Bringing museums to life

When Renee Zhang moved from Beijing to Madison, Wisconsin to learn English, she often took her friend’s kids to a children’s museum for some fun and hands-on learning. Now, she is enrolled in a program that will allow her to create this kind of magic.

Zhang, who has a law degree from China Women’s University, is one of 17 students enrolled in Canada’s first Master’s of Museum Education (MMEd). The new UBC Faculty of Education program, which began in September, is one of the few in the world to focus on museum education.

David Anderson, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy and director of the new program, says that many museum studies degree programs tend to focus on the conservation and preservation of artifacts in object-based museums.  The new one-year MMEd’s focus is on the scholarship of education in museum settings and the practices needed to help museums achieve their educational mission.

“Museums are a different kind of educational world,” he said, noting that the UBC program further develops students as professional educators in a wide variety of museum settings—everything from history, culture and natural sciences to art galleries, botanical gardens, planetariums and even aquariums.

In a museum, you’ll find patrons of all ages, from vastly different backgrounds, visiting as part of a group or a tour, on family outings, with schools, on dates or just solo.

“Thinking about visitor learning and educational practices in museums is not the same as one might think about education in a school or university classroom,” said Anderson, who has studied how people learn outside of school environments for the past twenty years. “You have to figure out how to design experiences that are meaningful for people from all kinds of backgrounds and a diversity of ages.”

The MMEd program has been established in partnership with Beijing Normal University (BNU)—Zhuhai Campus, a school that specializes in education and teacher training. Half of the students are from China and do three of their courses at BNU before coming to UBC.

The courses administered through BNU are intended to give students a sense of the local context and the unique social issues of China.

“We didn’t want to run the risk that the students would have trouble translating the ideas and approaches to museum education they learn in Vancouver to their own context,” said Anderson.

Zhang says this form of education is quite new in China.

According to Anderson, there is a huge demand for museum educators in Asia. In 2010 and 2011, 3,000 new museums opened in China alone.

“There’s a boom of museums in Asia but they are building the structures faster than the staff can be educated and professionally equipped,” he said.

Zhang is hoping that her career will allow her to focus on children.

“You can design museum programs and exhibits that let children learn from playing and give them the choice in deciding what to learn,” she said. “In school, they don’t get to pick what they learn.”

While she’s studying in Vancouver, Zhang will get some hands-on experience developing museum programing for children. The MMEd program has collaborative partnerships with museums in the Vancouver area and students will work with a variety of museums including the Vancouver Aquarium, Museum of Vancouver, the HR MacMillan Space Centre, Beaty Biodiversity Museum and Museum of Anthropology.

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