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What makes K-12 public school educators choose to use a museum as part of their curriculum?

Category: Alliance Blog
A large group of children stand in front of a woman who has her back to the camera.
Amber Geary welcomes a group of students to the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Photo by Janelle Rodriguez.

In 2013, I became the Museum Educator for the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, a 200-year-old Liberal Arts college nestled in the foothills of Central New York. I was excited to welcome the throngs of eager K–12 school groups to the Wellin’s newly constructed halls, as the museum was barely a year old when I joined the team. I was thrilled to be working with a comprehensive permanent collection, alongside cutting-edge contemporary exhibitions that rotated bi-annually. The Wellin has a sign on its front door that reads, “Free and Open to Everyone,” and this is a philosophy we apply to everything, including customized public school tours. I won’t say I thought it was going to be easy—after all, we were the new kid on the block—but I did think that the cards were stacked in our favor to hit the ground running.

Five middle school students look down into an exhibit case.
Middle school students viewing pieces of the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College’s permanent collection during a tour at the museum. Photo by John Bentham.

It was soon apparent that my sense of ease was misplaced. Teachers were not banging on our doors, even when we sent professionally printed direct mail pieces and hand-signed letters. My phone didn’t ring off the hook after I made presentations in faculty meetings at regional schools and handed out free pencils imprinted with our logo. I was doing everything “right” in my mind but there was very little return. I came to museum education via a path that included art education and over a decade of marketing and branding consultation. In my experience, the No. 1 way to find out what your client wants is simply to ask them, so that became my new goal.

Through a research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I conducted a two-year, mixed-method, regional study that posed the question, “What makes teachers choose to use a museum as part of their curriculum?” For the purposes of this study, the phrase “use a museum” refers to museum-school collaborations that are virtual, in-school or in-museum. The study employed focus groups, online questionnaires, and personal interviews of public school teachers and administrators working in the three counties surrounding the Wellin, within a radius of approximately fifty miles. The research also included the perspectives of four peer institutions on the dynamic between museums and public schools.

When the research topic was developed, there were no regional or national studies that explored the dynamic of museum-school collaborations following the implementation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2014. With the introduction of the Common Core, public school teachers and administrators experienced a shift in not only their curriculum but also in the priority of experiences that could compliment this new curriculum. In October 2014, The Art Newspaper cited that “The traditional museum field trip is threatened because of the Common Core States Standards Initiative, which seeks to make students more competitive in the global job market by emphasizing problem-solving [and] overly rote learning. . . . In a 2012 survey, 66% of US teachers said that other subjects, including the arts, were being ‘crowded out’ with extra attention being paid to Math and English.” Our study sought to understand the motivations of teachers to use a museum as part of their curriculum, and more specifically, their motivations to use a museum in a Common Core learning environment.

According to our study conducted at the Wellin Museum, 95% of respondents reported finding value in using a museum as part of their curriculum. However, the research also showed that 41% of respondents had never done so. The study, which began as an investigation of motivations, became instead a study of the barriers that prevent teachers from engaging in a museum-school partnership. As my research progressed, three barrier “themes” became apparent. These themes shed light on the discrepancy between those educators finding value in the museum-school collaboration and those actually participating in such an arrangement.

Barrier 1: TIME

The theme of Time refers to time away from the classroom to take a field trip, including travel time, and interruption of testing schedules.

“I couldn’t just bring my first period class of twenty-five because that day the tour lasted an hour and a half, so then they would have to get back to their class and everyone else would have missed it.”

— Teacher

Barrier 2: COST

The theme of Cost refers to the cost of bussing for a field trip, substitute teachers to cover classes while the teacher is away on a field trip, and museum admission and programming.

“My district is very strict about field trips, whether it’s a budget issue or who knows. . .“

— Teacher


The theme of Defensibility refers to the need for the teacher to defend their choice to partner in a museum-school collaboration to their supervising administrator. Issues like curricular tie-in and administrator buy-in factor heavily here.

“We have very few field trips that we can take during the school year and if we say, ‘I’d like to take a field trip,’ you have to justify why you’re taking it, [and] does it fit into your curriculum…”

— Teacher

When considering the issues of Time, Cost, or Defensibility, one must look at the goals of a museum-school partnership through the eyes of a teacher or administrator. If the American school system judges student success (and therefore, the success of the teacher, or school district) by a test score, then all activities tied to curriculum must reinforce students’ ability to perform well on tests. While not every district interviewed for this research placed sole emphasis on test scores, it is ever a consideration. Curricular tie-in and reasonable costs (or those able to be planned for well in advance) increase the possibilities for successful museum-school relationships. This idea carries over to teacher professional development offerings as well. It was reported that the issues of Time and Cost are less important than the scaffolding provided by museum programming, as it relates to what students are learning in the classroom, and how educators present that material.

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The paramount importance of curricular tie-in is good news for museum educators because we absolutely DO offer what teachers and administrators are looking for. Museums have the “primary documents” teachers are being asked to use to illustrate concepts in the classroom, covering every wall and on view in every vitrine. Of course, not every museum’s permanent collection and exhibitions relate to every type of Common Core module, but we all have something from which we can make viable connections.

It should be noted that the burden of responsibility is on the part of the museum to create and communicate their Common-Core-friendly offerings requiring that museum educators become fluent in the language used in the modules of the Common Core. It was suggested by both teachers and administrators that a “Menu of Offerings” that tie into classroom topics would be a valuable tool. This would also relieve the burden on teachers to create a museum-school collaboration and would make the barriers of Time and Defensibility less prohibitory issues.

“Start to identify ‘Here’s what we have. Here’s what we can offer you. Here’s a target group for this, this month or these next few weeks . . . . Here’s what our learning goal is for our students that we’re trying to achieve.’ It’s almost where I think people read and say, ‘This is for me.’”

— Administrator

The importance of Common Core tie-in is exemplified by the four peer institutions that were interviewed as part of the study. There were mixed reports of the impact from the implementation of the Common Core on their respective museum-school collaboration’s success. This is likely due to the method of delivery of their message. It seemed that the institutions with the most success in creating and maintaining museum-school collaborations developed ways of showing the tie-ins to the curriculum, in the “language” of the Common Core. This includes Venn diagrams outlining museum offerings and how they overlap with curricular goals, and letters written to teachers in a specific discipline detailing offerings that applied directly to material taught in the classroom. For some peer institutions, the Common Core felt like an improvement due to the effortless pairing of the amenities of museum programming and the new tenets set forth in the Common Core.

“[The Common Core] made it so easy for us to connect what we were doing to schools. I feel like for museums, Common Core is the best thing that ever happened because it’s all about practical application and thinking and listening skill sets.”

— Museum Educator

The results were overwhelmingly clear that I, along with other museum educators across the country, need to refocus the way we present our offerings in a way that speaks directly to the needs of public school educators. While we can’t always control Time or Cost, speaking the language of public school teachers and administrators could solve the barrier of Defensibility, and that can make all the difference.

To read the final report I produced that details the full findings of the study, along with information about pilot programs based on the research please visit,

Amber Geary is the Museum Educator and Docent Program Supervisor at the Wellin Museum. Joining the museum in 2013, Amber created and presently supervises the K–12 and community education program, as well as the Hamilton College student docent program at the museum. Geary recently concluded a two-year qualitative research project funded by the Andrew. W. Mellon Foundation that focused on the relationship between public school educators and museum education programs. With a background in both marketing and art education, Amber believes that art benefits the study of every subject, at every level of learning. Geary holds a B.F.A. in Visual Communications from Cazenovia College and an M.S. in Art Education (K–12) from Syracuse University.

Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College
198 College Hill Road Clinton, NY 13323

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  1. Interesting and helpful study. It seems like the increasing use of “pop up” exhibits that are portable address the pressures of cost and thus permissions needed for schools. Virtual exhibits coupled with such also allows for a longer term integration into curricula over a number of subjects that could then widen the experience and take it from K>gray going from preschools thru senior citizen programs and drive more opportunities for different types of visits to the museum. It could promote a program such as “take a grandchild” to an exhibit for fun and as part of a larger educational experience.

  2. Thanks for posting this work. I’m glad to see a systematic wide-range study being done and that these findings are being reported to the field in such a clear ways. The results seem familiar to the same ones I got with small focus groups of teachers in 1995: time, cost, and fitting with teachers particular needs so that they can justify an experience with the museum. These forces drive most audience participation in one way or another. How to respond to them is where museum staff can get creative and demonstrate the value in spite of these challenges.

  3. With a small museum with no staff any approach to the common core curriculum is an enormous undertaking. Our museum focuses on about two centuries of history of a chicago neighborhood. Where to begin in the common core curriculum? We have brought students in to see exhibits and given talks about architecture , the lakefront and g CB community activism. How are we to interface with the common core curriculum which is detailed for so many age levels? This may be beyond the ability of an all volunteer group. Should we focus on just one level like fourth or fifth grade. In chicago history of communities is taught to third graders. How do we get the common core guidelines for third grade history? Our exhibits are primarily photography so where do we find the common core guidelines for looking at historic photographs.? Please send me any references that will explain these common core curriculum guidelines. Thanks.

  4. There seems to be no end to the obstacles school systems will throw in front of museum interactions. When I was director of a very small museum in upstate NY we received funding from the County’s Youth Development and Delinquency Prevention program to make all our services to resident children free of charge. This worked pretty well to encourage participation, as there were few other offerings anywhere in the region, and we were very fortunate that County officials were so broadminded about the benefits of varied youth services. I was fairly adamant with teachers and group leaders that what we would deliver was without question a learning experience. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the interest schools have in general knowledge and the insights gained from interactions with primary sources has declined drastically.

  5. This is so interesting, thank you for your research and for sharing! My concern with creating curriculum tied to common core standards is that art museums often get left out of the conversation. I understand the need to know and speak the language, but the standards are problematic and limiting. I was asked time and time again to “create curriculum that taught math or science” and that just didn’t make sense for an art museum. And when I tried to make connections for those teachers – for example, “a visit to the art museum can help students practice close looking and build capacities for observation, a skill that supports your science standards” they didn’t bite. I also found that creating topics tied to a certain standard gave teachers unrealistic expectations about our programs. There was an expectation that we would give an overview of an entire period of time (ex – the greek civilization example in your research paper) which is unrealistic given most museum visits are once a year and an hour long. I hope it gets easier for teachers to justify art museum field trips to their administrations! They are magical places for learning and it is so important for students to experience that.

    I do love the idea of getting to know the teachers who use your museums and appreciate the time and effort you put into this research paper. Museums far too often create programming they think is reaching teachers but that isn’t always the case and often makes those barriers harder to break.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

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