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 Museums 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, its quiet again, but not for long. As well as playing a leadership role in the Museums childrens programs and workshops, Nelson also oversees the 275-strong volunteer program, the Museum on the Go program and the Museums summer camp for anthropologists in the making. One minute shes on the phone making sure all her volunteers get invited to the annual volunteers appreciation luncheon, the next shes choosing images for the summer camp brochure. And about every five minutes, someones at her always-open office door with a question.
If I had a nickel for everyone who comes through my door, Id be a millionaire, she says. Not that shes complaining. For many years Nelson ran a daycare out of her home, caring for as many as 11 children at a time. Thats just where my energy level is, she says.
Q. Lets start with the Museum on the Go program, where you take objects into classrooms throughout the city. Tell me about it.
A. Its 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. Isnt it risky having the children handle objects from
A. What often happens is well get an acquisition from a donor that isnt 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 werent 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 thats not what I was hired to do but weve 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. Ive 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 thats kind of the mentality, but by and large weve had wonderful experiences.
Q. Lets 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 registrars office, and a number working on the Civic Center project. I dont know if we could do what we do in this building without volunteers. In fact I know we couldnt.
Q. Can you describe the typical volunteer?
A. Im finding that were getting less elderly retired people. Many people are retiring younger and theyre still vital and still want to be an important part of the world in general. So were getting quite a number of young retired schoolteachers. But theyre from all walks of life.
Q. But presumably some are quite elderly.
A. Yes, I have a mobile guide whos 92 and shes been here for around 25 years or so. I have another whos 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 havent 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 thats the way the students see it, as off by itself.
Q. Whats the favorite part of the Museum for the children
who come here?
A. Egypt. Thats so easy because every day, almost without exception, we have four tours of the Egyptian gallery. Thats not the case with any other gallery. Its the mummies. They call this the mummy museum.
Originally published on January 27, 2005