Reflections on Local Our City Our Museum Exhibits from UIC FAST

For the past few weeks, adult learners at three community education centers have been building their own museum. Using found materials such as cardboard, recycled objects, and clay, the students have been considering how they’d like to represent their stories in a public exhibit while studying for their adult high school equivalency or English as a Second Language.

South/Blackstone Library. On Thursday, April 15th, at the Blackstone Library, 13 adult learners presented and performed their arts inspired museum exhibit.  In this display, each participant reflected upon their own community and what community meant to them, ultimately deciding to name their exhibit “Different Communities Big Dreams”.  The participants’ reflections about their community was represented in collages, written pieces, 3-D displays, and choreographed dances.  The exhibit also invited guests to interact by adding their own description of their community. 




In reflecting upon the project, participants noted that they most enjoyed the process of the project.  Participants expressed that everything from researching, to putting the pieces together, to promotion, to presenting were all valuable experiences.  Many participants also acknowledged that working together with their classmates towards a common goal was especially important to them.  Through this process they were able to see and appreciate how creatively each person thought and the various ways they could help each other.  The community within their own classroom was strengthened through this process. 


The students also recognized that their classroom community acted as a metaphor for how the larger community can come together, to try to understand different ideas and perspectives on the world and help motivate each other to seeing a project through.  


The public was able to interact with the students in discussion about community during the opening reception and for two weeks while the display remained in the lobby of the library.  The descriptions about community are just as complex as those that the students shared.  Descriptive words range from “thriving, loving, caring, resilent” to “complicated, developing, upended”.  As a whole, all participants were able to reflect on where their communities are today and where they want their communities to be in the future. 


West/Garfield Park Fieldhouse.  On Monday, April 19th, four adult learners gave museum tours to over 100 community members at the Garfield Park Fieldhouse.  In preparation, students mindfully crafted stories they wanted their community to hear and then canvassed the neighborhood as part of their COFI project to get community members to come. The museum ended up being a display of family histories told through replicated family keepsakes and pictures. The keepsakes chosen are a part of the adult learners’ life stories and were displayed to give the community a positive perspective of family love in a Westside neighborhood community.


During opening night, participants gave tours of their museum because as a way to connect with each visitor, hoping that their stories would motivate and inspire all to cherish every moment with the family in their life and restore family roots if needed.  Students also had a guest book for the community to write or draw what they would want to have displayed in a museum if they were curating it.  People of all ages were able to engage and contribute to the museum in this way, and an expansion of the museum might include more family stories and histories of important places in the neighborhood such as as churches and the fieldhouse.  

Overall, guests to this museum exhibit felt inspired and encouraged the adult students to continue to share their stories because that is how history is made.  One guest in particular was especially impacted, the mother of the adult student who created an entire artifact about the strength of her mother.  All of the adult students were overwhelmed by the moment her mother read about the impact she had had on her daughter.  Tears were shared and the other adult students wished that they were still able to share their artifacts with those that raised them – reiterating the purpose of the exhibit, to cherish the people in your life. 


Southwest/Back of the Yards Library. On Tuesday, March 20th, in the Back of the Yards Library, the community room was abuzz with 27 Spanish speaking adult learners sharing their stories.  Leading up to this point, the adult learners considered what story they wanted to tell and then created artistic dioramas as visual representations.  The difficult work came in telling their stories in two different languages in a way that let the audience know their purpose.  In the end, there were three distinct categories of stories that students chose to share: stories about where the students came from, stories about family skills passed down, and stories about family traditions.  


Students promoted their museum’s opening reception as guests on vocalo radio.  This effort drew in a large crowd for the opening reception (Pedro Leon, the library branch manager recorded 570 people at the library that night compared to the usual 215) and supported community connections. An actor and a director from Meet Juan(ito) Doe, a local play, spoke to each student individually and exchanged stories, prompting many students to support the play the following week.  The manager of “The Plant” also came.  He expressed excitement about this work and is hoping to use some of the artifacts for a permanent display highlighting the voices of the community.  Finally, a young man learned about the high school equivalency program through this exhibit and was connected with resources to go back to pursue his own degree.  Pedro Leon stated “this was an event that highlights the good things we have in our community and I was humbled and proud to be a part of it”, hoping to see something like it again. 


Overall, people were able to reflect upon their own histories, see those histories portrayed positively, and make connections with community members who have similar histories.