September 2023

Framing Praxis – Theory and Practice

Water falls in a light sprinkle over lightly colored circular pebbles.On the upper right hand side, a hand reaches forward to touch the water before it can fall on the rocks.Part of our commitment to making the Journal of Museum Education accessible is to provide free access to one article per issue, supported by our partnership with our publisher, Taylor & Francis. For the JME issue 48.2, Learning Connections, our board selected the article “Traditional or Contemporary Art? A Study of Educational Approaches to Children in Two Chinese Art Museums” by Jingwen Li. Because this issue of the JME was edited internally by JME Co-Editor Michelle Moon and 2022–23 MER Board President Michelle Dezember, we asked them to share insight into the issue’s themes and why they selected Li’s article to share. 

Your editorial introduction centers around the concept of praxis–what does this mean? And why does this idea stand out to you as a focus for MER/JME? 

Michelle Dezember (MD): I’ll jump in to say that as we were noticing how all of the articles combined theory and practice, this concept of “praxis” came up…and I have to admit that even though I hear it often, I often feel like the emoji with the thoughtful look and finger on the chin! It’s a concept central to what we do as museum educators, but I’m not always so confident with it. So, I appreciated that Michelle Moon took time to trace some of the lineage of the concept. I resonate most with her citation of Paolo Freire’s definition of praxis as “the action and reflection of [people] upon their world in order to transform it.” I believe we used the framing of praxis because we saw that the articles we selected from our submissions pool might have come from a wide diversity of locations, museum types, and interests, but they were all fundamentally looking at the intersection of research with practice. And that this was something MER has been interested in for at least the last fifty years, if not longer.

Michelle Moon (MM): Michelle D. said it well! All I can add is that it’s a relief to finally know what I mean when I use the word “praxis.” 

The free article in this issue focused on educational approaches to children in Chinese Art Museums (Traditional or Contemporary Art? A Study of Educational Approaches to Children in Two Chinese Art Museums, by Jingwen Li. What stood out to you from this article? What are you hoping readers will take away from this article? 

MD: There are such interesting case studies and examples from across the world in this issue. We wanted to highlight this article because it provided some familiar models, like the contextual model of learning and constructivism, but applied in a context that our predominantly North American readership might not be as familiar with. Li gives such a clear comparison between the two museums in the case study that it provides not only a fresh outlook on theory but also insight into cultural contexts that deserve a closer look. 

MM: Jingwen Li’s piece was fascinating to me because it offers a view into China’s museum landscape, which has been expanding at an extremely rapid rate as the number of museums has grown almost fifty-fold over the past four decades. The article notes that the quality of museum education has sometimes been a few steps behind the sheer quantity of new museums. As Chinese museum educators seek methods and frameworks, they are drawing on and testing ideas that have been circulating for a long time in the English-speaking world. Li’s analysis lends strength to these theories by underscoring that they can be effective cross-culturally and across museum genres.

Many folks submit articles to the JME throughout the year, and these articles cover a wide range of topics and museum contexts. What was it like to look through these submissions? How did you bring this collection of articles together for this issue?

MD: Michelle Moon was an amazing collaborator in the article review process…and I have to admit that she still did the heavy lifting of the editor! We were interested in capturing a range of authors from around the world, which is actually a growing trend that we’re seeing in submissions to the JME. We worked from articles recently submitted by authors independent of a call for papers or a special theme. From there, we thought about how to not only find threads across pieces as well as keeping in mind that it has now been fifty years that MER has been gathering voices from the field. I think that’s why “Learning Connections” was the title for this issue. All these years later, we are still learning from connections! 

MM: Usually, a single editor takes charge of each issue. This time, I had a great partner in Michelle Dezember, who was looking at these current articles in the context of the 50 years of MER publication. The theme that leapt out was that educators are often key connectors within a museum – connecting theory to practice, content to audiences, and partners to museum resources. We saw that connecting power come forward in all the articles in this issue. 

How can someone build up to writing an article for an issue?

MD: I encourage people to write for our blog! That is how I started. It’s a less intimidating and more direct and informal route. That helped me build up the confidence to not only support Michelle Moon in this editorial process for the issue but also to work on my own article that is coming out in a future issue. As a practitioner, it can be hard for me to find time or brain space to write, but the community of support from the Co-Editors (and others I pull in for advice and moral support!) makes it worthwhile.

MM: Having a strong idea or topic is important, so simply noticing what’s going on around you in your museum life is very powerful. I regularly meet people doing great work who are surprised when I say, “You should write that up!” Sometimes, we’re so close to a topic that we don’t realize it has the potential power to be relevant to the field as a whole. In addition, keep an eye out for the writer’s workshops JME has been offering annually. These are a good way to learn more about developing an article that presents your insights and findings in the strongest way possible. 

Michelle Dezember is the Past President of Museum Education Roundtable and Director of Learning and Engagement at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Michelle Moon is Co-Editor of the Journal of Museum Education.