Tuesday, May 12, 2009

For Love & Museums

“I don’t work in museums because I love them. I love the promise of what they can be.”

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0, MUSEUM Magazine (Winter 2009)

I work in museums because I love them. I love what they are, what they were and what they will be. In this business, we define our purpose and place for making a difference by tracing distinct paths. Nina’s journey has inspired very powerful arguments about what museums can be;

“I see museums as places to circumvent the hazards of compulsory education and support a democratic, engaged society of learners”

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
MUSEUM Magazine (WInter 2009)

But I wonder. Why settle outside the system? It only serves the urge for specialization, social segmentation and a continuing, mostly economic compartmentalization, of public learning opportunities? Like it or not, museums have ‘grown up’ as a part of the system. And while not fully invested dollar wise; at least not yet, museums S, M, L, & XL line the landscapes of our cities, towns and neighborhoods. If anything, we need to network museums in not out.

“Can they (museums) be the outlying factor that makes individuals successful? Can they provide an experience or situation that is so transformative as to make someone with raw talent into an unqualified success?”

Susan Breitkopf, MUSEUM Magazine
Winter 2009)


Museums can be the outlying factor meant to provide experiences that are transformative. Informal learning can get along with formal learning. The classroom and the library reading room can coexist with the self-directed opportunities of the exhibit gallery.

Imagine an aggregate. Formal learning, self-directed learning and informal learning, all operating in complimentary fashion, each form intact and still uniquely identifiable from a public perspective, but bound together as a network. Working outward from this point, museums emerge as something new. Not by changing but by simply merging as part of an alternative learning toolkit.

Formal learning in schools, informal learning in museums and self-directed leaning at the individual level form the raw materials of the composite.
Working together, home, school, and informal learning environments provide complementary experiences that encompass nurturing, formal instruction, self-directed interests and experiential and interactive programming.

· Investigations are conducted in School
· Interests are pursued through Self-Study
· Immersion and interactivity are explored in Museums

By repositioning the museum as an equal partner alongside traditional learning venues an alternative model is established. This new cooperative being able to serve a broad community of inquiry including adults, families, teens and school age children.

At school, learning results from teacher efforts and curriculum standards.

At home or in the community, learning happens as a result of explorations on one’s own, perhaps through play, reading, or watching, or those created by parents and caregivers.

At museums, learning occurs through self-directed immersive and interactive experiences in exhibits and/or through programs facilitated by staff and volunteers.

However, if museums are to play a key role in making the next generation of visitors successful then it is incumbent upon museums to resist the urge to resort to the ever present BUTS… that Nina Simon warned us all to beware.

“But we will try to force them to do what we want them to anyway.”

“But we will make sure the only stuff they encounter in the galleries is vetted. “

“But we won’t acknowledge their voices and their meaning.”

If in the future museums are to be provided with equal partner status, as contributors to an experience-based network, then museums must be prepared to do what museums do best. To recognize that…

The informal learning environment respects all visitors and their differing abilities to learn.

Whenever possible museums must inspire visitors to use all of their senses during observation and inquiry.

Direct experience facilitates the making of relevant connections and memories as a basis for constructing knowledge.

Visitors must be encouraged to feedback, to ask questions and make comments.

However, if we stick to our ‘Buts…’ or if we choose is to remain comfortable and target only the tips of our noses then any opportunity we might have to grab hold of a new generation and a relevant future, might just move beyond our reach.

“We are in the middle of some challenging times. All the more reason to prove museums – are more vital than ever.”

Susan Breitkopf, MUSEUM
Magazine (Winter 2009)

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