"Studio of Realism": On the Need for Art in Exhibitions on Migration History


  • Barbara Wolbert University of Minnesota




immigration history, museum, exhibition, aesthetics, art, representation, document, monument


This essay takes "Projekt Migration" as point of departure and as a model—an exhibition on the history of labor migration to Germany and on European border politics, which contained both everyday life objects and art works. It concentrates on the materiality of the objects on display and challenges contemporary history scholars' and public historians' approaches, which rely primarily on artifacts, such as documents and objects of daily use, when they represent migration processes and immigrants' lives. The stories associated with these objects often allude to immigrants' everyday practices during their first years abroad. Transforming them into "eternal migrants," exhibits thus tend to create fictionalizations of immigrants, which are then read as realistic and neutral representations. Artists, unlike museum curators, sign their work and thus assume responsibility for the narratives and allusions, which evoke emotions in the viewers. They insert a critical distance between the viewers and the objects, and thus make the "cultural spaces" (LIPPARD, 2003) between object, author, and viewer perceptible. The generalized "othering" of the immigrants and the voyeuristic stance of the viewers towards these others' migratory fates can thus be avoided. Works of art in exhibitions on migration history enable and force the visitors, with or without migration backgrounds, to take position themselves as well. This article therefore argues for the need of artists' interventions in exhibitions on migration history. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1002345


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Author Biography

Barbara Wolbert, University of Minnesota

Barbara WOLBERT, Adjunct Professor at the European University Viadrina in Frankurt (Oder) and Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, conducted her anthropological fieldwork mainly in Germany and in Turkey. Her scholarly interests include visual culture, art, and media. She has published on processes of migration, on rituals in the context of political and social transformations, on lives and life stories, on biography and narration, on gender and generation, and on photography, art exhibitions, and cultural politics.




How to Cite

Wolbert, B. (2010). "Studio of Realism": On the Need for Art in Exhibitions on Migration History. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-11.2.1483