Future Teachers Develop Hands-On Techniques in Museum Education Course
For the past decade or so, Ilana Benson, director of museum education at Yeshiva University Museum (YU Museum), and Miriam Hirsch, associate professor of education and co-chair of the Department of Education at Stern College for Women, have worked together to plan museum sessions for education majors that link education course content with YU Museum resources and exhibitions.
Building on these visits and learning experiences, Benson and Hirsch developed “Introduction to Museum Education,” an undergraduate course whose approach and content are more typical of graduate-level study. “The course is a way for teacher candidates to learn about other kinds of educators,” said Hirsch, “and especially how museums can advance critical thinking skills, deepen understanding of social and historical context and promote learning outside a traditional classroom.”
Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum, is a strong supporter of the course and credits both Benson and Bonni-Dara Michaels, the YU Museum’s collections curator, for its solid success. “We are thrilled to partner with the education department to offer students a window into ‘museum-style’ education and experiential learning.” He added that “the class will provide a model for teaching and learning that can inspire them in all their future professional paths, and perhaps might even inspire a few toward the vital and rewarding path of museum education.”
The course takes place at the YU Museum so its fascinating artifacts and exhibitions can be incorporated into sessions. At a recent meeting, students in the course (who are mostly majoring in preschool and elementary education) had the opportunity to discuss the concept of “connoisseurship” with Wisse and inspect items selected by Michaels from the YU Museum’s collection.
“Connoisseurship,” as Wisse pointed out, is the act of evaluating works of art through both technical inquiry and informed intuition to assess their “value.” Wisse explained that value is not just an object’s worth in the art market but also its importance in multiple contexts—historical, social, economic, political and so on. Objects may not have a high economic worth but can still be considered valuable by the museum because of how they connect to the lives of visitors or the light they shed on a historical period.
A lively discussion followed the presentation, touching upon the talents and training needed for connoisseurship, the ways objects exert their influence upon people and how YU Museum makes its decisions about what to accept into its collections. What came out of the back-and-forth was a respect for the custodial responsibilities of a museum and an appreciation of how difficult it is to articulate an object’s “value” in a way that can be communicated to others.
For the second half of the class, Michaels wheeled in a cart of objects from the YU Museum’s extensive collection so that the students could perform a close inspection of Torah pointers, a wedding headdress, a marriage goblet and other Judaica. They slipped on gloves, got a quick lesson from Michaels about the proper way to handle the pieces and then passed them around as Michaels asked them, based on the evidence in their hands, to estimate the historical period and the source country.
Feeling the weight of the articles, inspecting their imperfections, puzzling out an inscription or tracing an image gave the students a deeper insight how any physical objects exerts a pull on an observer. As one of the students said, “It’s not just a ‘thing’ but everything that it went through – the people, the history, the stories.”
Benson sees the course as a natural way for the two organizations to share their richness and expertise. “In this class, advanced education students have their own museum ‘lab’ where they can literally get their hands on objects to explore museum curriculum options in-depth,” she explained. “It’s also a winning situation for YU Museum because we look to incorporate their ideas into future school program offerings.”
Hirsch believes that the course “will strengthen the teachers’ arts advocacy and the likelihood of improving and enhancing the education of their future students with arts-based inquiry and pedagogy.”
Both Hirsch and Benson agree that, as Hirsch stated, “it has been very exciting to launch this course because it provides a clear example of how collaboration, creativity and commitment to the arts can improve teaching and learning for all.”