Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis

Written by Jason Porter

All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff. 

Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions. 

And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work —  is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities. 

MoPOP PopCon
MoPOP PopCon

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.  

But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time. 

I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention

It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection. 

Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.

There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement. 

After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.   

All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.

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About the Author

JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.

Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.

5 thoughts on “Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis”

  1. Brilliant writing, Jason, and bravo for saving your team. I keep coming back to the fact that it’s STILL about audiences, and educators are well-equipped to continue to offer creative solutions for engaging them in our new world.

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