Back to School: Museum Curriculum for the Rest of Us

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All too often, when it comes to museums as educational institutions, the emphasis tends to focus on what can be offered to k-12 education in a broad sense or arts-specific information for higher education. Museums as cultural institutions can be helpful for more than Art History 101. School is back in session, and educators are faced with new kinds of challenges about how to engage students. Museums have been wrestling with similar challenges for years. Now is the perfect time for anyone in higher education to consider incorporating museums or exhibitions into their classroom practices.

Whether face-to-face or online, the need for classes to connect and engage with empathy and creativity is more significant than ever. In her article on why teaching remotely subverts power dynamics, Javeri reminds us that remote teaching has been an excellent tool for challenging traditional and narrow dynamics of the college classroom. It can allow for greater access and engage different learners by incorporating more visual elements and technology like chat functions that allow for more student participation. While these practices may be new for some faculty, museums have been developing similar tools and activities to engage a broad audience. This is a great time to use them to our advantage. While some educators may be hesitant about the utility, process, or relevance to their curriculum, museums can work with various courses if given the proper framework.

The move to remote education as an impact of COVID has shown us an increase in the need to create and consume art, history, and types of educational experiences outside of one’s daily routine. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that our social problems are increasingly global and that it will require an inter-and trans- disciplinary approach not only to solve the issues but to cope with them in real-time. An easy way to do this is to connect discipline-specific knowledge to what I think of as “the 3 C’s of utilizing museums for the non-museum educator: Critical Thinking, Crafting a Narrative, and Cultural Humility”. Higher education is about inspiring creative thought and giving a roadmap for lifelong learning no matter our discipline. Learning how to incorporate museums into our classes is one way.

Critical Thinking

Whether we are talking about fake news, historical accuracy, or how to interrupt experimental results, critical thinking is a skill that requires both disciplinary-specific and general knowledge. “The research shows that guided dialogues about art can promote skills, including observation, questioning, association, inference, evidential reasoning, and openness to multiple perspectives.” – Rethinking Critical Thinking and Its Role in Art Museum Education

Museum curriculum can guide students through this process by engaging in object-based learning, direct education, or visual learning and literacy.

One museum education program that is doing this exceptionally well is the Hammer Museum. Incorporating museum experiences, whether visiting an exhibitor experiencing an online tour, can help students physically connect and reshape the way their brain thinks about and relates to the physical world while providing a supported place to challenge and engage with ideas and possibilities.

Crafting a Narrative

Students get excited when we ask them to imagine a different world experience. The ability to think about possibilities is another way of supporting students’ engagement. It opens up a dialogue about how we tell stories regarding objects, events, and our realities. “We don’t just use things, but we do it poetically, within a narrative dimension that contributes to defining ourselves in relations with others. We are not only bodies but narrative bodies, endowed with an important story: our story”. – Social inclusion and museum. Communities, places, narratives

Museums are ultimately storytelling institutions, and because they have material objects, students can see how stories are told and shaped.

Curation is not a process that students are unfamiliar with. “Curation materializes within the everyday in the form of authorship, such as organizing a musical festival, storefront window, and online Tumblr account. For example, in the Snapchat–Instagram– Facebook social media world in which we live, people are constantly curating their lives and what is presented to others.” – Curating Connections: Unpacking Identities

The Detroit Institute of the Arts offers a wide array of programming and professional development, and educational planning. They are connecting their daily habits to larger knowledge structures.

Cultural Humility

After and along with critical thinking and crafting a narrative comes cultural humility. One could argue that this is a byproduct of both or perhaps the real-time application of these concepts. Whether one is presenting new information or analyzing previous information, understanding one’s positionality is crucial because it shapes the way we communicate, engage, and remember what we have learned.

Students can then practice cultural humility across a wide array of disciplines and fields. For example, “In the context of health care, patients, too, benefit from their professional caregivers’ awareness of their power in patient-clinician relationships. Just as the same tools can be used in both medicine and art conservation, physicians’ and conservators’ practices of care and humility can aid both patients and museum visitors in making meaning of their experiences.” An ability to see connections across careers may lead to deeper conversations within and across our workplace experience.

LACMA has a beautiful speaker series where educators can connect some of these global issues to what’s happening in the museum. Additionally, cultural humility can help us contextualize our experience and the experience of others. “Historical empathy may be considered as complimentary to the aim of historical thinking as students are required to suspend their own judgements and positional thinking to make a judgement about the past, thus supporting the process of historical thinking” (Innes Sharp, 308). But cultural humility is not just about understanding context; it is about putting that knowledge into practice. “Object-handling has a long-lasting effect and relationship with memory, more so than text-based learning often has.” – Object Based Learning in museum education. How to imagine a new inclusive heritage

Being exposed to art and artifacts may allow students to retain information more quickly and with longer-lasting effect. So, “developing visual intelligence as a skill is a potentially helpful strategy for improving communications with patients and among members of the healthcare team.”

Hit the books!

There is a natural relationship between a museum experience and higher education. The 3 C’s offer us a framework for connecting our discipline-specific knowledge to more significant concepts. “Both curators and educators craft ways for others to enter into relationship with objects and ideas, finding personal meaning therein.” In a time when education may feel disconnected, museums can bring the material to the material.

AC Panella is a professor at Santa Rosa Junior College and donut dilettante.

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