Through the Looking-Glass

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As the Academic Coordinator for the Museum of Art & Archaeology here at the University of Missouri, I am constantly searching for ways to strengthen our role as a teaching museum by creating additional linkages (or “filaments”, to borrow from a wonderful Walt Whitman poem) throughout the University and even beyond its walls. I discovered during my university teaching career that service-learning is one such ‘filament’. It offers wonderful opportunities to promote deep and meaningful student learning in addition to generating very useful research, so I have attempted to build upon this approach in my work here as Academic Coordinator for the Museum. I thought you might like to learn more about what’s happening in this important and highly rewarding dimension of my work here.

Service-learning has become a significant emphasis in higher education and, more specifically, at the University of Missouri. At least two key reasons help explain its rapidly growing popularity. First of all, along with many others I have found that students today strongly desire to make a positive difference (pdf) in their communities. At the same time, community development experts have increasingly turned to high school and college students as a large and relatively untapped pool of talent and civic engagement. For example, the Initiative Foundation’s Healthy Community Partnership (pdf) in Big Lake, Minnesota used the outstanding computer skills of their high school students to successfully market local farm produce on an international basis. That striking example relates to a second key aspect of service-learning. As systems analyst John Seeley Brown has observed, new information technology (pdf) has increased the emphasis upon active learning by students, as students raised on (or in) highly interactive new media enter and transform traditional university classrooms.

Just as Alice entered the Looking-Glass in order to observe her life in interesting new ways, service-learning makes the Museum of Art & Archaeology itself the subject of student research projects that offer us some valuable new insights. I would like to share three student research projects involving the Museum of Art & Archaeology you might find interesting.

The first student research project actually does not involve a University of Missouri student at all. Petra Vackova of Millsaps College (Mississippi) interviewed me for her Museum Studies research project looking at museum education as a model for higher education, and I wanted to share some of her interesting and important research findings. Petra, who came to the United States from the Czech Republic five years ago, is a junior majoring in art history and art studio. She focused on the educational aspects of museums because of her interest in education (she would like to become a professor) and its role within our culture. Petra concluded that “museum education is the New Age education” because it offers a highly effective new way of engaging today’s students. This individualized approach to learning helps students develop their thinking by means of programs and special activities offering direct experience with cultural objects. These objects in turn allow students to employ their different learning styles and multiple forms of intelligence to move toward more abstract concepts. Her thought-provoking research project offers us a valuable new way of thinking about museum education in general and, more specifically, the educational role of the Museum.

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So does the second student research project I would like to share with you. At the beginning of the winter 2007 semester I introduced myself to Pat Fowler of the University’s Service-Learning program and expressed my interest in having the Museum participate in the program. Ms. Fowler talked with her students looking for direct service projects and put me in touch with Alayna Jobe. Alayna was looking for a capstone project for her Interdisciplinary Studies degree program, which she turned into an outstanding service-learning experience with the Healing Art program. Alayna provided a range of valuable volunteer services and materials such as getting pictures reproduced that proved essential to the program, and MU Office of Service-Learning is now eager to continue working with the Museum on this and other projects.

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Finally, the third student research project really does take us through the Looking-Glass for a whole new look at museum design. I had the opportunity to serve as a reviewer of student projects in Dr. Newton D’Souza’s Architectural Studies design studio class. Dr. D’Souza assigned students the task of designing a museum for a variety of Columbia artifacts in order to effectively collect, curate, and communicate the objects. Jennifer Haile of our own Museum staff participated in this challenging class project, and we had the opportunity to talk at length about museum design and education issues. As a design reviewer, I also had the opportunity to question the students about their approaches and relate them to our work at the Museum of Art & Archaeology, thereby raising the Museum’s profile with another group of University students.

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As you can see, service-learning relates very well indeed to the Academic Coordinator’s goal of strengthening the Museum of Art & Archaeology as a learning resource for the University of Missouri. It can also deepen our self-understanding in the process. In the future, among other service-learning applications, I hope to explore how wayfinding systems could be systematically applied to the Museum in order to improve our visitor experience. Sometimes you have to pass through the Looking-Glass to obtain the best view…

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