What is it: Forced From Home is a traveling exhibition created by Doctors Without Borders (MSF, for their legal name, Médecins Sans Frontières) to raise awareness about refugees.
Why I went: I had a lot of questions about this exhibition before I even went with a group of museum friends. Why would a humanitarian organization decide that it was part of their mission to create an exhibition on refugees and tour it around the United States? Is that a good use of their resources? Shouldn't those resources go to help others? Or is there a long-game that they are playing? Do they think that what is, essentially, a museum exhibition, is useful and efficient for continuing their work? If so, how and why?
Quick description of exhibition: I'll be honest. The exhibit itself was solid, but nothing special. A short introductory movie (good), and then several exhibits that essentially took you through a general refugee journey: unexpectedly leaving home; the journey; legal status; refugee camps; medical care at camps; and ending with VR videos. It was logically laid out, and had what my friend Rainey Tisdale referred to as the "material culture" of refugees: refugee tents, a latrine, water jugs, etc. Most powerfully, they had a small raft that many in our group "boarded;" we then learned that typically 40 refugees would cram onto a raft of that size … for a week. Gulp.
But the exhibition, except for the raft, was very generic. It was not the story of Syrian refugees, or Honduran, but instead a generic stage set. This was likely by design, because you cannot visit the exhibition on your own. An MSF fieldworker provides a guided tour of the exhibition. This makes the exhibition personal through that fieldworker's own experiences and stories, which can happen anywhere in the world.
MSF's big goal - empowered empathy: For the exhibition to work, that fieldworker/guide is key. Our guide told his stories, putting a human face on what we read about in the media. He wielded the ability to make it emotional. He bore witness, which is, to my surprise, part of the MSF charter:
"We may seek to bring attention to extreme need and unacceptable suffering when access to lifesaving medical care is hindered, when medical facilities come under threat, when crises are neglected, or when the provision of aid is inadequate or abused."
If I had to boil down the exhibition's goal to just a few words, I would say "empowered empathy." Let's pick apart why that is, and why I think they only succeeded at meeting half the goal.
Empathy. As our guide said, "no one ever wakes up and says they want to become a refugee." It is forced on them. It is a trauma inflicted on them. The guides tell specific, personal stories so we can connect to refugees as people, not statistics. That's why the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi last summer viscerally hit so many of us. Or why the impassive face of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Syria was so searing and shocking for us. By bearing witness with their own stories, the guides put a human face on the millions of refugees around the world, and we feel empathy and compassion. That is a mission as worthy as caring for those in need, because without bearing witness, how would the rest of the world know enough to understand or care?
Note, however, that the guide is what made engendering empathy possible. The material culture of refugees that was shared in the exhibition only served to support what was said. Normally, I am opposed to guided tours as a forced march, but this was different. I struggled with why until Rainey observed that "… he was a different kind of docent … chosen based on the life stories and deep knowledge [he] can share, not whether [he was] available to volunteer regularly …" Rainey raised a good point. While a guide at a museum may be committed, and genuinely care about what they are sharing, the interpretation generally doesn't come from lived life experience. They are one or more degrees removed from the content. Not the case for our guide at the MSF exhibition. It was real.
That realness also made another friend, Matt Kirchman of ObjectIDEA, reflect on what it means to financially support MSF. He shared that if he were to do so, "I’m helping people help people. The exhibit experience does not emphasize the largeness of the agency, rather, the close and personal attention of the people in the field." Or, rather, compassion translated to action.
Empowered. Clearly, by bearing witness, MSF wants us to do something about it … to empower us. But here I felt they fell short. I came out feeling far more knowledgeable about the refugee crisis, but did not feel I had gained new information to do anything about it. I wanted them to be more proactive and forceful. To specifically tell us how we could help. Not necessarily a strict fundraising ploy, but specific ways to educate ourselves further, advocate for and support refugees, and yes, give financially. Instead, the experience ended rather abruptly, and fell short in helping us, as participants, follow through with action. (Though to be fair, I am already a donor to MSF, so I didn't stop at their donation table at the end. Yet I wonder how many people did stop.)
So what does MSF get out of this? Bearing witness is part of their charter, but that is only meaningful if creates change. Does this exhibit do that? That is not so clear. In Boston, the primary audience seemed to be groups of students from area high schools. Short-term, the outcomes are likely to not be meaningful for that audience base.
If the long-game is their goal, however, I suspect it may reach enough youth to effect some change in perspective in enough of them to matter. If I were running the exhibition, I'd do something to capture visitor contact information (no, they didn't even do that for any kind of follow-up). Then I'd reach out to all visitors (students and other adult visitors) a year from now and ask about the experience. True, not many would respond, but enough would to capture the exhibition's capacity to change people. Or to find out that if this isn't the most effective way of reaching people after all.
Politics: An exhibition on refugees could have easily gone political. Especially given events in Mosul over the past week and the bulldozing of "the Jungle" in Calais. It is a hot, political topic globally. Yet MSF managed to avoid politics completely. Instead, it was about witnessing and presenting a human story. In some ways, despite emotional content being presented, it was presented neutrally. That is an impressive feat, and one that museums could model instead of their general tendency to avoid these topics altogether.
Should you go? Yes, absolutely. It is in Pittsburgh now, and headed to Philadelphia soon. MSF plans to take a few months off and start up again on the West Coast (so they told me). When they reach Seattle, I plan to volunteer so I can learn more about how people actually responded to the exhibition … and because I support MSF.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com. (Note: I don't intend to regularly review exhibitions; this was an exception because of how this exhibition originated.)
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.