Berlin, Germany

Multaqa: Museums Welcome Refugees

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

June 23, 2017

Refugee guides and cultural interpreters in Berlin museums create new spaces for connection and integration

Visitors gaze awe-struck at an ornate azure blue arch. As tall as an office block, the Ishtar Gate is more than 2,500 years old, and was once one of the entrances to the ancient city of Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. Today the ancient Ishtar Gate is housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

Syrian museum guide, Bashar, has been in Germany for six months. He spent 20 years working in museums in Syria, specialising in antiquities. Today he is working in Berlin’s state museums, after receiving training as a guide through an innovative museum program called Multaka that helps refugees integrate into German society by easing them back into work and restoring a sense of self-worth. It’s been a life-saver for Bashar:

“I would like to pass the idea on to refugees that we should respect the country which has opened the door for us to come, and that we should also be proud of our cultures,” says Bashar. “When German people give me the chance to be active and practise what I did over the last 20 years, it’s not only a chance for me, but it also shows other refugees that you will find very good people who will support you and will give you the opportunity to integrate and start a better life. For me this job in the Pergamon Museum is like a gift.”

Meeting place

Multaka means “meeting place” in Arabic. In Berlin it’s the name of an innovative museum project that welcomes refugees into the city’s cultural institutions and then invites them to play host to their rich Middle Eastern and Islamic collections.

The project “Multaka: Museums as Meeting Point” (Treffpunkt Museum) is a collaboration between some of Berlin’s finest museums, the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Vorderasiatisches Museum, the Skulpturensammlung and Museum für Byzantinische Kunst and the Deutsches Historisches Museum that provides guided museum tours to refugees in their mother tongue.

How does it work? In collaboration with the department of “Education, Outreach and Visitor Services” of the Staatliche Museen and the “Education and Outreach” department of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, a training program for the guides-to-be was developed with a focus on culturally relevant collections, didactics and methodology. Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of them specialists like Bashar, are trained as museum guides so they can share their knowledge with fellow refugees and all Berliners. The point is to facilitate an exchange of cultural and historic experiences that can enrich both newcomer and museum regular. The program is aimed primarily at teenagers and young adults, but also addresses older people in mixed groups.

Cultural goods from the homelands

The Syrian and Iraqi artefacts exhibited in the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art) and in the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Near Eastern Museum) are outstanding testaments to the history of humanity. By inviting refugees to participate as guides, the public institution sends a clear message of appreciation and respect, boosting the confidence of these newcomers as they deal with the challenges of settling into a new culture. At the same time the museum promotes the two-way dynamic of integration, providing Berliners with a fresh look at the collections and some of their newest neighbours.

The topics covered on Multaka tours are built on the strengths of Berlin’s various collections. At the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantische Kunst, for example, that means looking at the common origins of the three world religions of Islam, Judaism and Christendom. The historic cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean region are characterised by a religiously and ethnically plural societies, which today are under threat by right wing nationalist and populist movements. In this context, museums are both memorial sites of a common past and agents of integration and inclusion.

Reflections on German history

The Deutsches Historisches Museum provides an opportunity for a different type of reflection. Visitors learn about movements less distant from the present, including German culture and history, with all of its crises and renewals. However, rather than the dark era of the Third Reich, it is the years of re-building after the Second World War that offer refugee visitors optimism and a glimmer of hope for the re-building of Iraq and Syria one day. Indeed, the majority of the 19 apprentice guides from Iraq and Syria have chosen this museum as their preferred place of work.

On one level, the guided tours make questions around historical objects relevant to contemporary debates, in order to establish a connection between the past and the present. In the process, the guides incorporate the visitors into the process of observing and interpreting the objects. In this way, through the mutual dialogue and the consideration of their own history, the visitors become active participants.

Space for intercultural dialogue

On another level, the guided museum tours also call attention to historical and cultural connections between Germany, Syria and Iraq. The recognition and incorporation of such cultural commonalities helps create an “epoch-transcending narrative” and bridge between experiences of the refugees’ countries of origin and their new host country.

Clear language, peer-to-peer communication, and something for all age groups: the “Multaqa” project formula not only facilitates refugee access to museums and social and cultural points of connection with Berliners, it increases their participation in the public sphere. Invitations to museum events such as workshops, talks or special guided tours provide additional context for integration and intercultural dialogue, while promoting a pedagogical agenda to make museums vibrant spaces for day-to-day recreation and social activity.


Source: Adapted from “Berlin museum tours inspire Mid-East refugees.” By Damien McGuinness. In: BBC News, 12 April 2016