Are we giving students the full benefit of cultural spaces?


Are we missing the opportunity to use cultural spaces in a way that, not only builds content, but also community?

On May 14, I had the pleasure of attending the 2012 New York City Museum Educator’s Roundtable (NYCMER) Annual Conference.  The day tackled a multitude of important issues, however the thing that truly struck me is the keynote speech by David Carr, author of “Open Conversations: Public Learning in Libraries and Museums.”  Carr, the author not the football player, is an advocate of dialogue and shared experiences between visitors, or users, in museums.  In my interpretation, the crux of his argument is that cultural spaces need to curate conversation in the same way that they curate artifacts and other objects.  His focus is mostly on adult users of museums, but I couldn’t stop thinking about classroom experiences in museums.  So much of the interaction in these setting is educator to students and back.  Are our students having open conversations?  Are they learning from each other?  Are we missing the opportunity to use cultural spaces in a way that, not only builds content, but also community?

There is a lot of talk about relevancy in museums.  What could be more relevant than taking classroom discussions into the world and giving students a global context?  Why not take the girls in your class to Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum for that conversation about respecting themselves you’ve been meaning to have?  Let them explore the space and then have the conversation right there away from school.  Do you need to have a dialogue with students ostracizing a student because of religion?  Why not go to a culturally specific museum, so that students can learn about that religion and have the community discussion right there.

There is plenty of precedent for this type of discourse. When The Posse Foundation hosts their hugely successful Posse Plus retreats to discuss issues of diversity and multiculturalism at partner colleges, the trainers always take students off campus to a neutral environment.  A safe space away from the perceived notions of the institution and the judgement of others. Shouldn’t cultural spaces serve as a safe place for discourse?  A place where students can open up and share with each other in small groups and as a community at large?

How can educators and museum professionals create these safe spaces and use museums as places of community building and attending to the social emotional needs of students?  I think that teachers, as users of cultural spaces need to start the trend and show museums there is a desire for more community building programming around social issues.


Museum Tours: Can You Lead Your Own Tour?

I have led museum experiences both as a classroom teacher and as a museum educator.  There are definite benefits to both perspectives.  As a classroom teacher, you know your students.  You know your curriculum.  You know your goal for the trip.  As a museum educator, you know the collection and content in depth. You know what hooks kids.  You can take groups “behind the scenes.” Museum educators are seasoned and have great experience to share.


So, when taking a class to a cultural institution, should you lead your own tour or work with the educators at the institution? Well, that depends on the institution and the amount of time you have to prepare.  When you first phone to talk about your trip, talk about your goals, and ask if the educators can prepare something that aligns with them.  If they already have a program that aligns, great!  If not, see how flexible the institution is about creating a personalized program.  Some places, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are wonderful about creating individualized experiences.  Others have set programs and will not stray from them.

If the latter is true, and the programs are not what you need, lead your own tour!  This takes a lot of time and preparation, but your students will reap the benefits.  Pre-visits are a must.  I like to map out a tour path, and pick artifacts/objects that I want to focus on.  Remember that in museums and cultural institutions, teaching kids to look is essential.  So, begin with a model object and build those skills.  You can also do this in a pre-visit lesson.  Any object will do, you just want to give them the skills.  Below is a trip sheet I used for an Object Study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Museum Educators are a wonderful resource and should be used as much as possible!  Just know that, if you need it, the option is there for teachers to lead self-guided tours.