One of The Hague’s newest museums offers an experience like no other. Here, you are a visitor of another kind – instead of being a casual observer of exhibits and historical artifacts, the Humanity House transforms you into a refugee, and makes you keenly aware of your visitor status… to the country.
The European migrant crisis, which began in 2015 when an unprecedented number of refugees fled to Europe from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, has tested this continent’s reputation as a home for all. The influx of over 1.2 million first time asylum seekers in 2015 alone has sparked furious debate, and has illuminated some of Europe’s darkest corners, as anti-immigration rhetoric immediately flared up in response.
In light of these current events, the Humanity House’s attempt to raise discussion about humanitarian themes by placing the visitor in the role of the refugee has never been more important. The Humanity House opened in December 2010 with the express mission of allowing people to put themselves in the shoes of the survivors of disasters, both natural and military.
It might not be on a list of ‘fun things to do in The Hague’, but it is an important and exciting experience that will make you think and feel as never before.
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The Humanity House is an unassuming building on the Prinsegracht, a bit away from the usual tourist fare. Once you enter, there’s a small but pleasantly airy café to the left, which is stocked with pamphlets, books and some tasty treats. To the right you’ll find the cashier and the promise of exhibitions, but that is not where visitors go – not yet anyway.
First, you must obtain some form of identification. The cashier will take a picture of you and print out your “Humanity House Registration Form”, which you must fill in to get your visa. You are advised to carry these papers with you at all times, as you’ll only be allowed to proceed with them in hand.
You expect to go straight through to the bright exhibitions, but instead, you’re instructed to follow the clearly marked line and only proceed when the number on your registration form is called. When that happens, you have to follow the bright-line down a dark and narrow staircase tucked behind the bar. The music of the café and the sound of the street outside are replaced by the loud ambiance of people muttering, sirens blaring in the background and threatening weather. Lights flash, and small doors open to bid you on your journey as a refugee.
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Without giving too much of the experience away, I can definitely say that the Humanity House goes through some length to recreate a refugee’s journey by tapping into a variety of senses. One of the first rooms is made up to look like an abandoned living area. The smell of spilled wine fills the room and the television is still on. You can hear a radio broadcast urging you to evacuate, and take only what’s necessary. It’s colder than it should be, even on a May afternoon.
The tableaus, lighting and – most effectively – the sounds all work together to create an impressive impact. There is some sense of confusion and dizzying instructions, and you feel a palpable rush to present your papers to someone, anyone.
You are spoken to harshly over a loudspeaker, interrogated, separated from others and thoroughly documented. You have to wonder about what you would have left behind, and what you would be able to do in a situation like this.
As your own journey unfolds, you are exposed to the stories of others who have experienced these very same processes. From the survivors of conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa to the literary products of war, the museum provides a holistic approach that draws on a range of themes related to human rights. It reminds you of your own, and draws attention to the innumerable atrocities that have kept others from enjoying the same rights that tourists and locals at times take for granted.
It is an exciting but difficult experience, and for this reason the museum is not recommended for children under the age of ten. It is an important experience to have though, especially if you have thus far been lucky enough to have avoided disasters, conflicts and other crises.
Practical Information and Other Exhibits:
The Humanity House offers the refugee experience throughout the year, but that is only a small part of this museum’s efforts to fuel discussion. Temporary exhibits also run through the year, and cover a range of topics from violence in Ukraine to fashion’s role in humanitarian issues.
At the moment, the main temporary exhibit is called “The Asylum Search Engine”, and it takes a closer look at the Netherlands’ experience with asylum seekers since the migrant crisis. The Netherlands, like many other European countries, is deeply divided on the refugee issue. As the website explains, “Rules are rules, states one group; the individual comes first, states another.”
Apart from its exhibitions, the Humanity House also hosts lectures, panels and debates on humanitarian issues in its conference rooms. A recent addition to its impressive repertoire is the open-air theater and regular film sessions, which showcase films from all over the world.
If you’re in the Netherlands and touring around, this is definitely one of the most impressive and thought-provoking things to do. The Hague has become a city of conscience and consciousness, and the Humanity House provides a little bit of that in a modern, interesting and engaging way.