Museums and Refugees: Shining Moment or Missed Opportunity

Jim Cullen

The ongoing conversations between museum professionals about social responsibility and justice, relevance and public value all compel museums to do more for modern society. The Syrian refugee crisis gives Canadian museums a shining opportunity to turn many of these words into action. As of January 29, 2017, a total of 40,081 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada1, with thousands more resettlement applications in process.

Alastair Ager and Alison Strang, the authors of Understanding Integration, suggested that Canada’s Syrian refugees need immediate assistance with understanding: their new rights and responsibilities; finding safe and stable homes and employment; accessing health care and education; learning Canadian language and culture; and forming relationships with their ethnic communities, with mainstream Canadians and with our government.

In her book The Social Work of Museums, Lois Silverman reminds readers that museums have helped individuals not only express their sense of identity, but also develop and maintain important social bonds with friends and family. They have built solidarity among people with shared interests and fostered interaction among people with differences. Refugees’ needs are paralleled by these museum practices, suggesting Canadian museums can meaningfully help with the Syrian refugee situation, if not all immigrants. Refugees need to understand their rights and responsibilities.

Jim Robertson of Red Deer’s Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Susan Burrows-Johnson of the Galt Museum in Lethbridge said their museums can help immigrants build a sense of place and desire to stay, encourage participation, give them the basis to make informed decisions and ultimately become pillars of the community.

The Kerry Wood Nature Centre partnered with the local refugee agency to host immigrant language programs, build vocabulary and give them confidence in interacting with their new environment. While not health institutions, evidence suggests that museums can positively influence refugees’ wellness, including a sense of visitor belonging and the self-healing that comes from telling others about one’s own life experiences.

Canadian museums will clearly need to address how to effectively provide all education in an increasingly cross-cultural setting and how to convince diverse audiences that museums can play a role in their life-long learning.

Robert Janes, the author of Museums in a troubled world: Renewal, irrelevance, or collapse? said “museums are notoriously ineffective in altering their work plans to address unanticipated issues and opportunities,” and recommends institutional rapid response groups to break this pattern, given that international refugee migration crises can happen quickly.

Partnering and sharing authority may be alien to many museums, particularly if they have little experience working across cultures. An effective service model for refugees, then, would seem to demand that museums work closely with refugee agencies and cultural groups. There’s a need for museums to build local networks and take local action, rather than expecting museums associations to lead this work across the sector. As only a few of them had been contacted by refugee agencies about the Syrian situation, Canadian museums may have to reach out and ask for help to understand the valuable roles they can play.

Finally, there’s a growing need for financial, human and transportation resources, otherwise adding new resources for refugees means reducing or stopping other ones. Several museum professionals said other benefits for museums in refugee work include the potential for developing larger and more diverse audiences, and how socially responsible work would build sustainable communities. John McAvity of the Canadian Museums Association said by simply opening their activity spaces to immigrants and refugees, Canadian museums could be one step closer to becoming “community forums” instead of “community temples.”

A huge opportunity exists for a focused and deep conversation between Canada’s museum professionals about how they can expand and share their knowledge of Syrian refugees’ specific integration needs. This could be Canadian museums’ moment to shine. As Jack Lohman of the Royal British Columbia Museum said, “We all have a role to play.”

Jim Cullen is a senior consultant specializing in strategic and business planning, with a focus on museums and non-profit organizations. He holds an Honors BA in Business from Western University and recently completed the University of Leicester’s graduate degree program in museum studies. He is a Chartered Professional in Human Resources and a graduate of the Getty’s Museum Management Institute program.

1. Government of Canada. “#WelcomeRefugees: Canada resettled Syrian refugees.” (Accessed 22 August 2017).

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, November/December issue, 2017