As members of the Museum Education Roundtable board and museum educators, we (Dr. Alexandra Morris and Wade Berger) are avid writers; we have written numerous grant proposals, articles, interpretive signage, lesson plans, and even a dissertation or two. When we read Susan Spero’s article, “Resources for Museum Writing,” we wondered how Susan’s guidance would have helped improve some of our past writing and how it might better future writing, such as Wade’s dissertation-in-progress! As we reflected on our past, present and future writing, we noted several ways in which writing was part of our routine practice as museum educators and researchers.
We wanted to share some of these routine reasons for writing and hope that this list will help others in the JME community think about why they might write and when they might want to make use of the resources Susan’s article suggests. Perhaps surprisingly to some, writing for a research audience is not on our list! Instead, this list focuses on a side of writing that we do not often praise enough. These reasons to write celebrate a kind of writing which can happen every day, in a few paragraphs or less, and are not always writing that is meant to be shared widely. This kind of writing focuses on our desire to find a regular place for us to dive into our ideas about teaching and learning in museums. Many of these ideas come from others who have written or spoken about the power of writing (for museums and elsewhere) and where possible, we share references to those points of inspiration.
Reasons why writing helps you as a museum educator/researcher:
1. You might want to write to have your writing serve a as a tool for thinking
This list starts with writing that is not meant for anyone other than the person doing the writing. This reason for writing is about creating time and space for you to think. Perhaps you are trying to decide what to communicate about a new exhibit space or you are writing a new curriculum for a youth program at your organization. The first words you draft in these writings are often more about helping you organize and solidify your own thinking around what you are writing about. This draft is for you, and only you. But it helps clarify your main points and might help organize your thoughts in a way that helps prepare them for sharing with others. While we might ultimately never share our first drafts with others, and maybe no one sees the words we wrote down to fill up that first blank page, these drafts help build writing as practice, as a process where we can think and learn from our own ideas. Who knows, maybe this first draft will lead to your first submission to the JME 🙂
For more on this, see Ann Lamott’s writing on drafts, called “Shitty first drafts” in Writing about Writing: A College Reader (1994).
2. You might want to write to practice communicating with learners
Writing can help you clarify your communication with the audiences you serve as museum educators. Questions to ask are: is this understandable to diverse audiences? Is this understandable to a specialist or generalist audience? How does this connect with those audiences? Why should they care or be interested in this content? Can they process this information without getting bogged down or fatigued? (Alexandra also wants to underscore the importance of accessible communication. All information, no matter its complexity, can be communicated to different audiences well—it’s all in how you choose to do so that makes the difference). It is only through practice that we can do well and ensure that our writing actually serves its intended purpose. Through writing as mentioned above, we can also take a step back, and focus on what messages are truly important. If we better understand content and why things are important ourselves, we can then better communicate it to others. You can then take this knowledge and share it with others via the JME.
3. You might want to write to communicate with your colleagues (in and outside of your museum)
One of the many places that we write everyday is in our communication with our colleagues. These kinds of communications can feel daunting (Wade says they are often the toughest form of writing for him) because we feel a responsibility to share succinctly and to make sure our ideas are communicated clearly for our intended recipient. Susan’s resources around writing for clarity, for the senses, for the story and for polyvocality apply to our communications with colleagues too, and help remind us that even an email can be a place to find a relationship between you (the writer) and your audience (the email recipient) via your words.
4. You might want to write to share something new and exciting about your learners, program, organization, etc.
Perhaps your museum or colleagues have put together something new, exciting, or that you feel is innovative that you think everyone else needs to know about. Perhaps you’ve noticed something through working with learners in your organization that you think could be revolutionary. Writing is a good way to get this across. It allows you to share with others in a potentially asynchronous way, allowing others to digest this information at their own pace. It also allows you to reach an audience of international proportions (especially if you work towards submitting this writing to the JME), and potentially various languages, as writing can be translated into other languages, again at a person’s own pace. Finally, it also ensures that you and your fabulous team gets the credit for your wonderful idea or observation!
For more about writing about learning, see this blog post by the educator and scholar Mike Rose.
5. You might want to write to critique something you want to see changed
Maybe you’ve noticed something that is problematic or makes you angry. Perhaps a program is inaccessible, a group is being excluded or discriminated against, or a work environment is toxic. Maybe you have ideas about an organization, program, or exhibition that will help improve it. Writing is again a good way to communicate this. As mentioned above, writing can help you clarify your main points. It can also give you time to reflect and pause on what has possibly been upsetting and allow you to strategize the best way forwards. In writing you can also make connections with others who feel similarly about this issue. (Alexandra knows from personal experience how valuable that reflection and strategizing time can be, as well as the importance of speaking up. To quote the late disability activist Judy Huemann: “Some people say that what I did changed the world… but really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”). It allows for your critique to be widely distributed to ensure that others know about the issue, and can perhaps help others in the same situation, or other organizations from making the same mistakes (the JME is the perfect forum for such a discussion). Finally, it serves as both a document that the problem was addressed and a reference point to ensure that the issue is avoided in the future.
Building a writing routine:
We hope this list inspires your writing journey! Another way to take up the practice of writing as a museum educator/researcher is to build writing into your everyday routine. Alexandra and Wade are up for anyone joining them in a daily writing practice where we support each other in writing for 30 minutes everyday for a period of days (perhaps following this model). If interested, email us at [email protected] and [email protected] and we will share further details on how/when this group will get started.
“Resources for Museum Writing” by Susan Spero can be found in the Journal of Museum Education, Volume 41, Issue 1: Words Matter. Access is available to Museum Education Roundtable (MER) members and through Taylor & Francis Online. You can become a member of MER by subscribing online at https://www.museumedu.org/join/.
Susan B. Spero (2023) Resources for Museum Writing, Journal of Museum Education, 48:1, 62-67, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2022.2152599