Thursday, January 16, 2020

Relatability and Relinquishing Power: The Global Guides Program at the Penn Museum

Ellen Owens and Kevin Schott from the Penn Museum were kind enough to share this guest post with ExhibiTricks readers about the "Global Guides" program at their institution.

Ellen Owens is the Merle-Smith Director of Learning and Public Engagement at the Penn Museum.  Kevin Schott, as the Associate Director of Interpretive Programs, works closely with the Penn Museum’s volunteer docents and Global Guides. (Learn more about Kevin and Ellen by reading their extended bios here.)

Relatability and Relinquishing Power
Through time, museums placed great importance on academic knowledge focused on historical facts. Global Guide tours break this pattern to help Penn Museum visitors opportunities to connect to ancient history through stories that resonate universally. 

Offered free-of-charge in a museum that is focused on anthropology and archaeology, Global Guide tours are led by immigrants and refugees who have grown up in the origin countries of the exhibited objects – we currently have guides from the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central America. Job descriptions and recruitment were in partnership with local agencies that serve these populations and were a win-win proposition to offering skilled people into professional positions.

An hour-long tour has six stops at key objects, where the Guides describe the historical importance and key facts at each stop and then share a personal narrative that connects the object to a powerful memory from life in their former home country. They use iPads to show personal photographs, videos, and other materials to make their stories more concrete.

Abraham Sandoval Iñiguez talks about the region of Mexico
that his parents farmed in front of the artifacts from that region.

While these tours use historical info to set the context for the artifacts and the people they represent, the guides’ own life stories and the relevance of these objects to their cultural groups are profoundly relatable to visitors, overcoming a challenge inherent to interpreting unfamiliar cultural material. For example, we learned through the Guides’ personal knowledge that spindle whorls are still used by older generations in Iraq and Syria – the guides had seen them used by their grandparents! The resulting tour stop focuses on a story about our guide receiving an ugly sweater as a gift from a well-meaning grandmother, crafted from yarn made with a spindle whorl, not unlike the 7,000-year-old example on display.

The tours also add a layer of understanding through lived experience in places far away, allowing visitors glimpses into countries they may have only experienced through news stories – in fact, we know most visitors have no, or shallow, connections with people of these cultures, based on visitor data. Opportunities to get first-person insight into foreign cities and towns help to undermine stereotypes and misinterpreted histories.  The Guides are highly aware of the widely held misconceptions that Americans have about their parts of the world since they live within those constructs daily. We support them in politely declining conversation beyond the stories they choose to share – unless they wish to share more when visitors ask, which happens often.

Celeste Diaz shows a photo of her speaking an indigenous 
language in a Guatemalan pageant as a child during a 
tour stop about carrying traditions into contemporary life. 

Relinquishing Power
As part of our training, we ask the Guides to think about the key learning objectives they would like visitors to take home after the tours.  Helping visitors to see beyond stereotypes has been core to the design of the tours, and the Guides accomplish this through both demonstrating the realities and contrasting these against the misconceptions. This shift of agency to the Guides, who represent often-marginalized communities that have legacies of colonialism, allows for their authentic voices to be heard as experts within the context of the Museum, rather than under the control of the Museum. We help them learn the facts and get professional storytelling training, but we don’t control their narratives.

Clay Katongo, a present-day pastor, talks about divination baskets 
and traditional religion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 
where he grew up.

When asked “What is the best part of the tour?” visitors all note: “the guide’s personal stories,” or list their guide by name.  Yet nearly half of visitors share that they have had no or very little contact with a person of these origins before their tours.  By the end of the tour, over three-quarters say they are interested in learning more about the region their guide came from, particularly about its history, art, and culture. Participants also report they are more likely to support agencies that assist immigrants and refugees in their resettlement.

From a recent visitor’s survey: “I have seen the galleries two times on my own, but having Moumena give us a tour in her eyes and history as a Syrian -complete with personal photos and anecdotes- was one of the most enlightening and pleasant museum experiences EVER!  I was for almost 40 years at the [OTHER MUSEUM NAME HERE] and have visited and continue to visit museums around the world but the time with Moumena shall long remain with me as one of the best anywhere.”

Moumena Saradar proudly shows her family heirloom golden 
jewelry nearby the gleaming adornments of Queen Puabi.

Anyone can go on a Global Guides tour since we offer them for free to general visitors and offer financial assistance for private tours to groups that need it. We have delivered these tours to over 3,500 people since the program’s start in May 2018. Proximity has had a profound impact on our visitors, and our own Museum staff and trustees have enjoyed hearing fresh insights that humanize the collection and bring them closer to their Philadelphia neighbors.

To learn more about the Global Guides program, please visit the Penn Museum website.  Thanks again to Kevin and Ellen for sharing this guest post!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"

No comments:

Post a Comment