Museums Are in The Business of Preserving Magic

09/03/2009  |  FORD W. BELL

Most of us likely recall a school field trip during which the light went on. For some of us it may have come as our introduction to museums. For others, a particular exhibit or specimen may have ignited dormant passions, leading to a lifelong pursuit. Eminent scholars such as the late Joseph Campbell — the man who brought the power of myth home to America through his PBS specials with Bill Moyers — were inspired by visits to museums, in Campbell’s case the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

For generations, students at all levels of education have benefited from school field trips to museums. But that time honored aspect of the well-rounded education is threatened these days. Although some might see field trips as an optional luxury for our school children, for many students such experiential learning contains the key to real knowledge and understanding.

The factors threatening field trips today include school budget cuts, which have forced administrators to curtail transportation expenses. Another element — somewhat alleviated in the last few months — is energy costs. When the price per gallon spiked, districts were forced to concentrate on getting students back and forth to school, with some districts across the country eliminating bus routes.

But the primary threat to the traditional school field trip is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the public education reform law passed in 2001. The mandates of NCLB base school funding (and, in some cases, teacher and administrator longevity) on the results of standardized tests. Some feel this has instilled a level of accountability into the classroom heretofore unseen. Others feel it has taken the imagination out of classroom instruction, with many teachers “teaching to the test.” And when a teacher’s livelihood is based in part on student test performance, rest assured the prospect of losing classroom time to journey to the local museum will lose its allure.

But much is lost when field trips are cancelled. Research has shown that informal learning is important for human development. The work of Urie Bronfenbrenner, the designer of Head Start, demonstrated that “out-of-school programs provided by museums, Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs, and other community groups not only had academic impacts, but can also reduce crime, drug use and other criminal activity.” Likewise, a study funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education demonstrated that visits to zoos and aquariums by youths and adults can change public attitudes toward environmental preservation and animal conservation.  

There is also a more spiritual side to the issue. Museums of all types and sizes have reported anecdotally that their patrons tell of the “museum moment” in their lives, when the light bulb went off or real understanding was achieved.

As the keepers of our historic, natural and cultural heritages, museums feel every American should have the opportunity for such “ah-ha” moments. From a less altruistic point of view, there is also among museum professionals a firm, if unsubstantiated, belief that engaging a young visitor is a sure way to gain a museum patron for life.

The mission of museums is education, and museums are a critical part of the nation’s educational infrastructure. Thus institutions across the country have responded to the threats to field trips in creative ways. Dr. William Chiego, director of the McNay Museum of Art in San Antonio, has made it a practice to meet with school superintendents from the surrounding region each summer, acquainting them with the exhibits and programs his museum has on offer for the upcoming school year. Once these education leaders see the collections first-hand, the value of ensuring that students get the same opportunity becomes apparent.

Along the same lines, one of the casualties of NCLB — with its emphasis on math and reading — has been art instruction. This prompted four museums in Dallas-Ft. Worth (the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Museum, the Kimball Art Museum and the Ft. Worth Museum of Contemporary Art) to collaborate on a systematic approach to “teaching the teachers” to keep art in the classroom. In this series of seminars, teachers of all disciplines learn how to effectively integrate art into their curriculum. (The Denver Art Museum has implemented a similar program.) A number of museums have brought the museum to the students, orchestrating classroom visits by curators and scientists, sometimes even bringing live specimens. The Field Museum in Chicago integrated the math and reading benchmarks of NCLB in all its natural history exhibits, demonstrating that a visit to the famous facility works for students and teachers, on many levels.

And perhaps no institution has gone as far as the Miami Museum of Art, which took the bold step of purchasing its own fleet of buses, thereby ensuring that the museum can continue to serve the city’s schoolchildren, particularly those from traditionally underserved communities.

Clearly, there are myriad ways that field trips to museums benefit young students. In a less practical, but no less essential way, school field trips also serve that spiritual purpose. A recent study commissioned by the American Association of Museums’ think tank, the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), revealed something that, to most of us, might seem counterintuitive: young people today crave authenticity.

Contained within the CFM study, Museums and Society 2034, this nugget was evident despite the fact that younger Americans seem to be addicted to all things virtual: the Web, video games, etc. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), young Americans thirst for that which is real. And that is what museums offer.

All of us, but particularly young Americans, would rather see the real Mt. Vernon, not take a virtual tour online, or view a genuine Rembrandt, worked by the artist’s hand, than to see a pixilated version. And wouldn’t most of us rather walk the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, rather than play a video game of this momentous conflagration?

The genuineness of place or structure or artifact is what gives these things the power to amaze and even transform the visitor. They carry within them the spirit of the original inhabitant or artist or event. This is something intangible but still very palpable, and deeply, undeniably authentic. Virtualize such things and their spirit is gone, their magic along with it.

That is the business museums are in: preserving the magic. Or, put another way, museums are in the energy conservation business. We seek to save and sustain the immense power of these sites and artworks and objects. Philippe de Montebello, the recently retired director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, defined museums as “the repository of civilization.” Thus it is essential to make civilization available to all Americans, particular the young, thereby ensuring that civilization will continue to evolve and thrive and prosper.

Ford W. Bell is President, American Association
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