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Museums as Social Agents: Storytelling Aids Emotional Healing

February 5, 2015

By Heidi McKinnon
Director of Exhibits and Community Programming, Sandy Spring Museum

How does a museum respond to contemporary issues within its community? While there are many answers to this question, one unexpected response might be bookbinding. With the current crisis of unaccompanied Central American minors coming into the U.S., Sandy Spring Museum’s Education Department decided to take a closer look at what is happening locally in Montgomery County, Maryland—specifically at Sherwood High School. Two-thirds or more of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students at Sherwood are Central American, and many have poignant stories about the circumstances that led to their migration, often involving gang extortion, divided or broken families, and violence.

With the support of staff from the county’s Health and Human Services Department of Youth Violence Prevention, and funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we recruited local artist Beatriz del Olmo Fiddleman to collaborate on a bookbinding workshop for new migrant youth in the ESOL program at Sherwood High School. Throughout the fall and winter, students have learned traditional bookbinding techniques, which provide a way to tell aspects of their personal stories through words, photography, and art.

Beatriz del Olmo Fiddleman works with ESOL 1 students on Japanese binding techniques at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland.

The stories are compelling, heartbreaking, as well as joyous—and the students are excited to learn and collaborate with the museum. Many students are so happy to be safe and with their parents after a decade or more of separation. Some are struggling with what they have left behind. Others are working through serious struggles that no child should have to endure.

"When I was born, everything was beautiful. My siblings were born and that is a big part of my life. With…my family, everything was good until I made the decision to come to this country. The journey here was so difficult. There were many problems until finally, I arrived. I like it now because in the United States, I feel much safer. I miss my family, my customs, and my food."

A student from El Salvador

The success of this program has spurred us to reach out to other organizations in the county to discuss how the cultural arts community can respond to this social crisis. We are currently developing a series of programs where the therapeutic powers of art can be used to the benefit of the immigrant youths. The program will include arts, dance, theater, bookbinding, and photography projects, providing the Central American youths ways to heal their trauma and help them integrate into life in the U.S.

In March, the public will be invited to an exhibit of the books made by the Sherwood High School ESOL students. We will also host a program that explores the “push factors” for youth migration in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services and staff from Sherwood High School.

Whatever the circumstances that brought residents to Sandy Spring, we all have a story of migration. This project is enabling the museum to document some of the more recent stories of emigration, and provide a modicum of emotional healing, as well.

Museums for America