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Museums: An Alternative Model

Norman Henchey says that libraries are one example of a public educational resource that is non-compulsory and, consequently, not a financial priority.1 Museums are another. Like libraries, they don't compel people to use their services, don't require anything (except in some cases a small fee) for admission, don't tell you that you have to view one exhibit before another or spend a certain amount of time in the building, and don't test you on what you learned while visiting or give you any kind of certificate when you leave. Unlike libraries, but like colleges and universities, museums combine the research and activity of the behind-the-scenes staff with the teaching function of the exhibits.

For years, I thought that a museum was only what it showed to the public. Then when I worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City during the summers I was 14 and 15, I discovered that in addition to the public exhibits the museum, behind the closed doors of its offices and laboratories, was a world of scientific activity. It was not just a place to exhibit science, it was a place where many people were doing science.

In many ways, this is also a description of a university. University professors traditionally combine their own research and writing with passing on to their students what they have learned. But schools test, grade, and grant degrees, thus putting the students - the university's visitors - into a kind of relationship with the institution that people in a museum never have to enter into. A woman on the staff of the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, which exhibits literary archives, told me that when visitors use the museum's collection for their own research, they sometimes point out errors, make suggestions, pass on new information. This kind of exchange, though possible in a university, is rarer. Knowledge in schools typically flows in only one direction: from teacher to student.

Museums, then, are like schools in some ways, but the ways in which they are different give them the potential to be important models for us as we think about how people can find work worth doing and colleagues to join them in that work.

The summer I was 18 I was lucky enough to be part of an experiment in forming just such a model. I was a tour guide at the Museum of Philosophy in New York, which, during its brief season of operation, tried to demonstrate philosophical concepts and encourage philosophical thinking through appealing exhibits and interactive experiments. Crowds of children passed through our tiny space that summer, laughing at our optical illusions, clamoring for a chance to recreate the wax-melting experiment that led the philosopher Rene Descartes to conclude, "I think, therefore I am," and settling back into puzzled reflection at one of the guides' thought-provoking questions.

The founders of the museum didn't set up the exhibits only to attract interested visitors. They also hoped that by opening the museum they would be creating a place where people who wanted to discuss philosophy - to gather with others, to question and argue, to read and then talk about what they had read - would be able to meet outside a university, where philosophy traditionally belonged. For a while, this is just what happened. We gathered in the small office - some of us as young as 14 and some as old as 65 - to talk about philosophy, sometimes continuing the conversations over dinner or while keeping an eye on the young visitors the next day. Often, what we told the visitors during the tours was a reflection of the discussions we were having behind the scenes. We would say about a particular exhibit, "I would interpret it this way, but just yesterday my colleague over here was saying..." Our visitors got the sense that philosophy was an activity - ongoing, fluid, and exciting.

The museum closed at the end of that summer when the college that had given it space for those months claimed to be unable to do so any longer. It seems strange, perhaps, that the college wouldn't want to make room for an organization that celebrated something that they, in theory, also valued. But the college had - or strived to have - what Norman Henchey calls a monopoly on learning, and the existence of a museum of philosophy, whose founding purpose was to make philosophy available to everyone, threatened that monopoly. More important, the college was able to force the museum to leave. If we put all our resources into schools, it seems, we also put all our thinking there, so that it becomes hard - both in practicality and in our imaginations - to have anything else.

Recently I became curious about whether other museums struggle for autonomy the way the Museum of Philosophy had to. I spoke with Donna Richoux's husband Frank Ross at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Mass., who told me that because the Cambridge Public Schools fund many of the museum's exhibits, their science curriculum is actually starting to determine much of the exhibits' content. The museum is forced to teach what the schools think is important more often than what the museum scientists genuinely want to share with the public.

Scott Lloyd at the Museum of Holography (three-dimensional photography) in New York City said something similar. He explained that years ago the museum was very much a center of research, was in fact the only place where people were working to develop holographic technology. Now, because the museum must concentrate on developing its exhibitions to get funding - which often comes from the schools - less energy has been available for the behind-the-scenes activity.

It's frustrating - and very significant - that these small museums find themselves having to make so many concessions to the schools. Scott Lloyd told me that when holography was first invented in 1947, no one knew about it except the people in laboratories who were developing it. "The museum has become a way of spreading information about holography," he said. "We have no secrets."

No secrets! If only schools could have this attitude, or support it in museums. A friend of mine, now in graduate school, says that people in her department are careful to keep from each other the ideas they are developing. "You don't talk about what you're thinking with people in your own department," she tells me. "You never know what they might do with it." And I remember suggesting to a professor who visited the Museum of Philosophy that by making philosophy seem exciting and accessible, we might be sending a more interested group of students to his college classes one day. "Yes," he said, "But I don't like all this talk about philosophy being something you can do anywhere. It kind of reduces the quality of it. People are forgetting that philosophy is meant to be an academic discipline."

And schools are forgetting that before they were universally compulsory, philosophy, and all the activities schools now claim as their own, were more likely to be "done anywhere." Availability, accessibility, secretiveness - these seem to me to be the real issues confronting both museums and schools. If we decide that we don't want secrets, let's begin to put our energy, intelligence and financial resources into educational models that are as genuinely public as museums are designed to be.

1 Sheffer, Susannah. "Rethinking Compulsory Schooling", an interview with Norman Henchey. Growing Without Schooling, issue 59, page 29.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Growing Without Schooling, issue 59, page 30.