At my middle school, the “cultural education” element of Spanish class consisted of reading about Spanish-speaking countries in a textbook … and an annual potluck day.
Don’t get me wrong — I love a good tamale as much as the next person! But eating culturally inspired meals can only get you so far in terms of cross-cultural understanding.
Teachers and schools understand this, too, which is why field trips and visits to museums are built in to most schools’ curricula. But that can be expensive, and many schools don’t have the funds to take their students off-campus to learn about other cultures very often.
One nonprofit saw this problem in their own backyard, so they devised an ingenious solution to provide cultural education to under-resourced schools.
Instead of bringing the kids to a museum, they would bring the museum to the kids.
Los Angeles’ Connecting Cultures museum on wheels is now 20 years old, and thousands of kids (most of whom attend low-income schools) have gotten to see the world each year, all without leaving their own campuses.
The mobile museum has three main exhibits.
There’s the commercial collection, which focuses on resources, trade, and colonization. The spiritual exhibit teaches kids about world religions, rituals, and music.
But my favorite is the “Everyday Connections” exhibit. It shows kids the stuff that other cultures considered parts of their day-to-day lives — boring details that we probably wouldn’t think to share but are actually super-interesting to learn about. Students get to try on clothes that people from other countries wear, see what games they play, and learn about what other cultures cook and eat.
Remember how awesome it was when the Scholastic Book Fair set up shop at your school for a week?
The whole idea of the museum-on-wheels is kind of similar … except instead of buying books, students get to learn about other countries’ ways of life.
The museum staff drive to different schools each week to set up a collection of artifacts in a big room inside the school, like the library. Kids get an opportunity to explore the museum during their social studies class. They learn about the artifacts — but unlike some museums, they also get to pick up and touch some of the things on display.
That means there isn’t a glass case between you and the thing you’re supposed to be learning about — it’s right there in front of you.
This is especially important because we all learn in different ways. Some students may be able to absorb lots of information about, say, what goes on in a Moroccan marketplace by seeing a market on a video and hearing the market’s ambient sounds. Other students might learn better by handling a 50 dirham note or touching the fabric that a vendor might sell.
The point here is that there’s a huge difference between looking at a picture in your world geography textbook and actually holding a piece of culture in your hands.
Kim Moreno, a teacher at a school that hosted the mobile museum, said the exhibit allowed her students — a group of kids with diverse, international backgrounds and families — to understand each other better. Rather than relying on stereotypes, the mobile museum gave them a way to see other cultures as three-dimensional and real.
This is the type of learning that I can really get behind.
The Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum leaves a lasting impression on students, and we need more programs like it
In the words of the mobile museum’s founder, Valerie Lezin, “I can take kids from bewilderment to understanding, and from shock to acceptance.”
Check out this video of students getting the full mobile museum experience here: