When junior Gabriela Cruz stuck her name tag to her shirt at the beginning of the day, she was prepared to work her community service hours and be done. As families boarded a bus after their day trip to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, Cruz said adiós and, much to her surprise, began to look forward to the next service opportunity.
Cruz is a volunteer for the ¡Vamos al Museo! (Let’s Go to the Museum!) program that includes a guided tour or presentation, complimentary projects, and take-home crafts—all conducted in Spanish.
Curator of Education Leslie Chang Jantz, a native Spanish speaker, saw the need for a program that reaches out to people who are less likely to visit the museum because of language barriers.
¡Vamos al Museo! began in fall 2017 with families from Knoxville’s Lonsdale Elementary School, offers shared learning experiences for native Spanish speakers and promotes the on-campus museum as an accessible and welcoming space.
“Our ultimate goal with this and similar programs is to combat socioeconomic and cultural barriers keeping certain communities from access to museums and other cultural institutions,” explains Chang Jantz.
Also a Tennessee transplant, Cruz understood the lack of opportunities available to immigrant parents in less diverse communities like Knoxville. Her family had moved from Puerto Rico in 2008, and as she grew older, Cruz’s Spanish-speaking abilities dwindled.
Cruz learned of ¡Vamos al Museo! through Lambda Theta Alpha Latin sorority and began volunteering in 2019.
“Initially, the volunteer hours were what made me interested in volunteering for Vamos al Museo,” Cruz said. “After my first time volunteering, I came back because I loved working with kids on museum exhibit-related arts and crafts.”
The program gave Cruz back the opportunity to speak her first language and not feel judged for her biggest insecurity—her accent.
¡Vamos al Museo! connects with families from community elementary schools whose students of color make up a significant percentage of the school’s population, more than half of whom are Hispanic.
Parents seem to enjoy and benefit from the visits as much as the children. Many of them are first-generation immigrants who are not fluent in English.
“The staff was nice and welcoming. They took their time explaining the crafts and leading the tours,” says mother of seven and Vamos participant since 2017 Isabela Miguel, with Chang Jantz translating.
The Miguels’ experience is exactly what Chang Jantz had hoped for when she created the program.
“We want to foment an appreciation for the museum and its collection for future generations to have a sense of connection and ownership of the McClung Museum,” Chang Jantz says.
Since 2019, the museum has expanded ¡Vamos al Museo! to serve Hispanic students at Norwood and West View Elementary Schools. Current support for the program is sponsored by the East Tennessee Foundation and Covenant Health.
The museum staff switched gears to continue the program during the COVID-19 pandemic. The spring 2021 program explores regional botany, history, and research at the McClung. At home, through outreach activity bags, current Vamos patrons will be able experience the McClung Museum through a bilingual lesson on the history of beans in Tennessee, a bilingual story book on beans, and an at-home botany experiment. The bags will be delivered after spring break.
“While the pandemic has prevented families from enjoying onsite programming, these packets are designed to provide shared learning experiences at home,” Chang Jantz says. “Our hope is to strengthen our existing relationships with our Vamos patrons during these difficult times, and to gradually expand our audience as we prepare for a resumption of our regular schedule.”