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Crossing Borders 2015: local communities come together at the Horniman

Joanna Slusarczyk and Lucia Cortelli tell us about Crossing Borders, an event at the Horniman bringing together local communities.

On Saturday 7th February, the Horniman hosted an event bringing together local community groups of newly-arrived migrants and refugees.

We were asked to volunteer on that day and decided to join in.

We became volunteers at the Horniman to learn how a museum engages its audience and local communities with its vast collection. It was also relevant to our studies at UCL in Anthropology and Museum and Gallery Education.

We had never volunteered on a Crossing Borders event and we were looking forward to working with the members of the many associations involved.

In fact, Crossing Borders began in 2003 and has grown each year due to the increasing participation of local community groups working with refugees and asylum seekers. This year the event included a wide range of exciting activities, from storytelling to live theatre performances.

Upon our arrival at the museum, other volunteers and member of staff were already decorating the galleries with bunting created by the collaboration between the Youth panel and new arrivals at Pan-Intercultural Arts as well as shopping bags created by families of the Indoamerican Refugee Migrant Organisation and the family learning team.

In the conservatory, others were setting up the tables for the food to be served at lunchtime, free of charge to all participating community groups.

Before the opening time, we helped the members of Streatham Women’s Sewing Group transforming Gallery Square with a giant colourful dress, which provided inspiration for the family activity. The dress was a collaborative artwork conceived by artist Fion Gunn and craftswoman Ifrah Odawa and was inspired by personal memories of how important life occasions were marked by different dressed in the lives of the members' mothers.

The activity was to design and make your own outfit using colourful fabrics, the finished designs were displayed on the wall in the museum. Gallery Square was busy with families creating artworks and enjoying the social and inclusive atmosphere, our group of volunteers was trying to help with the activity and make a contribution to the smooth running of all the events.

Later, Gallery Square was reshuffled into a performance space for the Paper Project at the Oval House Theatre. These artists from different cultural backgrounds performed an experimental piece of theatre called "I Was a Child Somewhere Else", demonstrating the journey from childhood to adulthood.

They used a series of symbolic props such as egg shells and odd shoes to demonstrate the journeys undertaken by many people who wish to build a new life for themselves in a new country. The performance was dedicated to the undocumented children living in the UK who are precluded university or a career.

The audience waited in anticipation for the other performance, which occurred later in the afternoon. Fairbeats!, together with families from Action for Refugees in Lewisham, sang lyrics they had written themselves, in an energized and exciting song sharing performance.

In the meanwhile, in the Hands on Base there was a screening of Seeking Refuge. This is a series of animated films created by Mosaics Films for the BBC. Director Andy Glynne says the aims of the films are clear: "At the very least I hope that it increases awareness within children," he says. "It's about showing engagement, empathy and understanding of what it's like for people who are fleeing their own homelands because of persecution."

In the same room, films were alternated with storytelling. Sally Pomme Clayton led interactive storytelling sessions with visitors and members of the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers. Using pictures taken by the participants of an ongoing photography project, the story teller engaged members of the public to tell their own stories using the photographs as well as to listen to stories from different cultures.

Visitors to the museum thoroughly enjoyed the event and all activities on the day were welcomed with enthusiasm. A local grandmother who attended the event told us that the Horniman is brilliant for community events because it brings people from different backgrounds together. As volunteers we also enjoyed taking active part in this event and witnessing the exchanges and encounters that took place on the day in a spirit of inclusion and openness.