How can museums & schools continue their relationship during & after COVID-19?

Written by Stephanie Downey

My career began at the intersection of museums and schools, and it will always be at the heart of why I do what I do.  I discovered museum education while working as a program evaluator for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).  I was doing that work because of my interest in equitable public education but discovered the wonders of object-based learning while evaluating a partnership between DCPS and the Smithsonian.  Through that evaluation, I found connections among my personal and professional experiences and interests that I didn’t even know existed before.  That project more than 20 years ago was a critical turning point that changed the course of my career and led me to museum evaluation.  To this day, even though my interests in museums has grown beyond object-based learning, and my work ranges from exhibition evaluation to audience research, it is the work focused on museum school programs that lights me up.  

The title of this post is a question that slowly came into focus for me in the last couple of weeks and sent me into a premature grieving for something I worry may never be the same again.  In the middle of March, we watched museums close and school districts across the country send students home. I was alarmed but assumed, like most of us, the closures would be a relatively temporary situation.  Yet as the pandemic has unfolded, it has become more and more clear that things in our country will not go back to the way they were before the virus, certainly not before a vaccine is widely available. 

Through word-of-mouth, I’ve heard that school programs and field trips are very likely off the table for the rest of the 2020. And two weeks ago, Hyperallergic published this news—“MOMA Terminates All Museum Educator Contracts.”  We learned that the Museum of Modern Art told museum educators in an email “it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”  Their projection of “months, if not years,” triggered a great deal of anxiety in me and among many others on social media. 

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As upsetting as it was to read those words from MoMA, I think most of us now realize there is not going to be a quick end to this.  A recent article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic quoted Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh:

“Everyone wants to know when this will end.  That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”  

Following from this expert’s words, the question for me isn’t “will museums keep working with schools during this time?” but instead, how do museums continue working with schools throughout and beyond the pandemic?” 

I believe strongly in the power of museum visits for school children, some of whom may never have been to a museum otherwise.  There is something magical for students about entering a museum space surrounded by authentic artworks, objects, or artifacts they cannot see anywhere else.  But it’s not just me and my bias for these kinds of programs.  Over the years, numerous evaluation and research studies have examined the impact of museum programs on school children, and results show again and again that museum programs make a positive difference in the lives of students.  Most recently, two large research studies—a national study of single-visit field trips to art museums by the National Art Education Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors in 2018 and study of field trips at Crystal Bridges in 2012—both showed that a visit to an art museum has a measurable effect on students’ creativity, empathy, and to some extent, critical thinking.  

But, back to the “how” question.  While it is preferable for students to engage with museums in museums, I advocate for museums not to wait the many months or years it may take for things to go back to “normal,” but instead to prioritize finding alternative ways to keep schools engaged with museums during this time. 

I know many museum educators are already starting to do this, but I suspect it isn’t easy.  While distance learning exists in museum education, it is certainly not the norm and presents a potentially steep learning curve for both museum educators and classroom teachers.  Moreover, even when students go back to the classroom, schools may operate differently and be up against new challenges.  The answer to this question of “how” may require a re-imagining of the relationship between museums and schools. 

I wish I had the answers, but for now, I can only emphasize that, as a researcher and evaluator, I know the data tells us it would be a huge loss not to put resources toward sustaining and building museum-school relationships—first virtually, and eventually back onsite.  I’m sure many of you have already started doing that reimagining.  I would love to hear about it. 

Featured Image: Students in front of Damian Aquiles’ Infinite Time, Infinite Memory, Infinite Destiny, 2003-2005 at the Orlando Museum of Art. Photo by Amanda Krantz, managing director at RK&A.

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About the Author

STEPHANIE DOWNEY: Stephanie brings more than two decades of research and evaluation experience to her position as owner and director of RK&A, a museum consulting firm.  She takes pleasure in working closely with museums and other informal learning organizations to help them make a difference in the lives of their audiences.  Stephanie has undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology and ultimately is driven by her lifelong interest in how humans behave and make meaning.  Prior to joining RK&A in 1999, she conducted educational research and program evaluation in public schools.  Stephanie serves as treasurer on the board of the Museum Education Roundtable, frequently presents at professional association conferences like the American Alliance of Museums and the National Art Education Association, and regularly peer reviews manuscripts for the Journal of Museum Education and Curator.  When not working, you can find Stephanie in the kitchen trying new recipes, cheering on her children in their various activities, and hiking trails along the Hudson River.


17 thoughts on “How can museums & schools continue their relationship during & after COVID-19?”

  1. I think the best thing that we can do now is lean into our school communities and provide programming/ help that best serves our audiences. I work at a museum under construction in a large city and we don’t have an active onsite field trip program. However, we do have neighborhood school partnerships and offsite programming. I’m collaborating with partner teachers about how to best help them with online learning. My goal is not to add more work to their insanely busy plates. Instead, I hope to alleviate some of their workload, add arts integration, and continue to connect with students.

    1. Thank you, Kelly. I love the idea of supporting school communities and helping to alleviate teachers’ workload during this time. Would love to hear more about your work as you discover the best solutions.

  2. In Italy schools will open again in September, while museums are scheduled to open again in May. What can we imagine and how? I found the article very interesting and appreciate the question “how” as central in the present debate. I think we (I am museum educator) have to change our language and rethink mediation in terms of timing, words, emotional skills. If Museum Educators do not succeed in changing their mind and work practices, they miss an extraordinary opportunity to plan the future, both for schools and museums.

    1. Thank you. I agree that these times will require rethinking the way museums and schools communicate and and work with one another. I also agree that there is an opportunity for museums to uniquely meet the socio-emotional needs of students (and everyone!) right now.

  3. Hi! I work at the Whitney Museum in NYC. I agree with Stephanie and think that it is critical for our museums to stay connected with schools, especially at this time.

    I wanted to share two new initiatives from Whitney Education that enable us to stay connected with our schools and community remotely: free, interactive online museum lessons for NYC schools and at home art making activities.

    We have just launched our new Online Lessons for K-12 students. These interactive classes are 40 minutes, will look at 2 to 4 works of art from the Whitney’s collection, and can be customized according to the teacher’s preferences. These programs are free for NYC public schools, while other schools may visit for a fee! Teachers may sign up here: We started booking these last week and have seen a lot of demand from our city’s schools thus far.

    We’ve also continued our work with the Museum’s 9 partnership schools. All of the schools are excited to deepen the work we started earlier this year and to continue to work closely with us.

    The other resource to share is our new Whitney Kids Art Challenge. This section of our website offers simple, at home art projects for kids and families to do together and is based on artworks from the Whitney’s permanent collection. We’ll be adding new activities often. It can be found here:

  4. HI Heather! Thank you for sharing this. Are the online lessons recorded videos or live streaming? I’m so interested to know more. I hope you will share what you learn from this new endeavor when you are ready!

    1. Hi! The online lessons will be live streaming, and will be customized to meet the needs of each class/teacher. We had our first lessons last week and they went really well. Both the museum and community need to stay connected during this time, so we are so happy to be able to offer these programs.

  5. Museums linking with schools is so important. As an audience researcher I often come across families who are visiting the museum because their child recently visited on a school excursion. Kids are our future. If they learn to love museums, then they come back as adults. Another trend I find in Sydney museums, is that inner city dwellers in high-rise apartments use the museum as their backyard. Many are weekly visitors who come to get out of the house, use a different space for play and as a learning experiences for their kids. If they can’t come to us, then we need to find better ways of reaching them in preparation for the “new normal” when they re-enter our doors.

  6. Hi Stephanie, I’m Pat Rigueira, head of Education at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires. I found your article and thought about the how and the quick reaction museums had to encounter to re think themselves through and after this pandemic. At the Moderno, we have been working with teacher training sessions on site before so we developed a series of videos and booklets about our works of art, arts integration, STEAM to contribute and lighten up their load of work. We are also developing activities for families, children with autism and senior citizens. The Moderno is a public museum so our community outreach program will deliver boxes with art supplies and printed activities to low income neighbors through government volunteer programs.

    1. Thank you, Patricia! I love hearing how your museum is stepping up to help the community in such a concrete, relevant way. I’m going to send you a link to another blog post that you make me think about. I’ll send it via LinkedIn.

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