Age of Exploration: Student Adventures

Students admire the craftsmanship of a Russian matroyshka doll, deconstructing it to find the smallest.

“It smells so good in here!” students exclaimed in every class that visited the Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum program at Palms Middle School. The scents of freshly ground coffee and spices filled the air in the school’s library.

Made possible by a grant from Nissan Foundation, CCMM hosted student visits at Palms from March 30 through April 6. Nissan’s generous grant for this school year underwrote the cost of bringing this program to three additional schools: Audubon Middle School in February, Orville Wright Middle School in early May, and Daniel Webster Middle School later that month. Nissan Foundation’s mission, “to support educational programs that promote a greater appreciation and understanding of America’s diverse cultural heritage,” could have been written for CCMM.

Not only did the students have the chance to grind spices, creating their own blends, so did their parents. Over the course of two hours, during Palms’ annual Open House, a steady stream of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, joined their Palms students to learn about the objects on display. All told, about 500 people visited CCMM that night.

Students grind spices, making fragrant blends of cumin, fennel, star anise, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg at Millikan Middle School (above) and Audubon Middle School (below).

This academic year, CCMM has given students the opportunity to explore one of two collections. The Commercial Connections collection invites students to consider how countries’ natural resources have led to the exchange of goods, languages, and ideas among cultures and peoples. Visitors have learned how the search for the source of pepper and cloves, for instance, changed world history. “We care about spices,” the CCMM docent told the students, “because if the Europeans had stayed home and not gone searching for pepper, they would not have launched the Age of Exploration. And we would not all be in this room today.”

The students have considered how, in places like the plains of Africa and United States, the absence of forests leads indigenous people to weave baskets in place of wood storage containers. And they have observed how the availability of wood from native forests leads to its use in everything from German cuckoo clocks to Congolese cosmetic boxes, from Mexican decorative plates to Russian dolls. The students have been entranced by the “matroishka” nesting dolls. “It can’t get smaller than that one!” the students exclaimed after the seventh doll was revealed. When the ninth doll appeared, even the students feigning disinterest were laughing. And by the time the final tiny 12th doll popped up, everyone squealed with delight.

Among the first objects that students tried out during their interactions with the connecting tables were headrests. Finding a clear space on the floor, students laid down to compare and contrast the wooden headrest from Ethiopia with the woven headrest from Indonesia. “I need this one,” students exclaimed throughout the year as they got comfortable on the Indonesian “pillow,” “especially on a hot night.”

The second collection, Everyday Connections, encourages students to walk in someone else’s shoes…literally. CCMM brought the collection, featuring traditional clothing and costume dolls, good luck charms, toys, games, and sports to 12 schools in the 2016-2017 school year.

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