February 28, 2020

How refugees and immigrants are breathing new life into the exhibits at the Penn Museum

These cool programs at three museums will inspire you as you head into the weekend.

Clay Katongo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, serves as a Global Guide for the Penn Museum's Africa Galleries. Photo courtesy of Penn Museum

Each week, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions people are creating in their communities. This week, we’re looking at the unique ways that museums across the country are connecting with visitors and and nearby residents. What are the innovative ideas in your hometown? Tell us at info@therenewalproject.com

Cross-cultural learning: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, better known as the Penn Museum, features exhibits that hail from all over the world. Now the museum’s docents do, too. Ellen Owens, director of learning and public engagement at the Penn Museum, wanted to diversify her pool of docents. So, with the help from her colleague Kevin Schott and several Philadelphia nonprofits, they recruited refugees and immigrants living in the Philadelphia area. These hires, called Global Guides, lead tours around the galleries that contain artifacts from their countries of origin in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America.

“We really wanted to have the narratives of lots of different people, to bring the authentic voices of people that live in other places into the galleries of the museum,” Owens said to NPR. The Global Guides combine their personal experiences and stories with the historical information about the artifacts on display. “I love this place,” Global Guide Clay Katongo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told NPR. “This is my culture. This is my story.”

The other aim of the program is to provide job opportunities for refugees and immigrants. Global Guides are paid $20 an hour, and the program also offers resources for navigating employment. Clearly, it’s been a success. NPR reports that since 2018, when Global Guides began, museum attendance has increased dramatically. Since the program’s inception, the Penn Museum has had inquiries from other museums about how to develop similar initiatives.

An untold history: Inside the walls of a small, white building is the untold history of Skillman, New Jersey. Originally a 120-year-old one-room Methodist church, the building is now the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. There, visitors can learn about the stories of the people who lived in and around the Sourland Mountains. Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck founded the museum in 2015. The pair visit local schools to discuss African American history of the region, filling in the gaps of the education system. They felt the former church was the perfect location to expand their mission of bringing light to the African American history of New Jersey.

“African American history is American history, not just during Black History Month,” Mills told NJ.com. “And there is much, much more to our story than Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington. There are scores and scores of stories that have never been told.”

The museum is still undergoing renovations, including installing heating and air conditioning, to allow for regular operation. Mills and Buck recently bought 1.2 acres of land neighboring the museum, where they hope to build an education and cultural center.

Senior artists: You’re never too old to get creative. That’s the message of The Phillips Collection’s Creative Aging initiative. The program brings older adults, many with memory loss, to the museum and has them interacting with the exhibits, sharing ideas and stories, and making art of their own. Creative Aging first began in 2011, when the Phillips Collection partnered with nonprofit Iona Senior Services. Since then, the museum has worked with other nonprofits to bring more seniors into the museum, including Renewal Awards finalist Arts for the Aging. Now around 200 seniors are coming to the Phillips and getting creative on a regular basis.

The best result of Creative Aging isn’t the art that participants make; it’s the connections they forge and the emotional boost they receive, said Sharon O’Connor, director of Iona Senior Services’ Wellness and Arts Center. “You really don’t have to have a great memory to be able to look at art and talk about art and how it makes you feel,” she told The Washington Post. “It brings them a sense of self-esteem because they’re making something and doing something that they’re proud of.”

The Renewal Project

The Renewal Project, made possible by Allstate, tells the stories of individuals and organizations who are solving problems in their communities.
all stories