you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
According to the UN, there are now 59.5 million refugees across the globe — more displaced persons than at any time since record-keeping began in the aftermath of the Second World War. Over half of these refugees are children. While refugees have many needs similar to immigrant groups, refugees differ fundamentally from immigrants in that they fear persecution in their home country, usually for political, ethnic, or religious reasons .
As civic and educational institutions, museums are uniquely positioned to engage refugee audiences. They can welcome refugees, validate their experiences, offer opportunities for language learning, and provide them with social and cultural capital to help them acclimate to their new home.
The Importance of Collaboration
The key to engaging refugee communities lies in building partnerships with social agencies and relief organizations . This can mean local schools, federal agencies such as the Office of Refugee Resettlement, international agencies such as the International Rescue Committee, and charitable organizations such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services. Building these partnerships helps museums gain access to refugee communities and learn what needs refugees have. In addition, these partnerships can provide valuable educational and financial resources that help make museum programs and outreach viable.
The Refugee Museum Project in Baltimore, Md., is one such example. The program is a collaboration between the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore City Community College’s (BCCC) Refugee Youth Project (RYP). The program uses the museum’s collections as a resource to help refugee youth in Baltimore integrate into the community by strengthening their social and language skills . It also partners with the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Master of Arts in Community Arts Program to provide an educator who facilitates the trips to the museum. BCCC trains Walters staff in teaching ESL, and museum educators have reported that ESL teaching strategies — such as exploring through different senses and offering information through different media — strengthen and reinforce widely recognized best practices in museum education .
The Language of Museums
ESL-based tours for refugees do not need to be limited to art museums, however. The Buffalo History Museum’s Museum Introduction Program offers ESL tours of the Museum’s collections to help refugees learn about Buffalo’s history, art, and culture. The Museum helps teach museum literacy by discussing the general purpose of museums and teaching participants how to explore exhibits. It also provides curriculum to teachers and resettlement agencies that teach participants how to use public transit to visit the museum and what they can expect when they are there (e.g., no food and drink, many artifacts cannot be touched, etc.). The Buffalo History museum, like the Walters, utilizes video, audio, and images to reach out to non-English speaking audience.
By engaging refugees with collections, museums help refugees develop linguistic and cultural competence. It provides a “safe space,” outside the formality of the classroom or government agency, in which refugee youth can process their trauma and explore their new identity.
While museums can help refugees acquire the skills they need to thrive in their new home, museums are not merely benevolent teachers. In addition to partnering with relief organizations, they should not be afraid to parter with the refugees themselves.
At the Walters, children’s art from the Refugee Museum Project was exhibited at the museum’s annual International Family Day. The Buffalo History Museum hosted a temporary photography exhibit called Buffalo: Through Their Eyes, which displayed photographs taken by refugees of their new community as well as newly accessioned artifacts from Buffalo’s 21st century refugees. The History Museum is currently in the process of integrating these artifacts into their permanent exhibit, Neighbors, which tells the story of immigration in western New York from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. By placing the stories of refugees in a permanent collection, it not only highlights and validates their stories, but locates refugees within the context of the local community and builds bridges between refugees and existing communities.
At the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., the Art Trunk program combines outreach to refugee communities with teaching new skills such as print-making or pastels, and some refugee artwork is selected for the museum’s galleries. Anne Henderson, the Frist’s director of education and outreach, says that the larger community, not just the refugees, is improved by seeing refugee art at the museum and hearing refugee stories. Interestingly, the Art Trunk program was developed for a generic audience, not specifically for refugees. Henderson says the trick is to find the right partner, such as Catholic Charities’ Refugee Elders program, and then tweak the existing museum program to fit some of the needs that are specific of refugees. Using existing programs and partnering with existing social agencies helps save time, labor, and expense, while still tailoring the museum’s work to address refugee needs.
As Henderson notes, refugee programs at museums must relate to the museum’s mission and core values in order to succeed. The Frist saw the Art Trunk Program as an opportunity to fulfil its mission of helping visitors understand the world through art. At the Walters, the Refugee Museum Project helped the museum fulfil its mission to bring “art and people together for enjoyment, discover, and learning” . Museums need not drastically change their missions or their programming to best serve refugee audiences. They simply must take a close look at their local community and identify the needs and available resources. Then, they can be change agents for the museum community, the local community, and the 59.5 million refugees across the world.
What else might museums do to advocate for refugees? Please leave thoughts and suggestions in the comments!
 Ocello, Claudia B. “Being Responsive to Be Responsible.” The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics. Ed. Janet Marstine. New York: Routledge, 2011. 188-201.