By Maria Vlachou

Following my presentation “Are we failing?” at the NEMO – Network of European Museum Organizations annual conference, ICOM Portugal invited me to share my thoughts on the possible role museums may have in the refugee crisis.

Several colleagues raised the issue of refugees at the NEMO conference, both in discussions and in conversations during coffee breaks. Some wanted to share the things they already do, others questioned what they could possibly do, given the small size of their museums and their peripheral location, and others still said that there are other issues and priorities. Whatever the intention or concern, however, it became clear that this is undoubtedly an issue for European museums today.

Museums are facing a big challenge, but a challenge whose nature is not unknown to them: it is the ‘we’ and the ‘others’; identity and inclusion; barbarism and culture; it is precisely what museums are (or should be) about.

Firstly, I believe it is important to think about what museums are not: museums are not social workers, they are not psychologists and psychotherapists, they are not security forces, they are not priests and imams nor lawyers. When one goes through a crisis like that of the refugees, the desire and the need to get involved and to offer help can easily lead us to assume responsibilities that are not ours and for which, consequently, we are not technically prepared. Even taking on a supporting role in urgent and priority tasks in the welcoming and inclusion of refugees, it would be unfair for museums to limit themselves to this and not to explore their true potential, the specific ways in which, given their nature and mission, they can contribute in this collective effort.

So, what is at stake for museums in the case of the refugee crisis?

On the one hand, we have the people who are already here. We have the Portuguese society, complex and diverse, composed of several communities, like most contemporary societies. Part of this society acknowledges the narrative of museums and recognizes it as the ‘we’. In their collections and exhibitions, it sees a representation of what it considers to be its identity and collective memory. The truth is that the migratory flow from Africa, Brazil and, more recently, from Eastern Europe, has significantly changed the composition of this society. However, there are only rare and very specific cases where this change has been clearly reflected in the world of museums, from their collections and exhibitions, to various other initiatives and the composition of their teams (with the exception perhaps of cleaning services). The ‘we’ and ‘others’ and ‘the others who are now we’ is an ongoing issue, which I think museums are aware of, regardless of whether they address it or not.

On the other hand, we have a new ‘other’ who is not here yet, but who is causing to a part of the population feelings of fear and discomfort, which consequently generate hostile and unwelcoming statements and attitudes. This ‘other’, in turn, is bringing along one’s own fears and insecurity; they have lost everything and must seek to create for themselves a new home in a land that is unknown to them. Who are the people who will give them shelter? How are they going to be seen by them? Will they be welcome? What will it take to be accepted and to belong?

There will be a need for these two sides meet, to get to know each other. Otherwise, there we will hardly be able to achieve the inclusion. Given the nature of their activities, museums seem to be the ideal place for this encounter to happen. In the space that preserves the memory and represents the identity of a people, the newcomers will experience the place that will be their new home, its history and the people who inhabit it. At the same time, in this same space that aims to be inclusive, ‘we’ will get to know this new ‘other’. The abstract idea of a ‘refugee’ – formed by television images and newspaper titles – will become a face, a concrete life experience. This encounter will provide an opportunity to rethink the fear and the discomfort, to question the headlines and to see the humanity of the other. Museums, through their collections and the stories they preserve, can remind us that this is not something new. The past – and all that is right and wrong in it – can be used to think about the present and the society we wish to build for the future.

So, rather than assuming an assistentialist position, offering support in tasks performed by other sectors, museums should think about their own role and their specific contribution, one that no other organisation can provide in the collective effort that will be the reception and inclusion of refugees in Portugal. At the same time, this contribution can not be made without recourse to other specialties, from other sectors, which can help museums build their action with the sensitivity, the deep knowledge and the attention this situation requires. Because we can not forget that we are going to deal with people whose world, as they knew it, changed forever; people who have been traumatised, abused, who lost their homes, family and friends. The responsibility is enormous.

We often state that museums have to do with our cultural heritage, our identity, our collective memory; thy have to do with the past, present and future; they are places of knowledge, of encounter, of dialogue; they promote respect and tolerance; they have an educational role and a social role. Situations like that of the refugees put to the test, in a very concrete and demanding way, the perception we have of our work and its impact on society. Museums will not solve the political issues that led to the current refugee crisis. They do have, though, the tools that will allow us to critically reflect on this situation, to think about our role as museum professionals and as citizens in general, to create a place of encounter for the promotion of inclusion, to envision the society we wish to build: civilized, tolerant, open, critical and human. Yes, in this, museums do have a clear role to play.

Article originally published in Portuguese in the Boletim ICOM Portugal, Series III, Nr. 5, Jan 2016, p.13