Museum Education as Curriculum: Four Models, Leading to a Fifth
Though art educators in museums and in schools share content fields and professional backgrounds, they operate under quite different practical constraints. The autonomy of museum education, shaped by museums’ missions more than by state guidelines, is part of its appeal as a profession; museum programs, in shaping their very malleable subject matters into formats responsive to various backgrounds, have a special appeal to diverse audiences. This article explores the nature of museum education through four classical models of curriculum, and proposes a fifth model that connects museum education to the traditional trajectory of a storyline. Examples are taken largely from art-museum education.
It can be useful to examine one field of practice through the lenses of another, especially when the practical activities of the two fields are similar, as is the case with museum education and K-12 education: in both cases, we teach. The greater autonomy of museum education programming, which addresses individual museums’ missions sometimes independently of statewide educational standards, is part of its appeal as a profession, inviting ongoing innovation in the business of teaching. This article explores the nature of museum education through four classical models of curriculum, and proposes a fifth model that connects museum education to the traditional trajectory of a story line. Though the arguments made here apply to museum education in all settings, examples are taken largely from art-museum education.
Each of four models for understanding the school curriculum explored here is summarized and then applied to the special situation of museum education. Each model is an artifact of the past half-century of thinking about school curriculum reform. In this setting, the curriculum unfolds in utilitarian buildings with certified teachers, designed for students who attend 180 days per year for 12 years, covering standard common subjects and offering a range of extra-curricular activities, publicly funded with variations according to the socioeconomic status of the community, involving parents in voluntary capacities, and variously serving as centers of their communities. Schools’ shared characteristics are the variables that models of curriculum must take into account; these variables apply in quite different ways in museums. The four models reviewed here are descriptive tools for analyzing the deliberate curricular variations among schools, delineating the areas that are subject to reform and assessment; not specifically addressed, though implicit throughout in both schools and museums, is the “hidden curriculum” of any educational setting, which tacitly teaches through indirect means including subject-matter inclusion and exclusion, social structure, and rules (Giroux & Purpel, 1983; Overly, 1970; Vallance 1973/74; Vallance, 1986a). The first four models explored here provide a vocabulary for talking about what, why, and how we explicitly teach, and while each is useful for describing museum education, none fits it exactly. A fifth model, derived from the narrative/sequential nature of the museum visit, is offered as an alternative way to examine visitor learning in museums.
Model #1: The “Commonplaces” of Education
The curriculum model most universally applicable to a broad range of educational settings was developed by Joseph Schwab (Schwab, 1969, 1971, 1973). Schwab was a science educator fascinated by the practical aspects of curriculum-making, and he codified the dimensions of curriculum change into a “language” for curriculum discourse. he identified four “commonplaces” of every educational event/encounter/lesson: subject-matter, teacher, students, and milieu (setting). Using the commonplaces to describe a school curriculum unit, we can talk about the content of a lesson on African dance masks (cultural context, stylistic traditions, current uses), we can characterize the teacher’s educational background, we can identify the students (by name, age, demographic information, prior school records, etc.), and we know exactly where we are (the art room at Jones Elementary School in Grand Rapids, with its particular physical and sociocultural characteristics). Each commonplace is subject to revision: curriculum developers revise the basic content, teachers can be encouraged to take an art-museum workshop before teaching a unit, students can be grouped by age or art experience, and we can augment the classroom with “smart classroom” technology that in turn affects how teachers teach the content.
Variations along the dimensions of the commonplaces are possible in any school setting and the dialogue about school reform takes place in these terms. We may argue about discipline-based art education, visual culture, or other approaches to content, about teacher inservice training requirements, about tracking of students, and about improving physical facilities through bond issues. It is difficult to talk about the school curriculum without referring at least tacitly to the four commonplaces, which together describe the school environment and purpose. In fact, every lesson in every kind of educational environment-a National Park ranger’s talk on the Grand Canyon, a lecture on Stickley design at a furniture store, a private piano lesson, an audiotour of an exhibition of jugendstihl design-has all four commonplaces, though they vary in their relative weight and in how much they can change from offering to offering.
The commonplaces apply to museums in interestingly different ways (see Soren, 1992; Vallance, in review). Arguably the central image of any museum is of its building (the milieu/setting and its collection (the subject-matter): indeed, most museums’ names refer to their content (Museum of Modern Art, Toledo Museum of Art, Bata Shoe Museum, National Museum of African Art, etc.), and the often-distinctive building is something most local people might know. In Schwab’s terms, then, the “subject-matter” of a museum education program might be, over time, the entire scope of the collection: the history of textiles (The Textile Museum, Washington, DC), or shoes through the ages worldwide (the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto). The actual subject-matter of a museum’s curriculum at any point in time, tacitly as installed and interpreted in the galleries and explicitly in programs available to the public, is a selection from its broader content; this selection may appear as a lecture series (on loom technology, perhaps) an exhibition from the collection (wedding shoes), or a tour of festival dance masks. In short, museums’ subjectmatter can be defined as broadly as the whole collection and related topics or as narrowly as any subset of the collection. Finding appealing subjects within the broader content of a museum is rewarding for educators and audiences alike.
The concept of teaching in a museum program is complex. Teachers include the museum educators, curators, and docents, but teaching is also done through inanimate resources such as audiotours, object labels and wall text, interactive devices and videotapes, and by the design and sequence of any installation of objects, all of which reflect the behind-thescenes work of many who may not consider themselves “teachers.” Involved in these instructional resources are curators, writers, editors, designers, producers, and evaluators, all involved in creating visitors’ choices in a public curriculum, guided by design elements and by the coherence of the installation (Vallance, 1995). The “teaching” function of the museum environment also includes the visitors themselves, who create meaning through interaction with each other and with the museum materials in ways not fully controllable even by the best exhibition design (Ellenbogen, 2003). Thus, students of museum programs are different in substantial ways from the students in schools. They may be of all ages in any given program, most are present voluntarily, they may attend once or become regulars at various programs, and generally we do not know their names or anything about their backgrounds: museum programs are designed for unknown and ever-changing “students” who are working on their own, in conversations, far more than they are attending to structured learning opportunities (Eisner & Dobbs, 1990).
In sum, Schwab’s model of curricular “commonplaces” works for museums, but each commonplace acts quite differently. The setting weighs heavily in the public conception of “museum,” and its physical characteristics shape what visitors remember about their visits (FaIk & Dierking, 1998). The subject-matter is defined by the collection and by the subdivisions, themes, and connections that can be made to other content areas. But the “teachers,” so clearly defined in schools, are more broadly defined in museums and include visitors themselves: visitors, wandering on their own through the galleries, talking among themselves without contact with anyone officially responsible for instruction, are more often autonomous self-directed learners than students in school can ever be, though of course the hidden curriculum of schools also includes other sources of messages than actual teachers (see Vallance, 1986a; Vallance, 1973/74). Thus, probably the most controllable commonplace of K-12 schooling, “teachers” are one of the more amorphous concepts in a museum (Vallance, 2003). The same is true of students, who are a more or less fixed population in schools but-as voluntary visitors-are both delightfully and maddeningly inconstant in the museum setting. Schwab’s model works for museums, but it accounts for differences among museums less neatly than it accounts for differences among school curricula.
Model #2: The Tyler Rationale
Ralph Tyler’s prescriptive model of curriculum development, now known as the “Tyler rationale,” describes the sequence in which curriculum development should happen (Tyler, 1969). Tyler was among the first to argue for educational objectives and for evaluation based on them. Tyler’s “rationale” is, on the surface, as simple as Schwab’s commonplaces: it posits that curriculum developers should begin with goals and objectives, design learning activities to meet those goals, implement (teach) the resulting curriculum, and evaluate the outcome. The process reflects most rational program planning; each step represents a huge undertaking, and entire bureaucracies are devoted to each. For a time, it was thought that a strict application of curriculum design to objectives could “teacher-proof the curriculum, even that this might be a good thing, but it is now clear that the teacher’s role in “implementation” -effective teaching-is critical. Nonetheless, we see a strong emphasis on the purposes of education in the statewide educational standards that schools must address, and on a micro level we see it in the objectives of any lesson plan. Selecting the resources to address the objectives are many professionals including textbook writers, curriculum developers, curriculum committees, computer program developers, teachers preparing to adapt what they are given for their particular students, and the public at large when it gets involved in political issues of curriculum content such as evolution and creationism. Teaching the curriculum is generally left to teachers, who may enrich their teaching with other instructional resources (books, Internet sites) and community resources such as museums and other field-trip sites. The evaluation of outcomes is done in various ways, including classroom testing, statewide tests, the SAT and other nationwide tests; in some cases, assessment happens through portfolio review and other sorts of “authentic” assessment of the progress of individual students, but the outcomes can be tested because the students are contained in recurring groups and follow a shared curriculum. Applying the Tyler rationale to schools, we can identify the curriculum goals and content, how content was taught and by whom, and how effectively it was conveyed to students. The goals allow us to measure student progress and schools’ effectiveness in shaping it.
The Tyler rationale provides a lens through which to examine the museum curriculum, starting with the challenge of defining what “the curriculum” of a museum is, for it is far more than the educational programs themselves and hidden in ways different from what happens in school. If the subject-matter of the museum is defined by its collection, then the task of museum educators becomes one of identifying the most important uses to which the collection can be put. Why is a collection arranged as it is, in the sequence and categories that organize the objects? This is a decision made routinely by curators and exhibit designers, who have a clear idea-rarely stated as “objectives” or in terms that invite evaluation-of what they want visitors to learn from an exhibit (to know that Impressionism included several styles, perhaps, or that Egyptian art was imbued with concepts of an afterlife). The goals shape the use of the collection and the activities offered to visitors, and the “implementation” of this curriculum is handled in a variety of ways-directly in live teaching, or indirectly as label copy and other gallery resources. As with Schwab’s commonplaces, the implementation of the curriculum here is a broad-based effort shared by many on the museum staff.
In this model, “evaluation” is problematic. In one sense, museums are always assessing: they count the visitors in the door, calculate the percentage attending special exhibitions, and track the percentages utilizing audiotours. They report these numbers in members’ magazines and in grant applications, they collect visitor comments in comment books, and they thrill to positive reviews of exhibitions by local and national media. Museums do surveys of their visitors’ cultural and consumer habits, and develop profiles of both their visitors and their elusive “non-visitors;” they check their attendance profiles against area demographics to assess effectiveness in attracting a diverse audience (see Museum Management Consultants, Inc., 1997). They vie with other area institutions for prestigious board members and large donations. Museums have many criteria of success: we could say that museums “evaluate” their success constantly. But none of this is the kind of “evaluation” against learning outcomes prescribed by the Tyler rationale. Some workshops may be evaluated with questionnaires seeking participants’ assessments of the quality of the instruction, and these evaluations provide formative information for improving ongoing programs. I know of no programs, however, that specifically test their students to determine whether the learning objectives were achieved. Indeed, it is understood that the absence of formal requirements, including tests, is one appeal of museum education programs. Therefore, if the Tyler rationale is to apply both descriptively and prescriptively to museum education, it will likely be most useful if “evaluation” can be re-conceptualized to guide museum programming through assessments other than of learning outcomes. The next curriculum model suggests some alternatives.
Model #3: Ways of Valuing the Curriculum
Dwayne Huebner posited five ways of valuing what happens in schools (Huebner, 1966). He called these perspectives “rationales,” and argued that although any educational event can be understood in all five ways, K12 educators typically tend to emphasize only three of them. The rationale most often applied is the technical rationale: Did it work? Did students learn what we meant for them to learn? Is this an “effective” school in terms of test scores, graduation rates, or other measures of technical efficacy? Were children left behind? This rationale refers us back to Tyler’s objectives, and the questions it asks can usually be answered by applying Tyler’s concept of evaluation. It’s a rationale we know well in the world of school reform and policy-making. A second rationale is the scientific. What does this curriculum practice teach us about how students learn? How does this educational innovation advance our knowledge about effective practices? Educational researchers regularly address the scientific rationale and research supports or refutes the lines of thought underlying educational reform. A third familiar rationale is the political: how does a particular curricular practice affect the power balance in the educational environment? Differences in school quality, effectiveness, and success (by measurable criteria) have political value for communities. Each of these rationales applies easily to museums as well as to schools: we can assess the technical effectiveness of museum programs in terms of audience size, retention, and growth, and we can look at indirect measures such as the museum’s funding successes, collection growth, and other ways documented in the Association of Art Museum Directors survey (AAMD, 1995). The scientific value of a museum’s work can be assessed through follow-up studies of K-12 teachers’ use of teacher-workshop materials, for example, or (at the curatorial level) by the impact of staff scholarship published in local or national venues. The political effectiveness of a museum’s programs can be measured through tax votes and through visibility of its programs in the public media, by participation in its programs by the appropriate cross section of the population, by involvement of local schools, business, and political leaders in supporting its programs. These first three rationales apply rather neatly to museums as well as to schools.
In the last two of Huebner’s concepts, typically of lower profile in schools, museums seem especially strong. Schools have an ethical value, Huebner argues. That is, they set up relationships between and among people that can be seen as ethical, fair, and humane-relationships between caring and fair teachers and children, between administration and the teaching staff, between the school as a whole and its community. Good teachers know this and caring teachers try to create an ethically rich atmosphere, but aside from regulations about harassment and proper disciplinary procedures, goals-driven administrators are less concerned about the ethical dimension than they are about technical and other criteria of effectiveness. Museum professionals, in my experience, regularly think in ethical terms. Most are aware of the need to be fair and even-handed in dealing with varieties of cultures, in welcoming visitors with a wide range of background in the museum’s subject area and in making the experience a comfortable one. While these efforts may be driven by other motives as well (seeking those “return” numbers, for instance), they can also be ethically grounded-and can be critiqued by others on ethical grounds as well, as when the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibition in 1990 (Cannizzo, 1990) was condemned by some groups for showing a culturally-biased view of African culture even though revealing the cultural bias of collecting was its point. Being the ethical custodians of, and teachers about, the cultures reflected in their collections is part of museum educators’ job; this responsibility is a big part of what attracts creative educators to museums.
Finally, all educational programs can be assessed on an aesthetic dimension: Apart from whether it “worked,” was the program aesthetically satisfying? Did it have a clear beginning, middle, and end? Did it have, in Dewey’s terms (Jackson, 1998) an aesthetic wholeness, memorable as something apart from the chaos of the rest of the day? Good teachers in any setting know when a lesson was aesthetically good: it was complete, well balanced, and had a unified theme and a clear focus that made it unique. As such, it was memorable and, thus, it felt “right”. Museum educators, working with objects that have an aesthetic wholeness, understand when a gallery talk went well or meandered to a weak conclusion, know when a family festival was well designed and well run, recognize a brilliant lecture and a dull one-sometimes from audience response, but always also from a sense of tacit aesthetic judgment. Indeed, the popular panel critiques of museum exhibitions at the American Association of Museums’ annual meeting are grounded in aesthetic responses to the structure and flow of exhibitions (see Rounds, 2000, for example). These judgments inform the planning of future programs. It would be unfair to claim that museum program planning depends more on aesthetic judgments than on the technical, scientific, and political (these are indeed very much alive in museum educational planning), but it is arguable that museum education is more explicitly guided by the aesthetic rationale than K-12 schooling can dare to be. Indeed, creating aesthetically-whole experiences may be a tacit part of any museum’s mission.
Model #4: Conflicting Conceptions of the Curriculum
One “map” of thinking about the school curriculum breaks the discourse into five arguments reflecting the curriculum discourse of the 1970s, and has been used by education researchers since then (Eisner & Vallance, 1974); at least one revision to the model has been offered (Vallance, 1986b). The “conflicting conceptions” model dissects educational discourse not for common elements, development process, or value systems but for the overarching purposes it assigns to schooling. These conceptions sometimes conflict, and the conflicts define areas of disagreement in talk about educational reform.
The most enduring conception of curriculum is here called “academic rationalism’: teaching the disciplines. Thus, we are teaching an art-history curriculum, or beginning art, or 3-D design or oil painting. This conception is similar to a cultural-transmission conception of schooling; it argues for teaching the structures of the disciplines, the facts, the things we want young citizens to know. It’s a familiar educational goal, and museums themselves are structured similarly. There are museums of African or Asian or contemporary art, of ceramics, glass, or ornamental metal; there are curators of modern art and decorative arts. Museums, like schools, subdivide their subject-matter, and they phrase their missions to include teaching it, either explicitly with live programs or silently through interpretive materials.
Another standard purpose of education is “‘cognitive process” seeking to teach students how to learn, and emphasizing the learning process over content mastery. This was the basis of the “new math” curriculum of the 1960s, guided by Jerome Bruner’s belief that any subject could be taught to any student in an academically respectable form (Bruner, 1960). It is an approach also adopted by museums when they train docents to temper their talking tours with questioning techniques to engage visitors’ analytical skills, or when printed family guides introduce objects with questions designed to stimulate comparative analysis of objects based on visitors’ prior experience. Developing skills-different from teaching “facts”-is an implicit goal of many museum education programs and interpretive materials.
A third strong perspective is a “social reconstructionist” perspective, characterizing schools devoted to producing social reform. The Progressive schools of the 1930s, open classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s, and community-service requirements of more recent years-all can be linked to a goal of developing students who will take responsibility for improving their own society. We can find hints of a social-reconstructionist conception of museums in various programs and interpretive materials, such as in science museums’ installations about conservation but also in the Missouri History Museum’s recent “Gilded Age” exhibition re-examining class differences at the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Art-museum programs designed to increase the cultural diversity of the museum audience or to heighten visitors’ sensitivity to cultures beyond their own can be described in social-reconstructionist terms, reflecting and perhaps shaping social conventions.
Fourth, a self-actualization goal of the school curriculum was very strong in the 1960s through an emphasis on the whole child, underlying much of the rhetoric of “free schools” and open classrooms. It continued in a revised form in the 1990s with the emphasis on character education and self-esteem and can be seen as a motivation behind schools’ embrace of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” concept (Gardner, 1983) as well as in many charter schools’ missions. The self-actualization mission of education, though not eschewing content mastery or skills acquisition, seeks to maximize students’ gifts and recognize their individual strengths. It can be tied also to museum programs’ goals of respecting the cultural heritage of all visitors, increasing the cultural diversity of their staffs, and targeting exhibitions to different groups’ interests and needs. Thus, the first four of the “conflicting conceptions of curriculum” seem to fit museum education, with appropriate adjustments for setting and resources.
The fifth conception, referring to the use of technology in education, now seems an anomaly in the structure of this model: the use of technology, in all the education literature at the time, is rarely an end in itself and almost always a means to other things, less a conception of the purposes of schooling than one of many means to achieve them (see Vallance, 1986b). Despite today’s even greater emphasis on technology in school, the same holds generally true-it is a tool for learning, not a goal in itself. The same can be said of museums, where the technological devices most prominent in a museum visit (audiotours, interactive video, flip-card question/answer devices, computer games, and the simple technology of the printed guide) are all aimed at teaching for other purposes: content mastery, skill acquisition, and so on. A more useful fifth conception might be a time-oriented conception of schooling and museum programs, one that aims for long-term commitments to the learning and museum habits, in effect a lifelong learning enthusiasm for the content area and skills: this seems to be the tacit goal of most museum education programs.
Model # 5: A “Storyline” View of Museum Education
Each of the four traditional curriculum models applies to museum education, but with modifications. Although all four of Schwab’s commonplaces apply to museum education, “milieu” and “subject-matter” are unusually salient in the museum case, “students” are an unpredictably varying population and the “teaching” element is far broader than in schools. Museum educators (and curators) work at least tacitly with Tyler’s recommended sequence of goals/planning/implementation, but are less systematic with evaluation. Museum education can be valued through all five of Huebner’s “rationales,” but museum education uses the aesthetic and ethical rationales more explicitly than schools do; the application of the aesthetic rationale may seem even more immediate in art museum education programs because of the terms those professionals use to describe their work, but Dewey’s concept of aesthetic experience is not bound by subject-matter and applies equally to other kinds of museums. Finally, it is possible to find versions of all five “conflicting conceptions” of curriculum in discourse about museum education, varying with content and audience; replacing the “technology” (a means) conception with a “lifelong learning” purpose seems especially apt in the museum education world. These four models “work,” but none exactly accounts for what happens when museum visitors follow a “curriculum” available to them in museums.
Using parts of these four earlier curriculum models as lenses to describe museum education, I propose a fifth model, one that builds on recent work on sociocultural learning (Ellenbogen, 2003), and turns on a conception not rooted in the school curriculum’s structure-connections to the stories visitors create as they experience and later reflect on their museum visits. Recent studies have explored the narrative aspects of museum visits. Museum exhibitions and programs seek to tell stories that will endure as coherent memories, and visitors create (and later recount) stories and story elements that endure, “accurately” or not as memories of a sequence of events (Anderson, 2003; Carlisle, 2001; Falk & Dierking, 1998; Roberts, 1997; Rounds, 2000; Vallance, 1995). Visitors apply personal and culturally shared interpretive strategies to make narrative links among the elements (Hooper-Greenhill, 2001; Roberts, 1997). If we look at museum education programs as narratives told by educators and “read” (or lived) by visitors, we can explore the museum education experience as one that can be satisfying as a “good story” and re-told by enthusiastic visitors as they recommend museum visits to friends. Thus, the museum curriculum can be seen as a storyline created by educators and experienced differently by each visitor, a story with a purpose (acknowledged to greater and lesser extents by all actors in the tale), an invitation to engagement (interaction with the objects and interpretive resources provided), and a conclusion that invites reflection. For convenience, I call this the “storyline” model.
The notion of applying narrative structure as a conceptual overlay to understanding the learning experience is not new: Carter (1992), for example, explored the uses of story in identifying and implementing research on classroom teaching, and Clandinin and Connelly (1990) have done substantial work on teachers’ perceptions of the narrative structure of their days. The critical pedagogy movement since the 1980s has explored personal narrative as a way of empowering teachers and students to question and re-form the curricular and wider worlds that face them. But narrative structure has been argued more as a research process than as a generalizable model for describing variations among curricula, as designed or as implemented. Because so much of the museum experience depends on the visitor’s own meaning-making through the creation of personal stories, the match between the museum’s intended story (mostly “told” through non-direct teaching) and the visitor’s “experienced” story becomes significant as a way of describing the museum curriculum.
The proposed “storyline” model of the museum curriculum has fewer moving parts than any model explored here, but it achieves its full power by suggesting research questions that connect back to the traditional models of curriculum theory addressed earlier in this article. The storyline model of purpose/engagement/reflection parallels the classic tripartite structure of narrative: it describes an experience with a beginning, a middle, and an end, echoing also the format of lesson-plan articulation of introduction/development/conclusion. In short, it applies the standard three steps in expository development, each paralleling a stage of a museum visit, planned by professionals and experienced by visitors, but it acknowledges that (unlike a movie script), the actual story changes daily with visitors’ backgrounds and on-the-spot choices (Vallance, 1995). Thus, we might say that the museum writes a story using the available language of artifacts, design elements, and interpretive materials. The story is experienced and interpreted anew by each visitor for whom the visit becomes a personal story whose aesthetic wholeness (Jackson, 1998) frames it and makes it accessible to recalling as a memory. Each stage in the making and experiencing of the narrative, on both sides of the equation, can be explored, manipulated, and assessed through concepts introduced in classical curriculum theory. Additionally, the storyline model suggests criteria of narrative coherence that can be applied in an evaluative way similar to art criticism. For example, Tolstoy’s formulation that effective stories must be “logical, true, and self-affirming” (NPR, 2004), applies to museum exhibition design, to exhibitions’ use of evidence and argument, and to interpreting visitors’ comments. Some research questions emerging from each of the three narrative steps include these concepts, phrased in terms drawn from the first four models examined here:
1. Purpose. The museum has a reason for creating an installation or a program, and the visitor has a reason for attending. In Tylerian terms, museum educators have a goal: What is it? What knowledge goals does the collection embody, what do we want to teach, why do we want visitors to come? Do we intend to teach content in an academic-rationalist way, or to build cognitive skills for later use? Are our intentions best understood as technical teaching, as political, or perhaps as an ethical commitment to the community, in Huebner’s terms? As for the visitors: Why are they going to the museum? What do they expect to see, do, experience, learn? Are their intentions knowledge-mastery, or sociocultural participation in terms that might refer to “self-actualization”? Are they seeking technical, factual mastery of subject-matter, or an aesthetic experience that will be remembered for years to come? In short, what is the museum’s intention and how is this intention conveyed in educational programs and materials, and what is the visitor’s purpose in visiting? These starting points will affect both the story told and the story “heard.”
2. Engagement. Once at the museum, what do visitors do, and how does the museum program shape the doing? How do they engage with the milieu, the content selection in the galleries, the teaching strategies available to them? How are visitor choices shaped by their purposes of content mastery, skill development, or self-discovery? How are visitor choices shaped by the technical, political, or perhaps ethical considerations that guided the decision to visit? What “student characteristics” (including prior experience with meaningmaking in museum settings, and the salience of their own visual cultures) shape the way visitors interact with museum learning opportunities? What nexus of variables between the story the museum socks to tell arid the visitor’s background will maximize the chances of the story, as experienced, being in Tolstoy’s words (NPR, 2004), “logical, true and self-confirming?”
3. Reflection. Museum staff assess a program’s effectiveness, and visitors remember (or not) the experience. For the museum, how successfully did the teaching resources overcome the intimidatingly formal qualities of the setting to engage visitors in content or skill mastery? How “successful” was a program, a gallery installation, a set of interpretive materials, in technical or perhaps political terms? Did the exhibition or program have an aesthetic wholeness that visitors respond to by spreading the word? How will this assessment affect what the museum does next time? And what do visitors remember best and why? Was the visit punctuated by moments of uniqueness, wholeness? Is the “ending” of any given visitor’s story an ending that was satisfying in aesthetic, ethical, or perhaps technical-mastery terms? How will visitors recount the story of their visit-as dominated by an awesome setting, as guided by clear teaching in the audiotour, as guided by the museum’s ethical concern for its diverse public, as “self-confirming”?
The real test of the storyline model of the museum curriculum is not in how neatly it can accommodate classical curriculum theory, but in how fully it captures the nature of museum learning. One relevant test of this criterion is to apply it to recent work on sociocultural learning and visitor meaning-making in museums (Ellenbogen, 2003). Museum visits are the result of personal decisions by individuals and their families, reflecting longstanding or new interests, individual schedule constraints, priorities as to expenditure of time and money, expectations of what a museum visit entails, memories of images or exhibits worth revisiting, and many other factors that may have little or nothing to do with the museum’s connection to the formal knowledge systems of schools.
Thus we can ask whether the purpose visitors acknowledge as motivation endures in their narratives to friends as central to guiding their actual visit. We can ask whether visitors’ purposes in visiting a museum are expressed in terms at all related to educators’ goals for the program or exhibition they visited, and whether and how visitors’ expressed purposes are shaped by advance publicity, word of mouth, and their own prior knowledge of the subject-matter. How visitors engage with museum content may of course be influenced by prior knowledge gained in school, but enyapement is heavily colored by visitors’ sociocultural environments (Ellenbogen, 2003), by (in the case of art museums) their stage of aesthetic development and objects’ connections to personal stories or to personal preferences in subject-matter (Housen, 1987; Manila & Kiley, Inc., 1994), by the attraction value of the exhibit design itself (Melton’s early studies of visitor behavior have never been refuted), by the time available, and by many other factors that are not easily described by traditional curriculum models (Falk & Dierking, 1998; Melton, 1933, 1972). We can ask if the intended pattern of engagement is actually followed by most visitors, what visitor characteristics influence their engagement patterns, and what sort of “plot line” visitors follow in their engagement with subject-matter especially when only minimally guided by exhibition design elements. Clearly Roberts’s (1997) conception of visitors as makers of their own narratives fits with an overarching construction of museums as creating storylines, and recent research on visitor conversations is informing our understanding of the forms that visitor engagement in museum stories can take (see Leinhardt, Crowley & Knutson, 2002).
Finally, we can reflect on museums’ success in guiding visitors’ engagement by asking how visitors themselves describe their experience immediately afterwards and later. One way to ask this last question is to ask whether and how visitors’ memories reflect the completeness and uniqueness that a Deweyian “aesthetic experience” would have. How visitors remember and reflect on their visits is very much connected to their lives at the time: their companions, their use of amenities, their personal preferences (those who love Impressionism most may remember best the Impressionism galleries), their sociocultural group (Anderson, 2003). Reflection on visits is both shaped by visitors’ daily lives and values and becomes, ultimately, part of their visual memories and personal visual culture, in turn shaping their next visits to the same and other museums.
In short, though classical curriculum models are helpful in identifying the points of possible change in museum education, a simpler model may be useful as an overlay: we can conceive of museum programs as efforts to guide visitors through a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, bringing visitors to the setting, engaging them with the contents of the museum, and understanding how well this all worked. Visitors, on their part, decide to visit a museum for some reason, visit in a pattern determined by myriad personal variables, and then remember it somehow. Each step, on each side of the equation, is complex and can be viewed as part of the sequence or as its own coherent experience, informed by concepts drawn from more traditional models of curriculum thinking.
Visitors seek stories, and museums tell them. Re-framing our characterization of the museum education experience as a study of the storylines offered and experienced can be a powerful tool for incorporating traditional educational concepts into the special setting of the museum. The challenge for museums is to connect their educational purposes to the real lives of visitors, design programs and interpretive materials that engage and extend visitors’ personal backgrounds, and develop assessment strategies that can capture visitors’ responses in terms that will help tell the story better next time. Museum educators do this every day. The proposed model may offer a vocabulary and syntax for guiding and assessing this process and, ultimately, may allow museum educators to assess educational programs in the aesthetic terms they already intuitively use-especially, perhaps, in art museums.
Anderson, D. (2003, May). Visitors’ long-term memory of large-scale exhibitions: Lessons for developing experiences with lasting impact. Poster session at the annual meeting of American Association of Museums, Portland.
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Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. New York: Vintage Books.
Cannizzo, J. (1990). Into the heart of Africa [Exhibition catalog]. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.
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