Archive for July, 2013

A Museum For Oneself

July 6, 2013

A Museum For Oneself

As a nation, and especially in American cultural institutions, we might focus less on the achievements of perpetually racing children and more on their promise as able, thoughtful human beings.

Some months ago an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education expressed concerns raised by law school administrators over the rising effects of ideologies and practices associated with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. (1) The article also cited an essay from Academe written by a high school teacher warning college and university faculty about what they might anticipate from entering classes. (2) The general perspective was familiar and dispiriting: for a decade or more, judgments about schools, teachers, and students have depended on rigorous standardized texting, and the students who have experienced it are now arriving in higher levels of academic life. Headlines remind us that dependence on the test has incurred teaching to the test and curricular adherence to the testable qualities of mind. Here in Atlanta, prominent school administrators face charges for fixing scores in order to reap rewards. Schools — always linear, always reducing the differences and energies that typify students – have further narrowed the learner’s experiences. Schooling and testing, always incidentally linked in the past, had merged identities.

Worse, teachers who have failed to inspire higher test scores have become (perhaps like low performing students) discouraged, unrewarded and unwanted. This is not breaking news. Descriptions of these deficiencies and related themes had appeared in an essay in The Nation by Linda Darling-Hammond (the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at the Stanford University School of Education) in May 2007. (3) That month I cited her essay in a keynote talk to museum research professionals in Chicago, reminding them that a generation of affected children were about to appear in cultural institutions, and that they might show some differences in agency and articulation. I speculated that many whose senses of curiosity and intellectual adventure had been rechanneled (or at least had not been nurtured) by schooling, would become a new challenge for museums. Museums, open places of stimulation and original thinking, of freedom and fresh experiences, have no tests to give. People in museums think anything they wish. Dependent on the vigor and engagement of observant kids and adults, great museum thoughts have, it seems to me, become imperiled.

As a way to bring this topic into public conversation, I sent the 2013 Chronicle article to several colleagues with this note.

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece … about something I have been saying to library and museum audiences for several years: that the effects of obsessive school testing on the curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination of children will have devastating effects on our society and culture over time. In my view, leaders have used such poor metaphors and terrible misunderstandings of intellect that all kinds of generative applications (ideas of justice and civility, individual responsibilities, the public imagination, even conceptions of hope) are probably compromised in ways that will show up in critical and reflective settings, like law schools [The CHEd article focused on law admissions] — and museums and libraries. Of course, school libraries and arts programs have not thrived in the culture of the school, but this is not new; the observations in this article offer something fresh to think about.

Because the cultural institutions we create and defend all depend on a robust private imagination — and the grasp of something unseen, the emerging person we hope to become — we need to think and talk about this. I have always spoken about museums and libraries as alternatives to schools, and even as preferable to schools; perhaps it’s time to revisit and redefine the vitality they bring to experience. (I recently saw the El Anatsui exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and felt my life to have been charged by a great force.) While I am not sure what El Anatsui might do specifically for law students, I see no reason why we could not rescue any resilient person from an under-imagined life; we may need a revised mission to define in the presence of this test-centered generation. (You might even find colleagues in need of this rescue as well — it is so easy to become distracted from our original promises to ourselves.)

Now I want to follow those paragraphs with some ideas that might bear advocacy in the culture of the museum, a place where I believe there is immense unrealized freedom for all users to think great, different, and challenging thoughts. The museums I know and respect are antithetical to a testing culture. A discussion could be useful.

The metaphors for education given to us by government, however, are not useful for museums to embrace. Becoming isn’t a race or a competition. (It’s a process. It’s about emerging as someone, not racing someone.) And there is no top to get to. (There are many places to go, different views, and odd personal journeys, unplanned side trips.) Metaphors have implications. If any child is left behind, why? There are many reasons outside the control of the child. One thinks of disability, disaffection, dysfunction at home; health, nutrition, sleeplessness; disappointment, mistrust. None of these justify the threat of abandonment or failure, yet they may be pervasive among many bright children. We test and test, raise standards, define and punish “failure.” This is how some children are inevitably left behind. And who is doing the leaving-behind? The schools and the government, to begin; and school superintendents, principals, teachers; and parents who want their children winning the race or standing at the top of something, maybe looking down at others. The road of good intentions – and the rescue of children is always a good intention — is paved with poor metaphors. (4, 5)

Like schools, museums are not innocent of being reductive and obtuse. Progressive libraries have always respected the privacy of diverse users becoming something through reading and thinking without tests, constraints or arbitrary predeterminations. A library is typically organized to keep structures open and prescriptions minimal. In contrast, museums have tended to embrace knowledge as standard adult scholarly information based in abstract language and jargon, delivered in shallow fragments. The nature of a museum exhibition is defined by massive collections of different, powerful objects, experienced serially. Despite the power of these objects, museum information tends to emphasize routine data without contexts, answers to questions that no one present has asked. Geography and history seem the strongest themes, even when the object is neither geographic nor historic. Consequently, if a museum is “about” anything, it is usually about the reconstruction of some great person, place, or time through artifacts. A museum collect traces of the past and then obscures every truth those traces – as signs, models, exemplars, symbols — might hold about the future.

With some great exceptions, museums have been deeply under-imagined as places for reflection, the cultivation of ambiguity, and the engagement of the user as a complicit actor in museum experiences. In my own experience as a museum user with a learner’s perspective, I have felt that my experience has often been deeply compromised for the sake of custom. (6)

I believe that there are alternative ways to match the museum to the lives of museum users. Imagine a museum that emphasizes great unknowns and generates reflective processes. Or a museum that illuminates the human tendency toward inventive thinking, invention, and connective insight. Or a museum of variables that comprise decency, passionate feelings and heroic actions. A museum of environments, economies, or education itself. The historical and geographic strands need not be lost among these emphases, and collections need not require relocation or recombination. The mind, stimulated, moves and thinks wherever something extraordinary appears. These museums and their collections may already be in place. (7)

For decades my work has been to assist professionals in libraries and museums to think differently about their institutions and what their purposes might be. What might users become if the museum were to live up to the purposes of its collections and mission? Is a museum of concepts and ideas possible? How might the museum be interpreted as a situation for thinking and becoming? On the back of my business card, it says that my work is “to advocate for the value of a nourished public imagination in a democracy.” Libraries and museums, I believe, are alike in their democratic purpose: to provide situations for reflection and exploration, conversation and inquiry among works and records – the traces — of human lives. “Every cultural institution,” my card also says, “should invite its users to stand at the edge of their experiences and then step beyond.” When I say that museums should not be like schools, I mean that they should create fresh situations that lead to generative experiences: new language, memorable evidence, applications to living one life. (8) It is difficult for even our most heroic schools and teachers to do this.

When I sent my message to colleagues, with the worried article attached, I began to ask the next questions about values, themes, missions and purposes, and the practices that might well be undertaken by museums to encounter an over-tested and perhaps intellectually exhausted generation in the galleries. Beyond avoiding government metaphors and federally mandated aspirations, I want to encourage my colleagues to think about the experiences of school under curricular straits and narrow customer centered planning and how they might affect one’s will to learn something intentionally and deeply, for oneself. The simplistic austerities of testing will be pervasive and their effects will be long. How might museums and libraries generate or invite the curiosities of users? How do cultural institutions learn to pay attention to something outside themselves? How do cultural institutions learn to embrace and address the experiences of living cultures? How do cultural institutions learn to think with and not for their users?

I wrote the following notes as I thought about these things.

Living Transitions of Thought. Cultural institutions are about the transitions of thought, imagination and expression among people. This continues every day, as an always-unfinished part of human experience. It matters when museums specifically recognize the activities of transition in living cultures everywhere (local, national, international) and explore their traces and markers. (“Are you thinking about change?,” the museum might ask. “So are we.”)

Traces of the Masterpiece. The contexts, traces and markers of the masterpiece or the common artifact are often its most important yet least visible parts. If a museum makes these traces more evident – perhaps for only a small number of examples — the object (and by inference, every object) becomes potentially surprising and the assumptions of its users become more questionable. If a user learns that every object has such traces and such evidence, perhaps new behaviors, questions and ideas may take form.

Knowledge Changes. It means new things every day. It is less about power than it is about movement, less about stability than it is about construction and scaffolding. It is less collective and more individual. Its character involves flow, abundance, privacy, cost, complexity, and the conditions of truth. These parts of information need emphasis whenever possible. Museums embody epistemologies and epistemic thinking that involves the mind outside the museum.  And so I might add here:  Knowledge Changes Us.

Transactions, Intentions. Culture is not something that is over when it arrives in the museum. It is continuous living engagement, activity, self-presentation, and conversation. Most important, culture is aspiration. Cultural institutions are not made to hold cultures still but to observe how cultures happen. Literature, food, music, dance, and talk hold some of these things as they happen. “Culture” is not present in a cultural institution unless something (perhaps literally) is being stirred.

Complexity Attracts. More than we are aware, we all want to be attracted to problems, and to engage in the thinking they inspire. This is why we watch baseball, dance when we are alone, listen to music, travel for pleasure, and cook something new. It is also why we go to libraries and museums, why we engage with texts in more than superficial ways, and why we ask questions of other people. Make things more complex and more extensive, and people become more interested and interesting.  It will always be important to think about, or to devote the powers of mind to, the difficult idea.

The Museum is a Problem to Solve. What are the processes and intentions behind these objects? How are these processes innovative or unusual? Are they natural or artificial processes? How do we know this? What can we not know about this? Where can we learn more about this? What is the unknown in the object? What is the unknown in the museum?

The Museum is a Clarifying Space. We go to the museum because when we are there we can think anything, select any object in the place to study, and connect any thought or idea to it. We may do this in complete innocence and perfect ignorance. Any immersion can take as long as we wish. In this kind of setting we might explore language, collaboration, inquiry, allowing our immersion to connect us across forms to other things. It is certain that what draws us to the museum, what we hope to understand, is in our waiting lives outside the museum, but imperceptible until we have contemplated something inside the museum.

Always, I hope to be cautious and respectful about suggestions, and tentative in making judgments, but if American educational practices have weakened the intellectual curiosity and individuality of emerging generations, my notes and themes suggest indirectly (at least to me) that museums should consider these perspectives as they work to understand the present and the future.

  • Assume that every museum has the capacity to emphasize and address the intellectual evolution of the user.
  • Prepare maps or guides to the traces (cultural, social, intellectual) of exemplary objects. Offer ways of thinking about museum objects beyond the museum.
  • Describe knowledge surrounding objects (change, invention, evolution, usefulness, possibility, scholarship). Talk about these important contextual dimensions with users.
  • Invite diverse, popular cultural events to happen in the museum.
  • Present the museum user with problems to consider and offer a model of applied thoughtful processes (heuristics) that have further use beyond the museum.
  • Remind museum users that the museum is not a school.

I observe and think and do not yet know how these thoughts might influence museum practices amid the austerities of schooling. They are among the points of thought I would offer to a museum striving for something to happen, something grounded in its own relationships with users, unconstrained by test scores, races, or uniform minds. In museums we want to awaken different, immeasurable minds.

1 Law Professors See the Damage Done by ‘No Child Left Behind’ – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/03/12/law-professors-see-the- damage-done-by-no-child-left-behind/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en

2 Kenneth Bernstein. 2013. Warnings from the Trenches. http://www.aaup.org/article/warnings- trenches#.Ucx5qhZyPjR. Retrieved June 27, 2013.

3 Linda Darling-Hammond. Evaluating No Child Left Behind. http://www.thenation.com/article/evaluating-no-child-left-behind#axzz2XROQ3Mcv May 21, 2007. Retrieved June 27, 2013

4 Better metaphors for the learner might involve gardening: germinating, cultivating, nurturing; or building and design: architecture, construction, dwelling; traveling, exploring, undertaking a journey without a map. Useful metaphors for learning and teaching should imply patience, design, persistence and variation, perhaps something continuous across a life. Ideas like conversation, collaboration and reflection have metaphorical qualities that imply situations where learning and thinking occur. Depending on the museum, a metaphor for the learner could reflect passage (I am a river), seeing (I am an observer), or the qualities a museum hopes to inspire (I am a questioner). Each museum needs to define a concept for the user’s mental world, the terms that define a user’s experience. It would be safe to say that personhood – individuality, resilience, and empathy – is the general frame for this concept. We know nothing about that mental world, but we imagine its complexity and competence in order to be of service to it. A museum creates a situation where edges of the user’s experience can be expressed, particularly in the form of questions and observations.

5 Metaphors for the experience of knowledge and information in the 21st Century might also be addressed: flood, tsunami, earthquake might apply. The museum also needs a metaphor for itself. Is it a forum? Laboratory? Salon? Conversation? I have cited the idea of the “open work” from Umberto Eco as a description of how only the experiences and thinking of the user can complete the space.

6 The repellent term “customer” replaces the condescending “visitor” in museum chatter. I prefer “user.”

7 My observations at the American Museum of Natural History several decades ago taught me that the museum could become a highly variable process of thought by asking a different guiding questions and creating different conceptual maps.

8 I am grateful to acknowledge that I am a graduate of public schools, where I learned to read and write under efficient teaching techniques. I have degrees from public and private universities. Everything I have done in my professions (teaching, librarianship, museum studies) has happened because I went to school for many years and graduated with capacities of service, teaching, and learning.

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