Museums and Open Education

Jackson Pollock at MoMA (photo by Steven Zucker)

As we rethink the factory-style model of education in our schools (students learning in a group at a standardized pace) empowered by the powerful technologies now at our disposal, we will naturally also think of  ways to better support the educational missions of museums.

Some recent discussions
The thoughts below were inspired by a number of recent blog posts:

Nina Simon’s Khan Academy and Online Free Choice Learning
Gretchen Jennings’s Museum Educators – What’s Next and a second post on the topic
Erin Branham’s First Steps to Embracing Digital Literacy for Musem Educators

Each of these raises important questions about the role of museums and museum education given the enormous changes taking place in both K-12 and higher education. Some of this discussion was prompted by the fall 2012 issue of Museum Education on the theme of Museum Education in Times of Radical Social Change (sadly locked away behind a pay-wall). But this conversation should extend beyond the education department, to the museum as a whole.

Joining the broader conversation
Museums need to join the conversations taking place about the future of education. Curators, educators, and administrators should be conversant with the debates and new models that are emerging. Erin’s post has a great list of to-do’s for museum staff. Here are few more suggestions:

1) Become familiar with copyright issues and use the most permissive Creative Commons licensing possible. Gretchen’s blog, Museum Commons, includes a quote from Lewis Hyde’s great book Common as Air at the very top of the page. Hyde’s book is an ideal starting place to understand the history of copyright and its role in furthering education (yes, furthering)! Most museum content has no licensing information, so it can be difficult to know what can be used and how.

2) Become familiar with the open textbook, open courseware, and open educational resource (OER) communities. There are OER portals including the OER Commons, and now that the educational power of OERs has been recognized, they have become an international imperative. You might also want to read UNESCO’s Paris OER Declaration. OERs make possible the dream of a free, accessible, high-quality education for all. Think for a moment about the enormity of the political and economic ramifications:

Imagine what our global economy will look like when the estimated 90% or more of earth’s inhabitants currently locked out of high-quality post-secondary education and job training opportunities finally get a fair shot.*

Of course, museums have been creating web resources that can be described as OERs in their accessibility (if not licensing), for quite some time. But because the OER community and the museum community are separate, museum resources are often ignored. Part of the problem is that museum web resources are often constructed to support the local and immediate needs of a museum’s programming.

As others have noted (including Nicholas Serota at the launch of v2 of the Google Art Project), museums are at a point where they can deepen their web content. Many have now successfully digitized at least part of their collections and put these images on the web together with basic metadata and extended wall labels. Sometimes artist biographies and glossaries are included. Now we can go deeper and add layers of additional content both introductory and scholarly.

Its also worth keeping in mind that states (most recently California), are passing legislation mandating the use of and/or providing for the creation of free and open textbooks. Could museums author new types of textbooks for the study of art history? What would such a resource look like in the age of Youtube? When we created, we asked this very question.

3) Become familiar with the new for-profit and not-for-profit players in the education space. We are witnessing an explosion of solutions attempting to counter the rising cost of college tuition and the lack of support for public schools. There are for-profits like Udacity, Coursera, Udemy, and not-for-profits like edX all offering MOOCs (massively open online courses). Khan Academy is a not-for-profit offering video, interactive exercises, badges, and a large and supportive learning community. There are organizations like Peer 2 Peer University and Skillshare that create a platform for learning, rather than content. There are sites that focus on creating social learning networks like Edmodo and OpenStudy. This landscape is growing at a dizzying rate and start-ups are launched every week. We suggest that you begin by creating an account at Khan Academy, explore the knowledge map, watch a few videos and become involved in the learning community. Enroll in a MOOC and spend some time on ItunesU and TEDed. Subscribe to the Edsurge newsletter.

4) Experiment with new tools for collaboration and publishing. This blog post was co-written simultaneously and remotely using Google Drive. Think also of the opportunities afforded by Google Hangout, the commenting and image annotation functions in Flickr or Imagediver, and resources like Voicethread and Youtube.

5) Think beyond your collection, the physical walls of your museum, and your location.  We recently wrote a blog post about this, Why the Google Art Project is Important, so we won’t reiterate that argument here.

6) Read blogs and journals outside of the museum field. Part of the problem, we think, is that the different communities that constitute the teaching and learning eco-system rarely speak with one another. Here are some suggestions (in addition to Michael Feldstein’s e-Literate):

Tina Barseghian, Mindshift
Cathy Davidson’s blog
Stephen Downes, Half an Hour and Stephen’s Web
Will Richardson, Read. Write. Connect. Learn.
George Siemens, elearnspace

7) Empower content experts to become content creators. The success and broad use of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History shows just how important the museum’s voice can be beyond its own doors. But such content need not be part of a multi-million dollar endeavor. When curators and educators learn to use simple and inexpensive tools such as a hand-held microphone and Garageband they can produce and publish terrific content and they can do it cheaply, easily, and quickly. We have run workshops with curators, educators, conservators, and docents and found that while the media produced by a content expert may not be as polished as a scripted video produced by professional videographers, it can be far more engaging.

Throwing out the script
We’ve found that personal, direct, and intimate content that allows for both passion and expertise is wildly successful. We have found (and research confirms) that the hand-drawn and hand-held are often better than the slick and polished. For example, a hand-held photograph taken in a gallery full of visitors can often be better than a carefully lit professional shot, an authentic conversation held in front of a work of art is often more powerful than a scripted monologue or interview. This is because people want to understand art as they, and those around them, experience it—real, imperfect, and authentic. If we can bring these intimate experiences to people across the globe, why wouldn’t we?

Co-written by Beth Harris & Steven Zucker

*”Are open educational resources the key to global economic growth?”, Wednesday 4 July 2012

View All


  1. Hello,

    I’d like to point out that the issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME) that inspired Gretchen Jennings’ posts was in fact the summer issue (vol 37 no 2) Professionalizing Practice: A Critical Look at Recent Practice in Museum Education and specifically Ben Garcia’s article in that issue “What We Do Best: Making the Case for Museum Learning in its Own Right.”

    Ben’s article is available for free download at the Museum Education Roundtable (MER) website:

    Members of MER—the nonprofit that publishes the JME—receive the journal as a benefit of membership and can access archived issues online:

    One article per issue is made available for free download from the MER website.

    Elisabeth Nevins
    MER Board of Directors


  2. Hello,
    I’d like to clarify that the issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME) that inspired Gretchen Jennings’ blog posts was in fact the summer issue (v.37 n.2) Professionalizing Practice: A Critical Look at Recent Practice in Museum Education and specifically Ben Garcia’s article from the issue: “What We Do Best: Making the Case for Museum Learning in its Own Right.”

    Ben’s article is available for free download on the Museum Education Roundtable (MER) website:

    The JME is published three times a year by MER a volunteer-run nonprofit. MER members receive the journal as a benefit of membership: and can access archived issues online.

    Additionally, one article from each issue is posted online for free at the MER website.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.
    Elisabeth Nevins
    MER Board of Directors


  3. […] While there is much discussion about what these open technologies are not, what we do know is that they are expanding opportunities like no other and it can be reasonably said that the museums themselves should join others in discussing the options for learning. […]


  4. This is a great blog. It would be great if you could have a look at mine and let me know what you think. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!


  5. Hey! This is a great piece. I spent a lot of time thinking about open education and trying to solve the problems we have in outdated models. I like the specific arts focus here. We have a project we are working on that would provide a tool that may help students in this area. May I recommend that you visit Look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Leave a Reply