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Museum's Global Guides program links past artifacts with people from those cultures

Posted at 2:21 PM, Mar 03, 2020

Amid treasures on display from Africa, Selemani Sikasabwa feels right home.

“My ancestors used some of them,” he said.

Selemani is part of the Global Guides program at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

“I share my own stories,” he said.

He’s one of seven guides offering tours of galleries, with exhibits that represent the regions they come from: Africa, the Middle East, along with Mexico and Central America. Some are immigrants, while others are refugees, like Selemani.

He fled his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo and spent 19 years in Tanzania as a refugee, before coming to the U.S. five years ago.

“I left my country because of the war,” he said. “There’s war in my country.”

For the museum, the program offers a chance to back up their collections with real-life experiences.

“The more I talk about this, the more it occurs to me that this is kind of a no-brainer,” said Ellen Owens, the Penn Museum’s director of engagement.

She said the museum found the Global Guides helped attract 300 more visitors, just in the last three months. Owens added that about a half-dozen other museums have reached out to them--including the Metropolitan Museum in New York City--to learn more about their Global Guides program.

“We really wanted people to feel more connected to our objects,” she said. “When objects are so old – 5,000, 7,000 years old -- it's really hard to bridge the gap between now and life now, and life way back then.”

The Global Guides program got its start in 2018 in the Mideast Gallery. Last year, they were able to expand the program to other galleries, including the Africa gallery.

For Selemani, it’s a chance to talk about things on display from his home country, like one large, curved drum -- a type he’s seen used before.

“It’s a big drum,” he said, “and I call that drum a ‘radio station without microphone.’”

He calls it that because the sound generated by beating on the drum can travel up to 10 miles, so the drum is used to communicate messages from village to village. It’s a detail that visitors might not realize were it not for Selemani, who feels grateful for the chance to talk about it.

“I’m happy in the United States, because I’m free,” he said. “I work any time I want to go to work, and I feel safe where I’m living.”

It is a way of living and sharing his home culture in his new home.