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Encouraging Authentic Voices: Findings from the Global Guides Program

By Ellen Owens, Merle-Smith Director of Learning Programs

I brought friends because we wanted to see the exhibit. We hoped we might have time for the tour. Our guide was excellent — knowledgeable and able to speak from her own personal experience. [It] made the visit much richer.
— Penn Museum Visitor

In Spring 2017, the Penn Museum submitted a successful grant to the Barra Foundation’s Catalyst Fund to support the Global Guides project. From this fund, we hired immigrants and refugees to interpret the history of artifacts while sharing stories about life in their home countries. Tours began soon after the gallery’s opening in April 2018 and are offered free-of-charge at 2:30pm every weekend and by request. The program directly ties to the museum’s mission to “transform understanding of the human experience” and aligns with the Penn Museum’s Building Transformation project, which promises re-envisioned galleries and interpretation in over half of our building.  

I and Kevin Schott, Assistant Director for Program Interpretation, manage the Global Guides program, and partner with the immigrant aid groups HIAS Pennsylvania and  Nationalities Service Center for project advice. The project began with new Middle East Galleries and will continue into the Mexico & Central America and Africa galleries this fall.

Yaroub Al-Obaidi describes some of the first human settlements at the site of Tepe Gawra. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Yaroub Al-Obaidi describes some of the first human settlements at the site of Tepe Gawra. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum.

You may have read about the Global Guides program in Hyperallergic or in Public Radio International. The truth is, we never expected so much attention for this program and are surprised that it’s somewhat novel to invite people to talk about objects of their own cultural heritage on a tour. In Nina Simon’s OF/BY/ALL framework she explains, “OF organizations reflect the diverse perspective of the community… Becoming OF your community will help you make stronger programmatic and strategic decisions. It will help you build cultural competence, awareness, and empathy for target participants.” Within Simon’s framework, the Penn Museum still has much to do to embody the criteria for an “OF institution,” but adding these new staff members has brought about real institutional change through heightened consideration and engagement with heritage communities.

What We Learned

 We are constantly gaining new understandings from the Guides and this project. Here are five insights we have gained from a year of the Global Guides Program:

  1.  Many visitors come to the Penn Museum just for Global Guides tours. When the Middle East Galleries opened last April and the tours began, about 75% percent of visitors responded that they had intentionally come to the Museum to take a Global Guide tour. Now, nearly a year later, that number has dropped to 51%, but is still a significant amount of tour participants that may not have come otherwise. And given that 71% of the same visitors on these voluntary tours describe their personal interactions with people from the Middle East as “little to none,” we are encouraged that people are approaching the opportunity to be proximate with people of an unfamiliar and often vilified cultural heritage.

  2. Visitors want more time with the Guides. Visitors always have questions after the hour-long tours, and they often invite the Guides to lunch or coffee to continue the conversation. We have multiple responses to the question How can we improve this experienceas, “More time,” “I want more time,” “I’d like to come back to stay and talk longer.” This outcome was completely unexpected and we’d like to understand what people actually want in the extra time. 

  3.  Some visitors aren’t prepared for the storytelling aspect. 96% of tour-goers state they’d recommend the tour to a friend. Despite the great feedback, there’s always a handful of people who do not read the tour description or hear the Guide introduce that storytelling is part of the tour. Those few people then do not understand why they are hearing personal narratives and do not enjoy their experience as much as their peers.

  4. The Guides were inspired to spin off their own projects. One of the guides, Moumena Saradar, has been so invested in sharing stories of Syrian culture that she’s created her own educational YouTube channel, with the help of her children. We are floored by her commitment to offering insight about Syrian traditions. Another guide, Yaroub Al-Obaidi, decided to study socially-engaged art at Moore College and has chosen storytelling in galleries as his thesis topic, using his work as a Global Guide as a case study. We certainly didn’t expect the project to catalyze continued efforts or professional studies for the Guides outside of Penn Museum work. 

  5. Some audiences believe we acquire artifacts through unethical means. Most people in our immigrant and refugee communities, and communities as a whole, do not understand how museum objects come into collections. Many individuals in heritage communities think that objects were recently looted and then purchased by the museum. Given the recent headlines about Facebook looting groups, it’s no wonder that there are misconceptions. Within museum staff, there are growing and numerous concerns about the ethics of collecting, beyond the legal definitions. “AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums reminds us that ‘Legal standards are a minimum. Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability; they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence.’” There have been countless articles on this topic recently, and on a connected issue, decolonizing the museum. We are using this knowledge to reconsider future interpretive approaches.

Moumena Saradar explains the writing style of ancient Mesopotamia and contrasts it with contemporary Arabic calligraphy. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Moumena Saradar explains the writing style of ancient Mesopotamia and contrasts it with contemporary Arabic calligraphy. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum.

 When we were developing the Global Guides program, we understood that the Museum would need to relinquish some authority over how its objects are interpreted to make space for the guides to share their personal experiences. But this paradigm shift has been more rewarding than we ever dreamed. And we continue to encounter new learning moments, from co-creating community events with the Guides, to introducing them to our Board of Directors, to beginning to recruit new people for the two galleries that will open this November. I am grateful for this project every day and continue to unpack the importance of truly engaging with our community members.