Can Museums Create Common Ground in Diverse Societies?

It Won't Be Easy, but Their Fundamental Missions Are to Broaden Our World Views

The world is in the throes of a terrible refugee crisis, and we are in the middle of a national immigration debate here at home. Both show no signs of abating. As Europeans argue over what to do with the millions of people crossing the continent’s borders, and as American presidential candidates kick around immigration like a political football, it might be time, as the old Monty Python joke goes, to propose “something completely different.”

Cultural institutions are not an obvious tool for advancing immigration reform and promoting tolerance. In fact, many people see museums and art galleries as only for people with degrees on their walls and money in their pockets, and as telling stories that only they want to hear. But museums have long played a starring role in creating nations and spreading national values. Are they still doing so—and, in today’s global world, what kinds of citizens are they creating? Do they help visitors embrace diversity next door and across the globe?

To answer these questions, I traveled throughout Asia, Europe, the U.S., and the Persian Gulf to look at how museums are responding to immigration and globalization. From Singapore to Boston, I found all kinds of museums that help their visitors to learn about, grow more comfortable with, and even celebrate our increasingly diverse world.

Let’s take the example of the Queens Museum, located in New York City’s Flushing Meadow-Corona Park. Its rather small permanent collection of nearly 10,000 items includes memorabilia from New York’s two World’s Fairs, 40 years of crime scene photographs from The New York Daily News, and an outstanding collection of Tiffany glass, which was manufactured just down the street. The museum is probably most famous, however, for its panorama—an enormous model of New York City commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair.

The Queens Museum could have used these riches to try to attract residents and tourists who normally stay put in Manhattan. Instead, led by former president and executive director Tom Finkelpearl, museum staff embraced their location in New York’s most diverse borough and dedicated themselves to connecting with the communities around them, which are populated by many new and not-so-new residents from Latin America and Asia. The Queens Museum—formerly known as the Queens Museum of Art—now sees its role as being a catalyst for social and political engagement, which eventually also gets people in the door. In other words, after mobilizing the community, “we also let them know,” said Queens Museum community organizer Jose Serrano, “that there is a lovely free institution with open doors and great free art classes and exhibitions created with them in mind.”

Yes, Serrano is a community organizer. The Queens Museum has two community organizers who work closely with local immigrant artists, event producers, and community groups. They do everything from helping to create art installations on neighborhood streets to inviting community members to use the museum space for events, celebrations, and political meetings. They also run initiatives like the New New Yorkers program, organized in partnership with the Queens Public Library, which offers language and skill-based classes, and Cinemarosa, the borough’s first and only independent gay and lesbian video and film series.

What links these activities is a belief in the transformative power of art and in the role that artists can play in connecting immigrants and the broader community. When an art historian asks students in her English as a Second Language class to discuss female portraiture, she also teaches them about the creative spirit. The New New Yorkers program, said associate coordinator Nung-Hsin Hu, “is serving to create the community and its capacity to create.” Helping people feel committed and comfortable enough to become socially engaged in their communities (and beyond) is the overarching goal, whether the activities take place inside the museum or out.

To bring people from their local community in, the museum tries to ease people’s access to “weird things,” said Serrano, “so if there is an ‘out-there’ dance performance, it is paired with music that reminds people of home right away.” He added, “We use familiarity as a bridge to get people in and then expose them to artwork, too.”

The Queens Museum also wants to expose its patrons to one another. When a filmgoer attending the monthly gay and lesbian film series and a Taiwanese mother attending her child’s dance recital bump into each other in the bathroom, “it is like a little kiss,” said director of exhibitions Hitomi Iwasaki. Two people who might otherwise never meet begin to talk to each other or at least see that they are on common ground. The museum also works to proactively facilitate the translation between groups by offering advanced English as a Second Language classes where students from Asia and Latin America have an opportunity to talk to one another.

The Queens Museum takes its role in its neighborhood—and in the world—seriously. “We can’t just wait for cultural change to happen,” said director of public events Prerana Reddy. Reddy’s message is that immigrants don’t have to abandon their language or customs to become full members of U.S. society. The Queens Museum spreads these ideas by celebrating newcomers’ traditions and facilitating their integration while providing long-time residents of all backgrounds with the opportunity to learn more about the people who now live next door and the places that they come from.

I found the Queens Museum’s mission and practices echoed around the world. The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, for example, regularly hosts exhibitions on climate change, immigration, and human trafficking to help visitors understand that global problems are also Swedish problems. Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, mounted “Tea with Nefertiti,” an exhibition that critiques traditional displays of Ancient Egyptian materials by including such things as a sarcophagus made of Tupperware. One of the museum’s most popular shows displayed work created by local Doha schoolchildren. More people attended the opening then any other event, including the young artists and their beaming parents, most of whom were coming to the museum for the first time.

To be sure, what happens inside these museums alone is not going to solve our problems around immigration. And institutions are constrained by their histories and their collections—they must work within the parameters of what their funding, their origins, and their curatorial expertise and interests will allow. But museums are an underutilized tool in the various struggles for social justice. They can provide a space for finding common ground and for starting some of those conversations that are so difficult to have, but which are so desperately needed. They have to if they are to remain vital and viable in the 21st century.

Peggy Levitt is chair of the sociology department at Wellesley College and co-director of the Transnational Studies Initiative at Harvard University. She is the author most recently of Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon.
Primary editor: Sarah Rothbard. Secondary editor: Becca MacLaren.
*Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz.
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