Dear Museum Educators of 2016


Dear Museum Educators of 2016,

Hi, this is Sundiata Xaxua-Bey writing to you from the year 2040. I am one of those young people you were so worried about because you believed we would be victims of the highly technological digital demise who could not fully interact with the world or one another. I am sorry to hear that you struggled with so much fear. It is funny to read about you and see how scared you were about future of education and museums. It is especially funny to me, because I grew up in the kid’s version of Julia Child’s kitchen in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Rest assured “technology” didn’t kill the museum, just as the fact that people of color, who are now the majority of this nation didn’t put an end to intellectual public spaces. Private, home schools and charter schools didn’t kill museums either.  Paper books, libraries and attention spans didn’t die off either. Yes, things have altered, been reshaped and transformed, and yet we all still learn from the past. However, we are simply more kinesthetic and tactile in our learning.

Today’s classrooms are actually what you once called museums where we learn with all of our senses and engage in in-depth research projects. Our mentors are worldwide. We develop our own learning plans and find experts from anywhere in the world to assist us. For instance, my class recently examined what was then called the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016. We spoke with curators, professors and chefs from the county that was once known as Syria, and through an immersive presentation for our study buddies in Mexico, we shared artifacts left by survivors of the refugee camps in Greece, cooked some of the savory recipes to recall the tastes, smells and textures the refugees experienced during those years of detainment, and through old YouTube and Facebook compilations, were able to capture some of the day to day pain, suffering and lack of resources ordinary people endured.

Thanks to the new technologies available to us, we can uncover and share objects, images, videos, soundscapes, voices and stories.  Our mentors have long known that this kind of self-directed, passion-informed, immersive, and project-based pedagogy brings about the most complete and compassionate form of learning. Thanks to this approach, I know what I know through what I eat, smell, touch, hear from first hand accounts and directly experience.

I have read that people were forced to learn while sitting exclusively at hard plastic desks, in an airless closed door classroom, with one teacher and 30 kids, locked in the same building for hours on end, without leaving for lunch. You were served packaged, chemically preserved meals and many of you were made sick by the stress of standardized tests. I read that people with less money generally went to even worse schools in physical disrepair and tended to stop their education earlier because they were often told that they were stupid and couldn’t learn. I learned that schools were often segregated by race and socioeconomic class, gender and physical mobility.  And I discovered that many people only experienced museums as occasional tourist attractions, rather than as places of daily learning. What a shame! They were not encouraged to learn in non-traditional spaces and through their bodies, as if they only had brains and hands to hold pens and pencils!

That must have caused your generation great trauma. I could never have learned that way. It sounds like many students’ had their minds poisoned by a system that was diseased, and accused its victims of attention deficit disorder and being hyperactive, cause they couldn’t endure sitting still and silent for hours while only the teacher spoke.  What a nightmare! I discovered that the only allowed activity during the day were sports that encouraged head injuries and damaged knees and backs. And there were so few arts programs. How could your creative spirits and bodies breathe? This reminds me of outlawed torture practices.

Well, after centuries of classroom tyranny, learning by sitting is no longer an approved methodology. We now learn in gardens and are regularly allowed to graze on fresh food that we raise from seed to table. All of our educational learning centers are multilingual and accessible. We understand that every single body is different and we focus on asset-based learning: each student participating in the ways that suits them best. Some of us rarely ever sit down in fact.  Everyone is challenged to explore beyond our comfort zones.  We also spend time with mentors- developing our passions and creating projects in tandem with experts in the fields. Universities are no longer separated into schools, departments and disciplinary fields, but rather like all of our education, from birth onwards; we focus on inter-disciplinary play and relationships of one form to knowledge to every other. My mentors often pose questions such as: What are the most interesting connections and intersections? How can we find our way through, around or beyond this problem to a different way of thinking or doing? Each new challenge, calls for a different approach, and yet we always take note of how similar situations were handles in the past, how we might tackle it as individuals, and how we can tackle it differently as a team. We examine what resources were need and we create hypothetical solutions that we then test out.

Our learning spaces are all maker and try it out spaces. They are similar to what you in your time you might have called studios or labs— we have many catalogues and recipes for tools and other resources that can be accessed through a system of what you probably called “interlibrary loan,” which can now be reproduced through 3 and 4 Dimension printers to become replica artifacts. We have shifted our understanding of “ownership” and rather think of everything as a temporary tool and device to deepen our understanding of the world around us.

The Smithsonian Institution where I played as a child has been consolidated from 19 separate units, 9 research centers and a Zoo to one grand worldwide collection. A young learner from across the globe can call up a 3D virtual recreation of any artifact in the collection and pose questions to the curatorial team through our advanced direct messaging system with the help our extensive paid internship and fellowship programs worldwide.

It is so funny to imagine that my grandparents saw learning as a linear process that ended with the PhD. We now understand the process is more important then the product and our education system is more resilient, global, amplified, and diverse geographically. Our lives are peopled with learning partners for all aspects of our socio and emotional lives: we are and have instructors and advisors, evaluators, cartographers, assessment designers and learning journey mentors. Each has a slightly different name, but all embrace gaming, visual and economic literacies, civic engagement and life skills. Our “schools” are also interconnected with our doctors, lawyers and other societal systems so that we learn to navigate our physical and mental health from an early age. We are taught a variety of Western and Eastern medicines and can select the ways that work best for our own bodies to heal.

All of our spaces for learning are circular and continuous so that all voices are heard, all bodies are seen and valued and that we can pick up from the past and experiment further; year-round and in the round. Like a cypher, we find that the oldest form, the circle that has no beginning or end, no hierarchy but rather true equity is the place where the best work emerges organically. It is both sacred and transformational. We all are innovators and explorers. We do not believe in fieldtrips but rather that our lives are the trips and we live in multiple fields. The educational landscapes have no borders, they are fluid and hybrid.

It is sad to read about how scared you were of change. Our definitions and understandings of race, gender and technology have changed so much and we are better off for leaving them behind. We have broken away from the binaries. We do not think of things as Black or White, Conservative or Republican, Public or Private, Male or Female, Traditional Media or Social Media, we understand that the best learning comes from the relationships between these supposed opposites. We are interdisciplinary, transnational, transmedia, transcultural and in we have both individualized and communal learning plans that doesn’t stop from in the classroom.

Museums are at the center of education, not on the sidelines or margins. Museum educators work side by side with teachers because our walls are more transparent and flexible. While we have a lot more stuff with the advancement of our technology, we still value face to face engagement and learning along with video conferencing and find that the power of site specific places is key in transmitting information and storytelling sticks. We are not about the route memorization but rather deep and sustained engagement and discovery so that students can find the worlds of learning that best fit their needs and development as lifelong learners and scholars.

Perhaps the best way to capture our world today is with a poem:


This is the blueprint

The white page has been disseminated

The thought clouds and  #hashtags are viral

We (re) imagined the future

It is real, not a fairytale

A healthy ecosystem not an overly tested minefield

We are organized and equitable

We foster discussion, generate ideas and take action

The tides have shifted

The change has spread systematically,

Our fields have cross-pollinated,

HOMAGO-Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out is valued

And sitting at a desk alone is no longer a thing

We give space to let imaginations play

We say yes more than no,

Let’s try it is our go-to phrase

We listen more than talk

We are student centered more than profit and funder conceptualized

We inquire more than test

We are qualitative more than quantitative

We empower explorers

In collaborative and safe not didactic spaces

Liberatory and open ended

Our visitors and participants leave with a sense of participation and pride

Wanting to question and explore again and again

We embrace FAILure with open arms as the First Attempts In Learning

No more same ol’ same old

We include the whole family with our programing

We risk and think out loud together

We stumble in public

Instead of pretending to be perfect, we gave ourselves permission to make mistakes

We opened our doors and allowed people to see our mess behind the scenes

Our museums are extensions of living rooms

Not one-off events but year-round

We shook up the status quo,

The “we” got strengthened and expanded

People learn how they want, where they want and with whom they want

What do you want to know? What do you need to learn? How do you want to learn?

And we go on from there

We flipped our museums inside out

People who used to feel the most isolated and excluded

Those once at the margins are now central to the change

Continually pushing from the boundaries

We busted loose

Museums are today’s coffee shops and town centers

We house the extraordinary comingling and exchange of ideas

People feel invested and at home with us, not detached and depressed

Museums and schools that are interchangeable,

We spin and cypher in circles y’all,

Our objects, libraries, and maker spaces are community centers in the round

Learning is a way of life, unbounded and fun again

People are excited to reclaim and come in

We are open at all hours so people can visit anytime

We widen the possibilities, not the education gaps

Do not fear, your future is not uncertain and fractured,

It is holistic, beautiful, in process, and bright…

In hope and solidarity.


Sundiata Xaxua-Bey