Those darn teenagers. Why won’t they listen?

Well, maybe if we’d stop being so bored and borING, they would.

When I saw CODE|WORDS query on how to make live museums viable to kids, the first thought I had (as an independent educator) was: we CAN make real museums relevant and more engaging than any app or website.

I immediately remembered the Australian museum which harnessed Minecraft fans:

About 30 students from a school in South Auckland came on board to recreate the Gallipoli Peninsula in Minecraft as it was during the WWI Anzac campaign a hundred years ago, including terraforming the actual landscape, building war machinery such as battle ships, encampments, supply chains and of course digging virtual trenches.

The students got to handle real museum objects and sight original materials such as soldier diaries, historic maps and photos from the museum’s collections to help them understand the war experience while they created the virtual-world Gallipoli. During the course of the program, students worked closely with museum staff in a number of workshops, both in the museum and at their school. (

My students’ passions are not museums, often enough, however, I create relevancy for them by linking art history into their interests and skills. The keys of the above project, in my opinion are:

  1. Hands on exploration of museum objects/art with a purpose and outcome goal (that isn’t a school-type project).
  2. A purpose and goal which makes the students feel useful and empowered.
  3. A final product which allows the students to be tangibly and inextricably intertwined with a museum, art style, culture, or historical site.
  4. Teachers and Professionals willing to let go of it being solely about going to the museum and “looking at art.”

What is happening now:

Without engaging a student through relevant allusions and hints of “what to look for,” a museum will bore a student every single time. I hated museums. Then, in college, I miraculously was blessed to have reknowned Art Historian Rachel Barnes as my Art History professor (she’s the most fascinating, enrapturing speaker I have ever known before or since). Later, I interned with her, at The National Gallery (London), The Tate, and Victoria & Albert museums, and I saw many “lecturers” fascinate children and lose teenagers. What changed? With children, they made each work of art a mystery. “Can you find the clues that this is about a jungle?” “How does this make you feel? Can you get this look on your face? [imitation of tiger roaring ensues]” or my favorite from Ms. Barnes herself, “Do you liiiiike it? Would you want it hanging over your bed at night?”

But I wanted more. I wanted to PLAY with the art, to see where it came from, to know it in context, to know the Celtic craftsman who tirelessly molded the bronze into those complex designs. I wanted to know what the designs meant! The only way I would ever know those things is by finding them out myself. Now imagine the museums without “Rachel Barnes.” Niether the museum nor the app would interest me as a teen — especially if the “teacher” was droning on for hours about things which were completely out of context and useless in my own life — and even more so if I had to look endlessly through an app of meaningless pictures with dates and weird names. Unless…

What could be happening now:

  1. Find what is relevant to teens.
  2. Find ways to incorporate that with museum exhibitions or needs.
  3. Involve teens in projects that engage students, eventually give teachers engaging curriculum, and in which the museums get good teen-PR.

My brainstorm:

  1. World of Warcraft. It’s one big historical allusion. The creators were 3 computer geeks who graduated UCLA. Smart guys. Don’t think for a second every line of dialogue by an NPC, and every in game “culture” isn’t in some way reflecting on an actual historical figure, or time in history. The one complaint I hear from kids is “the graphics are so choppy”. Every museum which has an artifact or habitat which is “loosely referenced” in WoW, should have a workshop where kids are designing new pieces of the WoW graphic scene based on the real artifacts or architecture (especially the stone buildings — those stones need a better texture). Not to mention the clothing, armor, weaponry, or mapping the “lands” in game. In game graphics of famous artifacts and paintings would be SO cool (imagine, you’re in Orgrimmar for the Brew Fest, you need to grab some new heroic gear, so you head into the main building, and there, on the wall, are the Lascaux Cave Paintings?! Or, you’re in the Frostwall Tavern after the harrowing heroic Quest “Time Lost Vikings,” admiring “Olaf’s Shield” which you proudly won — and which now looks surprisingly more Norweigan — and there is Munch’s Winter Scene on the wall!).
  2. Minecraft. The Aussies should be the first of thousands to follow this model.
  3. Video Game Animation. Kids. Love. Video Games. Combine design classes with real art, at museums, so after a year of classes, a student comes away with their own video game blueprint based on your museum’s collection (scenes, items, weapons?, costumes, buildings…the list goes on).
  4. Boy Band Mania. What do 1-D and Museum XYZ have in common? NOTHING…yet…(except Madame Tussaud’s — pretty sure the 1-D figures upped their admissions by 400% or so). Imagine: Teenage Girl 1. She is a Belieber. She “thinks” she knows everything about him. What if your museum could take her even further…Ancestry, artifacts, photographs or manuscripts, the forgotten lore behind her greatest true love of all time? What if your auction house could let her do the research when they are preparing to sell his first bed? All of a sudden, you have a 14 year old who knows more about Early American furniture and bedding than any current expert. Putting together maps and histories of the places “idols” are from would easily get you the most engaged teenage girl you’ve ever seen (unless she’s at a 1-D concert — you can’t top that, so don’t try).
  5. 3-D Design. See #3. One 3-D printer, some open source software, and your student can literally build a model of an archaeological dig site.
  6. 3-D Cataloging. How many artifacts are in your database as “text only?” Teenagers who want to learn 3-D design can catalog them in full 3-D glory. They focus on their area of interest, and walk away with full outfits for characters, weaponry sets for gaming, and much more.
  7. Photography & Graphic Design. Teens can learn photography, catalog your items, and get school credit for an elective. Or, kids or teens can create web-exhibitions by photographing an integrated group of items, photoshopping them into appropriate historical “scenes,” and telling a story for other teens and teachers using your site as a resource. You’d double the amount “exhibited” and teens could say to their social studies teacher, “Hey you could go to my web-exhibition to show the other kids how that culture lived.” FYI one of my students, a 14 year old with Autism, designed my family’s company website. We have had more sales, hits, and letters written thanking us since Gabe’s design than ever in the history of the company. I taught him HOW to design, and then I left him alone to do it. It’s pretty incredible when you teach them how and then trust them — allow them — to be amazing.
  8. App Design. Have an “App Exhibit” which is a mini-app game or interactive within your museum app. Give teens a few lessons in x-code and they’ll have your “in app exhibit” luring gamers for the game they have only “May 3-July 16” to beat. A simple app template for color/design, which I’m sure you already have, ensures it matches the look/feel of the rest of your app.

I have a thousand more ideas like these. Each of them rely on two things.

One, you have to believe in your children. They can work harder and learn more than anyone else on the planet…if they are interested in something. (side note: you can’t dictate what interests them, you listen to whatever it is, then you adapt YOUR stuff to fit). As the adults, it is our job to model passion and creativity. If we are boring people who “teach” by basically reading aloud long passages from “An Unabridged History of the Eternally Boring,” we will see a lot of drooling and hear a lot of snoring. Why should they get excited about something over which WE are too lazy to creatively teach?

Two, you have to give them a chance to help. Stop treating them like “imbeciles who don’t care about important learned pursuits” and start recognizing what might possibly MAKE them care. We are the adults. It’s our job to model passion and dedication. We own the museums. We are the teachers. We are the “experts.” It is our job to INCLUDE kids and teens in that. If we keep ourselves on a pedastel of “Educated Superior” (whether a person or a museum), we make them feel belittled because we are, essentially, belittling them. They not only won’t come to us unless forced, they will loathe us. If, on the other hand, we share our expertise so they can use theirs to rock our universe (i.e. we show them the paintings and give them the history and let them mock those puppies up in Minecraft), we will be rewarded for honoring their expertise.

We can involve any child or teen in real-life museums if we care enough to include their interests — and to let them be a part of what we are doing. If they have a sense of ownership — and of being treated like an equal — they will move mountains.