What does a museum educator do? (And do we need them?)

A few weeks ago, a colleague told me that she is optimistic that her museum is becoming a truly educational institution. “And when that happens,” she said, “we’ll put ourselves out of business.” In other words, the purpose of a museum’s education department is to help keep the institution focused on its educational goals. In a museum in which everyone understands this educational focus, no education department would be necessary.

This statement captures critical tensions in the museum education field. Museums are focusing more on visitors, community, and participation; education departments are essential because educators have expertise and connections that help build a vibrant visitorship. But as museums play with staff structures (see, for example, restructuring of staff at the Oakland Museum of California), and begin to make the visitor experience a more central concern, what do educators have to offer? Could the greatest sign of success be irrelevance?

At the core of this quandary is the question: What does a museum educator do? Are museum educators program designers and teachers, who work with groups such as schools and families, turning the galleries into classrooms for select audiences? Are museum educators visitor advocates, representing the visitor on exhibition and program development teams, or during the redesign of museum spaces and amenities? Are educators a specialized team of marketers, who bring new visitors in to the museum, increasing the quantity and diversity of audiences? Are educators experts in creating engaging and participatory visitor experiences – and if so, what does that mean, and what do we gain (or lose) by turning from education to participation?


The museum education field is currently unsure about its primary role in museums. As Exhibit A, consider the varying titles held by the leadership of various education departments. (Selected institutions that use this title are listed in parenthesis; many of these titles come from recent job postings.)  The titles are important for two reasons. One reason is that they evidence the field’s struggle for vocabulary to define what it is museum educators do. The second reason is that these job titles may reflect differences in the positions themselves, and growing differences in the roles of education departments across museums.

  • Director / Chair of Education (Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art): This is a traditional title, still the most common, but it is being rethought presumably because it does not do a very good job of describing what it is museum educators do. It dates back to a time when educators primarily ran lectures and tour programs for adults, and tours for school audiences. In how many museums is this still what museum educators do? (My guess: Many.)  And if we want to change this, where is the field’s clear argument for what the role of museum educator is becoming?
  • Director of Education and Public Programs (Concord Museum; Palm Springs Art Museum): This title implies that public programs are somehow separate from education. Underlying this are myriad assumptions about what “education” is and is not (why isn’t a public program an education program? Because the content is academic? Because the audience is not children and families?), and what types of expertise educators have and do not have (public programs staff are likely to have less of an education background than their colleagues in school and family programs, but more content expertise).
  • Curator of Education (Detroit Zoo; Hood Museum): This title implies that education staff create programs as curators create exhibitions, separating programs from exhibitions (rather than considering programs a part of exhibitions) while placing programs and exhibitions on a theoretically equal footing. I would be curious to know whether museums with a Curator of Education have a different inter-departmental dynamic than those with a Director of Education.
  • Education and Interpretation Supervisor (Corning Museum of Glass): The word “interpretation” implies responsibility for interpreting objects and exhibitions, mediating between what the museum places on view and the visitor’s experience of these objects. This is somewhat ironic in an era in which museum education understands interpretation to be an individualized effort to make meaning of objects, rather than the presentation of an academic context for each object.
  • Vice President, Learning and Interpretation (Detroit Institute of Arts): The first part of this title echoes the United Kingdom’s use of “learning” and “learning departments” instead of “education.” Presumably “learning” sounds less formal than “education,” and captures a broader range of visitor experience, although it still connotes cognitive (rather than physical or emotional) experiences.
  • Head of Interpretation and Participatory Experiences (Minneapolis Institute of Arts): This title swaps educational or learning experiences for participatory experiences. This echoes Nina Simon’s ongoing call for a participatory museum. But what do we mean by participation? What type of participation? What is the role of programs in participation, and what is the role of exhibitions and front-line staff?
  • Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice (Walker Art Center); Curator of Public Practice (Oakland Museum of California) – a whole new kettle of fish conflating educational practice and social practice art. As artists grow more interested in direct engagement of audiences through social practice, their role in museums verges on territory previously belonging to educators. This title reclaims contested space for education departments, perhaps arguing that social practice art is an educational endeavor that should exist in an educational space. It also allows educators to think more broadly than education or learning, allowing them to cross over into an artistic discipline in which unusual experiences are created and offered.

Of note in the above titles are two dramatic shifts in the work of education departments.  First is the involvement of education staff in the work of interpretation, indicating involvement in the creation of exhibitions. In January, four colleagues (Judith Koke, Heather Nielsen, Jennifer Czajkowski, and Julia Forbes) wrote on the Center for the Future of Museums blog that:

art museum educators with expertise in free-choice learning, visitor motivation, cultural attitudes, physical and cognitive accessibility and modes of response and participation are beginning to take a leadership role in the shaping of visitor experiences in gallery spaces. At this moment in time, most such staff work under the title of “interpretive planner.” It is up to us to determine how this position develops in the next decade.

One of the key questions to be addressed as this position develops is: What expertise must educators have to be interpretive planners? Often museum educators have content backgrounds (an MA or PhD in art, science, or history, or – in art museums – an MFA). If museum educators claim to have expertise in free-choice learning, visitor motivation, cultural attitudes, accessibility, and modes of response and participation, how do we build this into professional and pre-professional training, and emphasize this as a background needed in this field? To do so would be to privilege education as a vocation – something that bucks a trend in a society which thinks teachers often do not know their subjects deeply, bring little to the table, and should teach from scripted curricula.

Further, is the expertise of an interpretive planner the same as that of an educational program planner? Or are these two very separate roles? And if they are separate, what connects them within a department, and what is the best word to use for this department?

Interpretive planning at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Interpretive planning at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

A school group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A google image search for school museum visits reveals myriad pictures of scenes just like this one.

A school group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The second shift evidenced by these job titles is the shift from education to engagement. Participation and public practice do not signify an educational experience, but rather, an engaging one. What is the relationship between education and engagement? (Of note here is that museums derive nonprofit status from their claim to be educational institutions. However, nonprofit status is understood to be under siege from various forces – see, for example, Elizabeth Merritt’s posts on the topic and her related pinterest board.) Is the slow swing from education to engagement related to museums staking out a new position for themselves in the non-nonprofit market? Is the expertise needed to engage similar to the expertise needed to educate? Have we been engaging all along while calling it education? Are programs changing, or just vocabulary?

Nowhere in these titles is the idea that museum educator should take on the role of community or social worker – a museum role promoted by Lois Silverman, Elaine Gurian, and Gretchen Jennings, among others. Do museums not see this is part of their role? Or do they feel it belongs elsewhere in the museum?

I do not have an answer to “What does a museum educator do?” I do believe that museum educators are needed, but I am also convinced that as a field we need to come up with a more clear idea about our role in the 21st century museum, in order to avoid a future working as entertainers and marketers. I would love to hear other thoughts on this – and am also wondering if this has potential for a discussion session at the AAM 2015 conference. Thoughts?

16 thoughts on “What does a museum educator do? (And do we need them?)

  1. :-) for this post… especially the question of are the ‘programs changing or just vocabulary’.
    There is always risk of being seen as trendy or just buzz– but ‘engagement’ is a huge concept being explored today by people across the learning world. Influences from ‘adaptive’ learning models, brain and behavior change research, motivation, ‘intelligent assistant’ and experience design… it’s a mix of people and disciplines all focused on answering the question of how do we keep people ‘engaged’ not just inside the museum but when they leave? So yes, risk that it’s a trendy meme, but I think engagement is a concept worth exploring.
    Related note- talk I saw today – is long but has some nice nuggets
    Valerie Hannon – How can we build an engaged educational community?

  2. This topic resonated with me. I’ve grown distasteful of the term “educate.” I have seen it used to conflate ditto-style crafts, to pad grant applications, and to provide justification for almost anything a museum attempts to do. On the flip side, the world of formal education is changing even faster than museum education with ideas like gaming, personalized learning, and a school in the cloud.
    I’d be in favor of changing the terminology used to describe the work we do from the antiquated-sounding “education” to anything that forces us to break free of the formulaic patterns that we have fallen into. I do think that it means greater collaborations across departments and a shared sense of purpose. It would be nice if each museum dug deep into their mission (or created a more specified mission) and crafted a set of job descriptions that best suited its individual purpose instead of defaulting to curator, marketer, educator, development manager, visitor service manager, etc. I think we’d see many more thriving institutions that way.

    • Good point that formal education is changing rapidly. Worth exploring what this department does in a museum, but also what “education” means these days – or should mean.

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  10. Reblogged this on Museum Scribe and commented:
    An interesting read for museum educators. Two years on these questions are still being asked and the diverse range of different titles for museum educators remain (e.g. Family Learning Co-ordinator, Collections & Learning Curator, and Learning Officer). Does this, then, make it harder for those entering the museum education sector?

  11. I take offense to your assessment that “to privilege education as a vocation – something that bucks a trend in a society which thinks teachers often do not know their subjects deeply, bring little to the table, and should teach from scripted curricula.” It sounds like you had a rough time in school and/or keep company with pretentious snobs.
    If museum educators are to develop and facilitate programs for school groups (as opposed to walk in visitors), they should absolutely be degreed and experienced classroom teachers. Without the knowledge of both formal educational theory and its practice, museum educators are completely unaware of the needs and challenges of a huge audience of not only museum visitors, but also the very future of museums.

    • Mitzi – I appreciate that you have taken the time to comment on this post. However, I have chosen not to make this comment public (something I have never before done). In today’s political climate I have become very sensitive to the tone of discourse, and find this crosses a line to personal accusations, rather than intellectual engagement.

      I would add that if you look at the post more closely you will see that I absolutely agree that museum educators should be degreed and experienced teachers (although, to my way of thinking, not classroom teachers, as that is or should be a different type of teaching).They should have, as you say, knowledge of formal educational theory and practice. I would love to see museums modeling a true respect for teachers and the work they do – I see disrespect for teachers in their pay levels, scripted curricula, and more, and I think teachers do wonderful and important work.

      I’m sorry this was not clear from my post, and I invite you to resubmit your comment without the personal attack (“It sounds like you had a rough time in school and/or keep company with pretentious snobs.”). I would happily post a revised comment, and think the dialogue it could spark would be useful for all.

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