An Ideal Shidduch: Schools and Museums

Numerous studies have shown that when children interact with objects they acquire new ways of looking at the world. Object-centered, hands-on learning based in an informal museum environment can create avenues for exploring a wide range of subjects. To quote the Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” It’s this mantra that forms the basis of the growing field of museum education which is today an integral part of the general museum world. Together with school systems throughout America, museum educators are redefining how teachers can incorporate museum exhibitions into their classroom.

It’s profoundly exciting to see museums and schools working in tandem, as partners, to educate our children. Yet although thousands of American school children visit museums of one sort or another each year, there are tens of thousands more who do not. Since we know that the type of active learning experiences that take place in museums can truly be transformative, why aren’t museum visits a standard teaching tool for every teacher? And for the purpose of this essay, why aren’t more Jewish day schools using visits to museums to enhance not only classroom lessons for the purpose of meeting state standards, but to fulfill their commitment to imbue students with a common historical memory? Jewish museums in particular, with their treasure trove of artifacts, both ancient and new, can serve as an incubator for growing these memories and help generate interest in a vast array of Jewish subjects.

I’ve come to the conclusion that before you can have a shidduch there must be a courtship. It’s not fair to presume that just because museums and schools share common goals, the matchmaking process will be easy. Both are settings geared to learning, but the methods or strategies used are quite different. So I’d like to act the part of the shadchan, or matchmaker, and provide some tips that should help schools and teachers create lasting partnerships between two very different, but compatible, educational institutions.

Where to begin? Jewish schools in America have a host of potential “partners.” The Council of Jewish American Museums (CAJM) has nearly eighty institutional members spread across the continent, ranging from large institutions with vast collections to synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, some with just a few display cases. The American Association of Museums (AAM) lists more than three thousand institutional members that include museums of every type: art, history, cultural specific, science, aquariums, botanical gardens, children’s museums, planetariums, nature centers, and zoos. Today, most museums have educators who reach out to connect with teachers and students. With all these choices, one would think making a shidduch would be easy. Not true.

A report published by AAM suggested that “education is the primary purpose of museums,”—easier said than done. If this is the main purpose of museums, then one of the museums’ target audiences, teachers and their students in grades K-12, have to contend with a number of issues that often complicate what many would think a “no brainer”—the school field trip.

Lack of funding, increased prices in transportation, longer school days, class scheduling conflicts, testing schedules, vacation days, and most importantly, the need to meet standardized curricular requirements stand in the way of visits to museums and other cultural venues. When it comes to Jewish schools and Jewish museums, there are the added challenges of working around and with the Jewish holiday schedule, and the fact that Jewish curriculum is often not standardized by grade. But the largest hurdle to overcome is the notion that museum programs are simply “add-ons” or supplements to lessons, not an integral part of the learning experience.

And what about the challenges faced by museum educators? Museum programs and curriculum decisions are guided by a number of factors besides state educational standards. Some but not all of the challenges include the type of museum, the general collection or theme of a particular exhibition, gallery capacity and layout, classroom availability, exhibition design, number of staff and docents, hours open to the public, competing programs, profit or not-for-profit status, storage space, and even available parking. Add to this the often daunting task of outreach to the desired audience. How to contact the teachers? There are a number of methods, but most often museum educators get school contact information from school district headquarters and the Internet. And more often than not, the school program brochures and invitations are sent to a school administrator and then, depending upon the administrator’s decision, the teachers may or may not find out about the program. But once a teacher contacts the museum, voilà—the teacher’s name is in a database and it’s a “keeper.”

There is a better way. Teachers should be proactive.

Approach a field trip as you would any of your own lesson plans. Make “out-of-the-box” learning experiences a part of your standard teaching repertoire. Do your homework—visit museums in your area and ask about their education programs. Check out their offerings online. (Many have lesson plans that can be downloaded.) Introduce yourself to the education staff. Ask to be put on their mailing list. Look at museum offerings with a different set of eyes. If the program they offer doesn’t fit well with your curriculum, but you do see some links, consider creating your own tour and materials. Talk with the educators about how you might create your own object-based learning program. If they have a collection of Egyptian artifacts, can you link these to a lesson about Passover and the Exodus? Artifacts from Revolutionary War America? Create a lesson linked to Hayim Solomon and the earliest Jewish communities in the Colonies. Ask if the museum has materials or images to loan for classroom use. Offer to help create curricula or to help the museum test new lesson plans. Attend teacher training workshops and take advantage of the increasing number of professional development programs offered by museums around the country. Do they offer distance learning or multi-session partnership opportunities? Ask. And remember, don’t ignore the small museums. Though they may not have collections (or staff) to rival the mega-museums, they’ll be thrilled to help you educate your students.

But keep in mind that like future marriage partners, you must take into account basic differences. Museum exhibitions are generally planned years in advance. This creates a challenge for museum educators who must book school tours early, often before schools have set up their own schedules for the coming year. To plan tours for an exhibition that opens in the fall usually requires booking dates in the spring of the preceding school year, or at the latest, during the summer when so many teachers are on vacation. If your name is on the museum’s mailing list, you’ll have first chance to arrange a visit.

When a museum-school shidduch works well, students are the ultimate winners.

A case in point is a sixth grade class that visits the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to study “Archaeology of the Ancient Near East,” a topic that meets state standards. The teacher is provided with a pre-visit lesson containing hands-on replicas and other interactive materials. During the museum visit, students view actual artifacts from sites in and around Israel and participate in a dig at the appropriately named Kiryat HaMalachim (City of the Angels) where they uncover an “Iron Age” Israelite village. Then, using prior knowledge and the clues they uncovered, plus illustrative quotes from Torah, they figure out what happened at the site. The thrill of discovery is obvious, and year-after-year teachers return to replicate the experience with a new group of students.

In today’s fast-paced high-tech world, our children face demands to learn new ways to approach problem solving. Physical interaction, or “hands-on” learning, engages the learner and demands different ways of thinking. We know that by providing students with alternate paths to knowledge we can help stimulate the struggle with ideas, or more simply, teach them to “think.” For Jewish schools and museums, particularly Jewish museums, this shidduch can lead to a “marriage made in heaven.” ♦

Gabrielle Rabin Tsabag is Senior Educator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. She can be reached at
Gabrielle Rabin Tsabag
The Arts in Jewish Education
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership, Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2008