What can museums do to get more immigrants through their doors?

Reaching out to newcomers: the National Gallery of Denmark. Image: SMK Statens Museum for Kunst (officiel)/Flickr/creative commons.

As the bastions of a local and national culture, museums can often feel steeped in tradition and history rather than the problems of today. Yet in recent years, this has been changing, with some museums embracing a social justice agenda, aware that they need to become more relevant for 21st century society.

As part of my recent work on how museums can address the pressing social and economic needs of immigrants, I carried out research in five museums and art galleries in Copenhagen, Manchester and Paris.

I found that museums have a unique role to play in providing opportunities for immigrants to learn the language of their host country and to gain employment skills. But despite ongoing programmes to provide these skills, they still struggle to attract less-privileged immigrants – and actually reinforce the view of museums as elitist places.

Part of my research focused on Manchester Museum, which offered two volunteering programmes for a diverse range of participants, including immigrants. The In Touch Volunteer Programme ran between 2007 and 2010, followed by the Inspiring Futures: Volunteering for Wellbeing programme between 2013 and 2016. In addition, Manchester Museum and Manchester Art Gallery provide regular free English conversation classes through an ongoing programme called English Corner.

Good for skills development

Museums play a key role in developing the communication skills essential for learning a foreign language. Their objects are particularly powerful in helping learners to bring their everyday experiences and life stories into the class – a strategy called “bringing the outside in”. A 2007 study of English language lessons found such strategies were essential, helping students to construct more complex sentences as well as to speak more fluently.

This process occurred most clearly at an English Corner session organised for a group of refugee women at Manchester Museum. One woman from Somalia, who I interviewed a week after the museum session, spoke almost solely about a bowl from her community used as handling object during the session. She obviously felt very proud that such an object was at the museum and that she was able to touch it and explain its different functions to others.

Butterflies welcome visitors at Manchester Museum. Image: tom_t.photography/Flickr/creative commons.

Museums can also provide immigrants with essential employment skills that can boost their self-esteem and self-confidence. Volunteers on Mancheter Museum’s Inspiring Future programme took part in ten sessions on developing heritage knowledge. They then worked for 60 hours in the museum galleries on handling tables where they were responsible for interacting with the public around a specific artefact that they could touch. The volunteers I interviewed felt privileged to be able to touch these historically loaded objects – it gave them social prestige and turned them into experts.

An independent evaluation of the programme, conducted by the Envoy Partnership, found these volunteering activities boosted the self-confidence of participants. While they all reported feeling low self-confidence at the start of the project, a year after the volunteering experience, most reported that they often felt self-confident, and even more so after two years. They said it was a direct result of the programme.


Some immigrants left out

But despite the importance of these programmes to help develop language and employment skills, most of them actually marginalised or excluded less-privileged immigrants or those who were not fluent in the language of the host country.

Even when programmes were organised with less privileged immigrants, such as refugees and asylum seekers in mind, they often did not come to the museum without being brought in. The official evaluations of the volunteering programmes at Manchester Museum confirm these trends. While recent migrants and asylum seekers were a target group of the In Touch programme, only 13 out of a total 203 participants had refugee or asylum seeker status, and 28 participants were of black or minority ethnic background, which could have included immigrants.

The successor programme, Inspiring Futures, no longer specifically targeted recent migrants and asylum seekers. Its first-year evaluation indicated that 85.7 per cent of participants were white – and those I interviewed were all from the US. The second-year evaluation indicated that the programme had become even more ethnically homogeneous, with under 10 per cent of participants from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The trends were slightly different in Copenhagen, as the programmes I studied – language learning and employment projects at the National Gallery of Denmark and Thorvaldsens Museum – solely recruited immigrants. Yet, those immigrants they did recruit were usually from relatively comfortable backgrounds. When immigrants from less privileged backgrounds were recruited, they showed weaker outcomes and less progression than other participants.

The ConversationMuseums must better understand the issues faced by less-privileged immigrants and the reasons why they do not attend programmes that target them. By developing innovative programmes to provide language and employment skills that tackle multiple forms of exclusion, and expanding their activities beyond their walls, they could start to reach out to these immigrants and asylum seekers.

Sophia Labadi, Senior Lecturer in Heritage and Archaeology, University of Kent.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.