Case: What would you take with you? (Thessaloniki, Greece)

The Folklife & Ethnological Museum of Macedonia & Thrace in Thessaloniki, established in 1957, houses a collection of folklore material from northern Greece. Its purpose is to research, preserve, and promote traditional culture through exhibitions, publications, educational programs, and events. In 2016, the museum held an exhibition on the refugee crisis, drawing parallels with the city’s history of migration. The exhibition received positive feedback from newcomers, fostering cultural connections and providing a reprieve from camp life. Challenges included translation difficulties and storytelling mediated by translators. Overall, the experience demonstrated the potential for museums to contribute to the well-being of newcomers and foster understanding between host communities and displaced individuals.


Located in Thessaloniki, the Folklife & Ethnological Museum of Macedonia & Thrace resides in a 20th-century mansion and was established in 1957. Originally, the museum’s collection consisted of folklore material from northern Greece gathered by the Society for Macedonian Studies (Μακεδονική Φιλεκπαιδευτική Αδελφότητα) under the direction of Ioannis Taris. Over the years, the museum expanded its holdings to include a vast array of objects representing the rural communities of Macedonia. In 1970, the museum relocated to a new building and embraced innovative museological concepts. With a collection of 20,000 items, the museum’s permanent exhibitions showcase water-powered machines as cultural contributors and traditional costumes from Macedonia and Thrace up until 1960.

The museum’s core mission revolves around the ethnological and ethnographic research and study of traditional culture in Northern Greece, collaborating with domestic and international institutions. Its aims encompass familiarising the public with traditional culture, preserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage, maintaining collective memory, and facilitating the understanding and interpretation of the past within a contemporary context. In addition to exhibitions and publications, the museum engages in various activities such as guided tours, educational programs, workshops for children and adults conducted by artists, craftsmen, and storytellers. It caters to all age groups and offers educational materials, events, competitions, and scientific meetings for teachers and parents.


In 2016, the Museum organised a temporary exhibition titled What would you take with you? Uprooting | Borders, held in collaboration with the UNHCR. This exhibition shed light on the contemporary refugee crisis by drawing inspiration from the refugee experiences of our ancestors and the historical context of Greece. It served as the debut solo exhibition of Maria Belivani, featuring poignant watercolor portraits, maps, letters written in languages such as Pontian, Armenian, Landin, and Turkish, plaster sculptures representing refugees’ belongings, a compelling sound installation, and a thought-provoking question posed to the audience: If you were forced to leave your home today, what would you take with you?

The exhibition aimed to create a connection between Thessaloniki’s identity, shaped by the dramatic migration and displacement of various communities in the 20th century, including Asia Minor and Pontian Greeks, Armenians, Muslims affected by population exchanges, and Jews who tragically perished in Nazi camps during World War II. By examining this troubled past, the exhibition explored the psychological and cultural impact of uprooting individuals from their homes, documenting their imprint on the historical trajectory of the city.


The exhibition attracted visits from refugees, with two distinct cases. In the first case, families from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan participated in a tour of the permanent exhibitions, followed by a workshop where they discussed their experiences. The second case involved mainly Kurdish refugees from Northern Syria and was part of a program focused on oral tradition, fairy tales, myths, and storytelling as means to create connections and foster relationships between cultures and languages. Activities were organized both in the refugee camp and in museums and schools within the city. During the museum visit, participants enjoyed storytelling sessions with translations and narrations related to traditional costumes.

The museum reported positive outcomes from the four visits:

  1. Visitors showed a strong appreciation for common cultural elements and displayed familiarity with specific objects such as pre-industrial agricultural tools, traditional clothing, and sewing machines.
  2. The visits provided an opportunity for participants, especially women, to share their personal stories and discuss their lives and activities in their home countries with the psychologists present during the workshop.
  3. Participants expressed satisfaction, as the visits offered a chance for the entire family to have an official outing, and the workshop in the museum’s courtyard provided a much-needed break from the challenges of daily life in the refugee camp.
  4. Difficulties primarily centered around translation issues, as finding available translators was not always feasible, resulting in cancelled visits. The use of translators also diminished the magic and immediacy of the storytelling experience.
  5. Over time, concerns and reactions from both museum staff and visitors to the courtyard refreshment room subsided, indicating that these visits helped alleviate fear and fostered a greater understanding of the unknown and different.

This experience highlighted the potential for mutually beneficial relationships to develop. Museums can contribute to improving living conditions for refugees within the host country, serving as places of respite and tension relief. Simultaneously, refugees themselves can be encouraged to understand and engage with the host communities, fostering a sense of mutual understanding and integration.



  • Engagement and participation: The exhibition should go beyond passive observation and strive to actively involve visitors. By incorporating interactive elements like workshops, storytelling sessions, and platforms for sharing personal stories, the exhibition can empower visitors and facilitate meaningful dialogue. This approach fosters a sense of ownership and inclusivity, making the experience more enriching and memorable.


  • Lack of staff training: It is crucial to provide comprehensive training to museum staff to ensure they possess the necessary empathy and knowledge to understand the experiences of newcomers. Equipped with this understanding, staff members can create a welcoming and supportive environment for visitors. They should be prepared to address any challenges or questions that may arise, fostering a sense of trust and ensuring that visitors feel valued and respected during their museum visit. Well-trained staff play a vital role in enhancing the overall visitor experience and facilitating positive interactions.


Contact information

Folklife & Ethnological Museum of Macedonia & Thrace,


Rafaella Ntana, EKEDISY


Header Photo by Nafsika G. on Unsplash