Multaka-Oxford – a new model for socially engaged collections practice 

The winner of this year’s Collections Trust Award is a joint project from two Oxford museums. Rana Ibrahim, Collections Project Officer at the History of Science Museum, describes how it works and what impact it’s had. 

Multaka-Oxford is a model of socially-engaged practice which works with two collections across two museums: textiles from the Arab world at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Islamic scientific instruments at the History of Science Museum.  

Inspired by Multaka, the acclaimed project in Berlin, Multaka-Oxford was developed with local people and community partner organisations. It aims to provide genuine support for forced migrants who are newly arrived in Oxfordwith the museums and their collections providing the ‘multaka’ or ‘meeting point’ for the intercultural sharing of skills, knowledge and experience between staff, volunteers and museum visitors. 

Opportunities for volunteers 

A range of volunteer opportunities were created with the collections to enhance well-being, build confidence, offer work experience, provide opportunities to re-connect with existing skillsdevelop new skillsand provide a forum to talk about objects based on their own experiences. A team of 56 volunteers31 of whom were forced migrants, was recruited and offered a supportive and responsive programme across the two museums. 

At the History of Science Museum, Multaka-Oxford volunteers worked with scientific objects from a range of different countries in the Islamic World as well as the larger Islamic scientific collections, such as astrolabes and qibla indicators. 

Volunteer Waed Alawad describes the workings of an astrolabe. Image: Ian Wallman.

As a result, the volunteers now lead tours and object-handling sessions, plan and talk at events, and provide interpretation of objects on museum online databases, so they and their responses are the public face of the project. The first image shows volunteer Waed Alawad explaining the workings of an astrolabe to visitors. This has challenged assumptions around the nature of a museum, its collections and their interpretation. 

At the Pitt Rivers Museum, Multaka-Oxford volunteers looked at a collection of textiles from the Arab World, recently donated by Dr Jenny Balfour-Paula renowned collector of world textiles and an expert in indigo dye.  The second image shows Pitt Rivers Collections Officer, Abigael Flack, and Multaka volunteers looking at a textile from Syria.

 

Alongside collections cataloguing and enhancement, the volunteers worked with the project team to organise events, and design and deliver objecthandling activities and museum tours in Arabic and English. 

Training programme 

The volunteers were given training in both Arabic and English, with regular one-to-ones and group sessions in specific skills such as eventplanning, exhibitions, public engagement, learning, administration and collectioncare. 

Collections officer Abigael Flack from the Pitt Rivers Museum shows Multaka volunteers a textile from Syria. Image: Pitt Rivers Museum.From the induction process to co-curated exhibitions and gallery-based objecthandling, access to collections and understanding the role of collections became an essential element of the Multaka-Oxford volunteer induction. This led to codeveloped session called Introduction to Museum Collections, with resources in both English and Arabic. 

Enhancing the museums’ understanding and interpretation has been key throughout the project. Collecting unique stories from the volunteers in Arabic and English enriches museum databases and sharing these as part of our online resources is one of the key project outcomes. 

The collection at the History of Science Museum was already recorded on its collection management system, so the volunteers were able to focus on the objects that resonated with them, and their personal reflections and responses. Supported by project staff, these were then translated and have become part of the interpretation held on the database. Other collections enhancements, such as photographs, sketches and podcasts were also added.

Engagement and outcomes

Existing audiences enjoy learning from volunteers and new audiences are welcomed through the project’s more inclusive practices – 1800 people have attended Multaka tours and events across the two museums. 

In total, 1200 volunteer hours have been contributed and volunteers report a positive experience of integrationpride in their cultural heritage, reconnecting with their interests in history and heritage, an improved understanding of British cultural discourse and English language learning. 

As one volunteer commented, “It is my first time of understanding the acceptance of new cultures. Seeing this meant that me, as a newcomer, I can also be accepted. Multaka has been a second home for me. It is a place where I am not a foreigner.” 

Museum outcomes include volunteer voices on object database records and at public engagement events, and museum staff have highlighted positive changes to their own and their interdepartmental practice in terms of the role of local communities in collection interpretation and engagement. The project is also influencing practice across all university museums and local authority museums in Oxfordshire.

First image: Ian Wallman. Second image: Pitt Rivers Museum.