Museum Educators-What’s Next? Part I

The Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education contains a variety of interesting articles that assess recent practice in museum education and explore potential directions for the field.  This in a context that  is both worrying and exciting: an uncertain economy; a shifting cultural landscape; debates about museum authority; the explosion of digital and social media.
The entire issue is worth reading, but the article that resonated most with me was “What We Do Best,” by Ben Garcia, Head of Interpretation and Operations at the Phoebe H. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley. Touching on a number of themes that I’ve also discussed in posts on  being a formal education enabler and on the role of museum educators, Garcia urges educators to hold true to their mission of creating opportunities for “intrinsically-motivated, joyful, open-ended learning,” and states  that “Museum educators are not doing enough to make a case for the value of museum learning in its own right with political, civic, educational, and even museum entities.”
In the next few posts I’d like to pick up this discussion by
  • ·        looking more carefully at the causes for museum education’s drift into justifying its existence in terms of its ability to support formal education systems, and
  • ·         exploring some specific skills and disciplines through  which museum educators can move away from this tried and true but ultimately self-defeating role.
Our over-identification with formal education
A closer examination of the causes for our profession’s “twinning”  with the schools is, I think, important as a way of seeing our way out of this over-identification.  Not that museums will ever  or should ever stop working with teachers and schools, but stepping back to re-examine patterns of behavior is almost always enlightening.  I see the roots of this school-centric view of our profession in a variety of areas – the commonly understood definition of  the term “education;” the initial staffing of museum education departments with former teachers (like me); the interest of schools in museums as field trip destinations, and so on.  Perhaps readers have other causes they can contribute.
New skills and disciplines to cultivate
Although it’s now fairly usual for museum educators (at least in U.S. museums)  to be part of exhibition teams, in my view their role still needs refining (and it is only they, not project managers or curators or designers) who can redefine their roles.  In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.  More to come on all of this.

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