Monday, July 18, 2011

A Museum’s Learning Assets - Part 1

Museums deliver learning value through exhibits and how many other ways? (California Academy of Sciences)

Exhibits and programs are the primary way museums and science centers deliver learning experiences and learning value.

And so are collections. So is film and multimedia programming. And also a school, a garden, or an historic building. What about a library? A teacher institute? Outreach or an aquarium?

Identifying the different ways museums are educationally valuable may start off easily enough. But the list quickly expands; more possibilities are found and more distinctions are made. If you’ve encountered this, you know it’s not easy. You should also know, it’s not uncommon.

Several years ago I developed a learning framework and exhibit plan with a museum that was experiencing multiple challenges. It re-opened at a new site just after 9-11 and it was undergoing multiple leadership transitions. Our planning process was a natural playing field for the tensions among exhibits, programs, and a museum/charter school the museum operated. In the course of planning, we needed to describe the primary ways in which the museum would implement its broad educational goals to serve its visitors, students, and community. It was tense with an impending sense of winners and losers; was the school really part of the museum? were programs being recognized for what they brought to the museum experience?

Four Small Words 
We avoided a seemingly inevitable hierarchy in what now seems like an obvious solution. We designated all three areas as valued and complementary assets through which the museum delivers learning value. In the end the plan’s legacy was not its pedagogical framework or exhibit concepts but the recognition that the museum needed all three of its learning assets. And they needed one another.
A family art program (Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose)
Identifying a museum’s learning assets also proved to be useful in developing a learning plan for 2-1/2 recently merged museums. Not only did each museum bring its valued assets to the new entity, but the new museum needed a single–and shared–set of learning assets to move forward. This approach has worked for a very established science center and museum with a planetarium and nature center as well as exhibits and programs; for a start-up children’s museum; and for an expanding science center.

Given their versatility and tested diplomatic capacity, learning assets have become a standard part of the strategic and learning planning I do with museums.

Learning Resources as Assets 
Learning assets serve as overarching objectives for accomplishing a museum’s long-term strategic or learning interests.  They may be referred to differently to fit a museum’s existing vocabulary. Some museums refer to them as learning platforms, others as learning resources.
The term assets, however, highlights useful dimensions for understanding and managing this accumulated value for a museum. Exhibits, programs, collections, gardens, historic structures, to name just some learning resources, are financial assets. Some, such as exhibits, are significant sources of revenue. Museums also invest in them on an on-going basis: hiring and supporting staff, developing expertise, and making new acquisitions.

The learning value of exhibits, gardens, a library, or a school should be considered as well. They attract audiences and engage specific visitor segments in targeted ways. They carry content, cultural heritage, and community stories. They embed the museum’s experiential brand and distinguish it from other venues that serve the same audiences.

Learning assets clearly also reflect museums as multidimensional learning and community resources. Although virtually all museums have exhibits, they are not just a bunch of exhibits. A planetarium is not just a “component;” programs are not simply a service. Thinking of them narrowly limits leveraging their format, media, content, or type of interaction to engage learners in pursuing interests, practicing skills, appreciating their heritage, or building a sense of community. In fact, when a museum views its exhibits and programs as a set of learning assets, or perhaps a portfolio of assets, it has a greater opportunity to impact learners and the community.

Defining Assets
Mill City Museum (Minneapolis): Building as artifacts as learning asset
After quickly deciding that exhibits and programs are learning assets, determining what else should be included can take some time. Lively discussions are ahead for the museum that explores whether its building is a learning asset as it is for The Bakken Museum or might be for the California Academy of Sciences. Could Lake Champlain be a learning asset for ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center? Should a museum’s website or social media be a learning asset? 

To identify assets and understand why they are valuable, ask: how does this resource advance our museum’s learning and strategic interests?  What are the particular learning interests it advances and how? Be specific, be concrete; give examples; back up with as much evidence as you have.

While the intent of this exercise is not to eliminate assets, it's possible there will be some reshuffling. Is the garden an exhibit or part of the house and grounds? Is science park an exhibit?  It's also possible the more limited value of some resources may become apparent to everyone; what is the recycling center accomplishing for us? This process may also help a museum recognize it has more learning assets than it thought it had.
Garden or exhibit? Greensboro Children's Museum's Edible Garden   
So far I have mentioned 15 various learning assets (in blue) that I know of in particular museums, although no one museum has all of them. Quantity aside, what counts for a learning asset in one museum may not register as one at another.

There’s no recipe for describing learning assets. It's important, however, to define them in parallel ways, emphasize what distinguishes each, and insist on the valued and complementary nature of these assets. An example for exhibits and for programs illustrates brevity, parallel construction, and distinctions.

Exhibits engage children and adults in self-directed, shared learning experiences through hands-on, bodies-on, and minds-on interaction in rich, experiential settings. 

Programs provide children and adults with special access to media, tools, objects, and processes through focused and facilitated experiences by prepared staff, volunteers, artists, scientists, and specialists.

One of several libraries at Seattle Art Museum
Both these learning assets mention the same audience. This isn’t always the case; a research library might serve local, national, and international scholars. Each asset does distinguish itself in the nature of the engagement it offers. Exhibits offer self-directed experiences while programs offer facilitated, or face-to-face experiences. Facilitated experiences allow special access to fragile objects (or hot glue guns) whereas the rich experiential settings of exhibits encourage physical interaction. These descriptions reflect the museum’s mission in general, although, they could do so more explicitly.

Definitions vary in length from one museum to another as does the territory they cover.  What's important is being clear about the capacity of different assets to deliver value and contribute to a cohesive set that works together. 

So, once you get this far, then what? Join me next week. I'll look at benefits of using learning assets.

Related Museum Notes Posts

1 comment:

  1. Part 2 on Learning Assets is at: