What can museums learn from agencies serving immigrants and what can they offer to newcomer audiences?


I have been visiting a couple of organizations who serve immigrants lately -mainly looking for mentoring programs- and I am always positively surprised by the fact that the person helping me has a strong connection with the immigrant experience. Often, these consultants themselves immigrated to Canada at some point in their life -at an adult stage usually- or they are second generation Canadians, so being a newcomer is something they can truly relate to.

During one of my visits to these agencies, I started to wonder whether the person in front of me would be visiting a museum over the weekend. Would s/he go to a lecture or check a new exhibit? Being an arts administrator who immigrated from Spain three years ago, I regularly visit museums in Toronto and I rarely find other newcomers like myself among their visitors.

I remember listening to a museum professional a couple of years ago lecturing  around how to engage newcomers in museums. The speaker stated the museum would not target newcomers who were not already Canadian citizens. It sounded quite shocking at that time. However, it is widely known -at least within the newcomer community- that it takes 5 years for a newcomer to feel confortable with their job, language skills, life in a new country in general. In Canadian terms, that means obtaining the Canadian citizenship. Understandably, newcomers are more focused on solving their own problems and looking for a job during those first five years in the country than finding time to visit a museum.

However, newcomers do have time to visit these different agencies serving the immigrant community so it does not seem to be a matter of availability. What are museums doing wrong then? What can the museum sector learn form these organizations to attract more newcomers?

Firstly, these agencies offer newcomer oriented programming, tailored to newcomers’ needs. Although the reasons for immigrating are extremely diverse, there is a common ground where day-to-day struggles such as language barrier, work opportunities, looking for affordable housing… collide. The programming focuses on those mutually shared aspects. These are places where newcomers feel welcome and confortable to share their concerns without thinking they don’t “fit”.

Secondly, these agencies offer help for newcomers provided by newcomers which normally implies their staff is very diverse and they can provide some assistance in different languages. Speaking in English is encouraged, though, regardless of your knowledge or accent. As I mentioned earlier, a high percentage of these organizations’ employees were immigrants at some point in their lives and that experience plays an important role when it comes to understanding what it means to live in a different country with a new language. 

Finally, the majority of the services are provided at no cost by these agencies while it can be rather costly for a newcomer to pay a museum entrance fee.

Almost 50% of Toronto’s population was born in a different country and over 140 languages are spoken in the city. Being internationally recognized as one of the most diverse cities in the world, what is being done to encourage these audiences to visit the museums? Programs such as the Museum + Art Pass run by the Toronto Public Library is one of the few examples. Providing free tickets to some of these agencies serving immigrants is another example. However, I wonder, is this enough?

Museums need to develop specific programming that makes these newcomers feel welcome, to make them feel it is ok to be there. Offering programs geared towards improving language learning skills (such as the English Conversation Cafe I used to go to when I first arrived in Toronto) or tours in different languages would be a great start. It is important to overcome the language barrier first.

But this needs to be taken a step further. The ultimate goal should be building meaningful relationships between these new visitors and the museum as an institution. Museums should be fully involved in the process of helping these newcomers develop a new sense of belonging in their new country. Museums cannot be agencies serving immigrants but they can definitely provide a different kind of help: a more intangible one.

A couple of basic ideas to illustrate my thoughts:

  • Let’s engage locals who immigrated years ago and ask them to explain to their own community what they felt when visiting the museum for the first time and how that helped them build a sense of belonging.
  • Let’s engage more newcomers into volunteering. Due to their busy work schedules let’s create special shifts which can be adapted to their availability.
  • Let’s design tours for different communities that can be offered in their own mother tongue. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is engaging Syrian refugees by offering tours in their own language. Let’s foster connections between the Canadian heritage and these immigrants’ own heritage.
  • Let’s have an artifact every month with an explanation in both English and a second language -the one of the country the artifact belonged to- and let’s involve agencies serving the community from that particular country.
  • Let’s take the museum to English as a Second Language classes -many newcomers don’t feel confortable going downtown all by themselves. Let’s partner with LINC/ESL organizations and let’s teach some English words based on a collection that might have belonged to different communities worldwide.