London: Making Museums A Hub For Integration
Museums have an important role to play in connecting communities and showcasing stories. However, most exhibits are still generally curated without the involvement of the community or culture that they depict.
This year, in celebration of Refugee Week, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, took a different approach. For Refugee Week, the Museum offered visitors an opportunity to see the V&A collection from the perspective of a refugee through unique tours of Museum galleries guided by refugees from around the world. Refugees from Rwanda, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Darfur, and Uganda presented collections from the Museum’s galleries as springboards for their own personal stories and experiences.
Clare Paul, V&A’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and Arts Education Officer, created these tours in 2007 to engage refugee communities and help break down cultural misconceptions. How? By inviting refugees to act as cultural interpreters and tell their own stories. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. As Clare Paul notes, “People are very engaged. They’re connecting with the refugees… and that’s changing attitudes. The tours are an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”
The volunteer tour guides also were enriched by their experiences. Fayhaa Abdulwahab, a refugee from Iraq who led her own tours, states, “When I remember what happened to me I feel bitterness in my soul. But when I see people listening and sympathizing, it helps remove it. I feel that there’s hope in humanity.”
Visitors were also able to create their own artwork in workshops led by refugee artists from around the world, Workshops included poetry, an Afghan kite workshop, and an “Ayacucho Peruvian Retablo” (brightly coloured decorative story box) workshop. These workshops allowed museum visitors to explore how stories and memories are collected and can be expressed through art and how to connect their own personal experiences to their work.
The museum also offered one-hour “taster” classes on the diverse languages spoken by refugees in London. These short lessons included Luganda (Uganda), Somali (Somalia), Karen (tribal language spoken by the Karen of Burma), and Kinyarwanda (Rwanda).
Performance opportunities were as varied as they were diverse. Over the course of the week, visitors were treated to musical performances ranging from Salsa and Congolese Rumba to Balkan rock and folk. An architectural exhibit examining notions of refuge and retreat was used as a backdrop to a series of short performances of drama, movement, and song by young refugees and asylum seekers from the Pan Intercultural Arts Future and Fortune Groups.
The successes of the V&A’s Refugee Week highlights the important role museums can play in recognizing the contribution of different communities to a city’s cultural heart. In this case raising cultural awareness through active participation also means breaking down barriers and challenging prejudice.