08/13/2010 10:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Teach Kids in Museums?

My father-in-law, Ed, a sometime chess partner and a long-time public school math teacher, was always involved with numbers and organizing things. He would sit watching a football game on TV and graph the play-by-play progress of each team on a chart showing yard lines on a field.

When asked if he enjoyed teaching math, his response was "I don't teach math; I teach kids." One way of not teaching math was running chess games with his junior-high school students. These games could go on for weeks alongside the official curriculum, and winning a game or tournament could somehow produce an understanding of round numbers or square roots.

His statement about the purpose of his work, teaching kids, provokes me to think that we are often confused about the value of museums and their collections. Museums have devoted two hundred years to the proper ways of collecting, classifying, preserving and occasionally presenting objects. I say occasionally because 90% of museum collections usually remain in storage, out of sight of the public--a point that museum detractors frequently repeat.

But we often overlook the point of collecting and the reasons for doing so in the first place. Why did any of our predecessors gather these wonderful paintings, sculptures, and objects in the first place? Because they had the expectation, the hope, the compulsion to believe that other people would benefit from the gathering, and that future generations would continue to have the opportunity to wonder, enjoy, and learn from the objects. The people and their education were the ultimate goal. The risks of recovering the objects, the costs of preserving them, and their display were means to that end.

How many early collectors, informed that their gatherings would be sequestered forever from human view and never seen, would have continued their pursuits? The creative process may sustain artists when no one notices--the art never purchased, the dance never observed, the novel never published and read. And perhaps some collectors are mere hoarders who will save anything because they save everything. But museums have formed and flowered as public institutions because they bring art and history and science to people.

My thoughts received a bit of validation from Max Anderson, Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, who recently suggested to the Association of Art Museum Directors that the traditional mission of museums to "collect, preserve, and interpret" might be better conceived these days as "gather, steward, and converse." His article leaves in place the fundamental activities of museums, but leans them in the direction of people more than objects.

Kids, not math. People, not objects. Think about the results the next time you visit a museum.