Proving Your Worth – the Museum Educator’s Story

The role of formal education departments and programs in museums is rapidly expanding as these institutions continue to realize their duty to serve the public in this manner. As the Education Outreach Coordinator for the Idaho State History Museum, Ellen Morfit knows this, and is working with the rest of the Education Department (Kurt Zwolfer), to continue to improve the museum’s education programs.

Ellen’s journey to the Idaho State History Museum (ISHM) begins with a passion for history and a desire to work in museums. When she moved to New York, she took the opportunity to begin volunteering with the Brooklyn Historic Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and soon decided to go all in and obtain a degree in Museum Education from the prestigious Bank Street College of Education. Her program included weekly museum visits, six weeks of student teaching (she also obtained a teaching certification), and a semester-long internship with a local museum. Ellen was determined to work at an art museum – the MET in particular – but her advisor refused. She insisted Ellen apply for an internship with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Her advisor won. It was the perfect fit. During her internship, Ellen was able to gain experience in visitor evaluations, program development, and teaching. One of the programs she developed is still running and engages visitors of all ages in discussions on sweatshops, labor movements, and immigrant experiences. Ellen recalls, “When I worked at the Tenement museum, it was on the verge of exploding into something amazing…I mean it was amazing, but they, since I left there, and that was twelve years ago, they’ve just blossomed.” The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is now part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and is a leader in the field for integrating the past and the present and engaging visitors in dialogue around difficult and important issues.

Fast forward to the present and Ellen is in her third year at ISHM. She began by volunteering for the museum while she was a stay-at-home mom raising her daughter and helping her parents. After eight years of volunteering and paid summer program work, Ellen was offered the opportunity to take and shape a part-time position running the outreach program for the museum. In discussing her different experiences in education programs, Ellen highlighted the importance of the time students are in the museum and participating in individual programs. In order to truly engage with the subject, Ellen would like to see the museum’s current twenty-minute programs extended to 45 minutes, in a manner similar to those now offered by the Discovery Center. This would allow the students to engage with the material on a more meaningful level instead of feeling like a “‘dog and pony’ show, because you don’t have the time…you have to somehow figure out how you can make those twenty minutes worthwhile for the kids.” Ellen is also working on expanding the outreach program by incorporating different technologies, such as live streaming lessons, in order to serve students across the state. While Ellen and I did not get a chance to discuss this, the live streaming would not help students engage with the actual objects often used in museum programs, however, many of these students have not had the chance to engage with the museum at all so this is certainly an improvement.

Ellen recognized the value of her experience at Bank Street in light of one of the current issue in the field of museum education – museum studies degree or museum education degree and the pursuit of a job. Ellen pointed out that her program provided basic overviews for all areas of museum work, but focused on education. Museum studies programs do the same, but lack the specific focus or ‘this is where I’m going’ factor. Many open positions require an education degree of some sort and/or teaching experience. Advice from Ellen for those entering the field includes involvement in social media of all forms and continued professional development and education. While a drawback of living in a smaller city, such as Boise, has been a lack of resources for such development, Ellen regularly participates in webinars by the American Association of Museums and maintains contacts with museum friends back East. Ellen believes educators should enjoy working with children, be team players, be a resource for teachers, be flexible, be willing to learn, have a solid sense of humor, and did she mention enjoy working with children?

Ellen’s Bank Street professor once told her, “As an educator, you’re going to have to continue to prove your worth, over and over again.” That was over a decade ago. Many museums recognize the value of well-trained, experienced educators and the role they play in fulfilling the social contract museums have with the public. As the field of museum education continues to grow in importance, educators must remember their purpose is to support and nurture life-long learners.

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