Where Formal and Informal Education Meet: Making a Museum School

Julia Kennedy

Julia Kennedy
Marketing & Aud Dev Associate

For some, the best ideas come to them in the shower or the middle of the night.

For Dale Robertson, his greatest idea came to him at a running club.

The “new” Grand Rapids Public Museum, meant to be friendly and accessible.

Rewind to the 1940’s, when The Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) had just finished its new building. Even then, the GRPM staff was re-thinking what a museum should be, and how the conception of what a museum is reflects and informs the museum’s physical space.

The GRPM’s new building was a purposeful departure from most museum architecture at the time. As Museum Director Frank DuMond describes: “[the new building] will be as accessible as a dime store and as friendly as your next door neighbor.” In short, the GRPM wanted to create a museum that anyone could engage with.

The evolving question of “What is a museum?” has always been ingrained in GRPM’s history, and has helped shape its ongoing educational mission. The museum has had a long history with Grand Rapids public schools, but the collaboration reached new heights under President Dale Robertson.

Fast forward a few decades from the opening of the new GRPM building to when Dale met a fellow runner at a running group who happened to work closely with the local school system. From that initial meeting of the minds, the idea of “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a museum-school one day?” turned (quickly) – into “Let’s make a museum-school happen.”

It was full steam ahead from there.

The idea for a GRPM museum-school was first dreamt up in 2011.

The years that followed saw a close collaboration between GRPM and the Grand Rapids Public School system to make that dream a reality. The museum-school opened its doors just a few short years later in 2015 – truly a community effort.

Help from an amazing school grant transformed this community asset (the museum) and worked to create a curriculum around fostering lifelong learning. Using the museum’s educational mission as the framework, the collection helped to shape an immersive curriculum emphasizing the museum’s informal educational setting that was all inclusive, where all types of learners could thrive. The old museum tours were so academic they could be easily converted into lesson plans and plugged in easily to national standards.

To do this, the museum had to take on the massive undertaking of re-classifying the collection to make sure that as many objects as possible could be handled or touched and to update what can be used how.

Reclassifying the collection wasn’t the only challenge. GRPM came across the same issues that any museum-school collaboration can encounter, such as:

  • Multiple groups working together
  • Working in a city-owned space
  • Creating a new curriculum
  • Different groups operating differently
  • Being upfront and keeping goals in mind
  • Letting the experts do their job
The school currently serves 120 students 6th and 7th graders.

And while partnerships between museums and schools aren’t a new idea, true collaborations are few and far between, even with strong encouragement for years from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and other major museum associations.

TL;DR: A Quick Background on Museums & Schools

Museums for a New Century was a report issued by the AAM in 1984 which assessed the current place of museums in American society, and offered new recommendations for institutions. Recommendation #7 specifically addressed the relationship between museums and schools, urging conversation between the two, and encouraging engagement in a national dialogue.

Eight years later, in 1992, AAM released a report called Excellence and Equity, the first ever to focus on the role of museums in education. The report suggested that museums are capable of offering different learning environments, which cater to diverse ages and formalities. Excellence and Equity echoed a lot of what Museums for a New Century stated and re-emphasized a potential for museums to create programming in collaboration with schools for the new curriculum efforts in sciences, arts, and humanities.

These reports, alongside other investigations from the IMLS (Institute of Libraries and Museums Services) with the True Needs True Partners reports emphasize that the idea of informal and formal education go hand-in-hand and are worth exploring more.

How’d It All Turn Out?

For Grand Rapids Public Museum, the new museum-school is a hit. The school currently serves 120 students 6th and 7th graders. In 2015 the museum was dubbed a ‘Super School’ by XQ Institute, making it one of ten schools nationwide to win a $10 million grant awarded to innovative programs that re-imagine education.

Oh – and what happened to the old museum?

It’s poetic really – the old museum is now a part of the new high school, while remaining open to community groups and college clubs, still fulfilling its educational duty to the community.

Hopefully successful museum-school collaborations like GRPM can pave the way for even more collaborations in the future.

Looking for more way to serve your community? Let us brainstorm with you! Email us: info@museumhack.com.

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