Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museum Topics (page 3 of 16)

“New Ways to Talk About Nature” at the AAM Annual Conference

The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Erica Colwell, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program. To see more of Erica’s work on the blog, click here

At a session titled “New Ways to talk About Nature” at this year’s American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference in St. Louis, educators from several natural history museums presented projects and exhibitions their respective museums had recently undertaken to reach new audiences, build lasting community partnerships, and to more successfully interpret not only the specimens within their museums, but also the natural world outside their museums. The talks of two of the most compelling speakers, Karen Wise and Beth Redmond-Jones, are summarized below.

Karen Wise, former Vice President of Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, explained that for too long, natural history museums have remained “dead zoos”— static, stodgy places with bones and specimens that are cut off from nature, despite purporting to educate visitors about the living world around them. Wise stated that many children from urban Los Angeles may not have many opportunities to explore nature, or may not realize what around them constitutes nature. In an effort to better support this audience, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County underwent a major renovation several years ago in order to update its exhibits, programs, and to become an indoor/outdoor museum. The outdoor part of the museum now hosts a habitat garden with plants and animals native to Southern California, and the researchers and scientists that work at the museum often conduct their research at outdoor sites on the museum’s grounds where visitors can see the scientists at work, and perhaps even take part in an active research project. “Citizen Science,” a phrase used to describe getting community members involved with scientific research, is an important tool according to Wise. She wants the Museums’ visitors to feel that they are scientists themselves, and that they know enough to be able to contribute to the important work that goes on at the museum. The Museum’s website has a page dedicated to citizen science opportunities, and states that “In order to understand our city better, the Museum has begun a long-term biodiversity study of urban habitats and surrounding natural areas. Our goal is to not only increase our knowledge of local wildlife, but also to involve our local community in this study. From lizards to ladybugs, we need your help in each of our community science projects — the Museum can’t do it alone! “

Beth Redmond-Jones, the Senior Director of Public Programs at the San Diego Natural History Museum, spoke about an exhibition her museum’s library opened in order to attract visitors who don’t typically consider themselves “science people.” The San Diego Natural History Museum has an exceptional library full of nature-related rare books, manuscripts, maps, and more. Called Extraordinary Ideas, the exhibition featured, according to the Museum’s website, “Rare books, art, photographs, and historical documents from the Research Library’s 56,000-volume collection that pay homage to the past, present, and future of citizen science” including treasures like “An extremely rare copy of the gigantic Double Elephant Folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The folio, one of only a few copies in existence, depicts life-size renditions of a wide variety of North America’s birds.” This exhibition’s goal was to share some of the library’s most interesting and scientifically valuable collection items with the public, and in doing so, attract visitors that are interested in books, illustrations, art, and history instead of just biology. Redmond-Jones called this exhibition interdisciplinary, because though it still revolved around nature, the theme of the exhibition was closely linked to the humanities.

Museums and Rural Schools

Today’s post comes to you from Andrea Woodberry, current Tufts Museum Education M.A. candidate.

What happens when common hurdles to K-12 museum visits, such as budget and time constraints, are combined with the significant physical barrier of hundreds of miles? How can schools located in rural areas provide meaningful educational experiences at museums for their students when facing this issue of physical distance?

The two ways for any school to access museum resources are through local museums or by traveling to such resources outside the area, both of which have their own set of problems for rural schools. Many rural areas do not have local museum resources due to a lack of trained staff, distrust of outsiders, and poverty-stricken environments. While some areas, such as that of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, may be able to work around these barriers and support a large museum, they are the exceptions. However, for over 100 years, educators such as Edmund Conaway have argued that local items can provide the benefits of object-based learning outside of professional museums. While this may not seem to be of equal value as the standard large museum in a more urban setting, museums and rural educators should not underestimate the potential of local resources, whether in a formal museum or not.

Nevertheless, access to larger professional organizations does have great value for students who can travel outside their region. Unfortunately, budget cuts and standardized testing require administrators to make decisions that often leave field trips low on priority lists. Even with adequate funds, time can be an issue for many rural schools. Being hours away from museum resources makes it difficult to have an impactful experience within constraints of the length of school days, the stamina of younger children on long bus rides, and the availability of bus drivers.

So, what methods have museums tried to help rural schools overcome these hurdles? Common approaches include traveling trunks, distance learning through technology, and traveling exhibitions. Traveling trunks, such as those at the Kansas Historical Society, provide students with the value of object-based learning while costing the school less time and money. Technology may not include this hands-on interaction with objects; however, Skype sessions and pre-recorded lessons do provide interaction with museum staff members. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been experimenting with using technology to connect with more classrooms in new ways since the mid-1990s and currently uses videoconferencing technology for two-way communication and quality graphics. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Smithsonian Institution have tried to bring object-based learning and museum staff to rural areas through traveling exhibitions hosted by local sites such as libraries. However, while these did engage students to some extent, the host site often needed more training to effectively interpret the materials. While each of these examples demonstrates some museums’ awareness of the needs and challenges of rural schools, each method has room for improvement. How can museums continue to deepen their work with rural students?

First and foremost, deeper collaboration between museum staff and rural educators would provide greater trust, more effective programming, and long-term relationships. For this reason, a museum that wants to work with rural students must carefully assess the long-term commitment they can provide, either on their own or in partnership with other museums. In addition to regular communication, training workshops could cover how to incorporate object-based learning techniques, including VTS, into the classroom, how to utilize local resources for projects such as nature explorations and oral history collections, or how to get the most out of available digital resources of the museum. Space for communication and partnership would lead to more innovative ideas and increased access to museum resources.

Intentional and relevant use of technology is another way for museums to consistently innovate ways to deepen their engagement with rural school audiences. One possibility would be to have the museum educator on a split screen with chosen objects in front of the class. On personal tablets, students would have an image of the same object and could make digital markings on the object that would then be shown on the large screen. This would enable the class to go through a VTS process similar to what would happen if they were physically at the museum. A second option would be for the museum, ideally an outdoor sculpture garden or historic site, to use a drone to take images and videos of their site. Then, the aerial footage would be turned into an interactive map that would be the basis for students’ exploration of the site with a museum educator. This would add  the value of seeing the physical site as well as the individual objects.

These are just a couple of examples. Whether through workshops to equip and connect teachers and local resources, traveling trunks, or innovative technology-based programs, the potential for engaging and beneficial partnerships is only expanding. With deeper collaboration across museums and between museum staff and leaders in rural areas the possibilities are endless. What are your thoughts? How best can museums engage rural audiences?

The Things I’ve Learned During a Year of Membership

Today’s post comes to you from Gina Parente, graduate of the Tufts Museum Education Masters Program and Membership Manager at the New England Aquarium.

The Things I’ve Learned During a Year of Membership

After spending six years in the Education Department of the New England Aquarium, it was time for a change. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to go far as a position had opened in the Membership Department that fit my skill set perfectly. Starting in March 2016, I became the new Membership Manager. However, I had never worked in membership! I had a lot to learn but had a lot to offer to my new department. Here are some of my observations from the past year that I think will be helpful to anyone working in an institution with a membership program.

Give members access to build trust – This idea is important in all our institutions whether they are science-, art- or history-based. Recently we received results from our quarterly visitor surveys conducted by our partners at The Morey Group. They found that millennials, visitors aged 18 – 32, need to have trust in an institution before they support it. For zoos and aquaria, this is even more important. This is an active group of supporters that want to change the world, make a difference and build a community even more than the generations before them. They were raised by parents in the baby boomer generation who taught them to question everything, including the ethics of an institution. For our member base, this means seeing where the food for our animals is prepared, meet and greets with aquarists responsible for the daily care of our exhibits, and access to information not shared with the public which we incorporate into all our events.

Membership isn’t always about the discounts – With over 21,000 member households, we have a diverse member base all over the world. We also have a number of members that have been with us since we opened in 1969. Our Charter members rarely visit but continue to support our mission from afar. It’s important to have these mission-based members, new or old. They are like-minded individuals who are informed on the issues that face our oceans and support the work that we do every day both at the Aquarium and in the field.

Sometimes it is about the money – We also have members that enjoy the fact that our membership pays for itself in about two visits or that they can skip the line during a busy school vacation week. These are great people to have as well. This group keeps us honest in the price we charge and the benefits we offer. For most of 2016, we worked with Keene Independent to survey our members about our current membership program. Many felt it was a great value but would pay a little bit more for more access to the Aquarium staff, fun events, and better parking rates. We listened and will be unveiling our new membership structure starting April 3rd. We tried to include everything that members felt made their membership a good value.  Except for the parking – that’s another blog post entirely.

Adults need their time – The Aquarium is a popular family-friendly attraction in New England. However, the popular trend in zoos, aquaria, and children’s museums has been to give adults time in the building without kids. Throw in some food, a cash bar and you have a great event! We have increased our retention rate by adding a number of adult-only events to our annual offerings. Again, this is a great way to add value, build trust through access, and educate your member base without it always being about the kids.

Members are our best ambassadors and advocates – Members have chosen to support YOU with additional visits and their money. They feel invested with your institution and freely share their experience with others. They are a group that can easily mobilize around an issue and provide honest feedback. In past years, our member base has helped to encourage their children’s schools to book outreach programs in the off-peak season, support the need for marine protected areas off our coastline, and lend their voice for the need for smart waterfront planning in Boston.

No matter what department you work in at your institution, you are sure to come in contact with members. Make sure to thank them for their continued support. It goes a long way.

Meeting the Standard: The High Stakes of Shifting Practice

Today’s post comes to you from Sally Meyer, current Tufts Museum Studies and History M. A. candidate. To read her other work for the blog, click here.

Education in the United States has become more than the imparting of knowledge onto the country’s young people. In a more globally connected world, school quality and performance has become a national and international issue. Testing to evaluate students’ progress has been a large part of this process, and as a result, a large part of how schools receive funding and support in the most recent decades. The high stakes students and teachers face have created tensions across the educational system. It also presents a difficult question for museum educators to grapple with: where do we fit in?

The first step for museums is to recognize that this barrier exists. Teachers often have a quick response to a new field trip proposal: there is not enough time or money. Some teachers however, believe that “standardized tests and Common Core Standards…are actually the largest constraints.” Often field trips or school programs can only happen after the stress of these exams have passed. Many museums understand this landscape and recognize that to many teachers, field trips are a luxury or a fun outing. Yet while teachers call for reform of testing, museums largely do little to debate the format of the required exams. Instead, many museums have tried to stay relevant by fitting themselves to the mold that the national and state standards present. However, the museums that do not follow this path have found phenomenal success. Museums and cultural institutions that push from the outside and work to prove the validity of what they can best provide that schools cannot are largely more successful and farther ahead of the curve.

To achieve the goal of staying relevant and helpful in the age of increased accountability and standardized testing, museums must be leaders in the field of informal education research. One example is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which has worked hard to foster a program that moves with students through their entire high school career. The Gardner has used a basis of theory as well as extensive research to determine what skills their students acquire by coming to the museum and working with the museum educators. The Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) Teen Program is another example of a highly successful program that has become an integral part of the museum’s framework. The teens involved in the program lead tours, make video art, do photography, learn slam poetry, and participate in a wide variety of other subjects. This program is giving teens a place to go after school that provides emotional support as well as supplements the lack in arts education in public schools. The program serves about 8,000 urban youths annually, at little to no cost for the students, and has won numerous awards for its success in fostering future artists, museum visitors, and engaged citizens.

We say over and over that the system must change, the tests must change, and expectations must change before we can have the biggest impact. The status quo however, is a difficult thing to break. Museums cannot just sit idly by waiting for the standards to shift in our favor or the testing format to reflect what children learn in our spaces. Instead, museum educators must become societal and political advocates for change in the American education system, sticking up for students, parents, teachers, and themselves if they hope to make any meaningful or lasting change. Also essential in encouraging change in the system is for museum educators to get involved in the community. Learning about school board meetings and attending them to be knowledgeable enough to speak up could create a shift in thinking. While the future for students, teachers, and museums looks bright, museums that choose to engage in K-12 programming moving forward must continue to keep their eye on their strengths and work to support and advocate for schools, teachers, and students within these frameworks.

CALL FOR ARTICLE IDEAS: Familiar Challenges/New Ideas

Journal of Museum Education

CALL FOR ARTICLE IDEAS: Familiar Challenges/New Ideas

Have you and your colleagues experimented with something new—a program, a process, a collaboration, etc.—to solve a common problem that other museum educators face? The December 2017 issue of the Journal of Museum Education will feature case studies that present new solutions to problems common to the field. Tell us about your endeavors!

Learn more about submitting an idea at or contact guest editor Elisabeth Nevins at with questions.

The deadline to submit your idea is Friday, March 31, 2017.

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