Friday, March 20, 2009

Technology and Museum Education

Spent yesterday at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum with about 220 high school seniors and I'd like to comment on something I found particularly impressive from an educator's point of view.

The use of technology to foster authentic and powerful understanding was both overwhelmingly stunning and perfectly merged with unforgettable and visceral examples of non-tech-based learning.

I'd been to the museum on previous annual trips. We have a program for our seniors where they read first-hand accounts of survivors, meet survivors and liberators in person, and then visit the museum. The program culminates in a project facilitated by the English department.

So, I'd been to the museum several times. But this was the first time I visited specifically with an eye trained on how the museum works from a technological point of view.

First of all, the multimedia sensibility of the space and its imagery immediately creates a whole environment. It's like stepping into 1930's and 40's Europe right down to walking over the actual bricks that paved the Warsaw Ghetto. Next is the bombardment of images and text. Everywhere you look. Which serves two purposes.

First, it overloads your senses and puts you in a shocked state of mind (quite appropriate and educational in light of the subject matter). Second, once you acclimate a bit to the surroundings, you naturally will start to pick up on certain things more than others. Upon reflection as a teacher, what you realize is how the text, visuals, video, sound, and multimedia -- as well as the circulation through the space itself -- address multiple intelligences. They are not just an amalgam of different types of documentation, rather they offer people of different varieties of learning different ways of gaining access and understanding to the material.

It addition to the exhibition spaces, the museum offers both individual video consoles for semi-private viewing of archival films as well as group areas filled with sound and/or video for a communal learning experience. I thought about the debates about hetero vs. homogeneous group learning as I passed through crowds of strangers taking in the grave old stories.

I was struck by how the combination of space, technology, and content synthesized to produce such an immediate and fundamental learning opportunity. I was struck by how 'human' it all felt.

Finally, in the recent exhibition spaces, there are multimedia touch display walls where visitors interact with digital maps, archival materials, streaming video, and sound files. I've not seen this sort of thing worked so elegantly into a museum setting before. For example, I recall that there is a computer area at the National Gallery of Art meant for extensions of learning; but this completely holistic move towards fitting interactive media seamlessly into the actual circulation through an exhibition was something new and invigorating. You had less a feeling of interacting with technology than you did a feeling of interacting with history.

I should note also... the docents at the museum -- those people who give tours their true flare and human face -- are among the best I've ever encountered.

It is this truly fearless synergy between the best humans have to offer and the best technology has to offer that makes this museum a model for all others. And we as educators have much to learn from the ways in which museums educate.

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