Schools and Museums: Interview with Ben Garcia

Ben Garcia is Acting Deputy Director at The San Diego Museum of Man. In 2012 Ben published the article “What We Do Best: Making the Case for the Museum Learning in its Own Right,” which proposed that museums should be true to their collections rather than aligning with the school curriculum. This article provoked a great deal of debate – at least for myself and colleagues and teachers with whom I worked. I asked Ben if he would be interviewed for this blog series because I wanted to better understand what “museum learning in its own right” looked like.

Ben Garcia

What do you want school group visitors to get from a museum visit – what do you see as the primary intended outcome?

As a young person, your life is divided between school and home. For some kids school is where you get to be some version of yourself you can’t be in your home context; for others school is a difficult place. School can run the continuum from oasis to prison. Museums are a third space, a metaphysical and spiritual space, a world of the imagination, a world of the intellect, outside of that world that you encounter in your home context or in school. The theatrical director Peter Sellers described museums as wildernesses for the dark parts of your soul. It’s that spiritual place, a space where a student, feeling the millions of things that students feel, can bring all of that, and through some sort of interaction with the museum environment can process some piece of it.

There is something about these spaces important enough that we devote our professional lives to them. We serve students best by helping them see why we who work in museums fell in love with museums. When it comes down to it, I think the most valuable outcome of a school tour is student awareness of what can happen in a museum – how the museum can be a resource for them. For me that resides more in a personal matrix than an academic one. Being explicit about why we work in museums, why we think these places are cool, is something that puts us out on a limb in terms of the relationship between educator and student, but it is the kind of risk that is worth taking.

We need to make our institutions into environments where students truly feel welcome. They should leave feeling that they own this space, that they have as much right as anyone to be there, that the museum is a resource for them. Helping students fall in love with museums sounds like a self-serving goal, but it isn’t about sustainability – it’s about the highest value of museums.

This goal is inherently both personal and individual. School experiences are usually group experiences, and academic or intellectual. Would it be better to reach out to young people through families or communities, rather than schools?

On a practical level, schools are where you get a bunch of kids together. So through school visits you get 30 or 60 or 120 students who would not otherwise encounter the museum. In terms of identifying people for whom museums might be that third space, the school cohort is a useful one.

The question is, how useful are museums for schools? Is there an essential conflict between the goals of formal education and the goals of museums?

The San Diego Museum of Man

The San Diego Museum of Man

That question – whether there is a conflict between the goals of schools and museums – deserves to be explored further. Are there some audiences that museums should not pursue, because what we offer and what they need are not aligned?

But I also wonder: does the structure of a school group compromise the experience of finding personal meaning in a space or objects? How do you offer school group visitors (especially elementary school visitors) individual experiences?

Middle school and high school students can have a true free choice experience if you can structure staffing and galleries to allow them time on their own. For elementary age kids, some portion of the experience can be free choice within a gallery, but not wandering around the whole museum on their own.

Your question relates to other questions you have blogged about: What is an educator today? What is education today? What is education in a museum? We continue to experience the tension between a formal educational tradition (including the progressive tradition) and the kinds of things that informal environments are set up to do.

You said earlier that “We serve students best by helping them see why we who work in museums fell in love with museums.” Many museum staff members, including docents who often lead school tours, love museums because they love learning about the objects. Docents share this love with students, which results in a lecture. How do you reconcile (a) sharing what you love with students in order to open up the museum experience, with (b) loving and sharing information?

There is a wonderful feeling that you get when you learn something, and it comes together around a museum artifact, and you can’t wait to share that. We don’t want to denigrate that experience, because it is important to many people’s sense of self and ego. And many young people coming in will have their most exciting connection through content and an intellectual experience. We all know those kids who love knowing the answers to things, and spouting it back – they are like mini-docents themselves. But the yield is so much greater when you introduce visitors to what you really care about after understanding what they care about. It is about starting with your guest, not yourself.

The thrill of a successful teaching experience, one in which students respond and sustain involvement, is powerful enough to overcome a docent’s excitement about being the expert and downloading information. But finding a way to bring docents along that path when you only see them weekly or monthly is one of the structural problems that museums have.

There are some risks that we need to take as educators to signal that we are really there to listen, that we work in these places for a lot of reasons, but the bottom line is that we are here to introduce them to the coolest place in the world. That is the message that often gets lost. Many docents think they need to do this in ways that are very different than what will actually open these kids up.

You talk about risk. What are some risks that you think educators should take in order to accomplish the outcomes you described? Let’s use middle school students as an example – what might educator risk-taking look like with this group?

Museums can be horizon-openers for a middle school kid dealing with the physiological, emotional and intellectual changes that are going on for them, such as experiencing the extent of their power to affect things in their world. Most of the time they look like they are not that interested in engaging. This scares off a lot of people, including educators. Middle school kids remind many of us of that uncomfortable time in our own lives.

When we work with these students, early on, we need to signal that we are authentically interested in what they are bringing to the table. We have to be ourselves with them. We can feel foolish when talking about something that is sincere, authentic, related to our own passion to kids who look like they couldn’t care less.

We also need to think about ways to make them feel comfortable. Give them time to explore alone or with one other person. Accommodate the fact that many middle school students are not going to want to speak up in front of the group about something new to them. We need to create a protective experience, in which they get to peek around the corner of who they are to find a warm and welcoming adult interested in engaging with them. If you can set the tone with them at the beginning, then you can offer experiences where they really get to think about how these things relate to their interests and their lives.

In art museums, I ask students to go around the gallery and select a work of art that they would take home with them. They vote on it by standing in front of the artwork, and then talk about why they selected it.  Those kinds of experiences are the ones that will let students walk away from the experience with the sense that this is a place where they get to have an opinion – ownership. When considering which artwork you would you take home, you occupy a place of literal ownership.

What is the equivalent activity that you would you use in your current museum, which is an anthropology museum?

Encouraging young people to feel that sense of ownership in our Museum is certainly a goal. I hope that the Museum of Man will become that third space, that wilderness for young people to explore and occupy. A place where they will encounter something valuable for their souls, egos, and minds. Right now, the challenge is great as we are organized to interpret artifacts in very traditional ways (Ancient Egypt, Mayan Civilization, Evolution, etc.). The potential is there, as many of our artifacts have strong narrative and imaginative associations. And the museum has made great strides over the past four years to change things up with the temporary exhibitions (like building a half pipe in the museum for a skateboarding exhibit). Our plan is to move to a cross-cultural approach to interpretation, where visitors can delve into the largest identity questions (race, religion, gender, myth, etc) while looking at commonalities: between Mayans, Egyptians, and contemporary Californians. I guess my answer to your question is that I do not know yet. But I do know that we will only be successful when our exhibits are places where a student can find a personal connection to our collections and spaces. And one that opens up new possibilities for how that person can navigate her or his path.

Skateboarding at San Diego Museum of Man

Skateboarding in San Diego Museum of Man

What are the costs of field trips?

The first two museums I worked at were predicated upon the idea that the institution subsidizes the cost for educational programming, through sponsorship or donors. The revenue from education programs might have been about 10% of the resources spent on the endeavor. Now I work in an institution that has to survive in the marketplace: we only remain in the black if we are able to convince enough people to buy  what we have to offer. Educational programming at this museum has to at least be revenue neutral (break even). This is incredibly healthy – it forces you to contend with your  value, and the why and how of education.

In the case of school programs, the why needs to be really compelling. The economic engine of the museum is the exhibit program – that is what keeps the general public coming through your door. School groups are a part of it, but you’re really looking for visitors who will come and visit during their leisure time.

This gets to the fundamental question: Why does your museum exist? What are we here to do? Big museums – museums like the Met or the Getty – are well-resourced; they can subsidize school programs, and can take them to a very ambitious level. They would probably frame what their value is in ways similar to the Museum of Man, but their ability to have impact is very different than ours.

I would note that large and smaller museums offer very different experiences, and thus have different impacts — and perhaps they have, or should have, different goals. Lately I have been thinking about this in terms of the stadium concert vs. the more intimate musical venue. The stadium concert does not have a greater impact than the smaller venue’s concerts; they are incomparable experiences.

But back to costs: What do you need to charge school groups to cover costs?

At the Museum of Man, we offer two types of school programs. There is the school tour program, where the school comes once. Those students pay $5 each for a tour; for $10 each they get a tour and a hands-on workshop. The cost is appropriate for the audience that we are serving – it is what the school market can bear. The fee pays for our educator and for consumables (such as art materials), but does not cover any overhead costs.

Our other school program is the School in the Park, which is foundation supported. This is a week-long program, which serves a few schools in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. Students spend a week in Balboa Park; they spend the mornings for five days in one museum, and afternoons in another museum. For this program, we get $15 per day per student, from the Foundation. That covers our costs for the week-long experience and subsidizes cost of one of our full-time educators, so that she can work on other programs as well.

School in the Park

School in the Park

When I worked at the Getty, they chose to pay thirteen full-time educators; each educator spent approximately four hours teaching and four hours researching and prepping each day. There was a tremendous yield in the quality of instruction. The current administration there does not see that yield. So they got rid of a program that was very expensive – they saved a considerable sum by changing the staffing to a model in which docents teach school programs.

This leads to another big issue: The intangible nature of what educators do. Because our programs are intangible, they are always endangered. As powerful as educators have become in museums over the past 30 years, the most thoughtfully constructed education program can still disappear with the switch of an administrator. And then they are gone. In ways that collections, even if interpreted differently under different regimes, normally do not.

2 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Ben Garcia

  1. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

  2. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

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