How can we learn from the past?


This guest post is by Lynda Kennedy, the Vice President of Education and Evaluation at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum Complex. Lynda has worked at numerous museums, including the Museum of the Moving Image, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. A graduate of the Bank Street College of Education’s Museum Education Program, she holds a PhD in Urban Education from the CUNY Graduate Center.

Veteran Museum Professional #1: “I feel like I have heard this session before.”

Veteran Museum Professional #2: “I’ve GIVEN this session before.”

Veteran Museum Professional #3: “I wrote an article about this in 1979.”

This is my memory’s capture of an actual conversation that took place at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums. There were many exciting things being discussed at this meeting, including a much needed conversational through-line about the lack of diversity – in all its meanings – in museum leadership and a number of sessions around access for different audiences. The conversation above, while possibly coming off as a bit of a “kids these days” moment was partially prompted by some exasperation that we are still having these conversations, a frustration that the needle hasn’t moved.  I have been wondering ever since if our seeming inertia may have something to do with a lack of a body of literature or other knowledge of our field’s past that we can draw upon, at least in some areas.

In any academic writing there is something include called a literature review. The literature review is meant to show the work that has already been done, so that new research can build on existing knowledge, identify gaps in past research, or introduce a new interpretation. Before one proposes a line of research one must conduct a literature review. So when I sit in session after session of museum professionals speaking about the struggle to make art museums relevant and more culturally inclusive, or discussing how to problematize the narrative in history museums, and no one mentions the work of Fred Wilson, it is disheartening. When museum professionals talk about programs or exhibits that use history to contextualize current issues with no mention of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which has been doing this work since 1988, one wonders how much further we could be taking this idea if we learned from that museum’s three decades of related work.

Children in one of the American Museum of Natural History’s “nature rooms” set up in a public school, most likely the Lower East Side.

The same is true with diversity initiatives. We can, and should, be inspired by (and learn from the mistakes of) more than a century of work toward this goal. In 1909 John Dewey grounded the Newark Museum in the idea of representing and welcoming the people of the manufacturing community in which the new institution was embedded, and developed lending collections to go into schools and other settings. At around the same time, the Hull House Labor Museum showcased the crafts of the immigrant groups of Chicago and gave the US-born children of those immigrants an opportunity to connect with their parents and grandparents through craft. In 1917, the Metropolitan Museum not only offered lectures, events and classes in various languages that celebrated the culture of New York’s immigrant population, but also used collections to offer students a view of history that wasn’t only about wars and “great” men, but centered on “the lives of the people, their homes, the things they made, used and cared for” (Scales, 1917, p. 192). Nearly every major institution had relationships with and resources for schools with articulated pedagogical creeds, special programs, lending libraries and slides. Many, like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, had kits and even satellite sites embedded in schools in immigrant neighborhoods. In 1939 Lawrence Coleman, then Director of AAM, surveyed museums in the United States and reported that museums were continuing to broaden their methods for reaching out to their communities. The drive to include, to reach, to educate, and to engage has been strong for over 100 years, certainly within museum education departments.

A girl learning how to spin at the Hull House Labor Museum

Our current context is similar  to that of a century ago in the United States. There is an enormous wealth gap, uncertainty in the world, large numbers of immigrants in our urban centers, and an extreme shift in economic drivers. Certainly an examination of the work of that time would inform our present efforts?

We are a field that pulls from many academic and training backgrounds. Because of this, there is a good chance that someone coming to work in museums, even in museum education, has never encountered a “cannon” of museum-based literature. I wonder what role our professional organizations can play in becoming sources for “must reads.” The American Alliance of Museums is already a publisher of our field’s work and has digital versions of Museum magazine going back many years. Could a wider repository of articles and out-of-print books – searchable, cross-referenced, and digitized – be created?  Should AAM and other professional museum associations begin to demand – the way many academic conferences and all academic publications do – that a theoretical framework (which comes from the literature review) be a part of any presentation? Would that encourage us to make use of the work, knowledge, successes, and failures of those unknown giants that went before,  forged these paths, and fought these good fights? Could that hasten the changes we all hope for? Can we begin to share exemplar past exhibits,  programs, and practices we think others should know about and learn from? What would you include? Who are your giants?




Scales, L. (1917). The museum’s part in the making of Americans. The Metropolitan Museum of
Art Bulletin, 12 (9), 191-193.


7 thoughts on “How can we learn from the past?

  1. Lynda,
    Thanks for this post. I see several factors at play with our field’s lack of awareness of what has come before. Having been on the Museum Education Roundtable board (publisher of the JME) for going on five years, one of the truths is that many museum educators are so busy doing the work that it is challenging to find time to write up the work they are doing . And, for similar reasons, it can be challenging to take time to read and reflect if you are so busy producing. Having taught museum studies for over 25 years now, and led thesis writing, I know as you do that there actually is a literature out there with lots of stories and lessons to be learned and shared. In fact, one could be reading for quite some time and still not have a handle on the vast information available given the research that has been done, the books written, and nowadays all of the blog writing offered. Models are out there (as you nicely cite). So, as you suggest, finding taking the time to find precedents is perhaps the standard everyone needs to practice.

  2. Oh gosh, Lynda Kennedy and Susan Spero. You took the words right out of my mouth – but put them together better than I could ever have done! Having been in the field since 1976, it is frustrating at times when we do not acknowledge the shoulders of those on which we stand. I love the idea of asking for (maybe not demanding) a theoretical framework for professional conference proposals. In terms of “classics” – oh my goodness, too many to count. You would need sub-categories to even begin. And, of course, there is such a lot of work ongoing in academia (theses, dissertations, post-doctoral work, etc.) of which we who are not in school are relatively unaware. These connections between theory and practice were what I was trying to make with the now defunt Museum Education Monitor. Remnants of the “Ongoing Research” section are still available online at

  3. Don’t forget the cost of accessing research. If it’s not available for free on a basic Internet search, most of us severely underpaid museum people will not see it.

    • Very good point. I have found, though, the most libraries can help you access almost anything – it just adds to the workload when articles are not easily available at your place of work.

      • I do a PhD in audience engagement as a mature student with 30 years of work experience in the arts. The more I read the more I see how much more I need to read! Unfortunately my fantastic University library does not provide access to everything I would like to read, so I will, unfortunately, skip some – seminal? – texts… I also see that we are constantly “rediscovering America” thinking that we are the first that thought about such issues. It is frustrating I must say. I understand “lack of time” but there is often “lack of purpose” (caused by the lack of time?). I think reading more is not a solution for practitioners. Maybe working more on links between academia (that primarily reads, thinks and writes) and practice (that primarily do) might help?

  4. Love the resources popping up here! To echo Rebecca, most major Library systems let you access journals through them – increasingly from home through their web sites. To Susan’s point, I am now thinking what those of us in more upper management positions can do to provide time and encouragement to reflect, publish and explore existing resources. For our team, we do try and provide support for conference presentations and we subscribe to publications which we keep in a modest library – but we could actively encourage a conscious scheduling of scholarly time – such as they give in academia. Though there are weeks where even an hour will be a challenge! #newFYgoals

  5. Hear! Hear! As a school of hard knocks-trained museum professional, when I first made my bones in the museum field in the 1990s, I was very entranced by the “new” idea of community engagement that was sweeping the field. It was only when I did my master’s thesis (as part of that school of hard knocks actually) that I found how deeply embedded the concept was/is in American museums. In fact, I argued in my thesis that the ideal is the founding principle on which the American museum field is built–taking the concept well before _Excellence and Equity_, Stephen Weil, etc.–all the way back to Charles Willson Peale.

    It’s this concept that I try very hard to instill in my own museum studies students today. Because, as Chris and others have noted, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and there’s no reason *not* to acknowledge them.

    As a historian I find a lot of comfort in knowing that I am one of a long line of folks who are putting these principles into action.

    I’ll add that AASLH has also put _History News_ online for members and it is now on JSTOR. And we have a number of our conference sessions recorded and available for free on our website.

    The challenge is to index all this material. Even as familiar with it as I am, I struggled to locate the best sessions/articles/webinars for my own teaching.

    A good master’s capstone project perhaps?

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