Oxford museums train refugees as tour guides and community curators

Oxford museums train refugees as tour guides and community curators
Leading lights  -   Curators

The award-winning museum project that aims to train Syrian and Iraqi migrants to lead museum tours in Arabic has crossed borders over the UK. Since February of this year, Oxford has adopted this program, officially known as Multaka: Museum as Meeting Point – Refugees as Guides in Berlin Museums to its own institutions.

The program launched in Berlin as a joint effort led by the Berlin State Museums and the Deutsches Historisches Museums in 2015. Oxford-based institutions have long been engaged with the community by doing outreach for several years with the city’s community of Arabic-speaking refugees. Drawing inspiration by Multaka, the Museum of History of Science as well as the Pitt Rivers Museum decided to run a similar project that took on the same name as in Berlin, with the Berlin team’s approval and collaboration.

Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science is training refugees as guides to its historic collections, adding value to the institutions day-to-day operations, expanding their reach to new audiences but also integrating the ever-growing community and local population.

“We realised there was lots of work that could be done to make this collection more accessible and, as many of its objects grew out of the Arabic-speaking world, it was a good fit for this project,” says Abigael Flack, the collections officer for Multaka Oxford. Eight of the 26 registered participants will be leading tours in Arabic and English beginning at the end of the year.

The Pitt Rivers is leading a similar initiative but taking it a step further with “more hands-on curatorial work”, Flack says. This has helped the institution in securing a £120,000 grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the UK Museums Association, which supports collections projects with a social impact. Refugees are co-curating exhibitions with the museum’s staff working on a recent acquisition of Middle Eastern textiles. The show is set to open in April of next year.

Replicating the Multaka program in the UK has not been entirely possible, with regional laws impacting the labor of refugees. German laws allow anyone, regardless of status, to earn up to €2,400 per year which is not possible in the UK without a work permit. “It has not been a major barrier,” Flack insists however with Multaka Oxford covering all the participants’ travel costs, which are typically capped for other museum volunteers.

The project has been well received with the city’s migrant communities and populations at large. Some refugees are using the workshops to socialise and practice English, while others are developing a deep interest in the art scene and working on their CV’s.

Both museums are preparing seminars for 2019 to share their findings with other UK institutions with the hopes of influencing them to join in taking action. The Multaka has project leaders in Berlin actively engaging in talks with other global institutions like the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York to set up similar initiatives and expand the reach of the program.