When I received the abstracts for the Mining Modern Museum Education conference—held at MoMA this past Friday, June 25—and read Wendy Woon’s blog posts on the topic, I was particularly sorry I couldn’t attend. It’s thrilling to explore the rich history of museum education, and surprising that so little has been accessible to date.
I was also struck by the narrow historical band represented by the six educators focused on at the conference: Hilla Rebay at the Guggenheim, Victor D’Amico at MoMA, Arthur Lismer at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Katharine Kuh at The Art Institute of Chicago. All were of the same generation, late Victorian or Edwardian, coming of age just before or during World War I. This was the generation for whom late nineteenth-century progressive ideas, in politics and pedagogy, were new when they were young, and some, but not all, seem to have grasped that movement’s dual political and educational implications. Also, from my own perspective outside the art museum world, I want to include a larger group who has influenced museum education beyond the art museum. For example, among their contemporaries, I would add the anthropologist and educator Alma Wittlin (1899–1990), whose life and seminal work is now being researched by Hadwig Kräutler in Vienna.
In addition, for any history of the field of modern art museum education, I think we need to go back further, as was suggested in the discussions at the conference (from the few notes I’ve seen). Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia museum was politically progressive; it was founded as an educational venue for promoting democratic values. For its time, it was also pedagogically progressive. But a major effort towards “modern” museum education came from museum leaders a generation older than those emphasized at the conference. John Cotton Dana (1856–1929) at the Newark Museum and his feisty education director, Louise Connolly (1862–1927), were certainly influential, as was Benjamin Ives Gilman (1852–1933) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who wrote lengthy, informative labels and encouraged “Sunday” visitors—meaning those who could only come to museums on their one day off from 10-hour work days.
But, from my perspective, the most significant figure missing from the Mining Modern Museum Education presentations was Albert C. Barnes, (1872–1951) who not only admired the philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, but fiercely practiced at least the political aspect of progressive education, and whose foundation was officially an educational institution. Rika Burnham’s article on teaching at the Barnes Foundation (Journal of Museum Education 32, 2007) captures the political and pedagogic spirit that she reads into Barnes’ legacy. After all, Dewey—who is mentioned so frequently as an inspiration for our modern approaches, and who clearly described the twin domains of progressive education—called Barnes’ educational work “the best that has been done in any field during the present generation.”