Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Taking Time for Role Reversals in Museums

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey,
PhD Candidate
University of New Brunswick

One of the biggest challenges I've encountered when working with both adults and students in community history museums, is the problem of time. There never seems to be enough time to make connections: connections with student visitors, connections to individual artifacts, connections to big ideas in history. Too often it seems, a school field-trip to a community museum evolves into little more than a hurried walk through history, where students are presented with only the alluring highlights of each exhibit space. Although armed with the best of intentions, in such instances museum educators become little more than information gatekeepers, adjusting their tour ‘on the fly’ to the immediate needs of a group leader—without any prior knowledge of the students or their interests. For students themselves, such a scenario leaves no time to ask questions, no time for individual engagement, and no time to establish historical connections.

There is a solution to this, however, and it rests with role reversals, along with repeat museum visits. As I have found in my own research, with repeat visits to a community history museum (combined with curatorial classroom time) traditional gatekeeper roles can be reversed—thus ‘flipping the museum’—to enable student-driven exploration of the past. In my own case study, students visited their local community history museum four times over six weeks. In between, they also re-visited their experience through classroom activities, which included close reading (and corroboration) of artifact sources, as well as mapping of museum narratives. In this way, students were empowered to break out of their passive role as knowledge-receivers—to become engaged in discovery, observation, de-construction, and re-interpretation.

By returning to the museum over an extended unit of study, students benefited from having ample time to establish thoughtful connections within the museum. In addition, with each repeat visit, role reversals became increasingly more evident, as students themselves adopted the social role of museum curators. Thus, arriving at the museum for their first visit, students attentively followed the guide, listening to the words and taking notes. Arriving for the second visit, it was obvious that all of the students were now eager and prepared to engage in dialogue with the exhibits, as well as the curators. They were focused, familiar with the site, and armed with a mission. This sense of purpose continued with each return, as students became increasing more accustomed to the learning environment, and seized upon each opportunity to direct probing questions of the curators. By the fourth and final museum visit, it was clear that museum roles had been flipped, since instead of simply following the guide and taking notes (as had been the case during their first visit), students were now fully in charge of the tour—with each presenting curatorial statements of significance about their chosen artifact, while the adult audience simply listened. This reversal process proved to be very effective,