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A photograph showing part of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos, taken after the devasting fire that destroyed much of the camp in September 2020. The image is included as part of Life in a Camp at IWM London, a partnership project with CNN.

No place like home — The Net Gallery talks to curator Iris Veysey about the Imperial War Museum’s new Refugees season.

Recently opened at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) London and IWM North, the Refugees season explores the experiences of people forced from their homes by conflict and persecution, both today and throughout history. In an exclusive interview with the Net Gallery, Iris Veysey, the programme’s curator, explains how she and her team set out to demonstrate the scale of displacement, while also telling the personal stories of those involved.

The Net Gallery: The IWM chose to look at the theme of refugee experiences throughout history. In preparing the project, what observations did you make about how these have changed over the years and what constants remain?

Iris Veysey: When you look at this subject across history, patterns and themes emerge. Every conflict is different and every person’s experience is different, but we also see similarities. Whether it’s someone fleeing Belgium in the First World War and coming to Britain, or people fleeing ethnic persecution in Bosnia War in the 1990s, or a refugee from Afghanistan in the 2010s, we see similar ideas about home and agency and identity and the way displacement disrupts people’s lives.

TNG: How did you decide what work and pieces to include in the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition at IWM London, and what were you hoping to achieve from the project in terms of impact and possible prompts for conversation?

IV: We wanted to bring together the macro and the micro, to demonstrate the scale of displacement but also highlight personal stories. To do that, we have brought together a wide range of material. The exhibition includes about 135 objects, photographs, sound archives and interviews and films from IWM’s collection, as well as items on loan. There are personal objects (for instance, a pair of ice skates belonging to a young woman who came to Britain on a Kindertransport) and interviews with refugees, but we have also included infographics which give a broader, statistical point-of-view.

We were fortunate to partner with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which gave us access to a range of cutting-edge research exploring displacement. We selected several research projects to showcase in the exhibition and these offer a deeper look at some of the issues affecting displaced people.

We also commissioned three artists to create new work for the exhibition. These installations provide points of reflection for visitors and respond to the more intangible themes of home, agency and identity which run through the exhibition. Grace Schwindt has created a series of ceramic sculptures with accompanying soundtracks, each reflecting on a conversation with a person who has experienced displacement. Indrė Šerpytytė has interpreted seven refugees’ journeys across the Mediterranean as neon ‘constellations’. The routes represented by the constellations are all taken from Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat, an ESRC-funded research project featured elsewhere in the exhibition. Lastly, Shorsh Saleh, a Kurdish artist from Iraq, has created a series of paintings and woven carpets drawing on his own experience of displacement and on the wider history of displacement and the Kurdish people.

TNG: The new site-specific art commission by Ai Weiwei is undoubtedly a highlight of Refugees. What do you think this installation brings to the broader project and adds to the overall theme?

IV: Ai’s work highlights conflict as a reason for the mass movement of people and probes the relationship between the individual, society and the state. In History of Bombs, which covers the surfaces of IWM’s atrium, he has represented 50 examples of weaponry — 45 are aerial bombs and five are missiles — dating from 1911 to the present day. History of Bombs is impressive in its scale and scope, and serves to remind us of wider infrastructure of conflicts that have caused, and are causing, displacement around the globe.

TNG: The topic of refugees is an emotive and at times divisive one in the current climate. What messages or reflections do you hope audiences will take away from the exhibitions and events?

IV: In this exhibition, we want to demonstrate that displacement is a major human consequence of conflict. This is happening right now — currently, the United Nations estimates that 79.5 million* people globally have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution — but it has also happened throughout history. This is why Forced to Flee considers a century of refugee experiences, from the First World War to the present day. Our visitors may be familiar with some of the current issues surrounding refugees and may have seen the stories about Mediterranean crossings which dominated the European news in 2015. This exhibition is an opportunity to look behind those headlines, engage with individual stories, and understand how and why conflict forces people to flee their homes. (*UNHCR Global Report 2019)

Article by Miriam Dunn for The Net Gallery.

Refugees, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and CNN, is a free season of exhibitions, artistic commissions and immersive events taking place at IWM London and IWM North until May 24, 2021. Visit the IWM website for more information.

Read more content from The Net Gallery on our online Magazine.

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