Collaboration, Expertise, and Museum Education: Reflections from a COVID-era Furlough

By: Sarah Boyd Alvarez

In early April I returned to work after a three month furlough. While being furloughed was not welcome news in an already challenging year for the field of museum education, this period away from my job as an art museum educator gave me ample time to think deeply and reflectively, something that feels in short supply when carrying out my regular duties and schedule. I was able to take time for calls with colleagues at other museums, attend or observe virtual programs while not also trying to work on emails or other projects, and rest my body and mind so I could be fully present and engaged in whatever I was doing (with my family or in my own personal pursuits).

This pause also yielded new insights about the nature of museum education work, particularly the idea of expertise as it relates to our field. While I am an art museum educator, I believe my insights can apply across the museum education field. We often say our expertise, or core competency, is in teaching methodology and practice, program design, and knowing our audience and content. We are indeed strong in all of these things. I would add that we are also very skilled in collaboration, but sometimes this capacity gets overlooked or even misconstrued. Collaboration is in fact critical to the ways in which we push back against “expertise” as a manifestation of inequitable hierarchies in our museums and in the broader landscape of teaching and learning.

Collaboration is in fact critical to the ways in which we push back against “expertise” as a manifestation of inequitable hierarchies in our museums and in the broader landscape of teaching and learning.

Excellence Through Collaboration

Because we are good at collaborating, our work as museum educators takes us into dialogue with many different people both in and outside of our museums, each with knowledge and skill sets often distinct from our own. These colleagues, partners, and stakeholders in turn each rely on us to be informed and adept in different ways that are defined by the context of our work together and it can seem as if we are constantly repositioning or reframing ourselves to some degree. At times, this may feel disorienting or unfocused. I have certainly felt this way. I wonder, however, how we can better understand and celebrate collaboration as core to our skill set. Might we even see it as our hidden strength?

In my career, the most impactful work has always happened in collaboration. When I started museum programs for medical and nursing students, law enforcement, and corporate professionals in 2005, it was the shared capacities between myself and an educator who had previously worked with the specific audience that produced the most engaging experience for learners (and for us). For instance, I didn’t know much about nursing education or leadership training and was pretty sure it would be largely ineffective if I tried to pretend I did during the programs. So, like with any good co-teaching model, success came from mutual respect between the two of us in planning and facilitating, ultimately lifting up each other as well as the quality of the experience for the learners. Another, later collaborative experience involved a partnership with a historian who was not used to teaching with images but was highly effective in teaching about historical inquiry. Our paired skills in training teachers was transformational for all involved.

A woman and a man are conversing and collaborating in the foreground. The woman's arms are crossed and she is smiling, while the man is gesturing with his left hand in the air and looks to be in thought. Other people are conversing in the background. They all appear to be in a conference room.
Sarah Boyd Alvarez and Duone Brown, visual art teacher at Murray Elementary Language Academy in Chicago Public Schools, participate in an ideation session about using artworks to teach the theme of “Asia in the World”. The collaborative session included K-12 teachers, local scholars, curators, and museum educators.

I have so many more examples like this in my 20-year career and I won’t list them all, but these collaborations are something that only now I come to realize as a truly defining aspect of my work. These experiences have allowed me to see the relevance of object-based and art museum learning in so many contexts I had never previously imagined, although—and most importantly—they have never made me feel as if I was or needed to be an expert in each of those contexts. Instead, the work was so much richer because I partnered with people whose capacities were distinct from yet complementary to mine.

“Expertise” in Equitable Partnerships

Despite these examples of effective collaboration, I continue to see instances in our work as museum educators where we feel pressure to be all to everyone, which can feel like a constant reinvention of our professional selves. Colleagues in our museums or even audiences that seek us out unwittingly assume that when we are designing programs in response to important issues and events, museum educators must inherently become experts in that thing. For example, as calls for racial justice have increased and intensified, museums are embracing their role as spaces for dialogue, interaction, and change. As such, there is urgency among and for museum educators to learn and transform our practice to be one that is fundamentally antiracist. It can feel like we must become experts, and fast.

Rather than see this as a need to reinvent ourselves, however, I would posit that museum educators can always (and already do) seek to learn and grow our skills, perspectives, and understanding in response to the needs of our audience or time, and that we should continue to rely on our skills as collaborators with experienced partners to expand this effort. In fact, I want to make a case for museum educators to be more fully recognized for their skills in collaborating. In response to the world around them, they actively identify and seize opportunities to complement their experience and resources equitably with those of others and to truly create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I want to make a case for museum educators to be more fully recognized for their skills in collaborating.

Collaboration is one of the most unique and treasured qualities of museum education. And, in the case of antiracist pedagogy, it is essential to the ways we can contribute to dismantling the hierarchies and power dynamics associated with “expertise”. For instance, as a white woman of acknowledged privilege, whose formal education and training did not focus on antiracism, I embrace and commit to rigorously learning, reflecting, and transforming my practice, accepting that I will never be an expert since the work of antiracism is an ever-evolving fight against racism within changing contexts. My work as an antiracist educator will instead manifest in these various ways: at times teaching on my own while drawing from the lessons learned from observing others; in other instances partnering or co-teaching with peers who have different perspectives, skills, and experiences than I do; and sometimes fully stepping aside to let someone else take the lead. The “expertise” in this work will always be dynamic and situated within an equitable partnership, honoring the ways that the experience, knowledge, and perspectives of each contributor can elevate the teaching practice.

Such ongoing efforts to connect, learn, and create impact together with others are core to museum education. Museum educators’ “expertise” therefore isn’t singular, but rather contingent upon an equitable model of collaborative practice. As we navigate an ever-changing society and trajectory for museums, this approach to collaboration is truly our hidden strength and it deserves greater understanding and recognition. Who’s with me?

About the Author

Sarah Boyd Alvarez is Senior Director for Students and Educators in the Department of Learning and Public Engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago. She is responsible for a comprehensive program of learning resources and opportunities for K-12 schools, centering shared inquiry, cross-cultural connections, and accessible, multimodal experiences, with priority for Chicago Public Schools. In addition to her specific activities at the Art Institute, Sarah actively engages in city-wide dialogue about high quality, equitable arts education experiences for Chicago students and has published various articles and essays about museum learning. She can be reached at salvarez@artic.edu.

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