What Do We Do Next? Thoughts on German Museums and Syrian Refugees

“Whoever wants to stay should stay.”

A few notes:

  1. The ideas here are the result of multiple discussions I’ve had with colleagues and collaborators since the arrival of Syrian refugees began; they don’t represent the position of any museum or specific individual I work with.
  2. I use the term “refugee” to refer to the 800,000+ Syrians expected to arrive in Germany by the end of 2015. There are compelling arguments for the use of  “migrant,” but for now I’m taking my cue from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
  3. While recent conversations have centered around the Syrian refugees, German towns and cities are home to refugees from around the world. Many of the ideas below are applicable to all refugees and museums recognize that.

Over the past month, almost 6,000 Syrian refugees have settled in my corner of Germany. And over the past month, I’ve had many conversations with museum colleagues and collaborators where we’ve wondered, “What do we do next?” As new arrivals keep coming and cities and villages are imagining what their communities will look like with these new members, museums are imagining, too. What is our role in all of this?

What any museum does will be determined by the needs of the refugees, the needs of the community, and the museum’s resources and expertise. Here are some of the things local museums could do in response to the arrival of Syrian refugees.

Support

The first thing that came up in all the conversations I had with colleagues was, what can museums do right now? What are the most pressing things that the refugees and those working with them need, and how can museums supply them?

  • Context. Provide cultural and historical perspectives on what it means to be a refugee or immigrant in Germany. What can your museum tell that other organizations can’t? What is Germany’s immigrant story and what are the unique challenges people have faced in the past? How can this information help organizations and communities make better decisions when dealing with the current challenges?
  • Collections. Display relevant collections, such as artifacts from Syria or other objects connected to refugee/immigrant stories. How could interpretation of these items provide context and help re-frame the refugee story? Admission fees from special exhibits could also be donated to local organizations working with the Syrians.
  • Audience. Connect with your local (often well-educated) audience. What specialized skills (languages, legal expertise, etc.) do they have that refugee camps and managing organizations are looking for?
  • Location. Take advantage of your (likely) status as a well-known landmark and become a centralized place for people to pick up information and drop off donations.
  • Physical Space. Re-purpose lecture rooms and galleries into useful spaces during off-hours. Offer yourself as a location for language and cultural lessons, for example, or as a place for Syrians to meet with translators, counselors, and other support systems.

Engagement

Along with support the Syrians with their immediate needs, museums are also thinking about what we can do to engage and connect with them longer-term.

  • Free Admission. Issue everyone living in the refugee camps or housing areas a membership or free passes to the local museums.
  • Public Outreach in the Camps. Bring public programming events normally hosted in the museum, such as lectures, concerts, and children’s activities, to the refugee camps.
  • Relevant Language Resources. Create and provide language resources (labels, brochures, guided tours, audio tours, etc.) in the primary languages spoken by the Syrian refugees (Arabic, English, and French, according to a recent survey).
  • Refugee Contributions and Created-Content. Become an place for refugees to express themselves. Create a story wall where they can share their experiences. Invite people to guest-curate and interpret a space. Provide creative outlets (one museum is planning a photography exhibit next year where all the photographers are local refugees)

Documentation

Finally, there’s the need for museums to document the story of Syrian refugees in Germany. Germany opening its borders the way it did was unprecedented for the country and for Europe, and Germany has never experienced an influx of refugees like this before. There are still a lot of unknowns in this story. How many refugees will ultimately arrive in Germany? Where will they settle? How many will be granted asylum status and stay, some, perhaps, permanently? Regardless of how long the story lasts and how it ends, it’s a story worth recording.

While many museums professionals I’ve spoken with agree that museums should have an active collecting plan in place for the Syrian refugee story, there’s also a strong underlying tension over when anything should begin and what it should look like. For many people, it doesn’t feel right to ask to take things, from objects to photographs to stories, when instead we should still be focused on giving things. How do you guarantee that people in the midst of a crisis can be informed and active agents in telling their own stories? How do you ask people who have very little to give things away?

What museums collect and how they document the Syrian refugee story will, again, vary on individual missions, scopes, and resources. But here are some ways local museums are thinking of proceeding:

  • Different Scale Collection Plans. Develop short-term and long-term collecting plans to document and record the Syrian refugee story in Germany. What should collecting look like now, at the beginning of the story amidst the chaos and confusion? What should collecting look like later, when people are more settled and beginning to integrate and participate in German society?
  • Open Call for Collections. Issue an open call for people involved with the refugees to donate objects. From people working in the camps to the Flughelfer smuggling refugees into the country to individuals demonstrating in the street against Germany’s open border policy, collect the materials they’ve created and used. Public response to the arrival of the refugees has been mixed. Ask for the flyers, banners, newspaper articles photographs, etc.
  • Interviews. Interview refugees, volunteers, teachers, government officials, local community members – anyone connected to or affected by this story. Work with people in the camps and organizations to develop a list of potential interview subjects
  • Oral Histories.Create an oral history project for your community. Reach out to local organizations, schools, and universities to find people to help organize, run, and document the stories. Work with translators so you have multiple-language versions of each story.

I’m sure that as the Syrian refugee story in Germany continues to develop, what museums do and plan to do will develop as well. What I’m happy to see is how many conversations organizations are having, and the extent to which cross-disciplinary discussions are working to build plans that support and respect the refugees while documenting their story.

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