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  • The Heritage of Displacement: Forced Migration in the Mediterranean through History
  • Flaminia Bartolini, Margaret Comer, J. Eva Meharry, and Minjae Zoh

The world is now facing the largest refugee crisis in history. More than one million migrants and refugees arrived by sea in 2015 in the Mediterranean area alone. Amid the torrent of news reports on the mass migration, archaeologists agree that this phenomenon, though tragically much larger in scale today, has occurred in the region many times before. Since the topic is both timely and historic, the Cambridge Heritage Research Group (CHRG) brought together, for the first time, a multidisciplinary group of presenters (including archivists, archaeologists, historians, lawyers, artists, and singers) for its 17th Annual Seminar on May 14, 2016, to address the heritage of forced migration across the Mediterranean region. During the day-long seminar, held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, presenters analyzed tangible and intangible traces of forced migration heritage at sites of departure, transit, resettlement, and return in order to further the research and practice on this topical issue.

Following an introduction by CHRG’s Marie Louise Stig Sørenson and Dacia Viejo-Rose, two comprehensive keynote talks punctuated the conference. Professor David Abulafia of the University of Cambridge’s History Department developed a typology of reasons for historic migration, not only to better understand the past but to more clearly draw parallels between past and current patterns of migration. Empires would periodically displace the populations of entire areas; in such cases, the previous local population was erased, and a new one brought in. In addition, groups of people left temporarily or permanently to seek work or fortune, huge armies were raised for long campaigns, and populations voluntarily moved in order to escape violence, starvation, or other dangers. Thus, the history of the Mediterranean is full of mass movements, which share many commonalities with the current crisis.

The second keynote speech, “Protecting Orphaned Objects: Challenges, Strategies, Solutions,” was presented by France Desmarais, director of Programmes and Partnerships at the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and focused on the legal international frameworks that exist for the protection of cultural heritage. Desmarais discussed two recent legal tools of protection: the Blue Shield and the Code of Ethics for Museums. Desmarais stressed that the main foci of the organization are protecting cultural heritage in emergencies and fighting illicit trafficking. She argued that the key issue museums need to address is provenance, as the majority of recent illicit trafficking is coming from countries experiencing conflicts. She advocated a more proactive use of the heritage-at-risk Red Lists and shared Scotland Yard’s success with the use of the Libyan Red List, which led to the restitution of 3,500 objects to the Museum of Tripoli.

The panel sessions were organized under four key themes as discussed below. [End Page 377]

“Voicing Ownership and Loss”: The Boundaries of Heritage in “Spaces” and Objects Outside of the Traditional Museum

The points raised in these sessions enrich or fruitfully problematize attempts to make heritage more inclusive in formal settings. Presentations dealt with the issues of preservation and transmission of heritage, especially subaltern or dissonant heritage, through objects and documents. Although each dealt with historic trauma, the case studies clearly demonstrated the continuing impacts of the heritage of historic displacement in contemporary societies.

“Reflections in the Silver Mirror: Owning the Past and Carrying Its Burden,” a presentation given by Atak Ayaz, a graduate student at Sabancı University, examined issues of displacement and identity through a Turkish case study. In the wake of Armenian displacement in the Ottoman Empire’s waning years, many formerly Armenian properties passed to ethnic Turks. When a Turkish family in Mus bought a house from the government in 1918, knowing that it had previously belonged to a displaced family, they found an abandoned silver mirror inside. The current male head of household sees it as his duty to keep the mirror safe in the expectation that, someday, the original family will retrieve it. In this situation, the burdens of past violence and displacement shouldered by those who remain have taken a tangible form. What will happen when this caretaker passes on? What...


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