Are we giving students the full benefit of cultural spaces?

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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.