So What’s This All About Then?

What is the creative process of museum educators and what does the future of museum education look like? In a nutshell, these are the two questions I want to explore through this blog. I’m not looking to put a final authoritative stamp on the subject, but to hopefully attract a community of like-minded practitioners interested in the same questions and keen to share ideas, research and experience. It’s an experiment, let’s see what happens…

So why this and why now? I’ve been working in museum education for 14 years, mostly in galleries and currently at the V&A, and I love what I do. I believe passionately that the arts improve our lives and the thrill of opening up this world to audiences of all ages is as exciting now as it was when I started. I’ve delivered approximately a bazillion projects over the years and now that my life is more about management and strategic planning, my attention is turning from the immediate needs of audiences to wanting to better understand how museum educators create their programmes and how we can do it better.

Given that we are specialists in creativity and dedicate our careers to helping others tap into their own, it fascinates me that we don’t spend more time turning that focus on ourselves. I have found many articles on creativity that either analyse its components (eg. failure and persistence) or explore audience benefits (such as increasing creativity in education) and almost nothing on the creative process of museum educators. The one notable exception is Emily Pringle’s work on artist educators and their role in delivering learning programmes; if you have any further examples, I’d love to hear from you.

I am using the term ‘museum education’ as a bit of a catch-all and I appreciate that practitioners use a range of terms. My emphasis is on art museums because I studied art history and have worked predominantly in galleries, spanning nationals, local-authority funded, and a university collection. I should also add that I am most interested in the programming part of the job – taking the raw components of artwork, funding, materials, spaces, partners, audiences and organisational objectives and combining them to create new events, activities, resources and projects. Teaching and facilitation are fascinating topics – again, I look to Pringle as well as the excellent Teaching in the Art Museum by Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai Kee – and there is so much to think about in relation to developing that skill set but I feel that is a different beast from the one I want to tackle.

I really want to understand the behind-the-scenes part of museum education. When I read about a daring and exciting programme, the story always starts with the fully-formed project outline and then goes on to examine what the participants got out of it and how the aims and objectives were met. When I’m reading these articles, the following questions always come to mind: what happened before this bit? Who came up with this idea? How did it occur to them? What was the catalyst? Did it meet resistance within the organisation? How long did it take to get from the initial idea to the final product? Were there blind alleys and previous approaches that didn’t work? That’s the part I really want to know about because if we talked about the process more, became more articulate and vocal about our particular and highly creative skillset, I think we would collectively be stronger advocates for our work.

Museum education is a wonderfully supportive and collegiate practice; I take huge inspiration from friends, colleagues and peers around the country and it is always encouraging and strengthening to discuss shared issues and challenges with people who have a common understanding. I’ve found it to be a network relatively free of ego, very hard-working, and incredibly open and non-proprietorial with ideas and approaches. I also think we could be more effective in communicating how learning programmes further our museums’ missions and contribute to the broader arts ecology. Working in the current political environment, where nation-wide provision of arts and culture is facing substantial challenges (local authority funding cuts leading to reduced arts provision; art, design and drama side-lined in formal education), and working in a field where museum educators are, on occasion, perceived as glorified crayon-sorters, I want us to be better at promoting our work beyond ‘preaching to the choir’ and being clear about why the skills, knowledge and creativity that we bring to our museums are valuable and to be valued.

So, advocacy is one motive, the other is progression. Museum education has a tried and tested approach to programming – talks, tours, workshops, trails, resources, etc – and each of these areas can be delivered to a standard that ranges from excellent and inspiring to dull and boring. This triggers a whole bunch of further questions: who is actively working on new approaches to programming? How is programming changing to reflect the shifting position of museums ‘from temple to forum’, to paraphrase Duncan Cameron’s 1972 article? Where is there really strong and original practice that we can all learn from? How do we strike the balance between meeting visitor figure targets and the needs of our core audience while also freeing up resource – be that staff, budget or head space – to play, experiment, risk and fail? Google famously allows its staff 20% free time to work on their own projects, knowing that this is a highly effective means of surfacing the ideas that could become the products we are using in 5-10 years; so why aren’t we all doing that? Who is deliberately pushing museum education forward? Again, I’d love to hear from you about any exciting examples.

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Rather than just listing endless questions in a blog, I am keen to pool our collective experience and knowledge and try to find some ways ahead. I have been awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) Travelling Fellowship which will enable me to visit the US later in the year to learn from top museum educators and their programmes. The WCMT is a fantastic charity; it was established through public subscription to create a living memorial to Churchill following his death in 1965. The Fellowships are awarded annually, you must be a UK citizen, and there are two main aims: travel overseas to learn from international practice; and return to share your learning with peers to the benefit of the UK.

I will be visiting five organisations, interviewing their staff, seeing their programmes in action, and trying my best to become a human sponge to soak up every single minute of it. I will create a series of five case studies, exploring the questions I’ve outlined above. This blog is one way that I hope to share my learning and it will also form a project diary as I go. The organisations are (in order of visit): Dallas Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art Denver; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Columbus Museum of Art; and Museum Hack (which is my only non-museum but I couldn’t resist their ‘subversive tours for millienials’ offer).

So that’s probably enough to get started, more to follow… and if you’ve got this far, thanks!