Turning Up the Dial on Museum Education

Written by Erin Branham. 


Michael Edson (@mpedson), web guru at the Smithsonian, posted this slideshare on February 27, 2013 for Social Media Week, a series of events held in cities around the world each spring and fall. In it he presents a provocative look at the possibilities of reach in the digital age and challenges museums to rethink their ambitions, as well as their strategies for fulfilling their missions. It is an extremely rich set of 62 slides with so much to unpack that’s it’s going to take two posts to do it, so keep your eye out for a follow up..


We all know that there is something of an inverse relationship between how many people you can reach with a program and the quality of the contact the program provides.  Just looking at numbers can tilt things towards high attendance/ shallow contact programming, forgetting the importance of the quality of the contact.

The first 20 or so of Michael’s slides set up a discussion of how radically the internet has changed the scale of reach that a museum can realistically expect to achieve.  In slides 23-32, Michael compares the reach of the NGA’s physical space with the reach of Wikipedia. The difference, of course, is massive. Your first thought might be – okay, so Wikipedia gets 2 billion hits a year, but those are 2 minute interactions, and with content that is questionable in its accuracy. Is that really something we want to emulate? However, flip on along to slide 36 and you’ll see that TED Talks have topped 1 billion views. I think museums could stand to emulate TED Talks: a cache of brilliant content by brilliant people presented in an accessible style to an extremely wide audience for free-choice learning. One BILLION views.  Think about that for a minute.

Slide 37 also greatly illuminates what Wikipedia does extremely well – 1.7 billion edits by volunteers. Those are almost surely not unique users, but a lot of people are having a much deeper, more substantive interaction with Wikipedia than you might imagine at first glance. Big numbers may not be everything, but they are certainly something – which turns out to be one of Michael’s main points. For museum educators it presents a question that we can no longer ignore: now that we can extend our reach to thousands, tens of thousands, or even larger audiences, how does this change what we do?


The rapidly changing environment in which museums find themselves begs the question of – what are we trying to achieve? The answer cannot be the same as it was ten years ago, five years ago, or even two years ago.

Michael makes some bold statements on that score on slide 45.  “This is our job in society.” he says, and lists 3 points:

  1. Put the tools of knowledge creation into more hands

I imagine he’d get a good deal of debate on this. Many museum professionals deeply mistrust distributed knowledge authority.  Most of us have spent many years developing specialized knowledge and it is understandable that a good proportion don’t particularly want to throw open the doors of our areas of expertise to everyone else, even if those people are wildly smart in their own areas of expertise. However, there are things to consider in Michael’s statement.  I’m currently reading James Paul Gee’s The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning, in which he discusses the “wisdom of the crowd” by saying, “Pooling experiences across diverse people with diverse experiences can be a powerful force for correcting errors and discovering new and better associations and patterns.” (Gee, p. 57) Letting our audiences participate more deeply in the knowledge creation process in museums can be done and done well – but it requires careful consideration, lots of work, and real institutional will. If this is a goal, it means rethinking not just strategies but structures within the museum. It means looking at how jobs are organized, what their duties are, what the professional development is for those jobs – this is just as true, if not more so, for museum education departments.

2. Share the joy & meaning of artistic and cultural creation exploration with more citizens

This is a no brainer, and the primary reason for all of us to do the hard work of learning to leverage digital tools.  There is no reason (other than limited time and resources!) not to find ways to make our content freely available to as many people as possible. If we decide that we are truly committed to sharing what we do with more citizens, then hard choices have to be made about what it is that we are already doing that will give way to efforts to build online resources and communities.

3. Deepen engagement with the challenges that face our species and nurture the habits of civil and sustainable society

I think this one holds true for some cultural institutions and not others. If it is something your institution is taking on, then it is a goal which should permeate every decision. Even if this goal does not exactly line up with your institutional mission, chances are you have something at the heart of your mission which is equally lofty and idealistic and that comes down to “deepen engagement with issues of import”. I might modify the second half of the sentence – rather than saying “nurture the habits of civil and sustainable society” I’d probably say, “nurture conversation about what the habits of civil and sustainable society are and how we can encourage them.” After all, there is much debate on even what a civil and sustainable society is, much less which habits nurture it.


The for-profit world has for the last several years been touting the paradigm of the social business model and numerous startups these days do corporate responsibility and traditional nonprofits one better with the concept of social enterprise. Both of these concepts are based in the core values of being nimble, responsive, open, and inclusive, whether their goal is maximizing profit or solving human ills. Both serve as valuable examples to museums and their education departments.

social business

Notice that the paradigm here is of a continuous flow of input between colleagues, audiences, and outputs.  Social businesses start with open communication – and this applies both internally and externally. A recent post by Gretchen Jennings on The Generosity of Social Media points up how external sharing benefits our colleagues across the field and provides a model for thinking about sharing with our audiences as well. Nina Simon’s latest post looks at simply using a private Facebook group to serve as a place where staff can build community and have input into each other’s projects as well as the decision-making processes that rule the museum. Participating in these sorts of online conversations may sound simple – set up a Facebook group and instant community conversation!  But for success they require that administration create a truly open, safe environment for idea exchange. Staff need to be encouraged to build online sharing into their workflow and everyone needs to get comfortable with throwing their half-baked ideas to their colleagues for input.  Communication by leadership soliciting input and information is a vital first step – institutional culture flows from what staff feel leadership finds is acceptable behavior. We must first figure out how to share knowledge creation within our own departments and within the museum, or we’ll never figure out how to do it with our audiences.

Is it time to look at our goals, strategies, and structures and consider some radical change? We have traditionally organized ourselves by parsing up our audiences: School & Teacher programs, Adult programs, Family programs. These divisions always had a certain level of artificiality to them, but they were useful for organizing work. However, more useful ways of organizing our work may be emerging. But how many education departments are exploring them? What are the potential benefits and risks of reorganizing?


In part 2, I’ll take a look at Michael’s recommendations for how to approach turning up the dial on museums. Stay tuned!


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