Between ethics, entertainment and education
drs Margo de Groot Coenen, M.A., MK5060 – full circle projects, The Netherlands
Abstract: Museums are increasingly defining themselves as educational institutions and partners for formal education. As they are in and of this time they create educational experiences that are both entertaining and educational. This paper explores the moral intuitions of museum practitioners in striking the balance between entertainment and education in cross cultural museum education and looks at how the museums educational practice could be reflected in the museum ethical code.
Keywords: education, entertainment, ethics
Museums in the educational landscape
Since museums nowadays use their body of knowledge and collections to construct educational experiences whereby entertainment and education go hand in hand and since museums are by now in fact a constant part of the learning landscape, as an ethicist I feel that the moral considerations of the museum professionals deserve explicit attention and reflection. Museums are essentially mediated “things”. That might touch the visitor deeply, might enhance profound understanding of a subject. Whatever it moves in the visitor, is whatever the museum has designed. In the current day and age in order to move, to touch and to seduce the visitor the museum has to offer an experience. That has to be entertaining. Because in this day and age unless something encompasses most of our senses we tend to think of it as boring. Also when the primary goal of the experience is educational. That led me to wonder: what is the right balance between entertainment and education? Is there such a thing as “the right balance”? And is that balance universal? With those questions I started field research focusing on the moral considerations of museum practitioners in cross cultural education in The Netherlands. Being an intrepid traveler and world citizen I have always been drawn to the dynamics of interaction between different cultures in many contexts – not only the museum. Interaction that seems to be a continuous source of both fascination and fear. Of finding and redefining identity. Of finding oneself and connecting with the other.
In this paper I will discuss the findings and considerations coming from my research on the moral intuitions of museum practitioners in cross cultural education in the museum context. In the first paragraph I will discuss the main terminology used in this paper and in my research: I will look at the heart of education and at the concept of moral intuitions. Also I will briefly explain how education is an essentially moral activity. In the second paragraph I will position museums and museum education in the learning landscape. Against that background in the third paragraph I will analyze the moral intuitions of museums practitioners that play a role in shaping the balance between education and entertainment in the museum setting. In the closing fourth paragraph I will then explain why the ethical code of museums should be broadened in my view to explicitly include education.
The heart of education
The educational activities of museums are part of a wider learning landscape, as are the educational activities of libraries, schools for primary and secondary education and other institutions. Generally speaking the core of education is taken to refer to transfer. This transfer is usually defined on three levels: knowledge, skills and attitude.
Knowledge refers to the transfer of facts, for example being able to tell which form of Buddhism is practiced in Japan and how that is different from the Buddhism practiced in e.g. Thailand. Transfer on the level of skills refers to how to do something, for example how to speak another language. The third level of education focuses on attitude, a term that is difficult to define and a level of education that is difficult to reach. Attitude is hard to define because a behavioral, emotional and cognitive level are involved but these do not necessarily have to point in one direction. As such it is a wider concept than solely behaviour, although behaviour is an important expression of attitude. Attitude however not only refers to what one does, but also what one feels and thinks about something. In terms of cross cultural education the attitude level is reached when one reflects on for example ones own religious conviction and the relation to others. An attitude as such is not taught. Rather this level is reached through teaching knowledge and skills. As such is remains an elusive concept. John Dewey has always seen this distinction between knowledge, skills and attitude as rather arbitrary and incorrect. In his Moral principles of education he states:
(….)The child is to be not only a voter and a subject of law; he is also to be a member of a family, himself in turn responsible, in all probability, for rearing and training of future children, thereby maintaining the continuity of society. He is to be a worker, engaged in some occupation which will be of use to society, and which will maintain his own independence and self-respect. He is to be a member of some particular neighbourhood and community, and must contribute to the values of life, add to the decencies and graces of civilization wherever he is. These are bare and formal statements, but if we let our imagination translate them into their concrete details, we have a wide a varied scene. For the child properly to take his place in reference to these various functions means training in science, in art, in history; means command of the fundamental tools of intercourse and communication; means a trained and sound body, skilful eye and hand; means habits of industry; perseverance; in short, habits of serviceableness. (Dewey, J. (1959). Moral principles in education. New York: The Wisdom Library. P. 9-10)
It will need no further explanation that education level of attitude is an essentially moral activity: it goes to the core of who one is, what one thinks, feels, how one responds to situations. As such I would almost dare to say that it is the very heart of morality in practice. The morality on the level of knowledge and skills is possibly less obvious. However, knowledge and skills are rarely value free, especially when it comes to cross cultural education, but the values are quite often hidden. Which knowledge and what skills are taught are the result of systems of believes, goals, ideas, methodologies and dreams. The constellation of which determines what is important to know and what is relevant to be able to do.
What the purpose of education is, increasingly is the topic of a heated debate in the Netherlands, Europe and probably worldwide. Two main lines of thought can be distinguished.
The first line of thought sees the primary purpose of education in transferring skills and tools to students that enable them to be successful in the labour market, to make a contribution to the economy and to prepare them to adapt swiftly and flexibly to possibly changing demands. The end goal of this education is a problem solver who is capable of dealing with the changing demands of a continuously evolving business environment. This line of thought has been prevalent in The Netherlands for the last decades as is for example signified by the development and implementation of the so called core goals in primary and secondary education. These core goals specify what a student should know and should be able to do at the end of primary school and, for secondary education: per subject.
The second line of thought puts emphasis on education as a formative process with the focus on the development of the student as a human being. It comes from a rather more humanist background and sees the primary purpose of education to uncover and develop the possibilities, interests, and capabilities in the student through bringing them in contact with cultural and historical sources of value. In this line of thought the focus is on life rather than on work. Aspects of life such as suffering, joy, disloyalty and friendship should be a part of the educational process and should be discussed, reflected on and lived. These are aspects of a human life that are not manageable, but very much make life life. It is the conviction of the proponents of this line of thought that when these aspects of life are systematically and structurally integrated into education, society as such will profit from it.
Increasingly the two lines of thought meet making education essentially a two tiered enterprise in which students both learn to adapt to an established world by being outfitted with skills and tools that will help them, but in which they also learn to continuously and consciously intervene and bring about change. It is precisely the latter that makes humans into ethical beings. Skills and tools are never neutral, but rather they are based on goals, ideas methodologies and ideals. This holds for all institutions, or rather: organisations, involved with formal and non formal education that together form what I refer to as a learning landscape. This thus makes education on all levels an essentially value laden and thus an intrinsically moral activity.
The definition of moral intuitions and their origin is complex. For the sake of accessibility and workability in this framework I define moral intuitions as “a sketchy representation of facts, assumptions, and relevant principles or rules.” That shows both how we manage to in different levels of consciousness organize our story of an event including assumptions, beliefs and principles and on the basis of this somehow manage to involve ourselves – again mostly not very consciously – in a judgment that encompasses reasoning and analysis. To me the intuition is that what reveals itself in a moment rather than as the result of a long deliberate process of analysis. It is however sufficiently manifest as a moment of moral consciousness to signal that something is sufficiently important to be viewed as a moment of moral awareness from where conscious and structured moral reflection can start.
Museums in the learning landscape
In the learning landscape museums are positioned as non or informal education partners, thus: partners offering education outside the formal curriculum but with strong relations to the formal curriculum of schools. Museums offer a recognized valuable contribution to the formal curriculum and most museums by now have a dedicated educational department although budgets, responsibilities, organizational position and staffing of that department varies widely between museums. Despite this variation I think that on a general level the educational contribution of the museum to formal education can be defined as being five fold. Museums offer:
- a stimulating physical environment in which foreign objects are displayed, stories are told, and increasingly artefacts are displayed in such a way that they can be felt, sniffed, heard, in short: experienced by the visitor.
- different teaching methods from schools as they have assimilated the methods of other industries. They have developed ingenious ways of communicating non-cognitive attitudes, cultural habits and abstract ideas through the use of media technologies.
- an educational experience;
- a physical collection: by nature museums – as houses of muses following the Greeks – gather, collect and preserve historic artefacts or artefacts from other cultures. They do so and have being doing so in a systematic and orderly way for many years. This means that in addition museums have generated an unparalleled body of knowledge regarding these artefacts, their physical components, geographical background and historical context;
- a fun, no strings attached learning environment as their programmes assist schools in achieving educational goals, but they are not responsible for grading students. This gives museums a certain freedom in their approach of the subject at hand and of the students who visit.
In addition to their programmes developed in relation to the formal educational curriculum educational departments of museums are increasingly thinking about how to translate their body of knowledge and collection into with educational value for the general public such as families who come by themselves with the goal of being “edutained” by the museum.
With so much explicit attention for the educational role of the museum the concept of what is a museum seems to be shifting at a rather fundamental level: collection driven becomes education driven. When doing my research and writing this paper I could not help but wonder to what extent the division between non or informal education and formal education as given within schools is helpful. Museums are slowly but surely redefining themselves into educational institutions, educational institutions face a continuously growing demand for a broader educational programme that goes explicitly beyond knowledge and skills. Seeing these developments and seeing the increasing professionalism with which museums undertake to fulfil their educational role, one might wonder to what extent to geographical boundaries between schools and museums are of practical or moral relevance in the future. Are these borders not merely artificial and mainly motivated and kept alive by tradition and the monetary flows that reflect this tradition? Let’s push this point a bit further: looking further down the road a convergence between museums and schools might be a future vision for museum. Where museums slowly but surely shift to an educational redefinition of themselves, formal educational institutions I wonder what would happen if we would put these practical constraints and divisions to the site for the sake of (theoretical) exploration and then look at education and who provides it. Looking from that perspective, would then the divide between schools and museums still be relevant and necessary? Would it still be defensible? Or would we then come to the core of education, namely the question of what we want students to know, to be able to do and perhaps most importantly to be as persons? I wonder whether the answer or answers to notably this last question would lead us to a functional division between schools and museums. I think not. I think that rather it would lead us to define a curriculum on the one hand and a number of places where (modules of) this curriculum can be followed on the other hand, without making a distinction between institutions. Pursuing this line of argument would obviously have far reaching practical implications, which might lead to schools becoming part of a museum as a phenomenon of an era in which society primarily focussed on the where than on the what of education. A future in which there is an organic learning landscape. I cannot substantiate whether this is or should be a future vision for schools or museums nor is this paper the place to further elaborate this line of thought. But is does highlight the shift in their identity that museums currently albeit somewhat quietly undergo.
Balancing entertainment and education
In their evolving identity as educational institution museums do not escape the demand for experiences that are entertaining and that encompass all our senses. In today’s multimedial world we tend to find things boring when they address only one sense, for example when we can only look at something. In stead we want to be able to look at it, feel it, smell it and if possible and it fits with our image of the situation: hear it. Simultaneously museums find themselves confronted with increasing demands on generating income themselves as government cut backs have repercussions on their budget and existing government budgets are amongst others allocated based on visitor numbers. To attract an audience the educational programmes must fit the experience bill and thus create experiences that are both educational and that encompass all our senses. Is there a limit to the amount of entertainment that museums are willing to provide with their education? If so, what is or are the limits? And why? My research explored this question through interviews with museums practitioners in The Netherlands involved with shaping cross cultural education. The analysis of my interviews taught me that museum practitioners are led by the following moral intuitions to join their entertainment with their education:
- Relation with collection
- Context of objects
- Doing justice to complexity of subject
It is worth noting that in my research I deliberately avoided using a definition of entertainment as that I wanted to chart the feelings practitioners had with the term entertainment. Interestingly enough none of the practitioners asked for a specific definition, but all could define – and rather fluently so! – what the limits to entertainment in relation to education are for their museum. Taking that as a starting point the definition of entertainment would be along the lines of “offering fun for the sake of fun without content.” This sounds logical and pretty much clear cut, however the analysis of the explanation of these guiding moral intuitions show different accounts of what entertainment actually is in the context of cross cultural museum education.
Relation with Collection
A first moral intuition that became explicit was that entertainment has to have a strong relation with the collection of the museum. For e.g. the Museum Volkenkunde this strong relation is that the Museum is structured as a journey around the world, following the collection per country and per continent without a further superseding theme in the permanent exhibition. Guided by the same moral intuition Orientalis has taken a radically different approach. Orientalis has a substantial collections of papers and crafts in addition to the buildings on the actual terrain of the museum, which are protected national monuments. However, Orientalis has outsourced the care for its collection of papers and crafts, because it would hinder the development of the museum. Interestingly this is not to say that there is not a strong relation between the educational experience the museum offers in its current form and the collection. The architectural part of the collection forms the décor for the digital station that are part of the educational programme “A meeting of minds”. The exterior of the buildings has not been altered, the interior has to suit to digital stations. The themes that the stations treat are corely related to the function that the buildings have, e.g. the theme food is the subject of the station in the Karavanserai which in its day always had a place for food storage.
The claim of a relation between the collection and the entertainment offered in the context of education can so in practice take on different forms. The similarity is found in that all museums I interviewed have radically departed from their roots in terms of claiming to be representative for a culture or cultures. Rather they now work with narratives, in which most museums are struggling to get to grips with the plurality that is so much a part of every culture, living or past.
The second guiding moral intuition on the balance between entertainment and education is best qualified as ‘truthfulness’. This truthfulness has three layers: being truthful about the history of the object, being truthful about what you display in terms of finding foundations for the choice you make and being true to what you claim to do.
When it comes to being truthful in the first layer there seems to be definite line with the professionals, which is signalled by ‘living history’. With ‘living history’ they refer to a method of interpreting the past through the use of a person or persons dressed in period clothing. The technique is usually enhanced by having the person or persons use period tools and engage in period activities. Examples of organisations using living history are Archeon in The Netherlands and in the United States the Holy Land Experience. The goal of living history is to trigger a sense of “having been there”, a sense of reality or it can serve to trigger memory. It is a powerful method but however much e.g. the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum aspires to trigger memories by creating certain experiences, for the moment they do not want to engage in living history. The museum feels that this living history crosses the border of truthfulness, because one can never tell or substantiate the story that is being told, however it is being enacted if it were reality. Orientalis follows this line and states that it would not want to grow into the American Holy Land Experience where for example the crucifixion is re-enacted in daily shows. The argument for this follows the argument of the Openluchtmuseum: “
“We cannot know how it exactly went and thus the impression of reality should not be given”.
One, or maybe a few steps down from living history but strongly related to the concept of truthfulness is whether one should be enabled to wear “local dress” to enhance the educational experience. This is where the concept of Truthfulness becomes less clear. The Africa Museum actually discourages wearing African clothes by children, although cloth is available. This museum always emphasises that wearing these clothes will not make one feel like an African, but that it rather is entertainment that might enable the visitor to get a grasp of Africa. As part of a play of the Iran exhibition Paradise & Co the Tropenmuseum on the other hand would dress a child in a chador to so enhance the educational experience.
The second layer of truthfulness is being true to a culture in terms of representativity. With reference to the first paragraph of this chapter, representativity for an entire culture is no longer the core aim of the museums, in stead they work with narratives. However, as I noted this does not take away the normative pressure on which objects to choose for display. An important foundation for the choices that museums make in this respect, is the consultation of experts. Usually they consult a mix of professionals specialised in a certain area, emigrants from a relevant cultural background and people still living in the relevant region. So to take again the example of the Tropenmuseum and the Paradise&Co project, they consulted both academics specialised in Iran, Iranians living in The Netherlands and Iranians living in Iran. The aim in this consulting procedure is to obtain consensus on the objects to be displayed. This consensus then consequently forms a building block for the justification of the choices the museum makes. Whether the very concept of working with consensus does justice to the notion of plurality that is intrinsic to every culture, indeed to culture as a dynamic living entity, is one of the topics for further (ethical) debate.
The third layer of truthfulness in striking the balance between entertainment and education is being transparent about the choices they make and the arguments on which these choices are based. Museum professionals put this part of truthfulness in practice through actively communicating their choices to the public through websites, in their educational materials and programmes developed for exhibits.
Context of objects
A third important guiding principle is that the entertainment either should enhance or at the very least not hinder the contextualization of the objects. In e.g. the Wereldmuseum PDA’s are used to contextualize the object. The Museum Volkenkunde is thinking about using multimedia to come to terms with the plurality of voices and the development of cultures that is intrinsic to any living culture. Since the museum displays a number of objects from cultures that are still alive, the museum is starting to feel the need to give a voice to the current developments in those cultures and to bring the plural voices of the culture into the museum. The museum is contemplating to show movies in addition to the objects in notably the permanent exhibition to give a form to these voices. Even with movies though you have to make choices on who will speak and who are kept silent. Another border is drawn at showcasing mummies in the Museum Volkenkunde despite the fact that it would draw greater numbers of visitors, but the tradition in the land of origin of the mummies forbids human remains to be exposed. Thus the museum refrains from putting them in an exhibit.
Doing justice to complexity of subject
The fourth guiding moral intuition in balancing entertainment and education I found is that entertainment may never amount to a simplification of the complexity of the subject. By the interviewees in my research this translated into not giving answers, but rather: showing both sides of the story, the good & the bad and contextualizing objects historical, cultural and personal phenomena. On the other hand museums feel a pressure to enhance accessibility. Most museums receive large groups of the youngest primary schoolers. These children are too young to even have a grasp of the world, let alone of their own position in the world and the relation between themselves and others in other parts of this world. This means that programmes have to be developed that inescapably do not allow for all nuances and complexities that are intrinsic to the subject. In addition to host the level at this group actually means that the entertainment (they have to have a good time in order to come back to the museum later when they can grasp the subject) takes precedence over the educational content and it is rather unclear what the children content wise actually get from their visit.
Entertainment, education and the museum ethical code
I have shown in this paper that museum identity is definitely and fundamentally on the move. From collectionneurs par excellence museums and their practitioners are rapidly reinventing themselves as educational institutions and educators who design mediated experiences that have a primarily educational goals. A goal that as I argued is essentially morally laden. In addition to their programmes developed in relation to the formal educational curriculum educational departments of museums are increasingly thinking about how to translate their body of knowledge and collection into with educational value for the general public such as families who come by themselves with the goal of being “edutained” by the museum. With education being such an intrinsic part of museum identity it seems to me that this development invites a broadening of the museums ethical code which currently reflects the traditional museum identity of object preservation. As for every tool that is meant to guide and shape practice in an iterative process also an ethical code is most useful when it is regularly updated and when it reflects the actual practice.
In this paper I explicated a number of moral intuitions that currently in daily practice mostly implicitly guide the continuous search for a balance between entertainment and education in cross cultural museum education. In addition I touched upon notions such as inclusiveness, plurality and authenticity. Abstract notions that simultaneously underpin and shape this continuous search. Implicit notions that deserve to become explicit. Through dialogue within the sector between practitioners, dialogue with professionals including but not limited to ethicists, but also through structured dialogue between theory and day-to-day practice. A process thus that does justice to the constantly evolving museum educational practice and the equally constantly developing scientific insights. To make it more tangible, let me briefly explore the notion of inclusiveness which is a relevant one for museums. In fact it is the overriding notion that motivates government to stimulate museums to be more open to the public and to undertake activities that specifically address target groups that are underrepresented in museum visits. How can this notion be effectively translated into educational policies and visions? How does this notion of inclusiveness translate into choices for target groups? And what in pointed fact does this concept of inclusiveness mean when it comes to education in general and specifically in the museum context? What does the museum community at large take this notion to mean for good museum education? Or even better: excellent education?
Both the process of developing an ethical code within the ICOM ethical code for museum education and the actual resulting code would catalyze the dialogue within and of the sector on such questions. As such it would flag and support this fundamental shift in museum identity. Moreover it would inspire, motivate and move museum professionals. Inspire to undertake structural (ethical) reflection on choices made in educational experiences and materials within in the museum context. Motivate to seek partners for (ethical) reflection as well as for finding innovative and suitable ways to seduce visitors to learn. In other words: to look actively outside their own institution and sector to make new partnerships that can strengthen the museums contribution to society at large. Move to keep contributing to creating a world in which we start to hear and see each other again for what we share rather than for what separates men. And that is precisely what education can do. Because in the words of Nelson Mandela: education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.
Derkse, W. (et.a.l). (2002). Vitaal leren: pleidooi voor een onderwijswende. Budel: Damon.
Genoways, H.H. (2006). Museum philosophy for the twenty-first century. Lanham: Rowman & Litllefield publishers Ltd.
Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur & Wetenschappen (2005). Bewaren om teweeg te brengen; museale strategie. http://www.minocw.nl/documenten/57544a.pdf
Nussbaum, M.C. (1999). Sex and social justice. Oxford: Oxford University press.
Suransky, C. (et.al) (eds.) (2005). Global civil society, world citizenship and education. Amsterdam: SWP Publishers.
Technische Universiteit Twente. Van competenties naar proeven van bekwaamheid; een oriëntatie. http://www.utwente.nl/itbe/owk/publicaties/docenten/doc02-02.pdf
Internet resources are in the footnotes.
Reports of the interview are available on request. Please send an e-mail to email@example.com
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Author Name: Margo de Groot Coenen is a philosopher, ethicist and consultant. She has a passion for developing the capacities of people of all ages and cultures. Under the name MK5060 (www.mk5060.com) she works as a consultant for knowledge driven organizations including science centers, museums and libraries in the triangle education, marketing and organization. Her work encompasses the strategic, tactical, operational, as well as the rather more reflective level.
 Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur & Wetenschappen (2005). Bewaren om teweeg te brengen; museale strategie. http://www.minocw.nl/documenten/57544a.pdf
 I undertook this research in the framework of my M.A. thesis for Applied Ethics at Utrecht University in 2007 driven by the questions I encountered in my consultancy practice for museums and driven by my own curiousity. My continued consultancy practice shows me that the research I undertook then today is possibly even more relevant than then as in current museum practice as educational experiences are even more advanced and commonplace.
 I interviewed museum practitioners at management level from Tropenmuseum, Wereldmuseum, Nederlands Openluchtmuseum, Orientalis, Museum Volkenkunde and Afrika Museum. Reports were made of all interviews.
 Technische Universiteit Twente. Van competenties naar proeven van bekwaamheid; een oriëntatie. http://www.utwente.nl/itbe/owk/publicaties/docenten/doc02-02.pdf
 Derkse, W. (et.a.l). (2002). Vitaal leren: pleidooi voor een onderwijswende. Budel: Damon.
 Following Dohmen, J. (2007). Tegen de onverschilligheid; pleidooi voor een moderne levenskunst. Amsterdam: AMBO.
 Cf Freire as mentioned in Suransky, C., and Manschot, H. Patriotism or cosmopolitanism; on education and world citizenship, p. 64 – 67. In: Suransky, C. (et.al) (eds.) (2005). Global civil society, world citizenship and education. Amsterdam: SWP Publishers.
 Following Suransky, C. and Manschot, H. Patriotism or cosmopolitanism; on education and world citizenship, p. 64 – 67. In: Suransky, C. (et.al) (eds.) (2005). Global civil society, world citizenship and education. Amsterdam: SWP Publishers.
 Hein, H.. Assuming responsibility: lessons from aesthetics, p2-3. In: Genoways, H.H. (2006). Museum philosophy for the twenty-first century. Lanham: Rowman & Litllefield publishers Ltd.
 I owe gratitude for prof. dr. Willem Burggraaf of Nyenrode University for this line of thought . This came up in an informal conversation I had with him following a presentation he kindly agreed to give at a workshop of the Netherlands Association of Science Center on entrepreneurship for the cultural sector. This paragraph in no way officially reflects the thoughts of prof. dr. Burggraaf, but since it was directly motivated by my conversation with him, I would like to thank him for the avenue of thought he showed me.
 As per my interview with the Head of Education and Vice Director of Museum Volkenkunde on 2 April 2008.
 As per my interview with the Director of Orientalis on 28 April 2008.
 Orientalis sponsor book, draft version. Official version available by request at the museum.
 Landelijk Platform voor Levende Geschiedenis: http://www.lplg.nl
 As per my interview with Openlucht Museum, 28 april 2008
 Ibid 22.
 As per my interview with the educational coordinator of the Afrika Museum, 20 May 2008
 As per my interview with the Head of Collection and the Head of Education of the Tropenmuseum, 22 April 2008
 Ibid 25
 Following Nussbaum, M.C. (1999). Sex and social justice. Oxford: Oxford University press.
 As per all interviews I conducted for my field research. Interview reports available upon request.
 As per my interview with the Head of Education and Vice Director of Museum Volkenkunde on 2 April 2008..
 Ibid 28, this has been and is still being proven by the mummies on display at the Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden.
 Ibid 28.
 Ibid 28.