(Im)migrant Communities & Museums

Immigrant and migrant communities often have particular needs and interests in museums, including language barriers, a desire to feel like they’re a member of what may be a new community, or seeking a welcome space. Serving them offers an opportunity to enrich your institution and its relationship to this population. Museums can act as spaces for dialogue, activism and resource-sharing as current events around the world shape migration trends in your locality. The resources below can help museum practitioners understand (im)migrant experiences, learn about current events, and identify resources and models for community outreach.

Definitions

The following definitions come from The International Rescue Committee, as follows:

“An immigrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there.”

“A migrant is someone who is moving from place to place (within his or her country or across borders), usually for economic reasons such as seasonal work.”

“A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning.”

Personnel & Admin

Inclusivity towards (im)migrant communities must be written into the museum’s mission statement and reflected in every level of staff. The Tenement Museum recently expanded its goals and outreach in light of emerging migration trends and new immigrant communities. This article by the museum’s president shows the importance of using nuanced and accurate language in your institution’s mission statement to include (im)migrant communities. The Tenement Museum has been a leader in this area within museums globally. 

University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology hired Syrian and Iraqi refugees and trained them as tour guides for exhibitions in the Middle Eastern galleries, putting today’s conditions in these regions into conversation with the historical objects.

Inclusive Collecting & Repatriation

Smithsonian Magazine also wrote about the Smithsonian’s efforts to collect on the Immigrant Rights movement, including methods to build trust with immigrant communities as they covered the threat to repeal or constrict DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2019.

two women in black short-sleeved shirts set up a table of printed educational materials
Staff from the Center for Restorative History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History organize hard copy educational materials produced by the Center at the request of immigrant community partners during the pandemic summer of 2020.

Exhibitions & Programming

Many of the opportunities to engage (im)migrant communities involve exhibitions and programs. Multilingualism is one strategy to deploy in these settings, and Jennifer Cha’s research at the University of San Francisco helpfully evaluates multilingual needs in museums and outlines a plan to move forward. These efforts include school outreach to supplement language learning in school. Some techniques in this article could prove costly for smaller or lower-budget museums, but the concepts can be applied at a range of price points as long as the institution is committed to this important work, and the paper also suggests helpful general approaches to multilingualism while providing citations to other valuable research. 

The Citizenship Project from the New York Historical Society Museum and Library is “a major initiative to help the more than one million legal immigrants in the New York region become United States citizens through free civics and American history classes.” In addition to these classes, the project offers family activities, recordings of public talks, and art and history exhibitions — all connected to immigrant experiences and the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. A detailed account of a Citizenship Project class activity involving object interpretation can be found in this article from the project’s manager Samantha Rijkers. Similar courses can be found at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Tenement Museum’s award-winning Shared Journeys program is delivered virtually or in-person and links past immigrants and immigration trends to the modern experience, allowing immigrant language learners to connect to the history of immigration in New York City.

Members of diverse immigrant communities in a narrow tenement building hallway, with a circa 1900 costumed interpreter and museum facilitator.
A Tenement Museum Shared Journeys program in progress in 2014. AP photo/Richard Drew

This article from MuseumNext, “Museums working with refugees and migrants” covers collecting practice as well as interpretation of existing collections, demonstrating a variety of ways that museums can engage with these communities. Under the heading “Showcasing art made by refugees,” you can find exploration of collecting items to represent refugee communities, as they are able to tell their own stories through their artmaking.

Visitor Experience & Community Engagement

Art Space Sanctuary is the primary hub for museums and cultural institutions invested in turning art spaces into sanctuaries for communities across race, class, status, gender, sexuality, religion, who face policing and deportation. This resource offers a myriad of ways museums and museum practitioners can legally act as  sanctuaries committed to providing everyone in your community “art and culture without fear.” 

This article, “Pandemic-Friendly Ideas for Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees to your Community” from The American Alliance of Museums has ideas for how to reach and support (im)migrant and refugee communities during the pandemic, including driving or walking tours, more engaging uses of social media, and a community visioning exercise. The AAM Museum Magazine issue, “Rising to the Challenge,” explores how museums can approach engagement involving services like food and health care. While not exclusive to (im)migrant communities, this article demonstrates that museums can meet the needs of vulnerable communities.