Stories of migration

First Steps Towards an Immigration Museum

Radio `Concetboy´ aus der Sammlung DOMiD; Copyright: DOMiD-Archiv KölnExhibtion Migration Project(2005/2006); Copyright: DOMiD-Archiv KölnWhen the subject of integration comes up in Germany, the discussion usually hinges on social conflicts and political issues, inadequate educational and career opportunities, juvenile delinquency or parallel societies. It often neglects the purportedly "soft" cultural factor of the place of the history of immigration in a society's collective memory.

This chapter of German history is hardly covered in the curriculum at German high schools. Even in history museums, where Germans come to an understanding on their own history and identity, immigration is dealt with tangentially, if at all, as at the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn or the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Telling a new, collective story

Exhibition  `Fremde Heimat – Yaban, Silan olur´ (1998); Copyright: DOMiD-Archiv KölnImmigration doesn't appear to be at the core of our national founding myth. But a nation that a few years ago officially, i.e. politically, declared itself an Einwanderungsland, or "country of immigration", has to come to terms with the historical preconditions for this new definition of itself. In 2002, then German President Johannes Rau adumbrated where this scrutiny of the past might lead: "The newcomers will probably, in their way, make our history their own, and together some day we will tell a new, collective story."

In North Rhine-Westphalia, which is marked by immigration more than just about any other German Land, all the parties in the Landtag endorsed a 2001 proposal to set up an institution "devoted to the history of immigration and the presentation of immigrant culture" – albeit without any results to show for it to date. 2003 saw the creation of an "Immigration Museum" association that was to be merged in 2007 into the "Documentation Centre and Museum of Immigration in Germany" (Dokumentationszentrum und Museum über die Migration in Deutschland, or DOMiD for short). DOMiD, which has been compiling documents on the history of immigration since 1990, now has the most extensive collection of material on the subject in Germany, which it intends to hand over to the envisaged immigration museum in the medium term.

First steps

Document; Copyright: DOMiD-Archiv KölnThe state government is now holding out the prospect of financial support for DOMiD in 2008 to secure its archives and plan out a collection on the history of immigration to North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). This is a first small step, others may follow. "Those who collect material aren't collecting for a depository, but for people," remarks Christian Democrat Thomas Kufen, NRW commissioner for integration. "In other words, we remain committed to publicly presenting the history of our Land as one marked by immigration and emigration. Ultimately, that may give rise to a separate museum of migration, but that is not top of the list." Time may be working for such a project, however, as inertia seems to be increasingly giving way to motion and change as the reigning paradigm in a globalized world.

For Aytaç Eryilmaz, on the other hand, DOMiD's managing director, the history of migration warrants institutional recognition at national level to symbolize the fact that "Germany is no longer a monocultural, but a multi-ethnic country". A symbol that's also important to the current process of integration: "If we're portrayed as foreigners in the history books, then we'll remain foreigners. If immigrants can't identify with their portrayal in history exhibitions, integration will come a cropper." Hence his insistence that an adequate rendering of the history of immigration depends not only on the depth and scope of critical analysis in museums and history books, but also on the perspective from which the story is told.

Getting the perspective right

Radio `Concetboy´ from the DOMiD Collection; Copyright: DOMiD-Archiv KölnAnd this is precisely where the conceptual difficulties begin that museologists have to grapple with: How can migration, which is literally beyond borders, be geographically contoured? Is there any point at all in retaining a national focus? What about the temporal framework? Does one begin with labour migration after World War II, or with earlier waves of immigrants? What about Aussiedler, ethnic German immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, who view themselves as members of the ethnic majority? But the decisive issue for Eryilmaz is that of finding a middle-ground perspective between the German-born ethnic majority and the immigrants – and thus that of pinpointing the target group. For some, such a museum could be a place of identification; for others, one of learning. But how can the two be fused?

What's more, the "day-to-day" aspect of the history of immigration should be presented chiefly using "everyday" items. Items that may, for immigrants, bear a highly emotional charge that is hard to convey to a German-born majority who have no such memories or associations. Ulrich Borsdorf, founding director of the Ruhr Museum that is to open this year at the Zeche Zollverein coal mine in Essen and will provide extensive coverage of immigration to the Ruhr region, pinpoints this very problem of perspective. He relativizes the changes such a project might effect in our collective consciousness: "DMOiD is justifiably interested in having a place in the cultural memory of the population in Germany. In democratic societies, memories are institutionally organized in different ways, not only by museums. That's why we have to be careful not to overtax the institution of the museum."

The mere fact of establishing a national immigration museum would be a political signal of far-reaching import. What message the exhibition will impart is, though, a question of perspective. Depending on political interests, among other considerations, it could doubtless tell the story of immigration to Germany in any number of different ways ranging from a study in disintegration to a success story.

Andrej Klahn
is an editor of the cultural magazine K.WEST – Das Feuilleton für NRW

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
January 2008

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