Building a Network of Museums to Defend Democracy through Education

EWC brought together 56 museum educators from 10 European countries to explore how museums can respond to threats against democracy in Europe and help young citizens develop democratic resilience.

On 21-22 March 2024 the European Wergeland Centre organized an international seminar for museum educators “Education and Museums’ Response to Threats to Democracy”. It was carried out in Oslo, Norway within the project “Fighting Antisemitism, Xenophobia and Racism Now!” implemented by POLIN Museum of History of Polish Jews in Poland and the European Wergeland Center in Norway, and funded by the EEA and Norway grants: Jewish Cultural Heritage program.
The Seminar gathered 56 museum educators and experts from 10 European countries (Poland, Norway, Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and over 20 institutions to exchange experience in education for democratic citizenship and human rights. In particular, discussions were held on how museums’ educational programs can respond to contemporary threats to democracy in Europe and help young citizens develop democratic resilience. During the seminar, participants focused on several topics in this regard:

What is education for democratic citizenship in nowadays’ museums?

During the seminar, many discussions evolved around uncovering the notion of democracy, what it means in the museum space. Participants discussed what are threats to democracy we are facing now and what skills the new generations need to make our democracies more resilient. Participants shared methodologies and approaches and methodologies to prevent hate speech, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination and exclusion, address propaganda and conspiracies, facilitate discussion on sensitive or controversial issues. It was also discussed how museums and educators can work better together to prevent hate speech, discrimination, exclusion, and polarization.

Cooperation between museums and educational institutions

The discussion evolved around the key factors that could facilitate a smoother and more efficient cooperation between museums, memorial sites and schools. State support for museum visits and alignment with curriculum, among other factors, were mentioned as key. Participants have also mentioned that more professional development opportunities for teachers need to be created so that they are more aware of the opportunities that cooperation with museums is opening. Many museum representatives mentioned that they also need support and training to tailor their educational programs for specific school needs, as well as adopt more inclusive and participatory tools and approaches.

Controversial and sensitive issues

Extra focus was laid on discussion of controversial and sensitive issues in the museum space. According to Council of Europe recommendations, engaging young people in controversial issues helps to develop their democratic competences. If students can explore issues that concern them freely and without fear, they will learn how to engage in open and respectful dialogue and will be more prepared to foster inclusion and participation in the community.
Many school teachers prefer “to outsource” teaching on especially controversial and sensitive issues to museums, in order to avoid conflicts in the classrooms or avoid discussions on extra complicated or loaded topics. At the same time, museum educators lack knowledge of tools they can use to facilitate dialogue on controversial or sensitive topics with children and youth. More opportunities for exchange between museum educators in Europe need to be created. EWC has a broad experience in teaching controversial issues. During the seminar, workshop was held by Khrysytna Chushak (EWC) to make participants familiar with tools on how to teach controversial and sensitive issues. Another though-provoking workshop held by Bojana Dujkovic (EWC) urged discussions on how historical events can be differently presented throughout time and how this example can be used to foster critical thinking.

Memory, Trauma and Memorialization

The major focus of the seminar was the visit to the 22 July Center in Oslo followed by a discussion with the team that has worked on the transformation of Utøya into a living learning center after years of mourning for the victims of the terror attack. The discussion evolved around the issues of memory, trauma and memorialization. With presentations from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine, the focused moved to memorialization during and after the war. Participants discussed the importance of documentation of atrocities, gathering witness stories and work on trauma healing for strengthening democracy. Another point that was discussed is the challenge of cooperation with witnesses and families.

Networking and mutual learning between museums and memorial sites in Europe
Participants voiced strong needs for further networking, more meetings and exchanges of the similar format in order to facilitate mutual learning and strengthen international cooperation between museums and memorial sites on how to respond to threats to democracy in Europe. Many participants exchanged ideas for mutual partnerships which they agreed to follow up in the future.