I was the lead curator for the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition which, because of delays and restrictions due to Covid 19, finally opened on 24 September 2020 and ran, albeit with pauses for lockdowns, until 13 June 2021. The idea for the Refugees Season came from the events in the Mediterranean in 2014-2015, the so-called ‘Refugee crisis’, and language used at the time and since to describe refugees and displaced persons. It was often repeated that every year since 2015 the world was seeing the highest number of refugees and displaced persons on record, a point made by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) themselves. However, UNHCR records start in the 1950s and initially only covered refugee events in Europe, when during and after the Second World War the numbers displaced exceeded those of today, and at the beginning of the First World War as many as 17,000 Belgian refugees passed through Folkestone in one day. It was felt that this was an opportunity to look at 100 years of refugees, to compare and contrast the causes of the events and experiences of those involved, and to put the contemporary situation into its historical context, especially given the hyperbolic language used in the media.
The vision and key message we wanted to convey was that:
‘The displacement of people on an enormous scale is a major consequence of conflict. This is not a new phenomenon and, throughout history, it has had a disrupting global effect and has been irreparably devastating for those caught up in it.’
Throughout the exhibition we used first person narratives, with Sound Archive interviews, filmed interviews, and written accounts. We realised early on that all the photos and film in our extensive collections were of refugees, taken by outsiders and onlookers, such as military film and photographic units as well as journalists. These images were also often used for propaganda purposes – ‘look at the poor refugees’ or ‘this is why we are fighting.’
What we wanted to do with Refugees: Forced to Flee was to put refugee voices front and centre - after all they are the only people who know what it is really like. We also wanted to show the agency they had in their own decision making, and their responses to losing their homes and to trying to build new lives elsewhere. As well as having examples of letters and journals on display, and quotes from the owners of displayed objects in the captions, it was decided it would be illuminating to follow some individuals from different places, different conflicts, and different times, through the exhibition, but have them all talking about the same themes. There are some similar themes and emotions, such as feelings of fear, hope, and what it feels like to lose your home, that transcend time and place, and it is that idea we wanted to use.
We needed to show refugees as individuals in order to provoke an emotional connection with our visitors, to create empathy, and to show that the faceless mass of people on news reports are real people with very pressing difficulties. Visitors were then given the opportunity to consider their own responses to similar experiences and dilemmas. One of the best ways to do this is to get people to tell their stories directly, so that you can put names, faces, and voices to experiences. We also wanted the first-person narratives to follow the format of the exhibition, the journey from living their lives at home pre-war, being forced from their homes by conflict or persecution, travelling to find safety, through to settling in a new home. This required listening to literally hundreds of hours of interviews in the IWM archives to find people who talked about their experiences in an engaging way. It then took even longer to find the perfect short clips to use so that each audiovisual was about five minutes long – our audience research in the past has shown that people don’t tend to stay and watch films that are longer than that, and on a practical level you also get bottlenecks in the exhibition. In four separate audiovisuals we followed five people, a young woman from Belgium in the First World War, a Kindertransportee from Vienna in 1938, a young Polish man who fled the Russians in 1940 and ended up as a forced labourer in Germany, a young man from Afghanistan who travelled to the UK in 2008, and a young man from Bijeljina in Bosnia who left days before the massacre in 1992.
We are lucky that IWM has a very extensive Sound Archive of interviews covering the last century, the majority of which are available to listen to online. These interviews tend to be audio only, however. The United Nations Television (UNTV) material, by contrast, is both extensive and shows people talking to camera. Added to that was the format of the interviews. Being edited for broadcast in a magazine news show meant that they immediately lent themselves for use in an exhibition, in that the interviewees were talking about themselves and their own lived experiences, answering questions put to them by professionally trained journalists. There were people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, but again all talking about the loss of their homes and communities.
A recently introduced display rule at IWM, in its permanent galleries from the new First World War galleries through to the new Second World War and Holocaust galleries which opened in October 2021, requires that we now only use quotes that are contemporaneous. This gives a more immediate impression, unfettered by hindsight, giving the visitor insights into what people thought at the time and this informed their thinking and decisions. While we were unable to stick to this rule throughout the exhibition as some of our witnesses were from the pre-smartphone era, the UNTV films were so rich in experience and had such an immediacy that we decided to use them extensively. Some of the video letters, like the wonderful Draga and Nada films, have a quiet reflection about traumatic situations, which is really impactful.
The use of first-hand accounts continued throughout the Refugees Season, with the IWM Institute’s online Refugee Nights series being hosted by Syrian refugee and filmmaker Hassan Akkad and featuring interviews and discussion panels with refugees. The immersive film of Moria Camp in Greece, filmed in 2020 by CNN, showed refugees making the most of what they had while waiting for a new home.
Visitor feedback has shown that, as we hoped, having refugees speaking about their own experiences was really effective in creating an emotional and empathetic connection, with one visitor saying, ‘First person testimonies were very affecting; I wept several times listening to the stories.’ If Refugees Forced to Flee helped to humanise the debate, to show refugees as real people just like everyone else, then the exhibition achieved its mission, and the UNTV material was a key part of this.