Understanding Inclusion One Museum Educator at a Time

I (Rose) had the pleasure of meeting Kate Zankowicz in October at the Object Matter: Making History in Museums Conference. We enthusiastically conversed about our respective research interests and I got to hear about the unexpected discoveries Kate had made along her journey as a PhD student. In this blogpost, she shares a  little about her work studying the history of object-based learning in Toronto and the roles that women have played in developing and supporting multisensory ways of learning about the past at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian National Exhibition.

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I started my thesis research because I wanted to know where my job came from. In other words, I wanted to know more about the history of museum education practice. I work with visitors of all ages, all backgrounds and all abilities at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. I try to use multisensory, object-based, inclusive pedagogy that honours visitors’ knowledges, interests and learning levels every day. But how did all that start?

The Royal Museum of Ontario. Photo credit: Kate Zankowicz.

The Royal Museum of Ontario. Photo credit: Kate Zankowicz.

As it turns out, I ended up finding out much more than the history of my job. What I ended up learning about was far more complex. First off, what counts as “public education” and who gets to count as “public” shifts over time. At the time of the ROM’s founding (1914), public education meant the education of white male elite university students. Likewise, notions of what is considered “access” and “inclusion” also change over time. In the case of the ROM, the origins of accessibility and inclusive pedagogy were entwined (and often contested) within the development of museum education itself.

In fact, one could say that the beginning of education at the ROM was the beginning of accessibility itself.  The first museum educator at the ROM was Margaret MacLean, a woman who led free tours and “story hours” without permission from museum directors possibly as early as 1915. She made up fake business cards, masqueraded as staff, and when she finally got hired a few years later the press reports of the day trumpeted her achievement as a woman who had carved out a “suitable employment” for her gender: the museum guide. She also hosted war-wounded veterans as one of her first audiences.

Unfortunately, beyond a reference in her scrapbook that tells us that groups came in from Christie Hospital, a local rehabilitation center, there is little that we can know about if and how individuals who were labelled as differently abled were welcomed by the museum, what the power dynamic was between staff and visitor and how they felt about their experiences. The archives at the ROM do not contain the voices of early museum visitors.   And they also rarely contain references to the lesson content, tour scripts or to museum pedagogy that was used by educators in the past. However, there is evidence to suggest that accessibility, in terms of providing physical access at the ROM is not new, and that the women who took charge of educational programming were at the forefront of making the museum more accessible to surrounding communities.

Photo credit: The Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives.

1961 CNIB ( Canadian National Institute for the Blind) study group at the Royal Ontario Museum. Penelope Dunbar (L) and Murial Milligan (R) learn about armadillos. Photo credit: The Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives.

Were these experiences what we would understand today as inclusive? As I have remarked in other places when it comes to museum education, what actually happens on the floor rarely gets preserved. So, in the interest of ensuring that researchers who come after me can have a deeper understanding of what educators do on the floor today, as well as how they understand inclusive museum education today, I decided to record and archive educator testimonies. I have now gathered the personal histories of more than 50 educators, most of them from the ROM, and a few from the Art Gallery of Ontario as well. This oral history project has proven much too large to be fully incorporated into my doctoral thesis so I have been looking for other homes, notably a panel on gender and museums for the Big Berks in Toronto in May, as well as at the Inclusive Museum conference next August. This last paper will deal specifically with what educators shared with me about visitors who are perceived as differently abled. Through the course of the interviews, museum educators shared how they understand inclusive museum education, in terms of how they personally define inclusion, as well as how inclusion is defined by institutional rhetoric. The museum’s commitment to serving diverse communities has recently become a focus and the ROM Accessibility Advisory Committee has just approved a working inclusion policy, the first in the museum’s history. I was very lucky in that the women I spoke with were gracious in their sharing of their experiences. Many related that they had been called to do a “special group”, usually a blind and/or visually impaired group and that they learned by doing. They also expressed humility when speaking about their experiences.

One of the strongest themes that emerged was that many of the educators, whether because of their feelings of personal inadequacy or fear of doing or saying something “wrong”, came to their lessons with the sense that they were not the teachers, the experts dispensing knowledge. At first, I connected this sentiment to a general “othering”, the idealization of those who have been labelled as differently abled as people who, by virtue of their “specialness”, have something to teach everyone else.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s all that’s going on here. These women were clear that the interactions ran deeper than a museum tour. Many were adamant that the hands-on engagement with artifacts and specimens was “not just about touching [things].” Instead, lessons were about facilitating conversations with visitors with different perspectives and life experiences. These interactions bode well for the possibilities of shared authority in museums in general. Educators are often asked to embody their institutional knowledge and are often trained to act as “experts”, even while they do not necessarily align themselves with museum-generated knowledge personally.  Ultimately, these interviews made me hopeful. They seemed to open up the idea of what an inclusive interaction in a museum could be: the acknowledgement that different peoples’ experiences created different meanings and that museums could be sites of dialogue, not authority.

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Georgia Guenther’s tactile mounts for Mesopotamia exhibit, ROM. Photo credit: Kate Zankowicz.

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Kate Zankowicz is a museum educator (Royal Ontario Museum) and a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto). Zankowicz has developed multisensory educational programming, descriptive audio tours and has trained staff and volunteers in inclusive pedagogy workshops. Her thesis examines the roles that women played in making museums, galleries and exhibitions more socially relevant for diverse audiences by developing multi-sensory, experiential education. Zankowicz currently serves as the Community Co-Chair of the ROM’s Accessibility Advisory Committee (kate.zankowicz@mail.utoronto.ca)

One comment

  1. […] candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She blogged for us back in November on object-based, multi-sensory learning at the ROM.  This week, she […]

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