A Museum as a Stage for Dialogue: Expanding Museum Communities with Programming for International Refugees

I (Rose) had the pleasure of hearing Tara Lyons, Program Manager at the Buffalo History Museum, speak at last year’s American Alliance of Museums conference. I was impressed by how the Buffalo History Museum had seen it as its role to connect with newly arrived refugees and document, preserve, and share their stories. Below, Tara shares her museum’s efforts to work with refugees in Buffalo, New York. 

In 2009, The Buffalo History Museum created the “Museum Introduction Program” for newly arrived refugee community members. Participants experience guided exhibit tours that are English as Second Language (ESL) based. The objectives of the program are to utilize the Museum’s artifact collections to help new community members learn about the history, art, and culture of Buffalo, New York. The program defines key terms such as museum, artifact, and exhibit. It also discusses the general functions of a museum and describes the various types of cultural institutions that are in the Western New York community. Museum staff, docents, and volunteers explain “how” to visit the History Museum by exploring the interpretive exhibits and observing artifacts on display. Because many refugee visitors have limited or no experience in a museum environment, the “Introduction Program” identifies rules and proper behavior of museum guests; such as not touching the artifacts and keeping all foods and beverages out of the exhibit areas. Pre-visit materials are available for ESL educators to share with refugee students before the scheduled trip to the History Museum. Many teachers use the Museum experience as an extension of the classroom instruction and include the terms shared in the program as vocabulary words.

Free admission is offered to refugee tour groups. Many community agencies and resettlement organizations have limited funding and resources for field trips. Allowing refugees to visit at no cost eliminates any economic burden. Traveling to the Museum has also been included into the classroom curriculum as refugees must learn how to use public transit in Buffalo. The central location of the History Museum allows ESL teachers to include a lesson about using the public bus system when planning a visit. Video, audio, and images are used to communicate non verbally with refugee visitors. Complimentary museum passes are also shared with refugee students to encourage return visits with their families. Developing a strong, meaningful relationship with the resettlement agencies, refugee community leaders, and ESL Buffalo Public School teachers proved to be vital to the success of the program. Visiting the History Museum allows refugees to have a new experience in a safe learning environment and an opportunity to become more accustomed to their new community.

The Buffalo History Museum’s work with refugee audiences continues to grow. In 2011 the Museum showcased the temporary photography exhibition, Buffalo: Through Their Eyes. This was a collaborative project with Journey’s End Refugee Services and CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York. The exhibit included photos taken by newly arrived refugee artists from countries including Burma, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bhutan. Journey’s End encouraged clients and their families to participate in the project. CEPA Gallery provided disposable cameras and basic photography instruction classes. The refugees were asked to take photos of anything around them including their new homes, neighborhoods, families, and places of employment. Several hundreds of photos were developed and in the Spring of 2011, the Buffalo History Museum exhibited selected works in its Community Gallery.

The exhibit also included newly accessioned artifacts representing Buffalo’s 21st century refugees. Traditional garments of the Karen ethnicity of Burma were displayed for the first time to the public in the Community Gallery. Hand woven cotton and silk ceremonial garments made on the Burma, Thailand border were on display along with the photographs. The garments included a Ko Boe, traditional head wrap; Longi, wrap skirts; handmade Burmese made bags; as well as male and female ceremonial shirts. The dominant colors of ceremonial garments from Burma include red representing bravery, blue representing honesty, and white presenting purity. Ironically, Buffalo horns are an iconic symbol of Burma which signifies strength and courage.

Karen Artifacts, 2011, Buffalo, New York. Photo Courtesy: Tara L. Lyons

Karen Artifacts, 2011, Buffalo, New York. Photo Courtesy: Tara L. Lyons

Buffalo: Through Their Eyes was on temporary display in the E. Butler Library at Buffalo State College after the deinstallation at the Buffalo History Museum. The Karen garments are currently on temporarily display in the Museum’s 150th anniversary exhibit titled Ever After, which highlights significant artifacts in the collection. Ever After opened in July of 2012 and will continue through the summer of 2013. The Museum’s long term plan is to eventually include the artifacts into the permanent exhibit Neighbors, which discusses 18th, 19th and 20th century immigration stories into Western New York. Buffalo has always been a diverse city with cultural rich and varied ethnic communities. It is the Museum’s responsibility to document, preserve, and share the stories of 21st century new arrivals.

Tara L. Lyons is the Program Manager at The Buffalo History Museum where she creates community programming, facilitates educational exhibit tours, and curates temporary exhibitions. She received her B.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from Buffalo State College. She is expected to receive her M.A. in Museum Operations from Buffalo State College in the Spring of 2014.  Tara’s past museum experience includes The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York; The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy; and The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. She has presented her research on various conference panels including the AAM Annual Meeting (2012), Musuemwise conference (2010, 2011, 2012) and facilitated a museum education workshop at the Conference on New York State History (2012). You can contact Tara at tlyons@buffalohistory.org.


How has your museum connected to refugee populations? How has this work impacted your institution? What challenges did you face?

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  1. Elizabeth Spavento · · Reply

    I am so excited to read about this. I am a Buffalo native and currently work for the Public Art Department for Oregon state. I am inspired by Tara’s ability to make relevant programming that is accessible to Buffalonians of all kinds. I think that building strategic partnerships with local arts organizations like CEPA and communities in need is a great way to highlight how arts and culture are conduits for place-making and creating local identity. Thank you Tara and the Buffalo History Museum! You are doing important work.

  2. […] minds. Over the last few months, we’ve highlighted different programs (e.g. at the Buffalo History Museum  and CelebrARTE at the DAM) and frameworks (e.g. Intercultural Dialogue) museum professionals […]

  3. […] for refugees do not need to be limited to art museums, however. The Buffalo History Museum’s Museum Introduction Program offers ESL tours of the Museum’s collections to help refugees learn about Buffalo’s […]

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