Week 9 Museum Education: An Emotional Evaluation


Harnessing a mule in the 1992 Hands On History Room in the Museum of American History. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.


A side note of jumbled thoughts before this presentation blog begins: Museum Education week is upon us, and I’m so happy to be able to openly force everyone to talk about it. I’m fairly positive I have related every class assignment to the field of museum education and community outreach, so hopefully, I can now do so without judgement or shame (all judgement and shame is self-inflicted. My cohort is nothing if not supportive of my weirdness). I loved the chapters on professional development for teachers and intergenerational learning, but I wanted more concrete examples of community outreach. Given some of my internship experiences, the lack of emphasis on reaching underfunded and underrepresented school groups is not surprising. However, since it’s a textbook for museum educators, I did expect more on community outreach and less on marketing/special events planning. Alright, grievances aired.

Please enjoy your regularly scheduled programming: a historiography of the Museum Educator’s Manual and a quick recap of major themes.

The Museum Educator’s Manual situates itself within a pedagogical framework. The book is authored by five different museum educators who work in array of different cultural institutions. Presumably, they all have slightly different thoughts about educational pedagogy, but I found two major theories mentioned as foundations for the field.

The first chronologically and sequentially within the Manual is Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Published after a series of conferences from 1949 to 1953, Bloom’s taxonomy is a set of three hierarchical learning models (knowledge, emotion, action) that separate lesson objectives into by complexity. Bloom revised his text in 2001 to systematize and streamline the 6 categories of learning, which are:

  1. Remember
  2. Understand
  3. Apply
  4. Analyze
  5. Evaluate
  6. Create

Bloom’s taxonomy proves helpful when thinking about the different ways to communicate knowledge and assess visitor comprehension and engagement within an exhibit.

The second major theory mentioned is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences published in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner opposes the idea that the brain can only be engaged in one mode of learning or one kind of intelligence at a time. Gardner’s theory supports the notion of intergenerational learning mentioned within the Manual. It also supports the idea that a range of different modes of learning must be represented in one exhibit to accommodate multiple intelligences among visitors. The theory corresponds with a wealth of material and the professionalization of the museum education field in the early 1980s.

Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage (1957) obviously provided the foundation for museum education and professionalization by defining it as an activity to “ reveal meanings…rather than to simply relay information,” however not until 1984’s Museums for a New Century did museum administrators start to grasp the importance of educational departments. The Manual itself cites Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimensions of Museums (1992) and The Educational Role of the Museum (1999). In Excellence and Equity, Ellen Cochran Hirzy affirms the contributions that educators within museums make in the community at large. The report challenged museums to reassess if they were adequately serving the public. The Educational Role of the Museum also addresses the relationship of museum to audience.

The Museum Educator’s Manual details the responsibilities of museum educators and provides concrete examples of planning strategies to improve and achieve educational objectives. The authors set it up as a textbook for current educators and museum studies students providing both detailed guidelines and case studies of actual museums. The provided forms/checklists/planning guides illustrate the amount of logistical madness that educators must endure and manage effectively, but there are several key themes throughout the book that I think bear repeating. The first four chapters cover administrative and training techniques with an emphasis on creating an emotional connection with employees. This certainly makes for a better work environment and a more satisfying trip for museum visitors.  The authors stress this within exhibit design as well, saying that educators must “entice the visitor to want to learn.” (12)

Along this same line of thinking, museum educators should be empowering their employees and museum visitors with the knowledge to analyze and adapt the information given. This strategy and sort of “tenet” of education applies directly to professional development for teachers and docent/volunteer training. It also factors into their discussion of Community Outreach and Online programs that can engage potential visitors in underfunded rural or urban communities. The authors stress that creating emotional connection and fostering cognitive engagement creates lifelong museum supporters—the apparently ultimate goal of any museum.

Lastly, the authors stress constant and reflexive evaluation: “Evaluation is the key to excellence” (126). They have an entire chapter devoted to the explanation of front end, formative, summative, and remedial evaluation, but the concept finds its way into most other areas of the book. Docents should be made to evaluate themselves and each other to quickly address areas of confusion and help employees feel more secure about their duties at the museum. Evaluations should be conducted with teachers to help serve them better within professional development situations as well as provide a museum educator with valuable feedback about their K-12 accessibility. Evaluations from curators and project managers are necessary throughout the exhibit design process; developing online programming with teens requires accessible evaluation methods; scheduling special events requires constant evaluation from staff members to keep lines of communication open. In short, educators must be open and communicative, always ready and willing to accept criticism and outside input in order to serve every museum visitor.

Anna Johnson, et al, The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques

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