Posts Tagged ‘Museums’

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 damage-done-by-no-child-left-behind/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en

2 Kenneth Bernstein. 2013. Warnings from the Trenches. trenches#.Ucx5qhZyPjR. Retrieved June 27, 2013.

3 Linda Darling-Hammond. Evaluating No Child Left Behind. 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.


In Memory of Teaching, Part 1

January 18, 2010

Situations have to be created that release the energies required, that provoke interest, that move persons to reach beyond themselves.

Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar

Over four decades my work was teaching: teaching schoolchildren, teaching library users, teaching teachers, teaching researchers, and teaching librarians. It has always been useful to reflect on teaching from inside its challenges, to grasp both its disappointments and successes. As I shed that teaching life (Like an overcoat? Like a snake-skin?) there are traces that remain, and I have assembled them here in a series in memory of my teaching.

What happens when learning happens?

1. Some Observations

We risk something. We ask something.

We are willing to learn. We think of ourselves as willing to learn.

A feeling of openness, or fearlessness, or play, or all three, is present.

A valuable problem or an unknown with no evident solution or outcome is present, and we want to think about it.

One or all of these is present: an agent, a helper, or a teacher; useful evidence, sources of knowledge relevant and valuable to the question; experiences that release energies, provoke interest, and “move persons to reach beyond themselves.”

Our experiences are about the present, and about our own lives as they happen in different situations.

Our new experiences unfold our thoughts and memories.

We communicate with each other face to face.

We seek and select messages on our own, and are not subjected to unchosen messages from strangers.

We are encouraged to think for ourselves, and we freely experience that courage.

We are free to place our attention anywhere, for any time, to pause, to return, to move away, to stay.

We are able to talk about the issues, objects, dimensions, and ideas before us, and we feel that we can express what we need to say.

When we speak to each other, our words become parts of our experiences of each other.

Every experience we have affects the next experience we have.

Our capacity to contain changes: we know more tools, resources, or paths.

Our capacity to act changes: we have more skills, questions, or strategies.

Our capacity to plan changes: we think of the future as possibilities and responses.

We make observations of ordinary and extraordinary things amid useful information.

We do not always make our thinking small, safe, correct, or purposeful. We think big, take risks, oppose convention, and imagine freely.

Our identity changes: we are less hesitant, more confident and articulate.

We do not act as anyone other than ourselves, and we do not act in the interests of ourselves alone.

We think of the known and the unknown.

We become aware of ourselves learning.

We become capable of expressing what we have experienced and remembered, if only to ourselves.

We are likely to trust the situation for learning in the future.

We are likely to reflect on our experiences.

We are unafraid of changing.

2. Some Questions

What is at risk when we learn?

What happens when the situation for learning is so open or broad that it becomes difficult to manage, or frightening to us?

What happens when the situation for learning is so closed or inflexible that it becomes out of our control, or threatening to us?

How do we negotiate and plan when the situation for learning is limitless or uncompromising?

What is our capability, when we are calm and unafraid?

Is our changing imperceptible, even to us?

If something is unknown to us, how can we describe it? How will we know it when we find it?

What kind of teacher or agent will we trust? How and when should we accept help?

What should our resources look like? What should they do for us?

How do we reflect on an invisible experience? How can we describe it?

When we regard ourselves as learners, do we perceive something inside or outside ourselves?

What motivates us? Our objectives? Our processes? Our needs?

What parts of ourselves become different in our own eyes?

What parts of ourselves become different in the eyes of others?

“In Memory of Teaching” has six parts. Next: “Teaching is Over.”

Last Night, Part 2

January 11, 2010

Typically, at the start of a course, I would distribute index cards and ask my students for vital data, please:  1.  Name, 2. Address, 3. E-mail, 4. Destiny, 5. Background …  followed by a pause to reflect, then we moved on.  In the second part of this last class talk I wanted to suggest that destiny appears every day in small and invisible ways, a possible self tentatively reminding us, as in a song, to be true.

When we think about the fundamental library cognition, connecting knowledge to knowledge in the presence of the unknown, we enter the magic part of our work.  There is no way to predict the cognitive value, ecstatic surge, or conversion of energy created by one connective act, no matter how frail the tissue of connection may be.  There are, of course, the natural connections between like beings, places, events, theories, and cultures; there are mirrors in every human and natural thing, waiting for us to recognize them and gaze into them and speak about what we see.

But I am more interested in thinking about the connections that are not driven by a natural order or the logics of reference.  I am far more interested in the ideas of insight (the small moment that changes an entire problem) and confluence (the strengthening resonance or solace that comes when you and I and others bring our minds together, outside of our insular differences). Our class, my students, has been a form of confluence.

As I said of one book we brought to class, “We use the metaphor so casually – the worldwide web – as though it is a new thing, our thing.  [We need] to understand that connection is human, continuous, generative, and ancient.  [We need] a long view, and an aerial view, of knowledge and complexity, information and its effects on our energy, imagination, and confidence.”  In this way, slowly and gradually, with countless setbacks and failures, we might come to create a practice that undermines fear, isolation, indifference, and blindness.

Among these we might first strive to reverse the blindness and begin to understand fear’s origins and how it induces despair in the long flight of human work.  Remember our responsibility for instruments of thought and vision, concepts to express the possibilities of public learning, and the diverse ways of looking at critical human issues and challenges.  We will be judged by what and how we gather, and then by how we give. When we cultivate these instruments together, in some cases inventing them to inspire our communities with ideas and thinking they have never held, we have begun to understand the cultural institution as a forum in a democracy, a place not a place.

Remember that much of what a cultural institution contains actually can be seen as a history of human dexterity, or a history of the human hand. This is clearly true of a museum, but it is less obviously true of a library. After all, what do we make by hand, what do we invent, what do we change, where do we change it, what do we teach, what do we touch, what do we give, in the making of a difference?  And yet, all meaning is a difference arrived at invisibly by hand:  a construction or a touch, an indication, a fresh connection, a book carried to a library desk, or borrowed and placed in a backpack.  I should have thought more and taught more about hands!

Now it is time to exhort you and end.

Never stop reading.  Reading invents our identity, and when we do not read deeply, our lives become shallow. Having just finished a book called Pretty Birds, by Scott Simon, about a young teenage Serbian Muslim girl pressed into service as a sniper during the war for Sarajevo, it is easy for me to say that (having recently been transported) the greatest difference ever made in human beings is the capacity to read.  The obvious reason, you know:  I read, I am a reader.  I love the police procedural, the western, the thriller, the essay, the sonnet.  But the invisible actions of reading make me wonder most:   How reading changes our intellects.  How reading causes us to ask questions.  How a great book is an incendiary device.  How reading is both our privacy and our openness.  How we are as permeable when we read as when we love.

Never ever underestimate the place of literacy in libraries – or, alas, the likelihood of the unappealing and perhaps imminent future that Tom Peters recently described in Library Journal as a place where, “Only at living history farms will we see people reading.”  Every day I remind myself that I am for reading.  What I do not do every day is thank people who taught me this skill; to be grateful that my father read; to remember that a library came to our town when I was in grade five or so; to acknowledge that I rescued myself several times from miserable choices by reading; and that, when I could, I made a new choice to become a librarian, and that I have lived a life constructed with books and renewed by reading every day for the past fifty years.  My courage, my possibility, what little there is of it, has come from reading.

So:  thank you to Mrs. Mills, who taught me to read in kindergarten, Autumn 1950; Mr. Woodruff, the principal of that school; Mae Carden, who wrote our reading method book; Cliff Carr, who read every day at the kitchen table and in the middle of his sleepless nights; and Mrs. Nordling – the first town librarian of Whippany, NJ.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived long enough to attend library school, to have taught librarians, and to have made a life among books. And thank you to Carol, who sees me buy countless books without one word of reproach.  Marry a reader and the pleasures of a reading life will multiply beyond counting.

My students, it is our last reading, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, that is the most savory to me and the most profound, because it confirms and illuminates the conundrum in the title of my essay and book, “A Place Not a Place.”  Even after writing that essay and others and collecting them in that book, I felt unsure of myself, and unable to explain with certainty what I meant by the title phrase, “a place not a place.”  Fortunately or not, no one has asked me to explain.

Manguel helped me to understand how the library embodies knowledge; how knowledge is our workplace, both inviting and constructing our imagination of the possible; and how such collections – library collections, with their extraordinary collisions and alliances, openings and expansions, gateways and locked secrets, variations and confirmations – are not themselves most importantly books or objects, but other, invisible things and invisible actions.  Like museums, libraries are living configurations, always in motion, always flowing toward something we are challenged to name.  What is it, this moving thing?

It is a process of becoming different, alone or with others.  Alone, it is a process of becoming something previously uninvented in other lives. Among others, it is a process of becoming something together.

It is an array of possibilities, connective paths, undesigned and almost imperceptible patterns; suggestions and strands, evoked not by themselves but because of our presence and our actions as we ask.

It is an organization of differences in content and perspective, a structure that accommodates variances, seeks out contradictions, and holds truth – where? – somewhere waiting for the person to craft it for one self, a truth to hold for now (as every truth is) until a revision becomes necessary.

It is a record of human change, perceptible and imperceptible.  It is a record of the human hand.

It is a forum, message center, meditation center, inquiry center, workshop, kitchen, laboratory.

It is a construction of categories and classes, precise, exhaustive, and impermeable.  And yet, it is also a construction of invisible strands, tangled, insensible yet often sensuous, vessels tangling and coursing between categories and classes, permitting the practice of constant, promiscuous and essential intercourse among them.

It is an endless conceptual web, and it always has been.

It is a hypothesis.  What will happen if we make a library here? What might we want to have happen here?

It is a mirror for every intellect.   It is a flow of new knowledge in countless forms – that flow including the thoughts and experiences of human beings walking through the door as I say this.  And so, it is also a perpetual encounter.

And so on, and so on, and so on and on and on:  this is my description of knowledge, our workplace, appropriately incomplete, certainly shallow and inadequate, an evolving fabrication of my own that my students have had to endure, as they have done kindly, for sixty or seventy, or eighty semesters, if you include summer school.

My dear students, it is fabricating, crafting, constructing, connecting, interpreting.  If I were to find a model for the librarian, it would be an artist, an architect, a musician, a choreographer, a builder.  And I would educate you as an artist, an architect, a musician, a choreographer, a builder is educated.

But that is over, and there is no more chance of that.  Instead, here are these words from the American painter, Robert Henri.

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.  If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign.  It was in this hope that the arts were invented.  Sign-posts on the way to what may be.  Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.

Every person (even if not an artist) deserves such moments in a life, and moments in a day where the sign-posts clearly tell where knowledge lies and what it means.  Not information; knowledge.  Because you have been my students, I have confidence that you all can decide the difference for yourselves.

You deserve these moments, just like everyone else.  In practice I hope you will teach yourselves to understand the relationship between living and knowing. I hope you will become clear about the possibilities of lives with information and the impossibilities of lives without information in democracy. I trust you will learn to use the former as ways to rescue and revitalize the latter. But mostly, you rescue the lives; then democracy will be rescued as well.

We are at our best when we give freely until we disappear.  Our fundamental value, as I see it, is to be generous with our gifts and judgments, and kind in our words to each other.

I am not yet done:  I have many more things to write and speak.  But I want to thank you for being my students in this last term, and thank you for being here on this last night of my work as a teacher.

[Next:  Recovered Documents About Teaching]