What are useful ways to think about museum research?

This week’s guest post is by Christine Baron, Assistant Professor Social Studies and Education at Columbia Teachers College. Chris is a former high school history teacher and museum educator, and directed the development of educational and interpretation programs at the Old North Church, Boston. Her research focuses on using museums and historic sites as laboratories for history teacher education. BaronHeadshot

After reading Michelle Grohe’s guest post on the role of research in museums, as a university-based researcher whose work focuses on museum education, I felt compelled to respond. I wholeheartedly endorse Michelle’s position that action research should be a regular part of museum program work. While it does take some planning to do, it is ultimately well worth the effort and results in richer, more meaningful k-12 programming.

However, I must quibble with the notion that the research in the field is primarily divided into large and small research projects, and that large-scale research projects predominate. As part of my own research into the use of museums and historic sites as spaces for teacher education, I recently reviewed over 600 research articles, books, reports, and dissertations to write a literature review on the state of the field. From this review, it is clear that much of the published research is typified by short, qualitative, case study, action-research-type projects that ask perennial questions of practice.

Perhaps a better way to characterize the divide in museum education research is emic, the view of a research site from within the site or etic, research conducted by an external observer. Much of the large-scale research that Michelle refers to is etic (external) research conducted in conjunction with university-based researchers. There are benefits and limitations to being an external researcher. I have a degree of objectivity that is not possible to have if you are involved in running a program. From my vantage point, I can see things that people working inside the organization cannot. I can bring resources and practices to bear that are well outside of the workings of most museums. Much of the benefit to museums of working with etic researchers is that we provide a different perspective on the workings of the museum.

Conversely, from inside the program, conducting research from an emic (internal) position allows museum educators to see things that I cannot. An emic position permits museum-based researchers to bring to bear all of their understanding of the program, its history, its staff, scheduling, and a thousand other tiny details that only insider knowledge permits.

This difference in positionality affects the kinds of questions we ask and the type of research we are capable of undertaking.  The questions that I am interested in are largely removed from daily practice, and focus instead on a few narrowly constructed questions that are “generalizable” to teaching and learning across museums and historic sites. My goal is to discern what works most of the time across most sites, the distillation of which is often referred to as “best practice”. In my own work, I am interested in the types of cognitive maneuvers that content experts (historians, archivists, curators, etc.) use to analyze historic places and visual imagery. I believe that understanding this will help us to develop program models, based on those expert practices, that support student learning.

For many museum educators this work may seem painfully abstract in the face of daily questions of practice. It is, because I am not trying to address questions of daily practice. Instead, I am interested in finding the principles that are the underpinning of daily practice and, from them, developing the templates from which programs can be built. Often museum educators and researchers are asking different kinds of questions, and are interested in different kinds of data, because we are coming from very different positions.

Many of the answers that museum educators seek about daily practice are best done from an emic position. While some university-based researchers operate within research traditions that permit this stance, the current state of research funding does not encourage this kind of work. This is why the museum-based action research that Michelle is advocating is so critical. Museum educators know their own sites, and can discern the best ways to implement programs—and make it clear what works, what does not, and under what conditions. Doing purposeful, systematic, on-going review of student work and other program products is the single best way to understand and improve museum education programs and procedures.

Making this kind of systematic review a regular part of daily life in your museum education department also makes your site more attractive to external researchers. Systematic use of action research provides verifiable information that, while improving daily practice, also provides greater insights for external researchers to ask better questions and solve problems generated from the field. As an external researcher, I need data about how things actually work internally. Having museum-based partners who are already engaged in reflective practice working in partnership with a university-based researcher means that collaborative research can provide information needed to improve the work on-site as well as a perspective on practice that can answer larger questions for the field as a whole.


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