Transforming the Museums with Teens, a Conversation with Julia Szejnblum, Former Coordinator of the Escúchame/Hear Me Out Project at HMSC

Jennifer Berglund

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host!

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today, I'm speaking with Julia Szejnblum, the former coordinator of the Escuchame/ Hear Me Out project at HMSC. A project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for teenagers from the local Somerville and Chelsea communities who identify as Latinos, Latinas, LatinX or Hispanics. The teens create different media projects designed to make our museums more engaging and accessible to their communities. I wanted to ask Julia about that, and the many things she's learned from the teens, and how we might use that knowledge to create a more accessible HMSC. Here she is.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Julia Szejnblum, welcome to the show.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Thank you, Jennie, for having me. It's so great to be here.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Tell me about the Hear Me Out/Escuchame project. What is it, and what do you hope it accomplishes?


Basically, our goal with the program is to work with the teenagers, have fun, introduce them to our museums, but also at the same time make our exhibits more contemporary and meaningful for their communities and for them. In the last term, we did a virtual tour. So we weren't in person yet. Now we're in person for the first time. It's exciting. We Yeah, it's very exciting. We we taught them how to make stop motion video and different online designs. And we kind of added these products to an exhibition we have in the Peabody Museum, which is called "Resetting The Table", which is about food and about our tastes, and about different communities and their relationship with food waste and cooking. So they kind of reflect on their own practices around food and around eating. And they made stop motion videos, and also kind of online designs, showing recipes or showing menus they would like to eat or that they would eat together as a family on special occasions. And that's now a virtual tour that you can actually access on our website. It's a bilingual tour because the whole program is bilingual. And that's what we've done in the past term. And now this term, we're working in the Natural History Museum, and they're doing an audio companion. So you can go to exhibitions and retrieve with QR codes their audios talking and reflecting and relating to different animals in our collection. So they're working with taxidermy animals this term. So those are kind of the things we do with them.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Why do you think museums, and our museums in particular, may have felt a little inaccessible to this group of teens?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Yeah, I think there's a lot of factors to it. For people in Chelsea, one main factor is that Chelsea and Cambridge are not very well connected. So even though these two cities are neighbors, the public transportation and just the daily commute from one to the other, it's kind of difficult, sometimes there's a lot of traffic, and there's no direct way of transportation. So that's for sure one main factor, but also that all these teenagers are bilinguals. We're working towards a more bilingual type of setting. We're having programs in both languages, and we're doing other efforts to it. But if you just go by yourself to a museum and kind of wander around, it's not that easy to encounter Spanish material or information in Spanish. So that's one factor. Another factor is just museums are not that popular among teenagers, per se. I mean, you kind of have to make an effort to bring them in and show them that they're actually fun and cool. People don't know that museums are cool. And teenagers don't know that museums are cool. They also come from different families with a lot of siblings and getting to the museums can be expensive and can be far. So it's a big logistics for a family who visit our museums. And there's also the language barrier for course.

 

Jennifer Berglund

How do you think you personally connect with these teens in particular.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Coming from Argentina and being a recent immigrant, I connect with this project on a deep level, because many of our teenagers have recently immigrated to the US, they're still learning how to speak English, they still prefer to speak Spanish. And the program is completely bilingual because of that. The other kids who haven't recently immigrated, they're still daughters or sons of someone who immigrated or maybe both parents have recently immigrated. So they have these different traditions and culture in their houses, and they feel a little bit outsiders in the US. So that's kind of the same feeling I am experiencing as an immigrant myself. So really, to connect with them on this sense is very, very fulfilling for me. And I also think it's for them coming to the museum and seeing that there's someone like me who's going through something similar. And also that us and the museum are interested in hearing their stories. So we basically spend a lot of time just talking about food, talking about missing our families, chatting about the different traditions we have. Hear Me Out/Escuchame is a lot about that we, as I told you last term, we did a special tour about the Resetting The Table exhibition, which is about food. And we spend a lot of time just talking about foods, talking about the recipes, sharing recipes, and different traditions. So for me being in touch with them spending this first year in the US and seeing other people going through something similar is amazing and it's very fulfilling.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I would imagine that coming into this country, coming into Cambridge, and Chelsea, as an immigrant, you may feel a bit like an outsider. And being in a museum, talking about something as basic to our humanity and being being a living creature as food, and finding a way to find some commonality in that in our various cultures. And having kids think about how food plays a role in their own culture, and maybe finding ways to celebrate that. Would you say that, that maybe makes you and perhaps them feel a little bit less of an outsider?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

I definitely think so. I think that being able to share the space in a museum, in a Harvard Museum with everything that it implies, snd being able to talk about our most common practices, being able to talk in Spanish. As I told you, some of our teenagers are even learning English, and they're having hard time at school or in the streets, but they come to a museum and they talk to me in Spanish all the time. And it's not an issue there. So I think it's very great to achieve that. And also while you're immigrating or while you're trying to fit into society, and that's something common for every teenager, just having these groups and the safe spaces. And in this project, they meet other people who are also interested in things that they are interested in. So it's not only about identity, but also about just meeting people who might also be interested in culture, or maybe also be interested in museums or in media making. So I think it's great on every level. I think that for them being in our museums, and getting to experience different things and see things that they might find a connection with in the collections, it's amazing. For instance, one of the girls part of the program, she's from Guatemala, and we were wandering about the museum and she found a quetzal, which is it's kind of the national bird, I think they have any coins. And it's a very typical animal, but it's also these very attractive bird. And she was very excited to see it. She had never seen one in person because her parents are from Guatemala, but she hasn't been there. So she was very excited to show to all the group kind of the bird that was so important in her culture but she had never seen before. And also she hadn't seen the museum and she had the chance to connect with our museum educators and learn more about them. And she actually learned that the quetzal is not only in Guatemala but you can find it from Mexico to Panama and that they have different colors. So the quetzal in Guatemala tends to be green and the one we have in the museum is blue which might be from another Central America country. So it's also very nice to see how they sometimes identify things in the collections that kind of alter their own stories and things they already kind of knew about. But now they can expand more about those things in a place outside, kind of, their family life, where it's the main place where they kind of talk about their roots and their backgrounds.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Teens are different kinds of museum visitors than adults or than younger kids, I think it's fair to say in that they're kind of malleable. They're sort of semi adults, but they're still forming their interests, forming their own opinions. Why do you think this makes teens particularly great to work with in museums?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Yeah, teens are great in general, that they're also great to work in the museums, because they're so open minded. It's very interesting when you talk to them. So some of them are already kind of planning college or their next steps in their lives, or I get to talk to them about other courses are taking in school. And they have all these different interests, and they still pursue, kind of, the museum interest. Whereas adults are kind of more narrow minded. Maybe if you're a lawyer, you're just mainly interested in the things you do. With teenagers, they're just looking for all these new experiences. And they're kind of trying to find what they enjoy. And that's great, because they come with a very open mind. And they're willing and excited by everything. And they kind of discover new things and new interests they didn't know they had, but they're open to it. And that's also very cool from the museum perspective, because sometimes we want to bring more Hispanic people or people from our neighboring cities, but it's not that easy to get an adult to come to the museum, if that's not in their common plans. But teenagers, they are open to trying out this program, and they just come and then they might bring with them, their families or some other friends who are not as curious as them.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So they're kind of like ambassadors. Museum ambassadors, right?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

I mean, you never know how each of them is going to be. As part of the programs, one of the benefits is we give them a membership and we give them many guest passes. And we make these public events where they bring people in, and they also get very excited. So they genuinely mostly want to bring people. So yeah, we can call them ambassadors. Afterwards, of course, everyone has their own personality and some of them are not that outgoing. Or they don't want to involve their friends or their families. Maybe they enjoy it on a private level or at an individual level and they don't want to involve other people. But yeah, you could say some of them operate as ambassadors for sure.

 

Jennifer Berglund

What are you learning about them and about the museum experience through them?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

I learned a lot about them. Of course, it's like every time you meet a new person, you learn something new. And we are meeting a lot of people through this program. And it's also interesting how this program is conceived for, let's say, Latino, Latina, Latinx, or Hispanic teenagers. But that's obviously an umbrella term and doesn't mean anything in the core. Or I mean, it means something, but we don't know what it means. So it's also very nice to kind of, despite having that umbrella term in common and being all from the same age, and maybe from the same city, everyone's super different. Everyone has their own interests. Everyone has their own complicated or non complicated relationship with their roots, with their backgrounds, with being an immigrant ,with their parents being immigrants, they have different families, they have different traditions. From the outside, we presented this kind of like it's a niche. And it is, of course, because if they're, in the end, they're Hispanic teenagers from these cities. But it's also like a whole world that opens up. And at the same time when they come to the museums, I also get reminded that museums are cool, which I already know, but it's very nice to see them come in and kind of remember that museums are fun, that they don't have to stay old, that they can tell new stories, that everyone can fill the museum's up with their impressions or emotions or reactions that different people are welcome. So that's also great to see. Depending on their personalities, everyone kind of connects with something different. So that's also very interesting to see. So maybe, now that we're working in the Museum of Natural History, some of them are more interested in nature, or they like hiking or camping. And they kind of connect to the natural aspects of the museum and just looking at the animals and different plants and kind of learning and getting more information. Some of them are more interested in kind of ethical problems, like how did the animals get to the museums, were they hunted, were they donated. So it's very interesting, because a lot of different questions come up. And they are directly related to some things that they have been thinking about or things they're struck by. Other people like to draw. So they're very interested in kind of the colors and the shapes. We did some activities of drawing in the galleries and some people really enjoy that. And it's very broad.

 

Jennifer Berglund

You have the story of the student who had never seen a quetzel before, which is such a great story. I think there are lessons that we can take away from that as museum practitioners. We can, by observing these students observing how they interact with the museum, what excites them the most. It's not just the students learning and becoming acquainted with the museum, I think there's an opportunity for us to learn from them about how they interact with the museum and to enrich and nurture, highlight and enable them to experience more of that, and the museums.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

I agree with that 100%. And what we're trying to do with the tours and with the audio companions, and the different things they're making for the exhibitions, it's also to kind of add these impressions they have to the collections and to leave them there permanently. So when other people visit the exhibitions, they kind of can see how some other person has engaged with, for example, one particular animal or one particular object or one particular art piece. And that may also make you ask yourself, "Do I have a story with any of these animals? Or do I also have a recipe I would like to share? Or do I connect to this object in a particular way, in my daily cooking practice?" So I also think that the tours we're making are a very direct way of showing the general public how these teenagers are kind of interacting with the collections and the different stories they have.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And from that, we can create a more engaging experience for different audiences at the museum.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

What we're also trying to do is kind of give them a floor for them to express something and try to engage other people with the museums. So what they're trying to do is, kind of, react to this exhibition, but at the same time, they're also thinking, "What's my favorite animal in this exhibition? And what do I want to say about that exhibition?", and when they're saying those things, they're not only thinking about general museum audiences, but also things they just want to say. And that's of course attractive, because it's very true to who they are. And it's very pure and interesting, because stories are just interesting, their personal stories, that they're also very interested in hearing what their partners had to say, so the other people in the program. And I think just as a teenager, or as a Hispanic person, coming to the museum and hearing people who are like you in a way or who you share certain background, or certain common grounds. Like if you go to the museum and you see like a recipe of arroz con leche, and you make it too, or you make it in a different way. Of course that's going to be interesting for you in a way and you will be able to think about your own practice while listening to someone else making their arroz con leche. And you can also connect to the collection, which might show you another way to make rice, or another way how to make a dessert, or how rice used to grow in the field.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah, so you can make connections by finding that thing that they connect with on a personal level. You can create sort of a web of connections, right? So you know, you can connect that to agriculture. You can connect that to science. You can connect that to other cultures. In exhibits we talk about entry points, right? So you find a particular story or an anecdote that will draw an audience in to a larger concept. And I feel like this is very similar in that way, right? You're searching for that personal connection that the students have, the individual students have, and figuring out ways to tie that other learning opportunities within the museum.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Yeah, that's what we try to do, kind of, try to connect with a specific thing in the collection, and kind of help them build their stories around it in different media's and in different presentations. And then we think that their stories add a lot of value to the exhibitions, but they are also very interesting for other visitors if they come from the same city, or if they share something with these people, you might connect to these stories in a personal way. But also, if you're an outsider, and you don't even know what an arroz con leche recipe is, or what's the connection with a quetzal because you've never seen one before. You don't even know what type of bird it is. It's also interesting, because it's different from you. And you're also hearing it in first person, someone talking about an individual emotional connection, then that's always very appealing and interesting and enriching. And it's a it's a-

 

Jennifer Berglund

It's a powerful connection, right? There's power in that connection, having that personal experience.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Yep.

 

Jennifer Berglund

How did you get interested in that kind of work, and then what drew you to this project in particular?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

So I was always very interested in the connection between arts, and arts institutions, and politics. And I really love the connection between art, or how any type of collection can help people and the museum change at the same time. So I really think that the engagement between people and the collections can help this person think and question and grow their ideas. But it's also very good to the museum, because in those ways, the museums can incorporate new discourses and new narratives, and it makes it more contemporary and more interesting. After my master's in arts policy, I did an internship in a museum in the Netherlands, which is called Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. And they have this project with different social political groups that were from the city and the museum was working together with them. So people in the museum would teach these people in these groups how to use the museum to expand their platforms to just hang out in the museum, to use the museum to meet, use the museum to get creative. That's a great thing for these groups, of course, but also, the museum benefits a lot from these relationships because the only way to bring a new narrative in the museum is to actually bring new people to the museum and to show them the space and the collection, and how these things are there for them. And that following certain rules, like not eating in the galleries, they can actually be part of the museum and they can enjoy it and they can learn from it. And they can build up their own ideas and thoughts by reflecting and just engaging with different aspects of a collection as we were just talking about Hear Me Out/Escuchame. In that internship was when I discovered what I wanted to do, just to try to make it easier for different people to access these spaces, who can be sometimes so intimidating, and so elitist. I also think, of course, this interest comes from a personal perspective, that is that I really enjoy museums, and I really use museums for my personal thinking. And just, I spend a lot of time in museums and also during all my immigration process I think museums were very important for me. Like moving to a new city and not having much to do, and probably not having a lot of friends or a lot of institutions you belong to. Just going to these spaces and being able to just do something or participate in a debate or in a public program, engage with different people. But also think about things that are going on in your personal life. Like I remember this exhibition about immigration in the ICA two years ago, and I was about to kind of move here. And I remember just going to the exhibition and seeing how these different artists dealt with this immigration processes and how everyone would react differently. And I would think about myself going through this situation. But also, while spending many hours outside the house, which was something I wasn't doing much because I hadn't even moved here. So it's not like I had to go to work or you know. Of course with COVID, nobody had to go out of their houses afterwards. But I mean, in a normal world where people are actually getting out of their houses and going someplace else I'm having like things to do. So I really think that the museums work for me that way, and I'm sure they can do it for other people. But also that museums bring new ideas and new questions, and they kind , you ask all these questions and then you might discover things that you didn't know you were interested in. Like, I'm not particularly interested in animal rights, for example, it's something I, of course, I think it's a very important subject and everything, but I'm not especially an activist, or I don't especially read a lot about that. But then you just go to the Museum of Natural History at Harvard, and you see all these animals, and they're taxidermy animals. And you're like, wow, what happened with this? How did I get here and you, it just, you're not looking for it. But all these questions arise. And it's kind of difficult not to see them and not to engage with them. And that's also very interesting for any curious person just going around and checking out your reactions to the things you're exposed to. And also in this kind of internet era, where you're mostly consuming things that you choose to consume, and you're not being exposed to different things so you mostly see movies you like or read articles you already are interested in or agree with. Just going to the museum and maybe seeing an exhibition by an artist, you think it's horrible. It's also interesting, because we're not, we're not exposed to horrible things by choice. We're exposed to horrible things, but we don't choose to consume those things. And in the museum, you can't, can't escape it. You can't escape it. And that's also very interesting and refreshing.

 

Jennifer Berglund

How do you think programs, projects, like, Hear Me Out/Escuchame add value to their home institutions?

 

Szejnblum, Julia

I think most of the institutions that are running nowadays days are built on very racist, and white, and hegemonic narratives. And then we're saying all the time that we want to shift towards more diverse museums where other narratives come in. And, kind of, the only way to do that is to bring different people in. And by bringing different people in and kind of actually opening up to these different narratives and these different experiences is the only way for the museum to stay alive in a way and be contemporary. If not, resumes are always selling these stories from the past, using a very narrow perspective. And it's key for kind of the survival of a museum to just try open it up and just listen to different people and engage in different types of activities, be informed by that, but also be that way, in a way, like open up not only to hearing, but also kind of learning and working together with different people and start shifting a little bit because if not, this is not going anywhere. The museum narratives are traditionally one type of narrative. And if we want to make our institutions more contemporary, and more interesting, and more diverse, and more, I don't want to say real, but kind of show in a way the realities of the world where there are many positions and many stories and many points of view. You really have to open up your institution to be filled with all these different narratives and points of view. And that's vital for the museum because if we don't do that, then we're going still be telling the same story for another 500 more years. It's just like a story with people made up feeling it with real voices and actual things.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah, I mean, the only way that we're going to learn how to connect with our audience is to listen to our audience.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

And to also make them part of a museum because we might also have a lot of different pieces in our collection that they can say a lot about these things more than us, you know, because they're connected in a way to these things because they might come from their own cultures, or I think just everyone has something to say about everything.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And some of those things might be surprising, that we never would have thought of, with our backgrounds and history. It takes someone from a different culture, a different upbringing, to bring that fresh interpretation into the space.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Yeah, and it's also very interesting to how individual people connect to different collections, even here in the Isabella Stewart Gardner, you go and it's amazing, just because this woman, she decided how to display everything. And it really ties with her personality and what she wanted to come across. So that it's like,-

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah, that's a good point. Right, it's this, it's this museum that has all this amazing art, right, but it's a museum about her, it's like you're exploring her mind, when you explore this place.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

So if you bring all these people and they kind of all are able to kind of put a little bit of them in the collection, that would be very interesting, and also very diverse. And you would get to engage with different points of view and different ways of seeing the world. Not only taking into account the actual objects and collections that we're exhibiting, but also kind of the curating of it and the disposition of the objects and some other things like the tours we're doing with the Hear Me Out/Escuchame project. So you will kind of get these different voices coming from different places, and that of course, enriches everyone's experiences.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Julia Szejnblum, thank you so much for being here. This has been great.

 

Szejnblum, Julia

Thank you so much. It was great to talk to you.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen, and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to HMSC, and Julia Szejnblum for her wisdom and expertise. Also, Julia just left HMSC after accepting a position as the new Associate Director of Exhibitions at the Boston Center for the Arts. We'll miss her terribly but are delighted for her to begin this new exciting chapter. Congratulations, Julia! Thank you so much for listening. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean or wherever you get your podcasts. See in a couple of weeks!