Meet the New Director of Education and Public Programming at the Museum of Mississippi History, Allison Peña
In April 2011, as a college senior, I received two job offers on the same day: One to teach secondary mathematics in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America and the other to serve as the American Fellow at a boarding school in England, helping students apply to universities in the United States and teaching History courses. As a lifelong Anglophile, it wasn’t much of a decision— I chose to go to England.
I gleefully left for a year, fulfilling a lifelong dream of living abroad after college. As the year wore on, and I started thinking about returning home, I could not shake the feeling that I was still supposed to go to Mississippi somehow. I had never been to the state before. I had only one acquaintance from here. Pretty much everything I’d ever heard about the place could be summed up in Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” And yet, despite all this, Mississippi seemed to be calling my name.
Fast forward to 2013, and I drove across the state border from Alabama and entered Mississippi for the first time. I was overjoyed to be on my way to Mississippi Teacher Corps Summer School and cautiously optimistic about the challenge that lay before me as a math teacher at Meridian High School. I knew I wanted to be an educator, but I never imagined that I would stay in Mississippi beyond my two-year commitment.
It has been nearly five years, and I have no intention of leaving my adopted home state anytime soon. While I loved my time as a teacher, I have since transitioned out of the classroom. This past September, I signed on as the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Museum of Mississippi History, which, together with the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, opened on December 9, 2017 to celebrate the state’s bicentennial. The museums work together to tell the full scope of Mississippi’s history, with the Museum of Mississippi History offering a wide, 15,000 year lens and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum covering the approximately 30 years of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in more depth. Since opening in December, the museums have welcomed over 80,000 visitors from all over Mississippi, across the United States, and several international locations.
In many ways, my life perfectly set me up for this new role. I had worked in a museum before, as an assistant one summer at the Yale University Art Gallery, I had majored in History and taught it at the middle and high school levels, and I had earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction through MTC. Being tasked with creating educational materials and programming for a brand new state history museum feels like a culmination of those experiences. However, my time in the Mississippi Teacher Corps has without a doubt been the most valuable in adjusting to the demands of serving as an educator in the state’s history museum.
Without the Mississippi Teacher Corps, I would have never fallen in love with this beautiful place. During my time in MTC, I enjoyed traveling around Mississippi to explore historical sites, whether it was a short trip across Meridian to visit the grave of the Queen of the Gypsy Nation or a drive down the Natchez Trace to see the Windsor Ruins. As a museum educator, I now work to bring the history of this complex and beautiful state to life for visitors each day.
The most obvious way this manifests itself is in welcoming school groups to the museum. On any given morning, the Two Mississippi Museums welcome school groups ranging in size from ten to 200 students from all over the state (and a few from outside Mississippi, too). My carefully-classroom-honed ability to think quickly and on my feet prepared me for the fast-paced nature of helping to organize these groups’ visits.
In the Museum of Mississippi History, students explore the full breadth of Mississippi’s history through the museum’s theme, “One Mississippi, Many Stories.” Starting in an orientation theater shaped like a campfire (the best place for storytelling), successive galleries bring visitors chronologically through time, starting in 13,000 B.C., exploring the people and places that have made Mississippi into what it is today. There are over 1600 artifacts spread throughout the museum, along with touchscreen interactive activities and three additional theaters, featuring audio and video footage. It is a tour through Mississippi’s history like no other, and it is a more nuanced look at the history of the state than any textbook provides.
To truly experience the museum takes the average adult several hours, and yet most school groups have only two hours to see both museums. Part of my task has been designing field trip programming that allows for student exploration and learning while still keeping all of the various groups on schedule to visit both museums in their allotted time. With 15,000 years of history and countless stories in this one museum, that hour goes by quickly, and each student and group gets a slightly different experience. The differentiation I worked so hard to create in my classroom comes alive each day in the Museum of Mississippi History, as varying activities and artifacts catch the attention of diverse learners.
The best part of my day is seeing visitors’ eyes light up as they encounter a new artifact or idea in the museum. It starts with the 500-year old dugout canoe visible as soon as you exit the theater and continues all the way through to Lucille’s Place, the museum’s very own replica juke joint. Along the way lie countless opportunities to wrestle with the sometimes difficult history of a state that has seen slavery, Indian Removal, and the lasting legacies of racism. No one story can encompass all of the beauty and brutality that has existed throughout Mississippi’s history, and our task in the Museum of Mississippi History is to offer visitors an unflinching look at this complexity.
From our very first lesson of Dr. Mullins explaining Mississippi’s regions via a freehand whiteboard drawing of the state, the Mississippi Teacher Corps fostered my love for the state of Mississippi. Working at the Museum of Mississippi History deepens that love on a daily basis. Even though I have left the classroom, I feel privileged to work in a place committed to helping all Mississippians understand the history of this place in a multi-faceted, truth-telling way.
As we continue to welcome visitors in the months and years to come, I can’t help but agree with the words of Myrlie Evers and William F. Winter when they wrote in Telling Our Stories, “It is our hope that [the Two Mississippi Museums] will inspire us to build a more just, vibrant, and healthy Mississippi for our future.” Perhaps my own small role in the work of this place can assist with that goal.