Tag Archives: Museums

Content in Museums: Objects? People? Questions?

Dave Cormier poses these questions as the prompt for Week 3 of #Rhizo15:

So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there?
What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information?
What choices are being made… what power is being used?


Content is people. Discuss.

When I worked in museums, other organizations often wanted to partner with us because we had “content” by virtue of our collections. We might bring in “outside experts” to help develop or curate exhibitions, and we usually had curators, designers, a developer/writer, a project manager, an educator and an evaluator (me) on the planning teams. We would agree on a theme and several key “take home messages” to communicate to visitors, and these would shape the story line, text, media, and interactive elements. But the “stuff” of our exhibits were the real things, often unique, that were in our collections: art, artifacts, and specimens.

I’m struck by how the stories exhibits tell, or the questions they pose, can shape visitors’ encounter with the real things. (This fascination was what got me interested in studying museums in the first place, and motivated me to spend three years writing a thesis on exhibit labels.)

Michael Spock (son of Dr. Benjamin Spock) directed the Boston Children’s Museum, and then served as Director of Public Programs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago from 1986-1994. At both institutions, he worked with teams to create exhibits that were “for somebody rather than about something”. Storylines built on what was familiar, so that a collection of skeletons was organized by the simple vernacular taxonomy of which were cats or dogs, and a hall full of dioramas at right angles was reinstalled as a nature walk, with meandering paths and bridges. One exhibit dared visitors to pull aside a curtain to see the most dangerous animal of all–which revealed a mirror.

For the 1992 exhibit Mining the Museum,the Maryland Historical Society gave artist Fred Wilson free rein to curate any objects he chose from their collections. He used juxtaposition to challenge assumptions. This included retitling paintings, and covering them with a layer that had cutouts to highlight only black people. The most thought-provoking case was labeled “Metalwork, 1793-1880” and contained an ornate silver tea set and a pair of slave shackles.

Our questions can invite people into a particular frame of reference. Of course, visitors and learners make their own meanings of what they see and experience.

In a keynote speech to the American Association of Museums, Sherman Alexie walked out on stage and said, “I’m scared. I’m an Indian, and you guys are museum people.” [Followed by silence, and then laughter.] I took that (pun intended) to mean that he didn’t want us to seize his body as an object for our collections.

Where people are presented as content, we are also challenged to look again at our/their place in the world.

Maybe I don’t have a conclusion here, as my ideas will keep changing over time, and through interaction with others. I think content is assembled and experienced in many different ways, under the influence of people, power, and perspectives.

Communities That Keep Each Other Accountable

Much of the learning that shapes who I am takes place in the context of communities that hold each other accountable for how we put our values into practice. A shared public mission undergirded my graduate studies, with cohorts that questioned how to make museums and libraries relevant and engaging to lifelong learners, and how to embody the ethics of our professions. Those of us who have taught or studied together keep crossing paths in our professional lives.

Accountability happens even more in my Quaker community, where I have learned by osmosis and experience to trust in continuing revelation, and to listen to and encourage others’ emerging ministry. That tribe is always available, and calls me to participate in shared discernment and play. Walking an unpredictable path together can be tender, and is so much more alive when I keep showing up and let myself be teachable.

So I think about learning across a much longer time span than a single course or a degree program. Museums and libraries offer a wide range of information and experiences, and our users walk in with prior experience and walk out with more beads to string on a necklace.1 Experiences from many contexts build on each other. The ideas that pique my own interest often come from serendipitous collisions across breadth, which may or may not be followed up with more research into depth.

My engagement so far in #rhizo15 has mostly been conversational (responding to others’ blog posts and tweets and Facebook comments). Because it is not taking place within the boundaries of a learning management system, I don’t think of it as a MOOC. As I would have expected, I ponder what we are discussing in the context of my work, and many threads from #rhizo15 wove into my experience of a library conference on Friday. What I would not have expected is that I look at my other networks in terms of how what we are doing is also rhizomatic learning. #rhizo15 is prompting me to reach out much more: to respond to other tweets with questions or links, to notice what kinds of contributions strangers make to Facebook threads. Last night I picked up the phone when a faraway friend texted me.

At first, it seemed to me that any accountability within the #rhizo15 community came from the early pieces that were seminal for me: the gentle guidelines of the collaborative open learning recipe, and wise observations like the need for a flock to chase each other in Keith’s “commandments” post. And of course it was apparent that old-timers were picking up on and newcomers were being invited into interactions, friendships, and conversations that had developed in #rhizo14.

Now I see that the commitment to engage as much as we choose to within a six-week time frame also creates the voluntary accountability of responding quickly and perhaps repeatedly to what we want to keep alive (even if it means sleeping less to do so). From what others have shared, about collaborative projects and other connected learning, and also from Rebecca’s post about the #rhizo14 community supporting her during cancer treatment, I can see that the roots of this community spread and keep responding to life beyond the six-week boundary.

1 Hanson, Signe. “Exhibitions as Educators; or, The Mundane and Magnificent Art of Stringing Beads.” Journal of Museum Education 17, no. 3 (Fall 1992), 8-9. Also reprinted in Hirsch, Joanne S., and Lois H. Silverman. 2000. Transforming Practice: Selections from the Journal of Museum Education, 1992-1999. Washington, D.C.: Museum Education Roundtable.