Turning Up the Dial on Museum Education – Part 2

Written by Erin Branham. 


My first post looking at Michael Edson’s (@mpedson) wonderful slideshare Are Museums a Dial that Only Goes Up to 5? explored the scalability of museum work, and specifically the work of museum education departments. Michael’s slideshare poses the questions: now that we can reach larger audiences relatively easily, what is our responsibility to do so, and how does that affect how we structure our work? His material was so rich that I only got halfway through it – so here’s a look at his conclusions.


On slide 51 Michael repeats the museum tech mantra “There are more powerful ways of accomplishing museum missions than getting people through the doors.” Many, many museum professionals are still struggling with this idea and trying to find the way to balance our traditional methods of fulfilling our missions with the new possibilities. While many museum educators are in this debate up to their eyeballs, many more are just beginning to realize the debate is even going on.

Michael presents several ideas for how museums might go about scaling up what they do, presenting 3 points:

1. Open community (slide 55)

Open community can be hard for museums. Suse Cairns recently wrote about the appropriateness of opening our internal debates to the public and the need to take into consideration the “power in having a singular message that is communicated clearly” and how a multiplicity of voices and open debate on every decision has the potential to muddy up that singular message. I’m an advocate of transparency, but I’m also aware that museums move pretty slowly as it is a debate that takes time.  There is a balance to be struck between openness and inclusion, and efficiency and clarity of message.  To add to the challenge, that sweet spot is a moving target.

Technology now makes it much easier for museums to work in conversation with the public to refine what the museum is and what it needs to bring to the community. If we do not make use of the tools we have, and commit to enacting this process of listening and acting upon what our audiences say, we stand at risk. Museums have had frequent internal debates around how to avoid merely giving lip service to our public role for the sake of keeping our donors and tax exempt status, while putting forward the agendas of small groups of people who spend most of their time talking to each other and no one else. Traditionally much of the community engagement responsibility of an institution falls to the museum’s education department. Does this mean that as part of our quest to provide public value we have a responsibility to make use of digital tools? If so, then we have to engage with the real world logistics of creating public engagement in this way. Which means asking questions such as – do we have the same responsibility to try and respond to the input of an audience member who interacts with our institution entirely via the internet (because, say, they live 1000 miles away) as we do to an audience member who physically visits the museum once every 2 years or more?

In the conversation about museums as Third Places, technology and its ability to tailor experiences to the visitor has been a part of the discussion, but do we also need consider how technology allows us to integrate the audience’s needs and knowledge into everything that we do? This is what Michael is referring to when he brings up Joy’s Law, the inevitable truth that no matter who you are, what you do, and how much expertise you have under your institution’s roof, most of the smartest people still work for someone else. Technology gives us an opportunity to tap those smart people for the sake not only of our museum, but for all the people our museum serves. Michael brings up the power of network effects – multiplying value for each individual by connecting them into a network of others. If we can truly create network effects for our audiences (and I believe we can), shouldn’t we be actively trying to figure out how to make that happen? That idea has always been active in our work with schools and teachers, for one example – but I think we need to consider how we can leverage our networks to multiply value for everyone in them.

2. Web-centric

Web-centric may be even harder for museums than open community. Museum professionals are inching their way toward the idea that a museum now needs to have two integrated and equally resourced (at least in terms of staff and work time allocations) spaces – one physical and one virtual. But as bastions of the value of the real, that’s a difficult adjustment to make. I don’t think too many people still believe that making our content and collections available virtually undermines the real experience.  It doesn’t seem to negatively affect the desire of people to have the real experience since museum attendance trends continue upward, but it can go against the grain of many museum professionals nonetheless. And some of that “going against the grain” has as much to do with the reality of having to change our tried and true work habits to incorporate these new tools and goals.

3. Born Global

Born global is the thought Michael crystallizes for me. Even large institutions, prior to the digital age, thought about themselves primarily locally in terms of audience.  Significant tourist visitation matters but you still didn’t think about how you might be serving classrooms in Des Moines if you were in NYC. But lately, I’ve been thinking that we really do have to consider how we are producing education programs that function both for the physical visitor and for the virtual audience.  Must we, from this point forward, think globally? Since we don’t exactly know how to do that yet – this would require experimentation to gain experience if we are ever to create powerful born global museum education programs.

These three aspects Michael names reinforce and work with each other and we need to give serious thought to how we develop them in tandem. As he says on slide 58 – every meeting and every project needs to incorporate these issues if you care about scaling up your museum’s work. And luckily, he’s given some thought as well to how exactly you make all of this happen.  On slides 59 and 60 there’s a guide with ideas for how museums can begin to change.

I don’t know if it’s a meme spreading through the museum community or the 100th monkey effect, but Michael’s guide is similar to Dana Mitroff Silvers’ and Molly Wilson’s Design Thinking for Museums methods, which emphasize speaking directly to visitors, rapid prototyping (Michael’s “start small”, “adapt” and “experiment” points). But I’m particularly fond of his points on slide 60 to “provide infrastructure for collaboration” – a task that requires us to stop, consider a bit about how we need to change our internal structures, and spend some time behind the scenes again using the mantras of start small, experiment, and adapt.

What do you think are the key ways museum education departments need to change to turn up the dial and provide value to more people? If you could start today with a small change towards adapting to open community, web-centric, born global programming – what would it be?

2 thoughts on “Turning Up the Dial on Museum Education – Part 2

  1. Michael Edson says:


    Thank you for thoughtfully highlighting and sifting through these ideas – – these challenges really – – both in the sense that they may be challenging ideas, and that they constitute a specific and direct challenge to the assumptions and practice of mainstream museum management.

    I love that you worked through the arguments and laid them out for your readers, but I feel like you’re holding back on us! You float a lot of open-ended questions…

    1. What is our responsibility to reach larger audiences, and how does that affect how we structure our work?
    2. Do we have a responsibility to make use of digital tools?
    3. Do we need consider how technology allows us to integrate the audience’s needs and knowledge into everything that we do?
    4. Shouldn’t we be actively trying to generate network effects for our audiences?
    5. Must we think globally?
    6. How can museum education departments turn up the dial and provide value to more people?
    7. If you could start today with a small change towards adapting to open community, web-centric, born global programming – what would it be?

    …and then you back away.

    Take them on! Take a stand!
    Do you believe we have a responsibility to reach larger audiences? To make use of digital tools? To integrate the audience’s knowledge into everything we do? To generate network effects? To think globally…?

    “Take a stand and tell us what you believe in.”

    Set it for 11.


    • Erin says:

      You got me, Michael – I do back away in this post. My first draft was full “we MUST… do this and that”, but as I wrote I considered the realities I’ve been running into as I’ve gotten involved in digital projects, as well as the realities I’ve dealt with across my career. My first job was in a museum with a staff of 3 that was losing city support on an annual basis until it finally went under a few years after I left. The truth is the responsibilities of any individual museum (and any individual museum educator) have to be tailored to that institution’s resources and mission, so I didn’t want to blanket any “we MUSTs” because I hope people might respond from a variety of positions. I think some institutions may make a choice to keep it traditional, and that may be perfectly valid for that museum.

      That said – I am deeply convinced of the utility and necessity of digital media to broaden a museum’s audience and contribute to a global conversation. I absolutely believe we can use digital tools to increase our transparency, and that we have a responsibility to do that (and that one works regardless of your size and resources), as well as to grow our communities that actively participate in the creation of the museum minute to minute and year to year. But I fear that the forces of conservatism that run strong in most museums will resist that sort of change for some time to come.

      In some of my other posts I’ve already written about the need for museum education departments to look at their structures and start reorganizing in a way that puts equal emphasis on the online and onsite audiences as a way to begin changing. I also believe we have to think of ourselves as both a physical and virtual space with as much effort and thoughtfulness put into our online spaces as our galleries. I think network effects are possible, but I think we’ve got to figure out how to do it effectively – and how to sustain it.

      I believe turning it up to 11 is possible, but I want to make sure that if we do it, we don’t merely get louder about our missions – we get better at them at the same time.


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