The Israeli Children's Museum: A Catalyst for Social Change
More than 225,000 people passed through the doors of the Israeli Children’s Museum in Holon last year, where they experienced three interactive exhibits designed to show visitors the many ways that various demographics – namely deaf, blind, and aged populations – experience the world. Through these exhibits, the museum operates as a miniature social laboratory, devoted to promoting tolerance and pluralism, and accepting differences among people.
The museum’s Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, which opened in 2004, has been a reverberating success throughout Israel and beyond, with approximately 800,000 visitors to date. In the 75-minute tour, vision-impaired tour guides lead museum visitors through a series of rooms and experiences – all in complete darkness. The tour goes through a shuk (market), a coffee shop, and additional daily settings; in each, visitors are given tasks to help them understand the ways a visually impaired person experiences the world.
The Invitation to Silence exhibition, which opened in 2007, is another attraction for visitors, many of whom leave the museum moved by their direct encounters with the deaf tour guides (and the guides are just as moved). In this exhibit, visitors wear completely soundproof headsets for 90 minutes while a deaf tour guide guided them through various exercises designed to teach them how to rely on their other senses to communicate with one another.
Dialogue with Time is the museum’s new, innovative exhibition that deals with the implications of aging. The exhibition, whose tour guides are all older than 70, seeks to change the image of aging and its stereotypes, creating an inter-generational dialogue. Aready, this newly launched exhibition is becoming a big success.
The fact that three such unique exhibitions operate on a long-term basis at the museum is both a point of great pride and a significant challenge. From the day they opened, Dialogue in the Dark, An Invitation to Silence, and Dialogue with Time have been the flagship exhibits of the museum and reflections of its social message. They set it apart from other museums, transforming it into a place with an agenda and message focused on social change. Indeed, Israeli society – and perhaps all of society – is in need of such tangible, real change.
It is change that the exhibits’ guides understand is necessary based on experiences in their everyday lives, from random encounters with strangers to journeys on public transportation to the general atmosphere on the street. But more than the guides’ experiences alone, a study about the exhibitions has shown that 96% of our visitors see them as important to Israeli society. Nearly as many – 93% – noted that the exhibitions helped them improve their attitudes toward people who are blind and deaf, while 80% noted that visiting the exhibitions helped improve their attitudes about disabilities in general.
This change not only relates to the visitors, but also, and perhaps primarily, to the guides, who undergo amazing transformations involving empowerment and personal development. Hardly a week goes by when I am not exposed to touching stories, not only from visitors who see the exhibits, but also from the personal stories of the guides.
One guide experienced a very complex struggle with his childhood friends because he is deaf. After they visited An Invitation to Silence, his friends came to him to ask for his forgiveness for their behavior so many years earlier.
Another guide told of his father, who insisted his son was like everyone else and would not allow him to communicate using sign language. After the father visited An Invitation to Silence, he astounded his son by reciting the Friday night Kiddush in sign language before the entire, teary-eyed family.
A third guide, who is blind, was able to find a job because she had been employed at the exhibition. As she tearfully parted with her museum employee card, she remarked that working at the exhibition had revealed self-confidence and other abilities that she didn’t know she possessed.
We hear powerful stories like these quite frequently. They are positive signs of social change, and I have no doubt that the Israeli Children’s Museum in Holon is a leading indicator of what is happening within our society-at-large. Indeed, we can change, and we are changing – day by day, hour by hour – to create a different and a better reality for all.