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Show and tell: Brussels exhibition reveals stories of migration through objects

23:58 16/03/2018

A unique event in Brussels this weekend invites Europeans, young and old, to share the objects that help them tell their own stories of migration. It can be a suitcase your parents used to move to a new country, or an urn a grandfather brought with him to remind him of his origins.

Europeana is Europe's platform for digital cultural heritage with as mission "to transform the world with culture". It provides online access to a vast store (currently over 51 million items) of cultural heritage material from across Europe for everyone to use, share and transform.

This weekend they are launching Migration Collection Days in the House of European History in Brussels to celebrate 2018 as European Year of Cultural Heritage.

"Everybody has a story to tell about their origins and the moments that shaped their lives," says Harry Verwayen, acting executive director at Europeana.

"We want people to share those stories and the objects that tell them and to help us bring them together online. In that way we can celebrate the diversity and richness of the cultural heritage that is being passed on all over Europe.

"It’s in our history, it’s in our veins, everyone has a story of migration. With this initiative we want to create a sense of awareness that migration is for all of us."

On tour

After this launch weekend in Brussels, Europeana will hold other collection events throughout the year in Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Wales. Additionally, if people cannot attend the events they can contribute online.

The objects and stories will be displayed alongside items from museums across Europe and will be recorded online for posterity and made universally available for education, research, inspiration and pleasure.

Sandra, nine years old, brought a book. "My grandfather is 95 now and this is a book he wrote about his life. He was born in Romania, he was in the war and then when the Communists took over he was in prison for about a year and then he fled on foot to Austria and migrated to the US."

Marieke Slovin Lewis brought her ukulele. "I’m from the US, most recently from Arizona, I moved here in the autumn of 2016, since my husband was interested in studying for a doctorate at the VUB. I guess I came for love.

"I’ve brought my baritone ukulele, a travelling bag of percussion hand-held instruments and finished pieces of music that I’ve written. I create music with people from their spoken stories.

"I found that so many people think that they don’t have an interesting story and certainly one that is not interesting enough to become a song and that their voice is not beautiful and what I found is that every single story, even the seemingly most mundane like getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth, having coffee, can become a beautiful song."

She adds: "It’s really important for people to be given a voice specially when they feel that they’ve been forgotten – like people that I’ve met since coming here and working in an asylum centre. A lot of the refugees and residents feel like it was really hard to get here and now they’ve been forgotten and they’re in limbo. So giving them the ability to share what they’re feeling and share their stories is very validating."

'Culture heritage shaped by migration'

George Merzbach brought a letter. "Hendrik Merzbach was a great poet in Poland and he had to leave Poland in 1863. He had two sons, Georges and Charles - my grandfather.

"Georges was a well known lawyer in Egypt and he created the football club Zamalek which is still in existence and prominent. And I found a letter that has never been opened and I propose to open it today and see if it will tell us about Georges."

The director of the House of European History, Constanze Itzel, says: "We are happy to host these Migration Collection Days as our permanent exhibition shows how important migration has been always in European history, how our cultural heritage has been shaped by migration, and the development of Europe from an emigrating continent in the 19th century to an immigrating continent in the second half of the 20th century."

Migration Collection Days, until 18 March, House of European History (Parc Léopold)

Written by Richard Harris