Abigael Flack reports on her winning project
Multaka-Oxford is a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. Multaka means ‘meeting point’ in Arabic; the project has been creating volunteer opportunities to give individuals who are forced migrants work experience at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the History of Science Museum. Activities include delivering tours, planning events and producing a display. The volunteers’ involvement has enriched the museum’s understanding and narratives of its collections, whilst supporting people to build confidence, get work experience and facilitating community integration.
Multaka-Oxford was inspired by Multaka: Museums as a meeting point, which started in Berlin in 2015 and trained a cohort of Arabic-speaking tour guides across the city’s four state museums. I applied for the BAFM Travel Award 2018 to go to Berlin and share with the people behind the acclaimed programme. It was a surprise and delight to be the winner.
I gave a presentation about the project at the BAFM conference and being able to network at conference and winning the award was a real boost for myself, the museum and our project. Once I began coordinating with my Berlin colleagues, I discovered that they had also been speaking to a number of similar projects across Europe, who, on hearing that I would be visiting, all became very excited at the prospect of getting together in one place. My trip suddenly expanded to be more than just meeting the Berlin team, but a much wider meeting of Multakas – exciting and daunting! So much so that one of the museum directors took a personal holiday in order to join in.
Aside from the link to Berlin for my current job, I planned my visit so that I could also explore some of the wider interests that have been shaping my career development so far. Chief among these is reckoning with difficult histories and how to facilitate complex and possibly contentious dialogue within a museum setting. Germany, and Berlin in particular, has great precedent for displaying and confronting painful aspects of its history through public museums and monuments. There was a lot I wanted to explore.
On my first day I joined a Multaka tour of the Pergamon museum in Arabic. Co-ordinators, Salma Jreige and Hussam Mohammed, explained that the programme focused on its Arabic-speaking population of “newcomers”, and it was interesting to see how this had created strong community buy-in. Our tour was full of Arabic-speakers, many of whom had brought families. They were using the time to socialise as well as learn and connect to cultural artefacts. It was immediately clear that the programme has succeeded in its aim to bring people into the museum who may not otherwise have felt it was for them.
Afterwards, Salma expressed that, four years into the project, she is now keen to explore ways to engage other audience groups and to factor in “other sides of the integration equation”. This was an area I was able to bring input from Multaka-Oxford, where our focus has been about facilitating inter-cultural dialogue, and our project participants are from a wide variety of backgrounds.
The afternoon was spent t with representatives from other Multaka projects. We heard from Salma and Hussam and Dr Stefan Weber, the director of the Museum of Islamic Art. They reflected on their project so far and how they envisioned its future. It was very interesting to hear how they had initially skirted around the barriers of “bureaucracy” of the state museums by paying the tour guides and project staff through the Friends of the Museum for Islamic Art. This highlights the probably untapped potential for innovative ideas within museums to be supported through Friends groups.
I outlined our take on Multaka in Oxford explaining how my role facilitated access to collections and that I add the perspectives of our volunteers onto the collections database. Colleagues from Turin shared an inspiringly large programme of activity and outreach they have been undertaking.
The following day I attended a Multaka tour of the German Historical Museum in English, one of the highlights of the trip. The tour was dynamic and engaging, with our guide injecting lots of personality and humour. After the tour we discussed how being in the setting of the German Historical Museum had helped him put more of his personality into his tours. At the Museum for Islamic Art he would have felt pressure to be representative of his culture – to people from it. This was a real point of reflection for me. It highlighted the importance of empowering participants to speak from their own perspective on their terms, without making them feel that they need to be a spokesperson for a specific culture.
The rest of the day was spent hearing more about other international Multaka projects from Bern, Florence and Greece. In Bern, they have focused their resources in training up a small pool of 5 tour guides, and I could see how a programme of this scale would be quite viable within capacity for many museums. Florence’s Amir project has trained guides to deliver tours in 7 museums across the city and it demonstrated the potential for tours to open out beyond museum spaces, which was very exciting. In Greece, a take on Multaka is currently in development and, interestingly, being led by a new governmental department.
Finally, all the international participants started to put our heads together about how to move forward and build a Multaka international network. We all reflected on our own unique situations and how policies in each institution and country have shaped our projects. It was a point of consideration that the UK was the only project to focus on volunteering rather than creating paid roles; however, this approach has given us the flexibility to be responsive and provide tailored work experience for individuals. The group then focused on what common elements make all our projects “Multaka”, and how this fledgling international cooperation could be more formalised. I found this really inspiring and felt renewed determination to help take Multaka in the UK beyond Oxford.
I had the third day to myself and I had a long list of things I wanted to see and experience. I started by purchasing a 2-day Berlin Pass, then proceeded to make sure I got my full money’s worth from it.
I decided to tackle the “difficult histories” part of my itinerary, so made my way straight over to the Reichstag building and Tiergarten. Here, I was able to spend some time contemplating the famous Holocaust memorial, before doing some more personal reflecting of my own family history of migration at the memorial to Roma people.
Next I visited the DDR museum. It tells the story of life in East Germany, through multi-sensory and interactive displays. Visitors can watch archival videos, open drawers, see a Stasi office, or sit in front of a television inside a typical East Berlin living room. In fact, most of the displays could be interacted with in some way, and it certainly gave me some food for thought for engaging visitors within a museum space – it was also the busiest museum I visited.
Next I stopped off by Checkpoint Charlie and experienced a panoramic, immersive audio-visual reconstruction of the area when the wall divided East and West Berlin. I then travelled out to Bernauer Str. to see the largest remaining section of the wall and special visitor’s centre. The centre has 3 floors of exhibition space and a viewing area. It was really interesting to compare this to the DDR museum. There were screens for archival footage and listening stations for oral histories, which I really liked. There was also a lot of space dedicated to telling individuals’ stories in the divided Berlin. It definitely brought home to me the importance of contemporary collecting and capturing recent lived experience for posterity. This is something that I am keen to champion as my career progresses.
My final stop for the day was the Jewish Museum and its striking Daniel Libeskind-designed extension, a zig-zag building called “Between the Lines”. It was a fascinating lesson in the power of architecture to tell a story. Visitors follow sloping corridors that interconnect in places. Each corridor represents a “line” of narrative. In places are “void spaces” which open up to the sky. At one point a door opens out to the “garden of exile”: concrete columns with olive trees (a symbol of peace) growing from the top. The whole experience was slightly disorientating, at once contemplative and unsettling.
There was an interesting temporary exhibition called “A is for Jewish”, a colourful exploration of Jewish identity in Germany today. My favourite part was a section dedicated to questions and responses from visitors, which were presented as colour-coded cards which could be placed in chains from the ceiling. It encouraged visitors to interact with each other as well as the exhibit. This would be a great model to include in Multaka-Oxford’s temporary exhibition, which is all about sharing different perspectives.
As I was not flying out until the evening of my final day, I had time to explore nearby Museum Island some more.
My first stop was the Bode Museum, where I was particularly keen to see their exhibition ‘Beyond Compare: Art from Africa’. The main approach of the exhibition was to re-contextualise African art by placing it alongside European art exploring similar themes. I was really impressed by the interpretation of the exhibition, which was open in discussing colonial histories and the problematic nature of ethnographic collections – even questioning its own interpretive approach: “The act of comparing and identifying is not neutral but charged with socially defined prejudices, conventions, and constructions of history”. These are conversations that the Pitt Rivers Museum has been engaging with for some time, but is still bringing into its interpretation, so this was an excellent example to bring back with me.
What I really liked was how this approach had been taken beyond the temporary exhibition and into the main museum space. As I wandered around the rest of the galleries, I kept encountering labels with the distinctive pink cross logo. Gallery intervention labels like this could be a great next step for Multaka, bringing the unique perspectives I have been documenting into the permanent displays.
My next stop was the Altes (Old) Museum – mostly to see its famous collection of Classical art, which I had studied from afar at university. I was intrigued by a large wall panel showing the timeline of the museum’s collection, with busts of key figures. Questioning where, when and (most importantly) how museums acquired their objects is increasingly under scrutiny, and this format could be a simple way to publicly show this.
Finally, I visited the Neues (New) Museum, not just to see the famous sculpture of Nefertiti, but to visit the exhibition “Cinderella, Sinbad, Sinuhe: Arab-German Storytelling Traditions”. This was a trilingual display in in Arabic, German and English exploring over 4000 years of storytelling and the long history of cultural exchange between the Arab world and Germany. It was a great example of an inter-cultural display and multi-lingual labelling (something very important to Multaka). I particularly liked the use of storytelling as a unifying theme.
As I sat at the airport waiting for my flight home, my brain was full with all that I had been able to achieve in this trip. I had been able to explore and contemplate things that are important to me as I continue to develop my career. Most importantly, I had learned from and networked with international partners to a degree I never would have imagined. I left Berlin invigorated and with a renewed sense that as I move towards the end of the first phase of Multaka-Oxford, it has a bright and interconnected future, and one that I will continue to be a part of throughout my career.
Since winning BAfM’s Travel Award, I have been able to expand not only my horizons but my professional network, starting from when I accepted the award and attended BAfM’s annual conference before my trip. Being able to travel is so important for personal growth, but can be difficult to do for early-career museum professionals and volunteers, so I am immensely grateful to have had this opportunity thanks to BAfM.
Collections Officer, Pitt Rivers Museum