A Community of Learners for Museum Professionals?

Written by Erin Branham. 

Ed Rodley’s got me thinking again.  In his latest post he says:

At least part of the reason [digital media specialists in museums haven’t been able to teach themselves museum practice and theory] is that museums tend to be very closed about their practice. And moving from that “Should I share this” mindset, to a more open, “Is there a reason not to share this?” mindset is another one of those “tech” issues that really isn’t a technology issue when you scratch the surface. And it’s not an issue of “us” being more accommodating to “them”. Being more transparent should be a personal imperative, because it’s a great way to improve one’s own work. We all need to adopt a more open mindset towards our own learning.

 As a museum educator and lifelong advocate of lifelong learning, I heartily applaud the sentiment in that last line.  Because of that, and because I’m becoming more and more fascinated by the possibilities of communities of learners, I posted Ed’s insightful thoughts in his Digital skills and staff development post to our internal yammer feed, along with the gist of Matt Popke’s comment which inspired the follow up quote above. A (very techie) colleague quickly spoke up and pointed out that it’s not quite as simple as techie versus non-techie and sharing information across that divide.  This really, REALLY got me thinking.

From Silos to Sharing

I’m not sure museum professionals actually have been particularly closed about their practice – they’ve just been talking about it in books and journals as opposed to online.  There are mountains of easily accessible (if a bit pricey for the most part) books on every aspect of museum practice and theory available. Museum practice is only slowly trickling into the digital sharing environment because museums have been slow to embrace digital, and thus most museum professionals simply aren’t familiar with the platforms and habits of sharing their practice via digital means.  For example, I have been combing the web for months now looking for blogs that deal with museum education practice and I can count the ones I’ve found on both hands.  In comparison to the thousands of museum educators there are in the US alone, that’s not a lot.  But we’re simply not in the habit of writing – or reading for that matter – blogs about our professional practice and theory.  I’m not sure that curators, registrars, conservators, museum administrators, etc, etc are either.

What I’m sure is true is that museums, being conglomerates of people doing very disparate jobs, tend to have numerous departments which operate as adjacent silos. I know a good deal about the day to day tasks of curators, preparators and registrars because I have worked in small to medium museums and thus had the opportunity to literally corner these people in their offices and make them tell me what they do.  In larger institutions, you often can’t even find the offices of colleagues outside your immediate field of work, much less trap their occupants in them while you pepper them with questions.  Now that I work in one of those large museums, I understand much better how easy it can be to go an entire career with the daily tasks of your fellow employees being pretty mysterious.

Should We Create a Community of Learners Among Museum Professionals?

I’m feeling very energized by my colleague’s challenge to think about how we all (tech and no-tech staff alike) need to continually educate ourselves for the rapidly changing environment of the 21st century museum. To that end, I’ve been reading a lot about learning in the digital age, particularly the thoughts of John Seely Brown, who has done some wonderful things to capture the collective intelligence of communities of learners – like finding ways to gather the “war stories” of professionals in a shared online space so that they could build their collective knowledge. Brown and others acknowledge though, that it wasn’t the technology which created success, it was the culture. Tom Ruddy, Xerox’s director of knowledge management for worldwide customer service, remarked about their strategy, “We concentrated on understanding what would make people want to share solutions and take their personal time to enter stuff into the system.”

Figuring out how to do that across the entire museum field is a fairly daunting task, not least because communities of learners must reach a tipping point in order to be successful.  There’s a good chance many museum professionals just don’t consider it that important to understand what exactly goes on in other departments, nor do they find it compelling to add to their workload in order to tell others what they do all day. But I do think that perhaps one solution to the siloing of museum work is some sort of online roundtable with the simple goal of sharing the daily concerns, tasks and frustrations of people doing the many different jobs contained within a museum.

It has always been our intention that edgital operate as a portal through which people engaged in the educational and interpretive function of museums might find resources and each other, and hopefully, share war stories so that we can all become a community of learners supporting each other’s professional development.  We write and share online in the hopes that anyone working anywhere in a museum who is interested in how technology is and can be used to enhance informal education is able to become a part of our community of learning. To this end, I’m going to be adding numerous links to our pages over the next week or two so that if you’ve found us, you’ve found all of them too.  If you have a great resource, please let us know.

In the meanwhile – what do you think would be an effective solution to the information sharing problem across professional disciplines in museums? If, say, a wiki-based museopedia was set up, could people be persuaded to take time to share information about their jobs, from routine daily tasks to big theoretical concerns? Would such a thing be useful? Would you contribute to such a space if it existed?


8 thoughts on “A Community of Learners for Museum Professionals?

  1. Gretchen Jennings. Exhibitionist Editor says:

    Great post. I have recently been writing about museum educ on my blog and have been surprised at positive response. I think I had assumed that mainly techies were following tweets and blogs but have found many museum educators use these media too. Affinity groups on LinkedIn are a conduit here. Maybe these can be used more. Would be happy to contribute to a larger sharing effort.


    • Erin says:

      Hi Gretchen! I definitely think we are on the cusp of a transition wherein more museum professionals are becoming comfortable with and making use of digital technologies for sharing professional concerns, practice and theory. I’ve just begun getting familiar with LinkedIn affinity groups, but I fear they may mirror the silo structure we’re all so used to and so wouldn’t quite work as a place to educate ourselves across disciplinary lines. Thoughts? Glad to hear you’re interested in the larger sharing effort! Any successful sharing space has to hit a tipping point, and that happens spontaneously when the time and space is right…


      • Kathleen says:

        Usually museum educators are very willing to share, but often the museum hierarchies have not really encouraged them to use digital learning groups for themselves. The managements often still seem to have barriers and distinctions in their minds about off-site/virtual activities and on-site visitors. This, as you rightly observe, may be more a matter of habit and time, than of any rules or actual barriers.


  2. mchriscastle says:

    Thanks for your post, Erin. I’ve been interested in helping to build communities of learners and communities of practice in museum education for a while now. I’ve found Etienne Wenger’s work particularly helpful. I think we have had some success in doing this with the work of museum-ed (Kris Wetterlund & Scott Sayre), Museum 3.0 in Australia, the Group for Education in Museums and engage in the UK. I hope my work with the Museum Education Monitor has contributed a little, too. Beyond that, there are over 200 blogs that I monitor that are in some way connected to museum education and interpretation. Not all are written by museum educators per se but perhaps that interdiscipinarity is one of the pros/cons of our field. That said, there is always room for more voices. Look forward to reading more about your efforts on behalf of us all.


    • Erin says:

      Hi Chris – it’s great to hear from you! Your work has been wonderful and I think is greatly appreciate across the Museum Education field. Museum 3.0 is terrific as well and I just discovered GEM which has some wonderful resources! Interestingly the conversations that sparked this post indicated that people across the museum field are curious about what people in other specialties do. So I keep trying to think of ways that curators, registrars, educators, conservators, administrators, visitor services, volunteer coordinators and volunteers can share their experiences with each other. As Gretchen mentioned in her comment, Linked In has developed some wonderful groups, and at my institution we have a more and more active yammer space that allows us to taste the conversations going on across departments. I found this link just last night to the 100 Best Curator and Museum blogs (it’s 3 years old so I’m sure the blogosphere has changed a good deal, but I’m still finding it useful for mining). I’d love to hear your thoughts on what are the Top Ten Museum Education blogs, and the Top Ten Museum blogs in general (or however many you’d like to share from your list)!


  3. Katie Stofer says:

    I always remember a program that the Museum of Science, Boston, had while I interned there for a year or so. I think it was every employee, twice a year, spent a day (or some such length of time) in another department helping out. I thought it must be a) refreshing and re-energizing for those folks, as well as b) incredible professional development to try and get around (or at least inside) those other silos.

    I am all for a connected community, but I wonder what the best tools are? It seems like with blogs, there’s still just a lot of one-way communication, maybe a little more discussion on email lists, but no real central gathering spot. Are there other communities that have a good tool (I’m guessing some field like open-source programming does) and how can we build on that?


    • Erin says:

      Hi Katie! The Museum of Science, Boston program sounds like a great idea to help beat the siloing that occurs in museums. I remember reading about a company which had a once a week No Email Day policy so that people had to call their colleagues, or actually go see them in their workspace.

      I also wonder what are the best tools. Various wikis are popping up on specific topics in museums, but nothing which gathers information across specialities. I assume the American Alliance for Museums rather hopes to be the clearing house, but I don’t find their site very conducive to discussion. Maybe they need to open some forums! We could look to something like open-source programming but my fear would be that two few museum professionals are used to connecting online (as opposed to OS programmers, where it’s their native ground) to make effective use of a good tool. It’s going to take time for everyone to realize the benefits of connecting online. Someone said to me recently, the problem with the internet is that it’s invisible. An individual has to take the initiative to become conversant with the many ways to find and share information there.


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