‘Unpacking the Past’ at the Penn Museum

Celebrating its 10th year, the program funds and manages field trips to the Museum for about 6,000 Philadelphia middle schoolers a year.

A group of young viewers looking at an exhibit at the Penn Museum.
For a decade, every year about 6,000 Philadelphia public school 7th and 8th graders have gone on a field trip to the Penn Museum as part of the Unpacking the Past program. (Image: Courtesy of the Penn Museum)

For a decade middle school students in Philadelphia public schools have had gone on field trips to the Penn Museum, funded and managed through its Unpacking the Past program.

About 60,000 students have participated in the program since its beginning. “It’s like a whole generation of kids in Philadelphia have gone on a trip to the Penn Museum,” said Emily Hirshorn, associate director of school programs. “That’s a big impact.”

In a recent Museum event, Hirshorn spoke about Unpacking the Past, along with Tony Watlington, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, and Christopher Woods, the Williams Director of the Penn Museum.

“At the Museum, we make community involvement central to our mission because we believe the human story belongs to everyone. Educational programs like Unpacking the Past are one of the most important ways that we share this story,” Woods said.

Trio of shots of young students at the Penn Museum.
Clockwise from top left: The Museum’s Emily Hirshorn has managed the Unpacking the Past program since its beginning. Students tour Museum galleries and receive gift bags as part of the experience. (Images: Courtesy of the Penn Museum)

Watlington, a former history teacher, said it is important for children to understand how people in the world are interconnected. “Reading, writing, arithmetic, critical thinking skills, and our children must learn a sense of self and culture and history. They are all intertwined together,” he said. “We know that we have to get teachers the tools that they need to make the curriculum real and to make it engaging. And so I’m excited that we have this jewel, this gem, right here. … This is probably the best, or one of the best, field trips here in Philadelphia.”

Removing barriers and coordinating logistics

Hirshorn has managed the Unpacking the Past program, which has two full-time and two part-time educators, since its start a decade ago.

The program’s goal is to reach 6,000 students a year, Hirshorn said. It serves 6th and 7th graders in about 100 Philadelphia public schools designated Title I, meaning that a significant percentage of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

That translates into about 300 class field trips during the school year, Hirshorn said. The Museum also offers programming for students in Autistic Support and Life Skills Support classes. “We try to make sure everyone’s included,” she said.

Field trips can be challenging for teachers, especially those in underfunded schools, requiring “a huge amount of extra work for school educators and staff,” Hirshorn said. The Museum requires a ratio of one adult to 10 students, so teachers need to make sure they have enough chaperones, she said, and collecting permission slips can feel like a full-time job.

The Museum makes it easier by covering all costs, including funding and transportation on buses, and streamlining all required paperwork. “We really try to work with the teachers as much as possible,” Hirshorn said. “There are consistent follow-ups to make sure that nothing is forgotten.”

Each field trip includes three Museum programs: a class at school before the trip, and two lessons at the Museum, including a hands-on workshop and a tour through multiple galleries.

“I’m very impressed with how solid the program model is, and how they have taken the stress out of it for the schools: cost and coordination are all covered, which remove important barriers,” said Caroline Watts, director of the Office of School and Community Engagement at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “I love the pre-visit classes at the schools to get the students ready for what they will see and experience at the Museum visit.”

The Unpacking the Past program started in 2014 through a GRoW @ Annenberg matching grant, and since then the Museum has sought grants and donations to cover the annual cost.

Focus on being a human

Unpacking the Past has rebuilt staff and capacity since the pandemic, adding a fourth educator in January. The Museum is closed to the public on Mondays so that’s when they generally conduct the pre-visit sessions at the schools. Tuesday through Friday, two to four classes visit the Museum each day, Hirshorn said.

During the hourlong pre-visit at the schools, educators bring artifacts that the students can handle. “We teach them that anything made by a human is an artifact,” Hirshorn said, noting that their “teaching collection” includes both replicas and authentic items.

Four people looking at an exhibit at the Penn Museum.
Tony Watlington (right), superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, spoke about the importance of the field trips during a recent visit to the Museum.

“The main lesson that we’ve been doing the last two years is to focus on humanity, being a human, the history of people,” Hirshorn said. “We want them to think about ancient people as being real human beings, just like us, and have some empathy and connection with those people.”

Previously the program was focused on archaeological skills, with an emphasis on Egyptian history and culture. “We want to give them broader skills about how to think about people, and what people do, and why they do it, and how they do it. Also how to look at an object and connect it to the person in a process,” Hirshorn said.

Students learn how humans have controlled and used paint, dye, and glaze for beauty, communication, and technological advancement for centuries. “They’re looking at them through the lens of how and why did the people put the color on this object?” Hirshorn said.

Bringing history to life

When students visit the Museum there are three parts of the day: a workshop, a self-guided tour, and a guided tour of the Museum galleries.

In the workshop groups “make paint the way ancient people made paint,” Hirshorn said. Using mortars and pestles they crush natural materials that are local to Philadelphia, including ochre, a reddish rock found in nature just outside the city. They mix it with a binder (glue) and a solvent (water.) The students then paint their own design on a wooden magnet they can keep.

After lunch they have time for a self-guided tour, and often choose to visit the outdoor gardens to see the fish in the fountain. “It’s to show them that museums can also just be a pretty space that’s calm and peaceful, a refuge,” Hirshorn said.

The students then go on a guided “highlights” tour of several galleries, with targeted activities. “We try to match up with what they’re learning,” Hirshorn said. One activity is a scavenger hunt to find an object in the gallery that has the same use as various modern objects. It requires students to “make a critical-thinking connection to know what they found. They might have to read the label to figure it out,” she said.

For many of the children, this is the first time they’ve been to a museum, and it is their only field trip of the year. In the future, Hirshorn said she would like to collaborate more with other institutions that serve the School District to have an even greater impact.

“They’re being introduced to this way of learning that you can do for fun,” Hirshorn said. “And they’re seeing also that they can go to these places that may seem like they’re for someone else.”

As the students leave, they get a cinched Museum backpack with a pencil, sticker, and annual pass for free admission. “We hope they come back,” she said.

Three young people doing crafts at  the Penn Museum.
(On homepage) In a hands-on workshop, students make paint using a mortar and pestle, and then design and decorate a wooden magnet to keep. (Image: Courtesy of the Penn Museum)