Through the course of some research on Garden City history this week, I ran across an article on education and the need for reinvention in schools. The journal article was a practical analysis of schools that have done well at incorporating the precepts suggested by Charles Reigeluth in a chapter of a book that he edited on change in education. The article, which included Garden City Community School as a case study–the reason that I ran across it in the first place–discussed the need for change in education. It suggested a need not for reform or improvement, but for transformation–a complete change of form, a systemic overhaul. In reading “A Framework: Reinventing the Museum,” and “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum?” it struck me just how similar education and public history are in many ways. Both are tools to educate, both have historically used highly defined systems to effect that education, and both, under more severe public scrutiny have had a tendency to become defensive rather than responsive.
In the readings in “Reinventing the Museum,” I find a lot of discussion about how museums can reinvent themselves, how they should be more reflective, how they should be more sensitive and inclusive, and numerous other catchphrases and key words, what I don’t read as much is discussion of external perspective. Much of what is being said is from internal entities–people in the museum that are working off an already biased perspective of what they believe the public is experiencing. Socially, our culture is at a point that demands individualized education rather than en masse programs. The article on education talked about it in terms of industrial world vs. new world. In the former education was done for the purpose of producing a product that would function as a seamless part of a giant machine. The intent was to de-individualize the parties so that they could be controlled all at once in an efficient manner. The new world, the modern world, has seen a (caution: catchphrase ahead) paradigm shift in how society thinks about education. In this new world education is about the individual, it is about satisfying the belief that each person learns differently.
My questions are at a more philosophical level when it comes to museums. It seems that museums and the people that run them have identified that there is a problem. The solutions that are proposed, on the whole, seem to discuss what types of structures could be erected (both intellectually and physically) that would serve the public. What if it is those structures that are the problem? What if no structure could be devised that could satisfy the public? Perhaps the question that needs to be under greater scrutiny is how to effectively reach the public by individualization. Simply restructuring does not seem a rational course of action in a society and culture that dislikes structures and institutions. Of course individualization of history can sound a lot like (watch out, another catchphrase) selling out. But it seems to me that, if at some point the museum was born–and I am sure that it was a radical notion at some point in history–then at some point it must adapt, and that adaptation may be, nay, should be, as radical as the birth. Perhaps, the era of the museum is altogether over, and it is time to invent, rather than to reinvent. I don’t know. Thoughts?
Trying to bring the museum to the public, as this book has shown, is a real challenge. The authors in Reinventing the Museum really covered that well, especially Lisa C. Roberts in chapter thirteen. How can you be honest, while at the same time present the information clearly enough for the general public to learn from it? Roberts showed what a struggle that can be when interpretation is concerned. The key sentence in that chapter for me was on page 147: “just because visitors look does not mean that they learn.” George E. Hein, when he talked about the Constructivist Museum, stated one of the keys was to present the content in way that makes it easiest to understand. However, does that make it any easier to learn? In a museum where there is an abundance of exhibits and a wealth of information, someone can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of knowledge. How can you be sure anyone will come out of the museum feeling like they learned something? I think there is more to it than just effective communication, like Roberts suggested. Hein talked about the need to focus on the visitor, not the content of the museum. In class we talked about selling out when creating history the general public wants to see. Well, how do you not sell out by focusing on the visitor? If you cater to the visitor, isn’t that the same as the History Channel catering to the viewer? Just some thoughts I had. One thing I did find very intriguing was John Cotton Dana’s desire to create a museum for the immigrants and the housewives. Dana was from the 19th, early 20th centuries, which made it unusual for a male of that era to focus on groups such as immigrants and housewives.
All of the readings this week gave insightful information into the many struggles that museums are undergoing in the 21st century, but what stuck out most to me was the very last reading, Simon’s “Principles of Participation.” Her personal experience and breakdown of the potential participants, as well as how participation should be handled within a museum, really connected with me. In the beginning Simon describes the disappointment she met with the final exhibit where the museum allows visitors to create their video response. As she described most of the videos, they were not really worth much, if anything. I’ve felt this same way with exhibits like that. On top of feeling disappointed in the end result of the exhibit, I did not really care if I or either people with me participate in it. I think some of the issues I had with the exhibit came down to the impersonal nature of the exhibit. All you did was make a short video response, outside of that experience you gained nothing. This comes down to both a design choice as Simon explained, as well as how participation is handled, a major difficulty for museums in the 21st century.
In line with my thoughts above, the analysis of who participants actually are and potential ways participation should be handled was very interesting to me. This breakdown of participants into creators, critics, spectators, and so on shows just how much thought has to be put into an interactive exhibit so that hopefully a majority of participants can feel as though the exhibit was both worthwhile and that they and the community have gained something from it. When these exhibits are created, I imagine that one of the most difficult things to determine is the amount of freedom to give people. I know when I have a paper to write, rather the professor gives you free reign or narrows in my topic, I always find difficulties within both.
At the end of the day, many museums will tackle these difficulties of traditional and contemporary concerns in ways they think will be of financial benefit to them, as well as being beneficial to their survival in the community they exist within.
According to the author, social institutions, museums included, must evolve with society. Museums must transform in order to to remain relevant in modern society. The author lays out numerous claims about how to wholly reinvent museums so as to allow students and citizens of all ages to better engage with the materials in museums. Rather than “causing a fundamental shift in the role of museums in today’s world,” I would argue that museums can easily reach a wider audience, capitalizing on the contents they already have because we live in an increasingly globalized, informationalized, digital world.
This books reads as a manual on how to overhaul the traditional system, which I find ironic because I always viewed museums as great because of the diversity they celebrate. There are museums that deal with everything from the racist groups to the Holocaust, from the local company that defined the town to radical social groups, the list goes on and on. Historical museums must display substantive history that explains the rich, diverse history of the people, the community, the nation, and the world. Wholesale change in substance is not needed: individual museums have the right to display what they so choose. What museums really need to work on is displaying that information in a better way. To this end, the author has much to say.
In regards to creating a Constructivist Museum, museums must certainly cater to all types of people; however, to state that one specific type of museum is by nature better than every other types seems a bit ridiculous. The author argues that Howard Gardner “had the constructivist museum in mind when he used the museum as a model for education;” however, Howard Gardner would have most certainly seen the benefits in a discovery based museum as well. Moreover, Howard Gardner would advocate for a museum that reaches all of the multiple intelligences. Society is full of many different people that think, learn, engage, and react in different ways; as such, museums must cater to all of those people, traditional learners as well. Only a museum that engages all visitors in new ways while also maintaining historically significant contents will survive in the modern era. Similarly, educators can work to reform museums all they want and incorporate community based initiatives, but the information must be presented in a way that will resonate with all types of learners in order for true learning to ever occur.
Although I took issue with the writing style and excessive use of passive voice within this week’s readings, the articles clearly and effectively outlined the multiple and varied questions and concerns that modern museums face today. Having had little experience working directly with museums I was intrigued to learn how museums are facing challenges of interpretation. I found the article “Changing Practices of Interpretation,” by Lisa Roberts, especially thought-provoking. By establishing a three-pronged approach to examining the changing methods of interpretation, Roberts succeeded in highlighting how museums are attempting to keep their audience engaged while at the same time acknowledging existing controversies. Roberts also alluded to the concept of interpretation as a “task of connection.” The combination of these issues made me question how private corporations contend with these changes in the field of public history. If visitor centers at breweries or other privately owned tourist destinations display exhibits recounting the company’s history, should visitors be expected to accept this version of interpretation as historically accurate? Or do visitors experience these exhibits in terms of their personal connections to the company or product? Are these public spaces held to different standards than museums in terms of expected standards/practices of interpretation?
The readings this week bring up the importance of museums and the way they can improve by being more community minded and focused, and by increasing participation. The article that stood out the most to me was Cameron’s article. The way people rearrange and categorize objects does have a powerful effect on the way we perceive our reality, and the museum as the voice of authority can be a powerful means of constructing historical reality in someone’s mind. That being said, I agree that museums need to be aware of the tone they are setting and the proposed reality they are constructing, but I am not positive that the ways some of the authors suggested connecting with the community were that much better than what museums already do. George Hein is really on to something in examining the different ways people learn, and this is a good starting point. Allowing for complexity is the most important first step in making any changes, and part of this complexity is not abandoning traditions that work.
I like a lot of things about traditional museum settings and I would hate to see that tradition lost to over-participation. A lot of times I think visitor participation is overrated, and created just for participation’s sake. I agree that people will have the most meaningful experience if they connect, but Nina Simon’s idea that visitors who “create” and “work” during their visits can be just as alienating as a traditional museum where the scholarly voice of authority tells us what is important and why. Aren’t educators acting as the same voice of authority, and with the same racial and class bias, by assuming that their proposed activities will be beneficial and enjoyable to the public? There is comfort in the museum as church, especially for those from a working-class background that aren’t always surrounded by beautiful and interesting objects. Walking around a dark and quiet museum can elicit awe and a sense of safety in visitors, and that form of connection, especially with the past, is extremely powerful. To suggest that a participatory activity creates more powerful connections than other forms of engagement is part of the same elite, upper-middle class line of thinking that many of the authors criticized.
I agree that museums should be constantly re-invented, but we need to be mindful of our assumptions about people in creating those changes.
After reading Cameron’s “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” I was just envisioning a museum in this area creating a forum on a controversial topic. While I agree with several of the author’s argument for more critical commentary in museum exhibits, I feel that local museums, libraries and “societies” must tread carefully when adding voice to an exhibit. Lisa Robert’s call for more scholarship in museums seems like a good idea, and perhaps could be expanded with curators contributing to journals and professional associations, but is an exhibit the best platform for a curator to start an argument about the history of a community? I’m still not sure.
On another similar point: I didn’t see much discussion about museum’s relationship with local, state and federal governments in these articles – except Graham Black’s “Embedding Civil Engagement in Museums” article. Black mentions governmental concerns about the lack of civil engagement in current society, and offers some methods for museums to help bring more engagement to communities. Except for this article, the other authors seemed to deliberately ignore governmental agency in their work. Most of these articles emphasized relationships with the public and ways to increase participation and engagement with our visitors, which may be important, but without healthy and open communications with the legislator, these institutions will lose support from their primary source of revenue.