Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museum Topics (page 3 of 15)

NEMA Conference 2016 Review: Where Do We Go from Here?

In the wake of this year’s presidential election, the 2016 New England Museum Association Conference was “the best cure for a political hangover,” as NEMA Executive Director Dan Yaeger put it. This year’s theme, “Plug In: Museums and Social Action,” seemed even more pertinent than we had perhaps realized, as Wednesday morning saw many conference-goers overwhelmed with emotion about our country’s political state. I could have cut through the thick tension in the air with the butter knife on my table at lunch that day. Yet poignant keynote performances by Bated Breath Theatre Company and Annawon Weeden that focused on social justice and knowing our country’s full history seemed to inspire us to come together both as a profession and as a community. Instead of fixating on our political differences, we were challenged to channel that intensity and put our thinking caps on to have constructive conversations over the next three days. Sessions like “Encouraging Civic Engagement,” “Engaging Visitors in Conversation Forums About Societal Issues,” and “Museums at the Intersections: Strategies for Community and Justice Issues” were just a few of the many that asked the critical question of what our social responsibility is to our communities and how we as museums can do more for them than just provide a fun day out on a Saturday. While the conference started out on a shaky and uncertain note, that note soon blossomed into a chorus of voices talking and communicating about potential answers to these questions and how they could play out in our museums. Now, it’s time to put these ideas into motion. Our country is at a crossroads and more than ever our museums need to ask themselves those same critical questions and determine whether or not they will act on these conversations or stay silent.

If you attended all or part of this year’s NEMA Conference and would like to contribute a post about any part of it (a specific session, a conversation you had, the conference as a whole, etc.), please use the “Contact Us” box at the bottom of this page or send us an email at

Deep Pockets

Today’s  post comes to you from Sally Meyer, current Tufts Museum Studies and History M. A. candidate.

In a blog post titled “The Weird Complicated Sexist History of Pockets,” Rachel Lubitz says that a lack of enough space to hold objects is something women have suffered through for hundreds of years. She finishes with the question “how much longer must we suffer?” While her position seems slightly exaggerated, she makes an important point. Clothing is essential to self-expression and societal understandings. Frequently, clothing can cause people to make judgments about what you value, your gender identity, and what your societal class is. However, the author’s blog fails to acknowledge how pockets and bags contain what we believe we cannot live without. Attachment to these objects, and the importance of pockets that hold them has not changed much in over two hundred years. A pocket that rests behind glass at the Massachusetts Historical Society, confirms this phenomenon.

This particular pocket, though it represents a broad and common need, is believed to have rested on the hips of Abigail Adams, abolitionist, women’s right advocate, and wife of John Adams. Pockets in general, and this one in particular, were not expensive or glamorous objects. Most however, that have survived the last two hundred years are often hand embroidered and decorated. This pocket is a much better representation of what ladies usually wore. It speaks volumes about Abigail Adams but it is also worth study because of what it says about the human and female condition. An analysis of how it was worn and used reveals the natural human attachment to objects.
Women in the 18th century had few rights to property no matter their social class. As such, pockets represented an opportunity to keep personal property close by. Much as people do today, Abigail Adams kept her keys in her tie-on pocket. For 18th century women, keys were indeed important to their status. Having keys close by would be a definitive source of emotional security. Pockets also held personal money. Pockets were valuable on their own, but mostly their value lay in what they contained. In addition to money and keys, women kept jewelry, mirrors, combs, personal letters, and even food in their tie-on pockets.

Pocket believed to have belonged to Abigail Adams at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Pocket believed to have belonged to Abigail Adams at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Much of what we carry with us today has only changed slightly since the 18th century. Money and keys dominate listings of what women carried in the pockets tied around their waist. These items ring true to our own pockets and handbags. Car keys, train passes, money, and cellular phones reflect a need to be mobile and communicate at will. House keys, membership cards, calendars, snacks, and bottled water help us make it through our day safely and securely. The concept of objects close at hand has permeated the lives of women and men for hundreds of years and continues to do so.

Pockets and what they contain are important evidence for what we value. Practicality has often surrendered to fashion when women’s clothing designs were not built for practical space. Historians reference pockets and how a lack of them in women’s clothing reflects a subtle sexism. Women are not supposed to need money and “things” in the same way men do. This 18th century pocket does show however, that women did need objects and personal items close at hand. Even the purposes of these items have not changed much at all even as society has shifted. Letters to cellular phones, oranges to granola bars, and pantry keys to car keys are not so different when placed side by side. Abigail Adams’s pocket was saved because it was associated with an important person. The object itself however reflects heavily the human, and female, condition.

2017 VSA Conference Call for Proposals

The Visitor Studies Association (VSA) seeks proposals for session presentations and workshops for the 2017 conference in Columbus, OHJuly 18-22.

VSA seeks to foster a sense of community among its members, who gather once a year to pose intriguing questions, explore diverse opinions, debate controversial issues, challenge assumptions and share their successes and their struggles—in essence, to learn from one another.

This year’s theme, New Pathways in Visitor Studies, we invite conference attendees to look both within and beyond our field for new ways to think about learning, as well as promising approaches to solving current problems. The conference theme seeks to advance the field by challenging conference speakers and attendees to work creatively and collaboratively to deliver reliable new insights about the experiences of our visitors. Participants are strongly encouraged to create session proposals that invite and include people from outside the visitor studies field to stimulate conversation and discussion.

Consider submitting a session and learn more:

Lunch with NEMA: Write to Publish

On Wednesday, September 28 from 12-1 pm, our very own Cynthia Robinson will be conducting a webinar with NEMA titled Write to Publish:

“Writing a blog entry or composing an article for a newsletter or journal are mental operations that yield insights and wisdom; self-development requiring reflection, analysis and synthesis. It is also an exercise in communicating with others, and forces you to consider what your readers know and care about.

Learn about voice, structural components, and formats. We’ll discuss developing ideas, determining the right venue for your work, following appropriate guidelines, and promoting your work.”

So pack your lunch and bring your questions! To register, click here.

*If you are attending this webinar and are interested in writing a blog post in response, please email us at We would appreciate your input!*

Own Your Expertise…But Know Where it Comes From

Today’s “What We’re Reading” post comes to you from Cynthia Robinson, director of the Tufts Museum Studies program.

Cynthia Robinson
Museum Studies Director, Tufts University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Museum Education

Originally posted on JME40 (, a blog celebrating 40 years of the Journal of Museum Education. Reposted with permission from the Museum Education Roundtable.

When I worked as a museum educator, I defined myself as a facilitator who built bridges linking visitors with objects and ideas. As a facilitator, I translated the content expertise of curators and scholars into language and concepts appropriate to various audiences. My products were tour outlines, programs, labels, curricula, and

Facilitation takes skill, but I never defined that as expertise. Instead I equated expertise with discipline-based scholarship. Moreover, even though I spent two decades working in history museums and even engaged in original research to create exhibitions and programs, I did not consider myself a historian or an expert.

Does this sound familiar? I hope not, but I suspect for many of you it does. Have you sat in exhibition planning meetings and listened to curators and scholars drive the agenda because of the strength of their content knowledge? Museum educators tend to be collaborative and process-oriented, able to subsume self-interest to invest in group-interest, able to listen to others, and able to transform others’ ideas and expertise into products for the public. These are fabulous and sophisticated skills, but often unacknowledged, for they fly under the radar of those who typically hold the power in museums.

So here is my thesis: To shift perception and power, museum educators must redefine themselves as experts, and must learn to express their expertise by grounding it in the work of others. Most disciplines do this. You can’t become a historian without extensive knowledge of the work of other historians, and you can’t become a biologist without understanding a body of scientific knowledge and methodologies developed by others. Experts express their expertise by knowing and citing the work of others and demonstrating how their ideas build upon and differ from those who came before.

There are some differences between the field of museum education and discipline-based fields. Curators and scholars usually develop deep and narrow expertise and may not be expected to participate in unrelated activities. For instance, a curator of Asian Art would not be expected to be an expert on 19th-century redware pottery. A biologist who studies ants would not be expected to publish research articles about polar bears. Yet museum educators are often expected to know about audiences of all types, and to employ engagement strategies of all types; often with ever-changing content, as exhibitions come and go. This is huge! To truly ground museum education expertise in scholarship would require us to be well read in facets of psychology, sociology, and learning theory, as well as discipline-based knowledge.

Nevertheless, most museum educators are able to specialize, and that is where we should put our efforts at building up our expertise. For instance, if you are involved in community engagement with underserved communities, you should read (if you haven’t already) Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). You will probably discover that many of your values and assumptions came from him: his belief that a just society cannot be achieved until the disenfranchised have voice and power; his belief that people learn best through dialogue; his belief that students must take responsibility for learning and teachers should learn along with them. Like John Dewey, Freire championed active learning, and castigated the “banking” system of education, in which teachers make “deposits” of information that students receive passively. Reading—or rereading—Freire will help you clarify your own ideas and improve your ability to articulate your goals more clearly. It may help you justify your ideas to colleagues or in grant proposals.pedagogy

There are many additional writers and thinkers important to the work of museum educators. I use Freire here as an example of how the current philosophies and practices of museum education can emanate from thinkers outside of the museum world. Since Freire, other scholars have refined and added to his ideas, and it is useful to familiarize yourself with those works as well. Treading the intellectual trail of ideas developed over time creates expertise, and expertise in museums provides a platform for impact and equity.

Not long ago I visited an early childhood center at a museum. The educators were developing interesting programs, but had no knowledge of developmental theory to aid their efforts. If they had been familiar with child development scholarship they might have been able to design effective programs more efficiently than trial and error alone. Moreover, they would be able to use the wider context of theory to justify and validate their work to museum administrators, parents and caretakers, and funders.

Museum educators have claimed seats at many tables in museum work; a remarkable change that has occurred in a short time. Now is the time to claim expertise. It is not sufficient to justify a new program by explaining that your colleagues at another museum have done it successfully. Instead, use your knowledge of pedagogy and human behavior to support your work. Use the Journal of Museum Education as your tool. Read its articles to help you gain expertise. Challenge and build upon the work of its authors through discussions with your colleagues and responses to MER blogs. And hone your own ideas and expertise by submitting articles yourself. Add your voice, opinions, and expertise to the field. It cannot grow and prosper without you.


Cynthia Robinson spent 25 years working in museums before becoming the Director of Museums Studies at Tufts University, where she specializes in teaching the next generation of museum educators. She has extensive experience in developing museum programs, curricula and exhibitions, as well as in museum management and administration. She directed a professional museum organization for 10 years, held management positions at three museums, and served on the Museum Education Roundtable’s board and the council of the American Association of State and Local History. She is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Education, a position she’s held for six years.

Opening photo credit: Scott Reinhard, Expert Button (February 2010), via Google image search.

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