Caution: Laying Off Museum Educators May Burn Bridges to the Communities Museums Serve

I started this blog about a month ago in frustration about the layoffs of museum educators (and other front-of-house staff although I am going to speak specifically about my experiences with museum educators).  I wrote it in a fury one night, and each day since my anger and sadness have grown as I have witnessed more layoffs of talented museum workers who are critical to the museums’ missions and social and emotional learning (SEL) so important in this world.

Museum educators are essential to museums and make the institution what it is in a community.  Trained as an educator, I certainly have a bias towards the value of museum educators.  But, my evaluation experience reinforces my perception of the importance of museum educators.  Museum educators are often a museum’s lifeline to the community, and particularly within the K-12 community as evidenced here:

Support of K-12 Teachers: I have been interviewing some preschool teachers about museum programs for the Zimmerli Museum of Art at Rutgers University. They often mention to me their museum educator contact by name and praise them for how helpful they have been.  This echoes past evaluations I have done with teachers who participate in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Sherlock program and the National Gallery of Art’s Teacher Institute.  The teachers highly value the respect and support they receive from museum educators.  The work of K-12 educators is hard and can go unnoticed.  But of all the museum educators I know, they consider K-12 educators essential to the well-being of our students and communities.  As such, museum educators’ frame their work as bolstering the self-regard and confidence of K-12 educators.

Support of K-12 Students: I have had a long-term relationship with the Philadelphia Museum of Art as an evaluator for a multi-visit program with students in 5th and 6th grade. In this multi-visit program, I have seen the progressive eagerness of students to participate in conversations with museum educators over several months. I also see the eagerness with which students seek out individual conversations with the museum educators as they move between artworks.  Sometimes the students point out something they see to the museum educator, but other times the conversation is completely un-museum related—they just seem to seek adult engagement and interest.  These individual museum educators are important to them.  This was underscored to me when I administered assessments to students in the program.  Students, knowing they were doing something related to the museum program, immediately asked me where are their museum educators (Adam, Ah-Young, Alicia, Barbara, Lindsey, Sarah, Suzannah)? They were notably disappointed to see me instead of their friends at the museum.

The kinds of relationships I have observed as an evaluator clearly demonstrates to me that museum educators are essential to a museum’s missions.  Museum educators are often the name and face of the museum to the community.  If these names and faces go away, I worry museum will have burned bridges into their communities.

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6 Responses
  1. As a former museums (s) Director- I disagree. While educators are important- they are not critical to a museum’s functioning. Museums can accomplish quite a bit with a informed curatorial lens, didactics and public programs. Helpful? yes critical – no – especially in a down and restricted environment.

    1. To quote Stephen Weil, for a long while museums have been transforming from “being about something to being for somebody.” Without educators and their invaluable touch-points in communities, a museum cannot fulfill what I consider its most necessary work—public education and engagement. The importance of education is supported by AAM in publications like Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, dating back to the 1990s. To this day education is a key role in most museums’ mission statements. And, museum education departments are where many access and inclusion efforts live. So at the museum definition-level, the argument that educators are not critical does not hold water for me.

      I also wonder whether you may be taking issue with my statement on educators because the examples I referenced are specific to museum educators with relationships to schools, teachers, and students. I stand by my claim in this narrow definition of educator and more broadly. First, without the educators that work with students and teachers, a museum may be fiscally sustainable, but it will not be relevant to the community in which the museum resides because educators are the names and the faces of the museum (sometimes the only ones a public knows), per the examples in the blog. While engaging teachers and students is just one aspect of public engagement, they are still a common way in which museums make their case to elected local officials that a museum is necessary to its community. Second, looking beyond educators that work with students and teachers, I would also make the case for them. You indicate the importance of public programs, which is squarely within the realm of museum education; and didactics, or what I more broadly call interpretation, is often housed within education departments or at least working closely with them. So defining educators in either a narrow or broad sense, I still find these cuts as having the potential to burn bridges to the community because the educators are the connectors to the public in so many ways. I know tough decisions need to be made in the current economy. But if you get rid of educators and lose the connections to the public, what is the purpose of the museum?

  2. To William Moreno,
    This is the myopic view of museum professionals that will make museums less relevant to communities and to the future.

    Learning and community should be central to museums and educators are central to that effort. However, maybe you haven’t hired the right educators or established the appropriate resources or strategy.

  3. Michelle

    As a CURRENT museum director, and one who has worked through the transition from educators being a “nice add on’ to today, I will affirm that educators are ESSENTIAL. The public no longer wants some dry curator talking AT them. Rather, they want interactive, experiential visits and educators are the people who provide that.
    Beyond that, in these uncertain times with things opening and closing due to virus infection rates, educators are even MORE critical because it’s the only way for some museums to reach their audiences in any meaningful way. Research has clearly shown that it is rare for people to click on a social media post from a museum that is a photo of an artifact. However, have an educator do a Facebook Live or a TikTok on how that artifact was used in daily life and BINGO instant engagement and lots of clicks.
    I would layoff curators long before educators.

  4. Courtney Riley

    Hi Michelle,
    What museum do you direct? I want to visit as it sounds innovative, relevant and engaging. I’m a teacher, and you understand what we do. Amanda does too. Thanks!

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