learning together in cultural institutions: opening up museums

“I want to share with you today the passion of my professional work, which is about opening up museums,” begins Nina Simon, “turning them into places that are not just places where people come to visit, but where you can actively participate, where you can connect with culture, and hopefully through those experiences connect more deeply with each other.”

Thank you to Christina Cantrill for linking to this talk in her slice of Twitter. There is a lot to take in from this 15 minute talk by Nina Simon, the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum. Simon sketches out some of her key points in her blog post “Opening Up Musuems: My TedX Santa Cruz Talk.”

As I listen to and think about Simon’s ideas, I can’t help but think of what it might mean for young people, educators, schools, and communities. Simon’s ideas include thinking of a museum as a place of active participation in which museum directors design invitations that encourage people to interact with the artifacts and with one another. That is, she sees the artifacts in her museum space as objects that mediate relationships, as reasons and opportunities for people to talk, to collaborate, to share. In this way, the museum space is a community space. It’s a place that can facilitate change outside the walls of the museum because of how people participate inside those walls. That’s her hope, intention, and working theory.

I believe young people, educators, and communities want schools to be places where people do not just visit, but where they actively participate. To me, this requires seeing schools as places where students AND educators learn. It requires educators to share how and why they participate with artifacts and through the practices they do in their disciplines AND for young people to also share how and why they participate with the artifacts and through practices they do in their various communities. It suggests that schools must also “open up” and participate in the local community.

I wonder how schools might design the kind of invitations Simon does in her museums, invitations that suggest participating is important and valued. I wonder how young people might see themselves as “creative agents” too. I wonder how educators might position the artifacts of disciplines (e.g., primary documents and texts) as objects to mediate “big” conversations about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go.

I wonder what “opening up” might do for the relationships between young people and educators in the various communities in which they find themselves in – disciplinary communities, school communities, local communities. It seems to be a promising concept and a hopeful practice.