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HMW curate a museum that evokes empathy about social justice?

Blog post by Team 3, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

 

We start with questions here at Mount Vernon….

How might we curate a museum that evokes empathy around social justice?

Before beginning our research around social justice, our driving question led us to investigate museums and how they are created. We decided to take an expedition to Fernbank Museum of Natural History so that students could examine different types of exhibits as well as elements of museums including lighting, sound, and organization. Students prepared by asking questions like: “If we were to explore a museum, what specifics would we look for?” “How could we organize and record our observations?” and “To whom am I telling this story/who is the audience?”

 

Our goal was for students to gain a deep understanding of how and why museums are designed, which is why the first museum we visited was not related to civil and human rights.

Next, students took their first dive into research by participating in a variety of empathy exercises. They responded to children’s literature that addressed social issues, discussed prior knowledge of civil and human rights, viewed photographs depicting injustices, and then completed a see, think, wonder visual thinking routine. They also watched videos and were exposed to various articles covering topics such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Brown vs. Board of Education, Women’s Rights, Malala Yousafzai, and many more. Most importantly, we discussed and co-created a list of reasons why people might face injustice with our internal expert Brandi Hoyos. This played an integral role in shaping students’ understanding of injustices as well as allowed students to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Keeping empathy at the forefront of our work, students had the opportunity to conduct more in-depth research on the topics to which they felt most connected. Students traveled to different classrooms to gain more perspective on injustices and differences as well as read online books and articles.

Following this, we visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights to hear from an expert curator. Students brainstormed questions to ask and the curator helped us understand how museums can educate visitors on very important social issues. Students were prepared with graphic organizers in hand, just like they were when we visited Fernbank. We prefaced our visit with, “today we’re taking a trip to the Center for Civil and Human Rights.  I want you to think about the exhibits, think about the people you see, think about their feelings, and think about your feelings.”

Students continued researching their topics once they returned and began to think about how they could design an exhibit that would educate their viewers or audience, and honor their topic(s). One student reflected on the process by saying that “it was hard for me because I didn’t know how to show and not tell about my person and her experiences.” 

Once the location of the museum was selected, students created build permits, prototyped, and designed their exhibits. We challenged our third graders to find the correct narrative because in order to effectively tell a story, you have to impart a sense of empathy. We used the recent Obama portrait as an example of art that conveys emotional and historical significance simply through color choices and the placement of objects. 

After a great deal of hard work and collaboration, we decided how the museum would be organized. Many students were then interviewed and a short video was created that played at the entrance of the museum. This provided families with information about the process of the PBL. Students discuss how far we’ve come as a society and how far we still need to go. They internalized their topics and shared the importance of evoking empathy and fostering change. One student conveyed a great sense of pride and passion as he said “we must use the past to understand the future so that these sorts of things do not happen again.”

 

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