Artifacts, Affects, and Authenticity: Constructive Resistance in Museum Spaces - Resistance and Emotions

Constructive Resistance: Repetitions, Emotions, and Time - Mona Lilja 2021

Artifacts, Affects, and Authenticity: Constructive Resistance in Museum Spaces
Resistance and Emotions

Contemporary marketplaces and cultural arenas are overfilled with objects that are considered as “copies,” “fakes,” and “reproductions.” Generally, in these places, “copies” seem to be less valued than “authentic” objects—that is, objects that could be produced and authenticated through, for example, expert knowledge or certification; there is a desire for authenticity in museums as well as in society as a whole (Grayson and Martinec 2004).

The focus of this chapter is “authentic” objects that were exhibited in the exhibition History Unfolds, which was displayed in 2017 at the Museum of History, Stockholm, as well as the exhibition Destination X, which was shown in 2012 at the Museum of World Culture, Gothenburg. These exhibitions are analyzed in order to show how and why “authentic” artifacts are used at museums by the administrations, staff members, and artists, as a form of constructive “resistance,” which has the aim of providing space for new voices and opening up different significations in regard to migration and migrants.

It is interesting that some material artifacts are more attractive and become more important to us because they were present during other times and have been felt and seen by the people of the past; perhaps during painful moments, grand time-periods, or dramatic ruptures. These artifacts are often seen as more fascinating and valuable than copies that have not “time-traveled.” The “authentic” artifacts that are elaborated on in this chapter are embraced as “discursive materialities,” which are created in the entanglement of matter with “the symbolic” (Lilja and Martinsson 2018). The emphasis is on the authenticity that is assigned to personal possessions (Grayson and Shulman 2004) or other artifacts, which could be spatiotemporally linked with migrant bodies. The “authentic” objects discussed are those that are ascribed meaning—particularly due to their previous physical encounters with migrant bodies.

As demonstrated in the analysis below, “authentic” objects are sometimes exhibited in museums as a form of constructive resistance, to make visitors abandon their standard interpretations and negotiate categories such as “us” and “them.” The forthcoming sections display how “authentic” artifacts, when used as meaning-making resistance in museum spaces, come to symbolize “matter-out-of-place,” be seen as “living” objects with “memories,” remove distances, and create time-lagged processes of signification that are interweaved in emotional processes. These artifacts are used to establish elaborated alternative discourses and/or deconstructed understandings of history. In addition, they can be said to be a means of constructive resistance, as they not only complexify and problematize various dimensions of the issue of migration but also contribute to the production of different truths.

The analysis in this chapter builds upon observations within the above-mentioned exhibitions; I have spent time viewing, reading, and experiencing the exhibitions, and I have also observed how the visitors interacted with the exhibited artifacts and texts. Over and above this, I draw on texts that describe and analyze the exhibitions.


As stated above, the key focus of this chapter is “authentic” objects, particularly those that are on display in museums in relation to migration. Migration is cross-boundary in nature as people travel between countries in order to flee from, among other things, terror and violence (Migrationsverket 2015). Subjects who move to a new country materialize as “migrants” in the tension between different discourses, localities, and materialities. The migrant position is one that might embody a short or long period of time.

In 2016 the Swedish Migration Agency stated that the need for resettlement of people was greater than ever before and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that some 1.2 million individuals needed this form of protection (Migrationsverket 2016a). In 2015, the Swedish parliament adopted a number of legislative changes that lessen asylum seekers’ possibilities to stay in Sweden. Among other things, a law was adopted that limits asylum seekers’ possibilities of being granted residence permits and the possibility for the applicant’s family to come to Sweden. Although these legislative changes are temporary, they have become a major obstacle for many migrants. In short, Sweden has gone from having the European Union’s (EU) most generous asylum laws to adopting the minimum EU level (Migrationsverket 2016b).

Today migration and integration are top issues on the political agenda in Sweden. The current rise of populism and social conservatism feeds on fears of migration. Museums have come to constitute one space in which various discourses around migrants have been contested. 1

The migrant position is not only an abstract position, but also a position that is embodied and understood by subjects who perform their situation. This chapter examines how this position is constructed in museum exhibitions, by artists, curators, and migrants.

The Museum of World Culture, Gothenburg, Sweden, displayed different symbols of migration (e.g., suitcases) during its exhibition Destination X (2010—2012). The exhibition involved commissioned pieces of art, soundscapes, media installations, and more traditional showcases with shoes and other objects. Among other things, the exhibition explored the driving force behind people’s desire to move around the world in general—as tourists and migrants, global families, business travelers, refugees, and adventurers. By representing different “travels,” the exhibition itself could be, at least partly, understood as a form of resistance that questioned and constructed norms. The political aim of the exhibition was revealed by, among other things, the photos of Rogelio Lopez Cuenca (Spain), who works with paradoxical “complementing” images by combining, for example, images from tourist brochures with documentary images. In one of his installations at the Museum of World Culture, an image of a pool party with happy tourists was put next to an image of refugees—probably from North Africa—struggling for their lives in the sea.

In another space of the exhibition, the visitors were introduced to La Frontera, the border between Mexico and the United States, which is one of the most crossed borders in the world. In the large sculpture-like artwork of Valarie James, named Hardship and Hope, “authentic” backpacks and water bottles that were left at La Frontera by people trying to cross the border were presented as a personal testimony in the form of a small altar (Museum of World Culture 2010). By displaying installations like Rogelio Lopez Cuenca’s photos or Valerie James’ sculpture, the perilous and precarious situation of migrants appeared in several ways. The artworks offered an interpretation of both the inequalities in the migrants’ native country and their attempts to escape it (Museum of World Culture 2010).

Another exhibition that used “authentic” objects to discuss the situations of refugees was History Unfolds (2016—2017) at the Swedish History Museum. Several artists were invited to create new artwork inspired by the museum’s collections and research. The participating artists were Esther Shalev-Gerz, Dušica Dražić, James Webb, Minna L. Henriksson, Elisabeth Bucht, Artur Żmijewski, Jananne Al-Ani, Hiwa K, Susan Meiselas (until September 4, 2017), and Meriç Algün Ringborg. The work of the artist Esther Shalev-Gerz is discussed in the forthcoming analytical sections.

In one room of the museum, “the Gold Room,” Shalev-Gerz introduced the spectators to five historians who unfolded potential stories of specific objects that they had selected from the museum collection. Over and above this, five people who recently migrated to Sweden showed an object that they brought with them on their journey. These chosen objects, the “authentic” artifacts, were displayed in the exhibition together with the personal stories of the newly arrived subjects. These narratives were presented as part of a larger story about lives that are currently being lived (Shalev-Gerz 2017). Shalev-Gerz explained that “it’s not often we hear refugees tell their stories or speak out. We only hear others who explain how many have been saved. We are in a difficult situation now that requires strong measures” (Shalev-Gerz 2017, my translation). As indicated in this quotation, the exhibition attempted to let the silent be heard and make space for alternative truths. While Shalev-Gerz stated, “History is so important because it excludes so much,” the Swedish History Museum wrote on their homepage that the exhibition, History Unfolds, made the invisible visible and explored what is hidden and forgotten. On the “reflections” section of their homepage, it was pinpointed that the hidden or silenced are generally connected with underlying norms that inform what is exhibited at the museum.

Both exhibitions discussed above, can be understood as performing politics in solidarity with (self and society defined) migrants. For example, one of the curators of Destination X stated that the exhibition revolved around “who has the freedom to move and who doesn’t. Today if you don’t have the right color passport, money, or skin, you can’t move freely” (Levitt 2017, 43). This must be seen as an attempt to shed light upon, and thereby resist, power-loaded discourses that limit the possibility of some groups or subjects to move. This form of (proxy) resistance—carried out in solidarity with others—does not always challenge power; knowledge-producing resistance can also provoke power, thereby simultaneously strengthen the power that is being challenged (Baaz et al. 2017; Foucault 1990, 96). In addition, in regard to proxy resistance, there are not always clear borders between those considered to be “subalterns” and the “activists”; the two might overlap or subjects might move between different positions. 2


How are “authentic” artifacts—such as the suitcases and water bottles of the exhibition Destination X (2010—2012) or the migrants’ belongings displayed at the History Unfolds (2016—2017)—exhibited and understood in museum exhibitions in order to try to establish or deconstruct different significations? Overall, below, I will discuss how different material artifacts are used as a kind of resistance in order to deconstruct and (re)construct various “truths” around the migrant figure in museum spaces. The below analysis is inspired by Foucault’s (1990, 100) outline of discourses, which reinforce power, but also “undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (Foucault 1990, 101). According to Foucault, repetitions of points of power and resistance, which fuel and produce each other, seem to occur in longer discursive processes (Foucault 1990, 96; Lilja 2018). This kind of resistance appears are spreads over time and space at varying densities.

Resistance is hereby parasitic on discourses, and discourses are the bearers of power-relations, control, and authority (Foucault 1990, 100). Discourses reinforce power, but also “undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (Foucault 1990, 101). According to Foucault, repetitions of points of power and resistance, which fuel and produce each other, seem to occur in longer discursive processes (Foucault 1990, 96; Lilja 2018). This kind of resistance appears are spreads over time and space at varying densities. It is not resistance as in a radical rupture, but rather mobile and transitory points of resistance that are:

producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remoulding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds. Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities. (Foucault 1990, 96)

Resistance is a reaction against power and exists where power exists; still resistance is not, as Foucault states, “only a reaction or rebound, forming with respect to the basic domination an underside that is in the end always passive, doomed to perpetual defeat” (Foucault 1990, 96). Instead, resistance is a multitude of scattered and creative actions or points with different aims and functions (Lilja 2018).

In this chapter, the items that are considered to be “authentic objects” inform discourses and could be seen as “points of resistance” in longer meaning-making processes. “Authentic” objects, which are comprehended as objects that operated in the past and bear historical significance, create emotional encounters, and affect discourses, thus, have political consequences. The resistance that is analyzed in this chapter can then be seen as a constructive form of resistance that aims to make silenced voices heard, draw attention to migration issues, and create knowledge, emotions, and new reflections in regard to the migrant position. The things displayed in museum spaces compose representations that maintain, challenge, or create discourses in complex networks. It is representations—which comprise a multiplicity of elements—that partake in the struggle over the truth of migration and migrant subjects.

As will be suggested below the artifacts, as means of resistance, are partly effective due to how they evoke different emotions. Resistance sometimes comes about or has an impact when subjects are empathetically “feeling” the trauma of others. In addition, the provoking of emotions is sometimes the very goal of resistance, as emotions fuel political struggles (Ahmed 2004, Goodwin Jasper and Polletta 2001; Baaz et al. 2018; Lilja 2017).


Before developing my arguments around “authentic” objects as a means of constructive resistance in museum spaces, let us take a detour around the concept of authenticity. According to Grayson and Martinec (2004) the concept of “authentic” denotes an object that is not thought of as being a copy or an imitation but is believed to be “the original” or “the real thing.” The meaning of the concept of authenticity has transformed over time. As stated in previous chapters, Bernard M. Feilden and Jukka Jokilehto (1993) in Management Guidelines for World Cultural Heritage Sites, stress the importance to respect historic material and to distinguish new material from historic so as not to fake or to mislead the observer (Feilden and Jokilehto 1993, 67). To embrace the principles of “minimum intervention” is in conformity with the vision of the World Heritage Convention (1972), which aims to preserve sites for the benefits of future generations. This viewpoint reflects what Ning Wang (1999) labels as an objective authenticity, which implies that authenticity lies in the object and can be measured with absolute and objective criteria (cf. Chhabra et al. 2003; Cohen and Cohen 2012; Grayson and Martinec 2004).

Wang (1999) not only introduces the concept of objective authenticity but also discusses more constructive approaches to “authentic” artifacts exhibited. In the constructivist mind-set, the authenticity of objects is the result of social constructions and “the symbolic” (Belhassen et al. 2008; Mkono 2012; Wang 1999). Ideas, practices, and artifacts are constituted in social practices. The constructive approach has contributed to a shift in focus from the product to constructors/consumers of “authentic” artifacts or settings (e.g., Binkhorst and den Dekker 2009; Wang 1999).

Authenticated historical objects that emerge in the relationship between the object and the viewer are not to be seen as binary or in opposition to the inauthentic. For example, objects that are not “authentic”—in the sense that they are the original objects—sometimes come to possess their own authenticity and are considered to be important objects in their own right. The things discussed in this chapter have been exhibited at museums and are assigned a kind of authenticity due to their previous physical encounters with migrant bodies.


As stated above, this chapter discusses how “authentic” objects, associated with migration, are to be seen as a means of constructive resistance, which produces new meaning. During the nineteenth century, many museums were established in order to manifest contemporary knowledge. This was a response to a need to understand the present. The museums also became as tools for bio-political strategies through being institutions that promoted the traditions and symbols of the nation. As a standard procedure, museums have collected, classified, and exhibited items according to the norms and values of their time (Swedish History Museum n.d.).

According to the Swedish History Museum, history is used to build identities, brands, and societies. According to the museum, it has more than 10 million objects and its collection holds many hidden and invisible stories that are ready to be unfolded. As new understandings and research perspectives emerge, new narratives and interpretations of the objects are displayed. This is a trend that the museum encourages (Swedish History Museum n.d.).

As stated above, Esther Shalev-Gerz was invited to the Swedish History Museum to unfold hidden stories and give new interpretations of history. By aiming to make new voices heard in extraordinary times, Shalev-Gerz asked five migrants to describe one object that they carried with them on their journey. She also asked them to lend the objects to the museum for a period of one year, which she states “is a long period of time, being away from these valuable objects.” Shalev-Gerz continued, “If these objects would start to speak now, what would they tell us?” (Shalev-Gerz 2018). These sentences, I suggest, reveal how Shalev-Gerz depicts the objects as inherent carriers of memories, experiences, and as objects of love, to which humans create strong emotional bonds with. This understanding of objects was also reflected in the exhibition Destination X, in which Valarie James and her colleague artist Antonia Gallegos described abandoned objects in the border areas as having an “inner life.” Gallegos told America Tonight, “They (the objects) were no longer just objects we were picking up. They took on a life of their own” (Gallegos in Amin and Gliha 2014).

As discussed previously, material objects have lately been considered to have agency. Karen Barad, for example, introduces the concept of “agential realism” and argues that the nature/material prevails within poststructuralism as a passive being that is defined in relation to an active culture. According to Barad, the relationship between “discursive” and “non-discursive” practices needs to be theorized. Barad states:

To restrict power’s productivity to the limited domain of the “social,” (. . .) or to figure matter as merely an end product rather than an active factor in further materialisations, is to cheat matter out of the fullness of its capacity. (Barad 2003)

Overall, Barad asks for research that provides us with an understanding of the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena, an accounting of “non-human” as well as “human” forms of agency, and an account of matter’s implication in its ongoing historicity (Barad 2003). Thus, the view of human agency as human’s intentionality and individual reflections is complemented with the idea of matter as an “agentive force” that informs discursive formations and productions and, thus, contributes to the understanding of various political struggles (Bennet 2010; Fox and Alldred 2017; Lilja 2018).

Barad’s theorizing, thus, grants agency to material artifacts and pinpoints their role in the production of discourses, power relations, and the ongoing historicity of bodies. Gallegos’ and Shalev-Gerz’s approach to objects, however, seems to go beyond the theorizing of Barad as well as my view of “new materialism.” Objects do not only impact discourses, practices, and memories—with their materiality—but they are embraced, by the artists, as “living,” and with “memories” as they have been marked by previous travels in time and space. By this view the artists’ understandings of matter differ from or move beyond Barad’s theorizing. Hans Ruin states that Esther Shalev-Gerz tries to:

make objects readable again, not just as found treasures brought from afar but also as testimonies to a tradition of longing for beauty and fine craftsmanship, and stories of families and generations. She wanted to evoke them afresh as cultural objects and “memory vessels”. In order to liberate the memories inherent in things, she chose to pair up the rather dry scientific narratives of archaeologists and historians with the stories of objects that refugees recently arrived have carried with them. (Ruin 2017, 65)

The temporal dimension of physical objects and their “time-travels” are then considered by Shalev-Gerz to inform both the material artifacts themselves and our imaginations. She claims that if they could talk, they would reveal to us previously unheard stories, which would indicate that there is more to the artifacts than what we currently know. The objects, then, could unsettle what we know. This prevails as a form of constructive resistance, which shakes, and add to, the current knowledge regimes.

The importance of the mobility and traveling of artifacts is also emphasized by Hans Ruin in regard to the History Unfolds exhibition. He states that displaying the time-traveling of an artifact is what distinguishes it from “objects representative of a type”—the artifact becomes an “individual” object, with a history of its own. He argues:

Ordinarily, objects tend to lose their individuality and become representative of a type when they are included in a collection of the Swedish History Museum, but these objects become individual by being identified as someone’s object, each with its own history. Thus, they also encourage a fresh reading of the anonymous objects in the collection, which have also come a long way, been bought or stolen, been melted down and reforged, which have been worn and given away as gifts, which someone at some point in time has hidden, lost or perhaps taken with them to their final destination. (Ruin 2017, 65)

Objects can, thus, be seen as nothing but “one out of many.” However, individualized objects with specific and known travels in time and space emerge as more than just a representative of a group of objects—instead it embodies and concretizes different narratives (Trenter 2000, 50—63; Lilja 2017). Thus, the historical travels of, or someone owning, an artifact give the artifact a new status as well as a new role in meaning-making. It transforms our comprehensions of the artifact and the discourses around it.

The emotional meetings with these artifacts are probably strengthened by a fascination of “the different.” In the moment of experiencing the migrants’ lost bags, the migrants’ journeying becomes “real” for the visitors. In the recognition of the migrant’s marginalized experiences, cultural diversity also becomes visible and experienced. The visitors might be struck by what they interpret as exotic and fascinating differences, which again wrench the discourses around the authenticized artifacts. This can be seen as a form of exoticism. According to Kuehn (2014) exoticism is a complex philosophical, historical, and representational issue, and is concerned with the perception and description of difference. What might be interpreted as “exotic” representations rarely give the truth or reality about past or far away cultures; rather, they are aesthetic understandings that are produced in a specific historical context. The interpretations of “authentic” artifacts (e.g., suitcases), their past owners, and historical epochs are then strengthened by “a touch of exoticism,” which, in the movement or reading of the “thing,” produces a surplus of aesthetic meaning. This implies that even though the artists of the above-mentioned exhibitions had the emancipatory goal and aim of personalizing the migrants by showing their situation, and consciously combating prejudice through complex understandings of difference in representation, sometimes elaborating differences ends up in circumscribed truths and hypervisible differences. Thus, resistance, which is caught up in the crossroads between concretism, hypervisibility, and exoticism, both strengthens and challenges power-loaded discourses. It sometimes produces different truths around migrant bodies, which are sometimes somewhat twisted.

Occasionally, the objects displayed at museums represent artifacts of citizens who might not be alive. As stated above, in the Destination X exhibition, the sculpture-like artwork of Valarie James named Hardship and Hope introduced the visitors of the exhibition to La Frontera, the border between Mexico and the United States, by displaying artifacts such as backpacks and water bottles that migrants left in the border area (Museum of World Culture 2010). La Frontera is a dangerous place, and the number of people who die crossing the border each year has remained relatively steady. In 2013, at least 194 people died along the Arizona border, and 212 deaths were recorded in 2009 (Amin and Gliha 2014). Valarie James describes her reflections in regard to the forgotten artifacts as follows:

I look at something like this (pulling an old jacket) and I see the journey (. . .) All this material was strewn about across the bluff. A baby bottle, the shampoo bottle, the diapers (. . .) There were little dresses, tiny little dresses for a toddler. And I remember this feeling of panic. I felt frightened for this woman. (James in Amin and Gliha 2014)

James and fellow artist Gallegos have also found bags, and wondered who used to own the bags and whether these persons made it out of the desert alive. Cross-temporal relationships seem to have developed through time, between the artists and the bodies of those “who-were-there.” Such cross-temporal relationships between the living and (sometimes) the non-living—or disappeared bodies—dissolve the boundaries between presence and absence, non-materiality and materiality, present and past, as well as subject and object. Matter comes to matter in order to remove distance from abstract events. When closeness is experienced with the non-living and their lives, through the emotional reading of “authentic” artifacts (diapers, backpacks, etc.), the lives of the migrants become less abstract, and the stories, images, and sounds that are ascribed to other times affect current discourses and practices. The moment in which we experience that the present is connected with the past, the very idea of the present as a singular, linear moment must be questioned. Instead, we experience “multiple temporalities operating in the same moment” (Dinshaw 2013, 110). In addition, the us-and-them divide is dissolved as we are emotionally touched by the non-present bodies. This illuminates how “authentic” artifacts can be used as means of constructive resistance when negotiating the discourses of migration.

As stated above, both James and Gallegos wondered who owned the artifacts and whether the persons—the owners—are still alive. Discourses of ownership add authenticity to things, and our understanding of artifacts as “owned” can make artifacts without their owners worrisome. What happened here? Why are the artifacts separated from their owner? At the Destination X and History Unfolds exhibitions, the displayed “authentic” objects are belongings of contemporary dead or living bodies. Still, these objects are not with their owners, but rather display what Mary Douglas presents as “matter-out-of-place”—ambiguous things that do not fall neatly into the category of “belonging” (Douglas 1966). Thus, personal and “owned” things without an owner create questions and emotions, break unwritten codes and/or create insecurity, and remove us from “taking-for-granted” positions (Kristeva 1982 in Hall 1997, 236; Stallybrass and White 1986). As Ruin states, objects “become individual by being identified as someone’s object” (Ruin 2017, 65). Overall, lost things become powerful representations of insecurity and abnormal situations. These “authentic” artifacts, which symbolize disorder, are, I suggest, used in museums to provide us with “new lenses” to emotionally experience the insecurity of others in order to negotiate boundaries between “us” and “them.”

James and Gallegos started to take the items that they found—such as medication, perfume, children’s backpacks, shoes, family photos, and identification cards—and turned them into art in order to represent a complex story of desperation, death, family, and survival. Their art displays how objects get us closer to and remove the distance from abstract and far away events; the incidents that happened to people who were on the run. Events, tradition, and times, which seem abstract and far away, become more concrete and imaginable when we see or touch objects that were present during these events, and we experience them more intensely. Material closeness is experienced by someone when they touch something that has been touched by someone else—even if it is a body of a past age. The migrants’ own objects exhibited at History Unfolds as well as the backpacks, shoes, family photos, and identification cards at Destination X became representations, which together constructed new knowledge of what was presented as the precarious lives of migrants. The artifacts appear as being means of constructive resistance—they compose signs, which occur in, and inform, longer discursive processes around migrant bodies (Foucault 1990, 96). It is a kind of constructive resistance that, through a multiplicity of discursive elements, produces not-taken-for-granted knowledge around the lives of migrants.

More generally, Destination X did not aim to propose any answers. Instead, according to the curator Klas Grinell, the exhibition was put forth to make the visitors consider “who belongs somewhere, who should stay, and who should travel is rather contingent” (Levitt 2017, 43). The exhibition, then, did not intend to produce or promote any “stable” messages; rather, the exhibition worked with more ambivalent representations and unstable suggestions, and gave rise to unexpected reflections and knowledge (Booth 1974, 234—44; Colebrook 2004, 16—21; Lilja 2008).

“Authentic” artifacts are often presented together with texts or oral stories on television screens. Different forms of representations—artistic installations, artifacts, and descriptions—are exposed simultaneously, which makes the message more complex. Barthes illustrates this with the tension that appears in-between photographic images and texts. The photograph is often in communication with at least one other accompanying “structure,” namely, the text, title, caption, chapter, as well as press photographs. According to Barthes, “The totality of the information is, thus, carried by two different structures (one of which is linguistic). These two structures are co-operative but, since their units are heterogeneous, necessarily remain separate from one another” (Barthes 1977, 16). An image or an artifact might illustrate and make text clearer but, on the other hand, text also risks loading the image—burdening it—with a cultural, moral, and/or an imaginary narrative (Barthes 1977).

At History Unfolds, the materiality of migrants’ “authentic” objects was complemented by the linguistic stories of their journeys. The objects displayed were owned by people who recently found refuge in Sweden. Esther Shalev-Gerz had invited them to show the few things that they brought along on the long journey of their plight. Their chosen object, according to Esther Shalev-Gerz, unfolds both their personal story and the story of our times. For example, in the exhibition a wristwatch, belonging to Sawsan, was presented together with an explanatory text. This text was quite emotional and stated the following narrative:

Sawsan and her husband got two watches of a family member before they got married. They used the watches to communicate between two balconies. Her wish is that the two watches reunite when Sawsan’s husband will come to her here in Sweden. Sawsan has been lending the watches to the museum during one year and she speaks about it in Esther Shalev-Gerz’s video and installation “The Gold Room.” (my translation)

The text locates the watch as a node around which love was organized and made possible. The separated watches come to symbolize lovers who are apart with the desire to be together, while evoking emotions of sympathy over the suffering: a universal feeling that arises as we miss our loved ones.

Over and above the watch, a gold cross was presented together with the following text:

Lusian brought this gold cross when he escaped Syria to Sweden. His entire family, which he is now separated from, gave him gold to make it. This makes the cross not only very valuable but also very emotionally loaded. He has lent his cross to the museum but only for a month.

The message attached to the gold cross made the reading of the object richer and more complex. Reading the text/artifact, together they presented universal feelings of love, suffering, and longing. While being heterogeneous, the artifact and the text were still cooperative and supported each other, which strengthened the emotional message of the cross. The text also promised the authenticity of the cross, while troubling the artifact with imaginary scenarios, inner-visualized pictures, recognitions, and emotions (Barthes 1977). The concrete representation (the artifact) also supported and strengthened the linguistic message of the text. Overall, different kinds of signs served as dense, but also complex, message around the migrating subject. The strategy of representation that was used seemingly aimed at mobilizing emotions in order to produce new knowledge around migrant subjects. This reveals how important emotions are when performing constructive and signifying resistance.

The above displays how adding linguistic representations—written or oral stories—to an object opens up a new reading of the “authentic” artifact, which removes an automatized reading of the signs. It also authenticates the object. Different signs (written and material) assemble in unexpected and expected ways, which slow down the interpretation or decoding process and open up new and alternative interpretations of the artifact. Together, the combination of linguistic representations and artifacts prevails as means of constructive resistance against stereotyped constructions of migrants.

Ones interpretation of an “authentic” artifact can also be connected to the construction of memories. As stated above, anthropologist Victor Turner (1974) argues that a repetition is a reenactment and a re-experiencing of a set of meanings that have already been socially established. An “authentic” artifact is recognized and followed by similar artifacts, which are still different from the artifact’s contemporaries. Artifacts are interpreted from previous meetings with similar (but not the same) artifacts. This indicates that when experiencing artifacts and recognizing them, it informs the creation of future memories. When re-experiencing the same artifact (or a similar artifact) in the future, former meetings with the object impact on the memories that will now be created. This points to the importance of exhibitions and the displaying and explaining of artifacts within museum spaces. We must (re)claim and (re)understand the meaning of artifacts in order to produce new kinds of future (emancipatory) memories (cf. Shalev-Gerz 1999). As in the exhibitions analyzed, “authentic” artifacts are used in more constructive acts of resistance to combat—what is interpreted as—silences and prejudices by adding more complex and emotional understandings in regard to migration.


In the exhibitions analyzed above, the artifacts displayed were valued and appreciated as “authentic”, since they belong/belonged to someone who migrated and been present during (at least parts of) different journeys. The artifacts were used as a means of resistance in discursive knowledge-making, with the aim to move the spectators, make them experience emotions, and open their minds for resignifications. The artists draw on “authentic” artifacts to display the migrants’ vulnerability and let their voices be heard. As the viewers engaged with the material artifacts, new interpretations and emotions emerge. Emotions are a part of remembering, and they inform what moments we keep alive. This makes them a particularly important aspect of meaning-making resistance.

In the exhibitions, the artifacts were seemingly imagined as having “human” qualities. Both Gallegos and Shalev-Gerz described the objects as, somehow, alive. The artifacts, in their view, had memories and they took “on a life of their own” (Gallegos in Amin and Gliha 2014). Esther Shalev-Gerz, for example, indicated that the artifacts would, if they could speak, reveal unheard stories to us; thus, they contain the unknown, which we can only imagine. Esther Shalev-Gerz’s view on material artifacts makes authenticity central to the very meaning of the exhibition. This standpoint of material objects goes beyond Barad’s interpretations of the material (Amin and Gliha 2014).

Different materialities, then, become important because they have been present during other times and felt by the people who are now absent. When imagined as objects that have attended painful moments or dramatic ruptures, these artifacts have, in some contexts, a higher attraction than replicas. These artifacts are experienced as being more interesting, fascinating, and valuable than copies that have not “time-traveled.” “Authentic” artifacts can be affective, and create emotions, and alternative meanings. This opens up for a politics of authenticity.

“Authentic” artifacts, as we have seen above, can symbolize “matter-out-of-place” (e.g., children’s backpacks in the desert border area) or be seen as a hybrid where different signs assemble in unexpected ways (e.g., a baby shoe and blood, or diapers in the sand). These artifacts do not easily fit into discourses of childhood. By displaying these, the artists, with their artwork, not only added their understandings and their emotional experiences to what we do or do not know about migrant lives, but also shook the existing knowledge and opened up other ways of knowing. Thus, “authentic” artifacts matter in meaning-making processes, and when they are displayed, they sometimes compose a means of constructive resistance.

Of particular interest is how “authentic” artifacts make us embrace the stories of absent subjects into our lives and let them affect and inform us in the here-and-now. As these configured, fictional stories come to life “within” us, the boundaries between the self and others, the subject and object, and the past and present are dissolved. Thus, the stories, images, and sounds that are ascribed to other spaces and times are affecting our contemporary discourses and practices (Dinshaw 2013, 110).

In this chapter, proxy resistance—that is, resistance performed on behalf of and/or in solidarity with someone performing a subaltern position (in this case, migrants)—is interpreted as a practice that has sprung from different ethical considerations. The aim of the exhibitions, as understood here, was to let migrants be heard and seen, and to display their precariousness and different relations of power. The displaying of “authentic” artifacts in order to create closeness to “the other” has a number of impacts—some of which are probably to be seen as emancipatory. However, as argued above, in the attempts to display the migrant figuration, there is a risk that it becomes “exotic” and hypervisible, which thereby strengthens the divide between “us” and “them.” Critical voices are sometimes heard against the “industry” of taking the stranger “home” and making their “differences” appear in museum spaces (cf. Karlsson Blom and Lundahl 2012). I would like to suggest that resistance, in any form, almost always profits from, or even creates, power while it challenges repressive, authoritarian, or discursive power.


1. In 2016, Malmö University had a conference named “Museums in Times of Migration and Mobility: Processes of Representation, Collaboration, Inclusion and Social Change” (Malmö University 2016). According to the call for papers, museums have the potential to affect our notions of the world. Museums can be seen as venues in which the past and present status of issues such as migration, mobility, transnational connections, and human rights can be explored, as well as providing the possibility to facilitate positive changes in how people relate to each other in the wider society. From this angle, it is highly relevant to delve into how “migrants” emerge in museum contexts. In the first part of the twenty-first century, several exhibitions in Sweden involved “authentic” objects in order to display patterns and practices of migration.



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