Museum of Romani Culture: Paving the Way Toward Opportunity and Understanding
“We are a space where different cultures meet. We preserve examples of Romani cultural history as part of Europe´s heritage. We educate the younger generation to be tolerant and to appreciate other cultures,” proclaims the motto of theMuseum of Romani Culture, based in the Czech city of Brno. “We are committed to fighting xenophobia and racism. We are paving the way to a new understanding of the roots of Romani identity. All this we do in the name of mutual understanding. For a dialogue of cultures. For us.”
“A Romani museum of our scope does not exist anywhere else in the world,” explains Museum of Romani Culture director Dr. Jana Horváthová, who co-founded the institution in 1991 along with a group of scholars and community leaders, including the prominent Romani activist, current Ambassador of theDecade of Roma Inclusion, and Horváthová’s father Karel Holomek.
The permanent exhibition traces Romani culture and history from the time of the Romani migration from India centuries ago up until present-day life in the Czech Republic.
“Our goal is to create the broadest possible collection of original documentation for the presentation of Romani history and culture,” says Horváthová.
Particularly well-documented and moving is the section on the Roma Holocaust, which comprises scores of photographs, testimonies, newspaper articles, official documents and original correspondence.
Other sections include artwork by Romani artists, cultural artifacts and descriptions of traditional customs and music. The exhibit also shows the history of Romani political activism in the Czech Republic as well as a collage of Roma-related press headlines collected over time and together forming a complex picture of the media coverage of Roma-related issues.
“Our museum is really an exemplar and a first of its kind,” Horváthová continues, “a fact which the Czech Republic perhaps does not value as much as it should.”
“There aren’t many Romani museums, ” Horváthová says, listing all other Roma-themed museums and permanent exhibits around Europe, including theMuseum of Romani Culture in Slovakia, part of the Slovakian National Museum, and the Tarnów Ethnographic Museum, which now houses Poland‘s first permanentRoma-themed exhibition. She also mentions The Interpretation Centre and Ethnographic Museum in Granada, Spain, where an original Romani cave dwelling complex can be viewed.
In addition to the permanent exhibition, the Czech Museum of Romani Culture periodically presents temporary exhibitions of art and photography. The museum is also a Romani studies research center for all of Central Europe. It houses a Roma-themed library and bookstore as well as organizes lectures, concerts, panel debates and Romani language courses.
“We always say that it is important for people to come the first time and then visitors tend to return,” says Horváthová. “There are many people who hear about us and think that it is terrible here, that we are located in a slum. They are afraid of coming to a Romani neighborhood, so this type of prejudice deters many potential customers.”
“My wish,” Horváthová continues when asked about her vision for the future, “is for us, after so many years of effort, to be able to break the society-wide aversion toward the Roma.”
The museum has worked intently to make this vision a reality. The institution’s scope extends to helping to give Romani children a fair chance at adequate and academically challenging education.
In conjunction with the museum’s extensive afterschool education offerings for the neighborhood children, which include art, sports and performance classes as well as tutoring, a new program centered around integration ofthe chronically segregated Czech school system is underway.
As part of the program, a number of children have been identified by the museum’s educators for extra academic support and integration into schools with predominantly majority-population children in other areas of the city outside “the ghetto.” During the upcoming school year, the Romani children participating in this program will be accompanied by staff and bussed to new schools in order to improve their chances for a better education and future.
“The segregated schools in this neighborhood,” explains Horváthová, “have a population of 90 to 100 percent Romani children. There the teachers cannot give extra attention to the more gifted students and the curricula are not the same as in mainstream schools. These students, even when gifted, have no chance of getting into secondary schools. We have already confirmed this over the years of running educational programs. And it makes us very sad when children that would do well in secondary school, even college, do not make it because their schools are so behind mainstream programs and the children find it impossible to catch up to the level required for entrance exams and education at the secondary level.”
“These children will be pioneers,” says Horváthová. “The transition will be very difficult. The children are used to going to an all-Roma school, where it is, in a way an easier and more pleasant environment, because there they know the communication style and behavior of their classmates. When they begin in a classroom that is mostly non-Roma, it will be enormously stressful for them. They will need professional assistance. Without that, the transition is impossible to manage.”
When asked whether the teachers in the mostly majority population schools are prepared for the integration efforts, Horváthová explains: “What is needed to make integration successful are smaller class sizes and an educational assistant, preferably a Roma from the community, in the room, together with the teacher.”
She adds: “Very few teachers and classmates are aware of the reality of the child living in a ghetto and all the things the child has to deal with when entering the surrounding world.”
“Teachers from the majority population have gaps in this area. One of the programs we provide are educational seminars for teachers, which acquaint them with Romani history and culture,” she continues. “We often advise teachers who write us and ask us what they should do, how they should work with their Romani students.”
“I like the afterschool programs a lot,” says a fifth-grader who attends English language lessons and tutoring sessions at the museum in the afternoons. She says she likes learning languages and would like to also study Latin. In school, her favorite subject is Math. She wants to be a nurse or police officer when she grows up.
When asked whether she would be participating in the school integration program, she said she would very much like to, but that her mother is afraid: “My mom is scared because the other school is too far, that a tram could hit me or that I could get lost.”
“Family support is a substantial, if not key ingredient, along with the child’s internal motivation, in determining which of the children are chosen for the program. If the parents did not understand or agree with the placement, it would be almost impossible to retain the child at a prestigious school,” explains Horváthová.
As far as a systemic change which would ensure all-around success on the school integration front, Horváthová believes much work has yet to be done.
“Ever since the revolution in 1989,” says Horváthová, “our organization has been calling for systemic change in the arena of education, but each time a government is replaced following an election cycle, a new minister is put in place who must familiarize himself with the situation, which makes systemic reform very difficult.”
Horváthová calls the museum’s school integration program daring and adventurous and says that even with all their effort, success is not guaranteed.
“We have been observing a trend that shows that many Roma who do leave ‘the ghetto’ and do obtain higher education often have an interest in communicating with Roma from different groups inside the community which is very diverse, and in working in the non-profit sector and helping their community toward a common goal of uplifting our ethnic group.”
Horváthová confides that the economic downturn has been difficult for her organization: “Today’s economic situation has been troubling for us and other museums, I am sure. Culture is probably, so to speak, our society’s Cinderella. So, we are afraid of how the future will pan out. I can imagine that currently even mainstream museums are having a difficult time sustaining themselves, but when we approach sponsors, they usually turn us down. The will to support any Roma-related activities is just not there.”
Horváthová’s vision for the museum is to grow and to continue expanding its collections.
“Next year will mark twenty years of our museum’s existence,” she concludes. “We have the spirit of a warrior, and we hope no one breaks that in us.”
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