May points out how the museum experience has boosted her knowledge and self-esteem. May had had a previous experience at a day-care that she describe as “scary.” Her language skills were not as developed as they are now at the museum. She reveals: “I’ve had other experiences working with young children, but it was a difficult experience because I was very shy. I had difficulty communicating to the kids and the staff. I knew I had to get out more. I am improving on this, being here at the museum, because I am being appreciated for what I can give. This is helping me improve my skills with people.”
Dinora articulates the idea of wanting to know more about others: “I feel that it is more open here [at the CCM]: I can be myself here. I am getting to know about other people, not just their culture but also about them as people. I am getting to know about my new country, Canada. This is an important place for me to be learning about other people and about me. [At the museum,] what I say counts. If I have children I want them to have this experience too.”
Finding one’s place in various communities, knowing and being comfortable with one’s position and one’s relationship with others, and acquiring new knowledge is part of the development experience. Add to that communicating through various languages and you now understand the development experience of new Canadians. May and Dinora are developing new positions as teachers and as role models, in their relationships with young children at the museum. Teaching has expanded their learning base about other people, their communities, both old and new, and the world around them. Participating in the delivery of public programmes has built their self confidence. Their involvement also expands the museum’s programme content: their diverse perspectives shed new light on exhibitions for all visitors.
Learning in museums is not easily measured because of its non-structured learning environment. There are however many real benefits that children can acquire in a non-pressured, open-ended milieu designed especially for them. They truly are able to learn about themselves and others in ways that are rare. Dinora has not yet determined her future career but in the meantime Dinora sees the importance of her relationship with children. She explains: “Kids learn about other kids and cultures. They learn to get along with other kids because there are so many activities that they can do as a group. I like to work in the birthday party programme because I get to work with a small groups of children and I know everybody’s names. I am helping them to learn by showing them how to do things – they look up to me. They are learning from me and I am learning how to work with children.”
May sees her position from inside the museum as different than what she experienced as just a visitor. “I am a teacher and learning at the same time,” May admits. “The visitor is only there for one visit maybe. I am here every week. I go home each time so excited because I have learned at least one thing.” Seeing and working with performing artists, learning how to make a new craft, or hearing a visitor’s first-time impressions of the permanent exhibitions, are typical experiences for May and volunteers like her. Similarly she reveals: “I [also] see myself as a link to other girls my age and to [other] Lebanese children that come to the museum. I would like my brothers and sisters to come to the museum so I could show them what I have learned.” May, like other children her age, understands the challenges of growing up. She argues that “it is important for kids to know who they are so they find their place in the world. Kids have to work so hard at knowing where they fit in the world. A lot of kids have a hard time fitting in and making friends. It happened to me when I was younger. I didn’t speak much and held everything inside. I have grown here and am able to speak out. The museum has helped me do this. I am accepted here, this is important for me, to be more confident. The first time I came here I knew it was a place that I could get what I was looking for. I think it is because I can be myself. There is a lot of pressure at school to fit and it is hard. [The museum] is an environment for me to be just be myself and explore who I am with no pressures – just to discover myself.”
As new Canadians, Dinora and May come with a sense of otherness as they both have a strong cultural heritage of which they are proud and which they do not wish to abandon. CCM has provided them with opportunities to be representatives of their cultures to other kids. They feel their museum experiences help them to know themselves by talking with other volunteers and visitors through the museum’s programmes. At the same time they have acquired social skills here to help them articulate their ideas and opinions. May is learning how to break stereotypes and demonstrates respect for others by talking about other cultures to young children. She explains: “This experience is teaching me the tools to make me a spokesperson for my culture. I am part of helping people to make a change. It is a great feeling. I am learning the language of other cultures as well, because of what this museum is about – so that when I begin to travel [which I want to do], I will be more sensitive to the people I meet. I want to learn as much as I can about others and I am learning more about other Canadians, too. I like that. Canadians respect other cultures, they aren’t interested in just themselves, which is an excellent way to be. We need to know what is around us, that if there is a person not like us, we understand them better. This is happening for me here because of my contact with people. Sometimes kids ask me about me personally, not just the exhibition content. I am willing to share with them, because they are so interested and I am able to communicate about things they might not understand. I just started wearing a hijav (scarf worn on head to cover hair), this is new for me. This is part of my religion. I have been thinking about doing this for a long time , the decision to wear it was mine to make and I just started to wear it. Kids might see it everyday, but be shy or not understand why someone wears it. I feel pride that I am able to tell this. I am the expert at that moment.”
Dinora believes the museum is giving her an opportunity to be a representative of Canada to other Canadian kids. “Because I have been given a chance to interact with people from all over the world we are both learning about other people. More than that I learn about them as people and they learn about me as a person. Sometimes people ask me about who I am. I can speak about my own culture – who I am. I can speak with people from all over Canada and all over the world, when they come and visit. Being here is like being in a family. I help other families from the Salvadorian community to come to the museum because they know me and I can tell them about how they can learn here.”
How do you define your place in the world and where you fit? Where can you learn the tools that are necessary to communicate your views, opinions and ideas? How can you develop the skills so you will be heard? What does a museum experience provide for young people that they can get nowhere else?
Dinora and May are discovering themselves in relation to others and developing tools that help them express their own identity. As well, their museum experience has helped develop their sense of identity as new Canadians as well as members of the Lebanese and El Salvadorian cultures. For all children, the Museum is an excellent place to work on communication skills, by learning how to speak to others and be respectful of what they have to say in return. The Canadian Children’s Museum serves as an active space for language development. In our supportive and ungraded learning environment, these girls have felt comfortable enough to practice their communication skills. The confidence gained from this experience has in turn strengthened their interpersonal skills. The CCM encourages them to share their own personal experiences and embraces them as an integral part of our museum’s experience. These children know CCM is a place where they can make a contribution to the community at large. The crossing over from being passive observers to becoming active participants, by expressing themselves personally, these young girls have been give a voice. They have the best of all worlds.
Lynn McMaster, Manager, Programme and Canadian Children’s Museum Planning, has worked at the Canadian Children’s Museum since 1989.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Carla Baggio, Volunteer Co-ordinator for putting me in touch with these two aspiring young women and to Dinora’s and May’s families who introduced them to our museum when they were young.