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In a brilliant move, Penn Museum hires refugees as guides to exhibits from their homelands

Imagine walking through a museum exhibit from the Middle East with a personal guide from that region explaining the artifacts. Imagine having the same experience as you move through galleries from different parts of the world, each time with a docent from that region who lends a personal touch by sharing first-hand perspectives.


That's the basis of Penn Museum's Global Guides program, which hires docents (the people who explain exhibits and show people around the galleries) from the regions being showcased. It's a brilliantly simple concept—a museum staff that is culturally representative of the artifacts it houses—but one that has not often been implemented. That may be one reason the program has taken off with great success.

Another reason may be because the docents the museum has hired come from the refugee and immigrant community—a win-win situation for both the people serving and the people being served.

According to NPR, Ellen Owens, director of learning and public engagement at Philadelphia's Penn Museum, noted that most of the museum's docents were aging. They were also mostly white. Owens thought that creating a more diverse group of docent might help the museum connect with more communities.

The museum is known for its collections from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America—regions that make up a large part of the global refugee community. So Owen and her colleague, Kevin Schott, decided to reach out to non-profit organizations serving refugees and immigrants to recruit new docents.

The Global Guides are trained in archaeology and ancient history and are able to share some of their personal stories with the people they guide through the exhibits. That personal touch makes all the difference.

"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 told NPR.

For example, Clay Katongo fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo 33 years ago and now serves as a pastor in a West Philadelphia evangelical church. As a new Global Guide, he enjoys sharing African religious artifacts predating Christianity with museum-goers.

"I love this place," Katongo told NPR. "This is my culture. This is my story."

The Global Guides is truly a mutually beneficial program. "One of the big goals of this project was actually to provide jobs for people that are immigrants and refugees," Owens told NPR. Guides work part-time and are paid about $20 an hour. The Barra Foundation grant that funds them also helps them navigate employment details, such as filling out tax forms and going through HR procedures.

The museum, in turn, not only gets first-hand accounts from the areas of the world it's showcasing, but the new docents have also proved invaluable in helping to translate documents and helping with on-the-ground research.

Attendance at the museum has skyrocketed since the Global Guides program was implemented, with a third of visitors coming specifically because of it. Other museums around the world have begun implementing similar programs as well.

Well done, Penn Museum. Thank you for leading the way.

All photos courtesy of Albertsons
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