Sunday, November 07, 2021

Why do people undervalue museum education?

Last week, some colleagues asked me how a Sip and Paint is different than a marbling workshop. I’d had my mind on something else, and I wasn’t able to reply then. A week later, with the clarity of a caffeinated mind, I’m easily able to rebut them. (Isn’t it always like that?)

Most museum educators know that the work of bringing people into collections requires some magic. Good educators make their work look easy or not even there so that people focus on the learning. Studio engagement in art museums, particularly, is usually about the process.  

Sip and Paints are product focused, in a sense. They prove to participants there is a simple set of steps to get something. It’s closer to learning to write a letter. Sure, we all have different handwriting, but we are essentially communicating the same sound. Much of modern and contemporary art, particularly, is often about communicating an “a” by drawing a cow, or rather coming up with new forms of communication. Teaching you to paint a sunflower step by step will not get you closer to appreciating the innovations of Van Gogh, largely because you’re skipping right past being innovative.

Museum educators working with adults, though, know adults yearn structure. Society rewards the structured in school and work. So, they come up with projects that mimic the safety of Sip and Paints, projects though that don’t have one single end-point. They safely allow adults places to not follow the rules or forget there are rules at all.

Most of these points are fairly obvious to most museum educators. We’ve done this so long, and so competently, we make it look easy. But that’s part of our challenge as a field. Those outside of museum education imagine it must be easy to make magic, b/c we don’t show the hard work.

Why does this matter? Because it goes part and parcel with the position of museum education in the field. Educators are expected to make gold out of hay where other aspects of museums often enjoy more robust budgets. This lack of respect for education likely has something to do with the fact that museum education is predominantly staffed by women. It’s also the only part of the museum field in general where volunteers do staff labor of teaching. (Can you imagine a major museum outsourcing housekeeping or curatorial to volunteers?)

What’s the solution? One is that educators need to stand up and show their work, show the challenges, and highlight the hard work behind the scenes. Another is that leaders need to reframe things. Museum membership openings are no more important than family days. All of these experiences are about the work of museums, and equally valuable, as are all the workers.