Students' work could guide tourists in Africa

SF State's Edward Luby has spent more than two years working to preserve a cultural heritage site halfway across the globe. This year, he decided to get his students involved.

A photo of Kisumu Museum Board of Directors Chairman Austin Kapere, SF State museum studies Program Director Edward Luby and Thimlich Ohinga site curator and head of interpretation Silas Nyagweth

SF State museum studies Program Director Edward Luby, center, stands with Kisumu Museum Chairman Austin Kapere,left, and Thimlich Ohinga site curator and head of interpretation Silas Nyagweth, right, in Thimlich Ohinga, Kenya. The Kisumu Museum administers Thimlich Ohinga.

Twenty students in SF State's graduate museum studies program spent the spring semester creating signage and brochures for Thimlich Ohinga, a settlement in Kenya that dates back more than 500 years. The projects were part of a course on "interpretation," an important skill in which museum and heritage site workers convey raw facts and data in a way that makes sense to their audience.

The students' projects could wind up helping visitors to Thimlich Ohina better understand its historical significance. The signage and brochures were created and sent to the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) as a purely academic exercise, said Luby, the director of the museum studies program. But the NMK is now looking at incorporating the students' work into the actual informational displays that are put up at the site.

A photo of Thimlich Ohinga in Kenya

Thimlich Ohinga, Kenya

"It unfolded very nicely and the students were ecstatic," he said. Luby has worked with NMK to preserve Thimlich Ohinga for more than two years as part of a $30,000 grant from the Archaeological Institute of America. Luby decided to use the project as a learning experience for his students at SF State.

"I wanted to bring the students into my research and work in a way that they could learn from," Luby said.

Armed with background and historical information from Luby, the NMK and academic journals, each of the students produced eight or nine panels that could be displayed at the site. They also learned the latest methods in interpretation, a process Luby likens to journalism. "You don’t want to supply people with just the facts, you want to tell a story, to relate facts to things people know already," he said.

It's a skill Molly Englert knows will prove valuable in the professional world. She graduated on May 19 with a master's in museum studies and an emphasis on education. The Thimlich Ohinga project provided a way for her to put what she was learning about interpretation into practice.

An image of an informational panel for Thimlich Ohinga

An informational panel for Thimlich Ohinga created by SF State museum studies alumna Molly Englert.

"(Interpretation is) a wonderful skill to have under your belt as a graduate," Englert said. She will spend the next year working at an archaeological center in southwest Colorado, and while panel creation is not part of her job description, she's confident she can step in if the need arises.

Another recent graduate, Marcess Owings, hopes to put her interpretation skills to work in a photo archive. Taking a class where that skill was not just taught in theory but put to practical use was invaluable, she said. There’s also the pride in knowing her work could contribute to something as significant as Thimlich Ohinga.

"Before, the bulk of what I had worked on was for school, a small audience," Owings said. "This is much bigger. This is a cultural heritage site, in Kenya, in Africa. It's huge. It's amazing that my work is out there."

-- Jonathan Morales