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Moving Past a 1992 Model for Community Engagement

February 17, 2014

Morton museum

Flowing from last week’s post, I thought a good bit about engagement and the questions posed by Jordan and Allison in their reading journals for my Applied Archaeology and Museums class.  They asked about what if the public does not respond to a museum’s attempts at engagement.  I had a bit of an “aha” moment in my response when listening to a MOOC lecture from The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education given by Cathy Davidson who teaches at Duke University and co-directs the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.  In a lecture titled Teaching Like it’s 1992 Dr. Davidson noted that on April 22, 1993, the Internet went pubic and became commercially available, yet teaching in higher education largely remains locked in a pre-Internet mode of operation.   The top down model where a student sits in a lecture room of 50 – 300 and listens and takes notes as a professor delivers Powerpoint lectures and administers scantron tests is simply an inefficient use of everyone’s time and money.  That same information is very likely available on-line through a MOOC or other resource.

More importantly, drawing on a constructivist theory, Davidson wrote:

I like to joke that in 1992 if I hurt my elbow, I would go to my doctor and find out why my elbow was hurting so much. Now I go to ihurtmyelbow.com, and find out what everybody else who’s hurt themselves says about the best way to treat it, what I might do, and if I’m going to go to my doctor, I now go armed with lots of information.  In fact, last year, the AMA did a study and found out that 75% of American doctors say that they now ask their patients what they’ve learned online before they begin their treatment.

This approach to engagement and knowledge is important to archaeology, museums, and community outreach.  For example, one week ago I visited the Morton Museum of Collierville for the first time.   My purpose was to discuss a student project to install a small exhibit on the prehistory of Collierville.  Housed in the 1873 building of the former Collierville Christian Church, the two-year old museum has a very impressive on-line collection available for viewing.  Visitors who walk through the doors of the Morton Museum for the first time may have a good feel for what they are going to see, and know quite a bit more about Collierville from visiting the website first.  When I spoke to Museum Director, Ashley Carver, she made clear the Museum’s decision to invest in a digital and on-site future.

There is a core issue that ties the Morton Museum back to Dr. Davidson’s Teaching Like It’s 1992 example.  The issue is not the technology but the paradigm of operation.  I liken this to a model of teaching engagement from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage To Teach.  He illustrates two models: a linear hierarchical model where the point of engagement is focused on the teacher and an interactive model where the engagement is focused on the great thing under consideration.

Now the curmudgeon might respond that what the Morton Museum is doing is nothing new.  Public libraries have been around in the U.S. since Benjamin Franklin donated his books to a facility in 1778.  The Morton Museum is doing nothing more than putting their collection online.  The curmudgeon’s observation is key.  I often quote, from Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, where he (2010:98) writes:

Interpretations that focus on technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them . . . no one wants e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things electricity enables.

Today, the Morton Museum of Collierville has not chosen to digitize a large portion of their collection simply because they can, rather, leaving preservation issues aside, they are betting that the folks of Collierville and beyond, already interested in the history of that town, have a desire to access their curated information through an online search.  The virtual visitor will also find out about the beautiful space of this cultural heritage venue occupies, along with the exhibits, programs, and resources they offer on-site.  In so doing, the Museum becomes more relevant to the public who pay the taxes to fund the institution.

As a small county/town institution, I don’t think the Morton Museum is unique but part of a growing trend.  I am quite intrigued that from small institutions like the Muscatine History and Industry Center in Muscatine Iowa to monster-sized places like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis with their Open Field, cultural heritage institutions such as the Morton Museum are leading the way in engaging and being relevant to the communities that they serve.  These institutions seem the best shot at having cultural heritage venues also function as third places.

Museums like the Morton Museum in Collierville provide an excellent and direct response to the questions of engagement that Jordan and Allison posed.

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