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Special Topic Teaching: “The Jewish Immigrant Experience”

How does an ethnic museum, the National Museum of American Jewish History, located in the “olde city” of Philadelphia, tell the story of the immigrant experience to students of all backgrounds and religions using a permanent collection that is not “child-friendly?”

The reality of many special-topic museums, including ours, is that their exhibits are adult-oriented and their space is limited. As Museum Educator, I was sure that a “hands-on” museum hunt was the way for children to understand and identify with the exhibit’s artifacts … but how?

One day the Curator walked into my office with an 1 10-year old satchel brought to this country by a Jewish immigrant. Would I like to have it for a lesson? A light bulb went off as I mentally placed “hands-on” (nonmuseum quality) artifacts into what was to become “Grandmother’s suitcase.” It was to become an important addition to the lessons offered by our Education Department.

The following description of the museum hunt was developed after several experiments to find out what worked best with our tour groups of mainly public and Hebrew school students, as well as increasing numbers of intergenerational visitors.

The experience begins in the sanctuary of Kahol Kadosh Mikvah Israel, a synagogue located in the same building as the museum and home to the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. It fits into the Jewish immigrant story very well as the “living history component” of the museum visit. It is in this spot that the idea of “hands-on” artifacts is first introduced. Students see, and in some cases try on, Jewish objects relating to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah (the important life cycle event in the life of a thirteen year old Jewish boy and girl). by Charlotte Paul

Then, the group moves to the audio-visual room of the museum where they watch “Molly’s Pilgrim.” This award-winning film features Molly, a contemporary immigrant to the United States from what was the Soviet Union. Several objects that Molly’s family brought from Russia are seen in the film. “Grandmother’s suitcase” also contains examples of these “memory objects from home” so that the docent can introduce the children to artifacts that earlier immigrants brought as tangible reminders of home.

The docent shows students enlarged examples of text that accompanies every museum artifact. She explains how to read the information to learn about the history of an artifact. Aha! The veil of mystery surrounding the museum begins to disappear.

After this, she opens the satchel and carefully removes one object at a time. Each object invokes memories from previous immigrant generations. A description of the object’s use and significance follows. Then, the object is given to a student to hold. Each “hands-on artifact” directly relates to an actual artifact in the core exhibit titled The American Jewish Experience. The children are then divided into small teams and given a copy of the Curator/Detective Museum Hunt, and the game of locating similar authentic artifacts begins. The children must cooperate by reading the museum labels to enable them to match the artifacts.

The culmination of the hunt takes place in the room where it began. Each group shares the results with the others while holding up their object. At the conclusion, they carefully repack the satchel.

The Museum Hunt creates a nonthreatening game experience that even our intergenerational groups enjoy. It gives members of the older generation an opportunity to share a childhood memory, using an object from their past, with a youngster. This was especially poignant at a recent intergenerational lesson when Jewish senior citizens paired with Asian high school students from the inner city and discovered similarities in their memories of the immigrant experience.

Another valuable lesson of the Museum Hunt is learning to prioritize. Students become sensitive to the decisions immigrants face when selecting small personal items to bring to a new land. Discussions about the kinds of items they might choose, were they immigrants with only limited space, usually focuses on those objects that are irreplaceable, valuable, or that evoke cherished memories.

Charlotte Paul is the Museum Educator at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. She is responsible for the institution ‘s education curriculum, the Ralph Lopatin Film Library, and the training and coordinating of a volunteer staff of 45. Ms. Paul earned her undergraduate degree in art education at Moore College of Art. and her graduate work was done at Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and Glassboro State College.

Paul, Charlotte. “Special Topic Teaching: ‘The Jewish Immigrant Experience,” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1992): 13.

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