The aspiration to exhibit

From Knowledge to Narrative
March 27, 1998

This book takes as its starting point an exhibition on the naturalist Carolus Linnaeus at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Each chapter of the book starts with an analysis of the discussions which shaped and formed the final exhibition. These discussions - highly engaging in themselves in the way they explore the roles of education officer, designer and curator in an exhibition team and the different perspectives each brings to the exhibition - are used as the stimulus both to explore the history of museum education in American museums and the way in which educators have shaped and influenced museums' attitudes to interpretation.

According to the author, museum education has, in the past 25 years, "taken its place next to research as a major professional function in museums"; at present it is "riding the crest of a wave". One of the things this book sets out to explore is how this has happened and it is invaluable for anyone wanting a quick review of some of the landmarks in the history of museum education in America. British educators may be surprised to learn that "museum education is a distinctly American idea" but many of the issues which this book deals with (knowledge as a social construction rather than a given, the clash between those who wish to popularise museums and those who see popularist approaches as threatening scholarship, the basic principles and purposes of an exhibition etc) will seem very familiar. What may come as more of a surprise is to discover that initiatives which are seen as very innovative today, such as special programmes for the unemployed, were being run in museums such as the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences before the second world war.

This book is more than a history of museum education in America, it is a fascinating examination of what it means to aspire to educate visitors through collections. Well written and easy to read, it looks at the challenge to long-standing assumptions about institutional purpose, responsibility and authority posed by research into learning theory, social interaction, visitor expectations, narrative construction and visitor experience. Roberts looks at education as entertainment, empowerment, experience, ethics and narrative endeavour. Each of these represents an aspect of current thinking about the meaning of "education" in museums today and each is explored to demonstrate how they form part of a larger scenario - that of negotiating meaning. Museums are urged to make themselves more people-centred. It is a rallying cry which is backed up by thorough research and by arguments which will be a welcome addition to the arsenal of anyone trying to persuade colleagues of the need to take a more "inclusive" approach to exhibition planning and design.

Sue Wilkinson is director, South Eastern Museums Education Unit.

From Knowledge to Narrative: Educators and the Changing Museum

Author - Lisa C. Roberts
ISBN - 1 56098 706 5
Publisher - Smithsonian Institution Press
Price - £14.75
Pages - 205

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