From the Field

Gretchen Dietrich: On Museum Learning

July 21, 2014

Before Utah Museum of Fine Arts' Gretchen Dietrich was a museum director, she was a museum educator. Dietrich brought this unique perspective to the panel Learning in Art Museums at AAMD's 2014 Annual Meeting. Her talk - which addresses institutional authority, diversity, and balancing scholarship with accessibility - appears below.


On Museum Learning

by Gretchen Dietrich, executive director, Utah Museum of Fine Arts


About twenty years ago in Boston, I was lucky enough to be a museum educator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and I went to my first museum education conference. It was an amazing experience. The group was composed of very committed and passionate people, who were deeply concerned about the position of museum education within their institutions, about what they perceived as a lack of interest in the public dimensions of their museums and an unwillingness to think about and be responsive to the needs of our audiences.


I remember very clearly someone saying – with quite a bit of rebellious fervor – “You know what needs to happen in order for real change to occur? More museum educators need to become museum directors!” And as a young museum educator, I remember thinking – very distinctly – “Who in their right mind would ever want to be a museum director?” Fast-forward to today, and I am truly delighted to be a part of this important conversation.


When we talk about learning in museums, some museum professionals might think only of K-12 kids and classroom teachers. Please, let’s remember that everyone learns in museums – or should be invited to do so. Museum learning and museum education today is much more broadly defined and absolutely touches and informs just about everything we do – as it should.  


I began my career in the early 1990s, just as the seminal AAM report, Excellence and Equity, was produced. The report committee was chaired by Bonnie Pitman, who has been such a force in our field as both a museum educator and a museum director. Excellence and Equity aimed to place education and learning at the very heart of the museum. This was a radical proposition at the time, and it marked an important shift in American museums away from a more traditional, academic and connoisseurial model of the museum toward a new model that remained committed to excellent scholarship and art but was also focused on better engaging communities and serving a broader range of visitors.  That was the “equity” part of the equation. For many of us, it was a call to action – really quite political - and a vote for systemic change.


Some feared that doing this would come at a terrible cost – that museums would become less rigorous and less scholarly. Some feared that we would somehow lose part of what makes us special, that a great “dumbing-down” of the work of the museum would surely follow.


At the heart of these concerns was the question of authority. Whose voice matters most? Who has the power within the institution to say what the museum will do, what it won’t do, and how it will be done?  In the 1990s, many considered museum education to be in service to the “real” work of the museum, which was building collections, doing research, and creating exhibitions. The authority of the institution, therefore, typically rested with its curators. 


Excellence and Equity was not challenging us to choose between excellence and equity – it was urging us to embrace both. As museum directors we must navigate these tricky, often political waters: How do we collect and interpret great art, create smart exhibitions that are grounded in rigorous and current research—which is the core of what we do and what makes us special—while at the same time being inclusive of our communities and innovative about how and what we communicate with them.  Let’s remember: objects don’t speak for themselves. We – as institutions, as directors, as curators and educators – frame and shape and drive these conversations, but our visitors complete the exchange. Some museums have truly embraced these ideas and concepts while many of us continue to work to do so. 


But I firmly believe we need to know more about our audiences – who they are now and who they might be in the future. We need to reach out in new ways. We need to make our visitors feel truly welcome and we need to help them engage with our amazing institutions in ways that feel right to them. Every institution needs to do this in unique and thoughtful ways – in ways that make sense for our museums’ distinct institutional missions and for our diverse communities – but we need to do it and we need to do it right now.


In my view, the museum field must face three additional challenges related to learning in museums in the coming years.


A big challenge is the issue of diversity – or, for most of us, really, a lack thereof.  We talk about it and fret about it a lot, but what do we really mean? First we must stop thinking about diversity as a problem we need to solve and instead recognize it as an opportunity we must embrace, one that offers our institutions great promise for remaining relevant.  I think we need to pursue diversification in three distinct areas.


First, we need to think about the issue of diversity in our program - our exhibitions, collections, and public programming. Too often, we continue to rely on our museum educators to organize outreach programs and community days that engage diverse audiences, and we think our work is done. But what about the choices we make in the art we collect and exhibit?  One museum I worked at early in my career mounted eleven, one-person exhibitions in the years I was on staff. Of the eleven artists, nine were white men, two were women, and one of the women was a person of color. We have to recognize that this makes no sense – unless we strive for the status quo, unless we want our museums to feel relevant only for a shrinking segment of our population. This seems clearly to be a huge, long-term mistake, as well as a gross disservice to historical and contemporary artistic practices to which we are all, in one way or another, so devoted.


Second, there is the dogged issue of diversity on our boards and among our staffs. This is not a new issue, of course, and while many of us have made some headway here, I think we would agree that there is still a lot of work to be done. If our museums are governed and staffed primarily by affluent white people, how will we make the right choices to get our institutions where we need and hope to be in the future?


Lastly, we need to think about our traditional docent programs and the challenges we face to adequately train and prepare these essential volunteers to succeed in our galleries with visitors. Docent programs are composed of remarkably dedicated and passionate volunteers, but as the cultural and economic divide in our communities continues to grow and our demographics change so rapidly, traditional docent programs face some serious challenges. In my experience, docent programs are often predominately composed of affluent, older white women, while the audiences they serve are increasingly diverse in every way. Even in Salt Lake City schools, students now speak 129 different languages! We need to ask ourselves if even the very best docent training program - with considerable diversity and difference training - is enough to equip these dedicated volunteers with the necessary skills to succeed in our galleries with an increasingly diverse student population? As our communities continue to change, the job of the docent will become harder – not easier.


Another challenge we’ll need to address with regard to museum learning and attracting new audiences has to do with issues of authenticity and the very collections we hold so dear. I fear more and more that people care less and less about real objects—an attitude that is difficult for us as art museum professionals to imagine or to believe.


But without question, competition is increasing for people’s shrinking free time and attention. And more and more new museums and attractions of all kinds continue to open, many of whom make no commitment to authentic or real objects whatsoever. In Salt Lake City, a brand new museum boasts on its website “With more than 400 interactive experiences, you can choose a new adventure each time you visit!” This organization calls itself a museum, yet there is not a single authentic object in the entire building. And people think it’s awesome! When families in my community wake up on Saturday morning and think about what they should do that day, they have more choices than ever before and my institution has increasing competition, every day.


The point is our audiences’ ideas of what is and isn’t a museum, of what is or isn’t a good museum worthy of their time, money and attention, are becoming increasingly blurred and expansive. As leaders of art museums, we can choose to remain smug and aloof on this point, believing that the authentic object and the curator’s eye will get us to the other side—but what if it doesn’t? We need to do a better job of explaining why we collect and exhibit authentic objects. We need to communicate more effectively why these objects matter, or should matter, to us as individuals and to society as a whole. Objects don’t speak for themselves—that’s our job, our responsibility. We must strive to connect people to our amazing collections in thoughtful ways – that’s the role and work of our institutions – but in ways that matter to our visitors.


This brings me to my last point: creating a culture of collaboration in our institutions in order to serve our audiences’ needs more effectively. We use that word—collaboration—a lot, but what exactly do we mean by it? We cannot create what we cannot explain and articulate to our staff and to our boards. As museum leaders, we need to articulate explicitly to everyone on staff the values and expectations that underlie our work. No one gets a pass. We have to communicate this and we have to hold people accountable: curators; educators; finance, marketing and PR people; our fundraisers; digital media creators – all need to understand the priorities and purposes of our exhibitions and programs with the goal of creating amazing work that will have the deepest or broadest impact and relevance for our audiences.   


As for curators and educators – could it be that in the very near future the traditional skill sets of these key staff positions will become increasingly blended? Is there a new model we could think about here? I admire museum educators who think and work in many ways like curators – with a deep knowledge and love of art. And some of my favorite curators are people who think and work in many ways as educators, with an informed understanding of our audiences’ needs and a desire to make their exhibitions and installations thoughtfully accessible. The curator’s research, knowledge, creativity, and vision, together with the educator’s innovation, knowledge, creativity, and passion, will take us where we need to go.


In closing, for me, the magic of the museum is that it uses amazing works of art to create opportunities for dialogue, interaction, and introspection.


As we think about museum education, about learning in museums, and about the future of our institutions, we must recognize the rapidly changing demographics of our communities, the quickly shifting world of technology that surrounds us, and the increasing competition for our visitors’ time and attention. We would be foolish to believe that maintaining the status quo will allow us to be relevant to the lives of the people we strive to serve. I am sure all of us deeply believe in art museums, and we have spent many years trying to make them better, smarter, and more user-friendly. But that’s not good enough. It is our responsibility to find ways to inspire participation and engagement and to ensure that the museum remains meaningful and relevant to the communities we serve.


Twenty years have passed since the question was raised at that conference “Who wants to be the director of an art museum?” Without hesitation, I can say that I do.


The author wishes to thank these wonderful people: Lori Fogarty, Monty Paret, Allison Perkins, Bonnie Pitman, Danielle Rice, Marla Shoemaker, Jackie Terrassa.

Image of Gretchen Dietrich by Cris Baczek