Head of Education and Intercultural Action Department, Moesgaard Museum, Højberg Denmark
August 12, 2020
Keywords: Museum definition; Museum education; Cultural interaction; Freelance; Mediator.
Cultural interaction and education programmes have never been so present in museums as now. Today, museums offer a rich variety of tailored tours and special events, thereby fulfilling the museum’s crucial mission to reach out to its audience and educate.
Can museum education be a response to the crisis?
The recent lockdown of museums due to the current global health crisis has revealed the efficiency of cultural mediators and educators all over the world, who, within a few days after museum closures, implemented digital programmes, including online tours, behind-the-scenes visits, online riddles, learning supplements and experiments. Many of these activities can be found online by searching for the hashtag #MuseumFromHome, #MuseumsAndChill or #ClosedButActive.
Museum educators choose and develop adequate formats and methods to convey content digitally. They curate participatory projects, engaging with the public, and placing a strong emphasis on programmes. This requires continuous reflection on theory and practice (ICOM CECA Austria and Österreichischer Verband der KulturvermittlerInnen 2017). The public mission of a museum is often fulfilled through educational and interactive programmes tailored to the target groups. But while museum educators contribute fundamentally to the mission and objectives of cultural institutions and their programmes, their work often goes unrecognised and their performance and competences are taken for granted.
A museum definition without education?
At the ICOM General Conference in 2019 in Kyoto, a proposal for a new museum definition was debated. The words ‘cultural interaction’ and ‘education’ were notably absent.
When we consider that museum educators were among the first professionals in museums to identify the need to open up to a broader target group by listening to their communities in order to stay relevant to society, the exclusion of the term ‘education’ in the proposal of the new definition is a disparaging development.
Numerous debates at the Kyoto Conference showed that the term ‘education’ was, in some translations, viewed as an old-fashioned method of interacting with the audience (Van Veldhuisen 2018, p. 29). Since 2016, the ICOM Committee for Education and Cultural Action (CECA) has been collecting the current terms that describe the work of museum educators: education; mediation; moderation; facilitation; museum pedagogy; audience or cultural service; cultural activity, interaction, programmes, or learning. The descriptions and meanings of these terms vary from country to country.
‘Education’ was interpreted in the Kyoto discussion as representing the omniscient museum that explains the wonders of the world and arts from a high ivory tower to a passive audience. This is far from reality. Cultural mediators initiate inclusive learning and communication processes with each school group or community project and develop different spaces of experience. They inform, moderate, and encourage social and cultural debates within museums or cultural institutions and across society, examining the social relevance of the field.
If the term ‘education’ is too restricting for a new definition, it could be extended with the term ‘cultural (inter)action’ – as is the case with the name ICOM CECA (Committee for Education and Cultural Action). According to the current proposal for a new definition, a museum’s function is to ‘interpret’ or ‘enhance the understanding of the world’ – these descriptions cannot replace the significance of ‘education’ or ‘learning’. Education, cultural interaction, and learning are key functions of a modern museum.
Excluding the cultural education and mediation professions from the proposal of the new museum definition is also detrimental to the situation of many of these professionals, who already work under conditions that are less favourable than those of other museum professions; for instance, many cultural mediators who are in direct interaction with the audience have precarious freelance contracts. They are paid for guided tours on an individual basis, with no fallback in the case of cancellations. Many are highly educated with years of work experience in the field but accept precarious contracts due to their commitment to education and the audiences they serve. Students looking for practical experience in the museum field are also employed as mediators and combine this demanding work with their studies.
In short, education professionals suffer most from the consequences of the cultural sector’s economic challenges (Artforum 2020). The current global health crisis has brought this issue to the fore and raised major concerns in the field, for example, with an open letter to support museum educators, signed by more than 1,500 colleagues worldwide (Mörsch and Graham 2020).
Before the global health crisis, ICOM CECA established the Special Interest Group ‘Professional Development of Museum Educators’ (ICOM CECA International 2020). Its aim is to provide a platform for museum education experts to exchange knowledge and ideas on further education for museum professionals, with a view to improving the professional situation of cultural mediators in museums.
Museum educators deserve stable contracts and fair payment, as well as acknowledgement of their work and profession inside and outside of the institution. The CECA community is an important network to help realise these goals for museum educators.
References and resources
Opinions expressed in the article do not commit ICOM in any way and are the responsibility of its author.
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