This article was released in the ICOM Canada September 2019 e-newsletter on Cultural Diplomacy. See more articles from this issue here.
C.W. Gross (Glenbow Museum)
There has been a tremendous emphasis put on representing our differences in the recent political climate. As a museum educator I often worry that we place so much emphasis on diversity of characteristics that we lose sight of one of the most powerful connections our museums make: the universality of our stories.
One of the stories my wife, a fellow educator, and I most like to tell is the story of my father. He was born in 1932 in what was known at the time as Regenwalde, Pomerania, in the Weimar Republic (the unofficial historical designation applied to the German state from 1918-1933). His father had served as a Prussian medic in World War I, and when the Nazis seized power shortly after my father’s birth, he helped persecuted peoples escape the Holocaust. After the Second World War, Regenwalde and its surrounding area were apportioned to Poland and the town was renamed to Resko. Poland, in turn, was occupied by the Soviets. By the time my father was 13, he had lived in four different countries without moving an inch.
Between 1944 and 1950, upwards of 45 million Pomeranians, Prussians, and Silesians were ethnically cleansed from Communist occupied territories. Up to 2.5 million died and it is widely regarded, among those who know about it, as the largest forced migration in human history. My grandfather died during the ethnic cleansing and the remaining family settled in East Germany, but my father was among the 14 million people who managed to cross the Iron Curtain into West Germany. In 1952 he was scouted by the British government to emigrate to Canada, doing so with only a suitcase of his worldly goods.
During one of our museum school programs on immigration, my wife told my father’s story. A student’s hand shot up. He was a child recently arrived from Syria, at the height of the refugee crisis. Excitedly this young, Iraqi-born Muslim boy exclaimed that my Caucasian, Christian father’s story was just like his. His own family had to keep moving from one country to another through the Middle East avoiding unrest and terrorism until they finally found refuge in Canada. He was amazed to hear a story so much like his own, from so long ago, of such a superficially different person. He heard that Canada’s story is his story.
Despite entirely different characteristics of race, religion, age, and ethnicity, we were able to make a connection through a universal story. Making connections and emphasizing what we share while fostering respect for our differences and building common ground through common stories is a powerful and exciting role that museums and museum educators can play.