Museum education students spend a lot of time thinking about museum field trips – typically, the visits undertaken by busloads of schoolchildren. But what about the museum education students themselves? In the Museum Education Program at George Washington University, we went on a lot of museum field trips, too.
Our first semester took the form of two courses – Museum Studies and Communication Skills – that complemented each other and melded together so seamlessly that I now have difficulty remembering which of the two courses featured a particular reading, activity, or guest speaker. In this summer semester in 2009, our class delved into the museum world by almost immediately paying visits to museums.
At the National Air and Space Museum, we critiqued exhibits from an educator’s perspective. We visited the National Building Museum, where we participated in an activity designed for schoolkids, getting a taste of what youngsters do on their field trips. A somber morning and fascinating discussion transpired at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We were learning in our classes that visitors need the three C’s (comfort, control, and choice) in order to have a successful, educational museum visit. To paraphrase our discussion, USHMM turns these rules on their head, for it is through discomfort that people learn here.
Of course, we did not get through our first semester by experiencing museums solely as visitors. In groups of five or six, we were required to develop our own museum lesson plan for our classmates. In a separate project, we made self-guides, i.e. pamphlets visitors could use on their own in an exhibit.
These projects took place at three assigned museums: National Museum of African Art, National Museum of Natural History, and Freer/Sackler Galleries. At NMAA, we divided into small groups, looked closely at a single piece of art, and made a case for why it should be preserved and studied. This exercise got to the heart of what museums do, and why they do it – choosing specific objects to collect, preserve, and share with the world.
In NMNH’s Sant Ocean Hall, the presenting group dressed up as a sailor, a beach bum, and other nautical characters, and took us on an adventure deeper and deeper into the sea. My own group used the Freer Gallery to teach about the transformation of Buddhism along the Silk Road, from India to China to Japan. Our slate of activities began with museum theater, acting out the story of Siddhartha’s life in front of a tablet depicting the same.
The semester passed by quickly (two full courses crammed into six weeks), and by the end, we were preparing for a month of rest (or work, or travel) as well as the fall semester. While I did not visit any museums that first semester that I hadn’t seen before, visiting them as a graduate student studying museums put a new perspective on each one.
July’s blog theme is Studying Museums.