High school students kick the tires at EMK Institute

The best museums give their visitors a take-away message, something that can stick with them long after they leave the building. At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate – slated to open on the 31st of this month on Columbia Point in Dorchester – that message will be participation, according to Museum Director Billie R. DeWalt.

“We want people to say, ‘I am inspired here to go out and make sure that I am in contact with my representative or senator or mayor and I’m darn sure going to be voting on the next election day. In the meantime, maybe I can get involved in a civic organization.’ Because that’s what makes the system work,” explains DeWalt.

The EMK Institute, a vision of the late senator and the second Kennedy family institution to rise up on the peninsula, will officially open its doors next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on March 31.

In anticipation of the opening, EMK Institute’s officials have invited school groups to visit the 68,000-square-foot facility for a trial run of the museum’s educational programming that will perhaps identify kinks in the system in return for a sneak peek at what’s inside.

Last Wednesday, two dozen high school students from UMass Boston’s Urban Scholars Program spent the morning role-playing a US Senate immersion session where they worked to pass comprehensive immigration reform, no small task, especially for the folks actually elected to do just that.

In a process that will be in effect when the institute opens to visitors, all the students were given tablets to guide them through the exhibit space as well as explore specific policy issues and historical events. They also took “selfie” photos of themselves that accompanied them throughout the museum.

The students were then assigned a Senate district and guided through the process of understanding issues important to their constituents. They also learned how to strike deals and make compromises on both sides of the aisle in line with their issues before finishing with a debate and final vote taken in the replica of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, the institute’s crown jewel. The Institute’s chamber, which is being kept under tight wraps as the opening approaches, is commanding at first look with its detailed sense of authenticity right down to the inkwell on the late senator’s wooden desk and the moldings along the walls. That authenticity extends to the replica of Ted Kenney’s Senate office that is another signature feature of the museum.

“Kids get off the bus, they’re all jabbery and the front foyer is loud and they are having a good time. Then once they walk through the doors, it almost takes the breath out of everybody,” DeWalt said. “They quiet down immediately because they feel like they’re in the presence of something that is really important and really special. And we try to reinforce that with the experience.”
DeWalt said that when he first walked into the chamber, “I got chills running up and down my spine. And I think that is the kind of reaction that just about everybody who walks in there gets.”

The wide halls around the chamber feature interactive multimedia projections that have been designed to allow visitors to use their tablets to explore specific topics that interest them. All the technology creates an active museum experience, DeWalt said. “It’s just a means of getting to the point where guests think ‘Okay, I have to think about getting a provision on a bill and what kind of provision would I like to introduce to make this bill pass?’ You have to participate.”

Following the pre-opening tours by student groups and array of elected officials, a select group of friends, supporters, and neighbors from around Columbia Point will make a trial run through the institute on March 7.

When the institute officially opens, a temporary exhibit highlighting Sen. Kennedy‘s career will be available to visitors.
The institute’s and the senator’s focus on participation, both in its mission and its programming, can create a lasting difference, DeWalt said. “Unless people are participating and actively engaged, the whole system is not going to work. There’s nothing more needed at this time, where you’ve got such cynicism in the country about the government ,and especially about the House of Representatives and the Senate. We can only affect that a little bit, but I think what we can do is inspire those kids who come through here.”

Admission to the museum will cost $14 for Massachusetts residents between 25 and 61, and $12 for the state’s seniors, students, and veterans. Admission will be free to Massachusetts children between 6 and 17. Regular admission for out-of-state residents will be $16.