Using history to captivate an audience is a tall order. After all, how many people use their vacation time to visit a museum when an amusement park offers the promise of entertainment for the whole family? When done well, history not only trumps any amusement park: it enriches the lives of those that it touches, from the audience to the presenter.
This was what I experienced during a visit to the British Museum on 6/18/17. As part of Refugee Week, the Museum had two refugees lead a tour through one of its galleries. Our guides, Ameen and Ahmad, took the group through the Islamic World gallery, and they focused on three objects: A wooden tablet with several verses from the Koran, an astrolabe, and a set of oil lamps made from glass. On their own, the artifacts attracted some intrigue, but they would not necessarily stand out as center pieces of the gallery.
When Ameen and Ahmad began to relate the history of these artifacts to the group, the atmosphere of the whole room changed. Their enthusiasm and knowledge gave the objects a life outside of what was written on the display case. The tablet, as it turns out, was used by a student as a technique to memorize verses from the Koran, and other verses had been written down and erased before the one we saw. The astrolabe had its own importance to Islamic society, as the need to face Mecca whilst praying led to the further development of such navigational technologies. Even the lamps, while needed for their light, served to remind the user of Koran verses, as these lamps were inscribed with verses that describe light.
Had I gone through the exhibit alone, these objects might as well have blended into the exhibit. Above all, it was the enthusiasm of Ameen and Ahmad that made them shine. Since they selected the objects, that enthusiasm was natural: why would they select objects that they hated, after all? After the tour, I wanted to know their motivations for selecting these items. Ahmad had focused heavily on the Koran tablet. He felt that, out of everything in the exhibit, the tablet was the most important. It emphasized the role that Islam played in the creation of every other artifact. The astrolabe and the lamps came about as a need to fulfil certain religious requirements and, thus, might not have existed without that initial spark.
This answer provided me an epiphany. Most of the discourse that takes place in the media with regards to refugees and migrants comes from those within the host country. Rarely does a migrant get the opportunity to go one-on-one with newscasters or the public. If anything, they are often treated as part of a whole, that there exists only the tired masses and not a person with their own motivations. Ameen and Ahmad were the people whose stories often go untold, and the opportunity to speak about artifacts from their own culture that had significance to them was a soapbox that they used effectively. They showed off not only their own humanity, but also that of those in the same situation.