Global Guides Are Bringing History to Life at This Museum

Refugees and immigrants working as museum guides give a personal touch to ancient artifacts from their home countries, to the delight of visitors.



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The Philadelphia-based Penn Museum boasts some of the world’s most impressive permanent collections of art and artifacts. But the renowned museum was missing something critical  ̶  the diverse voices of people from the regions and cultures represented in the museum’s collections. Ellen Owens, Director of Learning and Public Engagement at the Penn, came up with the idea to seek out and train refugees and immigrants who could put the museum’s collections into a personal, cultural context for visitors. The first-of-its-kind Global Guides program was born.

"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," said Owens. With extensive collections ranging from Latin America, to all over the African continent and the Middle East, and a solid number of Philadelphia residents hailing from those regions, the program was a natural fit for the museum.

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Meet Global Guide Selemani Sikasabwa! Through the Global Guides Program, the Museum offers gallery tours led by immigrants and refugees who combine personal experiences and stories to interpret objects from their countries of origin.⁣ ⁣ Born in a small village called Lweba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Selemani Sikasabwa was forced to leave his home country during the civil war. In 1996, he fled to Tanzania, where he lived for 19 years. ⁣ ⁣ During his time in Tanzania, he graduated from high school, joined the Institut Biblique International et Evangelique de Nundu Bible School, and obtained a diploma in the Biblical Studies in 2014. He also worked with World Vision Tanzania by serving refugees and other surrounding communities. Through this experience, he learned several cultural traditions and histories from the diverse individuals helped through World Vision. Currently, he works with the Nationalities Services Center as a Swahili, French, and Lingala interpreter for newly resettled immigrants in Philadelphia.⁣ ⁣ Selemani is tour guide in the Africa Galleries. Find a Global Guide-led tour by clicking the link in our bio!

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The Global Guides come from all corners of the world: Iraq, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico, Guatemala, and Angola. The docents receive a crash course in ancient history and archaeology, and work alongside professional storytellers who guide them in how and when to present their connections to the artifacts. They are paid US$20 an hour for their work, empowering the new Americans with a steady paycheck and the opportunity to practice their English skills. "One of the big goals of this project was actually to provide jobs for people that are immigrants and refugees," Ellen explained

Another bonus for the docents is an introduction to the American workplace. Said Kevin Schott, Associate Director of interpretative programs at the Penn Museum, the docents learn things “like how to get sick time, HR procedures, W-2 forms, and how to ask for a day off.” 

The program is especially effective in attracting visitors who are not enthusiastic museum patrons. For those who may be resistant to spending an afternoon staring at relics behind glass, a personal story can transform an ancient artifact into a living, breathing piece of history. Take the example of guide Moumena Saradar, a Syrian refugee and mother of five, whose favorite part of the museum tour is the huge collection of gold jewelry from Mesopotamian Queen Puabi:

"I love Queen Puabi because she reminds me of my wedding day and wedding customs and traditions," Moumena explained to the museum guests. "On my wedding day — guess what — I got approximately two pounds of real gold. So I got that amazing feeling, like — I'm a queen!"

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"Their institution is world-renowned for its priceless artifacts from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. So, why not hire refugees and immigrants from those parts of the world to work as docents?" —@NPR⁣ ⁣ Through the Global Guides program, gallery tours are led by immigrants and refugees who share historical information about the artifacts on display combined with personal experiences and stories to interpret objects from their countries of origin. A third of our visitors today attend specifically to take a tour with a Global Guide, and we now offer tours in our Middle East Galleries, Africa Galleries, and Mexico and Central America Gallery. ⁣ ⁣ ???? Click the link in our bio to read the full @NPR feature, learn more about our wonderful Global Guides, and find a tour. ⁣ ???? Photos: Cameron Pollack for NPR.

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While the jewelry is certainly stunning on its own, visitors respond differently when they connect the artifacts with the museum guide standing in front of them, understanding that the ancient relics on display reflect cultures and traditions that still exist today. 

So far, the program has been wildly successful. The numbers speak for themselves — according to the Penn Museum, attendance has spiked significantly since the Global Guides program launched in 2018. A third of visitors state that they’re coming along because they want to tour with a Global Guide. The program has made waves in the wider museum world as well. The Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England has followed suit, creating their own Global Guides program.

For many docents, the museum has become a slice of home away from home. Clay Katongo, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, beamed as he described how giving tours of the museum’s reputed Africa collection makes him feel connected to his ancestors.  "I love this place," Katongo said. "This is my culture. This is my story."

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