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Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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Going Forward

Written by Dottie Merrill, Leslie Swartz and Pat Steuert

The effort to increase cultural representation expanded greatly under the leadership of Ken Brecher, the museum's director from 1987 to 1994. Board and staff became more diverse through direct efforts of existing board members and staff. The Multicultural Program, assembled in 1986 and headed by Aylette Jenness and Joanne Jones-Rizzi and assisted by Fabiana Chu, worked with a multicultural advisory board who advised the museum on programs and exhibitions. Programs included community nights that highlighted ethnic groups, such as Armenians, Greeks, and Arabs, speakers and workshops for teachers, multicultural festivals in the visitor center and day-long staff development retreats focused on multicultural themes. Their work ultimately produced the 1990 exhibition The Kids' Bridge, which explored Boston as a city of neighborhoods whose boundaries many children did not cross. The exhibition, which presented the lifestyles of several children from different neighborhoods, dealt frankly with racism and other difficulties young people from different backgrounds experience as well as pride and delight in their ethnicities. The Kid's Bridge's changing gallery allowed staff to work with many communities to present their stories. This hugely popular exhibit later traveled to the Smithsonian Institution and to several other children's museums.

In 1988-89, in honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the museum, exhibit designer Sing Hanson and exhibit developer Dottie Merrill worked with City Stage Company, Inc., to create From Time to Time, a changing exhibition and theater program that celebrated Boston's diverse families, traditions, and history over the preceding seventy-five years. Over the course of that anniversary year, the family in the exhibition's house changed every three months to reflect four distinct periods in Boston's changing history and demographics. Each family's house was decorated with period artifacts (toys and games, newspapers and magazines, shoes) and family memorabilia; period-appropriate activities (player piano, double bass and jazz music) were set up for visitors. City Stage actors played the parts of different family members and through short participatory vignettes, visitors learned about the family and the events of the time.

The house's residents in the exhibit's first year were the Fitzgeralds, an Irish family (1913), followed by the Jewish Guterman family (1939), the African American Robinson family (1963); and in the final quarter the Cambodian Sok family (1989). To welcome the Sok family, the museum held a magnificent Southeast Asian Folk Arts Festival with the help of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The festival spanned a weekend in which Southeast Asian artists and craftsmen performed, demonstrated and talked with visitors—sometimes through interpreters—about their arts. The event was a community icebreaker and became a vehicle for cross-cultural communication.

What began in the '60s as the deeply developed and extraordinarily rich exploration of two cultures through the Japanese House and the Native American program taught staff real lessons about cultural learning. That new learning paralleled what was going on in the country and eventually made the topic of cultural learning an even more complex and controversial challenge. Staff members were exceedingly generous in teaching each other what they learned. They didn't always get it right, but they kept making in-roads in a community full of different cultures. They learned how to listen and partner with people from the cultures who were eager to tell their stories in their voices.

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