We publish with pleasure an excerpt from a talk given at the Isreal Museum in Jerusalem in 2015 by Petra Zwaka, Head of Cultural Affairs in Berlin-Tempelhof-Schöneberg and Director of the Jugend Museum.
The Youth Museum in Berlin as physical space for intercultural experience
The Youth Museum was founded in 1994. In a time where a lot of children’s museums started to exist. In Germany it was the same time when xenophobia had been on the rise since the fall of the Wall, and had reached its first apex with arson attacks on homes for asylum-seekers. So, one of our very first projects was to start developing programs for children and youth in the neighbourhood to initiate sensible dialogue between the cultures. Instead of talking with the children about a “problem” we undertook historical exploration in the museum and in the city itself, tying historical narratives in.
History serves not only to widen our scope of knowledge, it is also a body of thought bearing multiple perspectives and raising ever new questions. After these projects, we realized that more of such encounters were needed to provide children and adolescents of different backgrounds with a safe and creative environment, where they could make learning experiences together and test each other out. For this reason we developed lots of creative ways to encourage children and teen-agers of diverse backgrounds to actively participate in the museum program and in society.
Almost everything we do has something to do with history and the children’s relationship to their everyday environment. We explore history in the museum and in urban spaces, combining historical narrative with artistic and multi-media forms of expression. The methodological approach underlying all our projects is enquiring-explorative learning. The children decide for themselves what their research interest are and how to acquire new knowledge. In response to our question why teen-agers of non-German descent should be at all interested in German history, we almost always hear the same answer: “Because we were born here, and we want to know what happened here in the past!”
That we are talking here about 3rd or 4th generation children means that they are all coming with a similar rudimentary understanding of history, just like the children of German descent. Let me give you some examples how we try to get children and young people of diverse backgrounds engaged in and excited about history. 3 There seems to be no “special method” necessary to address immigrant children. But this certainly does not mean that the “multiplicity” in the group can be left unnoticed. It is not enough for a teacher to know a lot about history, they also need to be culturally sensitive.
A marked example of why a multiple perspective is so necessary can be found in the way memorial days – a substantial part of the German culture of remembrance – are dealt with.
Born here, but not my history…?
Learning about the history of the country one has emigrated to is a widely debated subject in various institutions for the teaching of history. In 2005, we put on an exhibition on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War – “time zero. 2005 | 1945.” In the workshops which were conducted beforehand more than 150 students had the opportunity to make historical research on their own and present what they personally associate with the Memorial Day and how they associate their own story with the “big” history. How did this work in detail? For example: Kids got a box, each contained a “research assignment”, fully equipped with materials a real researcher would need – an interview guide for the encounter with eyewitnesses, a notepad to record the results, a camera to take pictures, a contract in case they get an original object to present in the exhibition, and acid-free papers and cardboard boxes for private photographs and documents. After four weeks of research in their families and neighbourhood the students came back proudly to the museum with their full boxes, containing now letters, photos, diaries and objects. Most of these were linked to memories and a personal story which they now could take as starting point to step deeper into a topic.
Such workshops have the function of memory laboratory: Who remembers what, how and why? Some of the kids didn’t bring any objects, they were sad, because they seemed to have failed. But they brought personal experiences which came along dealing with this topic. These experiences caused many questions and discussions in the museum, which were as meaningful as an object with a true story behind. Just like this experience of a 14 years old girl: “Which war do you mean?” a Pakistani merchant asked her when she was conducting her first street interview about 8th May 1945. She wanted to know what experiences he personally associates with the Second World War. For the girl suddenly it was clear that the anniversary was not only an issue for Germans. It also awakens memories in people of diverse backgrounds – memories of leave-taking and new beginnings, but also often of war, flight and deportation. These people are now living in Germany and see themselves suddenly connected to the national way of remembrance. For the student it was a remarkable experience. She understood why it is so necessary to be aware that the same historical event can be remembered differently, and that other historical narratives might be associated with it. This is an approach we worked more with in other projects. […]
Learning more about identity and the sense of belonging
Referring to the question: are museums places of cultural and intercultural dialogue and experience?, we have made it one of our goals in the Youth Museum to find the right ways of providing children and adolescents with ways in which they can take charge of their lives in a diverse society. For over 10 years, we have been concentrating on the history of immigration, working on it with young people and their families. Our most representative viewable example in this context is the Villa Global.
The Villa Global is not only an exhibition. It is an attitude towards a society where “hybrid identities” are a given fact, where people who feel they belong to several cultural spaces can change their identities as they see fit. We staged a house or living situation – the VILLA GLOBAL – whose “tenants” are from varied backgrounds. They aren’t presented as a problem group here, but as people who have belonged to urban society for three decades and who live here in this house next door to each other.
In the exhibition, 14 little rooms are created, by involving 15 people of diverse backgrounds as experts who now reveal their life-stories, with everyday objects, culture-historical items and pictures – a staged arrangement and point of departure for other activities. The Villa Global is made as a permanent exhibition and now the new heart of our museum. Thus, it fulfils a double role: on the one hand, for children and youth it serves as a place of information and exchange about life-stories and personal experiences. The other essential role of the exhibition is to inform adults about immigration history as a crucial part of the history of Berlin and the current living conditions of these people.
What makes a person interesting and what can children learn from it?
In our search for the “tenants”, the ethnic-national background was thus far less decisive than the qualities that would make this or that person interesting for children and teenagers. What similarities could they see to their own lives, what are the differences? For example Laila, her mother is from German descent and her father grew up in Lebanon. In her room you can read the following sentence: “I’m Muslim and I have a Jewish girl-friend. No one can believe it!”
Let me give you another example how this exhibition can work in terms of dismantling prejudices: One of the most beloved rooms is the room of Jonni. He is a well-known Rapper in Berlin and many kids know and admire him. Especially for Muslim kids Jonni is a model. He is smart, he looks great and the texts of his raps reflect the everyday problems of the youth. When kids look around in his room they can find out more about his life. They will discover that his parents originally came from the Ukraine, immigrated in to Israel, where Jonni was born. He lives now in Berlin, but he still has an Israeli passport. So, the moment the kids understand where he comes from, they are shocked and won’t believe: How can such a fantastic rapper be Jewish, he must be an Arab!
The Youth Museum, which I have just told you about, is a small museum. It works regionally and locally. But its potential lies precisely in the fact that its focus is so local and thus narrow, the subjects connect directly to the target group’s environment and that the small history instantiates the larger. It is narrow on one hand. On the other hand the authentic experiences children can make will widen their view and change their perception.
You can find the full text of the conference here.
Read more about Villa Global here (in German).