The Work of Refugees in Museums

Accepting refugees living in mainland China has always been a controversial matter; it is not possible for refugees to gain Chinese nationality by any means. That said, refugees have become a group, a category of working-age workers globally, and their unique stories and experiences have become an indispensable part of museums and other cultural institutions. When I traveled recently to Berlin and visited the German History Museum, I met a museum tour guide who was a refugee from Syria. She worked in the Museum, introducing German cultural relics, and comparing them with objects from Syria. She said the war in Syria not only destroyed lives and separated families, it also destroyed homes, other buildings, and their heritage sites. People just speak about the war, she said, but nobody wants to know the history and cultural heritage of Syria. If objects are collected and displayed in museums, she said, they are safer than if they remain in war areas, so that people all around the world can come and learn more about their history and heritage which have been destroyed by war. After hearing this, I was deeply touched, and was reminded that every refugee is an individual who has her or his own story. Refugees themselves telling their own stories and the cultural history of their countries is more insightful and inspiring than the museum directly exhibiting the life of war zones and refugees. They can tell their story to more audiences and become the intermediary between artworks, artifacts, and visitors in museums. Doing so not only allows the public to pay attention to the marginalized minority, it also allows refugees to enter the museum and integrate themselves into the local environment, better to avoid social isolation.

Museums are platforms for promoting cultural exchanges and collisions in society, and also meeting points for culture, and can off-set some of the tensions generated by the arrival of refugees. For example, each month, museums in German hold two workshops, which target refugees and Germans; they start from the museum’s collection in order to understand the similarities and differences between national cultures.

Much like in Germany, Britain is also trying to encourage refugees to become more actively involved in contributing to their museums. Recently I read an article published by the Museum Association on the Refugee House, a project and exhibition developed jointly with refugees and asylum seekers, and staff at the St. Fagan National Museum of History in Cardiff in 2012. More recently, 2018 saw the Multaka Oxford scheme that planned to train refugee volunteers to plan, research and participate in museums, and aimed to help integration and cultural understanding by encouraging refugees and immigrants to explain their own cultural history to the public through Arabic and English. Because of the scheme, refugees became voluntary guides at the Oxford Museum of History. Personalized travel in the Pitt Rivers Museum combined with the Islamic Astronomical Instruments of the Middle East Textile Museum was also a part of the integration plan. Not only will this program help volunteers to integrate themselves into British society and develop their skills and confidence to find jobs and contribute to the UK in the future, it will also help to raise the public awareness of the contribution of the Islamic world’s science and culture, which is often ignored in British education.

In China, there is widespread concern about the economic and social crisis that refugees and asylum seekers bring to the country, but little attention has been paid to how refugees can be more quickly integrated into local communities thereby avoiding many ‘first contact’ challenges. In fact, refugees coming to a new country can bring the blending and collision of culture to it, and museums can act as an intermediary to help refugees better integrate into the local society and spread the culture and arts of their own country by their uniqueness.