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Material Cultures in Migration

  • G16 Malet Street, Birkbeck College W1E 7HX London United Kingdom (map)

When people move, migrate or travel, they often take objects with them, but they also experience new material worlds and landscapes. Materiality was a fundamental dimension of migration but what did this mean for groups who migrated, moved, missionized or were exiled? Materiality was part of the way in which groups encoded belonging, identity, and sacred and spiritual meaning. What happened to these meanings when materialities were transplanted to new contexts and as diasporic communities were formed?

Scholars have examined the role of material culture in migration, exploring the way in which domestic spaces, landscapes and the materiality of the world are experienced by migrants (Paul Basu). However, studies are often limited to the modern period and have not looked at the long histories of material culture memories and their collection and archiving, especially in confessional contexts. Material objects can provide a tangible connection with narratives we tell about ourselves and they encode shared memories and practical knowledge. Moreover, material culture studies are increasingly focusing on the inherent agency of objects. Discourses have moved away from the ‘object biography’ which emphasises human agency and instead scholars have given ‘voice to a vitality intrinsic to materiality’ (Jane Bennett). Scholars examine the emotional resonances embedded in objects and materialities (Sasha Handley) but also the way in which things produce emotions. Objects are things ‘that assemble humans’ since matter and people are entangled (Hodder).

Materialities have a particular role in sustaining a diasporic identity. Things can operate across scales of time and place and allow us to understand the dynamics of presence and absence which shape dispersed communities. This workshop, held on 21 June 2019 at Birkbeck, will focus on material cultures in migration from the early modern to the modern era. It will involve short papers and discussion of key literature. The day will run from 9.30 am to 5pm. If you want to attend please contact us; there is no charge to attend.

Papers and discussion will consider:

  • how objects moved and were preserved and collected

  • how material landscapes were experienced

  •  how objects became transmitters of emotions and memories, embodying both practical and intangible knowledge

  • how material objects bound communities together

  •   how assemblages of matter produced identities, emotions and experiences

  •   how material objects were stored, archived and displayed

  •    how the entangled nature of materiality and human experience shape migration

Organising committee:

Dr Kat Hill, Birkbeck, University of London

Dr Simone Laqua-O’Donnell, University of Birmingham (UK)


PDF version of the CFP.