The History of Museum Educators: Why the Role Is Important Today

December 5, 2019

I recently received my copy of the Journal of Museum Education, a publication from Museum Education Roundtable, in the mail and I began to read this edition. This last edition for the year is about the history of museum educators. Once I heard about this edition, I decided to read it and give my thoughts about the history of museum educators as well as the significance of museum educators today. I started reading a few articles, and I plan to give my thoughts on the rest of the Journal once I finished reading it. Each article provided some more insight into the field I am a part of and made me think about my previous experiences as a museum educator in relation to what is discussed in the Journal.

There are a number of compelling articles and case studies that illustrate the role of museum educators as well as current trends that are influenced by the museum education community. The first article I read was “Where Does the History of Museum Education Begin?” written by the assistant editor Nathaniel Prottas. Since the beginning of my career as a museum educator, I have been curious about how museum education began and learned the complexity of museum education. After I read Prottas’ article, I realized that the origins of museum education are just as complex as museum education is today. He pointed out that Given the variety of museums that exist today, from science centers, to historic homes, to literary museums, a unified history of the field could never do our past justice. With multiple types of museums not just in North America but in Europe, Africa, and South America, we would not be able to pinpoint the exact origins of museum education. All museums have at least one thing in common: their missions are driven by education. When I continued to read the rest of the Journal, I began to learn even more about museum education background that fascinated me.

Another article I read, for instance, was “The Influence of Progressivism and the Works Progress Administration on Museum Education” written by Carissa DiCindio and Callan Steinmann. In this article, DiCindio and Steinmann described the Federal Arts Project (WPA-FAP) (1935-1943) of the Works Progress Administration which was a federally funded program designed through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to keep visual artists at work during the Great Depression. Many art programs took place through museums and exhibitions that were brought to Americans with both public programs and outreach. Their article pointed out that there is a continued legacy of community-driven, education-centered approaches in museums today such as outreach initiatives, studio programs, and responsive community programs that seek to bring visual arts experiences to the public. It is a perfect example of how previous museum programs and policies influence current practices in museum education, and why it is important to learn from these experiences to then move forward in fulfilling educational missions in museums.

The next article that captured my attention was “Gallery Games and Mash-ups: The Lessons of History for Activity-based Teaching” written by Elliot Kai-Kee. Kai-Kee took a closer look at the late 1960s and early 1970s and found dissatisfaction with standard approaches that resulted in numerous experimental programs using approaches emphasizing movements, the senses, and feeling. He described the programs, such as Arts Awareness at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Susan Sollins’ gallery games at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, DC, that left a legacy of experiential, activity-based teaching. His argument for current experimental programs for museum mashups and gallery games is to build solid programs and pedagogy on the foundation of improvisation and experimentation museum educators still need a theory of activities in the museum. I think we can always learn from previous examples when developing our own activity-based lessons. Previous lesson plans help museum educators see what has been done to educate intended audiences, and by inferring what worked and did not work we are able to improve the quality of our programs and expand our program offerings. It is important to keep up to date with education theories being utilized to maintain relevance in the school communities.

I especially thought a lot about my previous experiences when I read the article “Museums and School Group Chaperones: A New Future for an Old Role” by David B. Allison. Allison pointed out that chaperones play a key role in the experience students have in museums, and in most museums the parents and caregivers are underutilized and underappreciated. His article proposed a new approach to how chaperones might be catalysts for learning during museum visits. As a result, with the framing of a two-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services that resulted in a partnership with two school districts and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Museum learned that chaperones are essential to ensuring inquiry-driven education guides field trips. I appreciated Allison’s article and his emphasis on the importance of chaperones. As a museum educator, I have dealt with chaperones with varying participation in the programs. I shared my experiences in a previous blog post about chaperones and how we should include their involvement in program.

My experiences, outlined in the post “Museum Education Programs: The Challenges of Having Chaperones Be Effective Participants”, showed me that each chaperone had different expectations about what the chaperones’ roles should be. Some were involved with engaging the students by assisting and working with them, and other chaperones were standing to the side paying attention to their phones and not engaging with what is happening within the program. The article Allison wrote for the Journal proves that we are still working on figuring out how to engage chaperones with the programs.

As I continue to read this edition of this Journal, I hope to continue to takeaway more knowledge to adapt for my own practices in my career.

Resources:

Nathaniel Prottas (2019) Where Does the History of Museum Education Begin?, Journal of Museum Education, 44:4, 337-341, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2019.1677020

Carissa DiCindio & Callan Steinmann (2019) The Influence of Progressivism and the Works Progress Administration on Museum Education, Journal of Museum Education, 44:4, 354-367, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2019.1665399

http://www.museumedu.org/jme/jme-44-4-the-past-in-the-present-the-relevancy-of-the-history-of-museum-education-today/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2017/06/16/museum-education-programs-the-challenges-of-having-chaperones-be-effective-participants/

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