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the Museum as an Educational Institution

The Birth of Public Museums, Museums after the Civil War, A Shift in Education

In ancient Greece the museum was for pure study and contemplation. Culture came first, learning second. In American museums, the earliest examples of the term education in museum mission statements were directed toward promoting democracy. In this way education in American museums was tied to the very identity of the nation.

The Birth of Public Museums

In the late eighteenth century, America saw the development of the public museum. As industrialization progressed, more people moved into cities. The nation's policymakers were taking on more responsibility for social services and the welfare of the nation. Government-funded schooling in industrialized areas was developing. This was a time of great public interest in science, in which citizens were embracing the Founding Fathers' zeal for natural history while finding that technology and industry were affecting daily life. Amateur collectors formed membership societies for the preservation and study of specimens, which were displayed in what came to be called cabinets of curiosities. Leisure activities, such as public lectures on the arts and sciences, had intellectual value.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s education in American museums can be simplified as a time of conflict between scholarship and popularization. Arguably, many of the early American public museums were little more than sideshows of curiosities. The infamous American showman P. T. Barnum exploited public interest in natural history by exhibiting the supposed skeleton of a mermaid and entertaining crowds in institutions that were theatrical venues as much as museums. Two exceptions were the Peale museums in Baltimore, Maryland, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were created as institutions to help people better their lives. The Peale Museum in Philadelphia used its exhibition space for public health campaigns and demonstrations of the latest technological wonders. For example, its exhibition of piped gas lighting was an entertaining, but convincing, display of how gas lighting could transform Philadelphia. This was the beginning of the public museum where the display of objects was for the enlightenment and entertainment of the public.

Museums after the Civil War

Education in American museums developed further after the Civil War. In the late 1800s theories of learning proposed that new knowledge was revealed not just through books but also through objects. Consequently, museums, not universities, were places for the production of knowledge. At that time universities were seen as inactive as they were not institutions that created new knowledge. Instead, universities taught knowledge that was already known. The most prestigious universities of the mid-to late nineteenth century tended to be theological institutions that focused on the interpretation of texts, not object-based research.

Producing new knowledge required object-based research. Consider natural history museums, full of objects used in the daily research of scientists. These institutions were central to the pursuit of science. But education existed alongside research. In museums, as new information was discovered, it was made public through exhibitions. This was a striking contrast to universities, where any new knowledge produced was available only to the select audience there. Museums were seen as democratic institutions, more accessible to the public than universities.

The late 1800s were a boom time for American museums. Great institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, both in the New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago opened during these years. Amateur-scientist societies were opening the doors to their cabinets of curiosities for the betterment of the public. American librarian John Cotton Dana was writing about the museum as an instrument for popular culture. He wanted museums to be founded out of the highest ideals for citizens. Yet this period marked a shift in public education institutions, and by the first quarter of the twentieth century, universities had become the primary institutions for public education.

A Shift in Education

One theory of how public education shifted from museums to universities in the early 1900s points to differences in assessment. As schooling became more common, a large system of assessment grew along with it. Museums did not embrace assessment in their educational activities. Assessment in schools provided the leverage necessary for additional public and government support. Another theory was that the educational activities of museums relied too much on the inherent ability of objects to speak for themselves. It was thought that anyone who studied the object carefully enough, even untrained observers, would understand the object's meaning. Public interest waned when faced with multitudes of objects and little interpretation. In addition, museums faced increasing competition from world fairs, which offered more entertainment than the usually serious museums.

By the 1930s there was already a need to argue that museums could provide a role in public education, even as an assistant to the education that took place in schools. A new generation of curators in museums was focused on collections, not education. Education in museums was no longer built on the production of new knowledge, and instead focused on entertaining and educating the public about information (that was not necessarily up to date). Museums began to turn increasingly to educating schoolchildren.

There was also an increasing diversity and professionalization of methods used to educate the public. Museums began to appoint instructors to their staff and early scientific studies of museum visitors' activities were carried out. By 1932, 15 percent of all museums offered educational programs. Lectures, tours, demonstrations, and labels became features of many museums. Public outreach was offered through tours for schoolchildren and through printed educational materials along with the loan of objects for classroom use. The presentation of objects in museums changed. Exhibits now included combinations of related objects, dioramas, period rooms, and more realistic taxidermy.

By the 1940s labels, brochures, and lectures were regular features of museums, but they tended to be strictly information based. Education programming now included teacher-training courses, junior museums for children, branch museums at local libraries, and programs for the unemployed. Museums loaned materials to schools, but also shops, hospitals, and community groups. Museum exhibitions and programs were even used to promote patriotism during World War II.

The National Education Infrastructure

The 1970s saw the development of new educational interpretation methods. Exhibitions of objects began to include film, audio, and even the first computers. There was also a growing awareness of a new type of exhibit, best described as a hands-on display, used to demonstrate scientific phenomena in the earliest science centers, including COSI in Columbus, Ohio, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, which opened in 1964 and 1969 respectively. Perhaps most important, in 1973 the American Association of Museums created a standing professional committee on education. The education committee's purposes include promoting high professional standards for museum educators, advocating for the support of the educational purpose of museums, and promoting excellence in museum learning. This committee signaled a national recognition of the professionalization of education in museums.

In the 1980s education was placed squarely in the center of American museums and their role in the impending new century with the 1984 report of the American Association of Museums, Museums for a New Century. This report, and the later Excellenceand Equity, published in 1992, spotlight education as the central focus of museums' public service. Notably, the reports describe education in broad, pluralistic terms, encouraging museums to provide educational experiences "by fostering the ability to live productively in a pluralistic society and to contribute to the resolution of the challenges we face as global citizens" (American Association of Museums 1992, p. 6). Museums were once again positioned to make a major contribution to public education.

In the 1990s research showed that museums not only provided rich education experiences for families but also provided direct support for schools. Museums played a role in the national infrastructure that supported public education. Some argued that museums played a unique role by offering benefits not found in schools: Museums were nonthreatening environments that appealed to a wide range of audiences; they offered an interdisciplinary approach; they had more flexibility than schools; and they had the capacity to bring students, teachers, and the public together in new ways. Museum education at the end of the twentieth century was much more than school group tours and classes for adults.

New Directions

As museums positioned themselves in the educational infrastructure at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was increasing pressure to address public issues, including failing school systems, community building, and diversifying audiences. Museums responded to this pressure by expanding the range of their educational activities. Education came to encompass the development and interpretation of exhibitions, events, workshops, and even the study of visitors' experiences and educational outcomes. Museum staff has been involved at a national level in establishing standards for education. Educational training for teachers has been offered through pre-service classes and professional development. Education for children and adults has reached diversified audiences through new programs in new locations, including access programs for visitors with physical or mental impairments, and after-school clubs and activities in museums, churches, and public housing. Education in American museums, as Stephen E. Weil summarized it, has shifted from being about something to being for somebody.


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AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF MUSEUMS. 1992. Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

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