by • 14 Jun, 2016 • Case studies, PeopleComments (2)18971

Museums and migration – building sustainable, peaceful communities

Header image: Orlok /

In times of increasing migration, museums and other cultural heritage institutions can become places where diverse communities meet and work together towards a stronger society, and better future. Faced with social issues, heritage professionals have first and foremost an individual responsibility as socially aware human beings, and secondly can help their institutions to be places for social innovation. This was my message on 9 June 2016 to the 700+ participants of European Registrars Conference 2016, of which this post is an edited transcript.

Refugees and the European response to increasing migration are topics that deserves more than just a talk. For years, our politicians and others have talked about the boats illegally and dangerously crossing the Mediterranean, and strategies to keep our countries open, with very inconsistent action. Over the past year, this has changed radically, with individuals all over Europe taking responsibility and action. Many of you are well-trained, historically-aware and socially-conscious professionals who will have done projects with refugees and other newcomers, as individual volunteers or in your institution. I encourage you to share these stories with each other, as they always inspire and encourage action.

While in recent months Europeans opened their doors and became volunteers, cultural heritage institutions looked for ways to ‘do more’. Some of them approached me, or joined me in various workshops to look for ways museums and others can act in an age of migration. I would like to share some of their stories, and provide some context based on literature, as well as recommendations based on the work and ideas of cultural heritage activists such as Diana Walters of Cultural Heritage without Borders, David Fleming of Museums Liverpool, projects such as the MeLa research project and my former teachers and mentors when I still worked in human development.

My own story starts over a decade ago, as a recently graduated human development worker. In 2007, I organized a study tour through Tanzania to discover the potential of sport for human development with a group of young people, the Dutch Youth Council and Right To Play. Tanzania is a surprisingly stable country in a volatile region, and therefore home to a lot of regional refugees. We spent a few weeks travelling around the country, getting to know local communities and their problems and playing sports with them. Quite often, the situations we faced were deeply emotional, especially when there were children involved. At the same time, the only thing we could do was play sports with the youngsters, something we also didn’t really excel in. After an especially painful 3 to 0 loss, doubly defeated, I wondered what we were doing in Tanzania. Then one of our team overheard young children bragging. “Did you see how we beat the Mzungu? They’re four times as big as us, but we beat them!”

Playing football in Tanzania

Playing football in Tanzania

I learned a lot of things from this project, and chief among them is the understanding that even in the toughest situations, small acts such as playing a game of football, go a long way. Likewise, I am convinced that the small actions museums and cultural heritage professionals can take and are taking to improve the lives and well-being of migrants and refugees, can make all the difference in the world. I strongly believe culture, heritage and the arts can play a larger, more active role in society, and although this quite often requires our institutions to go through a considerable transformation process, there are a lot of things we can start doing immediately that will have an impact. We can also lose at football.

Before we begin, I have to stress that although the context of this talk is the refugee crisis, most of what I will talk about is about the relationship between migrants and museums. There is a difference. As I was reminded by Diana Walters at a workshop earlier this year, refugees are often people in a crisis. When people are in a crisis, really the only thing you can do is to help them get out of it. Refugees need a place to sleep, to shower and eat, and be safe. For this, we don’t need a strategy, we need humanity. An inspiring example is the holocaust memorial museum Binario 21 in Milan, which late last year opened its doors to 35 refugees and give them a place to sleep and be safe from the cold. Once the crisis is taken away, and refugees have the opportunity to stay or apply for asylum and essentially become migrants, cultural heritage institutions can start playing different roles. As such, when planning for projects, don’t limit yourself to the latest newcomers from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, but also consider the many other migrant communities of migrants that may have arrived decades ago.

To give you a sense of the scale of the issue: Currently, around 3% of the world’s population is a migrant. Globally there are over 60 million refugees, among them some 13.5 million Syrians. Migration is a trend in the 2016 edition of Cards for Culture, but when we wrote those cards, the situation was very different from now. One of the most shocking statistics, according to the UNHCR, is that after the European deal with Turkey, the odds of dying while crossing the Mediterranean have become as high as one in 23. Imagine taking this gamble. Migration and refugees aren’t limited to Europe, though, and they’re not a recent invention. In some African refugee camps, people are born, grow up, and have children of their own without ever being able to go back, or move on. Most migrants live in North America, Europe and Asia, and the United Kingdom is home to the world’s most diverse immigrant community. The International Organisation for Migration has created a fantastic interactive map which allows you to explore the flows of migrants between all countries in the world. When you look at the world through a lens of migration, the map changes considerably.

From migration of objects, to migrants as actors

Broadly speaking, when I build upon work from authors such as Laurence Gourievidis in the book Museums and Migration, I distinguish three different generations of responses from museums and institutions to the issue and topic of migration.

The traditional approach (first generation) is to consider migration to exist within objects and collections. Almost all museums are about migration, if we consider that the objects in collections are taken from one context and placed into another, sometimes against their will. Just consider the example of the Assyrian wall pieces in the British Museum. They show both stories of forced migration (slave trade) and as objects migrated to another country. Sometimes these objects regain their relevance in a contemporary debate about migration, such as in the case of the Cyrus Cylinder.

Details from the Assyrian wall

Details from the Assyrian wall. Credit: ileana_bt /

You could argue that in the first generation, migration is very much an aesthetic experience, something to marvel at. An image from a gallery in the Israel Museum comes to mind, which shows relics taken from synagogues around the world in a beautiful display of international connectedness and migrating objects and stories.

The fact that our collections are rich in stories about migration is a great starting point for museums and others that want to do something with them in a contemporary context. The recent Nemo publication Museums, migration and cultural diversity provides countless recommendations for action, as do museums all over the world.

Since about the 1980s and increasingly so, encouraged by new ideas about museology, we can distinguish a second generation, in which museums focus on migration as a subject. This next generation gave rise to the Migration Museum, a museum about the act of migrating, or specific groups of migrants. Examples abound, from Ellis Island in the United States, to Pier21 in Canada and the Museo de la Inmigracion in Argentine.

Migration museums often serve a specific service. Some, such as the National Museum of American Jewish History (one of my favourites), try to keep the memory alive of the often difficult journeys now established communities had to take in order to get where they are now. As such, they try to close the gap between migrants and host communities. In the words of Gourievidis: “Through heritage, the conflicting claims, aspirations, histories, memories and expectations of diverse communities meet and compete.”

Migration museums do not shy away from contemporary issues. Sometimes they may even be labelled activist. The Humanity House in The Hague lets visitors experience what it feels like to be a refugee. Founded by the Red Cross, the museum clearly aims to change people’s perception of migrants, and to create empathy for their hardships. They set out, in their own words, to make the unimaginable imaginable. They also proudly proclaim to be more than a museum: a platform for staging live-interviews, debates, exhibitions, events & festivals, film screenings and other activities.

In recent years, changes in technology and society have enabled the creation of a third generation of response of museums to migration. The relationship between museums and communities is changing, and as such the relationship between museums and migrant communities. No longer are communities passive visitors, but ever more often are they becoming active participants in their cultural infrastructure. In this third generation, migration is no longer in the objects or a topic, but migrants become actors in the museum.

My own personal bias is that I believe very much in the third generation of museums. I believe culture, heritage and the arts could and should play an active role in society with their audiences. That doesn’t mean there is a lot of great work being done in the other two generations. Many museums are doing excellent work with migrant communities and refugees either through their collection or with dedicated exhibitions, and I hope they will continue to do so. I just happen to think it is both in the benefit of communities and museums, to become socially activist.

The museum as a social actor

The ‘third generation’ cultural heritage institution is primarily defined not by a collection or a mission, but by the relationship with its audience and the impact it aims to have in its community through culture, heritage and the arts. They often exist on the verge of social and cultural organisations.

Consider for instance the story of a new restaurant / cultural center in the Netherlands. In 2015 a creative community in the city of Utrecht decided they had a personal responsibility towards the challenge posed by the current wave of refugees coming to Europe, especially from Syria. Rather than waiting for the local or national government to take action, they took to Facebook and used their digital skills to raise the money for a restaurant, workshop and cultural center aimed at making connections between refugees and host communities. Quickly, they raised over 160,000 euros through crowdfunding. Their initiative opens this June under the name Restaurant Syr and aims to play an important role in the cultural landscape of Utrecht. Similarly, new initiatives such as the Arka Youth Center in Albania, or traditional institutions that have gone through a transformation such as the Rostov Kremlin, start their cultural activities not only from a collection, but from a community and an aim to have impact.

[Read more about Museums in the City of the Future.]

Once museums recognize migrants as a potential partner, entirely new projects become possible. At the end of 2015, the African Art Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, organised the exhibition “The border is closed”. It was a collaborative exhibition between Belgrade-based artists, migrants in asylum protection centres and an NGO. The project helped the African Art Museum to take an active role towards social issues, as well discuss their own historical exhibition practice. Not only did the project meaningfully involve migrants, it also helped the museum develop itself towards a more future-proof institution.

I believe museums and other cultural institutions have a unique possibility to play a constructive role in their communities and advance social issues. Our collections, staff, knowledge and programming are unparalleled, and most museums are relatively free in their choice of topics to address. In the workshops and sessions I’ve run on the theme of migration and refugees in recent months, culture, heritage and the arts were frequently mentioned as key elements of solutions and new ideas. The heritage professionals that joined those workshops were also highly interested in exploring new approaches that would help their institutions be more socially active, and came up with many simple ideas with a potential positive impact. For instance, can we help improve the relationship between host communities and newcomers if we allow them to share stories around the collections, or explain different perceptions of society based on art and artifacts? Or can we offer meaningful employment by creating safe spaces for making and tinkering, for instance a temporary makerspace as happened in Tokyo? Can we involve our communities to document our collections better?

An inspiring example of a project done in close collaboration with a migrant community is Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light project in TBA21 in Vienna, Austria. During the project, 35 recent immigrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Tajikistan, Somalia, and Iraq engaged in a shared learning experience with the wider public, in which they made unlimited copies of a lamp designed by Eliasson. Apart from the workshop, participants engage in classes, communal activities, and artistic interventions, all arranged in collaboration with artists, cultural producers, NGOs, university students, teachers, sports-coaches and the general public. The lamps, which come with a beautiful story, are then sold, with proceeds going to the programme and various aid organizations.

An institution that works on a socially recognised goal while strengthening relationships in a community, and improving a community’s ability to act, engages in social innovation. I believe, as I’ve written and talked about before, that museums are ideal hubs for social innovation, and that our future lies in working on real social issues together with our communities. I am happy to be part of many projects that explore this new role of cultural heritage.

Building sustainable, peaceful communities

Being active in social innovation allows museums and others to play a meaningful role in the lives of migrants and refugees. To see how, we must have a quick look at a typical conflict cycle. We are all part of the conflict cycle, although it may feel far away for many Europeans, especially in Vienna. Every conflict moves through more or less the same phases. From a (violent) conflict, first the conflict needs to be resolved. Then, communities and their relationships need to be restored, before we enter into a hopefully long period of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is the process that prevents, or at least postpones, a new conflict. In most of Europe, depending on what you consider our last real conflict, this phase now lasts anywhere between 25 and 70 years, but that doesn’t mean there is no more need to actively work on peace. Peacebuilding is always relevant.

When museums work with their communities on real social issues, and when they engage in social innovation processes, they contribute to making communities sustainable (more) peaceful. Every makerspace, participatory project or collective exhibition that manages to strengthen a community and improve relationships, can be seen as an act of peacebuilding. This is especially true when such projects bring together groups between which tensions exist, such as migrants and host communities.

The rules and guidelines for social innovation and participatory projects are well documented. Download for instance Nesta’s DIY toolkit or reread Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum if you want to get started. Some of the things I’ve learned in my years of cultural and social innovation are to always approach people as individuals, share control, be radically inclusive (do not assume representatives of a group represent everyone in a group), to be humble and work together on an equal basis with all involved, and to be flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen situations. Most importantly of all, however, is to stay human in these processes and not become an institutional robot. You may be a highly-flawed human-being like I am, full of opinions and biases and terrible at playing football, but ultimately this is what helps people connect with you. I’m pretty sure that if we had won our matches in 2007 with excellent football and a cold distance, our already tiny impact would have been non-existent.

Call to action

My call to action today is simple. I believe museums and other cultural heritage institutions have a unique opportunity to play a role in social innovation, addressing real social issues while at the same time building new relationships between people, and strengthening communities. As cultural heritage professionals, you are actors in this process. Play your role, no matter how small, and at the same time be champions for the transformation in your institution. Help your institution transform from a focus on collections and object, to a focus on communities and impact. This doesn’t mean you should get rid of your collection. Quite the opposite: it may be what gives us our unique opportunity to engage in social innovation.

The museum of the future actively works with communities on social innovation. Today, we focused on refugees and migrants, but if you do it well for one community, you will be better for all of them. Our work starts from our collections and the many stories we can tell, and ends with sustainably peaceful societies in which we all work together on social impact. Let’s go!

Exhausted after a - yet again - lost match.

Exhausted after a – yet again – lost match.

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