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?