Museum Educators-What’s Next? Part II The Need for Internal Transformation

My first post  on this topic promised to examine some of the reasons for museum education’s over-identification with formal education.  A number of folks have offered thoughtful comments, both on this blog site and on various museum educator groups on LinkedIn.  I took away three sets of ideas from these comments.

·        Some writers feel that the focus on the formal system is a done deal. They regret it but don’t see it changing soon.  When we started [a program with local teens] I pretty much created the work out of whatever I thought would really get the kids excited about learning. We got into the collections – went behind the scenes in exhibits – wrote poetry: everything was possible. As time went on and standardized tests began to be the focus increasingly I had to modify the work to connect to school. By the time I left our work was confined to which ever science subject matter was being taught in school – the students were being graded and everything they did at the museum began to look a lot like what they were doing in school.

·        One group of educators acknowledges the drift toward support of the formal education system, but resists this through the creation of programs that introduce teachers and schools to the unique types of learning experiences museums can offer rather than working only to fulfill curriculum goals or state standards. While we work very hard to find funding to bring schools to our center we must also draw teachers and show how this special environment is a resource – not only for the curriculum benefits – but for the intrinsic importance of the whole art experience.
    School children talk with teachers about artist Yves Klein’s exploration of the color blue at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice, France
  • And some have commented that this has always been the role of the museum education department – to serve the schools – so they don’t necessarily see the current situation as anything new or different.
While I think it’s true that museum education departments have pretty much always dealt with schools, it seems that the normal exchange of ideas and approaches one might expect from such a long-term collaboration has been more one-way than it should have been.  Instead of schools taking on more museum-like approaches, the opposite has happened, as the first respondent above describes.  I also think that the approach described by the second writer, with its school-oriented focus, continues to short-change the role of museum education by being too narrow. 

In my view, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension in Museums (AAM, 1991) continues to be the defining document for the role of education in our institutions.  If you take a look at that report you’ll see that school programs are mentioned but are by no means the central focus of this important statement. Instead, Excellence and Equity views education as part of the very essence of all museum activity:

The traditional term “museum education” is too specialized to encompass the multi-faced educational role of museums.  This report focuses instead on the expanded notion of public service, defined here as a museum-wide endeavor that involves trustee, staff, and volunteer values and attitudes; exhibitions; public and school programs; publications; public relations efforts; research; decisions about the physical environment of the museum; and choices about collecting and preserving.  These are just some of the elements that shape the educational messages museums convey to the public and the public service they provide. (p. 9)
It is this more expansive vision of the educational mission of museums, and the important leadership role that education departments can and should play in all of these areas, that I think museum educators have lost sight of in the more than 20 years since Excellence and Equity appeared. (At the time of writing this post, the professional resource section of the American Alliance of Museums website is under construction. Here’s hoping that Excellence and Equity  will once again be available there when the site is completed.)   

Take a look in your department file cabinet
Just as an illustration: Does your museum education department file cabinet contain lots of the following?

·       Charts that show the connections between state education standards and your museum’s content and programs

·       Bibliographies for students and teachers

·       Teacher workshop outlines

·       Lesson plans related to current exhibitions, developed for various grade levels

·       Scripts for docent tours or demonstrations

·       Guidelines for teachers on how to grade museum-related projects

What about these?

·       Interpretive plans created by your staff in collaboration with exhibition teams  

·       Reports on recent audience surveys in your museum with information about their specific potential impact on current exhibition development

·       Results of informal studies you’ve conducted – observing and/or talking with visitors

·       Research on learning styles across the life span and how these can be related to exhibition and program development

·       Activities and resources for teachers and parents that “unpack” the exhibition format and provide insight into learning in informal environments

·       A social media plan for Twitter feeds, collections related web content, and other forms of digital communication with visitors and potential visitors.

·       Notes of meetings with curators and designers in which your staff leads the discussion on how to create content and design that reflects current research on how people learn.

It’s the proliferation of items in the first list and the paucity of items in the second that concerns me.

During my 25+ years of work in and with museums I created reams of material in the first list (though I never told teachers how to grade!). I know the value of information that teachers and local education administrators can use to justify field trips and to engage their classes with museum content.  This type of information is also essential for obtaining grants (the life-blood of many departments) from a variety of funding sources.  

During my last 10 or so years in museums, while I continued to develop school-oriented resources, I began to shift my energies to the creation of the types of resources and activities in the second list. I came to this through being asked to work on exhibition projects, by looking at recent museum learning research, and by learning from educators in museums whose exhibitions impressed me for their engaging, visitor-oriented qualities.  If you look at the two lists, you can see that there is a difference not only in the content but in the underlying philosophy.  One set places a great deal of emphasis on the goals and methods of formal education, attempting to fit museum offerings into that system.  It defines museum education in terms of the type of learning that occurs in formal settings using formal methods such as instruction and grading. Museum educators, whether former teachers or not, are expected to be experts in creating links with teachers and schools.

 The other set, in my experience, sees museum offerings as a unique combination of scholarly content with design and interpretation.  In this view, the role of the educator is central in linking content and design with interpretation within the museum and vital in communicating outside the museum how and why learning in informal environments is  important in itself.  The second set assumes the educator is an expert on human learning who is adept at helping colleagues integrate that understanding into exhibition content development and design, museum programming, website creation, social media planning – any and all activities in which the museum communicates with its community. The second set is more aligned, to my mind, with the vision of Excellence and Equity.

We teach as we are taught

In trying to understand why so many education departments appear to place more emphasis on the first list than the second, a number of the comments summarized above come to mind. School children have always been an important museum audience, and museum educators have fought and won many battles to make difficult content more accessible to students as well as to broader audiences of all kinds. School tours are often a significant source of museum revenue.  But somehow, the language, the context, the underlying assumptions, the methodologies (docent lectures, lesson plans, science demonstrations etc.)  have picked up more and more characteristics of the formal education system (in which, after all, most of us were trained for 12 or more years).  As a very wise and creative elementary school teacher once said to me, “We teach as we are taught.” 

Swiss high school students on a two week trip to study art in France complete a class assignment near the Yves Klein gallery at MAMAC in Nice.

Replenishing the tool kit

It isn’t a question of eliminating our ties to the schools so much as readjusting the nature of the ties.  In addition, family audiences, social media communities, and who knows what other kinds of constituents call for the attention of the museum educator.  These audiences require new skills, understandings and areas of expertise – the items in the second list–that I hope to consider in future posts. More than anything, in addition to looking outward at the schools, educators need to look inward at their own institutions, and think about how they might help these institutions realize their potential as informal spaces for learning.   Many authors say they write to know what they think, and this is certainly true for me.  These posts represent a developing awareness rather than a set of foregone conclusions, and I appreciate any and all contributions from readers and colleagues in this process.   

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