Schools and Museums: Interview with Jay Rounds

Jay Rounds is the recently retired founding director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies at the University of Missouri St Louis. He is also an anthropologist and a former museum practitioner, notably serving as Chief Curator of the California Museum of Science and Industry, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, and Executive Director of the Museum of Creativity. Jay has written numerous articles applying organizational theory and intellectual history to museum practice. He is currently writing a book which argues that museums are in a moment of paradigm flux.

I heard Jay speak at the American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) annual meeting a number of years ago. I asked to interview him for this series because his ideas about paradigm shift relate to the heart of this investigation – questioning whether the way in which we work with schools makes sense in our current context, and whether there are new ways of thinking about this work that might be more helpful in the 21st century.

(Note: A special thanks to Jay for this post. Although it looks like an interview, it reads more like a well-written article, thanks to Jay’s extensive editing, which he did to ensure that these complicated – and, I believe, very important – ideas were clear.)

Jay Rounds - image from UMSL

I have been asking people why schools should visit museums, and everyone has a different answer. Many of the ideas are not even compatible with others. Why is it so difficult to get agreement on what we should be doing?

That’s a good description of the whole museum field these days. Everyone is faced with an unmanageable number of demands. There seems to be an endless supply of people telling us what we ought to be doing. No museum could implement all of those changes simultaneously. In the first place, we don’t have enough time and resources. More significantly, some of the voices are telling us to change in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with the changes demanded by others. So we can’t do everything, and we can’t be everything, all at once. We have to make choices.

 Why are these choices so difficult for museums to make?

That question really is at the heart of my research. First of all, I want to dispose of one common misperception. Museums aren’t having these problems because they are museums and there is something uniquely wrong with museums. It’s not because museums are non-profits and need to start operating like businesses. All types of organizations, including businesses, go through the same patterns when they’re in similar situations.

What kind of “situations”?

What we are experiencing now is an episode of what I call “fundamental change”—a rare, deep discontinuity that revolutionizes the fundamental practice in a field or discipline. In scientific disciplines (which are a type of organization), Thomas Kuhn called such change “paradigm shifts” or “scientific revolutions.” Other researchers have identified similar discontinuities in a wide range of fields.

Of course organizations change all the time; but most of the time they change within the boundaries set by the paradigm of their field. For instance, one big discontinuity occurred when automobiles replaced horse drawn carriages. More than a hundred years later, auto manufacturers are still working out all the possibilities of the basic invention. Cars are changing all the time, but they’re still cars.

So paradigm shifts or fundamental changes are relatively rare. In American museums there have only been two such changes; we now, presumably, are going through a third episode, though it’s not yet completed. The first episode occurred right after the Revolutionary War, when a new type of uniquely American museum was created. The exemplar for this paradigm was Charles Willson Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, which opened (in stages) in the 1780s. That museum concept dominated practice through most of the 19th century, but by 1870 new museums were appearing that disavowed the old paradigm. After a period of “paradigm crisis,” the new paradigm finally took form around the turn of the century.

That episode created the museums that we all grew up with in the 20th century. And once again, the final third of the century saw that paradigm come under attack. The process is continuing today.  It seems likely that the pattern will hold, and that sometime soon a new paradigm will emerge that will unite the field again.

Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum (self-portrait), 1822

Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum (self-portrait), 1822

How does this account for all of our conflicting ideas about school tours in museums?

The paradigm cycle accounts for the fact that there are such conflicts; but the actual substance of the conflicts reflects some more linear trends in society. Think about the cycle first.

It’s important to recognize that a paradigm is the property of the discipline or field as a whole; it’s what defines the discipline. Individuals become members of the field by affiliating with that paradigm. It doesn’t make sense to say that an individual “has a paradigm,” or that a single museum has a paradigm. Rather, an organization is recognizable as a museum because it practices within the paradigm of the field of “Museums.”

When you work within a discipline or field that has a stable paradigm, it’s easy to know what to do, how to be productive. The paradigm specifies what the work is that needs to be done, and the legitimate ways to go about doing it. It also provides the intellectual or theoretical structure that says why it is worth doing those things, and gives assurances that if you do the work well, you will get the expected results. You don’t have to spend time arguing with colleagues over why you’re all there. You can focus your creativity on becoming more effective and efficient in exploiting the possibilities opened up by the paradigm. A physicist knows how to do physics because she has learned the current paradigm of physics, and practices within that paradigm. (She of course is free to do something else, but then she is not a physicist.) Most professionals spend their entire careers working creatively within an established paradigm. It’s a gratifying way to work because it enables you to get right to work on tasks that you know are meaningful, and ensures that others will know how to value your contributions.

In periods of change, that comfortable consensus deteriorates. Doubts about the efficacy of the old paradigm are voiced; the authority of the experts comes into question, because that expertise is defined by the paradigmatic technologies that are now coming under attack. Freed from the discipline exerted by a stable paradigm, competing ideas proliferate, championed by professionals who had been marginalized in the old technology. As the technology and the goals it serves become increasingly ambiguous and uncertain, there is no longer any overriding principle for deciding which ideas are better than others.

There’s an exciting quality about such times, since there are all these new ideas being debated and new possibilities are opening up.  But it can also be a very frustrating time, because you’re subjected to all these competing demands. How do you choose which to follow?

The cycle is completed when a new paradigm emerges and gains widespread acceptance. It unifies the field in a way that seems to resolve all of the issues raised by the failure of the old paradigm, and it enables people to once again get to work without having to argue over what the work should be. Most people find this to be a big relief.

All that defines the process of fundamental change, but in itself it doesn’t tell us anything about the substance of the changing ideas. For that, we need to look at the historical context of the paradigm shifts.

Can you say more about “the historical context”?

In my book I trace the changes in American museums in concert with changes in American prisons and American schools. When I see all three types of institutions changing at the same time, in similar ways, responding to the same social conditions, and drawing on the same sets of fundamental ideas, then I think that a high level of confidence in the interpretation can be justified. Like American museums, American prisons and schools were reinvented circa 1800, reinvented circa 1900, and went into a new period of paradigm crisis in the late 20th century that is continuing today. In each case, the period was one of high social stress in American life. Each episode followed a major war: the Revolution, the Civil War, Vietnam. Each period was one of doubt and a sense of danger to the society, a time when things threatened to fall apart. In each case, Americans became intensely interested in ideas about how to stave off chaos, how to ensure the preservation of an orderly society by principles that were consistent with the prevailing social ethics and concepts of social justice.

Peale’s museum and its followers were created in the context of Enlightenment social contract theory. A century later, those theories were replaced with new ideas rooted in Evolutionist social theory, and the sociological functionalism that it matured into. Today we have rejected central tenets of Evolutionist thought, but we don’t yet have a consensual replacement.

Most fundamentally, what has changed from one period to the next has been the idea of the proper relationship between society and the individual. America after the Revolution was centrally concerned with establishing justification for the liberty of the individual citizen. The founders were working to eliminate the vestiges of all the years of living under monarchical power, and to show how social order could be maintained in a free society with limited government, through the rational thought and actions of virtuous citizens.

By the end of the 19th century America had changed radically, and had lost faith in the power of the rational individual mind in the face of the uncontrollable forces of urbanization, mechanization, immigration, and the massing of wealth in the hands of the “robber barons.” Evolutionist thought now declared that society was prior to the individual, and that society made the individual into the citizen required for an orderly social life. Society would hang together because the “melting pot” would socialize all citizens into a common culture that each person deeply internalized.

But now we have embraced the ethical imperatives of a multicultural society. Differences are to be respected and even celebrated. Social scientists tell us that individuals do not internalize a culture that then determines their actions; rather they acquire elements of multiple cultures that they deploy strategically in differing situations. But while these ideas have been widely accepted, we do not yet have any persuasive theory of how order can arise out of difference rather than sameness. And that’s why we don’t yet have a new paradigm for museums, or prisons, or schools. Such institutions, to be perceived as legitimate in their own times, had to align their paradigms with the dominant social theory that explained an orderly and just society.

I realize that this sounds very abstract and probably unclear to boot. It’s a complicated argument that requires comparing different institutions across different periods of time. That’s why it needs a book-length treatment.

The idea of a cultural melting pot - an idea with its roots in evolutionary social theory - is exemplified in this 1908 poster.

The idea of a cultural melting pot – an idea with its roots in evolutionary social theory – is exemplified in this 1908 poster.

I find it fascinating. Can you talk about how one idea has changed across the different paradigms?

Sure. Let’s focus on the idea of “rationality.” We hear that all the time these days, such as in the comment that museums need to act more rationally, the way businesses do. That is one of the so-called “new ideas” that is touted as a new paradigm for museums, but is in fact an old idea that was part of the old paradigm.

The key is that the concept of rationality has changed radically over time. During the Enlightenment period rationality was understood to be a quality of the individual mind. Social order was ensured if each individual fully realized that God-given capacity for rational thought, because each person would rationally conclude that his or her self-interest was best guaranteed by helping maintain the social contract. The educational theory of the time described the mind as consisting of the will, the emotions, and the rational intellect. People with poorly developed rationality were slaves to their willfulness and emotions, and so were both sources and victims of constant disorder. Schooling was based on the principle of exercising the “mental muscle,” strengthening the intellect so that it could control the will and the emotions. Peale saw his museum as contributing to that strengthening of the intellect, though he focused on encouraging the study of natural history, rather than the study of the classics recommended by most educators. Criminal codes and penitentiaries were designed to make certain that a person contemplating wrong-doing would do his “rational calculus” and reach the conclusion that the pain to be suffered would exceed the benefits that might be gained.

The dislocations of the Civil War and the huge changes in the American economic system undermined the conviction that the rationality of the individual mind could even understand the forces driving social change, let alone control them. Where the Enlightenment philosophers saw free-willed, rational individuals thinking up the social contract—and so creating societies—the Evolutionists completely reversed the priority. The society came first, and created the individual in its own image, as the type of orderly citizen needed to sustain the society. Relative to the free-will doctrine of Peale’s time, Evolutionism was a very deterministic concept. But rationality did not disappear; rather, the locus of rationality shifted from the individual mind to the collective mind—that is, to the culture, where all the knowledge produced and experience gained over the ages was pooled together. While the individual mind was very limited, an individual could act with relatively high rationality as a participant in the culture. Social order would be achieved because all citizens would learn the same things, and would think in the same way, and so would naturally agree on all the things that counted for social order and justice. Science, as the most highly rationalized element of the broader culture, would provide a reliable guide in all things. The focus of schooling turned from reliance on the teacher as a model of individual rationality, and drill to strengthen the muscle of the mind, to inculcating a curriculum that taught all students the essence of the common culture. Museums were reconceptualized as protectors and conveyors of that common culture, and the penitentiary was replaced by the reformatory, which provided remedial socialization for those who didn’t get the message the first time through the system.

In its turn, that conception began to fail in the latter half of the 20th century. The expectations that science would provide effective answers to all social problems became obviously problematic, exacerbated by the follies of the science-based planning systems applied to the Vietnam War by the “Best and Brightest.” Social theorists declared that individuals did not internalize the culture in the deep, deterministic way proposed by functionalism, and the Civil Rights movement began to challenge the belief that all citizens should be socialized into a common culture. The rationality of the collectivity—of the culture or of the organization—was shown to have to its own limitations and dysfunctions, just like the individual mind. Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize for his concept of  “bounded rationality,” while psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman documented the systematic errors that affect our thinking.

So now we are in the crisis of the old paradigm, when competing ideas proliferate but we have no way to judge which is better than another. Museums are told to become more efficient; but “efficiency” was a central concept of the old paradigm, epitomized by the Scientific Management movement of the early 20th century. We are told to teach a “common core” curriculum, but that again looks backward a hundred years, and is hard to reconcile with our multi-cultural society. Nor can we swing back to Enlightenment thought, which aimed to assert the power of the rational intellect over the will and the emotions, for modern psychology shows us that the emotions and will are essential to practical reason.

In sum, our problem now is not to choose among either of the previous two paradigms, but to find a way to transcend the very nature of the choices that they presented. And that depends on rethinking our basic assumptions about the “proper” relationship between society and the individual, and how, out of that relationship, we can find a new basis for social order that is consistent with our acceptance of cultural and individual differences. If “education” is a definition of a process for connecting society and individuals, we need to think beyond education to recreate our museums for the new world. The starting place for the museum field, I think, has to be in rethinking our assumptions about what happens when a museum visitor encounters our exhibitions or programs.


7 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Jay Rounds

  1. Pingback: Beyond Digital: Open Collections & Cultural Institutions | Art Museum Teaching

  2. This analysis of the paradigm shift has helped me understand both my frustration in my profession as “teacher” and as a “citizen” in the current political climate. So clear–so helpful–thanks!

  3. Pingback: Beyond Digital: Open Collections and Cultural Institutions, Part 2 | Milwaukee Art Museum Blog

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

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

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