If you find your patience tested by too many workday interruptions, try spending a morning with Jane Nelson.
With her office just a few steps from the Penn Museum’s Kress entrance, she starts her day to the high decibel accompaniment of excited giggles and shrieks from hoards of school children gathering for tours. Once the youthful crowds have been escorted to the galleries, it’s quiet again, but not for long. As well as playing a leadership role in the Museum’s children’s programs and workshops, Nelson also oversees the 275-strong volunteer program, the Museum on the Go program and the Museum’s summer camp for “anthropologists in the making.” One minute she’s on the phone making sure all her volunteers get invited to the annual volunteers appreciation luncheon, the next she’s choosing images for the summer camp brochure. And about every five minutes, someone’s at her always-open office door with a question.
“If I had a nickel for everyone who comes through my door, I’d be a millionaire,” she says. Not that she’s complaining. For many years Nelson ran a daycare out of her home, caring for as many as 11 children at a time. “That’s just where my energy level is,” she says.
Q. Let’s start with the Museum on the Go program, where you take objects into classrooms throughout the city. Tell me about it.
A. It’s a very hands-on program. For example, for the Native American program we bring in a small mummified ibis and a crocodile which the kids absolutely love, and we have clothing of the period that they can try on and skins from all different kinds of animals. It really brings it to life.
Q. Isn’t it risky having the children handle objects from the collection?
A. What often happens is we’ll get an acquisition from a donor that isn’t considered valuable. For example, when the Civic Center Museum closed, they put all their things in a warehouse up in North Philadelphia and asked museums in the area to come and look and see if there were objects they could use in their museums. A lot of the objects weren’t considered valuable, and those are the kind of things I can use for the education program.
Q. Do you teach any of the classes yourself?
A. Yes, initially that’s not what I was hired to do but we’ve sometimes had trouble finding volunteers who are willing to go to any school in the district. You never know what the situation is going to be when you get there. I’ve always worked with children, so I just love teaching and being with students.
Q. How do you keep the students focused?
A. We spend quite a bit of time talking about making fire and how things were cooked. Their eyes light up with that and if I have a particularly disruptive class its kind of a carrot I use. I tell them we can do fire if we get through the rest of this lesson. ... I remember how we treated substitute teachers long ago, so that’s kind of the mentality, but by and large we’ve had wonderful experiences.
Q. Let’s talk about the volunteers. What kind of things do they do in the Museum?
A. Some work with the schools on a daily basis. We have 30 mobile guides, and we also have people working with the collections and in the registrar’s office, and a number working on the Civic Center project. I don’t know if we could do what we do in this building without volunteers. In fact I know we couldn’t.
Q. Can you describe the typical volunteer?
A. I’m finding that we’re getting less elderly retired people. Many people are retiring younger and they’re still vital and still want to be an important part of the world in general. So we’re getting quite a number of young retired schoolteachers. But they’re from all walks of life.
Q. But presumably some are quite elderly.
A. Yes, I have a mobile guide who’s 92 and she’s been here for around 25 years or so. I have another who’s volunteered here for 50 years.
Q. The Museum is such a world unto itself. Do you feel connected with the larger Penn community?
A. Not very much. Unfortunately. We would like to see more of a collaboration, but we haven’t figured that one out. My son was a Penn student here and he said he never would take a class at the museum because it was too far to walk. I think that’s the way the students see it, as off by itself.
Q. What’s the favorite part of the Museum for the children who come here?
A. Egypt. That’s so easy because every day, almost without exception, we have four tours of the Egyptian gallery. That’s not the case with any other gallery. It’s the mummies. They call this the mummy museum.
Originally published on January 27, 2005