Museum education is usually a foreign term to most people. Even classroom teachers we interact with often default to calling us tour guides or docents. But my job goes far beyond reciting the architectural history of the building I work in (but I can do that too, most of the bricks on the exterior are still original to 1713).
The role of Museum Educator is unique..
We are teachers and perennial students; we are continuously researching new things to share with visitors and new ways to share it. Whether I am speaking to one visitor, a tour group of 16 or a visiting school group of 35, I am teaching. We ask questions, get visitors to think and interact with the museum environment. We use primary source documents and artifacts to convey complicated topics (in my case, the political turmoil in Boston in the 1760s, leading to the American Revolution). As educators, we do our best to move away from the traditional one-sided version of museum education: a tour guide preaching for 45 minutes to a group of visitors who are more likely to remember the gift shop than the museum itself.
Daily we have programs for all of our visitors, engaging talks, and tours where we connect visitors to 18th century Boston. We also have structured programs for school groups, lessons and activities more like those presented in the classroom. Museum Educators must be ready for students who come to the museum with varied backgrounds and skill levels. For example, programs we present include an interactive reenactment of the trial of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Students assume roles of lawyers, witnesses and the jury and, equipped with actual testimony and eyewitness accounts, the students act out the trial and decide on the verdict themselves. Some students come into the museum with background knowledge about the structure of the court and the details of the Boston Massacre. Other students enter the building having no idea the difference between the “defense” and “prosecution”. I have found that my training as a classroom teacher has become invaluable in these situations. As a classroom teacher you learn to be prepared enough before you start a lesson to be ready for anything.
A Real Teacher…
Additionally, individual interactions with visitors don’t often require management skills, but structured school programs do! I have found that students very quickly take their visit to the museum more seriously when they have an experienced educator leading their lesson. Students have even approached me after their visit and told me I should be a “real teacher”! They are always surprised when I point out to them that I am and then say, “What do you think that was, what we just did in there?”
One of the bullet points in the official description of my position is “works with the Director of Public Program and Education and the Education Manager to adjust and improve existing programs and plan for future programming”.
For museums, planning for the future is actually trying to catch up with the present.
I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t integrating Youtube videos or the Internet into their lesson planning. Colleges and tutors use virtual tools to connect with students and an LMS to simplify organization. In many cases however, educational programming at museums feels stuck in the past. It is only within the past year that we have integrated the use of Microsoft Power Point into out programing. We are only able to reach the people who walk through our door. But when Museum Educators place themselves within the community of 21st century educators, alongside classroom teachers, the possibility for expanding our influence becomes an exciting reality.
Our Mission beyond all challenges..
Museum educators are facing many of the same challenges as classroom teachers, in a unique atmosphere. In the end, the goal of Museum Education is to reach as many individuals as possible with meaningful learning. Looking at other educational institutions, it is clear that in the 21st century, achieving this mission is going to include using virtual tools to expand beyond our 18th century walls.
What will those tools look like when employed in the museum environment? That’s a discussion for future posts!