Museums, Immigrants, and the Inversion of Xenophobia; or, the Inclusive Museum in the Exclusive Society

By William Westerman.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Current international migration has put the museum at a crossroads, particularly in Europe and North America. While the multicultural paradigm has become dominant in cultural circles, nativist reactions against immigrants has diminished civil rights and provoked an intolerance not seen for decades. The challenge for museums is to thus become inclusive and relevant to the framework of civic democracy at a time when larger societies are grappling with strong exclusionist tendencies and fear. The promise of global migration, of course, is that it opens up new pathways for cultural communication and the sharing of the arts, histories, and ways of looking at the world. Yet the economic reality is that migration provides the only tenuous bridge between the worlds of the wealthy and the poor. Recognizing it as such, and eager to protect their resources, wealthy nations and trade groups have firmed up visa regimes and expanded a security apparatus to keep non-natives out. While this is an ethical challenge for all citizens, it also dares cultural institutions to respond in ways that are informative, constructive, and creative. This paper argues reaction against Mexicans and Central Americans in the U.S., Muslims and Africans in Europe, and refugees worldwide is a call to conscience for cultural workers. Museums have a leading role to play in becoming cultural centers where multiple narratives can be told, where people can find safe spaces for cultures to mix, and where xenophobia can be overcome. But this will depend on unprecedented collaboration between natives and immigrants, artists and historians, academics and organics, and those with varying amounts and conceptions of leisure. The participatory museum can become a popular athenaeum, where culture and history form a new and unfixed dynamic that is ethical and truly interactive in a metaphysical sense.

Keywords: Immigration, Multiculturalism, Xenophobia, Museums, Social Justice

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.157-162. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 551.439KB).

Dr. William Westerman

Lecturer, Writing Program, Princeton University, Bound Brook, New Jersey, USA

William Westerman is currently a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program teaching a course entitled “Refugees, Immigrants, and Social Justice.” Prior to this he was director of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago. A graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, he has worked throughout his career with immigrant and refugee communities in museums, arts and social service organizations including the New York Foundation for the Arts, the International Institute of New Jersey, and the Philadelphia Folklore Project. He curated the exhibit “Fly to Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees” at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas and six other sites including the Smithsonian Institution. As a human rights activist, he works extensively on the issue of imprisonment of asylum seekers worldwide. He has recently founded Art Knows No Borders, Inc., a non-profit organization to promote the work of immigrant and refugee artists locally and the human rights of refugees and migrants globally through artistic programs.

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