The Harrogate Museums column with May Catt

Origami artwork on show during Refugee Week.
Origami artwork on show during Refugee Week.

Traditionally museums have been treasure houses for precious and intriguing objects, but they are also places to gain understanding of our communities past and present. A recent example of this for Harrogate Museums was our involvement in a programme of events to mark Refugee Week.

Refugee Week takes place internationally, marking World Refugee Day on 20 June each year. In the UK there is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities.

Harrogate District of Sanctuary worked with us and other local arts organisations to offer film, theatre, displays, and social events to welcome sanctuary seekers and help understanding within the community.

Harrogate Film Society and the Odeon launched the programme with a screening of the award winning film ‘Capernaum’ and this was followed by the play ‘Three Mothers’ at Harrogate Theatre.

The Mercer Gallery hosted a pop-up exhibition of craft work and a ‘Meet and Make’ afternoon with members of the Refugee Council’s Women’s Group.

The week rounded off at Knaresborough Castle with a Great Get Together picnic, a celebration of the legacy of MP Jo Cox and her belief that ‘we have more in common than that which divides us’.

Over 200 people enjoyed a relaxed and sunny afternoon in the castle grounds sharing songs and crafts from Orb Community Arts, storytelling from Knaresborough Library, face-painting, drumming, Syrian dancing and delicious Arabic food from the Kurdish Kitchen.

The week’s events took us on a journey, raising our awareness of the experiences of dispossessed people and celebrating the richness of our local community and the ways in which we are stronger together.

Twelve refugee families have been re-settled in the Harrogate District, the first arriving in July 2016: 2 families in Ripon, 2 in Knaresborough and 8 in Harrogate. A total of 65 individuals aged between 3 months and 70 years have found sanctuary in our community, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and South Sudan. Jenny Travena of Harrogate District of Sanctuary explains how these families have found a welcome here: “Starting with the Refugee Council and supportive English language classes, we started to build relationships with the families and these have become very close.”

Our understanding of the ways in which migrant people and refugees have enriched our culture continues to grow as we prepare to host a major exhibition at the Mercer Gallery in Spring 2020. ‘Their Safe Haven’ will examine the particular contribution to British culture of Hungarian migrants from the 1930s. Our exhibition will follow Hungarian artists who made their lives here, bringing their considerable talent to areas like the film industry, modern mosaics and book illustration. One of the artists was Jean-Georges Simon who became an English citizen and settled here in Harrogate, teaching at the Art School.

So many families have a story of moving from one place and settling in another, finding a safe haven and building a new life.

Perhaps your family has such a story from the past or present that we could explore and celebrate against the backdrop of next year’s fascinating exhibition and Refugee Week 2020?

We would love to hear from you.