Museum Education Challenges: Why We Need Museum Educators

May 21, 2020

While museums figure out plans to reopen their doors, museums should consider making sure our education missions remain intact by taking care of their museum educators. Museums have been moving towards becoming more accessible, inclusive, and diverse by focusing on engaging visitors and engaging with the community. Museum professionals are concerned about keeping out museums functioning financially, and we should not lay off or let go of educators and other front-line museum workers (museum professionals who directly interact with the public). In the past week, I shared previous blog posts I wrote on how important museum educators are to supporting museums’ education missions and engagement with their communities.

As a museum educator myself I sympathize with my colleagues in the museum education field while figuring out how to work and find work during this pandemic. Museum educators are the first ones to be let go when something goes wrong in the museum financially. In this day in age especially it does not make any sense to do so when museums are education sources for the community. Now that we are going through a pandemic, museum educators are needed to help visitors continue to use museum resources from a safe distance while the museums are closed, and we have the ability to be flexible when unexpected things happen. In the post “Education Programming: How Important Flexibility is in School Programs”, I pointed out examples of flexibility they face while implementing school programs:

Each museum educator understands very well that timing is important to be sure to effectively give an educational and a memorable experience. It is important to figure out how to be flexible when challenges arise. School buses, for various reasons, arriving late to the museum. School groups needing to leave early from the program. Teachers not sharing pre-visit materials to help students understand the experience they would be participating in before the visit.

Museum educators now are either considering or planning education programs to be implemented on the internet. Like schoolteachers in the classroom, museum educators were forced to learn to adapt quickly to teaching lessons that are normally taught in person now online in varying platforms including Zoom, Google, and YouTube. Even though most museum educators have already begun teaching on the online platform before the pandemic, not all museums had utilized teaching programs online. Providing education programs is a continuous process for museum educators and losing personnel in the education department would be a disservice to our museums, communities, and our nations.

This past month I came across posts from Brian Hogarth and Jason Porter on museum education and the current crisis. Brian Hogarth, Director of the Leadership in Museum Education at Bank Street College in New York, wrote the post “Code Red for Museum Education Profession” which described concerns the museum education profession has faced before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle, wrote “Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis” in which he discussed the importance of museum education and his experiences during the pandemic. Hogarth pointed out that while museums made some progress in terms of diversity and inclusivity, they have not made progress in retaining museum educators in the field:

Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.

This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.

Not everyone in the museum education field has additional resources to fall back on and increasing requirements for the positions will continue to alienate individuals from entering and contributing to the museum education field. Another excellent point that Hogarth made was: Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future. I will also add that it will and already has deterred current museum education professionals from staying in the profession if new measures are not introduced to maintain talented individuals in the museums. Jason Porter continued the museum education discussion in his post.

In my blog post “The Importance of Education Management in Museums”, I pointed out that Education management is a continuous task museum professionals are aware of, and when we are able to form a solid foundation for the museum education management system museums can successfully fulfill their educational missions. Porter shared his experience as the head of the education department of his own museum while describing the current problems managers are facing in museum education during the crisis. He stated in “Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis” that:

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work —  is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities.

It is harder to maintain a functioning education department when the number of museum educators in the department continuously fluctuates, and we need to figure out how we need to face this new reality. All museum education professionals faced the impact of cancelling, postponing, and rescheduling programs they anticipated in implementing for schools, scouts, adult groups, senior groups, homeschools, and many more members in the community. As a result of so many changes happening all at once, including but not limited to changing programs and working from home, museum educators have become even less secure about the roles they will be able to fulfill and leaders need to recognize the need to maintain a healthy work relationship while we are staying at home. Porter recognized the need for stronger connections between leadership and staff:

All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.

It is important to take advantage during this unprecedented time, if possible, to use leadership roles to prove educators are essential for museums. If we recognize that museum educators are essential, then we will be able to figure out the next steps in improving the museum education field.

Links:

Code Red for Museum Education Profession

Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis

Education Programming: How Important Flexibility is in School Programs

The Importance of Education Management in Museums

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