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The Disconnect Between Museums and Schools

October 15, 2012

In an article titled “Insistent Questions in Our Learning Age” published in the Journal of Museum Education (Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2010), Beverly Sheppard asks several questions including the following two:

•Why are our programs guided by school-based curriculum standards rather than by the unique qualities of learning in informal settings?
•Why do so few of our legislators have knowledge of the breadth and depth of museum/school programming?  (Sheppard 2010:218)
There are several steps cultural heritage venues can take to help respond to the questions raised by Sheppard.
  • Curriculum Standards and Standardized Testing – Although 45 states to date have adopted the Common Core Standards that will go into effect in the next couple of years, replacing the more draconian aspects of the current system, standards in some form will continue into the future.  At the recent American Association/Alliance of Museums (AAM) meeting in Minneapolis I was surprised to learn that many museums have not matched their programming to the state standards.  Although initially a rather cumbersome task, in a survey of Memphis area teachers we found that the primary reason that determined whether a school would either visit or arrange for in-school museum visit was not the financial cost we had assumed – rather, the number one reason was whether the programs matched state curriculum standards.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we now list the curriculum standards for all of our educational programs on our website.  The McClung Museum in Knoxville has an excellent detail of lesson plans and curriculum standards on their website.  Through website listings, museums can be more proactive in letting the educators know where our unique programs meet their standards.
  •  Public officials lack of knowledge about our programs – The answer to this question seems rather simple, at least as I have experienced the issue.  Legislators do not know about museum/school programming because museums do not communicate the information to them.  For example, last year my Museum Practices graduate seminar contacted 12 medium to small Memphis area museums to complete the AAM advocacy inventory form.  For the most part, the museums reported little contact with their elected/appointed public officials, and almost none specifically related to issues of educational programming.  In a follow-up with those 12 museums, this year my students found that only three museums used their completed advocacy inventory in follow-up with their public officials.  Because only four individuals attended the session on Museum Advocacy at the recent AAM meetings suggests that Memphis museums are not anomalous in this regard. (See earlier blog post on this issue.)

These questions and others raised by Beverly Sheppard in her article are substantive concerns that need our full attention.  The questions clearly represent a challenge for cultural heritage professionals in the coming years.  Museums and archaeology have never held the primacy in educational mandates enjoyed by public schools and libraries.  Can you imagine a school without a library?  Emphatically, no.  Can you imagine a school without a museum?   Well, yes – in fact, I doubt that most educational institutions have affiliated museums.

In the 1960s when I was in grade school, I went to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History as did every other child who was the product of the public or parochial school system at the time.  We went because the Natural History Museum was the Museum in town.  I don’t recollect any special programming beyond a normal tour.  I doubt there was any discussion with our teachers on what we would experience or how it related to our coursework.  The trip to the museum was more like a rite of passage – our tour of the galleries and exhibits, with docents who made sure we didn’t touch anything.

Times have changed.

In the film What About Bob? Richard Dreyfuss proposes that Bill Murray take baby steps to begin solving his issues.  If we begin taking baby steps, and consistently so, we can begin to address the critical issues raised by Beverly Sheppard.

What are your thoughts on the need for taking these baby steps?

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2012 12:21 pm

    If we lived in a perfect world, where both education and museums were always fully funded, this would not be an issue. The hard reality is that we, as museums, have to be responsive to it. The teachers in the community my museum serves are not permitted to take their classes on field trips unless they can show the principal and the district office (who ultimately approves all field trips) what state standards the trip address. In this time of teaching to the test and NCLB, there’s no such thing as taking a field trip just for “experiential learning.” The quote a friend, the joy has been sucked right out of education.

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