Museums and Migrants

Buried in a commentary in this month’s Museums Journal was a reference to the programmes offered for migrants and refugees at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England [1].

Migrants are more and more becoming part of the social fabric of almost every country around the globe, and certainly in Western Europe and North America museums are called upon to do their bit in assisting integration.

But how to go about it?  The V&A offers a series of free tours and accompanying worksheets that help learners of English to engage with the exhibition while also practicing their English skills.  The ‘Citizenship Tours‘ go one step further and enhance students’ knowledge of British history through a visit to the British Galleries.  This latter example in particular is a striking reminder that museums are meant to capture a country’s history and culture.  In visiting a museum, therefore, migrants may get a sense of what their new home country is all about [2].

Canada, a country with a long history of immigration, also has many museums that offer programmes for migrants.  To make access particularly easy, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship has implemented a Cultural Access Pass for all new Canadians.  The pass gives them and their families access to Canada’s museums free of charge for one year.   Similar to the British V&A, some museums offer special programmes for English learners, such as the Museum of Vancouver.

But to me, the most exciting programmes are those that involve migrants either as curators, guides or artists in the museum.  At the Portrait Gallery of Canada a 2009 exhibition showed self-portraits that 17 recently immigrated families had created in collaboration with an artist.  The self-portraits were meant to express their changing identities now that they had settled into a new environment and culture.  Not only will this programme have strengthened language skills and shown these families and other migrants in their community that the museum is interested in them and therefore a welcoming place to visit.  The exhibition will also have made their existence, their experiences and their cultures visible to the Canadian-born communities.

A somewhat similar programme at the V&A gives even greater power to migrants.  The My V&A tours given by refugees allow them to select objects from the exhibition that remind them of their own stories.  Using the collection as a starting point, the guides then tell that story to the visitors who have joined their tours.  They provide a unique and personal look behind what may otherwise simply be an object in a glass case.  Again, the primary objective for the refugees presumably was to improve their English and apply it when guiding a tour.  But for the visitors this is also an invaluable experience both in terms of learning about what is on display and about the refugees that have joined their community.  Museum programmes for migrants can therefore be more than a mere public service to support integration.  They can strengthen social cohesion and reveal the human stories behind collections.


[1] Felicity Heywood, ‘From where I’m standing: Museums should shout louder about these powerful stories.’ Commentary, Museums Journal July 2010, p. 19.

[2] Do you sense a slight criticism here?  I suppose I am feeling that rather than capture and communicate such a distilled sense of place, too often museums have isolated objects from the histories they have been part of.  Rather than creating a feel for the culture in question, therefore, museums often leave me puzzled by a disintegrated bombardment with information on artistry, materials and epochs that I tend to forget even before I’ve reached the exit.

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