Multaka is Arabic for Meeting Point. Multaka is the link between the past, the present and the future.
A project called Multaka, initiated by the Museum for Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in 2015 - at the height of the migration crisis in Europe - has turned the Museum into a magnet for bringing diverse groups together to reinterpret collections through their own stories and experiences. Multaka challenges pre-established knowledge, creates opportunities to re-version the past and to imagine the world as it might otherwise be.
Inspired by this project, and in keeping with our mission to facilitate inclusive learning through participation, experience and dialogue, we went to Berlin to interview Hussam Zahim Mohammed, one of 22 guides of the Multaka project, most of whom are themselves refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The ‘Refugee Guides’ (as they are known) regularly bring diverse visiting groups together into the Museum – refugees, new-comers, tourists and locals. By focusing on particular objects in the collection and through story-telling, improvisation, inquiry and generosity, they spark conversation based on ideas that emerge from looking at these objects, mostly inspired by personal histories and reflections on past and present.
This new way of being in a museum, of looking at collections, creates an opportunity to rethink the museum as a structure of tolerance, a structure that supports diversity.
The Multaka project was initiated by the Museum for Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum  in 2015, at the height of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’, whereby Germany in particular had been the target country for flows of refugees seeking sanctuary, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The aim of Multaka was to generate a meeting point in the museum to encourage participants to engage freely and enter into dialogue and exchange about their personal histories and backgrounds, a process which was provoked informally by exploring jointly objects from the past. No language barrier, no registration, peer-to-peer encounter at eye level enabled thousands of refugees to explore the museum.
This process was enabled by refugees who became themselves the guides for the museum. With no specific knowledge of any relevant discipline necessary for a museum guide, the refugee guides, use their own intuition and imagination to create the conditions for groups to coalesce around objects as a means to connect with their past, present and for most cases, troubled future.
As Professor Dr Stefan Weber, Director Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin says: ‘Through experiencing the appreciation which the museum shows towards cultural artefacts from their homelands, we hope to strengthen the self-esteem of refugees and allow for confident and constructive connection with our cultural institutions (…) Meeting with their own culture in the museum made people proud and feeling respected. “Something that keeps your head up” – an Arabic proverb to express pride and self-esteem is mentioned often. Integration as an act of belonging is an active process and happens in steps when one feels respected. Multaka started a reciprocal experience by appreciations of the cultures of the Middle East at the Bode Museum and the Pergamon Museum and the history of Germany in the DHM .
Cultural self-affirmation is in the debate on immigration always designated as an obstacle to integration. We believe the opposite is the case: if one feels appreciated - feels included and not excluded - one can get into society much easier. Refugees conquer the Museum Island and make this country with its cultural institutions their own. The step in the museums and the active discussion of our common historical heritage is the first step to wave new threads of belonging into one’s own cultural garb. Democracy is based on responsible citizen participation. Multaka facilitates cultural participation and encourages this participation on the way to be an active member of our society. Through the depiction of such commonalities and the incorporation into a larger cultural and historical, epoch-transcending narrative, museums have an immense opportunity. In this way, museums can create a context of meaning for people and receive a new role and reliance in our societies’
Our Founding Director, Svetlana Sequeira Costa (SSC), interviewed Hussam Zahim Mohammed (HZM), an archaeologist from Iraq. He wrote his thesis on the Archaeological Museums in Iraq, History Present and Future. He lives in Berlin and he is now one of the 22 ‘Refugee Guides’ at the Pergamon Museum.
Svetlana Sequeira Costa (SSC): What experience does the Multaka project offer and what role does the museum play in establishing connections between people?
Hussam Zahim Mohammed (HZM): Firstly, it is about ‘what does the museum offer me’? What do I like most in the museum? Before I think about creating a link between objects and visitors, I need to understand what the museum does for me and then how I communicate that feeling to others. I enjoy a lot to convey my passion for the exhibition objects to newcomers. I love working in the museum. When I came to Berlin to work, I was given the opportunity to come in contact with the museum and to learn about its objects in detail. Only after that was I able to engage with the community.
SSC: But there is a traditional format of displaying collections in museums and a traditional way of telling viewers about the collection. So how does Multaka actually work?
HZM: We don’t do classic tours where visitors just stand there and listen. No, we don’t do that. What is important today is what interests the visitors have. We customize the content to fit the groups’ main interests. For example, some people like to speak about the history of an object, others about why the object is here. Some do not know the history, they don’t know why the objects are here and they need the information. But you cannot have one story for one group, you need to understand the group first and then establish how to talk to them.
Let me speak about my tours. We are 22 guides in Multaka and each of us has a different story. In the Ancient Near East collection, we are 5 guides and each of us speaks of different subjects that are historic in themselves. We all come from different backgrounds: Art, architecture, Archaeology, Society…For example, I speak to people about how the objects came from Iraq and others speak how the German people or the scientists deal with this object. Still others speak about how the German curators present the objects to the society and each one has a story, but it still is in relation with the group – it’s about the group not about the guide. And for the people visiting, this is also important because when they come to us, they know that we are not experts in this. If you will ask visitors, they will tell you that our tours have a different dynamic. I think, if people can talk about what they are really interested and passionate about and about how they feel about it, they will engage more, and this makes the tour important because when you discuss something then, the participants take something back with them after the tour.
SSC: Even if the history of the object is not essential, it is still about the museum and still about the object – so what happens in that space, what stays?
HZM: I start by telling a story and the type of questions asked will depend on the education of the person asking. Sometimes they ask me: who does this belong to? Iraq or Germany? I have to deal with the question! We all have to deal with this question in Multaka! I know about the history of the archaeological museum in Iraq and so I know what to say to people when they come, and they ask me these questions like for example why is this object not in Iraq? I have to give them my opinion as to why the objects are right here, right now.
SSS: Is that your opinion, or is that a museum guideline?
HZM: It is my opinion!
SSC: Is the Museum happy for you and your colleagues to generate open discussions about the provenance of objects and their history?
HZM: This is a fact! If I say that the object does not belong to this museum that is not the reality! Because the object became part of the museum due to several events in history. Everyone knows that this object comes from the time of the Ottoman Empire... Some objects were given as a gift, or depending on the time of history, others weren’t given. And others were transported also after 1920, the colonization time. And this for me is problematic, because when I speak about my object, I recognize that when it comes to this period of colonialism after 1920, they should save the object in the country of origin, they should do something for the people, to give the object back to its people and not take it from them – so in this point I give the people a new thinking about where we are and why we speak about this. Because our visitors say, all this should go back to the original countries. At first, we have to understand the history and consider each period of it, then we can start talking about it – also the same with Syria.
SSC: How do people feel about this process?
HZM: There are mainly two reactions – some of the visitors agree with our ideas, others do not. But we as the Multaka guides are not here to change their minds, we are here to give them new ideas – nothing more, nothing less. We discuss it – and when they leave, they might rethink it.
SSC: Do they stay with these ideas? What happens afterwards?
HZM: We don’t go after them to ask them what they think, but we know that because they visit us again and again, they want to come back. Some group tours are meant to take one hour, and they end up taking 3 hours! – and they book more tours in more museums! Not just in the Pergamon Museum, but also in the Bode Museum and the Museum of German History.
SSC: Do the newcomers share their stories with you?
HZM: Some of them talk about their stories, the experiences in their cities as for example when they visited the Museum in their countries, some talk about the excavations in their villages, some about their grandfather that worked in the excavation for example. We had stories from German visitors themselves – last time when one of them visited the Bode Museum in the DDR times! So, all people like to share their stories…
SSC: And what happens to these stories? Where do they end up?
HZM: There is Syrian Narrative Project – it is a digital project currently being developed. They collect stories from people from Syria about their places, work, excavation, arts, everything before they left. This will form the Syria Map. We are all part of the Syrian Heritage Archive project, which is about the destruction of Syria, Heritage, Aleppo etc. The aim is to collect everyday stories about the reality of life in Aleppo for example, a city which is now dead – totally destroyed – and when people come with their stories, for example my father used to work there, making bread or something like that, we record all the daily life.
SSC: Do you think that art plays a role in the question of migration?
HZM: Art is for everything. It is for connecting people. If you can’t speak, you can draw with other people – with hands and feet! – you can communicate with people through your work! Some people lack the words, and others who speak their language will translate for them. In our group we speak an easy language, a flexible language for those who understand, but also for those who don’t. Other guides cannot do that, they cannot simplify their language. I understand this because I cannot simplify Arabic!
SSC: There are many ways of sharing stories – but art, if it is in the middle, is it a magnet that pulls people around it?
HZM: I gather people around objects in the museum and ask a question. This easily breaks the ice and we start a conversation about it. It gives the participants the opportunity to contribute to the tour and to really engage in it. What do you think about this? Some people say to me: it’s normal, it doesn’t matter if it’s here or not. I ask them if it matters whether it’s 100 years old, or 500BC or even 5000BC and they tell me it doesn’t matter.
SSC: Visitors connect Museum objects to their own lives, not to the work itself, not to art or culture, but to their everyday lives?
HZM: Yes – and they also give me their interpretations or views about certain objects.
SSC: Can we say that a Museum is a Multaka?
HZM: Yes, I think so, museums are Multakas! It’s where people come together.
SSC: In your view, has this done any good for the Museumsinsel?
HZM: There are two benefits: for the people who come to the museum and for the museum itself. It’s a win-win situation. 12,000 people are registered for Multaka. It’s a little number for the museum, but these people love the museum and some of them had never visited museums before. In Iraq or Syria, we don’t have the culture of visiting the museum... this is a European thing. We don’t have this at home. In Iraq for example, you get 10,000 visitors per year in the National Museum of Iraq. Here, it’s 10,000 or more per week!
SSC: Museums collect objects. These objects come from different places and carry different stories. The museum is a place for stories. Do you think that the migrant communities see a similarity between themselves and the objects in the museum?
HZM: This question I cannot answer, because we cannot ask the participants during the tour how they feel, because if we go deeper into what people feel, we lose the link to the museum. I mean deeper into their personal stories. If we start to speak about personal stories, that are not linked to cultural aspects, we lose the link to the objects.
SSC: The object is the unifying point?
HZM: Yes, it is always in the middle of us. So, if we drift, we have to find a link to come back.
SSC: Objects as magnets for stories, for exchange, for solidarity?
HZM: Yes, objects are magnets for everything. But we need a ’cultural element’ to continue the conversation about the exhibition object – excavations, war, destruction, disappearance. We need something cultural.
SSC: Would the same be true in contemporary art, do you think?
HZM: I think contemporary art is not so much linked to history and if it is, it is often not directly visible, it often needs more abstract interpretation. I think for the objects in our museum it is easier for the participants to connect to and link them to their history.
SSC: So, only historic Museums of past have the power to connect?
HZM: No, not only historic museums have the power, but they have something that can link to our grandfathers, speak to our culture, about my great-grand parents, this is the culture that we can see.
SSC: And how about imagination?
HZM: Imagination is always part of our tours, reflecting and thinking about what the objects looked like in the past.
SSC: Do you feel that this process gives visitors a feeling of nostalgia, an urge to go back home?
HZM: It is not the purpose of the tour to evoke the urgent feeling of going back, but to let the group feel a sense of home. I would like that everyone visits museums with their families to understand what kind of culture they have and to be able to identify themselves with that. We have to find our identity and understand our history to be able to find our position in society. Many people tell me ‘you’re from Iraq… Ah, Saddam Hussein etc., etc..’ – but I tell them: look at my culture, look at what I have: Assyrian background, Babylon!... We cannot change the horrors that are happening now – the oil, the war, the destruction… but we can look back and connect. And I do my best to show people what we have and what we can take care of.
SSC: What is the lesson we can learn from Multaka?
HZM: Multaka is the link between the past, the present and the future.
Berlin, 29 May 2019
Svetlana Sequeira Costa
Founding Director, Arts Cabinet