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NY Museum Teaches Guides to Make Own Tours

The American Museum of Natural History in New York offers an educational program each summer that allows young adults to create their own imaginative and interactive tours. After a month of training in June with museum experts, the guides take summer camp groups through the vast halls of one of the world's preeminent scientific and cultural institutions. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.

What do diamonds, salmon bones and the rainforest have in common? Nineteen-year-old student guide Jennifer Phanomrat says they are all precious to someone or something. The young college student designed a tour called "Precious Matter," which links three halls at the museum with a common message.

First, Jennifer takes the young campers through the Hall of Gems and Minerals where she points out the value of jewels and raw materials. She says that in a recent tour, some teenage girls learned a valuable lesson as they moved from one hall to another.

"I had this one group of 13-year-old girls, and [one] said, 'Oh I want an engagement ring this big,' you know, and then later when I brought them to the Native People's [Hall], they started to say, 'Yeah, my family is precious to me too,' so I liked how they got the message that I tried to bring out on the tour," Phanomrat said.

Jennifer then guides her groups through the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians where she shows how Native American families treasured things like totem poles, baskets and fish bones, which they threw back into the river to appease the spirits.

In the Hall of African Mammals and the Rainforest, Jennifer explains the preciousness of the environment. One young camper understands her message immediately.

"If we save the Rainforest, we can help the wildlife because if we hurt the wildlife, that's less food for us. And trees provide air so with less air, we're actually hurting ourselves," he said.

Caren Perlmutter works with the museum's education and employment program and helps select the student guides. She says candidates are college students aged 18 to 21 and all are New York City residents. Now in its twelfth year, the program this year is comprised of three dozen participants from various universities throughout the nation.

Perlmutter says that while their university studies may range from psychology to literature to marine biology, there is one thing the guides all have in common.

"One of the most important skills of the program that people acquire is the ability to communicate with different kinds of people, and so I look for good communicators above everything else," Perlmutter said.

Perlmutter says the guides are put into situations where they must constantly communicate. In addition to their own tours, they are stationed in various halls to answer questions and help visitors. Many stand behind rolling carts that contain objects or specimens that visitors are welcome to touch and ask about.

Twenty-one-year-old Oscar Bolivar is in his last year at Hunter College in New York City. His tour focuses on the use of stones as tools. While manning a cart in the African Mammals Hall, he encourages visitors to interact with him and the specimens.

"This is an ostrich egg. It's really hard and what the people in Africa did is, you see the hole over here, they cut out a hole, so what they did is for long trips along the desert, they fill it up with water and this would keep it cool. So they would bury it under the sand and when they were on their way back, they would (use) it as a canteen," Bolivar said.

Oscar says his museum experience will help with his plan to study elementary education in graduate school. Another skill he says he acquired through the program is the ability to maneuver around large groups of people.

Both Oscar and Jennifer say the program has helped them develop patience. They say dealing with large groups of children from age five to 16 has tested their endurance, but the experience has been well worth it.

"Oh my God!"
"Look, yellow ones!"
"Yeah, I don't like that one."
"Number two is (inaudible)."
"Which is number two?"
"And so is number 49."
"Sulfur's a cool element."
"This is so cool!"

When a group of ten to twelve year olds say your museum tour is 'cool,' then you've probably created a valuable experience.