Written by Erin Branham.
For years, clever and innovative museum educators have devised numerous strategies for serving audiences across our communities as well as the visitors who come to our brick and mortar sites. But with the advent of proliferating digital media, the edges of our communities are suddenly unclear. Are we supposed to serve not just visitors in the galleries, and the locals in our own towns, but everyone, everywhere, non-stop? I can hear the outcry across the museum education field – please give us a break!
Sorry, can’t. Technology has changed how culture works. It has fundamentally altered how we communicate, how we play, how our families and communities of friends function. That makes this moment one of the most significant in the history of the field of museum education. Which is saying something because educators have long been the red-headed stepchildren of the museum world. We still struggle to be seen as more than mere kid wranglers herding hordes of elementary students through the galleries in such a way as to prevent them from hurting the objects and maybe shouting a fact or two at them along the way.
However, education is not alone in feeling unwelcome at the museum family reunion. Digital media specialists working in museums are as familiar with their work being a tacked-on after-thought as educators are. Despite their being creative, innovative museum professionals who think a lot about the people who use our collections and content (see some of the wonderful visitor-oriented responses to Ed Rodley’s “Making a museum from scratch” thought experiment series), museums still tend to treat their work – websites and other digital manifestations of the institution – as something between promotional marquees and newsletters. Yet digital media specialists are still managing to build projects that create access for the public, and interpret the collections for our institutions’ audiences.
I love the stuff these people are doing – when I see the Walker’s new website, or MoMA’s AbEx NY iPad app, I get tremendously excited! I really, really love it, but… but… hey, man – that’s our job! That’s education! I am spending a lot of time at work jumping up and down, waving my arms around and yelling to try to draw attention to the reality of the huge overlap between digital media museum projects and museum education. Because I believe that if we as educators aren’t making this point and initiating conversations with digital media specialists (if we’re lucky enough to have some on staff) or about digital media with our administrations, then we aren’t doing our job. Digital media is fundamentally changing the entire museum field and we need to think hard and fast about how it is changing the practice and theory of museum education. And maybe digital media museum professionals need to consider the stuff we know about understanding the motivations and myriad ways people use and learn in the museum. I’m curious to know if you all have read our theorists, like John Falk and Eileen Hooper-Greenhill. Are you considering pedagogical and learning theories as you create apps, online content and the social media presence of our institutions? I imagine this depends on the museum and the particular mix of personalities there (as things so often do in museums) – and whether or not any of a specific museum’s education staff is working to meet you in the middle. Are they?
Educators, are you thinking about how you can go about retraining yourself to be digitally proficient, and to incorporate digital strategies into your daily work habits? Are we as a field thinking about how we can present our collections and content digitally so that it is as engaging and meaningful as it is in the galleries? It seems to me that museum educators and digital media specialists are natural allies with similar goals, ambitions, and philosophical ideals about serving our visitors.
What do you think?