Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museum Topics (page 3 of 14)

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.

Thinking of going to the 2016 NEMA Conference? Check out these scholarships!

This year, the theme of the 98th Annual NEMA Conference is Plug In: Museums & Social Action. Held in Mystic, Connecticut from November 9-11, the conference promises to explore themes of social responsibility, audience and community engagement, sustainability, and facilitating change in the world.  The NEMA Conference is a great way to network, meet professionals in the field, and keep up with trends. NEMA makes it even easier for you to come by offering multiple different scholarships to cover all or part of the cost of attendance, food, travel, and room/board. If you’d like to apply, check them out here. The deadline to apply is September 16th.

Staying Updated on Museum-Related Social Media

Today’s  post comes to you from Colleen Sutherland, recent Tufts Museum Studies graduate and previous co-editor of the Tufts Museum Studies Blog. To read some of her previous work, click here.

Hi there!

I’ve recently been doing some social media culling, trying to stay relevant and on top of interesting things in the museum field. I may have only graduated in May, but it’s remarkable how fast you start to panic that you’re not as on top of it as you were when you had professors and other students to guide you. Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, you may feel that way at some point in your career, which is why I’ve compiled this list of other pages and blogs I’ve started following in the past few months. (Obviously this blog is fantastic, but as any museum professional knows, multiple perspectives are important!)

Some, like EMP (Emerging Museum Professionals), are pretty big and you may already know about them. Hopefully there are some new ones on here for you. It bears repeating that my interest lies in education, so some of these are more education-focused. However, I think that all of them can be relevant in different ways, whether it concerns interpretation, creating inclusive spaces, or museum trends in general. I’d encourage you to at least check them out and decide for yourself.

What else is on your list? I’d love to broaden my reading, especially with non-education-specific sites, so let us know in the comments!


  • AASLH – Interesting perspectives from history organizations of all sizes, but most topics are relevant to museums that focus on other disciplines. I especially love their post about the presentation of the role of women in museums
  • Bank Street Leadership in Museum Education – Again, not all about education. A lot about creating safe spaces, introducing inclusive practices, and helping visitors feel welcome while still staying innovative.
  • Emerging Museum Professionals – I find it helpful to follow the different regional EMP groups. Part of that is to see how museums in different regions are responding to their communities, and part of it is because I know I’ll want to move in the next few years, and it’s helpful to know what museums in different regions are focusing on (plus they post local job postings!)
  • NEMA YEPs (Young & Emerging Museum Professionals)
  • Museum Hack
  • Teaching Tolerance – While it may seem on the surface like this site is only about classroom teaching, it actually does a great job keeping plugged in on national events. It has great resources for creating inclusive, welcoming, safe spaces, as well as great ideas for activities and books.


I’m also enjoying the Museum People podcast – check it out if you haven’t already!

And if these aren’t enough, here’s a whole list of 100 best blogs:

P.S. Looking for more ways to stay on top of the field? Check out the What We’re Reading section!

How Do Museums Join the National Conversation on Social Justice?

Today’s  post comes to you from Colleen Sutherland, recent Tufts Museum Studies graduate and previous co-editor of the Tufts Museum Studies Blog. To read some of her previous work, click here.

Where have museums been during the recent incidents of police-related violence, protests, and the discussion around race? As community spaces, museums are in the unique position to engage with their communities around contemporary events, particularly ones that are traumatic and require unprecedented action that no one seems to know how to take. Museums should have their fingers on the pulse of their communities, and should be able to both respond with their constituents and help create proactive solutions.

One of the major goals of museums is to inspire critical thinking, and a big part of critical thinking is understanding other perspectives, whether or not you agree with them.  Yet no matter your point of view, it seems like no one is really talking to each other – it’s more like at each other. There is a lot of confusion, anger, and pain felt by all parties involved. Museums can and should be helping people understand what is happening right now, especially when you consider how much the nation is already talking about the state of race relations, violence, gun rights, and injustice. If we want museums to be safe spaces where their communities can turn to for discussion and learning, we need to put our money where our mouths are, so to speak. If we’re not helping to further the conversation, does that make us inauthentic or disingenuous?

Museums can play a huge role in helping people understand and discuss, and eventually to help produce solutions and begin to heal. Some museums are responding to this need, and I’ll talk about that later. Still, some museums might be hesitant because they don’t want to get mired down in political discussions, or that they don’t believe that the topics fit their missions. But if the mission of a museum is to engage with its audience, to serve the needs of its community, then I would argue that programming around social justice is all the more imperative. Some museums might not know how to proceed and so are putting it off or are stuck in discussion with how to begin. And that’s understandable. These are huge, systemic issues that can be very difficult to facilitate. But that’s why it’s even more important that we lead the discussion and the action. Museums have experience talking about hard topics, or at least facilitating discussion, so they have a natural place encouraging people to sort through complex emotions and thoughts. And that’s what we as a nation need right now, when we’re having trouble communicating with each other.

For museums to be effective at this, we need to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of our communities. It takes a long time for an exhibition to go from concept to opening night, and many museums already have their public programming set through the fall. That doesn’t mean that extra pop-up exhibitions or programs can’t be added, however. It’s relatively easy to add in town hall type discussions, talks lead by staff members, or even conversations surrounding relevant books, poems, or films. Perhaps museums can encourage these types of extra programs by changing some of the ways that programs are presented to the public, to allow for events that are timely and relevant without a long marketing push.

Here are some museums that are joining in on the discussions, with exhibitions and programming – past, present, or future – to give you ideas if you’re feeling stuck:

  • Museums Discuss Black Lives Matter: This YouTube video is almost two hours long, but it’s completely worth it. As many of you know from previous posts I’ve written, my focus is on education, and this video is from the NYC Museum Educators Roundtable. However, the discussion they held at the Whitney Museum is applicable to more than just educators. The discussion centers around “how museum workers, from front-line staff to departments and institutions, have addressed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and continue to advocate for change.” Even if you don’t agree with everything that’s being said, it’s a very helpful resource and that dialogue is important.
  • The African American Museum in Philadelphia
    • Arresting Patterns I recently had an opportunity to visit this exhibition in May, and it is phenomenal. Through a mixture of contemporary art, news clippings, and some extremely striking video vignettes of young men talking about their encounters with police, the exhibition helps you start an internal dialogue and gives you ways to carry that dialogue over externally.
    • Community-focused Open House and Town Hall discussion around the systemic disparity inherent in the US justice system, and its impact on communities of color.” There are live performances and a panel discussion by community leaders.
  • The Underground Museum (a collaboration between LACMA and MOCA):
    • Nonfiction exhibition “pulls together works of art that investigate, either explicitly or implicitly, the culture of violence perpetrated on black citizens.”
    • Holding Court, “a new series of conversations and performances connecting artists, writers, political thinkers and audiences on the social issues and creative endeavors that matter most.”
  • The African American History Museum (scheduled to open this fall in Washington, DC) has an exhibition focusing on Black Lives Matter

It is important to note, though, that most of the museums discussed above already have mechanisms in place to talk about social justice. So how do museums who don’t have that join the discussion? Is your museum addressing these issues, and if so, how are you doing it?

The Role of Objects in Today’s Historic House Museum

The role of objects in the 21st-century museum seems to be a hot topic right about now, especially with many museums incorporating digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions into their understanding of what it means to interact with a museum object. When we think about digital collections and 3-D models, however, historic house museums might not be the first thing that pops into our head. Yet, as a student currently taking a course called Revitalizing Historic House Museums (HHMs), my mind has been infiltrated with thoughts about how to make the visitor experience worthwhile in a genre of museums with declining visitor numbers. In my experience, HHMs seem to be one of least likely kinds of museums to create a digital collection of their objects. One reason for this could be because HHMs sometimes serve as dumping grounds for community members to donate their personal belongings that they feel are important enough to be preserved, and thus many sites have a plethora of unrelated objects that they may not even know they have. Another reason could be that many HHMs contain mostly objects that are not original to the house. And a very pressing and apparent issue is that HHMs typically have small operating budgets, low numbers of paid staff (and oftentimes are run solely by volunteers), and are dealing with houses that are sometimes hundreds of years old that require careful and costly maintenance. So how can HHMs compete with other bigger, flashier, more digitally-oriented museums when they are focused on keeping their doors open and the house still standing?

While it can be hard to see past some of the unrelenting issues HHMs as a genre are facing, digitizing collections and creating reconstructions could make them a more desirable place to visit. Indeed, in our modern world where visitors are asking (begging) more and more for an interactive experience rather than a lecture from a stodgy tour guide, HHMs might need digital collections and 3-D models more than any other kind of museum. Think about this: many HHMs have a strict “DO NOT TOUCH” policy when it comes to the collections. Yet how does this recreate a realistic home-life experience for the visitor? If a goal of HHMs is to allow visitors to experience what it was really like to live in the house, how does a hands-off policy achieve this? What person lives in a house and touches nothing (and does anyone really live in a house with Plexiglas over the bookshelves and velvet ropes in front of the bed)? Whose home is always perfectly set up to look as if no one has lived in it the way many HHMs are? This is where digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions can come in. While it would be unrealistic to recreate every object in the house, even having a few objects that visitors can touch, sit on, or interact with would greatly add to the visitor experience. An online digital collection where visitors can zoom in on and manipulate the objects in the house could also be an option and can be an effective stand in for those people who will, for whatever reason, never be able to visit a particular site. Digital collections accessed prior to a visit have also been known to increase visitor interest in a museum, which could improve declining visitor numbers at HHMs who do have an online collection. However, these endeavors require time, money, and resources which, unfortunately, many HHMs do not have.

Thus, I have more questions than answers about this topic when it relates specifically to HHMs (*sigh*). Is it necessary to create an online collection of objects that are not even original to the house or have anything to do with the house or site? If the objects are not original to the house, are they there to simply create the ‘experience’ of being in the house and how could this experience be recreated with a digital collection? Additionally, does it matter if non-original objects are touched by the public during a site visit? If an HHM is able to create a digital collection, how can they do it effectively so that it enhances the visitor experience rather than simply providing a picture with the same information from the proverbial house tour? What objects will be chosen and who has the final say in this? Will the visitor’s experience of the objects online and out of context from the house itself be as rich as an on-site visit? Is it even responsible to create an online collection if there are so many other issues with the house, and where on the ‘to-do list’ of HHMs should creating a digital collection fall? Is it an HHM’s responsibility to have an online collection for those who cannot visit the house?

These are just a few of the questions I have come up with (some of which came to me in the middle of writing this reply), but I think there are many more that are important to think about with regards to HHMs, their collections, and the possibility of digital collections. Let me know other questions or thoughts you have in the comments below!

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