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Revealing the Spectrum

Regardless of suitability or circumstance, the traditional modes of teaching forged within schools tend to dominate education in museums, zoos, and other auxiliary educational institutions.

For instance, many docents and staff educators instruct by lecturing. This form of teaching transferred to museums in spite of the profound differences (and considerable advantages) that teaching with original works of art, living creatures, architectural treasures, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens offer when compared to teaching with textbooks and blackboards.

Consider, also, the commonly accepted practice of teaching “academic disciplines” in isolation from one another. This approach dictates that science is taught during science class, and not during art; art is taught during art class, and not during science; and so forth.

Such manufactured barriers are artificial and somewhat arbitrary. They bear little resemblance to the powerful confluence of ideas, activities, and forces that combine to shape and affect everything in our world.

Museums tend to reinforce these academic divisions when they classify themselves as art, or history, or science. While this form of labeling is considered useful and perhaps even necessary, it need not limit the boundless potential inherent in their collections.

Museum collections are most interesting, and have their greatest impact, when the full spectnim of their implications is revealed. One way to communicate a broader r;mge of import;ince and value to the visiting public is to provide them with an interdisciplinary view.

There are several methods of developing an interdisciplinary lesson. One is to consider your collection from an alternate academic vantage point. In an art museum, for example, a lesson could be constructed that looks at the evolution of art from a chemistry perspective. Such a tour might examine: the availability and properties of dyes and pigments; the qualities and uses of adhesive media like egg albumen, oils, and acrylics; or differences in the characteristics of the metals used to create photographic prints.

In an historic home, this method might result in a tour that explores the form of a building’s design from the view of physics and engineering. Or, in a botanical garden, such a lesson might shift the focus from botany to art by examining the visual effects of particular juxtapositions and arrangements in landscaping, or how hybridization satisfied a desire for alternate sizes, shapes, and colors.

Another method of developing an interdisciplinary approach is to incorporate a theme that is broad enough to enfranchise other disciplines as well as the one of primary concern to your institution. Consider, for example, the theme of “endangered species” in a zoo or natural history institution.

Any endangered species lesson should begin with a definition of what the term “endangered” means. Following this, learners would be shown several different animals and/or plants that are endangered.

The lesson might continue with the docent telling learners, “All of these different life forms share the ‘endangered’ status in common. Using your powers of observation and your ability to make comparisons, develop a list of everything that’s different about these creatures.”

A wide variety of answers could follow, depending upon the endangered species presented. They might include: some are large, others are small; some are mammals, others are reptiles or amphibians; some fly, others walk; some live in warm climates, others in cold; some live on land, others are aquatic; some live among humans, others far from civilization: and so forth.

Following this, docents might ask learners to interpret, or extract meaning from, the wide range of differences they found. Interpretations might range from “there are endangered species in all parts of the animal kingdom” to “there are threats to life forms in just about all environments and geographic areas of the world.”

The last part of the lesson might involve hypothesizing, or making informed guesses. Learners would make conjectures about the sources of threats to such diverse life forms living in so many different climates and terrains. Here, the conversation would flow through every discipline, and reveal the complexity and depth of the problem. Some responses, like natural selection, predator/prey relationships, or the health of ecosystems would be fairly “science-oriented.” Others, such as the economics of pollution, population and urban growth, social customs, and agricultural patterns are the domain of the social sciences. Still others, like fashion or art approach the subject of aesthetics.

An interdisciplinary approach when teaching can reveal the full spectrum of your institution’s collection. At the same time, it serves to enfranchise the many different interests and orientations of your visitors. As an added bonus, an interdisciplinary approach can be a fun and stimulating way to reinvigorate your own enthusiasm for your institution’s permanent collection.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Revealing the Spectrum,” The Docent Educator 2.2 (Winter 1992): 2-3.

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