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

Cameron Pollack for NPR
Cameron Pollack for NPR
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology — known as The Penn Museum — has hired refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Central America as part of their "Global Guides" program. Moumena Saradar, who is originally from Syria, stands next to the wedding jewelry and headdress of Queen Puabi, her favorite part of the Middle East gallery.

The museum faced a docent dilemma.

When Ellen Owens, director of learning and public engagement at thePenn 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 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.

On a recent winter morning, Moumena Saradar, a 43-year-old refugee from Syria, met a visitor wearing a dark green hijab and a radiant smile that warmed up the museum's chilly marble halls. She proudly escorted her guest through a collection that includes thousands of ancient Sumerian clay tablets, coins and sculptures. "The oldest artifacts here are 7,000 years old," Saradar explained.

Saradar immigrated to Philadelphia three and a half years ago with her husband and five kids. Back in Damascus, she worked as a lab technician in a hospital. Now, she connects her history with a cache of fabulous gold jewelry excavated from the tomb of a powerful Mesopotamian queen.

"I love Queen Puabi because she reminds me of my wedding day and wedding customs and traditions," Saradar says. "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!"

Attendance at the Penn Museum has shot up since the Global Guides' first tours in 2018. A third of its visitors today attend specifically to take a tour with a Global Guide, according to the institution's internal research, and the program has attracted attention throughout the museum world. Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs, and there's already one in place at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England.

Julian Siggers, director of the Penn Museum, says it's especially meaningful to have docents from Iraq and Syria, given that his institution owes its entire existence to artifacts legally excavated from there in the 1800s.

"This is a part of the world where not only do you see the first cities, but you see the first writing, the first irrigation, the first astronomy," he says. "I mean, we all have this enormous debt to these cultures of the ancient Near East. And of course that's where [the docents] are from and they're very proud of that."

The Global Guides also come from Mexico, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Clay Katongo arrived in North America 13 years ago after fleeing the DRC. He's a new Global Guide, whose tours concentrate on the spectacular Africa collection, replete with religious artifacts preceding the spread of Christianity and Islam.

"I love this place," Katongo says. "This is my culture. This is my story." Katongo sees himself as part of a long lineage of spiritual leaders from central Africa. His primary job is as a pastor in a West Philadelphia evangelical church. It provides day care for immigrant workers. He's deeply involved in supporting his community, and the Penn Museum supports him, says Ellen Owens.

"One of the big goals of this project was actually to provide jobs for people that are immigrants and refugees," she says. The part-time guides are paid about $20 an hour and the grant that funds them builds in help to negotiate economic and cultural barriers.

"Like how to get sick time, HR procedures, W-2 forms, how to ask for a day off," says Kevin Schott, associate director of interpretative programs. "I think we often forget all the dumb things we know about having a job in America."

But the upside for the museum is huge, Schott adds. The Global Guides have turned out to be invaluable when it comes to translating documents in Arabic, Spanish and other languages. They've helped curators on the ground doing research in Iraq. And at a moment when the tragedies of other countries can feel as remote as an artifact locked away in a glass case, hearing refugees' stories in tandem with artifacts from the past makes both feel more personal and present.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.