As refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to arrive in the UK, some museums are adapting their programming and activities to help the new arrivals settle in.
Museums Worcester has expanded Glove Affair, its existing community engagement programme for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, looked-after children and Afghan refugees, to cater to Ukrainian refugees. The project, which is funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, was originally established to use the museum’s collections to combat social isolation.
Following the recent crisis in Afghanistan, the programme was adapted to support the cultural integration of refugees, helping them learn about British culture, improve their language skills and ultimately find work. Now the museum is running similar services for Ukrainian refugees.
David Nash, social history curator at Museums Worcester, said that while local authorities are able to offer immediate support to the influx of people from Ukraine, many have been unprepared for helping with ongoing cultural integration.
“It does feel like that cultural welcome bit is not something local authorities do,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like there’s anybody saying ‘this is what Britain is like’.”
Holding the sessions at the museum gives children a safe place to play while adults get citizens' advice and assistance with practical matters.
The museum has been hosting migrant surgeries and welfare sessions for Ukrainian refugees for several weeks now. Nash said many participants are keen to come back to the museum even after getting the help they needed from the sessions.
“A lot of their culture has been destroyed and they’re coming to an oasis of calm,” said Nash. “It’s not their key priority but when they’re settled here they want to continue that relationship and understand the culture here.”
After people’s immediate needs are met, the museum will build on this relationship by running workshops where refugees can explore its collections.
“People seem to love the fact that the museum is a neutral space,” said Nash. He said he has been surprised at some of the unexpected connections participants have made, like the interest Afghan refugees have shown in England’s civil war history. “They want to know what happens after a civil war and how a country gets back on its feet,” he said.
Museum collections provide a common language and sense of place, said Nash. “We can share a joke even if we don’t share the same language,” he said. “Sometimes telling the story of who we are and the identity of a place is quite hard. Museums have got that more than anywhere else and I think it’s a really useful tool.”