On the Front Lines of History: Educators at History Museums, Archives, and Historic Sites

AHA Session 46
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)
Annie Polland, American Jewish Historical Society
Maria Marable-Bunch, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution
Emily Potter-Ndiaye, Mead Art Museum
K. Allison Wickens, George Washington's Mount Vernon
Lauren Zalut, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Annie Polland, American Jewish Historical Society

Session Abstract

As boundaries between public and academic history break down, there is increasing acknowledgement of the role that museums, historic sites, and archives play in teaching history to broad and diverse audiences. Yet many focus on the role of curators in shaping historical narratives, overlooking the essential role played by education staff at public history sites. According to the American Alliance of Museums, approximately 55 million students visit museums in school groups alone each year. Museum educators also shape the work of teachers and educators, the general public, scholars and content specialists, and many more.

This panel brings together experienced leaders in the field of museum education to examine the integral role that educators play in teaching historical content and the practice of history at museums, historic sites, and archives. Panelists will analyze different models of museum education in various contexts, consider the intellectual, administrative, and pedagogical challenges and opportunities that educators and administrators face daily, and propose new methods of collaboration between public history and academia.

Educators often serve as the main point of contact between an institution and many different publics – K-12 educators, K-12 and college students, general visitors, tour attendees, and others. The panel will discuss the pluses and pitfalls that arise in “translating” an institution’s exhibitions, documents, objects, and mission to diverse audiences. It will lay out different models of educator training and content oversight that leading institutions have adopted, and discuss institutions are best able to support the training of education staff. It will consider the essential role that educators play in making history accessible to underserved audiences – especially school-age children. It will analyze the key role educators play in communicating audience needs to the content specialists. It will highlight challenges that administrators at institutions of different sizes face when advocating for equitable compensation and treatment of often part-time education staff. Finally, panelists will suggest modes of partnership between public history educators and academic historians, and consider key lessons that academic historians can learn from the practices of the field of museum education.

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