The Mediterranean is one of the most important transnational borders separating the Global North from the Global South. Heightened border security and the military apparatus of the European Union’s member-states have made the Mediterranean’s border-scapes the scenes of the highest numbers of fatalities for migrants worldwide.

Map of Lesbos, marked with pinpoints for the Moria Camp, Lifevest Cemetery, etc.
Lesvos (Greece) and the Turkish coast, a border between Greece and Turkey and an external border of the European Union. The location of some of the migrant camps, landing sites, and of the “Lifevest Cemetery” are shown on the map.

Each year, millions of people, often from previously colonized countries, are forced by conflict or compelled by necessity to migrate to what they perceive as safer and more prosperous countries, often the previous colonial metropolises. With land crossings effectively blocked, most migrants must make dangerous sea crossings.

How are we to understand this landscape? What is to be done with the material remnants of border crossing, things often designated as “environmental pollution”? And what about the new materials and edifices erected by authorities or produced by migrants themselves, be they artworks, crafts, or mundane and functional items? What happens to these materials and belongings when they enter the museum?

The materials assembled here, collected from or produced on Lesvos, an island on the Greek-Turkish border, invite us to understand migration by paying attention to the things that migrated and crossed borders together with humans or were created at the border. Things that were treated as “trash” become here objects that convey not only knowledge but also affective power that transcends the confines of the museum. This border assemblage foregrounds both the agony and pain of displacement as well as the resilience, determination, and inventiveness of the new nomads of our age.

Photo of the four curators at the exhibit opening: Ayşe Şanlı, Laurel Darcy Hackley, Yannis Hamilakis, and Sherena Razek.
(l. to r) Ayşe Şanlı, Laurel Darcy Hackley, Yannis Hamilakis, and Sherena Razek.

Transient Matter is based on ongoing fieldwork done by Yannis Hamilakis since 2016 on Lesvos, Greece, in collaboration with people in transit and many local people. In 2017, Brown graduate students joined the research team. 

The exhibition opened in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s gallery at Manning Hall on the campus of Brown University on February 20th, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition closed in mid-March. This online version of Transient Matter differs slightly in its organization to accommodate the transition from its installation in a physical space to its presentation in a digital format.

Curated by Yannis Hamilakis, L. Darcy Hackley, Sherena Razek, and Ayşe Şanlı. Co-sponsored by the Decolonial Initiative at Brown University. 


The curators are also grateful to the following individuals: Angela Arbelaez, Douglas Herman, Sonia Nandzik, Miriam Rothenberg, Giorgos Tyrikos-Ergas, Rafaela Tsiligiridou, and Farzad Zekria, to the artists who agreed to have their work shown here, and to all people in transit, on Lesvos and elsewhere. Finally, we thank the students of the 2018-2019 course MGRK 1210: A Migration Crisis? Displacement, Materiality and Experience, where ideas for this exhibition were first tried out.

Transient Matter was produced with support and funding from the Haffenreffer Family Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Decolonial Initiative at Brown University.

Haffenreffer Exhibition Team: Robert Preucel, director and Kevin P. Smith, deputy director; Rip Gerry, exhibition coordinator; Thierry Gentis, curator; Dawn Kimbrel, registrar; Leah Burgin, manager of museum education and programs; Leah Hopkins, community engagement specialist; Emily Jackson, museum operations and communications coordinator; Lewis Turley, preparation and installation; Daniel Plekhov, museum proctor.

The online version of Transient Matter is made possible by BrownBlogs, and by Emily Jackson, who designed and facilitated the transition to a virtual platform.

Unless stated otherwise, all exhibited photos are credited to Yannis Hamilakis, and photos of the gallery and of the exhibition are credited to Peter Goldberg Thank you to Ariana Wescott for object photography.