Notes from IHA

Notes from IHA

People who work in museums usually do so because they love museums and often have a lifelong history of enjoyable visits to them. Sometimes these individuals develop expectations that everyone shares this enthusiasm. So a recent posting in a blog created by Penelope Trunk, a mother who homeschools her children and has little use for museums, came as a shock to some. Her post “Are Museums Irrelevant?” can be seen at Her remarks were followed by more than eighty comments from readers, both pro and con.

In her post, Ms. Trunk throws down the gauntlet with her comment “to be honest, most museums stink.” She continues, “For today’s kids, the museum is an improvement over school, but not over learning at home.” She gives several reasons why she believes museums are “an increasingly limited learning tool for kids, and adults, for that matter”: “Children’s museums are over-designed indoor playgrounds. Dinosaur museums are one-time wonders. Exhibit-based museums are primary sources for the rare person who needs them. Museums are another way to limit self-directed learning. To see how irrelevant museums are, follow the money.” The last point is a reference to Curious Methods, a customized museum program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offered for a fee. Ms. Trunk concludes, “[Museums] sell customized museum tours because, presumably, if you put a kid in a museum, he will not find anything to learn without someone helping him.” She says this is “because kids can’t find stuff to learn when they are in a situation that is not conducive to learning. And a museum falls into this category for 90% of kids.”

This is strong language. Some commenters agreed with her 100 percent. A few samples are: “We unschool. My kids hate museums for ALL of the reasons you describe in this post.” “I totally agree and have been thinking that museums are like universities––they are outmoded and out-of-sync with our changing needs.” “Museums to me are entertainment. There are fascinating things and interesting things, but I’ve never been inspired to the point of action outside the museum walls (based on the museum content). I want my kids to take action, and I don’t really see museums sparking that ignition.” Others defended museums: “Everything in a museum is a garden of questions to be asked.” “Our historic house museum is like a time machine that opens the imagination to empathy of people in the past who moved through the space as well. There’s room to explore. It’s all in how you use it.”

While those who treasure museums (and perhaps work in them) might immediately come to their defense, perhaps it would be helpful to think about the negative remarks and ponder whether there is a grain of truth in some of them. Most museums constantly seek ways to improve and are open to constructive ideas. Don’t circle the wagons because some of these remarks sting. This debate is not over.