I’ve run some pretty spectacular birthday parties in my time, but Indiana Jones and the Museum of Mystery was my opus. I turned the National Museum of Natural History into a giant scavenger hunt for my boy and his mini-Indy-hatted bunch, completed with a weathered-bag hung from a totem pole in the foyer containing a 10-pound anatomically correct Belgian chocolate skull.
It was an amazing experience.
And in all the time I’ve gone to museums or to the zoo, that’s the way I’ve always come out, thinking about the “experience.” Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Museums are places to spectacle at our past, and our culture, and who we are as humans in this seemingly infinite multiverse of space, time, and emotion (which I would argue is a universe unto itself).
Indeed, I never saw a thing inherently wrong with all the times that I took my boys on the school trips to the Smithsonian. Be it preschool trips to Natural History (indeed, that’s what inspired the party) to the annual elementary trips to the National Zoo, I found them a lovely way to take advantage of our proximity to the Nation’s Capital and give the kids a chance to get out of the classroom for a while. On the bus ride back to school, I would always throw out some of the interesting facts we learned with the kids in my group. I’ll admit there was a little of the CoachN in me, as I just can’t help trying to make pretty much anything into a learning experience. Just ask my kids after we go to the movies: I’m insufferable…
A couple of weeks ago, my wife Kirsten and I did something that radically altered my perception of the museum “experience” and its place in our children’s lives. We are contributors to the Smithsonian and often get (and dismiss) invitations to special events. Busy people, busy lives and all. But before summarily tossing another invite into recycling, Kir noticed that this invitation was to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A special dinner event after normal museum hours.
My wife passes by the new museum every weekday on her way to the office, and even as early as 7am she has seen lines crawling around this gorgeous addition to the Mall as people seek the very limited number of same-day tickets. The waiting list for advanced tickets now stretches into the summer.
And so we leaped at this opportunity. Ole’ CoachN managed to dust-off and fit into a suit, and we headed for an evening on the town. After a lovely meal of African American-inspired dished prepared by celeb chef Carla Hall, we snuck away from the speaker as we wanted to maximize our time touring. As we headed down the elevator, Kir and I were chatting with the operator. “You’re really in for something.” He said, his voice almost bursting with pride. “Just remember that you’ve only got a couple of hours. It’ll be easy to get lost and never make it out of the first couple of rooms if you’re not careful.”
“You mean we can’t get it all in tonight?” I said half-jokingly.
“No,” he deadpanned.
He could not have been more spot on.
The very design of the museum helps to tell the story. Starting down below, we begin in narrow, dark corridors speaking to the origin of the slave trade. I was spellbound by a particularly dark enclave with remnants of an actual slave ship, interspersed with both art and writing of the time of the misery and depravity of the trade both from the perceptions of the slavers and the enslaved.
The upward arcing story moves through emancipation and civil rights up until this very day, the swathes of artifacts, hand-written letters, films, music, and dynamic interactive features (the “lunch counter” computerized feature was particularly fascinating—a “choose your own ending” on topics such as bus boycotts and the Black Power movement that compared your answers with others attending) so rich that each small corner felt like its own separate lesson.
And that’s when it hit me. Instead of thinking about a museum as experiential, what if we instead thought of it primarily as an educational device? Yes, I do recognize that the two are wrapped up together, but from my time in museums and zoos, while the students might come away learning something, we think about how it was as a whole. The learning is secondary. Indeed in our rush to “cram it all in,” I believe we deprive younger students of true immersive learning.
Right now, the Arlington County Public School system is engaged in thinking about “re-imagining the classroom.” Trying to think out-of-the-box about what education should look like. My time in the African American History museum tore through that box and even the brick-and-mortar of the school itself. Even more, it belied the growing obsession with “personalized learning” – a good concept based in the fact that students have different needs, but a danger in looking toward an increased reliance on technology in the classroom as its primary solution.
While I am in no way against iPads and laptops, I believe that technology further removes the student from the tangibly real. That simply compounds the initial problem that a classroom is in itself a prism that instructs on reality of the world around us, but it is walled off from it as well. Technology enables a more organized, diverse, personalized, and deeper box, but it’s still a box inside a box.
Museums are by their nature interactive. At the very least, they require people to move from piece-to-piece, rather than having the pieces paraded before them in pages or on a screen. They are three dimensional. They are tangible. They are real. So instead of simply having a “day the museum” what if schools actually integrated topical segments into their established curriculum? So, for instance, instead of trying to work through the entire Museum of African American History, the students spend time only on slavery. All the students could go through a specific tour, or students could be broken up into groups and come back and report to the rest of the class on what they learned. Then perhaps lunch and an hour to tour the rest of the facility as they’d like. In-depth education with a little experiential on the side—essentially flipping the usual usage model on its head.
In this increasingly screen-centered world, we need to keep making tangible connections so that our kids might not only learn about our world, but to be reminded that our world truly exists. Those connections are increasingly crucial as our online universe stovepipes information to an extent that facts and truth become disturbingly relative.
So what, Scott, are we going to bus kids to the museum every day? That sounds ridiculously expensive, unrealistic, and only beneficial to children close to them. What kind of pie-in-the-sky, lefty liberal solution is that?
Well, I have an answer for all of that, but involves something that has long been a struggle for the education system in America—integrated learning.
Next on this thread, a modest proposal.