Nicola Bird on the new model of collaborative and socially engaged practice being developed at the Museum of the History of Science and Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford
Multaka-Oxford is a two-year project, inspired by the internationally acclaimed Berlin project Multaka: Museum as Meeting Point, which creates volunteer opportunities for people who have recently arrived in the city as forced migrants, and which uses the museum collections as a focus to bring people together.
Multaka – which means meeting point in Arabic – aims to bring different perspectives to the presentation and interpretation of objects in two collections: Islamic Astronomical Instruments, and Textiles from the Arab World (recently donated by Jenny Balfour-Paul). It also offers people who have recently arrived in the UK the opportunity to practise their English, learn new skills and gain work experience.
Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and working in partnership with local community organisations including Asylum Welcome, Connection Support and Refugee Resource, the project is recruiting 40 volunteers to enhance collections narratives, deliver tours in different languages, deliver public events, co-curate a community display and run social media channels. The project team are also tasked with supporting other local museums to develop models of volunteering to support social impact.
“The project team are also tasked with supporting other local museums to develop models of volunteering to support social impact”
The project derives from strong collaborative partnerships with local grassroot organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers in Oxford, developed over seven years. During this time the museums have co-curated displays, decorated an embaire (musical instrument), delivered family visits and community celebration events of music, dance and poetry. It has been dynamic and inclusive but as the partnerships progressed, we questioned whether we were meeting the needs of all the stakeholders. To paraphrase Community Ambassador Nuha Abdo as we prepared to co-present at the MA conference together in 2016: ‘Everything we have been doing with the museum has all been very nice, but it’s for the museum and it’s not really very useful for the Syrian families. What we need is jobs, to become confident with English and start living in Oxford, not just surviving. Our children are settling in school and now we must also settle.’
Our previous models of collaboration, whilst valid, nevertheless brought the museums’ agendas to the fore. For example, the museums wanted to activate the collections, bring in different voices into the displays; building people’s confidence and supporting integration were secondary aims. We started to ask questions: what was actually important to people and our local partners and how can museums support this? What needed to change to bring more equity into our relationships with partners? Why do museums only plan for the collaboration itself and not for the subsequent organisational change?
Since Multaka-Oxford began in January 2018, the project team has started to address these questions. First, we identified common goals between the museums and partners. So, whilst achieving agreed outputs – for example setting up volunteer-led tours of the museums in Arabic – we also measure success by achieving shared goals of social inclusion, building confidence, learning English and gaining valuable work experience and transferable skills.
Bringing equity to the stakeholders’ roles was a more complicated process. We now ensure that consulting with our partners, including Multaka volunteers, is built into the project through review meetings and the Community Advisory Board. We have also taken on our first paid Community Ambassador, who worked with us as one of the community leaders and who had previously worked in Syria as a social worker supporting Iraqi refugees in Syria. This new role recognises her professional experience, knowledge, and networks. She makes links into organisations that the museum staff team would never know, provides valuable insights into the local Syrian community and people’s thoughts about the project, and galvanises individuals to take part.
The volunteering roles are not just looking at the enhancement of the museums but provides a structured and bespoke training for people who are not ready for paid employment. The programme explicitly highlights the transferable skills people are learning. The project is bringing together volunteer agencies across the city to support progression routes as people move on. To further develop this, Multaka-Oxford is co-planning and co-delivering the first cross-sector networking day with the volunteers and partners which focuses on routes, barriers and experiences of volunteers across Oxford city.
“Multaka-Oxford has been the starting point for developing a responsive model for socially engaged practice, for supporting wellbeing, building social capital and providing people with the first steps into employment”
The project has also sought to think beyond its core activities to its impact on organisational change. Volunteers are changing the types of information added to collections databases; they are looking beyond factual information to experiences, memories, stories, songs, and images. Rather than engaging people in silos, volunteers from different communities and cultures are brought together, allowing a platform for intracultural dialogue as people learn together and learn from one other. One volunteer explained “Multaka-Oxford represents the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences through museums as a meeting point. Participation is especially important because it helps us see the beauty in diversity and brings about more tolerance and acceptance.” Involving museum staff in the training and inviting staff to work with the volunteers on events and workshops has also offered opportunities for the wider team to learn new perspectives and approaches from the volunteers.
So far Multaka-Oxford has been the starting point for developing a responsive model for socially engaged practice, for supporting wellbeing, building social capital and providing people with the first steps into employment. What has happened over the last 12 months started with collaboration and has developed into a project which is exciting and new and which is achieving impact that was beyond the original scope. Abdullah, a Multaka Volunteer explains “It is my first time of understanding the acceptance of new cultures. Seeing this meant that me, as a newcomer, I can also be accepted. …Multaka has been a second home for me, it is a place where I am not a foreigner.”
The Multaka-Oxford volunteers have become activity planners and deliverers, representatives and advocates, and the instigators of change. They have helped us develop the museums into a community space and realise the potential of working together to achieve common goals and a shared vision. “Here at the museum we see we share a human history and culture. We see we are similar. Through similarities, we meet together. The museum is really a [multaka] ‘meeting point’ for culture.”
Nicola Bird – Community Engagement, Oxford University Gardens Libraries & Museums, and Project Manager, Multaka-Oxford