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Multaka-Oxford refugee project at Oxford University Museums gets five-year extension

Multaka-Oxford volunteer-led tour at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Photograph by Ian Wallman

A £1m donation from Alwaleed Philanthropies will allow the innovative Multaka-Oxford project at Oxford University’s History of Science Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum to run for a further five years.

The project brings the rich and diverse knowledge of refugees settling in Oxford, many through forced migration, to the museums and enhances cross-cultural understanding.

Meeting point

Multaka – which means meeting point in Arabic – uses the two university museums and the collections as a meeting point to bring communities together, strengthening cultural understanding through the mutual sharing of art, stories, culture and science.

Multaka-Oxford changed my life … and it changed many, many things in my heart

Volunteer Dhamyaa Abass

The project began in 2017 with the museums working in partnership with local community organisations, including Asylum Welcome and Refugee Resource, to support volunteers from across Oxfordshire, many of whom recently arrived in the UK as forced migrants from countries including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

Multaka-Oxford Nowruz Event at History of Science Museum. Photograph by Ian Wallman

“In just a relatively short period, the project has deeply affected the lives of everyone involved with it, from staff to volunteers to community partners,” said Project Manager, Nicola Bird.

“Mutual learning and benefit are at the heart of everything we do. For the museums, it has transformed museum practice; it has deepened understanding of the role museums, and for the interpretation of artefacts from the Islamic World and beyond in the heritage sector and our communities, locally and globally.”

Supportive training programme

Planned with volunteers, the programme offers a supportive training programme including English language learning, skills development and focuses on collaboration to run guided tours of the collections in Arabic and English.

The programme also works with the volunteers to plan and deliver events, co-curate displays, enhance collections documentation and manage social media channels and the volunteers generously share their experience and knowledge. Since it began the project has helped to train almost 100 volunteers, many of whom have moved on to gain work, start a degree, or develop new aspirations for their own futures.

Multaka-Oxford collections management at Pitt Rivers Museum. Photograph by Ian Wallman

“This programme, which opens its arms to refugees and helps to integrate them into the local community through the power of art and culture, plays a powerful role in strengthening cross-cultural understanding in society,” said Her Royal Highness Princess Lamia bint Majed Saud Al Saud, Secretary General of Alwaleed Philanthropies.

“Islamic art tells a story of our heritage, which can be often misunderstood, the Multaka-Oxford programme bridges these gaps and brings museum collections to life. This partnership is a true testament to the power of art and role of creative industries in enhancing social development. This project mirrors the successful Multaka programme at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin which we have been proud to support. We look forward to a fruitful partnership.”

Alwaleed Philanthropies

The Saudi Arabia based Alwaleed Philanthropies are an international philanthropic organisation collaborating with a range of philanthropic, governmental, and educational organisations across 189 countries to combat poverty, empower women and youth, develop communities, provide disaster relief, and create cultural understanding through education.

The funding from Alwaleed Philanthropies will enable the Museums to recruit, train and support a new team of 200 volunteers from across Oxfordshire to work with a range of collections – such as scientific instruments from the Islamic World at the History of Science Museum and textiles, objects, and material from the Photographic and Sound Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Multaka-Oxford volunteer-led tour at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Photograph by Ian Wallman

The volunteers will bring diverse perspectives to these collections, sharing within the museums and the wider community, with a particular focus on engaging young people. Together with museum staff, the volunteers will also co-produce online and in-person events at the museums, co-curate displays sharing artefacts from the Islamic world, and lead tours and deliver object handling sessions, among other activities.

Intergral to migrant network

The Multaka team has become an integral part of the network in Oxford that supports people who are asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. This collaboration has led to extensive partnerships with mutual skill-sharing and support with the services of our community partners.

Over the next five years the project aims to share its learning and resources across the sector by establishing a UK Multaka network, offering informal mentoring support to UK heritage projects, sharing project information at conferences, and supporting the development of Multaka projects at other international museums.

Multaka-Oxford volunteer Hussein Kara Ahmed

Hussein Kara Ahmed of Multaka-Oxford at a Nowruz Event at the History of Science Museum. Photograph by Ian Wallman

Before coming to Oxford in 2018, Hussein Kara Ahmed worked in an embroidery factory in Turkey.

Three years before that, he was living in Syria, preparing to study law at university, but was forced to leave the country.

Shortly after arriving in Oxford, a contact at a local community organisation suggested he might like to get involved in Multaka-Oxford.

After eight months of volunteering, Hussein felt confident enough to apply for a job. He is now employed part-time as a Visitor Services Assistant at the Ashmolean Museum. Hussein saw how the project fostered a sense of intercultural understanding between those visiting the museums and those volunteering in them.

He says: “People here respect my language, respect where I come from. They like to hear about different cultures, and that’s been very encouraging. It has really helped me to feel part of this community.”

Multaka-Oxford volunteer Dhamyaa Abass

Volunteer Dhamyaa Abass at One World Festival 2019 at the Ashmolean. Photograph by Ian Wallman

Dhamyaa Abass arrived in Oxford from Iraq in 2017 and joined Multaka-Oxford as a volunteer in 2018. At the time she didn’t speak English but the Multaka-Oxford programme and tour guide training gave her the opportunity to practice.

“I enjoyed leading the tours in English and loved showing visitors the objects from Iraq, Sudan and Arabic culture,” says Dhamyaa.

Dhamyaa eventually became more involved in Multaka-Oxford, running a series of popular fashion shows, featuring dress from around the world, to encourage inter-cultural understanding.

The Multaka-Oxford programme gave Dhamyaa the confidence to continue her English training at City of Oxford College and to explore further education. She has recently completed a Teaching Assistant course that has led to working as a Teaching Assistant in Oxford primary schools.

Dhamyaa continues to bring her knowledge and experience to Oxford University museums by volunteering at the Ashmolean Museum, where she is based at the Welcome Desk and provides a welcome to visitors to the museum.

“Multaka-Oxford changed my life … and it changed many, many things in my heart,” says Dhamyaa. “It supported my language training and encouraged me towards other education. Multaka-Oxford introduced me to so many people and cultures and made me feel part of a community. And if I ever missed my country, the project gave me the opportunity to speak about it and my family.” 

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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