"One goal is the starting point for another" - John Dewey
As a former student in the museum education graduate program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, I was encouraged to develop a personal philosophy of museum education. I was encouraged to seek innovative approaches to education that would expand the museum’s mission for the future. I gravitated toward theories that were not unique to the museum education field, but which could serve as a strong foundation for addressing museum related matters. The basis of my personal philosophy began with the standard belief that museums continue to fulfill their mission as public institutions. From that basic premise, I began to envision new approaches to museum education that would be more suited to the contemporary moment. For example, in order to best serve a multicultural society, I considered the ways in which museum education can help foster multiple voices and perspectives. This led me to question epistemological foundations, modernist notions of originality, and, yes, the soverienty of the museological object. I found the semiotic model quite useful since it provided a framework for viewing artifacts as codes or signs that generate a variety of meanings - what C.S. Peirce called a process of semiosis. Yet, before I could proceed, I first had to ask myself some difficult questions: Is the museum capable of representing diverse perspectives or does it merely provide a universal framework for containing, controlling, and defining difference?
In my estimation, the globalization of capital which has brought with it an increased dependency on corporate funding and corporate values, has also led to the decreased value of what Henry Giroux refers to as "counter public spheres." In other words, the increased control of the few over the many has made it difficult for communities of culture, to represent their own particular interests and concerns in the context of a "monopoly of interests." As a result, it has become tempting to reestablish universal criteria, rather than maintaining a commitment to more democratic forms of representation. By examining the work of Noam Chomsky, Jurgen Habermas, and Paulo Freire, I offer a philosophy of museum (public) education that encourages popular participation, while maintaing the belief that museums offer the ideal "public sphere" for cultural inclusiveness and individual participation.
Noam Chomsky offers a model for education that stresses the importance of democratic forms of participation. In one of his most recent books Chomsky on Miseducation (2001), Chomsky exposes some of the weaknesses in our current educational outlook. In contrast to but not altogether divorced from his linguistic concerns, particularly his notion of "universal grammar," Chomsky offers a critique of ideology as a hegemonic struggle to represent the particular view of those in power. He makes particular reference to the post civil rights era of education, or what I call the beginning of the "institutionalization of difference." Chomsky cites as an example the Trilateral Commission formed during the early 1970’s that appeared as a response to the mass demonstration for democracy during the civil rights era. The Commission proposed a departure from the institutional commitment to education as a democratic process. Jimmy Carter, Chomsky notes, represented a shift away from those concerns when he declared that schools be used as "institutions for indoctrination." According to Chomsky, "The lesson you learn in the socialization through education is that if you don’t support the interest of the people who have wealth and power, you don’t survive very long." Chomsky also derives value from John Dewey's democratic radicalism by resisting mind/body dualisms and embracing the dialectic that becomes what Dewey called the "art of experience."
With the disintegration of public education as a democratic ideal and the increased focus on the privatization of education, museums provide a central locus for the preservation and appreciation of cultural difference, and are in a unique position to address these relative topics. Rather than support "institutions for indoctrination," museums potentially offer a model of education that is more democratic and less coercive. Rather than view the museum or gallery as a solidified, hermetically sealed space, it can be viewed as a dynamic vibratory space or in Bourdieu’s words, a "habitus" or critical space for dialogue and cross-cultural exchange. In other words, rather than view the products of culture as purely autonomous, self-contained objects linked to a priori knowledge, they can develop a paradoxical or more enigmatic value that is more consistent with the vicissitudes of history, and multiple perspectives that help enliven culture and community.
An answer to Chomsky’s critique of power and monopolistic control is provided by Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the "public sphere." In this sphere, the museum is posited as an institution that is capable of fostering public participation and the common good. "What Habermas called the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ consisted of social spaces where individuals gathered to discuss their common public affairs and to organize against arbitrary and oppressive forms of social and public power"(Kellner). For example, the Museum's ideal position as a "public sphere" that encourages dialogue and exchange is in unique position to mediate between institutions of authority and the private sphere. The Museum maintains its value for society by offering a dialectic of transformation that encourages participation, with the common understanding that culture, history, and the arts can be transformative, while providing the foundation for our common humanity.
Habermas and Chomsky tend to remain wedded to enlightenment ideals of public participation, yet their insights into public participation and democracy help to shed light on how museums can continue to fulfill their missions as public institutions by encouraging inclusiveness and public participation.
While Chomsky and Habermas help us to understand the larger forces at work, the Latin American educator Paulo Freire helps us to understand how forces materialize on the level of our cultures. In order for education to promote diverse perspectives, Freire stresses the importance of dialogue. Similar to Habermas’s notion of "ideal speech," Paulo Freire understands that dialogue exposes asymmetrical relations of power, the power to name, and to resist being named. Freire opposed the teacher/student dichotomy that positions the teacher as active and the student as passive. Rather "education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students." According to Freire, bound up in the essence of dialogue is the word. And the word is simultaneously bound up in praxis. Praxis not only constitutes our cultural practices but the spheres where dialogue and exchange are possible. "Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed - even in part - the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world."
Chomsky's view of democracy and education, Habermas's notion of the public sphere, and Paulo Freire's idea of ideal speech are views that correspond very closely with the mission of most museums today. Furthermore, museums today, now more so than ever, represent the ideal "public sphere" for the study and appreciation of culture. It is our goal as educators and museum leaders to bring that reality into fruition by ensuring that institutional goals remain financially secure, and fiscally responsible, while continuing to offer quality facilities, exhibitions, collections, and programs, and a thorough commitment to public education as fundamental to everyday praxis. i