Conducting the Effektorium at the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Museum
Recently I was asked a question that I often hear, “How do we start developing a learning framework?” While the question is basically the same from one query to another, the context supplied by the following sentence varies.
• In the past we’ve had educational philosophies that we talked about, but that deep focus on what learning is and how the museum supports both has been missing.
• Our learning framework was developed as part of planning our new museum (or during a growth spurt); so much has changed since then and we know so much more about what happens here.
• We opened recently and our exhibit master plan which guided us through the expansion isn’t relevant in going forward.
• We developed a learning framework awhile ago. Its advocates have moved on and we have new staff who don’t feel a sense of ownership in that framework.
• We do have a learning framework that we have used heavily. It’s no longer current and we need to update it.
• We recently completed a strategic plan; it calls for our becoming a leader in learning in our community.
• We have a new Executive Director who had a learning framework at the previous museum and thinks we need one too.
• We’re gearing up for a major project (i.e. expansion, renovation, move). Our internal team will grow and we’ll be working with advisors and consultants. We need something that can guide all of us.
• Our community has changed and we’re not as relevant as we should be.
• We have grown a lot recently in attendance and staff; now our internal culture needs work around shared ideas about what learning is at our museum.
In spite of the noticeable differences among the museums described above–new museums, established museums, museums embarking on change, museums consolidating recent gains–these museums have something important in common. They are navigating the changing realities in which they operate: shifting societal issues and concerns, changing population, growing expectations of the museum, and an evolving learning landscape. Changes occur internally as well in organizational priorities, culture, and practices.
Whether planned or unplanned, external or internal, these dynamics impact a museum’s long-term learning value to its community. As the comments above indicate, such changes require action including new advances around a museum’s long-term learning interests. The need for a learning framework may be readily apparent or may take time to come into focus. Once a museum decides it needs a framework around learning, how it proceeds will vary according to its mission, audience, and perspective on learning. It will also be informed by how it works internally and engages its community in its work.
Many, if not most, museums are likely to take some preliminary steps as they decide on their approach to consolidating their most important ideas about learning and increasing their value as a learning resource. An informal prelude to a more formal process is a prime opportunity to prepare, to start slowly and build momentum towards a full effort when the time is right.
• Build internal interest and support. A learning framework that will serve a museum’s long-term learning interests will have meaning for the entire organization. Developing it will actively engage some and will require the support of virtually all. Make time to talk informally with staff and trustees. What do they think a learning framework could accomplish for the museum? How would it help advance other priorities? What do they think it should cover? What are their concerns about the process and the framework itself? Growing the circle of interest and support will be helpful during development of the framework and its implementation.
• Take stock of how the museum’s learning interests are currently expressed. Whether a museum’s long-term learning interests are clearly articulated or not, they are present in some way. Assess what these interests are, how and where they are expressed, and how aware others are of them. Gather and read over grant proposals that describe the museum’s approach to learning and its impact. What do they say (and not say) that a learning framework might address? Gather articles, books, white papers, blogs, and research reports referenced within your museum or recommended by staff. Who are the theorists referred to most often? Ask staff about whose ideas around learning informs their thinking.
• Learn from colleagues. Because more museums increasingly have developed and are updating learning frameworks, they are great sources of information. Contact colleagues at other museums about their learning frameworks; the various processes and approaches they have used; sections they have added and deleted; and different formats they have used. Ask about how they use the framework–and how much. Find out what they would do differently next time to strengthen their framework and make it more user friendly. Check out the work of Children’s Museum Research Network and the Spring 2016 issue of Hand To Hand.
• Leverage strengths: Every museum has learning assets that relate to areas of expertise where it invests resources and intends to have visible impact. For one museum it might be strong community partnerships, for another a large and well-prepared docent cohort; it could be making as a learning strategy or a commitment to interdisciplinary learning. Look into how those areas might be incorporated into the process of developing the framework. For instance, could the museum hold conversations with partners and community leaders about how they view learning and the museum's role? Which of the museum’s strengths are most relevant to the community’s challenges and promise? Where are the best opportunities for advancing the museum’s learning interests?
• Think outside the framework. The most important thing for a learning framework to accomplish is to develop a cohesive outlook across the organization on how the museum matters as a learning resource to its visitors and community. Arriving at this shared understanding should come from an engaging, productive process with lively discussion and deepening understanding. Prepare chewy questions: what is informal learning in our museum's context? What kind of learning is important here? Consider different ways to explore, capture, and communicate ideas and the relationships among them. Is a mind map of learning processes more helpful than a list? How does visually representing the relationship between learning processes, activities, and impacts help convey learning’s complexity? Perhaps the final framework is actually a giant illustrated poster rather than a thick, or even a thin, report.
Do any of the museum situations described at the top of this post resonate with the situation your museum is in? If so, you may be poised to develop a learning framework with and for your museum. Taking time early on to prepare will make a helpful difference along the way and in the framework you create. Additional resources below might be of help.
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