By Khalil Quotap
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc., Spring 2023
“What about me? Where am I?” “Where were the people who look like me?” Over the last decade of teaching students on field trips to the New Haven Museum, those are the most common questions I hear.
There is no doubt that teaching is difficult in today’s classrooms. There are days when you can sit down on the carpet with students and play games or tell interesting stories, but for every one of those days, there are five others where you must talk about a time in the past when our communities did not consider certain people to be fully equal human beings, for example.
There has been a shift over the last decade in how many educators handle history. As an education director at a museum, I felt it was important to make that shift. When students come to museums, we want them to have a good experience, have fun, and want to come back. But there is a responsibility that comes with doing this job, to tell all the stories of all the people, or at least as many as we can.
When I first started at the New Haven Museum about five years ago, I observed that the programs teachers booked focused on the “happy history” of colonial life – what life was like for the European settlers in the New Haven area. There were voices missing from that story, and even though it can be uncomfortable at times, I thought it was important to tell those stories, too.
I usually look around the room as I talk about Native Americans dying, Africans being kidnapped, and women not being allowed to participate in history to see how parents and teachers react. I teach through that discomfort, because at the end of the day, it is important that the students who walk through our doors hear as complete an account of history as we can provide. With that goal in mind, we worked with education staff and interns to create two new school programs to share those untold voices from our city’s history.
Enslaved Voices in New Haven History examines the climate of race in New Haven’s past. This program covers the period when Connecticut was changing from colony to state, with a focus on the public perceptions and reactions to people of color looking for opportunities in New Haven Students explore the settlers’ complicity in the institution of slavery and how it manifested in the North. We consider how a lack of information affects our ability to understand what enslaved people went through and discuss how to make sure that we as a society do not fall into the same traps and issues of the past.
One of the surprises many students and teachers face when they experience this program is seeing how absent people of color are in our general history. Many museum exhibits focus on the growth of cities and major milestones, but many voices are silenced. In this program, we take that idea and challenge our students to look around our exhibits to discover New Haven milestones, and then discuss what was happening to minorities at that same time. It is difficult for students to look past the words and images on the walls and challenge the authority of teachers and museums, but by the end, we see the impact and empowerment the students feel.
The second new program our team developed is Coming to New Haven, which highlights the difficult choices people must make when leaving their homes to relocate, for whatever reasons. This program gives students a chance to examine objects ranging from coloring pages, to travel documents, to family keepsakes and discuss the choices that people have had to make when they choose to move to our city. Our team talked a lot about how to help our students relate to the topic and understand the work we do here at museums. The idea for this program came from a story from my childhood, where my parents asked me to pack up my things for a trip and I filled my suitcase with toys and art supplies (clearly more important than clothes, socks, or a toothbrush).
Kids perceive moving differently than adults, so we decided to create this program from kids’ perspectives. Our education staff researched different ethnic groups that have moved to New Haven, then created memory boxes for each “child” we wanted to focus on. Each box contains objects that children may have packed to make the trip, including letters, cards, and travel documents, to help our students discover the story of each child’s trip. While we also spend time learning about push-and-pull factors and touring the exhibits, the most meaningful part of this program is when students do the work of exploring and analyzing objects, then telling the resulting story to their peers.
Building and selling new programs is not an easy process, but creating these two has been some of the best work I have been a part of in my 17 years of teaching. It is my hope that these programs grow and expand past my time at the museum and that they focus the spotlight on the forgotten voices from our community’s history.
At the end of the day the real reward is allowing students to see themselves represented in our community’s history and in their study of history, knowing that they are as much a part of New Haven’s history as the Puritans.
Khalil Quotap joined CT Humanities in 2022 as the CT Digital Heritage Program Coordinator.