Museums & Public Education

I’m kinda into education, and not just through the lens of the museum. My sister is a high school English teacher and I’ve taught through several different venues in the past few years (including after school art classes at an art studio and early childhood education at a preschool), which provides much discussion about education standards between the two of us.

Sorry that I have so many parenthetical asides. That’s how I talk, so I have a hard time not writing like that too. I’m feeling a little self conscious about it but I have faith in you… You’ll get used to it.

Anyway, I recently reread a couple of basic museum articles (The Gloom of the Museum by John Cotton Dana and What is a Museum? by Theodore Low) and, of course, some fresh articles on education. I would first like to say that Dana is completely sassy and bitter in his article and it is refreshing and inspiring to read about a museum professional so disgruntled with the status quo and so progressive (even in the context of the 21st century) writing in the early 20th century. It at once gives me hope for the future of museums because his essay is an essential reading in any museum course and discourages me because I see that we still have a ways to go in the evolution of museum theory.

An excerpt from Low’s essay caught my eye: “Popular education is vastly more comprehensive, is part and parcel of the everyday experiences of life, and more often than not it cannot be recognized as education in the accepted sense of the word.” Low states this in the context of using museums primarily as tools to disseminate education… Using museums as a supplementary — or alternate — source of education and knowledge as opposed to the all-encompassing, rigid educational institution.

A few things:

1. In early childhood education, there is an emphasis on learning through play rather than learning through instruction (because what two-year-old is going to listen to a lecture and absorb any type of information or knowledge?). Young children (and I would argue, people of all ages) learn much better through their personal experiences, when they have memories attached to educational content. For example, the kids at my preschool learned about how plants grow by planting and taking care of a cherry blossom tree in our yard. This kind of teaching is so much more effective than if we had simply read a book to them about how plants should be maintained. Lisa Griffen-Murphy (A.K.A. the Ooey Gooey Lady) is a wonderfully resourceful advocate of incorporating play and alternative forms of learning in institutionalized early childhood education.

But why stop playing at 4 or 5 or 18 years of age? “Museum” might not be the first word that comes to mind when we think of play, but maybe that’s something that needs to change. One of the most exciting exhibits that I saw (experienced) this summer was the Museum of Modern Art’s Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988, because the museum provided replicas of Clark’s original artworks with which visitors were encouraged to interact, engage, play! What good is looking at Clark’s Elastic Net on the wall when it was meant to constrict the movements of several participants writhing beneath it?

2. The idea of massive open online courses (A.K.A. MOOCs). I enrolled in a MOOC about Andy Warhol a few months ago and promptly forgot about the assignments and lectures and discussions because there was no accountability (flashpan insight into my lack of self-discipline right there), but there is an infinite amount of potential to be explored in the MOOC arena. The one in which I enrolled was free, but for a fee, you would be awarded a certificate upon successful completion of the course. I was interested in the certificate (a tangible reward would have been a motivational force) but I wasn’t willing to put up the dough for a relatively insignificant piece of paper. What would that certificate afford me? Would it simply occupy another line on my resume?

Slate’s Jordan Weissmann pointedly and rather effectively argues against the dissemination of insitutionalized higher education (I see the potential danger of the practical application of Weissmann’s hypothetical suggestion that Boeing fund and create its own aerospace engineering program… although I’m pretty sure Pearson owns my fundamental art history education), but his mention of awarding college credits for MOOCs is enticing. MOOCs are typically taught by several university professors who otherwise teach expensive physical college classes at accredited universities. Why not make their MOOCs legitimate too? Surely, the quality of the professor’s teaching isn’t so severely handicapped by the online format. David Bergeron, former assistant secretary in the US Department of Education, fairly points out, “It is equally inappropriate to give no value to the online learning that occurs in a MOOC, particularly if a student can complete a high-quality, rigorous course and then prove master of the material.”

So where do museums fit into this discussion? Smack dab in the middle, I say!

Just as prestigious higher educational institutions have begun to offer free MOOCs (MIT and Stanford, for example), some of our most respected museums have the resources to offer MOOCs and other alternative forms of education too. As is, the Metropolitan Museum of Art already offers talks, tours, art-making programs, and a variety of other educational events. Why not streamline some of these events and make them count toward some kind of credit? Perhaps volunteering with the programs for visitors with disabilities for a few weeks could count toward a social work credit if paired with a few online lectures from an accredited university. Surely, the ways in which museums could participate in a new higher education model are infinite.

And for those of you thinking “When would we have the time!? We can’t possible ADD more responsibilities on our already maxed-out employees!”… Low argues in “What is a Museum?” that “the curatorial function of arranging exhibitions should fall more and more under the aegis of the educational department.” So I guess we’ll just have to give the curators something to do… Why not make it something scholarly to flatter their doctorate degrees?

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