The Promised Land project that I have been writing about on this blog on several occasions is nearing its conclusion. We are now finalising the ebook that captures our experiences, and for this, I have recently written a statement from the point of view of us as the German museum partner in the project. The following is adapted from that statement.
In Germany, there are still those who consider museums part of ‘high culture’. This is a powerful discourse that shapes and determines what museums, their makers and their audiences can acceptably be. Museums as high culture are temples of special knowledge and refined taste. They are encoded spaces to which one gains access through a certain type of sanctioned understanding. Working at, or visiting the high culture museum is as much about the sharing and gaining of knowledge as it is about expressing a certain identity : it is a statement of distinction and a deliberate disassociation from ‘the Other’ and the masses. The philosophy of the museum as high culture consequently rejects and derides practices that are aimed at accessibility and inclusion. As Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf claimed at the art KARLSRUHE convention in 2018, such practices ‘infantilise’ audiences and force (art) museums to do less than their best. In other words, in the discourse of the museum as high culture, inclusion and accessibility are thought to lower the quality of the museum’s work. The implication, although rarely owned, is obvious: those audiences that might benefit from accessible and inclusive practices are ultimately not welcome. In order for these audiences to become acceptable, they must first acquire the knowledge, tastes and understanding necessary to decode the museum as is. In this fashion, the museum becomes the enclave of a specific and select group in society and, by extension, serves to maintain that group’s cultural hegemony. Museums as high culture therefore are prone to preserve the status quo rather than make possible (social) change.
In contrast, the German state and German civic society have, particularly since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe of 2015, increased efforts to support the integration  of new arrivals into German society. This we were able to see for ourselves during The Promised Land training week in Oldenburg. In a presentation on the German asylum system, we learnt that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) defines the aim of integration as including into German society all people who live in Germany long-term and legally. Specifically, immigrants are to have comprehensive and equal rights to participate in all aspects of society. BAMF therefore sponsors German language and orientation courses for asylum applicants who have good prospects to remain. We visited IBIS e.V., an association that was founded in 1994 to promote a peaceful society of diverse groups. In 2015, several service clubs joined to establish another association we got to know, pro:connect, which provides language courses and support in finding work for new arrivals. What these initiatives, and their political framework, have in common is the desire to promote inclusion of refugees and migrants into mainstream German society.
Museums (especially, but not solely those that are publicly funded) have a duty to participate in this effort . They must become a social actor in the way that the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s MASS project envisions, with practices that serve to promote equity and inclusion in museums outside of the limited scope of working with collections. Museums as social actors cannot content themselves with using their collections to look primarily into the past. While history can of course provide examples and serve as a case study for certain topics, it cannot make up for engagement with the present day. Furthermore, museum as social actors must re-examine their sociocultural representations. They must take their impact on people’s realities seriously and, more importantly, change it were needed.
None of the above is to suggest that initiatives and projects do not already exist in Germany that have responded to the issues raised. Not all museum professionals and their audiences in Germany view museums as ‘high culture’. Decolonisation of collections and restitution to origin societies is a topic in the German museum sector today also, albeit one that is hotly debated. Projects such as Multaka by four museums in Berlin include refugees in providing guided exhibition tours to others, an initiative that is certainly a laudable first step, despite criticism on the extent to which the refugees’ critical questions are allowed to inform the presentation of the collection . The German Museum Association issued guidance for museum practice on migration and diversity, and stressed that migration is the norm and even a necessity in modern industrial nations.
However, through The Promised Land project, and in comparing museum practice in Germany and elsewhere particularly to the theatre practice of our project partners from Italy and the United Kingdom, it has become clear that museums must and can do much more to provide inclusive spaces for all. The notion of the museum as ‘high culture’ is still too pervasive to allow a similar success to develop as that which has been enjoyed by our partners, and to make such practices more broadly accepted as good museum practice. Museums in Germany must actively reject the separation between ‘high culture’ and low culture, or Soziokultur, for it undermines the importance of inclusion and inclusive practices. We are said to live in an age of migrations. Successful immigrant, or post-migrant societies are those that are inclusive. Museums as centres of the nation’s culture and development are at the heart of this. Here, new arrivals can find orientation about their new home. In museum spaces, ‘native’ populations and new arrivals can meet and engage with each other’s perspectives on history, art and culture. In museums, heritage work  can be undertaken, that is, heritage is performed and reinforced, but new heritage is also negotiated and created. This important function of museums can only be realised if museums actively strive to become open and inclusive spaces. This requires more of museums than a selective and isolated offer of inclusive projects that are not intrinsically embedded in the museum’s work. To become inclusive spaces, museums must make inclusion a core element of their entire approach, from collecting to presentation to staffing. It requires opening up narratives and providing opportunities throughout for people – newcomers and natives alike – to enter into a constructive dialogue. Museums, like the theatre practice we were able to witness during The Promised Land project, must become more process-oriented than is currently the case. While collections will undoubtedly remain important in museum work, museums must recognise that they need to be so much more than mere places for collection display in order to maintain their relevance and make a contribution to post-migrant societies such as modern-day Germany. It is to be hoped that the ICOM definition of museums, which is currently under review, in the future enables and supports such an approach and makes it commonplace to expect museums to be lively spaces of social action.