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Migration, heritage and urban identity

In this video Nick Dines introduces the them of migration heritage in the city
Urban cultural heritage, the ways in which a city’s past is used and represented in the present, is typically understood as rooted in place. As such, the heritage of a city tends to be associated with tangible and immovable objects, such as historical monuments that embody a city’s architectural past or with local traditions, such as cuisine and festivals that are seen to contribute to a distinct sense of local identity. Indeed, as all cities around the world engage with an increasingly globalised economy, cultural heritage is considered one key thing that sets them apart. As we have seen in this course, cities have always also been shaped by human mobility. This raises an important question.
If urban heritage is understood as something rooted in place and entangled with local identity, then how do a city’s multiple histories of migration fit into the equation? The extent to which such histories are central or marginal to dominant definitions about urban heritage will depend on a host of factors from public understandings about a city’s past to whether or not migration is considered a common collective experience. And while migration may sometimes be treated as a mere appendix in a city’s heritage inventory, it can also change the very way in which heritage is narrated and understood. I want to suggest that the heritage of migration in cities needs to be understood as the combination of two interconnected issues.
First, it refers to the byproducts of migration, those aspects that often get grouped under the label “cultural diversity.” Over recent decades, cities around the world, some more than others, have actively recognised, celebrated, or simply come to terms with forms of cultural and religious diversity that have emerged in the wake of migration. This can mean officially recognising a building as a place of worship and protecting it as a place of local interest. It may mean the tourist promotion of the links between a neighbourhood and a particular group of people– for example, the southern Italian origins of the working class neighbourhood of Boca in Buenos Aires.
It may also involve the organisation of festivals associated with migrant communities, such as the annual Notting Hill Carnival in London, which evolved out of smaller events set up by West Indian migrants in the 1960s. In such cases, migration is usually no longer a prevalent issue, and it may be subsumed within ideas about multiculturalism or ethnic identity. Second, migration heritage refers to the act of mobility itself. Rather than just contributing a new, different layer to the existing cultural heritage of a place, migration is sometimes collectively understood to be constitutive of a city’s past, present, and future. New York is a prime example, where the continual waves of migration over history have become inseparable from this city’s sense of identity.
Since the 1980s, human mobility has been the focus of a number of permanent museums, especially in port cities that were once the points of departure or entry for transatlantic migrants. Examples of migration museums can be found in Buenos Aires, New York, Antwerp, Genoa, and Bremerhaven. Incorporating the act of migration into our conception of urban heritage also raises the question of current migrants’ relationships with heritage. As newcomers, are migrants expected to respect and learn about their host city’s heritage? Or are they themselves active makers of heritage the moment that they arrive? The answer to this question will never be clear cut.
Nevertheless, by directly addressing the question of migration, we are invited to rethink the meaning of a city’s heritage, which is more than just about conserving artefacts, monuments, and traditions for posterity. But is about acknowledging how a city’s past has been created through the regional and international movement of ideas, urban forms, goods, and, of course, people.

Nick Dines discusses the relationship between migration and cultural heritage and two key approaches for understanding this in the context of the city.

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Migration and Cities

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