Refugee-background young people and museums: Examining the literature

Sarah Linn, Olivia Hall & Caitlin Nunn

As part of broader practices of community engagement and a growing commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, museums in the Global North are increasingly undertaking participatory projects and exhibitions with refugee-background young people. A small body of literature is beginning to explore some of the processes and outcomes of these initiatives. As part of our project, we have conducted a scoping review (see selected bibliography below) into participatory practice with museums and refugee-background young people, identifying opportunities, challenges and gaps in knowledge related to this work.

Many refugee-background young people have experienced disrupted schooling, language barriers, discrimination and exclusion, which can create barriers to education and employment and impede opportunities to engage with cultural institutions. They are also commonly negotiating multiple cultures, languages, and expectations from their families, communities, and wider society, whilst navigating their own social position and identity in their new country. Yet, this range of knowledge, experiences, capacities, and challenges can make their engagement with museums beneficial to both parties, as well as to wider society.

Looking to the literature, research indicates that co-produced projects and exhibitions have the potential to influence social relations between refugee-background young people and wider communities. It shows that museums are productive spaces for meaningful encounters and collaborations with refugee-background young people. 

A range of benefits for refugee-background young people, audiences and museums have been identified:  

Refugee Background Young People

  • Honours and centres young people’s voices, knowledge, and experiences
  • Connects young people to their personal and communal histories
  • Fosters skills and capacities (e.g., creativity, confidence, leadership)
  • Facilitates a role for young people in bridging the gap between the heritage sector and refugee-background communities 
  • Improves language skills and employability

Museum 

  • Contributes to democratising the museum and addressing equality, diversity, and inclusion agendas
  • Enhances its role in the research, collection, and representation of forced migration heritage 
  • Increases relevance of ancient objects with contemporary, diverse audiences 
  • Further develops its role as an inter-cultural and inter-generational space of learning and discovery
  • Builds reputation locally, nationally, and internationally 

Audiences & Communities 

  • Challenges and addresses stereotypes 
  • Creates spaces of intercultural dialogue 
  • Celebrates and promotes different cultures and histories 
  • Deepens engagement with wider community heritage and history, and the heritage sector

The literature also identifies a range of challenges associated with this work. This includes practical and ethical issues relating to the form and extent of refugee-background youth participation and control in museum projects. There are also significant questions relating to the impact of these projects, and particularly the challenge of assessing long-term outcomes for refugee-background youth participants and museum audiences.

There are also some limits to the literature itself. Crucially, the limited published research in this field does not reflect increasing practice in museums. Further, most of the works that we identified were focused on a case study of a single project, with little dialogue and engagement with other similar projects. In addition, the perspective of the museum sector tends to be foregrounded rather than those of refugee-background youth participants and museum audiences. As a result, there are missed opportunities to share diverse knowledge and experiences of processes and outcomes, and to strengthen and enhance practice across the sector.

It has been insightful to engage in this literature and we are always on the lookout for resources that critically engage with this work, and especially those that foreground the voices of refugee-background young people. As our project progresses, we are keen to connect with others who have been involved in participatory projects with refugee-background young people and museums, in order to learn and reflect on the best ways to do this work. Please drop us an email (s.linn@mmu.ac.uk) or tweet us (@history_belong) if you know of any literature or projects that would be good to look at or connect with. 

Selected Biography 
Gibson, Stephanie and Kindon, Sara (2013). ‘The Mixing Room Project at TePapa: Co-creating the museum with refugee background youth in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Tuhinga,24(1), pp. 65-83.
Minà, Debora and Sergi, Domenico (2020). ‘Boat 195: A creative exploration of the Mediterranean History of Migration’. In Daria A. Agapova, Dinara R. Khalikova, Olga V. Sinitsyna, and Nana Y. Zhvitiashvili (eds.) Migration: Revealing the personal Museums practices and recommendations for working on migration, mobility, and diversity, pp. 139–144. Moscow: ICOM Russia.
Mouliou, Marlen (2018). ‘The museums of our discoveries: Empowering young refugees in an urban context’, Museum International, 70(3-4), pp. 124–133. 
Naidoo, Loshini (2011). ‘The Refugee Action Support programme: A case study report of best practice’, International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, 3(4), pp.83–90.
Sergi, Domenico (2021) Museums, refugees, and communities. London: Routledge. 

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