Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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Story 10 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

Cultural education falls into two camps, each with a basic goal. One is to learn about another place for its own sake—the more we know the world, the better world citizen we become.

The other is to see the exploration of a foreign culture as a journey in self-understanding. Through understanding the values, arts, and social structures of another culture, people begin to take a second look at their assumed ways of doing things and in the process arrive at a new understanding of humanity.

Doing exhibits that "explained," or at least introduced unfamiliar and often exotic cultures to kids, classes, and families was a problem. It was tough creating cross-cultural exhibits that really sung to kids, much less to their teachers and parents. Aside from the excitement and pride at the opening parties for our advisors, staff, and the families who were the subjects of the displays, once they opened these exhibits were a yawn.

Yet we had a string of successful non-cultural exhibits to point to: What's Inside? Animals and Armor, How Movies Move, Grandmother's Attic, Big and Little, Giant's Desktop, Raceways, PlaySpace, What If You Couldn't?, Water Play, Bubbles, Factories. What made these experiences exciting while the cultural exhibits were just there?

We also had non-exhibit examples of successful cross-cultural experiences. For example, classroom kits (Japanese Family MATCh Kit,) vacation week programs (Japanese New Year,) access to collections (Japanese Study Storage,) sampling other cultures (Overnights in the Japanese House.) Multicultural learning experiences like these seemed to work and avoided the curse of ho-hum. What was different about these experiences that we failed to capture in our thoughtful, earnest cultural exhibits?

The problem is partly structural. The exhibit medium is inherently impersonal and arms-length. The visitor can be quite alone with her thoughts and the exhibit's challenges. If she gets stuck, she has to look for help beyond the borders of the solitary exhibit experience—to a parent, to a floor interpreter, to a teacher, to another kid.

By contrast, staff, teacher, or parent using the museum's programs and learning materials can orchestrate activities or "conversations" with a kid, class, or family in highly social ways. Direct questions can be asked. Misperceptions can be detected and run to the ground. Speculations can be offered. These iterative and very personal experiences turn out to be a good fit for exploring and beginning to understand both our own and other cultures.

Acknowledging these structural difficulties was a start, but we were unwilling to abandon the rich and necessary field of cross-cultural learning. Some of us thought we might have to walk away from the exhibit medium and concentrate instead on programs, collaborations, and materials in this more interpersonal corner of the museum's learning agenda.

But there were some tantalizing exceptions of what might have been a dismal string of uninspired cultural exhibits. The differences between unsuccessful and successful cultural exhibits provoked analysis. The Algonquin Wigwam and Japanese House worked best when staffed and thus became as much richly detailed program venues as conventional exhibits. Lito the Shoeshine Boy was a compelling story based on a simple but profound book of photographs, made tangible by displaying replicas of all of Lito's meager possessions. Families, also based on a book or photos illustrated by spoken testimonials of each family's children, was organized into private reading experience between a child and an adult. Japanese Fake Foods was intriguing and funny to both kids and grownups. Tetsuo's Room was technically not an exhibit but came to life as an object theatre. Teen Tokyo was a collection of over-the-top experiences with lots of working interactives and media. Currently touring, Children of Hangzhou contains deeply developed learning activities that take advantage of every experiential opportunity without compromising the core agenda of the exhibition. All these examples, because of the determination and creativity of the developers and designers, went beyond our expectations to become true cultural exhibit success stories.

Besides, we just can't leave the cultural exhibit experience alone. After all, we are a museum! So we have to remind ourselves, at the conception of each project, that taking on these most challenging but necessary cultural exhibits is not for the fainthearted, or the naïve exhibitor. If we are going to move beyond the programs, materials, and collaborations into this not obvious form of museum communication, we should do it only for good reason and then, turn the task over to the real pros. And we should take care in conceiving and developing the most creative routes to success. Without this conceptual and methodological understanding and extra effort, these cultural exhibits are likely to disappoint.

Next: Part 1: The Plum Pudding Model - The Japanese House