Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading a Museum

For those of you who are planning an end-of-the-year class trip to a museum, I’d like to share some insights from an article in a recent International Reading Association journal.

“Museum Literacies and Adolescents Using Multiple Forms of Texts ‘On their Own,’“ (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 53 (3), 204-14. doi:10.1598/JAAL.53.3.2) evaluated the way in which eight teenagers interacted with exhibits in the Bedford Museum, a collection of archeological artifacts from the Americas, Greece, and Africa. Although none of the teens spent time reading the printed texts accompanying the displays, each of the participants made several “text to self” and “text to text” connections based upon the exhibits.

After analyzing the students’ responses, the author, A. Jonathan Eakle, concluded that “what was seen in the museum took precedence over what was written.”   Although some might disparage how the teenagers ignored the printed museum texts, Eakle argued otherwise:

“…the greatest value of the museum experience may well be how visitors, such as the adolescents in the present study, use museums freely, that is, on their own and for their own purposes. And to be free was an attractive part of adolescent museum excursions as shown through the investigation, whether it was, for example, escape through fantasy play, as was the case with Frank and Tom [two teens] darting among museum labyrinths, or by turning a corner to go beyond adult purview, as did Flo aka Mic and Bishop [three other teens] to discuss an interesting object in their own terms. These movements through, and readings of, space are an important aspect of museum literacies and suggest degrees of freedom perhaps not available in many education settings. In times when liberties and choices are often considered precious and rare commodities in education, as well as in wider communities, museums may offer important possibilities for engaging in most valuable aspects of literacies.

Furthermore, Eakle recommends that teachers conceptualize museums as text, thinking about the exhibits as if they were chapters of a book. In this way, activities like treasure hunts are in fact search-and-find activities familiar to literacy educators (p. 213). 

Eakle ended the article with questions which can guide museum learning.
·      Who is represented in the exhibition?
·      Who do we not hear from through the exhibition?
·      What language does the museum curator use to create a visual image?
·      What images, other objects, and spaces does the curator use to craft a language?
·      If we were to take away the printed text labels, do our notions of the museum object or exhibition change?
·      Whose interests are served by the museum text? Whose interests are not served?
·      What view of the world is put forth by ideas in the museum texts? What views are not?
·      What are other possible worldviews seen through the museum texts?
Note. Questions are adapted from Franzak, J., & Noll, E. (2006). Monstrous acts: Problematizing violence in young adult literature.Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(8), 662–672. doi:10.1598/JAAL.49.8.3

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