The Penn Museum is helping Philadelphians bridge cultural gaps through their new Global Guides program

Penn Museum
PHOTO: Eric Sucar, University of Pennsylvania

We as human beings spend a lot of time thinking about our differences. What unique experiences did you go through as a child? What part of the world did you live in while growing up? What sets you apart from someone who lives in a completely foreign culture? 

Those questions and many more like them are receiving answers at the Penn Museum through their new Global Guides program. The program features in-depth tours of the recently opened Africa, Mexico/Central America and re-vamped Middle East galleries at Penn led by immigrants and refugees from the respective areas. Visitors will get a chance to ask those burning cultural questions while receiving information from those who have true personal connections to the exhibits. But what visitors may not realize is, they will come to Penn to find out about the differences we all experience, but they will leave with an even stronger understanding of what makes us all the same and connects us as human beings. 

The Penn Museum is helping Philadelphians bridge cultural gaps through their new Global Guides program

The new and re-vamped galleries where the tours take place are part of a recent unveiling that debuted at the Museum less than a month ago. The 10,000 square feet of completely reimagined spaces also include the new Sphinx Gallery, the historical Harrison Auditorium and the stunning new Main Entrance Hall. With the recent unveiling comes an influx of visitors all eager to take a peek at the fresh spaces and dive headfirst into the new cultural offerings. 

Penn Museum

“As the museum grows and expands, we are always thinking about how to stay relevant,” says Ellen Owens, Director of Learning and Public Engagement at the Penn Museum. “Our objects are very old, and people can have trouble connecting to something from 5,000 years ago. There are also misconceptions about certain cultures from the past and even about what is going on in certain places now. This program was started to liven up the objects in the gallery and to also show that a lot of traditions have very deep roots. When visitors take these tours, they find relationships with the tour guides and that’s our goal. People are also able to connect with objects that they never would have thought of before and we are thrilled to make that happen.” 

The tours are truly unique. Each tour guide is eager to speak about their culture and more than willing to answer any questions visitors may have about a particular object, time period or subject. The immigrant and refugee guides were trained by the museum, but their passion is instinctual. 

“For me, it’s so meaningful to be a part of this project,” says Middle East Global Guide and Iraq native Yaroub Al-Obaidi. “So many people come who have never even met anyone from the Middle East. Some don’t have information on the situation and there are a lot of conflicting issues surrounding that region. That’s why we are here, for people to understand the community and culture, which also helps them to understand the situation more. It’s very meaningful to be close to the artifacts from my home country, every tour I am excited and it has become a part of my life.” 

Each tour offers a different experience and a gateway for visitors to start important conversations about our world today, and to take a moment to learn more about rich and diverse pasts. Think of it as a way to take an in-depth look at a foreign land and immerse yourself in the culture without ever hopping on a plane or getting your passport stamped. 

Visitors will make stops at particular items displayed throughout the exhibit; the guides will explain the signifigance of the item or object, but will also give a more personal outlook on the experience as a whole. 

Penn Museum

“I feel a sense of pride walking into the gallery,” says Mexico/Central America Global Guide and second-generation Guatemala native Celeste Diaz. “Being a second-generation immigrant I felt pressure to know all of these things, but I didn’t because I wasn’t born there. So it really built a way for me to get connected back to my roots. It’s an interesting learning experience for me. I think its a real gem, there is so much here. Now I have this sense of responsibility to get people to come and learn.”

The guides involved with the program not only lead tours at the museum, they also help out with a lot of community events and projects that Penn offers for the public (check out the official website for in-depth details). It’s all part of a mission to help Philadelphians discover diverse cultures and build bridges for all human beings from all types of worldly backgrounds. 

“This program answers many questions,” says Africa Global Guide and Democratic Republic of the Congo native Clay Katongo. “What am I missing about my culture? How can I learn more about it? How can I learn more about myself from other people? The way people view my culture and myself means more to me in the sense that I can learn more from their views and cultures. This gives me the ability to share more about my culture and to see how other cultures of the world come from one place. Even though we are different, if you go really deep you will see that we are all actually similar.” 

The Global Guide tours are free with Museum admission and open to the public. Tours run on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Additional tours may be added for increased demand. The program also sponsors trips to the Museum and can even offer tours in different languages as well. To learn more, visit penn.museum

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