My partner and I took the same photo from our separate journeys to Israel: A map showing how many of the world’s alphabets can be traced back to a single origin: Proto-Sinaitic. It’s a popular shot which shows up regularly in photos online, together with the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The map’s appeal to me is twofold. It’s fascinating that with an open mind and some patience so many of the world’s scripts are readable; a first step to understanding a foreign language with all its beautiful discoveries. Secondly, it appeals to the belief that no matter how different we are, we share a common root. So, we – humans – are more alike than different. In Israel, a country divided by language as much as by anything else, this is a welcome message.
I visited the Holy Land by invitation of the Ruth Youth Wing of the Israel Museum. They hosted a well-produced and thought-provoking conference about museum education in the 21st century in honour of their 50-year anniversary. It was a fascinating conference, in which language was a recurrent theme in the quest to answer a larger question: how can museums help bridge gaps between people? In my words: Can heritage and the arts be a shared language that brings people together, a modern-day Proto-Sinaitic?
Of course the answer is yes. Which brings us to the how.
Some of the contributions to the conference faced the question head on. Type and graphic designer Liron Lavi Turkenich showed us a readable font that merges Arabic and Hebrew. The Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa performed part of a play about a shared childhood dream that overcomes language barriers. Hasan Agberia from the renowned Bridge over the Wadi school in Kafr Qara explained how impartial bilingual education brings youngsters together.
To be able to connect people with each other, museums first need to connect with communities. Donna Williams, Chief Audience Development Officer at the Met, showed how her Multicultural Audience Development Initiative connects the Met with New York’s many communities. She makes it sound simple. You cannot connect if you don’t know who you are connecting with, so Donna spends 40% of her time outside of the museum, in the communities, where she learns about them and builds trust. Her programme is not a charity: The communities give back as much and more than is needed to connect with them. It’s also not a nice-to-have. Donna, “They are waiting for us to give them the keys to the museums. So we do.”
Of course, the 21st century offers countless new opportunities to connect with communities. Wendy Woon from MoMA showed how they connect with teachers and others through their offering of MOOCs. I love this programme and regularly use it as a best practice in my workshops. My own contribution focused on how museums can reach out to and engage communities of younger people – Millennials and Generation Z – and use their optimism, energy and ideas to become better institutions themselves.
This being Israel, halfway through the conference the inevitable question was asked: How do we connect with Arab communities? Although all the labels in the Israel Museum are available in Arabic as well as Hebrew and English, outside of the school context they hardly visit the museum. “It’s not part of their culture to come to museums,” said James Snyder, director of the museum, in a forum about Museums in a Multicultural Reality. My reply: If people don’t come, go to them (and don’t trust only on digital tools to do the trick).
A museum with a collection as rich and diverse as the Israel Museum or the Met can tell stories that are universal and appeal to all audiences. And they do, for instance in the special Happy Birthday exhibition in the Israel Museum. The celebratory exhibition brings together the perspective from different cultures on the topic of anniversaries. Who doesn’t like a birthday? The exhibition is like a Proto-Sinaitic root to which all communities can trace back their own experiences.
With an open mind and some patience (both of which can be helped by a good museum educator or facilitator) it’s possible for individual visitors to find such a common root. Much like reading the script is a first step to understanding a language, enjoying a shared collection can be a first step to understanding a different culture. What’s left is practice, and as much as you don’t achieve proficiency in language school, really bridging the gaps between cultures isn’t done in museum buildings alone.