Monday, October 15, 2018

Important, Overdue, and Challenging: AAM’s Ed Core Documents

Do Museums Agree on the Need for an Ed Core Document? That was the question in the In Brief section of the American Alliance of Museums AVISO on September 25th.

To explore this question, AAM has created a task force chaired by Tony Pennay, Chief Learning Officer at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute and comprised of 15 professionals from the museum field. The Task Force will explore whether there is general agreement across the field in support of all museums having an education-related core document. More information about the Task Force and its membership can be found here.  

An Education Core document is intended to encourage museums to state their educational philosophies and principles that will also guide decisions about the development and delivery of their educational role. If adopted, it would join 5 other Core Documents: Mission Statement, Institutional Code of Ethics, Strategic Institutional Plan, Disaster Preparedness/Emergency Response Plan, and Collections Management Policy. Core documents are fundamental for basic professional museum operations and embody core museum values.

I think this study is important, overdue, and, not surprisingly, challenging. Museums hold far too much learning value they could make available to their visitors and communities to casually take that value for granted. Their collections, facilities, exhibits, programs, expertise, publications, partnerships, and goodwill are rich tangible and intangible learning assets. Museums have a special responsibility to convert these enormous assets into accessible experiences with learning value for children, youth, adults—people of all ages. This is, perhaps, especially important in these times when too many schools are failing too many children and youth; when more and more learning happens outside of school and across the entire lifespan; and when knowledge is dynamic, expanding, and constantly changing.   

I have been perplexed why our field, a field that in 1992 established education as central to its public service , has been slow to demonstrate greater interest in museums articulating their learning interests and value in learning frameworks, education plans, or interpretive plans. For 25 years I’ve been developing, facilitating, and writing about learning frameworks and education plans. I am pleased to see them receive serious interest and play an increasingly greater role in their institutions. Recently, a Special Interest Group in the Children’s Museum Research Network analyzed their learning frameworksMany of those museums are now revisiting their frameworks.

This is also a challenging question to explore as a field, which may be one reason addressing it has been slow in coming. Framing an expectation and characterizing an outcome in ways that balance accountability and flexibility is very difficult. This is especially true across a field of diverse museums ranging in size, type, age and location, demographic and geography. Inviting a meaningful stretch for both a small and a large museum can be elusive. Thinking about some of the pitfalls and possibilities of navigating this interesting but challenging territory might be helpful.

First, producing an education document is not enough. Fielding a museum-wide exploration of learning must be an active, deliberate, inclusive process. “It’s the process, not the product,” a well-worn cliché, couldn’t be more appropriate for this situation. This is a process that insists on asking questions, thinking together, and developing a shared vocabulary around learning and interpretation. While the focus stays fixed on understanding a museum’s learning interests, learning value for its audiences, community and itself, and identifying effective ways to deliver it, developing a framework about learning necessarily involves learning together.

Second, encouraging clarity around expectations can unwittingly limit thinking and encourage standardization of practice. Sometimes meeting a requirement leads to checking boxes or taking short cuts like replicating what another museum has submitted. A helpful gesture of providing examples as guides might inadvertently promote templates used repeatedly with too little regard for fit. This is quite the opposite of what ed documents are presumably intended to encourage.

Finally, perhaps the ed docs should be completely different from the other core documents AAM requires. Perhaps they should focus on the process more than on the product. For instance, the expectation for the ed doc could be development of a process that consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about learning in that setting for those audience groups. The process would be documented and the resulting learning framework or education plan summarized. And the conditions which would trigger revisiting the document—major audience, operational, or financial changes the museum experiences—would be identified.  

You or your museum might be contacted as part of this study. Perhaps you’ll be asked to share your museum’s current learning documents. What will you share? You might be asked to comment on the proposal circulated in the filed. What will your response be? 

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