By Aleksandra Berberih-Slana

In October 2015, representatives of European countries agreed that the issue of migrants and refugees was their shared duty that demanded strategy, joined efforts, as well as solidarity and responsibility. In November of the same year the topic was discussed by EU ministers of culture who agreed that culture played an important part in the integration of refugees to facilitate their understanding of a new environment and integration into it, thereby building a more open society.

A decision was taken at the time to form a group of experts that would research how culture could connect people and increase integration into cultural and social life. While the European Parliament has been devising their own report, the European Commission offered organisations acting in the field to have a word. Five structured dialogues were organised, the final one, “Voices of Culture” focusing on the inclusion of refugees and migrants, as well as the role of culture in the process.

On 14 and 15 June 2016 representatives of various organisations gathered in Brussels. Considering the work that we do in our museum I had been looking forward to the meeting and with it the opportunity to discuss the topic, although it was considerably late to hold such discussions. This issue is nothing new for museums; we have been exploring it for a very long time as the issue of refugees and migrants has been present since the dawn of mankind. This is also why I believed that our experience could make a contribution to the discussion of these issues. I admit to have set off for Brussels with high hopes.

The very first meeting and address by EC representatives came as an unpleasant surprise for many of those who attended. Basically we were told, to put it briefly, that we were only doing it because the European Commission was bound to ask for the opinion of those working in the field,  yet they were unable to actually take it into account. Also, the European Commission is not empowered to affect particular issues or problems autonomously, nor to seek relevant solutions. Undoubtedly the issue of refugees and migrants as well as the related issue of culture is too significant, and our time too precious to make us all travel to Brussels from all parts of Europe only to spend two days devising the starting points and opinions for someone maybe to read through but certainly not take into account. This was exactly what we were told, although somewhat more embellished.

As we were there anyway, we spent two days tackling serious issues, such as: What are the strongest arguments which can be made by civil society on why to use culture as a key instruments for governments to deal with the reality of migration; How can culture contribute to new policies; What are best practices, etc.

The question that leaped out at me the most was: What arguments should be used to convince the EU to invest in culture? Seriously? Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants? At the same time, millions are flowing into armament for wars that keep destroying everything the cultural sphere has been seeking to preserve.

The absurdity of the entire project was demonstrated by the lengthy discussion on whether we should be discussing “refugees” and “migrants”, and whether the very use of these words excludes such people. Various proposals were voiced to use the term “newcomers” or any other politically correct denomination for both groups. The discussion grew beyond limits, thus clearly showing how far the gap is between theoreticians and practitioners. I certainly consider myself to be the latter. It is clear that refugees and migrants are impossible to cram into one group. However, it is also in the best interest of solving the current situation and the issues these people are facing, not to spend time deliberating how to call them. To quote Shakespeare: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The issue of refugees and migrants demands prompt solutions that would bring sustainable effects. And bring them last rather than this year!

In principle, the issues and problems that were only to be discussed in Brussels have already been tackled by many, including an extraordinary number of museums. It is a fact that much work has been done that the EU member states should have been funding and supporting for a long time, rather than only just beginning to discuss the topic. It is a fact that much work has been done despite culture budgets having been shrinking dangerously for years, alongside the dwindling attitude of the ruling structures towards culture. In Europe and in refugee camps worldwide, cultural workers have been working with refugees and migrants. So far nobody has asked us how we do it and where we get the funds. When this issue surfaced as a trendy topic to be considered, entire Europe was supposed to be ready for discussion. A discussion that would most probably lead nowhere.

It is a fact that new acquaintances and connections are the only thing I brought from Brussels. It seems that some projects might emerge from these new acquaintances. But predominantly, it is a fact that reality on the ground and personal experience is what has been posing new challenges and new solutions to us on a daily basis. While Europe is procrastinating and deliberating how and what to do, it is getting left behind and the situation is becoming increasingly out of control. But in museums we will carry on with our work – because past experience has taught us how to tackle changes. Sadly it will be in vain as we go knocking at the door of political decisionmakers – as they have not yet decided how and what to do!

Indeed the idea to hold structured dialogues is commendable, but everything should be considered beforehand, we should be getting ready for the future. Such and similar discussions at this point in time feel like extinguishing the fire after Europe has already burnt down.

Aleksandra Berberih-Slana is from Maribor, Slovenia. She has a PhD in history from the University in Maribor. She is mostly interested in the 20th century history of the Balkans. She worked at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Maribor since 2003. She also held lectures at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. Director of the National Liberation Museum in Maribor since 2006 and a president of the Slovenian Museum Association since 2015.