Improving Museum Education: Get Big or Get Out?

Museums serve two main functions: preserve collections and educate people. These can vary, of course. Some science centers, for example, do not keep “collections” the same way an art or natural history museum does. But the goal of that first function is pretty straightforward and measurable, even as the second has become trickier for museums since the Age of the Internet. When it comes to learning things, why should people choose museums over the internet?
Most museums’ answers have centered around the idea of authenticity: museums provide access to real things. Museums offer a variety of ways to access these real things and educational experiences to accompany them – from exhibits to educational programs to mobile museums. But a convention on the future of museum education suggests that if museums want a place in education, they need to get big or get out.
In a recent blog post, the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) compared the educational impact of museums with that of internet offerings, from TED talks to Khan Academy: “The TED conference has served over a billion videos since 2006, the year they started a small experiment to put videos online.  The National Gallery of Art would have to operate for 217 years to have a billion visitors, but is a TED talk as good as a museum visit? Is any online experience as good? There’s a lot of doubt among museum leaders that online experiences can be as authentic, as impactful, as a visit to a museum.”
Perhaps the takeaway message is that museums need to shift the focus of their educational efforts away from pure facts and more towards contextualized learning or affective experiences – “you had to have been there” moments. I think about my own museum experiences, which range from going to the zoo with smartphone in hand so I can read the kind of information I find interesting (phylogenetic relationships between animals – something that never makes it onto the tiny signs!) to being completely absorbed by the art and text on the wall in a Gauguin exhibit that’s telling me a story  would never have been interested in otherwise.
“The Khan Academy, a free, online educational website of which Smarthistory is a part, reaches ten million learners a month,” notes CFM’s blog. “MIT’s Open Courseware project served 100 million people in its first decade and their goal is to reach 1 billion learners in the next ten years. … Museums accomplish wonderful things in society, but a billion learners—that’s the kind of dream we need to have.”
Do you go to museums? Why or why not? What kind of experiences do you have or would like to have?

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1 Comment

Kristin Reiber Harris

Thanks for this article. I think museums can do both and must. Most people can never make it to the Met in NYC. Their 82nd & Fifth web series is a great educational tool that keeps me in touch. I create apps for preschool kids that are illustrated with images from art museums that have released images into the public domain or indicated they don' t know of any copyright restrictions. The apps are interactive animated narratives to share these wonderful objects with families who may never make it to the art museums represented. If they do, they have "friends" there to visit. I think independent developers can make a huge difference in the museum landscape. My first app is Duck takes a ride:An Art Story. More on the way.

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