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Foreign Fulbright

Museums Shaping Cultural Understanding: A Fulbrighter’s Perspective

August 26, 2019
By Angeliki Tsiotinou, Fulbright Foreign Student from Greece

In May I visited the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York City. Dr George Tselos, the museum’s Supervisory Archivist, greatly endorsed my research project throughout the course of my fieldwork at the museum

When Fulbright brought me to the University of Illinois, Chicago in November 2017, I arrived ready to investigate the museum representations of North and Southeast European immigration to the United States with a particular– but not exclusive – focus on Greek immigration. Chicago was the ideal base for such research. The city is home to hundreds of distinct ethnic and cultural neighborhoods established during waves of migration to the city from all corners of the world that began as early as the mid-1800s.

As I pursued my research, I soon found myself reflecting on other, no less important topics, relating to the contemporary identity and role of museums. Museums today play a balancing act: answering community members’ diverse needs and backgrounds while continuously adapting to our dynamic, globalized and constantly changing society.

How can museums create a communal space in which to welcome this rich mix of sometimes-divergent perspectives and experiences, I wondered? And how can the study of museums itself help us question established notions of identity and develop innovative museum practices that address our emerging interethnic, inter-racial reality, globally characterized by increasingly complex patterns of human mobility, integration, and acculturation?

While I am still trying to find answers to these questions, my experience with Fulbright helped me realize the power that cultural practitioners have to shape people’s views of the world in a positive way.  As cultural institutions, museums have a distinct role to play in forming critical reflection and debate around ongoing societal shifts and in achieving reconciliation among diverse communities.

With my academic background in material culture and cultural representation theories, my research explored how objects associated with the immigrant past have been contextualized and interpreted in U.S. museum displays, as well as how these displays help articulate our shared interpretations of the immigrant past. My fieldwork took me to a range of ethnic, cultural and immigration museums across the United States, located in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Tarpon Springs, and New York City. The visits were complemented by interviews with museum staff and members of the represented community, particularly the Greek American one.

While in Chicago, I also volunteered for a non-profit organization called Chicago Cultural Alliance, a consortium of 40 Chicago-area cultural heritage museums and centers. Through this experience, I was lucky to meet inspiring people advocating passionately for a more inclusive, culturally diverse Chicago by bringing together museums and enhancing dialogue among their communities.

In Tarpon Springs, Florida, I met with Dr. Tina Bucuvalas who curated the ‘Greek Community of Tarpon Springs’ exhibit at the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum. Tina’s long experience as a Curator of Arts & Historical Resources for the City of Tarpon Springs proved to be a valuable resource for me.

My Fulbright experience, also my first experience in the U.S., profoundly shaped my personal and my professional development in a variety of ways.

Researching a variety of museums and their day-to-day operations helped me see the tremendous resources that each institution devotes to achieve relevance and resonance with their community members. Speaking with community members of varying origins, ages and backgrounds, I realized that despite the differing ways in which they expressed their ethnic or cultural affiliation, they all shared a yearning for maintaining or regaining a connection to the culture of their ancestors.

My Fulbright experience empowered me. It made me realize that my voice matters and that my work is impactful.

Most importantly, it made me realize that in times of change, we – cultural practitioners and public humanities scholars – are more responsible than ever before to foster public dialogue on democracy, independence, and cultural diversity. By emphasizing what brings us all together rather than what pulls us apart, we can help shape a better future for the world that we all share.

Enrichment Foreign Fulbright Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project

Action Inspired by America’s Natural and Community Beauty

October 30, 2014

Fulbright-MTP participant Ammar Mohammed, a Fulbright student from Yemen, reflects on the overall feel of the MTP cross-country U.S. journey — highlighting Fulbright connections in Minnesota, and inspirational communities in Portland and Milwaukee.

In the words of Ammar Mohammed, a Fulbright student from Yemen:

I found it really hard to write the last blog for my MTP experience as many memories and thoughts are pushing back and forth wanting to be penned. I have been reflecting on my voyage and sometimes I question if it really happened. It has been a once in a lifetime experience to the outer and inner worlds, as Millennial Trains Project (MTP) offered a 10-day journey of professional and interpersonal growth. It is a learning class on rails!

Fulbrigh Student from Yemen, Ammar Mohammed, left, with other Millennial Train Project participants at the Statue of Liberty in New York City, at the conclusion of their journey. August 2014.

Fulbrigh Student from Yemen, Ammar Mohammed, left, with other Millennial Train Project participants at the Statue of Liberty in New York City, at the conclusion of their journey. August 2014.

In Portland, we met with decision-makers, including the first lady of Portland, and entrepreneurs who shared their inspiring stories with us. I interviewed an African American pioneer in entrepreneurship who gave me a great perspective on social integration through entrepreneurship. Dwayne Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of Center for Inclusive Innovation, explained some of the challenges that African American entrepreneurs face and lessons that can be replicated in the ‘marginalized’ African Yemeni context.Prior to hitting the rails to Seattle, I visited On-The-Move Community Integration. I was stunned by the great effort the volunteers and participants are doing to integrate into the society. This organization, which works with developmentally and intellectually disabled, has taken integration one step further. Instead of inviting the community to the organization, they go out to meet with the community and participate in outdoor activities.

In Seattle, another chapter of beauty and learning was unlocked. We began the morning at WeWork with mentors from Amazon Web Services and Citizen University. One of the best take-aways from Mr. Eric Liu of Citizen University is that “Rigid individualism never builds a community.” This really resonates with me, as I believe in collaboration as a crucial part of building strong, effective and diverse communities. Then I went to the Northwest African American Museum. Indeed, the visit exceeded my expectations. This relatively small but eye-opening museum exhibited how African Americans in Seattle merged with the society through sports, arts and music. I saw original sport outfits, musical instruments, and portrayals of the champions of social justice and equality; including, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy.Even though we had quite little time in Seattle compared to the rest of the MTP stops, it was a rewarding city to see and learn from.

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Enrichment Foreign Fulbright Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project

Making a Connection

August 21, 2014

In the words of Alyas Widita, a Fulbright Foreign Student from Indonesia:

Alyas on the MTP

Fulbright Foreign Student from Indonesia Alyas Widita reflecting on his upcoming trip to Chicago, IL

I had a great time in Milwaukee. During my time there, I sensed from the millennials I met with an eagerness to transform the physical landscape and image of the city with their hands and hearts. I was a bit sad to leave, but also excited for the adventure awaiting the Fulbright-MTP group in Chicago.

Prior to departing for Chicago, I reminded myself to spend at least an hour of the trip sleeping. By the time the Fulbright-MTP group were on their way to Chicago, and MTP’s Patrick Dowd introduced one of the Chicago visit speakers, Charlie Monte Verde,  Government Affairs Specialist at Amtrak, I could not help but stay awake to listen to him. Charlie Monte Verde spoke about topics that I am very interested in: the future of transportation, urban development, and how Amtrak will factor into all of these developments. Charlie reiterated Amtrak’s strategic importance in connecting communities throughout the country, especially the role of long distance rail routes. He pointed out that long distance rail routes are not merely a form of transportation, connecting point A to point B, but also a way to promote economic development and urban growth. Following his lecture, we had a lively discussion in which everyone had a chance to voice his or her views about Amtrak. It was a truly compelling moment as Fulbright-MTP participants were deeply engaged in the discussion with Charlie, and also exchanging opinions with each other about how millennials can play a role in shaping the future of Amtrak – as well as the future of cities and regions. As the marvelous Chicago skyline started to come into view, the fruitful discussion with Charlie ended.

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