Museum Education’s Canon: A Focus on Museum Education in Historic House Museums and Science Museums

Added to Medium, October 5, 2017

The September edition of Museum Education Roundtable’s Journal of Museum Education attempts to answer the question it presents throughout the Journal : “Does Museum Education Have A Canon?”

To answer this question, one has to keep in mind that it is not easy to come up with the definitive definition of museum education cannon. There are many different types of museums that exist in the field, and various things that they focus education programming on. All museums have this in common: museum education departments have the challenge of figuring out the right balance of taking into consideration visitor wants and their highlighted objects and/or exhibits when planning their programs.

Journal of Museum Education “Does Museum Education Have A Canon?” has a number of articles discussing the main topic. For instance, Hannah Landsmann’s “Who’s Speaking?” describes the development and implementation of a program at the Jewish Museum in Vienna called “Enfach so? So Enfach” or “It’s that easy? Yes!” students are asked to photograph works that interest them, either because they like the works or because they do not; the program allows students to be the arbiters of what is a central and important object for discussion, shifting the valuation of objects to the visitor-oriented action.

Merete Sanderhoff’s “The Canon, the Web, and the Long Tail” discussed about releasing images of artworks into the public domain that creates a new possibility for the public to challenge the canon or create their own based on access to previously inaccessible images. This means that what people find both interesting and useful is defined not through art educators nor curators but through their own engagement with the works.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy’s “Well-Chosen Objects Support Well-Being for People with Dementia and Their Care Partners” discussed a series of programs called the Arts & Minds programs which aim to promote the well-being for people with dementia and their care partners. Ultimately, the choice of artworks for both contemplation and dialogue is contingent on intersecting criteria that also take into account symptoms of dementia, accessibility, participant interests and the inherent qualities of the art.

As seen in the previous examples the main focus of this edition was on art history canon, but the guest editors did point out that the questions posted in the Journal extend to other museums as well as art museums.

My experience in the museum education field provides some examples that answer the Journal’s question. I have some experience in the art history field but my main experiences have been in historic house museums and a children’s science museum.

An example of working with art history in addition to 19th century history is my work at the Long Island Museum. Like what was discussed in Halpin-Healy’s article, the Long Island Museum has a program that focuses on engaging individuals with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other mental capacities called In the Moment program. Each program encourages discussion which inspire participants to remember their past memories. The programs are adjusted based on the what is on exhibit and what the groups are interested in. For instance, a group may be interested in visiting the museum’s Carriage Museum to learn about the parts of the carriage by feeling the parts and discussing what they see, and they use the things that inspire them to discuss about their own personal past.

While I was at historic house museums in Connecticut, each of the historic house museums find the balance between the focus on objects and appealing to visitors. There are many historic house museums in this country, and each one has to figure out how to adapt to visitors needs using the objects in its collections. For instance, Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, the Butler-McCook House in Hartford, and Noah Webster House in West Harford have unique narratives that tell a piece of Connecticut history.

Each location has objects displayed in their rooms that illustrate what life is like in the past. The discussions in group tours and school programs encourage visitors to not only engage with but to also make connections with the exhibits and activities that will make the experience personal. A lot of ways that are used in history house museums, especially the ones I worked in, used period costumes to help visitors step back in time to understand history on a more personal level.

Stanley-Whitman House, a living history center and museum that teaches through the collection, preservation, research, and dynamic interpretation of the history and culture of early Farmington, programs focuses on colonial history using objects in the rooms. Each museum teacher wears period costumes while using items such as cookware to describe what individuals in the 18th century ate especially in Farmington.

Butler-McCook House is the only 18th century house standing on Main Street in Hartford, and is a time capsule that preserves Hartford’s history and the family’s history. While the house primarily focuses on the McCook family during the late 19th century and their artistic and intellectual interests, the school programs are adapted to the needs of the visiting groups. Public group tours and school groups that walk through the house are encourage to discuss their personal experiences of hanging out at home and they learn more about the McCook family lifestyle at home which would create personal connections to the history presented in the home. Visitors understand the similarities and differences of what home life is like between themselves and the McCook family.

Noah Webster House engages citizens by preserving and sharing history, promoting literacy and advocating greater cultural understanding. School programs focus on both 18th century American history and the history of Noah Webster who created the first American dictionary by using objects to immerse themselves in what life was like in 18th century West Hartford (or West Division as it was called then).

Science museums also have to address museum education canon in their programming. At the children’s science museum I work in, Maritime Explorium, we encourage students and visitors of all ages to participate in hands-on activities and projects. that promote STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. Each week has a different main focus that encourages children to experiment, have fun, and learn the connections of these activities to the understanding of STEAM. For instance, one of the focuses was the science of harvest that focused on apples.

In this focus, apples are used to create star prints on paper using paints. Also, kids experiment with the browning process of apples. Kids use different liquids such as lemon and lime juice to see how well they can prevent apple slices from turning brown, and therefore make the apples last longer. By using apples, kids not only have fun with apples but also understand how the preservation process can be used to make fruits last longer.

Based on my experiences, I would say that museum education does have a canon. Museum education canon focuses on making educational experiences not only engaging for visitors of all ages but make a lasting impression that encourages return visits.

How would you answer this question: does museum education have a canon? What examples have you seen in museums that prove museum education does (or does not) have a canon?

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