Museums educate people. Specifically, cultural history museums educate people about people, about how people of the past reacted to their environment and the effects of those reactions to our past, present, and future.
Museums receive more than 55 million visits each year from student school groups (AAM).
Museums provide more than 18 million instructional hours annually for educational programs such as guided tours for students, staff visits to schools, school outreach through traveling exhibits, and professional development for teachers (IMLS study).
As global competition broadens, museums are sparking the next generation of historians, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and political leaders.
Museums help teach the state and local curriculum, tailoring their programs in math, science, art, literacy, language arts, history, civics and government, economics and financial literacy, geography, and social studies (AAM).
Museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers or even personal accounts by relatives, according to a study by Indiana University.
Students who attend a field trip to an art museum experience an increase in critical thinking skills, historical empathy and tolerance. For students from rural or high-poverty regions, the increase was even more significant (Education Next 2014).
At least 22% of all museums are located in rural areas.
Given these facts, why is it that museum people continuously have to explain to schools and districts that museums are fundamentally educational institutions, with learning embedded at the heart of our missions (AASLH). Why is there a reluctance of teachers and school officials to actively involve the local museum in their student learning experience?
More often than not, part of the dilemma rest with limited available financial resources that allow teachers to engage their students with faculty-supervised external activities such as trips to museums and other off-campus venues. Securing transportation (school buses, activity buses, etc) sometimes creates another obstacle when considering "road trips". And, in many instances, because of the demand placed on teachers to cram a specific predetermined curriculum and testing schedule into a 180-day calendar leaves room for no more than one off-campus excursion per year -- of which is usually reserved for a more distant, "exciting" urban venue (Charleston SC, Washington DC, NYC, or international travel) offering a broader learning experience per square mile.
Intrinsically linked to creativity and modern innovation, small and rural museums must move beyond the walls of tradition to stay relevant and maintain sustainability. Not only are they "expected" to preserve their collections, but also to creatively engage and impact six (6) generations of visitors (The Greatest Generation, Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z, who I refer to as "Z-Nation") in a meaningful and memorable way. Remaining status quo is no longer an option for even the smallest museum. And, an education platform geared to learning styles and content relevant for each generation must be embedded into the mission of the museum. Museums must explore partnerships and collaborative opportunities that allow them to not only invite local student participation but also provide the means by which to achieve that involvement.
History museums have a unique opportunity to engage students in many different areas of interest. Historians are not limited to niche discussions or narratives. Through exhibitions and discussions about history, students can become engaged in science, math, technology, medicine, arts, politics, religion, humanities, social sciences, and more. Learning about history and culture includes learning about all the aspects of human day-to-day "being." For instance, if a student experiences an exhibit dealing with historical figures or events involving aviation and that student's intrigue leads them to want to learn more about aviation (which may or may not be a vocation introduced in the classroom), then the museum experience could well be an initial influence that leads to future life choices of that student.
According to Lake, Snell, Perry public opinion survey commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums (2001), "museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers." The local museum must realize its value and its obligation to educate students and the entire community.
It is crucial that small, local museums maintain relevance in the communities they serve, and museum workers remain good stewards of the public trust by acting deliberately to develop innovative, engaging narratives that tell yesterday's stories for tomorrow's generations.