No Provenance/Undocumented: Questions of Evidence and Value in the Lives of Migrant People and Objects

Caitlin Nunn

Recently, the Ancient History, Contemporary Belonging project team had our first visit to Manchester Museum. Our museum partner, Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, took us behind the scenes to view some of the objects the refugee-background youth citizen scientists may work with in the project. It was my first encounter with the immense collections that lay beyond the public gaze in UK museums.

Our first stop was a wall of red storage boxes containing pottery from across the ancient world. On the front of many boxes, below the image of their contents, were the words: ‘no provenance’ or ‘unprovenanced’. As Campbell and Jenny explained, this does not necessarily mean that the provenance is unknown. This can be determined in many cases by form and material. Rather, it means that this provenance cannot be evidenced

Photography of boxes in the Manchester Museum stores (by Caitlin Nunn)

As a refugee studies scholar, I was struck by this issue of provenance and evidence, which added a new dimension to my thinking about the resonances between migrant objects and people. That ancient objects, like migrants, can be undocumented. And that, as with migrants, this is not necessarily a matter of having no evidence, but, rather, being without the particular forms of evidence that are recognised by authorities as conferring status and value.  

Later, in Campbell’s office, he showed us what such evidence typically looks like: a mix of formal documents and written communications from trusted sources, all in English. Questions of what sources can be trusted similarly emerge in refugee determination procedures, where the Home Office are likely to question the genuineness of evidence from outside the UK, as well as the personal testimonies of those seeking refugee status. 

These questions of evidence and authenticity compel us to think about how and by whom value is attributed to migrant people and objects, the geopolitical hierarchies of knowledge and power that underpin these evaluations, and how the resulting status determinations mediate reception. They also pose an epistemological question for our project: How can we understand and engage with the messy, informal, undocumented, and often involuntary means by which people and objects move through the world? Working with youth citizen scientists of Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Kurdish, and Palestinian heritage, along with migrant-background artists from Sheba Arts,and curators from Manchester Museum, we hope to develop creative approaches to (re)presenting these complex biographies. 

Further reading
Appadurai, A. (2017) “Museum objects as accidental refugees.” Historische Anthropologie 25(3): 401–408.
Jones S. (2010) “Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves: Beyond the Deconstruction of Authenticity.” Journal of Material Culture. 15(2): 181–203.
Right to Remain. (2021) Evidence for asylum, immigration and human rights cases. Accessed December 9, 2021.
Souter, J. (2011) “A culture of disbelief or denial? Critiquing refugee status determination in the United Kingdom.” Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration. 1(1): 48–59.

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