Putting the Learner First

This is the third guest post in the Schools and Museums series. It grew out of a comment that Brian posted on LinkedIn, in response to this series.

Brian Hogarth is Director of the Leadership in Museum Education program at Bank Street College in New York City. He has held Education Director positions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and related managerial positions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Glenbow in Calgary Alberta, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Brian has spent many years training docents, developing educational resources (including many short video documentaries), public programs, as well as working on exhibition development and interpretation. He has a special interest and background in Asian art and culture.

My own comments are in italics at the end of the post.

 Brian subway at AMNH

What is the value of museums?

All of us involved with museums discovered, at some point in our lives, the immense pleasure and interest that comes from experiencing and working with things. But museums now encompass so much more, including the environment in which the experience with things takes place.

The experience of objects and things, and the environment in which they are housed, plus the ideas, dialogue and socializing that goes on in that environment, constitute what is valuable about museums. But that value is something constructed in the hearts and minds of every individual and the community, and is therefore organic and not fixed. We’ve all experienced that sensation of walking into a place that seems alive, versus another that seems to be somewhat past its prime.

We need to concentrate on the child or student experience of the museum first, not the agenda that we wish to impart. Museums are not entitled to be here by virtue of what they possess, but are continually revitalized through the active participation and support of individuals and communities.

One reason objects still have currency is because we are living in an increasingly virtual world. Museums can help retain our focus on what is real, tangible, lasting. I keep on my shelf a 1990 teaching guide from English Heritage called “Learning from Objects.” It is full of interesting bits of information to consider about objects. For example, when compared with photographs, it says that real objects offer details, exact coloring, sensations of smell, tactile elements, three-dimensionality, weight and mass, all experienced in close proximity, plus a sense that something is original, not a reproduction. Perhaps we are drawn to singular objects because we sense that there is only one of us, unique in the world?

Looking at objects, we can slow down, practice focusing, accumulate evidence through close observation, describe what we see or touch, develop a hypothesis by citing evidence. To put it simply, we can learn how to articulate what we are experiencing. We can be understood. We can practice listening to the experiences others are having. We can share information with others.

How can school tours reflect this value?

It’s almost a given creed of our profession that we must tie what we do to what the teacher has to teach in the classroom. We’re beginning to question that assumption. Museums too often conflate ‘education’ with busloads of school visits each year. So in order to attract those busloads, our educational mission has become tethered to what is happening in schools.

Both schools and museums are smitten with numbers, data, and results. The industrial model that Rebecca cited is absolutely correct, only it has shifted from creating factory workers to preparing students to be engineers and programmers.  But is education about job training, or should it be about increasing the opportunities for children to learn, discover, and engage with the world, to develop their own passions and interests?

Mizuko Ito’s group, Connected Learning, speaks eloquently about the need to stop chasing curricular goals, and to focus instead on the engagement of the learner, letting each student tap into the vast world of expertise that exists online and across communities of interest worldwide. This shifts the emphasis from orchestrating learning to facilitating the pursuit of individual investigations. What does that mean for museums?

What I hope is emerging is the idea that museums are not extensions of the classroom, but rather engender exactly the kind of learning that we believe students should engage in. Museums could play a significant role in pointing the way to this new kind of education, one that is not isolated to a classroom, or to curriculum. The recent AAM report Building the Future of Education explores how museums can position themselves in this larger ‘learning ecosystem’ model.

As John Dewey noted, we need to start with the students’ experience. What sort of world do they inhabit day by day? What can they take back to their world that is useful? How can the museum experience meet the world of the student, opening up related doors of exploration and discovery? What can the students do here to free up their imaginations, and to make connections beyond the boundaries of textbooks and curriculum? Dewey, by the way, conceived of schools having museums and libraries inside the school, not the other way around.

School buses in front of the American Museum of Natural History

School buses in front of the American Museum of Natural History

How can we transition to this new model?

The museum needs to refer not only inward to its collections, but also outward to the world that the visitor inhabits, as if to say, ‘here is a place where you can explore and examine things closely, and this is how it connects back to the larger world’. I’m reminded of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the displays are constantly referring back to what is directly outside in the bay. So your museum experience extends back out into the community.

Museum educators need to think about how the whole museum experience should be learner-centric, rather than an orderly display of things based on academic disciplines. For example, galleries could be organized around interesting, compelling questions – the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle has an orientation gallery that presents the essential questions that make up any museum, the who, what, why and how of what we collect. You sense that the museum is not a finished exercise, but a work in progress.

Orientation gallery at the Burke Museum in Seattle

Orientation gallery at the Burke Museum in Seattle

We need to encourage the students’ sense of agency. They can (and should) take an active part in the world and make something of it, not just find themselves endlessly consuming things. We need to position the museum as a malleable space, in which the arrangement of artifacts is only one of many possible compositions.  The architecture itself can speak to the changing ways we are positioning the museum in society—as repository, as authority, as shared civic space. How does this space make you feel? What is the museum emphasizing by displaying things this way? Only when some of these conceptual frameworks are addressed, can students begin to realize the possibilities that museums offer.

Rather than constructing what we think is a meaningful path through a set of exhibits, we should pose a problem that the children have to solve in the galleries. Children love a challenge, whether it takes the form of a game, task, or simple question. They can work in teams, to learn from each other and accommodate various learning styles. The museum can set the parameters for the activity, but the students need to be on center stage, not the docent or educator. To do this, each museum has to not only re-think programs but reinterpret its assets from the perspective of real world questions and issues. So the art museum tour focused on portraiture in early American art could be re-framed as an examination of self-image and beauty: How do we define who looks good today? What defines fashion? How do images of ourselves get shared and preserved? What makes a person look important, and how does setting support that?

We should be utilizing the full range of senses and other multimodal techniques for engaging students in the museum experience; focusing on ‘viewing’ and ‘discussing’ as core activities potentially diminishes the innate ability of many to make art as its own form of communication. We ought to have an activity at the heart of every program. I imagine school programs having children dress in the manner of the figures seen in historical paintings, or actors telling stories about what is going on in a work of art. Children often respond first with their bodies when encountering a new environment or phenomenon. I was reminded of that recently, when I noticed a child dancing freely in front of the large Matisse painting of dancers at MOMA, while adult visitors stood at a distance, their bodies in respectable poses of contemplation or discussion. Is it any surprise, then, that we find independent groups like Museum Hack tours providing opportunities for adults to strike poses around works of art?

child in front of Matisse Oct 14

A child dancing in front of a Matisse painting in the Museum of Modern Art.

Why is this important?

We need to have a broader vision in mind that gradually transforms the museum into a place where students and other visitors have a greater capacity to make their own meaning. This is not an easy task, and assumes that the education agenda—the ‘lens’ through which visitors see the museum experience unfolding—will need to be extended beyond considerations of programming. The traditional didactic, discipline-based information that museums present will no longer frame the experience. We have to slowly background the traditional ‘tour’, foregrounding the learner in all their guises. Reimagining school tours can help point the way, and perhaps help us to remake the experience for other visitors as well.


Brian’s post leaves me with two questions. He writes “We need to concentrate on the child or student experience of the museum first,” and suggests a series of strategies for putting this into practice. For me, this means in part having a clear idea of what benefit the child should be getting from the museum, and aligning the program with these outcomes (or goals – choose your own language). I have been leading workshops lately in which I walk people through articulating visitor outcomes, and for almost everyone, the idea of articulating visitor outcomes (not the benefit to the museum, but the benefit to the visitor) is challenging. How can we, as a field, get better at articulating how our programs benefit the visitor, and align programs accordingly?

Brian’s formulation also suggests a focus on the individual visitor. This has been raised in other posts, and poses a challenge for school programs. When an educator is working with 15 students he or she has never met before, how can the educator focus on ensuring that each individual student has the opportunity to follow his or her interests? Is this even possible?

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3 thoughts on “Putting the Learner First

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

  2. Pingback: Why do we need “classroom management” in museums? | Museum Questions

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

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