Multaka: Museums as Meeting Point is a project that aims to facilitate intercultural exchange, through active cultural participation of people with migration and/or refugee experience.
Initiated by the Museum of Islamic Art in 2015, the project is a cooperation between the Museum of Islamic Art, The Ancient Near East Museum, Bode Museum and the German Historical Museum. Multaka – Arabic for “meeting point” – bridges different historical periods as well as old and new places, by creating a dialogue through guided encounters between exhibits and a diverse audience. Through the acknowledgment of one’s own cultural heritage, knowledge, and language, as well as reclaiming agency by the Arabic and Persian-speaking Guides, the project aims to diversify the narratives in the cultural sphere and to enable confident and constructive connection with cultural institutions. More than 30 Guides were trained within Multaka Berlin, 16 of which are still active with the project.
Out of the belief in the social and political role of cultural institutions, the Multaka project was born in the midst of the debates that followed flight, migration, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people during 2015, and their resettlement in Germany. The starting point and objective of the project was to have a positive and effective role in the new constellation of Berlin and to counteract presumptions and negative narratives on migration. Multaka (Arabic for “meeting point”) intends to create an open space in which museums become – literally – a meeting point and to achieve an active cultural participation through the diversification of the museums’ structures. It reaches out to unaddressed communities as well as to support the exchange and shifting of diverse perspectives. Furthermore, it aims to facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences and to build cultural bridges.
In December 2015 the Museum of Islamic Art, in cooperation with three other museums, started this project. In collaboration with the department of “Education, Outreach and Visitor Services” of the Berlin State Museums and the “Education and Outreach” department of the German Historical Museum, a training program for the guides-to-be was fleshed out, based around the themes of the museums and issues of didactics and methodology.
As part of the project people with migration and/or refugee experience from Syria and Iraq, and the later on (in 2020) from Afghanistan and Iran, were trained as museum guides so they could lead interactive museum tours for other diaspora members in their native language.
In total more than 30 Guides were trained within Multaka Berlin, 16 of which are still active with the project.
“Multaka” should be conceived of as an opportunity to foster the growth of new structures of understanding and acceptance in a heterogeneous and ethnically diverse society.
Museums as a space for transcultural dialogue
Through the acknowledgment of one’s own cultural heritage, knowledge and language, as well as reclaiming agency by diaspora communities, the Museum hopes to present diverse perspectives and to empower the position of persons with migration/refugee experience in the cultural sphere. Moreover, it attempts to enable confident and constructive connection with cultural institutions, while diversifying the museums structures; both staff and visitor wise.
By addressing visitors in clear and simple language aimed at all age groups and using peer-to-peer communication, the Multaka project hopes to facilitate cultural participation of people with various cultural and academic backgrounds. Through encounters in the museums, people are encouraged to find social and cultural points of connection, and are invited to actively participate in the public social and cultural sphere.
With access to numerous events, such as workshops, talks or special guided tours, people who have resettled in Berlin as well as locals, are provided with an additional context of interactions and dialogue, in addition to working with one another, and with people with different biographies and collectively creating artifacts. In this way, right from the start, a point of vision is fostered in which cultural and historical activities are integrated into people’s own lived reality as an element of a productive organization of leisure time, and an enrichment of day-to-day life.
Diversity within Diversity
To counter the hegemony of one narrative on art and history and to reach out to new groups of visitors in an ever-changing society, diversity needs to start from within cultural institutions. We need to call things as they are and make institutionalized structures and mechanisms that support intersectional discrimination visible. Multaka aims to change existing structures as well as thought patterns since it provides various stories seen from different angles and implements guided tours in Arabic and Farsi/Dari. This is at least a contribution to the accessibility of culture as well as a clear statement that our society consists of multiple perspectives.
In addition, the Multaka team members have diverse academic and professional biographies, that enables them to tackle issues from various perspectives. The Multaka guides have studied and/or worked on architecture, economy, law, social and political sciences, music, art history and archeology. This diversity ensures the presence of even more perspectives within any exhibition.
Building Bridges Beyond Time and Geography
The tours focus on historical and cultural connections between Germany and Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Through the depiction of such commonalities and the incorporation into a larger cultural and historical, epoch-transcending narrative, museums have the immense opportunity to function as a connecting link between the Newcomers’ countries of origin and their new host country.
The four involved museums are in direct vicinity and cover history from the ancient Middle East, Byzantium, and the Islamic Period to more recent German history. Thus, they connect the cultural heritage of countries of origin with the history of the country of resettlement through artistic and historical parallels. With dialogue and discussion, guides help visitors explore the museums and their objects’ while providing their personal perspectives and achieving relevance. The free of charge and registration tour concept, the abolishment of the language barrier as well as peer-to-peer encounter enables thousands of people to explore the museums through the Multaka Tours.
Cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean region were characterized over the centuries by religiously and ethnically plural societies, which today are under threat. Museums are memorial sites of a common past, the displayed objects are artifacts of entanglement and migration influenced through the centuries. These artifacts can representatively demonstrate that migration is neither an exception nor an anomaly, but historical normality that constantly influences our society.
The guided tours make questions around historical objects relevant to contemporary debates, in order to establish a connection between the past and the present. In the process, the guides incorporate the visitors into the process of observing and interpreting the objects. In this way, through the mutual dialogue and the consideration of their own history, the visitors become active participants.
People and Concepts on the move
The program has been extremely successful and was able to reach several thousands of people from different communities. Great national and international media coverage has been generated. This success has led to five different prices, amongst which is a special recognition by Museums and Heritage in London 2018, as well as the creation of the Multaka International Network in 2019.
The network consists of twenty-nine different Museums in Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland, Spain and Greece and has trained a total of one-hundred-thirty guides and cultural mediators. In addition, the Multaka coordination team is always in contact with many museums and cultural institutions for the sake of implementing the project’s concept across Europe. Expanding the Multaka project Germany-wide is planned and preliminary round-table discussions were held in different smaller cities to consider the feasibility of the implementation in cultural institutions in the peripheries.
Through the depiction of such commonalities and the incorporation into a larger cultural and historical, epoch-transcending narrative, museums have the immense opportunity to function as a connecting link between the refugees’ countries of origin and their new host country, in order to create a context of meaning for their lives here. In our case we are happy to have the grand narrative through the four museums very close by. However, there are key narratives that function anywhere:
- Migration: No object in our museums exists without migration – every object is an expression of transregional connection and migration: the exchange of techniques, thoughts, pattern, fashions, and ideas is the base of each narrative. No object and no subject in our society can be explained by rigid culturalistic maps. Where does iron come from? Or where does the alphabet come from? What about paper, gunpowder, the telephone, your jeans? Look at our lives: they are all about migration (and trade). No single thread of our cloth is pure and only German, Syrian, and British etc.
- Shared heritage: The specific history of exchange of our cultures and what came from the Middle East may help to understand that none of us would be as he is without the other. The list from the Middle East is long: science, philosophy, ceramic techniques like luster and blue white, paper, the game of chess, the oud as mother of the modern guitar (without the oud no Jimmy Hendrix or John Lennon) etc. It is a long list also the other way around. Many cultural realities are interwoven and both sides of the Mediterranean were formative for each other over very many centuries.
- Common threads in history: what are the common historical experiences? For example, the birth of our cultures from late antiquities or the drastic change of patterns of life during the 19th and 20th century modern period are closely interconnected phases of our developments. They are not the same but they are entangled. Parallel and connected histories of human experience could focus on specific topics on a meta level like, love, war, living, social order etc. on structures of interactions like trade and war (the Silk-Road or the Mediterranean).
- Contact zones: historical and cultural connections between Germany, Syria and Iraq. Exchange from that period of Carl the Great and Harun al-Rashid, the Staufer Frederic II and Sultan Kamil, Wilhelm II and Abdülhamid II. The heritage of Islam in Europe in Sicily, Spain and the Balkans. Court culture along the Mediterranean in the 12th/13th C. etc. Venice and the trade with the Middle East. The Crusaders as culture transfer etc.
- Identity: By discussing the experience of discovering the intercultural networks of objects, often self-awareness may arise in the assessment of visitors’ own cultural identity. In times of social uncertainty and increasing culturalistic exclusion, cultural pluralism can be seen as a positive development. Objects from the past then function as reflective spaces and allow for the negotiation of collective identities. How were ideas in art, music, science and history exchanged over the centuries? Where are our origins? We give concrete examples and unusual answers to the question of “who am I and who are you”. We are in urgent need for that given the raising phenomena on excluding right-wing populism or religious fanaticism.
Read more about the Multaka-Concept of Prof. Dr. Stefan Weber (Director of the Museum for Islamic Art).