Refugee Docents Help Bring A Museum's Global Collection To Life

Refugee Docents Help Bring A Museum’s Global Collection To Life

Originally published by NPR

The museum faced a docent dilemma.

When Ellen Owens, director of learning and public engagement at the Penn Museum, looked at her pool of docents, she saw a wonderful — and aging — group of largely white people. Docents explain exhibits to visitors and show them around the galleries. Owens thought that having docents from a range of ages and backgrounds might be a good way to connect with more diverse communities who might not otherwise be drawn to the Penn Museum.

With her colleague Kevin Schott, Owens hit upon an idea. 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?

"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 explains.

The Penn Museum is famous for its priceless artifacts from the Middle East, Africa and Central America.

Cameron Pollack for NPR

The Global Guides, as they're called, were recruited with the help of Philadelphia non-profit organizations aiding immigrants and refugees. The guides received traditional training in archaeology and ancient history. Plus, the museum hired professional storytellers to help the Global Guides lace in personal tales about their lives.


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