Q&A with Nicola Bird
Eleanor Mills, 24.01.2019
Multaka-Oxford is creating a new model of collaborative practice with refugees
Multaka Oxford is a groundbreaking project spanning the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford that has enlisted refugees from the Middle East and Africa to act as tour guides and co-curators. Museums Journal spoke to Multaka's project manager Nicola Bird to find out more about the impact it has had since its launch last year.
How did Multaka-Oxford come about? And can you describe the project?
The cross-museum, cross-departmental project, inspired by the internationally acclaimed Berlin project Multaka: Museums as Meeting Point, is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. It was developed from longstanding partnerships with local grassroots groups and organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers in Oxford. Its main aim is to develop a model of collaborative and socially engaged practice by creating inclusive volunteering opportunities linked to two collections within the two museums: textiles from the Arab world and Islamic scientific instruments.
What tours are you running? What are they focusing on?
The project involves volunteers in every activity: accessioning and documenting a recently donated collection; late night event planning and delivery, including commissioning artists and performers; writing project blogs and tweets; talking to the public about the collections and the project; supporting administrative work; planning and co-curating an exhibition; and giving tours.
So far 10 volunteers have been trained as tour guides at the History of Science Museum. The tours are delivered in Arabic and English and focus on the Islamic scientific instruments in the collection. The project runs tours for community groups and the general public. Recently, the project ran a discrete tour for a local group called Syrian Sisters and their families.
How does the project help the guides?
The project has a very international team of guides – from Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Sudan.
The volunteering, including the tour guides, is structured to support a pathway towards work and education in the UK. As well as training and volunteering, there are regular review meetings to check the volunteers are building on existing knowledge and skills as well as being explicit about transferable skills towards future employment.
From the volunteers’ feedback, the project is supporting workplace skills and improving confidence and wellbeing. The volunteers have also reported feeling more confident in their English language and computer skills, understanding British workplace culture, etiquette and health and safety, as well as feeling less isolated, bored and excluded.
What makes the project really work however is the museums and their collections. The museums have captured the volunteers’ imagination and interests – they volunteer because they love history or have archaeology degrees, and want to learn more about their own heritage and that of other cultures. They play an incredibly important role in making the museums accessible, bringing in audiences, adding to documentation and proactively changing museum practices in display and interpretation.
How long will the project run? What do you hope its legacy will be?
Multaka Oxford runs out of funding in November 2019. Already, the museums’ directors and project team are meeting to discuss continuation funding. However, it the meantime we are focusing on supporting the volunteers to become part of the wider museum volunteer pool, supporting the gardens, libraries and museums across Oxford University.
From including many different departments across the museums, we will continue to approach the collections and public engagement activities more collaboratively with local communities, including refugee communities, and consider the social impact of their volunteer roles.
Quotes from the guides
“Multaka has been a second home for me, it is a place where I am not a foreigner.”
“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 ‘meeting point’ [multaka] for culture.”
“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-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.”
A profile of Laura van Broekhoven, the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, will be in the February issue of Museums Journal