Why do you care about and or work in museums? This post tells my (weird) story. I hope you'll share yours in the comments below (or on your own blog). And check out the comments. They are active and awesome.
My story is about radical educational philosophy. I don't work in museums because I love them. I didn't grow up staring open-mouthed at natural history dioramas or wandering through art galleries. When I visit a new city, I don't clamor to visit museums. I go on hikes. I go to farmer's markets. I walk around and get a sense for people and place. And while I'll visit museums out of professional (and occasionally personal) interest, I don't do it because of a deep emotional connection. Yes, there are some extraordinary museum experiences that have changed my life, but they are the exception, not the norm.
I don't work in museums because I love them. I love the promise of what they can be. I work in museums because I hate schools and see museums as a viable alternative. I'm a strong believer in free-choice learning, and I see museums as places to circumvent the hazards of compulsory education and support a democratic, engaged society of learners.
What is free-choice learning? I first encountered the term as a teenager through the writings of John Holt and the unschooling movement. "Unschooling" is an an educational theory that argues that people of all ages (including children) learn best when their work is self-directed--and that children are better at determining what and how they should learn than any accredited school or instructor. As John Holt wrote, "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." Unschoolers generally believe that schools perpetuate undemocratic processes that hinder rather than help learning happen.
I agreed. I was great at school, and I hated it. I didn't want to care what was going to be on the test. I didn't feel supported pursuing intrinsically motivated projects. Much to my mom's relief, I stayed in school but remained deeply suspicious of the artificial structure of grades and gold stars. I went to a project-based engineering college where I could set my own curriculum and graduated early. Professors always encouraged me to go to graduate school, but I wanted to get into "real life"--and real learning--as soon as possible.
I started working in museums because I idealized them as places that support user-directed learning (I still do). In college, I stumbled onto the Institute for Learning Innovation and John Falk and Lynn Dierking's work on free-choice learning in museums, dropped my plan to design pinball machines for a living (probably not that lucrative) and started investigating hands-on museums. I took the two things I was most passionate about--math and non-compulsory learning experiences--and smooshed them together into a string of internships and part-time jobs in science museum education departments. Eventually, I slid into exhibits, and meandered my way to the present.
When I started working in museums, I didn't realize that free-choice learning was a radical proposition. When I first explored the ILI website, I assumed that free-choice learning was the backbone of all museums. I thought I'd found the place for unschooling to thrive. I didn't have a clue about the other rationales for museums--places of stored knowledge, places to keep stuff, places to colonize minds. It wasn't until I started working in museums that I discovered that the museum as a place where you make your own meaning is more a promise than a reality.
There are many parallels between free-choice learning and participatory design. Both are based on the premise that given the opportunity, regular people (learners) will create extraordinary stories and experiences that serve their own purposes better than anything experts can design for them. They don't need to be cajoled or threatened into learning. As museum professionals, or educators, or librarians, or humans who want to support learning, it's not our job to teach people everything. What we can do is design conditions and tools for access to those opportunities and a supportive infrastructure to encourage learning.
Unlike John Holt, who ultimately argued that schools were ineffective in any form, I believe that museums can live up to the promise of free-choice learning. Museum professionals repeat Frank Oppenheimer's words, "no one ever failed museum" with pride. And yet we are increasingly caving to the purse strings and demands of the traditional K-12 and higher education sectors, becoming more like school add-ons than school alternatives. Even the training of museum professionals has gotten more academic with the explosion of university-based graduate programs. Why are we training future leaders of alternative learning using traditional academic techniques and facilities? Instead of trying to align ourselves more closely with K-12 and universities, why aren't museums charting new territory in free-choice learning? Why are we in bed with institutions that fail to acknowledge people as learners rather than vessels to be filled?
I know the practical answers. There is money in traditional education, lots more than what MacArthur and other foundations are starting to offer for alternative learning environments. The contemporary culture of user-generated content is bringing self-directed learning to the forefront, but that doesn't mean there's money or traditional rewards to be found there. No teacher is going to book a field trip to a place that is not tightly tied to school curriculum. A graduate degree looks good on a resume. University people also care about learning, even if they execute it in traditional ways.
But the practicalities are only one part of the story. It took me a long time to realize that supporting free-choice learning isn't the primary goal for most museum professionals. We like designing the experience. We like telling visitors what's important. Whenever someone points out that "visitors make their own experiences," it's usually followed by a but. BUT we will try to force them to do what we want them to anyway. BUT we will make sure the only stuff they encounter in the galleries is vetted. BUT we won't acknowledge their voices and their meaning.
My goal is to break down those BUTs. That goal isn't based on technology or social media. It's based on liberation, idealism, and activism. It's based on inviting visitors to participate in museums as active learners so the institutions become as meaningful and relevant as possible.
What's your goal? Where are you coming from?