In the footsteps of migrants

Four months after she arrived in Antwerp, Colombian-born Laura Vargas was given a map of the city and asked to mark the five places most important to her. “I drew all the places that were helping to make me feel at home, starting with the museum, which I absolutely love because it’s so incredibly welcoming,” she says. “As a migrant it’s very nice to go somewhere that gives some importance to newcomers.”

Laura’s favourite museum, and the source of the maps used to tell the stories of people new to the city, is the Red Star Line Museum. And her beautifully illustrated map – she’s an artist by profession – is now on display as part of its Safe harbour exhibition.

Setting out for a better life

The museum is housed in the former harbour warehouses of the Red Star Line, whose ocean steamers carried two million European emigrants from Antwerp to the United States between 1873 and 1934. But, as the Safe harbour project suggests, this is no ordinary museum of random objects, historical facts and generalised descriptions.

When it was first decided to regenerate the port area in the 1990s, the first idea was to turn the line’s warehouses into a maritime museum. But then research started to unearth fascinating details about the passengers who had arrived at the port, their whole lives packed into a few suitcases, hoping for a better life across the ocean.

The result? A vision for a museum of migration that takes visitors on a journey back in time and enables encounters with today.

How to make a museum relevant

Migration has been a fundamental feature of man’s history since ancient times, but the past few decades have seen unprecedented human movement. The number of displaced people has risen by 65% in the past decade. And in recent years, a record 71 million people have been forcibly displaced by war and violence according to the United Nations.

As cities search for ways to integrate rising numbers of newcomers, cultural heritage is increasingly being seen as a way of encouraging and enabling participative initiatives and mutual understanding of each other’s past and present.

As they adjust to these changing demographics and needs, many museums have started to reassess their role as guardians of national or local culture. What they need to become, says Ekaterina Travkina, coordinator of culture, creative industries and local development at the OECD, are ‘facilitators of knowledge and hubs of living archives of local knowledge’.

In his study of museums in the age of migration Chris Whitehead, professor of museology at Newcastle University, brings out the value of this new role. ‘When museums become places where people can explore the realities of migration, transnational connections and human rights, they become even more relevant as cultural institutions and can help drive positive social change, encouraging solidarity and sustainable development.’

Antwerp has good reason to be part of this cultural shift – and not just because of its heritage as a departure port for emigrants. It is also an increasingly international city, passing the threshold of 50% of citizens with a migrant background in 2019.

The story of one Ukrainian girl

​We really believe in the power of personal stories and testimonies to provoke empathy and a sense of the universal experience of migration
— Karen Moeskops, museum director

Following extensive research at many institutions including the Ellis Island museum in New York, where the liners docked, to learn more about the personal histories of Red Star Line passengers, the museum opened in 2013.

​“We really believe in the power of personal stories and testimonies to provoke empathy and a sense of the universal experience of migration,” says the museum’s director Karen Moeskops. She cites one particular story told in the museum of a mother who travelled over three years with her four children from Ukraine to Antwerp and then to the United States, where her husband was working.

When they arrived at Ellis Island, the obligatory medical examination revealed that her nine-year old daughter Ita had trachoma, a contagious eye disorder eye that meant she was turned away. “The mother had the heartbreaking choice to rejoin her husband with her three sons and send the girl back home alone for treatment or to take all the children back to Europe and not see her husband for many years.

“She chose to send her daughter back and it would take her many attempts to be reunited with her family in the US. That choice is the tipping point in the experience for visitors, when they start to feel empathy, to imagine themselves in the story and to ask ‘what would I have done?’”

This empathy sits at the heart of the museum’s impact. For research demonstrates that empathy leads to a change in attitudes and actions. One 2019 study by psychologists at the universities of Belfast and Dublin reinforced this finding. It showed that children who listened to a storybook about the experience of a refugee soon to join their class subsequently showed more empathy and intention to help than those who were just told of the child’s arrival.

Immersion in the migrant experience

Inside the doors of the historic warehouses, visitors step into the footsteps of emigrants fleeing poverty or persecution or looking for adventure, from the stops they made along the way from their homelands to their arrival in America.

Reconstructions of a Warsaw travel agency, a train compartment, the deck of an ocean steamer and the interior of a ship provide the backdrop to families’ stories. Videos, interactive computer games, documents, personal belongings and even smells help make their life-changing journeys with their high expectations and deep disappointments real.

The final section of the exhibition focuses on emigrants’ arrival at Ellis Island, their onward journeys to settlements across North America and the songs and newspapers typical of their new communities.

These permanent exhibitions are only part of the story told within the museum’s walls.

Participatory projects have been part of the its DNA from the start.

The museum’s mini van is a familiar sight in the city, collecting stories from current newcomers for its constantly-evolving collections. Today’s migrants and refugees are also invited to tell their stories their way through a programme of temporary displays and performances encompassing art, films, monologues and music.

Making the unimportant important

Newcomers are also drawn into the museum’s orbit by specific projects. Of one recent project, Moeskops says, “our outreach team won the trust of refugees, people still in search of their place within our society, and recorded 40 interviews from all around the world about fear, suffering, courage, resilience and the power of imagination. With projects like this you see how empowering it is for people to share their stories – and the timelessness of the human aspect of migration.”

For newcomer Vargas, this is the museum’s strength. “It makes the people who are usually invisible visible and gives them a voice. It’s about little Ita who had to come back to Antwerp on her own rather than famous passengers like Albert Einstein and Irving Berlin. The museum is also not looking just to stay in the old history but to bring that into the now and make a connection with the present migration situation.”

In 2018, the museum brought history into the now in a novel, and neatly circular, way with its Rootseekers project. Working with senior school students originally from the United States, the museum’s researchers uncovered stories about the lives their ancestors had built after disembarking from Red Star liners in New York.

The students, and many of their American relatives, came together at the opening of the resulting Rootseekers exhibition in what Moeskops describes as, “a beautiful bridging of past and present.”

Two groups of women – one vision

“Emigrants stories are important because the Red Star Line has had a huge impact on the city of Antwerp,” says Moeskops. “But it’s also a Belgian story, a European story, and a transatlantic story and all these layers count. But for me, the universal story it tells makes this a relevant place for the future.”

​It is this common thread running through everything the museum does that convinces Moeskops the museum can be, “an antidote to prejudice and discrimination just by providing the context and the stories for a very broad audience.”

Reaching this broad audience is key for Moeskops. The city attracts 100,000 visitors a year – 3,000 of whom are newcomers to the city – the highest figure for all the city’s museums. But it is a moment’s glimpse of two very different groups of visitors that delights her most.

“I looked outside one morning and saw a group of classically dressed white women standing alongside a group of women from Somalia arriving for their Dutch language class wearing beautiful bright headscarves. I saw them look at each other as if to say, ‘are we both visiting the same museum’? That’s what I find amazing, that we can attract both these groups.”

Falling in love

The Red Star Line Museum is a fine example of a cultural institution continually finding ways to bring its vision to life. In its case this means making meaningful connections between the city’s history and today’s citizens, newcomers and vulnerable groups – and staying connected.

Laura Vargas is just one of the visitors who can vouch for this. Already a veteran of one project, she now has even closer ties to the museum.

She’s recently been asked to illustrate the story of her journey to Belgium, her husband’s homeland, as part of a new exhibition. Through artwork, letters and personal belongings, Destination Sweetheart will tell the story of what it’s like to leave home for love.

There’s one further reason why the museum helped her fall in love with her new city.

“They saw past the fact that my Dutch isn’t perfect and encouraged me to participate as more than a spectator. Then they offered me training, and later a job, as a museum guide – that doesn’t happen much to a migrant!”

Tiphanie Mellor