26 May 2022 Attractions Management Handbook

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Attractions Management Handbook - Global Village

Diverse Audiences

Global Village

Actors of change and promoters of social inclusion – NEMO’s Margherita Sani explains how museums can strengthen social fabric by embracing and uniting diverse audiences

Cultural and historical experiences are shared at Museum Island in Berlin © Milena Schlösser, Staatliche Museen Berlin
People with a migrant background can be invited to contribute to a new museum exhibition © SHUTTERSTOCK/Goran Bogicevic
Cultural institutions can help to integrate people with different ethnic backgrounds © SHUTTERSTOCK/jazzmany

Museums can change lives. Museums are for and about people. For museums to be truly accountable to past, present and future generations, they must work with and for all sections of the communities they serve. Museums have the potential to strengthen the social fabric of society and act as meeting and dialoguing places for different cultures.

NEMO (Network of European Museum Organisations) brings together museum organisations and museums throughout Europe to strengthen mutual exchange and expertise and address the most crucial issues facing this sector. A current hot topic is how museums can be actors of change and promoters of social inclusion.

The role of museums in society across the globe has significantly changed in recent decades: from temples of knowledge to fora for debate and discussion, from repositories of objects to people-centred institutions with social responsibilities and functions. This shift reflects an ongoing trend to democratise museums and make them more accessible to wider audiences and responsive to the public, in particular to local communities, whose composition has changed to include migrants and people with different ethnic backgrounds.

With unprecedented migration flows to Europe and the increasing growth of multiethnic communities, we must ask how cultural institutions can contribute to effective integration and dialogue.

Funders and society expect museums to help facilitate the integration and peaceful coexistence of newcomers – and supportive financial resources are being made available, also at EU level.

It can be questioned whether it’s right to charge museums with these responsibilities. Does it push the boundaries of their work too far and give the social function a too prominent role, as opposed to fulfilling traditional conservation and educational tasks. Or it this debate already obsolete in the light of the growing body of evidence of good practices available at European level.

Museums in Europe are already engaging with migration and cultural diversity with a variety of approaches, reflecting the diverse nature of each institution and their national context. But no matter how seriously they take up the challenge, this is a completely new area of work requiring new programmes, attitudes and staff skills, including the ability to network and partner with various institutions active in different fields.

To support museums and help them to find a constructive multiperspective and multicultural approach to their work, in 2015 NEMO released Museums, Migration and Cultural Diversity. Recommendations for Museum Work*. The publication outlines how museums can develop an intercultural approach via three core activities: Collecting, Exhibiting and Outreach.

Objects in a museum have many stories to tell about the culture that produced them and the contexts from which they originated. Very often though, museums represent only a mainstream culture, ignoring or downplaying other historical or societal components.

Museums seeking an intercultural approach should first of all reexamine and reassess existing collections using different perspectives and taking into account the viewpoint of individuals and communities.

This can be done by exposing the objects to different questions regarding their provenance and function – particularly if they originated in a colonial context – thereby bringing new stories to the light, or by adding new objects to the collection or collecting exhibits about migration history in collaboration with associations and contemporary witnesses.

Another strategy that museums can employ is to establish working agreements and partnerships with archives, local authorities and other public agencies.

The narrative of a museum unfolds in its galleries through the objects and the interpretation methods chosen by curators. No exhibition is in itself neutral: choosing an object and interpreting it in a certain way is a deliberate act.

In order to open up new multicultural perspectives, people with a migrant background can be invited to contribute to a new exhibition by bringing objects and viewpoints, focusing on their own stories and autobiographical recollections.

Such a participatory approach seems to work well, especially in the concept and design of temporary exhibitions, which are better suited to addressing current topics and trying out new and different forms of public collaboration.

Outreach is closely linked to the three core activities of collecting, exhibiting and research, but its activities are often more easily achieved outside the institutional setting of a museum. For instance, it can be better to involve marginalised groups at community locations, day centres, shopping centres and even on the streets.

Outreach workers also benefit from experience in working with unrepresented groups, perhaps owing to low economic status or social exclusion, but initiating dialogue with migrants and refugees requires the sensitivity and intercultural skills of dedicated permanent staff.

Victoria & Albert Museum
London, UK

The V&A recognises that in this rapidly changing world, museums need to explore new methods of engagement in order to be relevant to, and representative of, the diverse communities that we serve.

The V&A offers a broad range of learning programmes and special events, many free of charge, to encourage new audiences to explore their own creativity and increase their understanding of the designed world. The Black African Heritage programme exposes objects and stories in the collection and temporary exhibitions with connections to Africa and the African diaspora. The V&A also hosts cultural festivals, events, tours and activities to promote an appreciation and sharing of other cultures and collective histories filling in the ‘missing chapters’ of African history.

The contribution of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to our society is also celebrated via a number of programmes throughout the year, such as the Refugee Week held every June.


It’s time to embrace all audiences

Cultural festivals, events, tours and activities promote appreciation of other cultures

A Page From Their Book: Refugee Stories at the National Art Library, V&A Museum
Jamtli Historieland
Östersund, Sweden

A radical example of commitment to intercultural dialogue is being offered by Jamtli museum in Östersund, northern Sweden.

To address the current housing shortage for migrant families in the Östersund area, a small village is literally being built on the estate of the Jamtli Historieland Open Air Museum. The intercultural initiative aims to create a bond between migrant families and Sweden’s past and present.

During the summer, the museum is popular with visitors wishing to learn more about the region via the recreated historical site and role-playing actors.


photo: © Peter Modigh, Jamtli

Migrant families are being housed at a living history museum in Sweden
Roskilde Fjorda, Denmark

The vision at ROMU – an umbrella organisation of 10 museums near Roskilde Fjorda in Denmark – is to create social places where specific target groups of people – young men, families with children, schoolchildren, women and men – can meet free of charge.

For example, in cooperation with local Danish Red Cross asylum centres, Roskilde Museum aims to introduce migrants and refugees to life in Denmark via learning programmes on Danish history, culture and society today, including topics such as democracy, monarchy and development of the Danish labour market and Welfare State.

Young migrants and refugees at Danish schools are also being offered experiences during school holidays similar to those enjoyed by many Danish families.
Hosted events are often held alongside cultural information, with a focus on dialogue, hands-on sessions, the exchange of experiences, and the inclusion of migrant stories in exhibitions and collections.

In cooperation with The Danish Refugee Council, ROMU also hosts meetings where women and their children can get involved in games and Danish traditions, such as birthday celebrations and Easter.

Curator at Roskilde Museum, Louise Dahl Christensen, explains: “We experience a huge interest and curiosity from the participants. They’re very eager to get to know the Danish ways of celebrating, and it’s important for them to be able to act in a way that would be regarded as appropriate by people in this country. When it comes to celebrating a child’s birthday, they want to know the ‘unwritten’ rules and try to figure out the dos and don’ts in Denmark.

“So besides the value of getting together and doing something with the children, we make it easier for them to connect to Danish culture.

“For many, the events are also a welcomed opportunity to get to know other people and make new friends.


Refugee families learn about Danish culture
Museo de América
Madrid, Spain

“Migrar es Cultura” (Migration is Culture) is an online participatory project established by Museo de América in Madrid back in 2012.

The public are invited to contribute material (videos, pictures, texts) to the web platform to compile and showcase the diversity and cultural enrichment that occurs through migration. The platform includes all aspects of culture from gastronomy to music via the medium of life experiences, past and present.


© KAMANÍ – Museo de América

Artwork featured in the Kamaní project shows a group of migrants sharing a blanket on their journey to a better life
Manchester Museum
Manchester, UK

An ongoing project at Manchester Museum – called Collective Conversations: New Audiences – was initiated to reflect the needs and interests of its diverse public audience and create a more inclusive cultural representation of the community context.

Its objective is to work collaboratively with visitors to explore the meaning of objects and to share stories, beliefs and opinions about them.

A series of live ‘conversations’ with diverse groups (migrant communities, researchers, people who culturally identify with particular objects) filmed at the museum is posted on YouTube and on screens next to the actual objects within the gallery, adding new narratives and perspectives to the collections.



Diverse groups explore the meaning of objects and share stories at Manchester Museum
Museum Island
Berlin, Germany

A pilot project from Berlin’s state museums and the German Historical Museum has trained refugees from Syria and Iraq to provide tours of the Pergamon Museum, Bode Museum and German Historical Museum, in their native languages. The “Multaka” (Arabic for “meeting point”) programme aims to enable the exchange of different cultural and historical experiences.

The German Historical Museum also seeks to introduce refugees to the history and culture of Germany and provide an insight into its formative crises and processes of historical renewal.


Syrian and Iraqi refugees host museum tours in Germany using their native language

Different cultural and historical experiences are shared in the Multaka programme
Archaeological and Ethnological Museum of Modena
Modena, Italy

For some years now the Archaeological and Ethnological Museum of Modena has engaged members of migrant communities to explore themes of universal significance and articulate them according to their different cultures, life experiences and visions of the world. Objects and stories are used to add more depth and meaning.

Participants work together with the museum staff for up to a year to produce a programme of events and a temporary exhibition which includes a display of objects from the museum collections. A publication catalogues the exhibition in the form of an “intercultural diary”.

One such collaboration – Streets – explored indepth subjects like migrant journeys, religious and pilgrimage trails, the great commerce roads in antiquity and today (e.g. Silk Road, via Emilia, Trans-Siberian), life on the street and street food, street games, and names and their meanings. Collective and individual stories and objects provided by the participants and the museum curators were showcased, while side events, conferences, seminars and theatre performances were opened to the public.

The museum has not only succeeded in widening and diversifying its audience, but it has also contributed to a better understanding of migrant communities among the local population.


© Paolo Terzi

Objects and stories are shared to add more depth and meaning

© Paolo Terzi
Objects and stories are shared to add more depth and meaning

About the author
Margherita Sani, executive board member of NEMO (Network of European Museum Organisations), leads European Museum Projects at Istituto Beni Culturali Emilia-Romagna, Bologna, Italy.

[email protected]

Originally published in Attractions Handbook 2017 edition

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