A Year in the Life of a Museum Educator – Interview with Rachel Serkin
The Museum at Eldridge Street annually welcomes more than 7,000 K-12 students for programs on Jewish culture and holidays, immigration history and architecture and historic preservation. As the school years draws to a close, Senior Museum Educator Rachel Serkin shares her experience on museum education and what makes for a great Museum tour. Interview by Julia Echikson, Museum at Eldridge Street intern.
How did you get into the Museum education field?
RS: I was a sophomore in college and there was an opportunity to intern at different cultural centers throughout the city. I got placed at the Tenement Museum and wound up working there as an educator for about ten years. Initially I was doing research related to museum accessibility – creating a welcoming environment for people with diverse needs and abilities. But I also got to give tours to the public and I loved doing that. Eventually, I began leading school programs, too.
What were you doing before joining the Museum at Eldridge Street?
RS: Juggling many museum jobs! I was working at the Tenement Museum as an educator and working part time at the Brooklyn Historical Society as an education assistant. I’ve also worked at the New York Transit Museum, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Wyckoff House Museum – all amazing NYC historic and cultural sites.
You give tours on a wide variety of topics at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Do you have a favorite?
RS: We do a program here called Ways We Worship that introduces Jewish traditions. A lot of the students that come to us are from public schools in our neighborhood [Lower East Side/Chinatown]. For many, it is their first time in a synagogue, or learning about Judaism and Jewish people. It’s nice to introduce them to the Jewish traditions and synagogue architecture. They get to ask questions about people they see everyday in their neighborhood, but know nothing about. They also get to try on a prayer shawl, wear a yarmulke, listen to cantorial music.
Do you often get a conversation going during a tour?
RS: Yes. Oftentimes the students are immigrants or first-generation and connect with the immigrant experience. Those connections run deep. They recognize things from their own culture and religion and connect it back to their experience here.
Do you have a preference between giving tours to younger or older students?
RS: It’s a lot of fun to work with older students because you have engaging conversations. But when the little ones enter the building, they are mesmerized. They think it’s a palace.
Are the majority of tours you give are for private or public schools?
RS: We welcome schools from all over the city and from both private and public schools. Because the museum is only a few minutes walk from local schools, we see many neighborhood public schools. The teachers from our community – the Lower East Side and Chinatown – utilize this place for their curriculum.
Does it ever get repetitive giving the tours?
RS: I’m always looking at ways to refresh the material. What new activities could we offer to kids? Ultimately, it should be something that is interactive and engages students.
What’s been your most memorable moment while giving a tour?
RS: I’ve had a lot of good moments. I get a lot of hugs at the end from the little kids. They love coming here. Sometimes, I’ll be walking around the neighborhood and a kid points out – ‘I know you.’ That’s really nice.
Last month, I gave a tour to 150 kids. That was memorably crazy. It was intense having so many kids. They also had been walking around the Lower East Side in the pouring rain. They were soaked and buses were running late. In the end, it all worked out. They were wet and cold, but they engaged with the space.
Have you ever had a challenging moment?
RS: Once I gave a tour to a class from Williamsburg. They were black and Latino high school students and alongside a large Jewish community. They had little interaction with their neighbors and had many questions. This provided a good opportunity to talk about cultural perceptions in a welcoming and inclusive environment. We talked about how there is a spectrum of Jewish practices just as in other cultural and religious communities.
What’s been your most rewarding moment?
RS: If the students are having a good time, that’s rewarding. They’ll come in and they’re excited about the building. They want to touch everything and they’re asking lots of questions. I always love when kids ask lots of questions. Somebody I worked with said ‘a good tour is when the kids are doing most of the talking.’ They’re leading the conversation and taking the tour where they want to go. Then, you know you’re doing a good job.
Do you have anything else you would like to share?
RS: I think that people working in the education department of museums are important because we are the face and the voice of the institution.
It is important that students have access to history museums and are provided with opportunities to share and reflect on their own history. I feel strongly about the students in our neighborhood having this opportunity because they represent the next generation of the Lower East Side. They come away with an understanding that somebody came before them and that they are the continuation of that narrative.
I am a big proponent of student field trips. New York City is home to some of the greatest museums in the world and it is important to make students feel at home and welcome in these places. When students come for tours, a museum educator can leave a lasting impact.
Do you have any questions for Rachel? Would you like to learn more about bringing a school group to the Museum? Email Rachel at email@example.com.