Free museum passes for teens cultivating future stewards

Free museum passes for teens cultivating future stewards

The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 27, 2015
By Natalie Pompilio

Less than a year ago, Asef Khurshan had never been to the Barnes Foundation. Now, the 16-year-old would like to give you a tour, starting with his favorite room, No. 19.

"Because the Barnes is not a typical museum, I've worked out some hints for you," he says. In Room 19, he introduces the family of Henri Matisse as depicted in The Music Lesson and asks, "What do you see when you look at this family? What are the relationships like?"

He tells you to look closely at two paintings by Chaim Soutine on another wall and compare them: "What do you notice about the brushstrokes? Stand in front of Praying Man. Now back away a bit. How does this painting change? Do the lines become more clear or less?"

That's not Khurshan actually standing by your side. It's his recorded voice as part of a new, free audio tour available through your phone and created by Students at Museums in Philly (STAMP), a growing Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance program that offers city residents ages 14 to 19 free admission to 15 museums.

The alliance hopes to grow STAMP by having the 15 members of its teen advisory council provide personal insight into their favorite museums. But it's not just off-the-cuff remarks about Al Capone's cell or that cockroach in the tiger diorama: Each teenager went through extensive research, script writing, and recording sessions for the final product (See for yourself at

"It's a great place to relax and unwind," the real-life Khurshan, a sophomore at J.R. Masterman High School, said during a recent interview at the Barnes. "Most art museums, they have a plaque saying, 'This is what the artist wants you to think.' But in the Barnes, you get to be the artist. Placards make you feel trapped. The Barnes frees your mind."

Now halfway into its second year, STAMP continues to introduce a generation of future cultural stewards to what the city has to offer while also helping fill in the educational gaps left by lack of school funding, said Nicole Allen, alliance director of policy and community engagement.

The program's initial goal was to sign up 1,000 teenagers in the first year. It hit that mark after the first month, she said—more than 11,000 students enrolled during the 2013–14 school year. About 100 teenagers sign up each week, bringing the total of STAMP pass holders this year to 16,000.

That group, Allen said, "looks like Philadelphia"—about 64 percent of pass holders are of African American or Latino heritage. About half of those who use STAMP passes come from disadvantaged backgrounds or neighborhoods with low cultural participation.

"They don't come from households where art and culture are priorities, but they're using the passes," she said.

In STAMP's first year, one student blogged about her regular visits to the Mutter Museum after initially noting she'd never heard of the place and was even unsure how to pronounce it. STAMP introduced another student to West Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, where he made connections and later interned.

Some schools even encourage STAMP pass use to enhance their curriculum, Allen said.

"They'll say, 'We're learning about the Constitution. Why don't you go to the Constitution Center? You can go for free,' " she said. "It really brings subjects to life."

The program also seems to be good for the museums.

The Mutter Museum, for example, has had a rise in teen engagement and plans to expand its STAMP offerings, for example, allowing the passes to be used for special events. It's also developing more programming aimed at teens, said Daniel Corti, Mutter director of visitor services.

The teen council members are STAMP's best ambassadors. Asia Kaiser, a 17-year-old Masterman junior who gives the audio tour for the Academy of Natural Sciences, promotes the program in two languages. "I'm always talking about STAMP. Today, I announced the new [audio] program in Spanish class," said Kaiser, who lives in the northwest part of the city. "I trekked down here 40 minutes on a snow day to go the Academy of Natural Sciences. The more you go, the more you have an appreciation of what they have to offer."

Kaiser recorded some insight about the academy for its audio tour. She advises visitors to check out the model of deinonychus, a cousin of the velociraptor. Deinonychus was a transitional species that bridged the gap as dinosaurs evolved into birds.

"Just recently, the science community has accepted the fact that many dinosaurs were not only covered in scales, like a reptile, but also in feathers," she says in her audio tour. "That's right. Those terrifying beasts you recall from Jurassic Park should really be covered in feathers."

With information like that to uncover, it still surprises Kaiser and the other STAMP teens that some of their peers think museums are boring. Sharon Shania, who voices the tours for Eastern State Penitentiary, estimated she has visited the prison at least 100 times in the last two years.

"I like horror movies and I like scary stuff, but I'd never been to Eastern State before, even though I passed by it once. I thought it was expensive to get in," the 16-year-old student at Prep Charter High School said. "Every time I go there, I find something new."