Orient-ation, a programme for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants in Glasgow.

To mark World Refugee Day 2020, we want to take a look back at one of our programmes of this past year and reflect on our way forward in working with some of our most vulnerable communities.

With recent events connected to the current pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests at George Square, we are reminded, more than ever, of the structural inequalities in our societies. Orient-ation is one of the ways we have worked, and aim to keep working, towards playing our role as a cultural institution working with communities in Glasgow to eradicate racism in our society.

Without continued aid, the next migrant crisis will be people fleeing coronavirus not war 

Mukhtar Karim


The Orient-ation programme was a pilot project developed by the Learning and Access team in 2019-2020 alongside the exhibition Fiona Tan: Disorient. It was a project of collaboration with groups who identify as migrants to share ideas and respond creatively to the topic of migration.

Photo credit: Fiona Tan: Disorient (2009), installation shot in the Gallery of Modern Art 2012, courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, photo Ruth Clark 2012

The film Disorient by the artist Fiona Tan explores cultural identities and perceptions, contrasting images of an idyllic “Orient” with contemporary footage from different Asian countries. Such a skilfully produced work exposes truths related to inequality, poverty, war, pollution and climate change. These represent some of the main reasons for people fleeing their countries to find a better life somewhere else. 

The topic is particularly relevant to Glasgow which, since 1999, it is one of the main centres in the UK, and the only one in Scotland, for the British asylum seeker dispersal policy (Immigration and Asylum Act 1999). According to the policy, while their claim is assessed, destitute asylum seekers are housed in a specific part of the UK on a no-choice basis. Approximately 10% of the UK’s dispersed asylum population is accommodated in Glasgow (New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018 – 2022, Published by The Scottish Government, January 2018, available at www.gov.scot). 

Orient-ation – the programme

Before the project began we  recognised that we needed to inform ourselves on sensitive issues around migration. Training for our staff was supported by grassroots organisations such as the Scottish Refugee Council, Refugee Survival Trust and Refuweegee. We also carried out a consultation with ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutors from various Glasgow institutions, including the City of Glasgow College.

The programme launched at a preview for the Fiona Tan exhibition in GoMA in June 2019. In contrast to our usual open invite openings, we only invited guests from those collaborating organisations to a preview of Fiona Tan’s work with an introduction to Disorient by curator Katie Bruce. We then shared thoughts and reactions to the work over a multi-cultural lunch provided by Küche, a social business organising food-led events, community projects, and multicultural catering in collaboration with people navigating the UK immigration system.

The core project took place in the months following this opening. Our learning team worked with groups of asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants on a 4 to 6 week programme. Sessions included an overview of GoMA, an introduction to the library, where participants could obtain a library card, and a taster of our regular workshops, such as mindful art and object handling sessions. The remaining sessions focussed more on the Fiona Tan work – Disorient. We facilitated discussions around the main themes of the film, intending  to create a final art project to express participants’ feelings and thoughts.

Some of our guests found some of the film’s images were quite hard-hitting, showing the realities of their home countries. We immediately become aware that some of them might find the work distressing and, therefore, advised viewer discretion. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, participants willingly decided to watch the film and then participated in compelling discussions. They presented strong views around certain aspects of the film, especially in relation to war and pollution, and spoke powerfully about how these issues had affected them in their own lives. 

The final outcome of each block of workshops was to try and capture some of the voices of the participants through words or imagery. Everyone had a say in the process and people felt comfortable to ‘speak from the heart’ about their thoughts and feelings. Some of the groups decided to translate them into printed design, others in posters or other media. Participants loved to get creative, which they often mentioned hadn’t done since their school times, and were pleased with the final outcome. 

I feel happy, positive and creative. I did not know this (GoMA) was somewhere I could come and feel safe and take part. 

Orient-ation participant

In some of the cases, for example in our collaboration with City of Glasgow College, we were able to organise a small exhibition event, where we displayed participants’ artwork in the main College hall. 

In January 2020, to mark the end of the Fiona Tan exhibition we had a celebration event in GoMA and invited all the participants as well as artists from refugee backgrounds that had been involved in delivering the public programme of art workshops. We were fed again by Küche and entertained by Musicians in Exile, a community project for asylum seeking and refugee musicians in Glasgow. 

Through this project, we have realised the great potential in using our collection to assist with the teaching of English (ESOL). More importantly, however, we have established new connections between people from diverse backgrounds and broken down barriers of language, culture, and perceptions.Our aim was to make GoMA more accessible and for many of the participants to return regularly and take part in our programmes, visit the exhibitions, or spend some time at the library. We also offered all participants the possibility to sign up as volunteers for Glasgow Museums so that they can keep improving their language skills while gaining valuable experience for their CV.

One of our new volunteers, Fatemeh, supporting the delivery of our regular family activities

While we like to think that all of this has a lasting positive impact on participants, we can safely state that the impact on our staff, as well as on the institution as a whole, has been significant.

Personally, it was wonderful for me to meet and work with so many diverse people from all over the world: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Russia to name a few. Even though we all did not speak the same language, we were able to use the inspiring space of GoMA, the artworks, imagery and symbolism to create a shared understanding and positive outcome.

Caroline Austin, Learning Assistant, GoMA

For some years now we have been working on providing a fresh interpretation of our heritage, acknowledging the history of our building. We have been discussing and highlighting its commission by a tobacco lord, its use as a Royal Exchange, and the fact that, in all these stages, its occupants profited from the exploitation of slave trade and labour. 

Working on Orient-ation, however, made us even more aware of how our society is still affected by the events that happened in this dark past. We are also aware of importance of not only acknowledging this past but also to actively push ourselves to change things for the better in the future and of the important role that our institution can play. 

For this reason, we don’t want this to be a one-off project, rather a starting point for a more equal involvement and representation of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in our museums.

As a cultural institution, we are not neutral on racism, but we know that this is still not enough. There is much more to do and we aim to work tirelessly, using our building and the art within it, to confront and challenge structural inequalities.


We aim to begin working again with groups on the Orientation programme in the new academic year 2020-2021. For more information, contact the GoMA Learning and Access Department at GoMAbookings@Glasgowlife.org.uk when we will open our building again to visitors.

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