Originally posted on Medium, February 16, 2017.
This week I attended a couple of professional development programs on shared authority through the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) called Peb Yog Hmoob Minnesota: Sharing Authority and Building Relationships with Your Communities and on education called The Relevance of Education through the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The AASLH program was a case study of the Minnesota History Center and the Hmong community members’ relationship, and how they worked together to create an exhibit in 2013 on the Hmong culture anchored on the 40th anniversary of the first Hmong refugees’ arrival in Minnesota. The Relevance of Education program was a discussion based on the Committee on Education’s Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards that was released in 2002 and revised in 2005, and the program tackled questions including What has changed in the 15 years since its publication? How has the document impacted the field? How do the principles and standards hold up over time? In what way would the document be different if it was written today? These programs are significant to the practice of museum education since both topics discuss how to adapt the field to a changing society.
The concept of shared authority is certainly not a new one in the museum field but is continually discussed to be relevant in our evolving communities. While I was in graduate school earning my Master’s degree in Public History, I did some research in 2012 on shared authority between museum officials and the public by presenting the challenges in interpreting history with articles and case studies found in my research. Shared authority is a partnership between museum professionals and outside parties to work on projects for the public. I discussed in my presentation the positive impacts and the challenges shared authority has on museum staff.
Positive impacts shared authority presents includes encouraging experts to engage with the world around them; encouraging museums to stretch out beyond their communication channels and include others to interact more with the projects; visitors can engage deeply with the exhibits and museum experts are still able to share expertise in the collaborations. Partnerships also bring as many challenges into developing projects as they bring positive impacts. For instance, it is hard to please each visitor, and therefore it is important to have as balanced input from both museum professionals and visitors or outside parties as possible to have a successful program or exhibit. As we continue to work with others within our communities, our involvement in the community is increasingly becoming more significant as it is demonstrated in AASLH’s shared authority professional development program.
The presenters in the Peb Yog Hmoob Minnesota: Sharing Authority and Building Relationships with Your Communities program were Dan Spock (the Director of the History Center Museum and Exhibitions & Diversity Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society), Wameng Moua (the publisher of “Hmong Today,” a community newspaper and the voice behind HMONG-FM, a radio variety show focused on the Hmong), Sieng Lee (exhibit designer for the Peb Yog Hmoob/We Are Hmong Minnesota exhibit/visual artist), and Nicholas J. Hoffman (Managing Director of Education and Visitor Experience at the Missouri History Museum in Saint Louis, Missouri). The program discussed how the idea for the exhibit began and went through the entire process of creating this exhibit. It also revealed how museums can overcome the lack of diversity and diverse viewpoints within historical interpretation.
Before the exhibit was added to the Minnesota History Center, there was a lack of diversity that was in the exhibits as well as a lack of items that reflected what the community was really like in St. Paul. One day a committee from their local Hmong community, led by Wameng Moua and Sieng Lee, approached the History Center with a huge binder of photographs and materials of Hmong history. The committee asked this museum for full collaboration on this project, since they were concerned about having their impact on the state lessened in the eyes of MNHS’ visitors, by sharing curatorial control with Hmong community representatives from a list put together of a good mix of people that would form an advisory committee to discuss ideas. A few examples of what the advisory committee discussed include figuring out what do the people want to see (and it was decided they will tell the whole story of the culture), put together what the narrative would be, and the layout of the exhibit throughout the galleries.
The challenges that they faced while creating this exhibit was figuring out what objects to include and exclude in the exhibit, and where these objects would be placed in the exhibit. These challenges are always going to be present in every institutions’ exhibit planning, and it especially includes project collaborations with individuals outside the institution; the best way to approach these challenges is to stick with the narrative chosen for the exhibit then base decisions on that narrative. The presenters stated something similar in their discussion amongst other things they took away from this experience.
Some of the advice they present include the whole staff must be on board with doing things a little differently than what they normally do, and maintain authenticity for projects especially when presenting someone else’s culture within an exhibit. Also, they say to hit the streets and be open to learning all aspects of the community. It is also important to keep up with the evolving history of the community; exhibits like this one must be reflective of what the community is today. If an institution ignores the community surrounding it and does not acknowledge the evolution of a community, then the institution will not be supported by the community. The exhibit should also be created to attract each member of the community; for instance, an interactive element of a farmer’s market was added for children to learn about the food in the culture in English and Hmong by scanning the food to visually see the names associated with them. Each of the presenters also discussed what happened after the exhibit opened to the public, and how the History Center was affected by the exhibit.
During the exhibit opening, the staff noticed that there was a positive reaction to the exhibit. The exhibit also lasted longer than they were expecting; it ended up running for six months after the exhibit opening. After the opening, the staff conducted visitor research to find out how this exhibit affected the museum. According to the visitor research, the number of Asian visitors had quadrupled and a lot of them were under thirty years of age which means these individuals wanted to learn more about their history and their community. The exhibit also inspired to continue to develop new relationships with more people in the community. For instance, the exhibit led to the creation of Asian Pacific Heritage Day which celebrated various Asian cultures represented in the St. Paul community and currently they are working with Native American communities. Shared authority is a part of maintaining relevance in education, and the American Alliance of Museums’ The Relevance of Education program continues the discussion of learning to continue adapting the museum education practice.
The Relevance of Education program was hosted by Greg Stevens and moderated by Timothy Rhue II (Senior Informal Education Specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD and Communications Chair in EdCom). The panelists for this discussion were Jim Hakala (Senior Educator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder, CO), Sage Morgan-Hubbard (Ford. W. Bell Fellow for Museums and P-12 education at AAM), and Mary Ellen Munley (Principal at MEM & Associates in Bennington, VT). After providing links to the original 1990 Statement on Professional Standards for Museum Education and the 2002 (revised in 2005) Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards for our reference, the discussion began with this question: How do these principles apply today? It was agreed that the principles in museum education need to be updated on a regular basis instead of addressing the need 15 years later.
Another point that was mentioned in the discussion was our institutions are constantly evaluating our communities and because of this we cannot stay static. Also, our institutions make efforts to make connections within our communities as well as include community members in collaborated projects to create a shared space for multicultural groups to get together in. The discussion also pointed out that our roles as museum professionals transitioned from about education being about what we want the public to know to serving the public by having the responsibility to earn the recognition of how important our institutions are.
Then we also need to acknowledge how we now define museum educators in the museum community. The term “museum educator” has a different definition at each institution. Based on my experience, I have noticed that museum educators can describe individuals who specifically teach school programs as well as museum staff in general that are dedicated to their institution’s mission in education. As a museum professional, I have had different titles at each museum I work for. For instance, at Stanley-Whitman House my title was “Museum Teacher”; at Connecticut Landmarks, when I started there it was simply “Tour Guide” but as I and my previous co-workers became more involved with interpretation and creating our own ways of presenting the material the title changed to “Museum Interpreter”; at Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, my title was “Museum Teacher”; and at the Long Island Museum my title was “Museum Educator” and yet my role included not only teaching school programs but also I was responsible for administrative tasks including mailing flyers and booking school programs as well as assisting running family and public programs. Since we include outside parties collaborate with museum staff, we allow their contributions to define their relationships as being co-curators, co-authors, and co-educators within our museum community. As a result, we need to keep in mind that the terminology for museum educators will change based on what the institutions and communities value in our society.
Another question that was addressed in the discussion was: How do the principles and standards hold up over time? The panelists discussed that the principles had a theoretical base work but it does not provide an example of applied best practices. Also, they stated that the basic principles were there all along but the interpretation changes over time. I agree with that statement because the principles do address ways to engage audience members of various backgrounds that would theoretically work in the museum setting, and yet our institutions learn to adapt and change with our society and because of these changes we view these education principles differently. Since our policies continue to change we need to be able to understand that we will not be able to get our programs right the very first time and that we need to be able to leave room for adjusting our programs based on audience members’ reactions and interactions with the programs. The next question on our minds would then be: What are the next steps?
Do we need to write another document to reflect what is going on now in museum education practice? The panelists concluded that the principles do need to be readdressed to reflect the changes that have been made since it was written in 2002 and revised in 2005.
Then we need to also address how the museum education field as its own community will support each member as we allow it to evolve with the changing society. Mary Ellen Munley had stated that she noticed there is what she calls an “isolation in practice” or in other words we do not have the time to catch our breath let alone get together to figure out what we need to do collectively as our own community. I see where she is coming from since as museum professionals we continue to create and implement programs, maintain and protect our collections, and run our administrations there is little time to stop and figure out our communities in practice.
However, I also see that there are moments where we can stop and develop our skills as professionals as well as connect with our community. For instance, there are opportunities for museum educators to develop their skills with state museum educator roundtables (like Connecticut Museum Educators Roundtable and New York City Museum Educators Roundtable), and the national group Museum Education Roundtable that offer resources and programs to allow them to be involved in the practice. Also, there are other ways that museum professionals can connect with the community and develop our skills including writing blogs about our experiences and joining various organizations that will help both parties grow and develop. The challenge is to finding the right balance so we would be able to both run our institutions and continue to grow with our community.
What is your opinion on how museum education is changing? Have you read Excellence in Practice? What are your answers to the questions I posted from the program? Do you have an example of shared authority that has occurred involving your institutions? What worked and what did not work?