|At the Migration Centre, Oldenburg|
We spent a lot of time talking about the Shoah. If you are in Germany, and you’re dealing with questions of cultural diversity, cultural conflict and the presence of the “Other”, then that is to be expected. If you’re also talking about the role of museums, then it becomes inevitable. German museums, and the German cultural sector more widely, have a crucial role as the guardians of this “cultural memory”. Holding history and educating society about it, they are charged with ensuring that nothing like the Shoah ever happens again.
This is very important in understanding why Germany has been so exemplary in its response to the (so-called) “refugee crisis” of 2015, and the presence of so many new citizens in its cities since that time. A highlight of our week in Oldenburg was a visit to the city’s Migrationcenter – a space where refugees were able to learn skills and language in a positive, supportive and well-equipped environment, mentored by experts, with the real expectation of a place in the job market. We met people on the way to becoming painters, carpenters, metalworkers, dressmakers, hairdressers, warehouse managers, gardeners and cooks. The Centre Manager explained to me that the German government asked her to justify their funding on the basis of how many people were placed in jobs after training. It makes perfect sense: invest in new citizens when they arrive so that they come to be contributors to the social and economic space. It saves a lot of benefit costs and a lot of psychological pain.
The contrast with other countries we have seen during THE PROMISED LAND is very marked. In the UK, asylum seekers are still not allowed to work, or even to be formally educated or trained. In Italy, where the situation had seemed a little more positive only a year ago, migrants are now being demonised. The Reception Centre Opera Padre Marella, which we visited in Bologna, has been told to close by the end of the month. The young men who were living there will become homeless: Micaela from Teatro dell’Argine tells me that many are simply disappearing into a growing sub-culture, and will no doubt be condemned as morally degenerate when they turn to crime because they have no other way to feed themselves. In Turkey, where the situation is particularly difficult because of the country’s position as a holding place on the periphery of Europe, we saw Syrians being caricatured as terrorists by Turkish students, even when they were in the same room. France, where we will be working next, seems as hostile as ever to the presence of minority cultures.
Germany is different BECAUSE of cultural memory. There is a deep desire to be international and open, a clear moral sense of the danger that comes with “Othering” people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. If anything proves the constantly reiterated point made by the project team - that the problems faced in Europe around migration are essentially cultural problems in the host population - then it is this. In a society that recalls with pain and shame what happened when other people were labelled as alien, when it cast itself as culturally and racially superior, then that space of remembrance becomes ready for acceptance and peaceful co-existence.
Of course, Germany is no Utopia. There are clear economic pressures, and the threat of the AfD is very real. I found it disturbing that the refugees should themselves be the subject of programmes against anti-Semitism, because they come from Arab countries where there is an understandable objection to Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people. To subject these traumatised people to images of mass graves in concentration camps is not best practice in cultural education. But it was heartening to see at IBIS, a refugee organisation we visited, that refugees were being offered specific training in how to counter the threat of the radical right.
Exploring the relationship between Germany’s horror at its own history and the open culture that characterises its present, I perceive an extraordinary contrast with the woeful inadequacy of historical understanding in other European countries. Germany looks back on the Third Reich with shame: but in France, Italy, Turkey and the UK, an assertive imperial past is still regarded as a matter of pride. Much of the Brexit discourse has been around Britain being “a great country”, which still seems to regard its past global hegemony as a civilising mission. Our museum sector and our cultural sector need to learn from Germany: we have to reassess our imperial past for what it was – a plundering of global resources, both material and human, which has resulted in the grotesque inequalities that blight the world today. We have to confront the systematic massacres of indigenous peoples in Australia, North America and sub-Saharan Africa, the uprooting of people from their lands and the psychological wrecking of their languages and cultures. We have to get past the comfortable lie that the Shoah was a uniquely evil event in human history. It was conducted on an industrial scale that was indeed unique – but the underlying urge to destroy those regarded as inferior is common to the imperial projects initiated by European societies across many centuries: projects of which many nations are still taught to be proud. We have to develop a cultural sector and a museum sector that is inclusive and honest about history: that is what will equip us to deal with the huge dangers of the present.
So it was good that we talked a lot about the Shoah during our week in Germany. But, at the same time, I felt that the museums we saw were not applying the same sense of cultural responsibility to the present. We saw an outreach project at Oldenburg Castle, where a group of migrant women had responded artistically to the building, with some really challenging insights – but their work was not incorporated into the narrative of the museum itself. The Castle retained its identity as the legacy of a “great man” from the 17th century – there was no sense that it might have been built or run by people who were less wealthy, who might have been female, and who might even have come from somewhere else. Migration and the need for inclusion imply a new understanding of local history that relates the specifics of the locality to the international networks and influences that mould such spaces. We need to link the local and the global – a process towards which European programmes are well placed to contribute.
It’s odd to find myself responding in this way to North German culture. After all, this is the land of Lutheranism. It was here that the Bach Passions were created, offering a lasting example of “great art” that is also participatory, “high culture” that is available to the entire community. But contemporary Germany still seems to harbour a belief in cultural class divisions: a perturbing exclusivity seemed present in the museum spaces that we saw.
This brings me back to our evening at IBIS, and our morning at the Migrationcenter. In both cases, the refugees themselves showed us the way towards a culture of welcome. At IBIS, after they had told us about the centre and its work, we all sat down to eat together, and the young refugee men (they were all men) played music. They danced – and we danced. We danced together. The music was Middle Eastern, and the dance traditional. If anyone had felt possessive, then this was their culture, not ours. But they invited us in, and we participated. And this led us very easily towards the important conversations, to the human stories, to the empathy that makes for acceptance. One young man told me about his journey across a European border in the back of a van with 38 others crammed into a tiny space, unable to breathe. He talked about kicking the door down, about old people and children collapsing at the roadside, about the driver running away. Another man talked about an ISIS massacre, and the murder of his grandmother. They told us this because they wanted us to know, and because they were at ease to speak. A sharing of culture had facilitated this profound exchange of truth – this most basic necessity for social cohesion and functional democracy.
At the Migrationcenter, we were also invited to participate. The refugees asked us to plant flowers in their garden to mark our visit, and to write messages on the eye-shaped symbols they had carved, which were then mounted on sticks as an art installation outside the centre. I found it very moving that this should happen – that it should be them who welcomed us, and not the other way round. That it was they who drew off collaborative artistic practice to make sense of our presence in what had become their space.
Here is what I wrote on the eye:
The Eye is the Beginning.
Before we can encounter another person
chat with them
eat with them
work with them
vote for them
first we must see them.
In this symbol, the most basic and necessary act of welcome:
You Are Here. We See You.