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Change and Technology at the NAEA Museum Education Pre-Conference Part 1

Marla Shoemaker, Senior Curator of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I gave a breakout session last week on technology at the Museum Education Division pre-conference of the National Art Education Association’s annual meeting. We thought we’d reproduce it here for the benefit of everyone who couldn’t attend the pre-conference, as well as follow-up for those who were there.

The pre-conference theme “Change,” was well suited for our New Orleans location. In keeping with the theme Marla and I talked about how technology has evolved in the past five to ten years, focusing on museums and educational use of the Web and museum audio tours, two areas that have undergone significant change.

We started with a definition of Web 2.0, gleaned from the man who coined the term, Tim O’Reilly. While everyone agrees that there’s no one definition of Web 2.0, O’Reilly has an article on his Web site that sheds considerable light on the topic:

Several areas of O’Reilly’s meme map (on the Web site) were singled out for the purposes of our discussion. The right to remix is at the heart of user created and saved collections of museum content. ArtsConnectEd was an early leader in this movement with its Art Collector tool, allowing users, mostly teachers, to remix the collections at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center and annotate their Art Collector creations in ways that serve their students.

Trusting your users, another attribute of O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 has in many ways transformed the way we think about museum Web sites, from social tagging to teachers contributing content that not only serves other teachers but helps museums understand what teachers want and need from online museum resources. Another attribute: small pieces loosely joined, is demonstrated in the way the Museum-Ed Web site is constructed, which we’ll look at later in the presentation.

Another definition Marla and I thought would be useful is a definition of “interactive.” This word gets tossed around a lot in museum technology, but as educators we instinctively understand that interactive means much more than pushing a button. A definition we like comes from a Futurelab report by Roy Hawkey on Learning with Digital Technologies in Museums: Something that is truly interactive has “clear educational objectives which encourage individuals or groups of people working together to understand objects or phenomena through exploration which involves choice and initiative.”

To start off our discussion about change and the education components of museum Web sites, we examined the past construction of museum Web sites by anyone in the museum who knew some HTML. Since the Web was so new to everyone, and especially art museums who joined the digital revolution a little late in the game, many museum Web sites were constructed without rules and institutional policy. Since that time, a lot has changed.. Today , most museum Web sites are fully institutionalized, with formal policy and procedure that often represents a brick wall to educators. In the beginning it was easy to put educational resources online, since museums had few rules about what belonged on the Web and what didn’t. Today, educators are forced to stand in line at the door of the museum Webmaster, often behind marketing, and their additions to Web site content is scrutinized and prioritized with the same procedures that printed material like gallery guides receive.

To help address these kinds of obstacles, sites like ArtsConnectEd are being designed to put control of museum generated online educational content in the hands of the museum educator. The original ArtsConnected viewed its audience as teachers, and they continue to be its main users outside the museums. The new ArtsConnectEd recognizes that another important and powerful group of users exist inside the museum – museum educators are the main generators of educational content. The ArtsConnectEd redesign will contain tools that allow museum educators at both museums to contribute content to ArtsConnectEd as easily as teachers currently use ArtsConnectEd tools. The project can be tracked on the development Web site at

Another example discussed was the Walters Art Museum‘s adoption of Pachyderm to solve another problem many museums face in the changing world of Web site development. Art museums often hire outside companies to design Web sites, only later to discover that those same companies need to charge money beyond the original project budget to change things on the sites. Worse, many museums discover that the outside companies have kept the original files so that museums don’t have access to their own material if they acquire technical staff capable of making changes. Pachyderm is an open-source multimedia authoring tool designed for people who have little or no multimedia authoring experience. Developed by SFMOMA, the New Medium Consortium and funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Pachyderm allows museum educators to easily develop modular and updateable multimedia educational experiences. Since Pachyderm is open source, it’s freely available and users generating improvements contribute them back to the community.

The Walters Art Museum is using Pachyderm to develop their educational curriculum unit Integrating the Arts: Mummies, Myths and Madonnas The program is built in Pachyderm by outside content developers and delivered in modules to the Walters, who have Pachyderm installed on their museum server. Walters staff can change and update material on the Integrating the Arts Web site without any special technical know-how beyond a couple of hours of training in using Pachyderm. To learn more about Pachyderm, go to where the New Media Consortium offers hosted accounts and trials of Pachyderm. The Pachyderm user community can be tracked on the Pachyforge site at The Pachyderm software is available for free at for download and installation, although it’s recommended that museums without technical staff wait for the new Pachyderm version 2.1 due out this summer.

The Museum-Ed Web site is powered by another open source software called Joomla. Joomla is essentially a system for managing content that results in a standard Web page with a lot of potential add-ons. The Museum-Ed Web site’s use of Joomla means it’s easy to update by anyone. In addition, Museum-Ed uses a separate software to power its list serv,, blog software to produce the content you’re reading right now, and a flickr pool to display photo portraits of museum educators (

Open source software like Joomla has the potential to return the Web to its original, anyone-can-do-it spirit. One potential museum application is docent Web sites. Many museum educators recognize the need to create Web sites to serve their docent audience, and tools like Joomla make it possible for museum educators to do it themselves, circumventing the red tape that makes it hard to create a new Web site within the political boundaries of the museum. You can learn more about Joomla at

In part two of this blog we’ll cover the changing landscape of museum audio tours.