By Jenni Martin
As a children’s museum, we have the idea that everyone should have a seat at the table, the opportunity to dream, a chance to delight in differences and find common ground.
Our newest installation, A Seat at the Table, celebrates this vision. Installed upstairs just as you walk out of the elevator, this exhibition was developed to encourage conversations between parents and children, using food and the different ways that we all prepare it as a connector. Colorful ceramic bowls, pitchers, placemats, spatulas, grinding tools, baskets and other kitchen items from around the world are displayed in the hallway exhibit — some behind plexiglass and others in touchable texture boxes. Tags in many languages capture visitor comments about who they are, where they are from, and what they hope.
Our somewhat lofty goal is that our visitors, in conversation with each other, will acknowledge and honor the unique and different perspectives we find living here in Silicon Valley, the 8th most diverse city in the United States.
Over five years ago, with a focus on inclusivity and outreach to immigrant communities, the Museum launched a series of dinners for families from the top 5 most populous immigrant groups in the area — Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Mexican, and Vietnamese.
The goal was to spark conversation about being immigrants in this community — to celebrate differences and find commonalities.
Community organizations working in partnership with families from each of the cultural groups helped the museum to invite guests to the events and transportation was provided. Dinner featured a common ingredient, prepared in 5 different ways, representing the cultural cuisines of each of the immigrant groups.
Some families had been to the Museum before; others had never visited. Everyone ate together at long tables, sharing a meal in the ancient tradition of gathering. Following dinner, the children got to play in the Museum, while the adults gathered for the facilitated part of the evening — the opportunity to share their experiences as immigrants in this country.
After a second series of dinners in 2017, the Seat at the Table pop-up exhibition was born. This experience, which debuted at festivals and community venues around Silicon Valley, invited children and their adults to choose two types of scented play dough, sit down at the round table, and try out all sorts of different molds and cooking utensils from different parts of the world. As they kneaded, rolled, shaped, and pressed, children and adults talked about the tools, the places, the similarities and the differences in what they were creating.
Visitors to the pop-up experience also contributed to a community poem by filling out tags with three different prompts: I am… I am from… I dream. Responses on these tags helped us to identify the ultimate message of the exhibition:
We are from many different places, each shaped by unique experiences and circumstances, and we all dream of a positive future for our children. We stand on common ground and we all belong.
What has been the impact of the project so far? Parents and children talked about kitchen tools and spices and foods. They remembered and honored their own and discovered others’ cultural traditions.
Adults, who were originally strangers, talked with and learned from each other and were reminded that, while their paths and journeys are different, they all have hopes and dreams for their children.
As a museum, we took a risk — we invited people for dinner, we opened up a dialogue and then we worked to engage others in building a community where everyone has a seat at the table.
Jenni Martin, Project Director for A Seat at the Table (and author of this blog post), is a 22 year employee of Children’s Discovery Museum whose focus has been on community engagement and welcoming different audiences to the Museum. Jenni currently leads CCLI (Cultural Competence Learning Institute), a professional development institute for museum staff nationwide that helps museum leaders catalyze diversity and inclusion efforts at their institutions. Developed by CDM, in collaboration with two national organizations and an evaluation firm, CCLI has introduced 6 cohorts, 28 institutions and over 100 museum leaders to CDM’s unique approach of valuing community, listening to under-represented voices, and honoring different perspectives.
A Seat at the Table is funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.