Seeking Refuge in a New Land: A PopUp History of Refugees in Minnesota (1967-2017)
The purpose of this project is to foster an educative, public dialogue concerning issues of refugee settlement in Minnesota over the past 50 years. The medium proposed for effecting that purpose is a “PopUp” (temporary and portable) exhibit that may be transported from one public venue to another throughout the state. The content of the exhibit would be provided initially by research of both primary and secondary source material on the history of refugee settlement in Minnesota, covering 1) state policies and practices, 2) the public’s reception of refugees, and 3) the refugees’ life experiences.
That research and the creation of the initial exhibit are the subjects of this grant project. It would be followed later by an implementation project phase (and accompanying grant proposal), during which the exhibit would be transported and displayed, and the dialogue begun. It is expected that, during this subsequent phase, the exhibit would be highly interactive with the public, making for continual growth of the exhibit in terms of relevance and educative quality. As such, the exhibit would be something of a hybrid. It would synthesize and present research, like a more conventional history exhibit, but also be structured around visitor participation, leaning heavily on varied events (speakers, meals, discussions, etc.) to optimize public participation. Eventually, it could evolve into a digital interface that would allow visitors to both record their own thoughts about refugee issues and explore the recorded thoughts of others. Such an interface might allow visitors to upload photographs of themselves, or something significant to them, and incorporate text or audio. Done successfully, it could be an important feature of the exhibit, amassing an ever-increasing digital “collection” as the portable museum moves from place to place. More importantly, it would allow a discussion to take place across the various exhibit locations, so that diverse audiences and viewpoints could be brought into the conversation. This kind of growing, digital exhibit might even become a valuable record of the historical moment.
The research phase would involve gathering and synthesizing materials, to include existing scholarly research, images, objects, archival documents, and existing oral histories. Personal narratives would be an important component of the project, and the research would leverage digital storytelling work that’s already been done by the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center's Immigrant Stories project, Green Card Voices, and others. This approach would call attention to, and showcase, the good work of others, bringing it to new audiences. The researchers would review digital stories and reach out to and meet with individuals who have been involved with those projects.
Drafting the text or script for the exhibit would be based on the research results. Of primary importance in creating the exhibit would be 1) delivering historical information in a clear and compelling manner to diverse community members across the state, 2) bringing research done by others to new audiences through a new medium, and 3) supplementing exhibit information with storytelling, to give a human face to the information conveyed.
Refugees will be invited to assist with each part of the process, including research, selection of exhibit materials, and (in the subsequent implementation phase), facilitation of community presentations and conversations. Their participation would be essential to ensure an informed and more nuanced discussion. Depending on the direction the research takes, any, or all, of the following questions could be raised and addressed by the exhibit:
• How have federal and state policy shaped refugee resettlement?
• How consistently has policy been applied to different groups of refugees?
• How do refugees fit into the larger history of immigration to America?
• What does it mean to be Minnesotan? Who can be included? When? Why?
• What are the origins of refugee resettlement in Minnesota? How and when did Minnesota become a home for multiple waves of refugees?
• How do refugees describe their experience of coming to Minnesota?
• What are some common, everyday challenges that refugees face?
• How do challenges differ by generation? • How have refugee stories changed over time?
• What gave rise to the current refugee crisis?
• What have been the repercussions of this crisis: in Minnesota, the U.S., and internationally?
• What similarities or differences are there between the experiences of previous groups of refugees and contemporary ones?
• How can the history and experience of refugee resettlement help to contextualize the present moment?