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June 22, 2018

Focus Can Museums Really Help Refugees?

Masum Momaya

Research Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

On a cold, rainy February morning in Athens, I sat in a small meeting room at the Melissa Network Center with my fellow participants for the workshop organised by the ICOM International Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities (CAMOC). We spoke, mostly through translators, with a small group of women refugees from a handful of different countries. After a day of discussing how our respective museums are addressing migration and hearing from NGO representatives in Greece providing services for refugees, on that day, we were trying to understand the personal journeys of the women we met with.

Why did they leave the places they came from? What have their experiences been since then? How did their day-to-day lives in Greece look like? And what were their goals and hopes for the future? Most of the questions and responses had followed this trajectory of inquiry, until one of my colleagues probed in a hopeful tone: “Would you like to go to a museum?”.

To get to the conference, I, an American citizen of immigrant origin, had left the United States en route to Greece on the day of the executive order banning nationals of seven countries from entering the United States. After landing at my stopover destination, I refreshed my social media feeds, to see images of protests at many American airports with thousands rallying against the #muslimban and offering legal help. The juxtaposition of those protests and the stories we were hearing at Melissa that day underscored the urgency of each of us and our institutions stretching ourselves to do what we could to make the situation better.

From the moment I signed up to attend the CAMOC conference, my mind began to ponder the question: can museums really help refugees? Prior to speaking with refugees, the NGO workers politely suggested that museums could play a role by telling the stories of refugees and perhaps hosting refugee children and adults for visits. But I kept wondering if there was more we do. Upon reflection during and since the workshop, here are my suggestions:

  1. Tell stories of refugees to as many audiences as we can reach, working in collaboration with refugees and those who support them (e.g. teachers, health care professionals, lawyers, etc.). During the CAMOC workshop, a psychiatrist from Medecins Sans Frontiers mentioned that refugees experience both invisibility and timelessness. Although I had followed news of the refugee crisis from the US, it was by hearing stories firsthand that I understood them and was touched in a different way, including being moved to act to make a difference. This was a tremendous gift and honour – the one which could be shared with more audiences to build understanding and empathy.
  2. Contextualize migration in history of all kinds, enlisting the public, especially city residents, in telling stories, including stories that underscore that we are all migrants – be it between countries, migrants from small towns to big cities, or, more conceptually, migrating to new and changing eras in world history.
  3. In storytelling, focus as much as possible on themes and commonalities as communities. Often, exhibitions are framed around the history and/or culture of a particular community. While these framings are valuable (and challenging) in their own right, they can sometimes reinscribe differences between one community and another community, unless museum staff can render communities in the most nuanced ways and draw explicit commonalities. As Nicole van Dijk from the Rotterdam Museum explained, “organizing exhibitions and programs around themes moves the rhetoric away from a singular community to a narrative of commonality, including common hopes, fears, challenges and experiences of living in a particular place at a particular time in history.”
  4. Take the museum outside the walls of museum buildings. According to public installation by the artist Arne Quinze, less than 1% of a city’s residents visit museums. When my fellow CAMOC participants asked a refugee woman we were speaking with whether she’d like to visit a museum, I immediately thought: “but why would she want to go? What could a museum possibly offer her, given the immediate circumstances of her life?” Education, entertainment and a change of scenery, perhaps. But would it first make sense for museums to move outside of our buildings and into communities, including refugee camps, as an organization Curators without Borders has done.
  5. Conversely, our museum buildings can serve not only as exhibition spaces but also as meeting spaces for convening refugees and neighbours, and as a sites for education, including language classes, skills training and citizenship education. Museums shouldn’t necessarily be direct providers, but can be convenors and hosts, collaborating with local NGOs and educational institutions. In the US, the Queens Museum of Art has such programs, and views itself just as much as a community center as a museum.

So, can museums really help refugees? Yes. But we must utilize our unique expertise, acknowledge what we cannot do, and collaborate with others to play our meaningful part.

CAMOC is a forum for professionals working in or interested in museums about cities. This Committee allows them to share knowledge and experience, exchange ideas and explore partnerships across international boundaries. CAMOC seeks to stimulate dialogue and co-operation between museums by supporting and encouraging them in the collection, preservation and presentation of original material related to the past, present and future of the city, reinforcing the city’s identity and contributing to its development. With close on 300 members from 43 countries, CAMOC carries out projects, runs workshops, publishes and holds meetings with a specific theme in a different city each year.

Photograph: For International Museum Day 2017, the Würth Museum of La Rioja in Spain encouraged visitors to bring used shoes, a symbol of their personal journey and their experiences, to create a collaborative exhibit that was later donated to an NGO.