May 2022

Documenting Museum Education during Intersecting Pandemics

As a complement to JME 46.4: Snapshot: Documenting Museum Education During Intersecting Pandemics, we are pleased to share this blog post by the guest editors Paula Santos, Kimberly H. McCray, Gwendolyn Fernandez, and Amanda Thompson Rundahl. 

Remember when we thought the disruptions of the pandemic would last a few weeks or maybe a few months, at most? Museum educators said goodbye to colleagues optimistically thinking we would be together serving audiences again soon. Two years later and several COVID-19 variants later, here we are. Entering the third year of the pandemic, and forever changed by a historical public health crisis that is both universally experienced and individually lived.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, pre-existing inequities came into clear focus. The murder of George Floyd and countless other Black Americans reinvigorated calls for museums to play a role in understanding and uprooting systemic racism. Upheaval and uncertainty defined our daily routines as intersecting pandemics claimed countless lives. Meanwhile, many of our colleagues left the field by force and by choice. We continue to feel the immediate effects of the pandemic on the museum sector from intermittent museum closures, to budget reductions, lay-offs, furloughs, and dramatic shifts in the ways museums and museum educators operate. It was and continues to be an extraordinary challenge to move through the day constantly recalibrating in the face of monumental human suffering.

So, what are the impacts on the field of museum education? And how have museum educators responded to the various challenges of this moment? What have we learned and where are our growth edges? What can we possibly say in the midst of it all?

To begin to answer some of these questions, our editorial team sat down in September 2020 to craft the open call for what became Volume 46 Issue 4 of the Journal of Museum Education “Documenting Museum Education during Intersecting Pandemics”. We ambitiously set out to capture moments of reflection from the middle of two global crises. The open call solicited submissions that addressed how the museum education sector (1) navigated these remarkable times, (2) understood the impact on our museum education practice, and (3) distilled lessons for the future of museum education. Among the 70 submissions we gratefully read were countless stories illustrating the ways museum educators are creative, resilient, and committed to serving audiences. Museum educators were equipped to respond to this moment and the submissions we received reflected the strengths of our field.

Several articles explore how museum educators worked in a variety of roles and capacities to stay connected with their audiences throughout the pandemic. “Pivoting” to digital platforms brought many opportunities, like reaching new audiences and experimenting with new types of programs, while also presenting challenges of digital access and staff bandwidth. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we may begin to understand what digital initiatives are here to stay and where we will return to in-person. A major question we must grapple with going forward is how our field and colleagues will balance both with increasingly scarce resources.

Our colleagues also experienced and continue to experience significant stress, anxiety, and grief for the losses to the field and to society. One study published in the issue illustrates the impact of layoffs on museum education departments specifically noting that the empathetic nature of our field tended to create significant emotional impacts on educators. Another looked at pay in informal education jobs in the United States and the impact it has on the demographics of the field, which is overwhelmingly white-dominated. Another article presented a case study of how one museum education department rebuilt their team with a renewed focus on relationships. Collectively, these articles ask us to think critically about the sustainability of the field and what investments we need to make for the future.

The pandemic also presented opportunities to reimagine and refocus the priorities of our field. Two articles explore how to apply a trauma-informed lens to museum education and connect with work being done in social and emotional learning, while another points to ways professional development has shifted in this new era. Our communities need support more than ever and we must continue to invest in understanding the potential of this field to positively impact the people we serve.

When it came to the second half of our open call, we received very few abstracts exploring racial equity work in museums. The final publication includes one strong article examining a community-centric response to anti-Asian racism from Andrea Kim Neighbors and Liz Kleinrock (“We are Not a Stereotype: Co-Creating Resources Centering Asian American and Pacific Islander Histories”) and moments of analysis in several others. As we examine why so few articles directly addressed racism, it is important to recognize our own positionality and limitations as a team of guest editors composed of one Latinx and three white women and to acknowledge that despite efforts to diversify, the authors of these articles primarily reflect the demographics of the museum education field in the United States.

Given our field’s current informal and formal conversations, there are a number of reasons we believe this happened. To start, consider the layoffs museum education departments endured and the emotional toll on Black museum staff due to the uprisings over the summer of 2020. This is on top of the burden already placed on many Black, Indigenous, and POC museum educators to consult on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in our institutional systems and practices. Contributing to the literature of museum education via writing and publishing is usually done on top of regular work. It is often voluntary, unpaid, and requires time and energy. Perhaps it is not a mystery why the capacity from museum educators grappling with these issues is depleted. Additionally, this topic is too large to address in one issue of the Journal of Museum Education alone. The time for reflection and accounting for what has happened to the museum field may not happen for years to come. We encourage the Journal of Museum Education and future authors and contributors to further develop, write, publish, and focus on how systemic racism during the pandemic has affected museum educators.

Being resourceful, responsive, and adaptive is a part of our continual professional practice as museum educators. The submissions we received captured the process of learning through our immediate circumstances and communities of practice. As a result, we recognize the timing of the open call meant it would be difficult to have the distance and space for the deep reflection necessary to understand the long-term implications of the dual pandemics on museums and museum educators. We found ourselves grappling with how much change is only temporary, and how much is deep, lasting, systemic change Given (1) the speed, uncertainty, and weight of the changes museum educators experienced, (2) the work involved in an era we continue to navigate, and (3) the social, emotional, professional, and mental challenge of this hard work. We are left wondering when will there be time to adequately and deeply reflect? How much longer will we live in perpetual pandemics?

You can read the free article here.

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Guest Editor Bios

Paula Santos is an educator and cultural organizer focused on advocating for equitable museums for workers and the public. She is the Program Director at Open Books in Chicago, IL and co-founder of the Museum Workers Relief Fund, a mutual aid fund for workers adversely affected by COVID-19. @pablitasan

Kimberly H. McCray is a lecturer and the graduate program director for Museum Studies at Baylor University as well as a Museum Education Roundtable Board Member. Her work connects theory and practice and encourages interdisciplinary, progressive approaches to adult learning and museum programs.

Gwendolyn Fernandez is a compassionate educator who advocates for centering care and community in museum practice. She currently serves as the Curator of Education and Public Programs for the Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico and collaborates with Paula Santos to support the Museum Workers Relief Fund. @gwenlfern

Amanda Thompson Rundahl has worked in the field of museum education for more than two decades and as Director of Learning and Engagement at the Saint Louis Art Museum since 2014. She served on the Board of Directors of the Museum Education Roundtable, including two years as President. @atrundahl @AmandaTRundahl