Two Decades of Change

Good news! In 1994, historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen phone interviewed 1,500 Americans about the methods they used to engage with the past. Survey respondents revealed that they trust museums more than any other historical source. The other sources include older relatives, teachers, college professors, nonfiction books and movies. History museums were praised for providing access to primary sources and for allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions about the artifacts presented. Good job everyone! I guess we can all relax and take the rest of the day off, right? Wrong!

As I read Rosenzweig and Thelen’s book, The Presence of the Past, I was bothered by the public’s praise because it was largely based on the assumption that museums allowed visitors to interpret the past any way they wished. I worried that they had misunderstood the innately educational mission of museums. As a museum studies student writing in 2010, I understand that history museums do not simply display artifacts for the public to view and judge on their own. Instead, they provide interpretation and education to help the public understand the historical facts, stories and themes that the artifacts represent. I assumed it was apparent that museums provide enlightening experiences, challenge preconceptions and inspire greater understanding.

Gradually, I realized that my interpretation is colored by learning about and working in museums during a time when education and audience engagement is central to the museum experience. Excellence and Equity, an influential American Association of Museums report that emphasizes the importance of education and public outreach, was widely released in 1992. Its recommendations had not been implemented by the time Rosenzweig and Thelen’s survey occurred. Although I still believe that the interviewees had a narrow view of the function of museums, it is important to understand that museums were different sixteen years ago.  To me, the survey represents both the tremendous change that has occurred over the past two decades and how much further museums need to go if they truly want the public to view education as central to their missions. I would love to see a similar survey completed in 2014 (twenty years after the first) to see how the public’s attitude towards museums has changed.

I spoke with Garet Livermore, Vice President for Education at NYSHA and the Farmers’ Museum, about Excellence and Equity. We discussed its importance to the field and the change it helped inspire. Excellence and Equity will soon turn twenty years old. I asked Garet if he thought museum education was still a rising force in the field or if it had peaked in importance. Will something different, perhaps an emphasis on participatory experiences (as promoted by Nina Simon), rise up to replace public and school programs as a significant focus? Garet replied that he feels a significant change coming in the field. He believes that many museums will emerge from the recession having reallocated their resources and changed their focus. Although he has theories, he is not yet sure exactly what that change will be, how it will influence museum education or how quickly it will become evident to the field at large.

So I ask, is the direction of the field shifting? If so, where are we headed and what are the implications for education and audiences?

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2 Responses to Two Decades of Change

  1. mgross1025 says:

    While I admittedly do not have a vivid memory of 1994 or the museums I visited that year (I was six years old), I do know that museums and the environment in which they function have changed since then. Not only are audience demographics different than in 1994, but so is the economic environment. Furthermore, I agree with Garet Livermore that museums will emerge from the current recession as changed institutions. Difficult times breed ingenuity and greater efficiency, and in the case of museums, adversity is making the cause of education a necessity rather than just another goal. Providing objects to display and exhibits that visitors can broadly interpret no longer satisfies the criteria of “education.” I see museums’ educational role expanding to include public programming as an equally important companion to museum exhibitions. No matter how interactive or technologically flashy an exhibit is, meaningful and interactive programming has few substitutes. And in an economic environment where Americans are rethinking the ways they spend their leisure time, museums have a unique opportunity to reinvent and rejuvenate their institutions and the communities surrounding them.

  2. sbudlong says:

    I definitely agree that public programming is becoming increasingly important to the educational role of museums. A well-designed program can enliven an exhibit and help more people connect to it. Strong programs can also deepen public engagement and prompt repeat visitation to the museum.

    I think the key to museum programs is that they need to be well thought out, creative and targeted to a specific audience. Too many museums see programming as an after-thought and charge educators with engaging the public on a limited budget and time-scale. If museums are going to capture some of the public’s leisure time, they need to place programs on a level equal with the exhibit itself and have educators and curators work to design the exhibit and programs in tandem.

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