The Inspirational Power of Museums

This is a pre-production version of an article published in the Kappa Delta Pi Record.

by Saul Carliner

I was 17 years old the first time I entered the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I knew nothing about its layout or holdings at the time, so it was pure serendipity that led me to one of the lower levels on Central Park West. There I drifted into a small, quiet gallery and stood in front of a display of microscopic invertebrates, the creatures that inhabit the minute wetlands of our lives…I felt so startled by joy that my eyes teared. It was a spiritual experience of power and clarity; limning the wonder and sacredness of life, life at any level, even the most remote…I was…feeling saturated by wonder. Only praise leapt to mind, praise that knows no half-truths and pardons all. I felt what Walt Whitman may have felt when he wrote of the starry night, ‘The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place.’ His intuition bespeaks the cryptic faith in the unknown and the extrapolation of belief that organized religions require. The part stands for the whole, as it does in natural history museums that say, in effect, ‘Here is one wildebeest on the savanna, but there are many more of them, it’s part of a species. Trust in it.’ (Ackerman, 1993, 102-3).

Museums have had similar power in my life; my intellectual awakening occurred in museums.

I was 21 years old and visiting the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Long an aficionado of architecture, I went to see renowned architect I.M. Pei’s much-heralded design of this then-new museum. As I walked into the building, I marveled at its sharp angles and its cathedral-sized lobby. But the lobby was crowded and the friends joining me for this museum visit quickly steered me into a side gallery featuring drawings by the “Masters.” Art, which, until then, did nothing more for me than occupy space on a wall, suddenly spoke to me: the pained faces of families sitting vigil, the proud faces of burghers posing for portraits, the serene faces of religious figures. I looked closer at the drawings, trying to understand how, with just a few strokes of charcoal on simple pieces of paper, Rembrandt, Van Dyk, and their contemporaries could evoke emotions that seemed to escape the cameras for television shows that, until then, were my primary source of culture.

In that museum, at that time, I realized, like John Edgar Wideman:

Culture is not mindless accumulation of some laundry list of objects or people or styles somebody else has intimidated us into accepting. Culture is a way of locating yourself in the world, a world that doesn’t make much sense without a conscious, active, continuous process of orientation, learning, accommodation (1993, 82).

Since that pivotal moment in 1979 I have loved museums as other people love sports and other people love books. As they have done for Oliver Sacks, museums “have played a central role in my life in stimulating the imagination and showing me the order of the world” (Sacks, 1993, 78). Museums have served a variety of educational roles for me: teacher, spiritual advisor, and even career counselor.

When I was a senior in college, for example, I visited an exhibit of Edward Hopper’s art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. From the description of his career in that exhibition, I charted my own career path and continue to follow that plan to this day.

Similarly, when I first moved to Rochester, Minnesota, the city where I began my career as a writer and educator, I attended the Threshing Festival at the Olmsted County Historical Society. Observing the re-enactments and historical displays, I became enamored with the pioneer heritage of Minnesota. Understanding that heritage became a passion throughout the years I lived there and has nurtured my active involvement in community organizations as diverse as the transit board, professional organizations and, of course, museums.

That experience also inspired in me a utopian vision of life in the Upper Midwest, like the one I learned about in an exhibit on a nineteenth century pioneer who tried to establish a utopian town at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Years later, long after I moved away from Minnesota, that vision was renewed through the exhibit “Hope: Seeing the World through New Eyes” at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario. The exhibit told the stories of “challenge and achievement” in developing nations. Unlike the failed utopian town described in the Minnesota exhibit, this exhibit told of successes that have improved the lives of thousands of people. The poster from that exhibit now hangs in my home and is the first thing I see each morning. “Hope” it beckons. “We cannot expect miracles overnight, but we can combine our efforts to produce miracles over time.”

The successes described in that exhibit inspired me to pursue a volunteer job in a small village in Africa, where I transferred technology just like the people featured in the exhibition.

My experience is not unique. Museums have been a source of inspiration and education for many people. The explosive growth in museum attendance over the past two decades seems to indicate this impact at an aggregate level. According to the American Association of Museums, Americans make 600 million visits to museums each year; they visit more museums than they attend sporting events.

Some museums note that school groups represent 30 percent of their visitors: not a surprising statistic, given that the American Association of Museums considers education as the primary purpose of museums (Bloom & Powell, 1984).

Working with the staff educators at museums, schools are creatively integrating museum experiences into classroom and extra-curricular activities. For example, the educational staff at the Atlanta History Center suggests ways to adapt a museum visit into the history curriculum in Georgia schools. The Computer Museum in Boston offers an after-school program to introduce students to technologies like computer graphics and the Internet. Through The Cannery, an activity center where partcipants assume the roles of workers in a canning factory, The Baltimore Museum of Industry offers second through ninth graders a hands-on introduction to “work.”

Such experiences have an impact on a personal level. In her study of adults who participate in the educational programs at two museums, Graham found that:

Some people, without expectation of credits, degrees, job promotions, salary increases, or recognition, invest their resources to a significant degree so that they may become knowledgeable–even expert–in a given discipline… Individuals in both programs…indicated they were seeking connections between disciplines or a higher truth. (Graham, 1991, ii)

Through seamless integration of museum visits into the classroom before, during, and after, children, too, can be similarly affected. Museum educators suggest that the museum visit should represent the culmination of study rather than an isolated event (Carliner, 1995). To help students prepare, most museums provide teachers with pre-visit materials that include curriculum-related classroom activities. Recognizing the limited time available for class preparation, some museums even prepare summary reports. Students might also take a virtual tour in advance of the live visit by “surfing” a museum’s website. These preparation activities introduce students to key themes in the exhibitions they will tour, the relevance of those themes to a course, and some specific objects in the exhibition that might be of interest.

So that the tour best meets the needs of the class, teachers can work closely museum educators. They can suggest specific exhibitions and objects that relate to current class activities and to the skills and interests of individual students. After the visit, teachers can de-brief both the content learned and feelings experienced in the museum. Regarding content, teachers can ask students about the objects, then themes, of the exhibition and how they relate to their classroom work. Regarding feelings and impressions, teachers can first debrief students on their initial responses to the museum. What did they respond to? Was the response negative? Positive? Then, teachers can debrief students on how these feelings might play a role in their lives, such as in the choices of reading and viewing materials and topics of class assignments. These feelings might also play a role in students’ choices of hobbies and future careers.

Museums have the power to inspire people to a higher truth. The next time you schedule a field trip to a museum, you not only provide a unique enrichment opportunity for your students, you might inspire their life’s dreams and works and a lifetime of learning.


Ackerman, D. 1993. Slices of life. Discover 14(11): 102-104.

Bloom, J. & Powell, E. A. 1984. Museums for a new century: A report of the commission on museums for a new century. Washington, DC: American Association of Museumss.

Carliner, S. A. 1995. Every object tells a story: a grounded model of design for object-based learning in museums. Doctoral Dissertation. Atlanta, GA: Georgia State University.

Graham, A. W. 1991. Persistence without external rewards: A study of adult learners in art museum and planetarium education programs. Doctoral dissertation. Northern Illinois University.

Sacks, O. 1993. Remembering South Kensington. Discover 14(11): 78-80.

Wideman, J. E. 1993. Beyond Homewood. Discover 14(11): 81-3.


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