A museum is the ultimate space for informal learning. While education in schools (usually) have to follow a one-size-fits-all curriculum, learning in a museum is individual. A museum is its own non-linear universe, to be discovered and explored differently by each person who enters. By the very nature of how museums are organized and the objects are exhibited, most of Howard Gardner’s∗ multiple intelligences are catered to already – or can quite easily be adapted to do so.

∗ Albeit not universally agreed upon, Developmental Psychologist Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, (1983 and 2011), has had quite an impact on modern pedagogy. The original set of seven intelligences has since been expanded to eight: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Logical-Mathematical, Naturalist, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Linguistic, Musical. Gardner suggests that we all have all of these – to a larger or lesser extent. Because we are stronger in some of these areas than others, we learn best in individual ways, and in many different ways. (Note that he himself does not label these “learning styles”). Read his own explanation in this interesting article. 

And for many of us, a museum functions like a church, or a temple. It is as much a space for inspiration and discovery, as it is for quiet contemplation and mindfulness. This also works well for people who differs from the ‘norm’; physically, emotionally, psychologically, cognitively, behaviorally… Many museum’s have focused a bit extra on these groups – many more should and can! Here are three examples of How:

Trains and Autism

Sometimes all it takes to make a museum more inclusive, is to observe how different groups use the museum already. At the New York City Transit Museum, they noticed how many of the repeat visitors were people on the autism spectrum, so they created the after-school program Subway Sleuths!

People with autism show a fascination with transport systems because they can readily be ‘systemised’, either as a mechanical system or as a timetable system. People with autism have a mind that loves to systemise, that is, to detect regular patterns in the environment…. Subway Sleuths thus provides a terrific opportunity to tap into a strong interest in autism to help them learn and socialise in an autism-friendly context.”

Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge and Director, Autism Research Centre (Quote credit the NYC Transit Museum’s website)

Through their mutual interest, the participants are encouraged to interact in pairs or groups and explore the Transit Museum and solve transit mysteries in its decommissioned subway station. The classes are facilitated by a special education teacher and a speech-language pathologist, trained in ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) support, and a Transit Museum educator. In 2016 this programme even got the recognition of the White House and was honoured by the previous First Lady, Michelle Obama. Read more about the NYC Transit Museum here.

And about how museum’s can work to be more accessible to people on the autism spectrum here.

Homelessness and social isolation

The Holbourne Museum in Bath, England, has got an extensive community engagement programme. This week (8-14 May, 2017), is Mental Health Awareness in the UK and The Holbourne is spreading the word. Their programme’s are developed to: “offer creative opportunities for people who have been affected by homelessness and /../ mental health issues and social isolation”.

“We believe that the enjoyment of arts changes lives and seek to find ways to be more accessible to people who might not otherwise engage with the Museum.”  (Quote credit the Holbourn Museum’s website)

The Pathways to Wellbeing. Changing Lives Through Art, is a four step-programme in which the participants will: 1) Create and exhibit art, 2) Develop skills and confidence through a mentored volunteer induction programme, 3) Work with museums to develop tools, public engagement activities and events, and 4) “Have a ‘voice’ within museums”.

The Gardener’s Lodge Art Group, provides weekly sessions to provide “a friendly and supportive people space in which people can develop their art skills, be creative and meet other people in a safe environment”. The sessions aims to support people to develop social skills, confidence, participation, planning and communication skills.

Learn more about the Holbourne here.

Domestic abuse

The Gardiner Museum in Toronto is dedicated to ceramics, and have truly explored every aspect of this art and craft; from the techniques and the artistic expressions, to the socioeconomical, historical, cultural and the therapeutic.

Gardiner exterior

One of the community engagement projects the Gardiner was involved in, was to offer art therapy for women who have experienced violence, in collaboration with the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. With the help of an artist and an art therapist, the women had access to the museum’s clay studios to “sculpt their trauma narratives in clay, transforming their pain and reconnecting with their resilience and strength.”

This collaboration, established by the former Director of Education Diane Wolfe, and run by the artist Susan Low-Beer and art therapist Suzanne Thomson, culminated in an exhibition called Transformation by Fire. The pieces of the art therapy participants was exhibited in a space usually dedicated to the works of the most historically and/or critically acclaimed artists. Through donations the admission was made free and the exhibit was accompanied by several workshops, lectures and performances. This all took place in 2013 but you can see photos and videos of, and about, the exhibit and the issue on the museum’s website. It was one of the Gardiner’s most talked about exhibit.

Learn more about Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Violence Against Women (VAW):

Assaulted Women’s Helpline, Canada

The Schlifer Clinic

Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders

World Health Organisation

Inclusion

The MNI holds a special place for all aspects of inclusiveness so this topic will be revisited over and over again. If you have a tip on a method, programme, people or a museum, please let us know!

And if you visit a museum where you find that you function very well, make sure to let the staff know. And the same goes if a museum could use some improvements. Museum’s are for the community and the staff is working for the audience, but no one person or group, can possibly know what all other people or groups need, so let us all help in creating and developing these havens of informal, individual learning.

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