The Multilingual Museum Part 3: Reaching Out to Refugees


As you read this, there are around 119,000 refugees in the UK (1). About one-sixth of them are from Syria(2), where a brutal conflict has raged since 2010. Of those, many are vulnerable and arrive with signs of PTSD and depression on top of the trauma they’ve already experienced.

This level of anguish and suffering can make it difficult to begin a new life. There’s no social network, it’s a foreign culture, and they have to figure out how to support their families all over again.

But not every refugee has deep-set psychological problems — the kind that require mental health resources. Some simply need a little guidance on where to find new social groups. Sometimes even just the recognition that they matter can be all it takes to help them adapt and find their place in the community.

This is where museums can play a role. From Berlin to Oxford, museums are stepping in with special programmes aimed at helping refugee communities — not just those from Syria but from all over the world.

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Germany has taken in a lot of Syrian refugees and, through an innovative programme based out of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, has one of the most successful refugee outreach programmes in the world.

Called Multaka, which means meeting place in Arabic, this programme Pergamonoffers refugees a chance to give back in meaningful ways that help others.

The programme is based on a unique pairing between the museum’s extensive Middle Eastern and Islamic collections and the refugees who hail from those regions. The Pergamon operates a training programme for Syrian and Iraqi refugees who want to become guides for those collections.

Some of the trainees worked at museums in their birth countries before they became refugees. The training offers them a chance to actively become a part of their new culture, as well as a chance to help out fellow refugees. The tours are offered to refugees in their native tongue, and of course native Berliners who’d like to join are welcome, too.

These tours do more than educate refugees about museum collections. They send the message that refugees’ cultural past is respected by the German people who’ve welcomed them into their communities. Mirroring that, the programme offers Berliners a new look at antiquities housed in the Pergamon such as the famous Ishtar Gate, an entrance to an ancient city in what is now Iraq.

But running guided tours for refugees isn’t the only way to help them connect and integrate. Here are a few more ways museums have reached out to local populations who, like those in Berlin, could use a bit of ‘Multaka’ in their own community.

Oxford Museums

Oxford University Museums have partnered with a local charity to offer special programmes for refugees. They offer events during the summer holidays where families can gather and connect by discussing objects from their culture in a hands-on experienceOxford Museum

The partnership quickly realised that for such an initiative to work, events had to actually fulfil the social needs of the refugees who participated. That meant making the sessions more personal and, therefore, more relevant.

Toward that end, they evolved their programme to become more participatory. Now, the refugees bring their own objects to share, in addition to the museum objects which are plucked from collections for the events. Like the Pergamon programme, this one benefits from having participants take an active role.

Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry

Right now, through February 11, 2018, the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is featuring a new exhibition focusing on Syrian refugees. The collaboration explores stories from recently-arrived refugees and pairs their stories with symbols of their past and their present.

For the immersive exhibit, Syrian refugees were given the opportunity to write messages to the people of Coventry. The messages were presented, alongside the sim cards that refugees receive upon entering the UK, for a comprehensive look at their experience (3). The_Herbert

A common challenge for refugees is the feeling that their voices aren’t heard. This isn’t necessarily a political issue—merely expressing gratitude can go a long way toward helping refugees adapt to their new homes and find a sense of community therein. The Herbert programme has demonstrated this very clearly.

The Wiener Library in London

The Wiener Library has long taken a prominent role in working with local refugees. Founded in the 1930s by a German Jewish refugee, the library offers exhibitions and collections that speak to the refugee experience. They also hold events, especially during Refugee Week in June.The Wiener Library

One such project involved collecting audio testimonies from refugees hailing from Rwanda and showcasing the collection in a series of events marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide (4). These are now housed in the permanent collection.

A Final Word

Whether museum refugee programmes serve to connect recent refugees with one another or promote their well-being by offering cultural reference points from their home countries, one truth stands out: these programs are doing them a world of good.

It wasn’t until the last decade that most museums have started programmes aimed at refugees. Likewise, researchers are only beginning to explore why some refugees adapt and others don’t. But just ask anyone who’s participated in any of the programmes outlined here or in similar initiatives, and you’ll find that these museum-based psychological interventions do indeed work.

Museums aren’t social workers, but they do take on a role of telling us all about our cultural heritage. And as the ebb and flow of different cultures transforms our collective identity, museums can play a role in helping not just new arrivals but all of us grasp what it means to be a member of a multicultural society that welcomes the world’s refugees.