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Can Early Learning in Museums Matter?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Today’s guest post is by Colin Robertson, Charles N. Mathewson Curator of Education at the Nevada Museum of Art. I fell in love with NMA when I was in Reno last year for both personal and professional reasons. Personal, because it fuses two subjects I love—art and ecology. Professional, because it is a rare example of an art museum incorporating science into its mission and aspiring to have a social impact about something other than art. In 2009, the museum created the Center for Art + Environment (CA+E), the mission of which is “to be a global leader in supporting the practice, study, and awareness of creative interactions between people and their environments.” Now NMA is tackling another topic I believe to be of primo importance—the relationship between museums & education. Colin writes to tell you of an opportunity to be involved.

Sometimes, I think, museums run the risk of becoming receptacles for significant objects that, through real concerns for their long-term well-being, become divorced from the processes and modes of their production and meaning-making in the world. As a result, museums sometimes inadvertently emphasize the “objectness” of their collections. What if, instead, museums used the objects of their collections and the environments for their display as third teachers, as in the Reggio Emilia framework, emphasizing museum galleries and installations as dynamic learning environments where children can make meaning and sense of the world’s complexity? Where objects can be brought to life through inquiry and multi-sensory experience?  

I hope you can join me to explore that idea. Next month, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3, early childhood classroom educators, museum educators, educational policy advisors and administrators will gather at the Nevada Museum of Art and the University of Nevada, Reno for two days of experiential learning, dialogue, and reflection exploring art and object-based teaching and learning in museums and other informal learning environments. The symposium and children’s art installation, together called More Than a Playground, will explore questions about locating the dynamic, multimodal learning that results from creative play and inquiry-based learning in the more informal environments of museums and other public educational spaces.

Comparatively little research has been done about the prospects of locating high quality, inquiry-based early learning in “traditional” museums (as compared with children’s museums). However, the philosophical values and constructivist foundations of both modern museum education and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education provide an important and productive area for museum professionals to explore, and, presumably, use to build bridges to future generations of museum-oriented publics.

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I hope More Than a Playground will engender discussion of the idea that twenty-first-century museums could be understood as critical habitat in sustainable educational ecosystems, dynamic environments where children learn that it is through their active engagement and cognitive exercise that meaning is made in the world. To that end, I’ve invited Betsy Bowers, deputy director of museum education at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and Lella Gandini, Reggio Children liaison in the U.S. to present opening and closing keynote addresses, respectively, as part of this symposium. Between these presentations, early childhood educators from the University of Nevada, Reno Child & Family Research Center and the Washoe County School District will present case studies of early learning in informal environments, and Nevada Museum of Art gallery educators will demonstrate a series of experiential gallery activities that can be adapted to other museum and classroom environments.

I hope you can join us for this exploration of museums and learning. For more information about More Than a Playground, please visit or contact me directly. Early registration is discounted to $85 through Oct. 15, and discounted hotel accommodations are available through that date as well.

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