When Prince George’s County, Maryland, wanted to make its newest museum more accessible so students and visitors could explore centuries of state history, they gave it two things: wheels and lots of hands-on technology.
The Sankofa Mobile Museum takes its name from the Akan people of Ghana. Sankofa means “return to the past to progress in the future.”
The museum-on-wheels hit the road in October and requests haven’t stopped, said Marvin-Alonzo Greer, the lead historic interpretation and community engagement officer with the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation.
“Our aim is to go schools, public events, festivals and help people understand that history is accessible,” he said. “To plant that seed of knowledge.”
The mobile museum’s exhibits focus on stories of local people from 10,000 years ago to today, according to the county’s website.
And instead of highlighting experiences of famous Marylanders, like Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, Greer said the exhibits spotlight everyday people, past and present, whose lives inspired change.
“We initially thought about highlighting famous Black Marylanders like Thurgood Marshall and highlighting people like Cesar Chavez,” Greer said.
“But the reality is not every child can grow up to be that. So, we pivoted and said, ‘Let’s not focus on the famous but the average person and how their contributions to a cause has had a ripple effect.'”
Teachers are requesting the Sankofa Mobile Museum because they can link the exhibits to students’ classroom studies. For instance, if students are learning about the Civil War, the museum has a module on John Coats.
Coats was a teen when he liberated himself from enslavement and joined the Union Army, Greer said.
At the end of the Civil War, Coats’ unit was sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to help Mexicans fight against the French, which had colonized that country.
Curators wanted to tell stories from the perspective of young adults and teens to inspire students to bring about change, although the museum appeals to many senior adults, too.
“Today, we would consider him a child, but he saw many battles,” Greer said of Coats. “He could have disappeared into history and gone off as a civilian. But he decided to pay it forward.”
At the center of the museum’s uniqueness is the hands-on, cutting-edge technology. Sankofa’s virtual reality apps, augmented reality headsets and videos are designed to bring exhibits to life. The technology makes the modules unforgettable for students and mature visitors, said Greer.
“It meets students where they are,” he told WTOP. “Instead of trying to push students in doing things the old way, (we ask) ‘How can we do something interesting that’s going to lock on to you?'”
The traveling museum, which is temporarily located at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale, is in its pilot phase. Curators are constantly developing updates and improvements to the museum, Greer said. One of them includes adding Spanish subtitles and language to videos and virtual reality devices.
If you would like to visit the Sankofa Mobile Museum or request it for your school or community event, check out the museum’s website.