The Downside to Admitting to Being a Museum Studies Student

Since moving to DC I’ve made it my goal to see as many museums as possible. Generally speaking, I’ve seen around 1 museum a week which isn’t too bad because it keeps me in touch with the museum culture here without burning out. What I have begun to notice, however, is that many of the museums I’ve visited recently have been a “typical” museum. They look like a classical building, meaning Greco-Roman influence, and inside the galleries are what you would find in any museum anywhere in the world. This isn’t a jab at DC museums, at least the Smithsonian’s, because these are 19th century structures and it’s always difficult to break with what has become the museum standard (especially in the nation’s capital city). But I have started to crave something innovative and different from that “typical” museum visit.

This is why I was so excited when I got the opportunity to visit Forced From Home this past Wednesday for my class on Museum History and Theory. This visit was entirely unexpected and in many ways that made it all the more exciting. The original plan was to see a few exhibitions inside the National Museum of American History and dissect what museum practices and innovations we had just read about were taking place. Instead of heading inside to the museum, my professor mentioned that she had heard of this exhibition being put on by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and had snagged 10 tickets for noon that day. Unfortunately this meant that about five students in the class wouldn’t be able to see Forced From Home that day and would have to stick to the original plan. I had heard about Forced From Home from one of my classmates in my Digital Technology class and instantly jumped at the chance to see how it played out on the National Mall.

Forced From Home follows the path that refugees, internally displaced people, and those seeking asylum must travel to reach a MSF facility. It’s an exhibition that is traveling to five cities over the course of 2016 and definitely worth checking out if it’s in your area. Unlike most traveling exhibitions, this one is outside and, for the most part, uncovered. I was lucky that it was a beautiful day when I had my experience there, but our tour guide did say that they still give tours when the weather isn’t so great. I can only imagine how drastically different that visit must be from my own.

How does it work? Well first you get your entry “ticket” which is really an ID card with a country of origin and your status. I was a Refugee from Burundi. Next we sat down and were given some of the basic information about what MSF does all around the world. Our guide for this experience was a registered nurse from Canada who had been stationed over seas three times with MSF and was using her vacation time to work this exhibition. She asked our class what brought us in today, and I almost wish she hadn’t. We told her we were museum studies students and she said she would try to cater her tour to our interests. I was looking for a truly authentic experience on this visit, so having her alter her normal tour for us didn’t sound too appealing to me. And it turns out, my experience seemed largely shaped by that one admission.

After our initial discussion we moved into this 360 degree video room. The video truly brought to life what it would feel like in a variety of refugee camps around the world as well as meet people living in those camps. It was definitely a great use of technology and had the capacity to hold many more than our 11 person group. The video was about 5 minutes long and was the only video or technology piece in the entire fifty minute tour.

Once we were outside again we were asked to stand in front of pillars that had the names of the countries on our ID cards. We were then asked to go behind the pillar and grab 5 cards that represented the 5 items we would take with us. I grabbed water, clothes, shoes, blankets, and my passport. We were then told to get into a boat and hand over one of our items. This would become a theme at each of the stops on our tour.

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Plastic cards with items commonly taken by people fleeing their homes

At each stop we were told that most of the items around us were actually taken from the field and in many ways that made the experience more visceral. We saw things like life vests that weren’t suitable for open sea travel, abandoned toys, water containment systems, and a camp bathroom. The objects used throughout the exhibition were powerful because they were worn and clearly had a history beyond their placement in the exhibition.

I learned so much information about what MSF did for people, but in many ways I didn’t learn exactly what it was like for the people I was meant to identify with. I think this is because our tour guide knew we were museum studies students. Instead of treating us like normal visitors our tour guide would say “for our average visitor I like to…” and would explain how the experience would typically go rather than allowing us to participate like any other visitor. I think I felt this way because of the tour guide behind us with another group. They running around and the guide was shouting at them to hurry and hand something other whereas everything we did was calm and collected. I wanted to be experiencing a tour like that, something fully immersive.

I appreciated that our guide spoke to us as equals and tried to give us insight into how MSF thought about their tour process, but sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to just jump in head first. To spend less time explaining and more time experiencing.

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2 thoughts on “The Downside to Admitting to Being a Museum Studies Student”

  1. Amanda – what a shame that you weren’t given the full immersive experience. From how you described Forced from Home, I think I would have been particularly fascinated by it. I used to teach adult refugees English. They are truly some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my life, and some of the kindest, which is extraordinary given the difficulties they have had to face in their lives. Most of them had at some point been forced to live in refugee camps where they had little access to education, medical care, plumbing, or proper nutrition. Its truly unfortunate that your guide couldn’t give your group the feeling of hopelessness and disconnection that many refugees feel because she was so focused on describing her tour process. Of course, she meant well. But this is an excellent lesson in the importance of consistency in of immersive experiences. Perhaps if she had asked about your backgrounds at the end of the tour, the experience might have been more beneficial to all parties involved.

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    1. You’re so right! This visit was quite the lesson in consistency and it definitely impacted the visit. What I don’t want to happen is that people don’t go see Forced From Home. Its such an important exhibition to see even just to know the work that MSF is doing all around the world as well as the struggles of refugee families. I think my experience was entirely an one off, and you’re right that it was well intentioned. Everyone else around us seemed to be enjoying their experience and I still loved a lot about Forced From Home!

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