Museum Field Trips: Considering the Student’s Experience

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Recently, I have turned my focus to the educational side of the museum and the role it has played in the American education system. With the exception of those who work within the art field and a few art enthusiasts, most people I have come in contact with have only experienced an art museum through a grade school field trip. They have little interest in the artwork they were brought to see and did not feel particularly more inclined to visit another museum, yet schools continue to insist upon museum fieldtrips.

There is no denying the significance of the museum from an educational standpoint, but why is that we continue to find students uninterested in the museum experience? Countless studies have been created to help establish the value of school field trips to cultural institutions. Researchers in favor of educational reform from the University of Arkansas conducted a rigorous study of various school groups that took a single one-hour guided tour of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. When comparing the students who received the tour against students who did not, the results showed that those who received the guided tour retained more content, increased their critical thinking skills, increased their “historical empathy” for people who lived in different places and times, increased their tolerance for diverse points of view, and increased their interest in visiting museums.

Although I do not find these results the least bit shocking, it does raise some questions about the quality of the experience students may have during their museum visits. The students from the Crystal Bridges report received a docent tour, or guided tour given by an educator who works for the museum. Executive Director Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum raises some questions in her blog entry Arts Assessment: Let’s Stop “Proving” and Start Improving regarding the outcome of these docent tours. If all of these test subjects received a docent tour, then how do their outcomes differ from school groups who visit but do not have a facilitated experience? For me, this sparks an even bigger question. Should museums put more resources into these docent programs or fewer?

I believe that a docent tour has the ability to provide more of a historical context to the artwork and helps the visitor understand the cultural significance of that work. For this reason, it is a great thing.  This is why I believe it essential that museums place even more emphasis on providing its visitors with a guided experience, especially students. One of the problems I have encountered with these tours is that I find them boring and fail to provide me with the opportunity to interact with the works at my own pace. They are often times provided for historical artwork that does not seem relevant today to a student more concerned with their identity on a popular social network. These museum studies are helpful in securing the educational importance of the museum, but doesn’t really provided any possible solutions that could help students become more interested in having another museum experience. We should spend less time assessing the value of the museum experience and spend more time strategizing how we can use docent tours to help educate and promote the museum experience. We need more docents, more ways to connect the historical art works to current times, and more creative methods to keep students interested using modern technology. I feel that we must pursue new approaches to attract a younger audience.  Otherwise, people may continue to regard their museum experience as that “one boring field trip I had when I was in school.”

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