On September 16-17, 2013, an eclectic crew descended on the National Building Museum here in D.C. for “Museums and the Learning Ecosystem: building the future of education”—a convening co-hosted by CFM and The Henry Ford, with the support of the Robert and Toni Bader Charitable Foundation. Attendees represented the whole educational landscape—teachers, researchers, policy makers, activists, students, entrepreneurs, museum educators—and all shared a passionate interest in exploring the future of education, and how museums can play a more vital role. We are working on a paper summarizing the presentations and discussions from that convening—due out 1st quarter next year—but I can’t resist giving you a sneak peek at some of the content as I edit the submissions. Today’s guest post is by Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. Michael tackles the question of how museums can scale up the good work they do, in order to make a significant difference in American education.
My message to the Future of Education Convening was simple, even stark: if we want to take on the challenge of improving education in America, we’ve got to get big or get out. Half-measures won’t cut it.
Every organization, every discipline, dreams. When we close our eyes we picture ourselves practicing our craft at the peak of excellence: teaching, provoking, spreading joy, having profound impact in our communities. But even dreams have limits, based on our experience of what is possible. Dreams come in different types and sizes. Different scales.
Our industry, museums, forged our dreams in the 20th century when being successful meant having impressive buildings full of experts, big collections, and visitors through the doors. That was our reality, there was no Internet yet, and we could imagine no other type of success. In that world, we dreamt about things like bigger, better buildings, rock-star curators, preeminent collections, and more visitors.
The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. opened in 1978 with 4.6 million annual visits. It has roughly the same level of visitation today. Is that the fulfillment of a big dream? How you answer that question depends on what you think the mission of that institution is and how you think about scale, but either way, 0% audience growth and incremental improvements in facilities, collections, and staffing over 35 years reveals a question about whether we using the best dreams to shape and prosecute our missions.
The TED conference has served over a billion videos since 2006, the year they started a small experiment to put videos online. They tried it, it seemed to work, so they tried some more, and now they have delivered a billion videos. The TED team didn’t do anything that a museum couldn’t have done—no aspect of TED’s strategy, tactics, or operations require huge teams or huge budgets, and even the TED motto, Ideas worth spreading, is hauntingly museumesque. But their vision, their sense of their role—their responsibility, their obligation—in the world of the 21st century is clear, as is their understanding of scale.
The National Gallery of Art would have to operate for 217 years to have a billion visitors, but is a TED talk as good as a museum visit? Is any online experience as good? There’s a lot of doubt among museum leaders that online experiences can be as authentic, as impactful, as a visit to a museum. But try Googling “TED talk made me cry” and then read “Art Museums and the Public”, a 2001 report by the Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis, which concludes,
One of the most striking results of this generation-worth of museum audience studies is that the explicit aims of exhibition planners are rarely achieved to any significant degree. In study after study … researchers found that the central goals of the exhibition team (which are usually learning goals) were rarely met for more than half of the visitors, except in those cases where most visitors entered the museum already possessing the knowledge that the museum wanted to communicate.
Art historian Beth Harris told me her own feelings about the reality of museum visits,
It isn’t this amazing, contemplative, aesthetic, transcendent experience. It’s jostling crowds, it’s feeling hungry, it’s being annoyed by the people you’re with sometimes, it’s feeling disappointed that you can’t have the reaction that the museum wants you to have—that you don’t have the knowledge and the background to get there. I mean, it’s a whole range of complicated things.
Beth Harris, and her collaborator, art historian Steven Zucker, attended the Future of Education Convening. Beth and Steven reach 200 students a semester through the traditional practice of teaching art history in their classrooms, but this semester they’ll reach 2 million learners from 200 countries through their open educational resource, Smarthistory. The Khan Academy, a free, online educational website of which Smarthistory is a part, reaches ten million learners a month. MIT’s Open Courseware project served 100 million people in its first decade and their goal is to reach 1 billion learners in the next ten years.
Our dreams drive us forward. Museums accomplish wonderful things in society, but a billion learners—that’s the kind of dream we need to have.
For a dramatic visual representation of the issues Michael raises in this post, check out the Slideshare presentation The Age of Scale–his keynote for Wikimedia UK GLAM-WIKI conference at the British Library, London, April 12, 2013.