Museums as Dinner Table: Dialogues on Immigration

By Sarah Pharaon
Program Director for North America, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

I’m married to an immigrant. My two children have Arab names, will eat hummus and baba ghanoush, and—if my husband and I can do a better job using Arabic in our home—will speak two languages. I consider myself relatively well informed, decently well read, and, through my work coordinating the Immigration and Civil Rights Network of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, engaged in the current immigration reform efforts being proposed by the President and members of Congress.

But in my household, around the dinner table, we don’t talk about immigration. And though my husband and I both have strong feelings about the debate, it often feels like we are museum visitors listening to an immigration audio tour, isolated in our separate experiences and never pausing to speak with each other.

Over the past two years, museum professionals from twenty museums across the country have committed to making their museums safe places for visitors to explore the historic context and contemporary implications of immigration alongside other visitors. They received training in designing and facilitating dialogue programs to address immigration issues in their regions and have offered programs at their sites to help their communities define how they can move forward.

Though the lessons have been many, a few stand out:

  • Even if your site does not specifically address immigration history, you may be surprised how your audience views your role within today’s debate. In front-end evaluation completed at the National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, TN), over 80 percent of visitors agreed that the NCRM was a good place to discuss immigration.
  • Programs aren’t one-size-fits-all, and the most successful programs are those that use the unique resources of your staff and site to find an entry point into the debate. At the Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, MI), the Patriots & Peacemaker Dialogue Project uses an exhibit on Arab and Muslim American civil and military service to explore questions of patriotism, immigration, and citizenship—asking participants to consider questions such as, “Can someone be patriotic to more than one nation at the same time?”
  • Those sites that are most successful have embraced ongoing dialogue with and between their visitors as an institutional philosophy. After committing senior staff to the project and hosting separate dialogue trainings for all of their education and interpretive staff, the Atlanta History Center (Atlanta, GA) is currently redefining its entire interpretation strategy and has already implemented dialogue efforts beyond this project, addressing ongoing issues of race in their community.

This spring, against a backdrop of increased government and public attention toward immigration reform, sites will gather to complete their training and explore how to continue their work together. We will sit around tables and engage in dialogue with our colleagues about immigration issues in our communities. When we return to our sites, I hope we’ll do the same at our break room tables, our conference room tables, and even around our dinner tables – because I’m tired of having a solitary experience in museums, just me and my audio tour. I want museums to be a place of community, a place of civil discourse, a place where we examine the challenges that lie before us and take that all-important first step of listening to each other.

Sarah Pharaon is the Program Director for North America with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a worldwide network of historic sites and museums specifically dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies. Previously, she worked as Director of Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and as the founding curator of the Arab American National Museum. Ms. Pharaon is a consulting trainer on dialogue and community engagement for the National Park Service, and adjunct instructor with Johns Hopkins University. She is the curriculum designer for the American Association for State and Local History training program, Strengthening Interpretation through Compelling Stories.

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