In 2020, 70 million of people worldwide are still forced to leave their original country because of conflicts, violence and persecutions. Of these, around 26 million have found refuge in a safe country, thus becoming “refugees”[1]. The Geneva Convention (1951) establishes safeguards in favour of refugees, trying to guarantee housing rights, public support and education to these people. But what the Law protects, the Reality sometimes overturns.

Particularly, international protection holders encounter difficulties in accessing education, especially higher and university education. Thus the Manifesto of Inclusive University of the UN Refugee Agency was born, with the aim of supporting refugees’ admission to the university education and research, promoting social integration and active participation in the academic life. Universities and research centres signing the Manifesto commit themselves to take concrete measures for the inclusion.

This Manifesto lists several measures to be taken to guide and protect students in different phases of their university career: such as application phase, recognition of qualifications obtained abroad, tutoring during courses and/or internships’ activities, scholarships and other incentives oriented to support the study and urban mobility, humanitarian corridors for selection and enrolment of refugee students that are resident in a third country.

The University of Pisa has always been aware that cultural, practical and intellectual experiences of refugee students and scholars can be a big resource for Italy, contributing to the society’s development. Thus, the University of Pisa has subscribed the Manifesto, with the aim to foster refugee students and scholars’ participation to the academic life and projects. This step is fully in line with other initiatives taken in the past and currently active (such as the drafting of dedicated provision for facilitating enrolment of refugees and asylum seekers residing in Italy, the Observatory on European Migration Law, the specialization courses organised by the Centro Interdisciplinare di Studi per la Pace-CISP, the institution of a curriculum on migration in the Master Programme in International Studies-LM52, the Centro di ricerca sulle Nuove Migrazioni e Mobilità Qualificate–UbiQual), as well with the recent launch of the Network of the Universities for Peace.

CultureLabs and the University of Pisa

In addition to that, it is worth underlining that the University of Pisa is active with innovative projects on several fronts of the cultural and social inclusion. Currently the Museum University System (SMA) of Pisa opens its museums’ doors to people who participate in the pilot “So Distant, Incredibly Close” of CultureLabs project. Under the coordination of FST, people coming from different parts of the world, are visiting 4 museums of SMA, and they will contribute to compare and blend together different cultural heritages and experiences, creating a new storytelling (published as comic or graphic novel) that will taste of ingredients never mixed before.

Specifically, the museums that have been involved in the project are: Natural History Museum, Botanical Garden, Calculation Instruments Museum and Gipsoteca of Ancient Art. Their collections of animals, plants, calculation instruments and copies of ancient pieces of art that testify our cultural, scientific and natural heritage, represent a key to generate empathy, curiosity in the pilot participants that will be invited to enrich collection bringing new contents and points of view.

[1] From the UNHCR report Global Trends of Forced Displacement in 2018:

Professor Luigina Ciolfi of Sheffield Hallam University presented CultureLabs at the symposium “Feeling the Past – Empathy, Heritage and the Museum” that took place at MShed in Bristol (UK) on December 4th, 2018.

The symposium was organised by Professor Steve Poole and his team in the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE). The event was part of the “Heritage Empath” project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores the importance of empathy and emotional involvement in experiencing heritage, and how digital technologies can convey and support such experiences. The project’s final installation, “Of Home and Each Other”, is an interactive storytelling experience on the theme of migration and empathy in the streets of Bristol, written by Zodwa Nyoni and realised by Splash and Ripple.

What was the thematic focus of the Symposium?

Visitors to museums and sites of heritage are frequently invited to immerse themselves in the lives of past generations. With a fresh emphasis on emotion, feeling and personal perspective, heritage professionals have sought new ways to engage audiences with affective stories about objects, people and places, bringing the past to life, making it more familiar, and making it matter to audiences. But empathy is much easier to talk about than it is to curate. Is it possible to step into the shoes of long dead historical actors and see or feel the world as they did? How have heritage sites and museums built emotional content into the visitor experience, and how have visitors reacted?” (from the Symposium programme).

Several invited speakers presented their work on the day, linking research in several heritage contexts in the UK and overseas that examines emotionally resonant visitor experiences.

Professor Ciolfi spoke of the vision of CultureLabs and of the challenges in understanding and supporting the process of engagement of migrant communities into the work of museums and other cultural institutions. While the importance and value of culture and heritage for social inclusion, empathy, and emotional wellbeing are broadly recognised, CultureLabs is developing knowledge and tools to make sure that such engagement can be realised and benefit both migrant and refugee communities and the general public so to engender dialogue and empathy.