It’s September! And while I have no idea how many museums will be welcoming students into their physical spaces as we enter the second fall season of the Covid-19 pandemic, the earlier sunsets and PSL frenzy still means that museum educators are ramping up for the school season. Even if students aren’t getting the thrill of the bus ride and hoping you get to be in the same tour group as your friend, educators are still racking their brains and flexing their skills to supplement classroom learning for another 10 month cycle.
There is no shortage of books, studies, and articles about the value of museum learning. But what happens at the ground floor of making field trips happen? How can museums support the education department and the Herculean feat of serving hundreds of students a week? How can field trips be an opportunity to make your museum more welcoming and inclusive not only for the students and staff, but also to those who are doing it in the trenches? How do you make sure that field trip numbers aren’t just statistics for your annual report? We do a lot of work in the field of Museum Education to ensure that we are proving our relevance and impact to outsiders – donors, granting organizations, policy makers, etc. – but how do we ensure that we have the understanding and respect of our internal colleagues?
For those of us who grew up to be museum nerds, the museum field trip is an important rite of passage. I remember my 4th grade trip to my local museum (although as you can read in my About Me, a docent totally effed that up and I was like damn, someone needs to train y’all better, and here we are) and my favorite thing when I was teaching field trips was noticing the students who were super engaged and likely to remember it for years to come. For those of you who aren’t nerds, a field trip should still be a good time. Again, not going to rehash how museum field trips work and what makes them important and successful, but our goal as museum educators is to balance grade level curriculum, familiarizing students with looking and learning from objects, and just making a fun day that will signify to kids that museums are cool. There’s something so delightful about the formula of loading kids in, breaking them up into groups, going over the rules, and then hoping for the best!
Museum Education departments do many things: they might manage studio classes; lecture programs and speaker series; family and teen programs; work on interpretation with the Curatorial and Collections departments; and more. But the bread and butter of Museum Education tends to be serving schools.
Because field trips, out of necessity, seem to run like a well-oiled machine, it can look from the outside like they take care of themselves. And because they tend to be measured in numbers that look good on Annual Reports and to funders, the depth of what they are can be lost on the other people who work in the museum. I used to be fond of saying that some of the administration thought of the 12,000+ students my Education department served from September-June as cardboard cut-outs of children. Very much like the cardboard people that they were using to represent the crowds of fans during sporting events taking place during Covid. They represented a big number, they know they’re important to be there, but there’s no need for them to be living, breathing people with personalities.The cardboard cut out theory is spot on for me because I do not believe that non-educators feel that field trips are obnoxious or disruptive; rather, it’s just been painfully obvious to me that a lot of folks just absolutely do not get how much work it is to spend your week with 500 students.
This is the same story for all educators, right? Unless you’ve experienced being in a classroom for a few full school days, you just can’t really fathom the lack of personal space, the feeling of constantly being “on,” the number of conversations you need to carry on simultaneously, the trickiness of transitioning from one lesson or space to the next, the planning your lunch food for maximum wolf-it-down-fast-ness. But I think one thing about museum educators, unlike teachers or nurses or other professions with the same conditions, is that there are so many other people who are technically your colleagues but have no frame of reference for what a typical day looks like. There’s a difference between not getting a lunch break because you feel like you have too much work to do and physically not getting to pee until 2 p.m. because that’s when all the gallery educators, studio educators, volunteers, chaperones, teachers and students are finally off the premises.
No shade, but tbh, you come here for shade. I don’t mean this to enforce the pitting of different museum departments against each other, but to attempt to bridge the gaps between silos. The reason that it can be so demoralizing for educators when their colleagues adopt this cardboard cut-out view of a field trip is because those field trip numbers are typically what is used to drive fundraising and the goodwill of the community. Remember when we talked about how Museums Have Expensive Habits and how staff are often not welcome to attend those fancy parties? The departments that throw those parties will close the museum down for a day, shake up everyone’s schedule for weeks, and ask for “all hands on deck” to throw an event that serves 150 people. Meanwhile, educators shuffle 100 kids in and out of the museum on the daily and can barely get the Curatorial department to make sure a specific painting stays on view to teach their lesson that week or get them to share an object checklist with enough time to create new lesson plans for a special exhibition. It’s tough! And listen, I’ve done both, and coordinating with vendors, managing registration, and managing 25 peoples’ opinions about what an event should be is also a shit ton of work. Bitterness aside, my point is that it’s NOT a competition, but in museums that don’t have good relationships between departments, it can feel like it is. So, what can museums do to holistically support field trips and recognize that educators are serving hundreds of living, breathing humans each week during the school year?
The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY is apparently my favorite museum right now because I can’t stop talking about all the cool things they do. As you move through the first floor of the museum, you come across their clearly designated field trip entrance. This wall that exclaims “Hello!” is one of my favorite things, as a museum educator, that I’ve ever seen. Rather than the first thing your students are seeing being a dim auditorium or other sort of holding room, they see a greeting. I love it. Plus they have a nicely designated lobby area that features student artwork and hooks for coats or bags. This is a great start to the trip and it makes it clear that the building is designed to serve field trips, rather than cramming kids into a shared space that might be poorly adapted to meet the purpose.
Learn something about your education colleagues’ pedagogy so that you don’t only speak about your museum’s school tour program in terms of numbers. The tensions between educators and curators are as well-known as the rivalry between Lucille and Lucille 2. Because educators typically work with children (again, this happens with teachers and educators across fields) there is a perception that they aren’t as educated themselves as curators or museum directors when in fact most museum educators do hold advanced degrees and many are also subject-area experts as well as being experts on their audience. Recognition of the scholarly nature of museum educators’ work can go a long way towards making those working with school groups feel valued and respected.
How does your museum share out the goings-on in the education department? Another thing that happens to create a discrepancy between fundraising events and education goings-on is that since field trips are a daily occurrence, they tend to be talked about less often, and as already stated, tend to be talked about in terms of sheer numbers. One strategy that I’ve used and found super effective was to highlight one or two adorable, hilarious or profound thing that happened during a field trip per week and share it out to the full staff in a Friday afternoon email. It’s a morale booster for the education department but also your colleagues to remember why we all do what we do, but it’s also a sneaky way to familiarize those who don’t work with students with what it’s actually like. It’s a super low-effort way to keep the rest of the museum connected.
Another route is to set up tour shadowing for people in other departments. Everything that happens in a museum is interconnected, so it’s important for everyone to see how the collection is used on a school tour. Curators often don’t realize how exhibits or objects are talked about by educators and seeing it first hand can improve communication and inspire the curator to think differently. Collection staff can see how their work impacts daily programming. Fundraising positions get to see first hand how funds make an impact. Marketing staff can find an angle to tell new stories about what goes on in the museum. The list is endless – shadowing has benefits for everyone. Plus, other staff might have feedback for the education department about things that could be done differently. Part of this trust-building exercise is that you can also take some feedback from your colleagues. I know that part is hard but y’all, work with me. Shadowing can be trickier to schedule, so be sure to set it up as an expectation in an all-staff meeting and gain the buy-in from department heads before attempting to go this route. The Friday emails are a great way to crack the door open.
Good luck on those field trips, friends, whether they are virtual (they are probably virtual) or in-person. The same tips apply either way – colleagues can join a Zoom, you can still choose highlights for Friday emails, and while you might not be concerning yourself with a physical space, allocate resources to special Zoom backgrounds, etc., to create special experiences for for schools. What has worked at your institution to get buy-in on field trips from your colleagues? What else is important that they understand? What are you excited for during this upcoming school year?