Today it is common for museums to present a wide range of programming to the general public, as well host tons of school children with guided tours. But education was not always the museum field’s focus.
America’s first museums were a collection of curiosities from around the world that often did not relate to each other. Displays were not organized to tell a story, but instead presented rows and rows of mysterious stuffed birds, Egyptian relics, and wonders from far flung nations. Instead of preserving a specific story within an institutional mission, museums collected haphazardly with a loose idea of “bringing the world to the visitor.”
These exhibits did very little to convey information to the Average Joe. It has been said that curators used to do exhibits for other curators. We wrote on a high academic level, and were not as concerned with educating the public as we were with impressing each other.
With the advent of museum studies programs in the 1960s, the field began to change. Museums evolved into another kind of public institution, with a focus on educating the public about what they were seeing.
This began with a new focus on exhibitions, which transformed the role of the curator. It was now imperative that exhibitions made sense to a widespread audience, which meant seriously re-thinking the way we wrote and presented artifacts. Simultaneously, museum scholarship began to focus on public programs as a new avenue to explain information and attract audiences.
Soon museum education became an important department within the museum hierarchy. But it would be several years before museum educators and their work would be recognized as an essential part of the institution. Curators were not eager to relinquish their superiority in interpreting the museum’s mission.
Today, most museums have an active education department that is vital to its operations. As a Director of Education, you can expect to develop public programs and school tours that enhance the museum’s mission and provide an important source of revenue for the budget. Educators coordinate a team of docents and museum teachers who present programs to school groups, senior citizen outings, and bus trips.
Most education departments also develop exhibit-based programs for both temporary and permanent exhibitions, including classes for kids, adult lectures, special events, and other programs. For example, for an exhibition of musical instruments, the Director of Education might plan a musical performance. Or for an exhibition on the history of food, a cooking class may be added to the schedule. Museum educators often present programs themselves, but they also seek out individuals in the community who specialize in interesting and related fields for programming.
Museum educators organize summer camps for kids, bus tours of other historic sites, and often actively participate in National History Day. They also play a vital role in the new team-approach to developing exhibitions. Educators make sure labels are clearly written, and that exhibit design incorporates educational interactives that enhance the project’s message.
There are some graduate programs that focus exclusively on museum education, but most programs allow students to concentrate on education while experiencing a whole range of other museum studies classes. A background in teaching and a degree in education are not essential for this position, but a clear understanding of the state education standards is important. In order to sell your product to an increasingly busy group of school teachers with a shrinking field trip budget, it is important to be able to explain how your school programs meet the education standards. Gone are the days when a field trip was an end-of-the-year fun extravaganza. Today’s field trips must be justified as an educational experience.
Many museums rely on a team of volunteer docents to present programs, but some have a team of paid museum teachers. It is often easier to get an entry-level position in an education department because of the large number of people required to keep up with the large numbers of tours.
A career in museum education is ideal for the person who wants to teach, but desires more freedom than the traditional classroom environment can provide. The possibilities are endless when it comes to developing interesting education programs for the museum-going public!