclusion policies towards Muslim and Turkish immigrants went hand in hand with policies of exclusion towards non-Muslims, and the state’s preferences in admission of immigrants were carried out according to a “hierarchy of desirability”. Danış, D., & Parla, A. (2009). “Nafile Soydaşlık: Irak ve Bulgaristan Türkleri örneğinde göçmen, dernek ve devlet”. [A futile ethnic kinship: Immigrants, associations and state in the example of Iraqi and Bulgarian Turks.] Toplum ve Bilim, 114, 131-158.
3Nora, P. (2006). Realms of Memory. Translation: M. Özcan. Dost Kitabevi.
4Eklemezler, S. (2018). Toplumsal Hafıza ve Mekân: Bulgaristan Göçmeni Kadınların Deneyimleri ve Bursa Göç Tarihi Müzesi [Collective Memory and Space: Experiences of Women Immigrants from Bulgaria and Bursa Immigration History Museum] Master’s Thesis, Anadolu University, Social Sciences Institute, p.33.
5Bilgin, N. (2013). Tarih ve Kolektif Bellek [History and Collective Memory]. Istanbul, Bağlam Yayıncılık.
8There are many studies on this topic one can refer to, including: Holmes, S. M., & Castañeda, H. (2016). “Representing the ‘European refugee crisis’ in Germany and beyond: Deservingness and difference, life and death”. American Ethnologist, 43(1), 12-24. and
14For further information on the exhibition held at the National Museum of the History of Migration in Paris between 5.4.2022 and 17.9.2022, please see
15The Crémineux Decree (Décret Crémineux) of 1870 was a law that granted French citizenship to Jewish population residing in French Algeria. Unlike in the case of the “native Muslims” of the Maghreb, the aim was to assimilate the Jews that were given French passports into the French identity through the school system. When the Vichy Government annulled this decree under the influence of the Nazis, Algerian Jews suddenly lost their French citizenship.
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