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Museum Studies in the Twenty-First Century: Theory and Praxis (September): Education

By Juilee Decker


First and foremost, museums are viewed as educational institutions, as noted in a 1969 report by the American Association of Museums (AAM).1 One might say that education is part of the museum’s DNA. In 1992, a subsequent report from the AAM (now American Alliance of Museums) called for public service and education and a focus on meeting the needs of a broader range of the public—or publics.2 Museums serve their audiences and seek to engage them through educational offerings such as exhibitions and programs. Thus, museums collect, conserve, exhibit, and interpret. In sum, their functions are numerous, and boundaries between those functions may be blurry. Writing from the perspective of an educational theorist, John Dewey addressed this in Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (first published in 1916 and reprinted numerous times since), a work that made significant contributions to framing museums as educational institutions by advocating for the importance of universal education in advancing self and society. An avid museum goer himself, Dewey advocated for learning by doing. In his examination of Dewey, Progressive Museum Practice: John Dewey and Democracy, theorist George Hein traces contemporary museum practice to Dewey’s ideals. Hein’s own work—informed by his training as a chemist turned educational theorist—focuses on learning in the museum and advocates for valuing Dewey’s method (along with the methods of John Amos Comenius and Jean Piaget).3

In Principle, in Practice: Museums as Learning Institutions, edited by John Falk, Lynn Dierking, and Susan Foutz, focuses on how people learn in museums and what museum learning may be like in the future.

Recent works affirm the educational role of museums while countering the notion of silos and barriers. In Visitor-Centered Exhibitions and Edu-curation in Art Museums, editors Pat Villeneuve and Ann Rowson Love address the power of crossing boundaries between museum educator and curator. One essay addresses visitor-centered exhibition design by a theory of preference known as IPOP—idea, people, object, and physical experiences, the four dimensions of experience that explicate ways of engaging with the world. Even though the focus of the book is the art museum, the content is informative, accessible, and applicable to other museum environments.

The constructivist model of education embraces tenets such as community, empathy, accessibility, diversity, and inclusion through participatory practices, multivocality, and critical reflection. In their useful reader Museums and Source Communities, editors Laura Peers and Alison Brown examine what they identify as “one of the most important developments in the history of museums”: “a dramatic change in the nature of relationships between museums and their source communities, the communities from which museum collections originate.” Museums and Their Communities, edited by Sheila Watson, seeks to define the communities that are associated with museums, the needs and challenges of these groups, and the issues associated with institutions and communities, such as power, influence, and control. Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration, edited by Viv Golding and Wayne Modest, comprises sixteen essays that advocate for more collaborative paradigms and more democratic museum practices. Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset, edited by Robert Connolly and Elizabeth Bollwerk, is a how-to guide on bringing the museum and community into a symbiotic whole through co-creation, co-curation, and collaboration practices. This book is appropriate for professionals working in museum and cultural heritage sites.

In The Social Work of Museums Lois Silverman argues that “the greatest treasures of culture are not sculptures or specimens, but rather, human relationships” and that the needs of individuals can be met through the social work of museums. Framing the museum as a locus of soft power with the capacity to change through cultural and economic (as opposed to political) influence, Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, edited by Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, offers perspectives on the benefits of museums—for example, the capacity to foster contextual intelligence that allows the viewer to “understand the past behavior and values of a society … and consider how to adapt [one’s] own behavior.” 

1.   America’s Museums: The Belmont Report (1969), issued by the American Association of Museums and emanating from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

2.   American Association of Museums (AAM). Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. The Association, 1992.

3.   On Dewey’s assignment of museums as “integrative components of raw experiences” and discussion of students’ visits to Chicago Laboratory School, see George E. Hein, “John Dewey and Museum Education,” Curator: The Museum Journal 47:4 (October 2004):413–27.