Museum Education

Finally, the week I’ve been waiting for! Not just because museum education is what I do for a living, but because my education/preparation with it has been so “as needed” that I’ve been anxious for more resources to grow and improve.

My main interest in museum education – again, due to my job – is in school programs. Creating positive, educational experiences in museums for children is essential to helping them grow up into museum-going adults. [1] However, many of our readings this week, when they did discuss children, it was in the context of self-guided family units. Focusing on children accessing museums in this situation can be problematic; families that cannot travel to the museum’s location, parents that are too busy working to bring their children on an outing, or people who might feel excluded from an institution for whatever reason, are all left out of this scenario. While individual families visiting with children are an essential part of any museum’s visitor base, and while there are strategies museums can use to encourage excluded families to visit, school programs offer a structured opportunity for children to visit museums (where logistics are all taken care of!). Not only do school programs help students access museums regardless of economic or familial circumstances, but they also offer unique resources, a change of scenery, and fun activities that can’t necessarily happen in the classroom. [2]

I really loved The Museum Educator’s Manual, which elucidated a lot of areas (such as logistics and docent management) that I had never considered before starting my position. So much of my job involves helping docents, interacting with teachers, and doing promotional outreach, way more than actually giving tours to students or visitors. I’m terrible at organization and logistics, so I appreciate the authors laying out steps and advice, and I know I will return to this book for some upcoming projects I have planned (such as re-designing the professional development workshop I lead on object analysis).

The one aspect of museum education that I thought was curiously missing from this is the actual educating part. This is probably just the specific selection of readings we were given, but there was no discussion of how to create tours, or pedagogical strategies that lead to dynamic and educational museum experiences. (I did see a bit in the tables of contents, such as John Hennigar Shuh’s “Teaching yourself to teach with objects,” also found in The Educational Role of the Museum.) One of the most difficult aspects of museum education, in my opinion, is taking complicated subjects (such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, America’s response to the Holocaust, the movement to save Soviet Jewry…) and making it accessible to children while still keeping the subject rooted in its historical context and significance. As I mentioned in my post on exhibit labels, when you’re giving a tour, you can’t rely on self-editing and often have to improvise based on specific groups’ needs and interests, and regarding complicated subjects, I have trouble striking the balance between interpreting “too much” or “too little.” Maybe it’s just a skill I’m still in the process of developing?

You do see a bit of overlap with curricular creation in Judy Rand’s “Write and design with the family in mind.” While her essay focuses primarily on creating exhibitions that are family-friendly from the start, a lot of her techniques and emphases apply to creating family guides, or other worksheets that adults can use to translate an adult-oriented exhibition into child-friendly terms. Through supplementary materials that ask questions, help parents read out loud to their children, and express historical subjects in the first person, children are better equipped to actively immerse themselves into an exhibit. [3] Family guides are useful tools to offer to parents and can be very helpful for seeing the exhibition through a certain lens, or from a certain perspective. We have family guides for major holidays like July 4th, and we’ve created guides for certain audiences, such as finding parallels between Jewish and Catholic experiences when the Pope came.

As we saw in Creating Exhibitions, and like any other aspect of museum work, museum education is an art that requires a lot of collaboration (with curatorial, visitor services, development…), must be specific to each institution’s mission and resources, and cannot really be reduced to an exact, comprehensive “how to” guide. But these readings offer a really nice, though broad, idea of what museum education looks like.

captureSuccessful child-friendly interpretation can lead to super cute results like this letter, written with a feather quill and ink during a President’s Day family activity, which reads: “Dear President Jackson, I am not happy with your service to America. You  must treat everyone as equal. Yours truly,  Emmie B.”  Photo credit: the author.

[1] Charles F. Gunther, “Museum-goers: life styles and learning characteristics” in The Educational Role of the Museum, edited by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (New York: Routledge, 1996) 124.

[2] Alan S. Marcus, Jeremy D. Stoddard, and Walter W. Woodward, Teaching History with Museums (New York: Routledge, 2012), 5.

[3] Judy Rand, “Write and design with the family in mind” in Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, edited by D. Lynn McRainey and john Russick (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2010), 262-267.


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