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Exploring displacement in the modern day by Karen Johnston

Wednesday 26th July 2017

Kath Boodhai and her wonderful team as part of the incentive ‘Try New Things’ presented a displacement tent as a temporary exhibition. The displacement tent was bolstered to the pavement outside the Discovery Museum over a weekend to highlight the uncertainty and mixed emotions you may experience living inside one a tent. Interestingly, even in 2017 most people when asked would assume that displacement tents exist only for refugees. Whilst that remains true that refugees are common inhabitants of a displacement tent, the exhibition was a poignant reminder that anyone of us could be displaced from our homes. The exhibition could not have been planned at a more appropriate time with the recent displacement of the Grenfell Tower residents an obvious reminder. The idea of a displacement tent is designed to accommodate anyone in need, and it is important to remember that this is not just refugees. The exhibition aimed to challenge visitor perceptions and accept a more inclusive and accommodating definition for the use of the word displacement. When we spoke to visitors about how the exhibition made them feel, it was clear to us just how shocking it really was to imagine living in a small tent for up to a year or longer whilst their houses were repaired and renovated. It was interesting to realise that anyone could be displaced whether it was natural or man-made, there were numerous reasons as to why you could be displaced. Take for example the recent floods in Cumbria whereby residents are still trying to repair their houses and their lives after tremendous flood damage. Often we think that issues such as displacement happen to third world countries and happen overseas but the reality is striking and anyone could be displaced due to war, famine, flooding or catastrophic fires and are not solely reserved for those seeking refuge.


The displacement tent featured is an actual United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or UNHCR) tent supplied to those in need. Although a displacement tent is intended to sleep and house a family of five, the reality is that up to as many as fifteen people may be forced to live in such confined quarters. Kath succeeded in creating a shocking realisation and poignant reminder of the users of a displacement tent. Accompanying the live in tent was a series of small exhibitions used to compliment the external structure. Volunteers took it in turns to engage with visitors in the tent to hear their thoughts and create a conversation about displacement. Inside the museum a temporary exhibition was created to further encourage this dialogue. We asked visitors, if they were suddenly displaced from society, what would they take with them if they could only take one bag. We also asked visitors to provide a definition of what it means to be displaced encouraging visitors to write their thoughts on cards which will then be collated and used into a further exhibition. It was quite a shocking exercise to be able to put ourselves in the mind-set of having to flee from home quickly. To compliment the exhibition there was also a short video from former refugees who have previously fled to seek shelter and draws from their experiences.


As a volunteer, I was proud to be a part of something so moving and relevant to everyday life. I would like to see more issues like this explored that are relevant to a modern day audience. Setting up the tent and trying to imagine living there, feeling displaced from the community and your home was something that I simply could not imagine. Until you actually live in the situation, it is incredibly difficult to imagine how you would cope. The temporary exhibition however provided an insight (however small) of what it must be like and how it would feel. It is definitely an exhibition that has stuck with me and I continue to engage with people about this topic.



  1. Gravatar for twmuseums_usr

    twmuseums_usr31st Aug 2017

    This was a real eye opener of an event. I am glad that Kath and our wonderful volunteers were able to present something to important and pertinent. It raised questions and was very thought provoking. Thank you Karen for volunteering for this role, it was a great event for Discovery to host.

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