Migration Museum Heerlen

Migration Museum Heerlen is a bottom-up movement that wants to contribute to the dialogue about (labor) migration and living together in Limburg and beyond.

The first results were a temporary pop-up museum (now closed), a scientific research into the miners’ mentality (completed) and a book “Niet bang zijn” (“Don’t Be Afraid”).

The Migration Museum Heerlen started as a personal ode, but it gradually developed into something that can best be described as a movement: a growing group of people and organisations in Limburg and beyond that in their diversity all deal differently with the theme of migration and living together and want to relate.

After the pop-up museum in Heerlen closed, our area of ​​interest and work moved organically to Venlo and the surrounding region, where the challenges in dealing with labour migration are currently the greatest. In collaboration with the Limburgs Museum, we are working on a follow-up project there, entitled “Here to Stay”, with labour migrants and many stakeholders.

Pop-up museum

The pop-up Migration Museum Heerlen was a temporary presentation and meeting place to share and discuss the past and the present of migration in Limburg. A participatory museum that grew over the course of three months by bringing in new stories, objects, memories and opinions. More than 20 activities with stakeholders were organised in the museum. The museum gradually developed into a place for meeting and dialogue. 

The project consisted of a growing exhibition, a program and an investigation into the so-called koempelmentaliteit, in English miners’ mentality,

Exhibition “Don’t Be Afraid”

The exhibition “Don’t Be Afraid” was an ode to the migrants, the Limburgers of that time, and to the “miners’ mentality”.

Parkstad Limburg has a rich history of immigration of miners and their families from Poland, Slovenia, Italy and Morocco, among others. They came to Dutch Limburg from the late nineteenth century onwards to help build the mines. In a rapidly changing society, the Limburgers were confronted with the arrival of large groups of people who did not look like them, who did not speak their language, who had different ideas and customs and who appropriated a place for themselves. At the time, people talked about “the Slavic invasion” or “Balkan states in the Mining Region”. Rhetoric reminiscent of the Netherlands in 2018.

This exhibition showed how a relatively homogeneous society changed into a multicultural society in a short time, and offered space for the visitors to share their own migration stories, objects, archives, memories and opinions. The title “Don’t Be Afraid” was taken from the light artwork by Thierry van Raaij.

The exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Continium Discovery Center, the Dutch Mining Museum, the International Institute of Social History (IISH) / the Historical Image Archive Migrants (HBM), Historical Center Limburg (RHCL), Regional Historical Center Limburg (RHCL), 1,001 Italians and private individuals lenders.

The Migration Museum Heerlen was part of the festival ‘Bovengronds’. An initiative by Milena Mulders (daughter and granddaughter of migrant workers and author of the book “With the belly chasing the bread; my Slovenian history”) in collaboration with Continium Kerkrade and the Dutch Mining Museum. The Migration Museum Heerlen was intended for three months, but was extended with two months to 30 May, 2019, due to success.

Collect and add

The museum opened with empty spaces and panels. A conscious choice so that the exhibition could grow through the input of new stories, photos and objects. Anyone who felt involved in the theme of “migration then and now” could contribute. More than 150 objects and a few hundred photos were collected in six months. New perspectives were also added by artists. The best place(s) to access the collected material is currently being sought.


An important part of the Migration Museum Heerlen was the programming: almost weekly activities were taking place. This varied from performances, film screenings and public conversations to meals, (book) presentations, workshops and music performances. The aim was to reach different people and groups, but also to involve them, both as audience and as  participants. Everyone who visited the museum could turn into a participant by bringing photos, a story or an object, but also by contacting the volunteers and each other during the events.

The program was put together by Milena Mulders in consultation with volunteers and stakeholders on the topic. From March (during the extension), the meetings – even more than during the first three months –  focussed on joint organisation with those involved. Volunteers came up with ideas and initiatives and also took responsibility. In this way, they became even more involved in the project.

Research ‘miners’ mentality’

From November to December 2018, sociologist Eva Mos of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) commissioned the Migration Museum Heerlen to research the miners’ mentality: the mentality of camaraderie or underground brotherhood. Eva’s research resulted in a search for the social connections underground, the different nationalities that came together here and the role played by the concept of miners’ mentality.

An investigation into the miners’ mentality could and should take years, but we had three months. Together with the specially formed advisory committee, consisting of Eddy Appels (visual anthropologist), Sabine Luning (anthropologist and assistant professor at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University) and Jan Rath (professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Amsterdam), we determined  realistic targets in such a short time.

Eva Mos interviewed 14 former miners, migrant miners and experts during this period. She translated her findings into weekly blogs in which she repeatedly shed light on the miners’ mentality from a new perspective, in order to gain an understanding of what happened underground and above. Of how people worked underground (the work ethic), a useful old-age provision to inclusion and exclusion. Miners’ mentality therefore touches on many debates: how is the past dealt with? What different meanings do people attach to the past? Did miners’ mentality ensure the inclusion of newcomers?

Eva Mos published eight blogs on this theme. These can be read here.

Book “Don’t be afraid”

The book “Don’t be afraid” is a compact reference book that bundles design, impressions, experiences and results from the pop-up Migration Museum Heerlen. This book was published at many requests. It consists of edited and later added exhibition texts and captions, a report of the research into miners’ mentality plus an overview with an impression of the presented program. A lot of footage has been included to show what was established in the museum, how it became a place of meeting and dialogue and how it started something new: “Don’t be afraid”.

The book was compiled by initiator and curator Milena Mulders in collaboration with the volunteers of the Migration Museum Heerlen. Edited by Armand Leenaers, the design is by Sanne Gijsbers.

You can download the book here as a PDF.

Continuation of the Migration Museum Heerlen

“Here to stay” (working title) is a continuation of the Migration Museum Heerlen: a long-term heritage project aimed at participatory collecting and imagining, sharing and discussing, travelling, adding and unlocking stories with and about labour migrants and labour migration in the present day. A collaboration with the Limburgs Museum and many stakeholders.

Milena Mulders is currently conducting research in Venlo and the surrounding area to set up the project. Made possible in part by the DOEN / Bankgiro Loterij Fonds Foundation, the Province of Limburg, Cultuurimpuls Venlo and the Limburgs Museum.