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Taking Education on the Road

Of all the educational activities conducted by museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens, few are less understood or appreciated than outreach. Outreach, or programming that occurs in locations other than the originating institution, is perceived by many staff members as the bane of their responsibilities, and is often discounted as extraneous, non-essential, and a waste of precious resources.

The irony is that “extraneous, non-essential, and a waste of precious resources” is how many members of the public view the very institutions we represent and cherish. Perhaps one reason for this is that our institutions are perceived as insular — separate, self-contained, and self-congratulatory — removed from most people’s everyday lives and experiences.

Outreach programming is an important way to give our institutions greater relevance and presence in the community. Outreach serves a significant public relations function while furthering such educational goals as generating interest in the subject area, enhancing the public’s desire and ability to learn from collections, and serving audiences that are traditionally underserved.

Outreach programming, like its in-house counterpart, is totally consistent with institutional mission statements and with Excellence and Equity, the guidelines set by the American Association of Museums for institutions as they move into the 21st century. Regardless of whether that outreach program consists of a “picture lady” who travels to schools preparing students for their first visit to the art museum, or a naturalist who conducts bird watching trips for families on the weekend, or a docent who goes to hospitals offering stimulus and diversion to patients, outreach is yet another measure of an institution’s commitment to educating the public.

Outreach to Prepare for Future Visits

Schools and interest-oriented organizations, such as garden clubs, visit museums and other such institutions with educational rather than recreational intentions. However, the type of learning that occurs in our institutions — learning directly from objects, artifacts, or living things — is unlike the usual, formal educational experiences of most students and adults. Thus, the quality of these encounters may be hindered or slowed by unfamiliar processes and methods.

One major benefit derived by those who receive pre-visit contact is that it prepares them for “object-based interactive learning,” or learning that requires active involvement through the making of careful observations, reflections, interpretations, and analyses. Having such learning experiences prior to a visit, in the form of a practice run, improves the quality of the educational encounter once on site.

Another benefit of pre-visit contact is that it reinforces recollection and comprehension. Having an opportunity to see reproductions of or things similar to, what will be viewed while on site creates awareness while heightening interest. Students are usually excited to discover familiar objects when making an institutional visit and eager to tell the docent touring them what they learned about the object or artifact they’ve seen before. In turn, the docent can teach toward greater depth as there is recognition and awareness of the object or artifact already working in the lesson’s favor.

Outreach should not be a “show and tell” of institutional collections, however. It should be an educational experience that stands on its own merits. Those educators who design outreach programming must develop complete educational lesson plans with learning objectives that do not leave questions unanswered or hold out the promise of completion once visitors are in attendance on site. Invariably, there will be those who do not make the institutional visit; tours will differ from what was promised or intended; and, though most students will remember broad aspects of what was learned through outreach, some may not remember the lesson in detail as too much time and other learning activities will fall in between.

Outreach to Expand Institutional Resources

Outreach programming is an excellent way to extend institutional collections or connect them to a larger universe. Guided expeditions to local wildlife preserves allow learners to see living examples of the mounted specimens encountered at the museum, and to gain an understanding of how important habitats are to survival. Trips to archeological sites engender a greater appreciation for other cultures and time periods showcased within an institutional collection, and can reveal the painstaking work of the scientists who unearth, preserve, and interpret the artifacts an institution presents. Opportunities to witness artists creating paintings, prints, or sculptures can increase the public’s respect for, and appreciation of the process of art-making as well as the finished products exhibited in institutional galleries.

While all learning experiences are valuable, programming sponsored by museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens ought to have a purpose that is identifiably relevant to the sponsoring institution’s collection. Learners should be made aware of how the outreach lesson ties into an institution’s collection and area of interest. In this way, the institution becomes a focal point for follow-up learning, and outreach serves to reinforce and build institutional audiences.

Outreach to Reach New, Underserved, or Different Audiences

Outreach programming that seeks to reach new audiences should make a special effort to connect learning back to the institution and should spell out precisely how a visit to the institution allows learners to build upon the interest generated through the outreach lesson (i.e. – use of the library; access to staff members; additional examples in the collection; etc.).

Outreach programs serving audiences that are unable to visit an institution, such as residents of long term health care facilities, must make a special effort to take learners into account. Begin by contacting the administrator in charge of the facility to be visited. Talk about the people housed in their facility. What assistance will the facility’s staff be able to offer during the outreach session? Are there any physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities that should be accounted for?

Outreach lessons for those who cannot make a follow-up, institutional visit must be self-contained learning experiences. This does not mean that outreach programs should be disconnected from an institution’s purpose; rather, it means that programs should be as independent and complete a learning endeavor as possible. Bring objects of secondary importance to the collection or reproductions so that the lesson will be object-based. Construct an introduction, activities, and a conclusion based on a theme or set of ideas. Do not make the program a display of what might be seen if the audience could visit the institution. Make the program a satisfying and valuable learning experience in-and-of itself.

Unless offered specifically as “continuing education,” which is an entirely different educational endeavor, all outreach programs are meant to bring an institution’s resources and identity to the community. Outreach programming has a strong public relations dimension which must be discernible by its audience to be successful.

Good public relations should be educational, and educational programming makes for good public relations. No institution need passively accept poor audience attendance, nor need it be satisfied with walk-in traffic alone. Outreach is an important vehicle for reaching new audiences in a manner consistent with an institution’s reason for being. Keep in mind, however, that public relations involves the art of persuasion, not coercion. People must learn of an institution’s worth; they can not simply be told of it.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Taking Education on the Road,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 2-3.

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