The American Association of Museums published a report in 1984 on the future of American museums, called Museums for a New Century, including one chapter entitled "A New Imperative for Learning."
To put it bluntly, the report said, "despite a strong commitment to educational programming, museums have yet to realize their full potential as educational institutions." And the report noted: "The museum-school relationship shows considerable potential, ... particularly in light of the recent calls for strengthening the quality of instruction in science, the arts and the humanities in the schools."
Now the museums -- finally -- are stepping up to the plate. Some have been doing so for years.
Recently, Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC) held their annual conference at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. They "stressed [that] the value of the museum experience is the development of creativity and problem-solving, essential skills for a 21st-century workforce [and] focused on examining how museums and schools can work together to overcome the challenges to initiating, developing and sustaining successful partnerships."
They had a lot to share.
In the last few years in Pasadena, California, for example, Jennifer Olson, a museum consultant, has been working with the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) managing a program called "My Masterpieces," a unique collaboration between ten museums and 250 school teachers in the district.
As the PUSD describes it, "My Masterpieces: Discovering Art in My Community is a standards-based, supplemental elementary curriculum for the visual arts that connects Pasadena Unified School District students with the cultural resources of their community. The curriculum, developed by PUSD teachers and museum educators working together, includes classroom lessons, a field trip, and professional development opportunities."
And in San Diego since 2004, the Balboa Park museums created a project funded by Price Charities called School in the Park (SITP). This program is extremely unique in that it "shifts the location of [Rosa Parks Elementary, an inner city school] from a traditional classroom setting ... to the resources and educational opportunities available at museums in Balboa Park" thus allowing all third, fourth, and fifth graders to spend up to eight weeks in educational programs at nine museums in the Park.
More recently, Balboa Park launched the Collaborative Arts Resources for Education (CARE) program, a school-based artist residency and teacher professional development collaboration among four premier arts organizations in San Diego: the Museum of Photographic Arts, La Jolla Playhouse, the Mingei International Museum and the Timken Museum of Art.
In its short history, according to Julie Lawrence and Amber Lucero-Criswell who are with the Museum of Photographic Arts, the lead museum in the collaborative, CARE has provided more than 4,000 elementary-level students in low-income areas and 170 teachers with standards-aligned art experiences that relate to the collections, exhibitions, and performances of each CARE partner institution.
Focusing on artist residencies, teacher professional development, and an online resource center, CARE: (1) increases "students' knowledge, understanding, and experiences with the visual and performing arts, (2) [builds] capacity within teachers and schools for integrating arts into existing curriculum, and (3) [shares] resources for teaching and learning in the arts."
CARE already has developed partnerships with several elementary schools within the San Diego region, and will add more as time and funding become available from foundations and private philanthropy.
The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a unique collaborative of 26 art, science and cultural institutions truly believes in the education mission. David Lang, the Partnership's Executive Director, says it goes to "the core of who we are."
In addition to CARE, the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership has established a Learning Institute, which "provides specialized training and educational opportunities for Park staff, trustees, and volunteers" and a fifth grade program specially designed for the San Diego School District.
An ERIC Digest describing the Museum/School Partnership put it succinctly: "The partnership takes on new significance as our society expands its definition of "education" to describe a lifelong process of developing knowledge, skills, and character that takes place not just in the classroom, but in a variety of formal and informal settings. Museums and schools both figure in this learning network and they have long worked together toward common educational goals."
The Institute for Museums and Library Services, which serves as the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums, recently launched a 21st century skills assessment tool worth looking at. They have a "21st Century Skills initiative [that] underscores the critical role our nation's museums and libraries play in helping citizens build such 21st century skills as information, communications and technology literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, civic literacy, and global awareness."
It is a first, and convincing evidence that museums mean to change the way they do business.