Museums & Libraries as Cultural Meeting Points

Two very significant meetings for me during my fellowship were with one of the project managers at Multaka: Museum as Meeting Point initiative and two of the founders of the Baynetna: Between Us library.

Although both are very different in terms of location, delivery and partnerships, they share a similar seed in the way in which they grew from simple, often chance meetings, with the results growing quickly to produce projects that create and sustain valuable spaces for dialogue, belonging and celebration of arts and culture.

Berlin’s museums are one of its main selling points. The collection on the Museuminsel, and other sites across the city, draw in tourists from all over the world to explore all that they have to offer. It’s rare that you see many locals gathering to queue for a ticket first thing in the morning, and even rarer to see a group of refugees inside one. However, the Multaka project is changing this. Developed by the department of Education, Outreach and Visitor Services of the Staatliche Museen and the Education and Outreach department of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Multaka trains refugees to become tour guides in order for them to deliver tours in their own languages, for and with small groups of refugees, usually families and individuals living in temporary accommodation or attending integration classes.

The link between museums such as The Museum for Islamic Art and the project are evident; connecting those from these cultures and communities with cultures and traditions immediately familiar to them. It’s important to stress that the tours are open and discussion is encouraged. Is it right that Germany is hosting and displaying these artefacts? Should they be returned? Who do they really belong to? Subjects such as these bring refugees together with Germany to explore a shared history that although many centuries past, still holds relevance to the lives of those now coming to terms with building a new life in Berlin. Rassan illustrates one view of the many tour participants:

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From BBC article April 2016 – Damien McGuinness

Inside the museum, artefacts are used as catalysts for discussion. Heated debate is a regular feature of the tours according to the guides, but it is important that there is space for this to happen, and even better so within the walls of long-standing cultural institution opening its doors to diverse communities.

On the other side of the tour are the guides themselves. I was lucky enough to share a cup of coffee with project manager Salma Jreige following a brief tour of part of the Museum of Islamic Art alongside Dr John-Paul Sumner, visiting curator at the museum. Salma introduced me to The Aleppo Room which is now part of the German Archaeological Institute’s Syrian Heritage Archive Project. The following film explains beautifully its significance within the museum and as part of the tours.

Outside of the museum, the conversation between Salma and myself highlighted an aspect of the fellowship I was keen to explore, not just the the way in which arts and cultural projects can encourage connection with others and to society, but also how they can form steps for individuals to create their own career pathways within an unfamiliar economic landscape. Although Salma graduated in law, specialising in Human Rights, here at Multaka, she has found a focus on history and society that she finds interesting and relevant to her own experiences. The tours are opportunities for the guides to be creative, after a few weeks of training, they are able to explore which museum and which artefacts their own tour will focus on, developing questions and moments of contemplation for the participants. Salma’s own tour focuses on the Germany History Museum and highlights links between aspects of Germany’s history and that of Syria, also emphasising the role of women in history.

The success of the Multaka project continues to grow as popularity increases and demands continue. The plans are to offer tours in different languages such as Farsi, German and English, and to create more events and workshops that will promote greater cross-cultural dialogue between groups with different backgrounds. The various levels that these tours have made a positive impact, on the participants, the guides and the museums itself through continued media attention and awards, is a great testament to a well thought out and sustainable model that promotes mutual respect and understanding for those new to Berlin.

In a similarly central yet unlikely location, Baynetna: Between Us is a library on the top floor of a former luxury hotel in Kreuzberg, now used as temporary accommodation for refugees waiting for permanent housing in the city. The initial idea for the library came about when student Muhannad Quaiconie met journalist Ines Kappert. Muhannad’s frustration at not having any books to read in his native language, Arabic, led them to develop the idea of creating Berlin’s first Arabic language library. At the same time it became evident that others in the city were feeling this same frustration and longed for literature they could identify with. Meeting with Muhannad and co-founder Dana Haddad one Monday evening I was able to visit the library and get to know some of the other family of co-founders at Baynetna who are developing the space into a hub of culture and creativity for Arabic-speaking artists in the city.

Following the initial spark for the idea, the group behind the library were picked as one of 15 organisations that would inhabit the top two floors of the refugee shelter known as Die ZUsammenKUNFT (collaboration) led by ZK/U the Centre for Art and Urbanistics. A fortunate collaboration with architecture students from the Technical University of Berlin enabled founders to work together with students to create a space that was functional and welcoming. The book shelves are on wheels and can be moved to suit different occasions, chairs and tables convert into a stage, perfect for reading and music events.

The library is great example of partnership work and funding structures enabling sincere and creative ideas to flourish. At present, the future of the library’s location is uncertain, however, the commitment of those coordinating its development is unshakable, it’s pretty certain that the project will grow as a nurturing space for the many people in Berlin seeking access to and connection with their native language and literature. Regular events, sustained support and continued media attention is giving all the right indicators for the library to function as a cultural hub, responding directly to the needs of literature enthusiasts and artists across the city.

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Images courtesy of  Technical University of Berlin

 

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