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5 Names for Museum Educators

by Christopher Grisham, Education Specialist, Tennessee State Museum on

A museum education specialist/interpreter/guide working with students

A museum education specialist/interpreter/guide working with students

While looking through the posts right here on AASLH, I ran across Do You Docent? by Bob Beatty, where he discusses the meaning of the term “docent” in the museum profession. This post caught my eye because there has always been a debate in my office about what we should call ourselves. While these debates never get violent, they do stir up some very strong feelings. Just a little bit of background on the people in my office: we are the education department for our history museum, there are six of us, we are all full time, professional employees, and every one of us has at least a bachelor’s degree in fields like history, public history, and education.

That being said, we still can’t come to a consensus on what to call ourselves. Any time you have a debate on what to call something, of course someone will quote Shakespeare’s Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Considering how things worked out for Romeo and Juliet, it seems like their names were very important indeed. For me, it goes back to the entire purpose of language. Language is here to allow us to understand one another and convey ideas. With that in mind here are some of the names for people in museum education.

5. Docent
As I said earlier this entire idea was sparked by the Do You Docent? post, which was inspired by Do We Docent? by Michelle Moon. They have both done a wonderful job of explaining and exploring the term docent, so I won’t get into that any further here. All I will say is that my office has agreed that docent usually implies volunteer workers. Since we are all paid, full-time staff this one doesn’t apply to us.

4. Museum Program Assistant (MPA)
Most of you may not use this. My museum is a department of the state government, and the government loves to have very official titles. This one is ours. If you were to apply for a job in our office this is the position title you would have to look for. We all agree that this is one of the worst ways you could describe what we do. First of all it sounds like our job during any educational program is to set up tables and chairs and then hand materials to the person actually doing the educating. Not only does this title minimize our role (it doesn’t say anything about creating and leading engaging educational experiences, developing materials for teachers to use in their classrooms, or the research that we do to fully understand our topics), but it also doesn’t do what language should do. It doesn’t clearly tell anyone what we do.

3. Education Specialist
This is the term that I use when I talk to teachers, principals, or really anyone who works in the education field. To me Education Specialist is the most focused terms that accurately describe our job. As I said in the last entry, we not only lead educational programs, but we also research and develop them as well. We create classroom activities and lesson plans. We meet with teachers for their professional development. We are the people, out of all of the people that work in the museum, that focus on education. Our first thought for any new topic or exhibit is, “How can this be used to help teachers, students, and visitors learn more about our state. However, calling yourself an education specialist will leave a lot of people outside of education confused.

2. Interpreter
That brings us to Interpreter. To any of you who have worked in the Park Service, this term is very familiar to you. It is a great title. It does describe what we do. We take the history of our state, its documents and artifacts, and interpret that story to the visitors. I am even an officially certified interpreter by the National Association of Interpreters (NAI), so this seem like it would be the perfect title to use. (I don’t like to brag, but I am also a certified barista as well. I have a pin and everything.) I do think of myself as an interpreter, but I do have two problems with this term. First, you don’t have to be in or associated with the education side of things to be an interpreter. Almost everyone at our museum is an interpreter of one kind or another. Everything that goes into preparing an exhibit: the layout, the color choices, the artifacts, and especially the label copy are all interpretive acts. That leaves this term just a little too broad for my tastes (not to mention that interpreter is not a museum specific term). My second problem with interpreter is when a teacher calls to schedule a field trip, and I tell her/him that we will have an interpreter waiting for the group. Her/his response will almost always be, “Is that like a …”

1. Guide
I definitely prefer interpreter or education specialist, but guide is the term I use most often when talking to other people about what I do. Many of my coworkers dislike this term because it brings to mind someone who simply walks around and points to the more interesting things behind the glass. I often think of guides as saying things like, “This coat belonged to [significant man/woman]. It is over [large number] of years old and was made by [now outdated technology]. And if you will follow me over here you will see [next old thing behind glass].” This is a fine if all you want to do is talk about your collection and how wonderful it is that these things are being preserved. It does not, however, create a connection between those objects and the visitors. As much as I feel this term downplays what all of those of us in museum education do, it is the most easily recognized and understood term by many of our visitors. Since the job of language is to communicate effectively with others, when I schedule that field trip for the teachers, I will tell them, “Your guide will be there to meet your students.

What do you think? Do you have a name or term that you are passionate about (either love it or hate it)? Does it matter what we call ourselves when talking to each other/ the public?

One Response to “5 Names for Museum Educators”

  1. December 22, 2014 at 4:28 pm, Top AASLH Blog Posts for 2014 | AASLH Blogs said:

    […] While looking through the posts right here on AASLH, I ran across Do You Docent? by Bob Beatty, where he discusses the meaning of the term “docent” in the museum profession. This post caught my eye because there has always been a debate in my office about what we should call ourselves. While these debates never get violent, they do stir up some very strong feelings. Just a little bit of background on the people in my office: we are the education department for our history museum, there are six of us, we are all full time, professional employees, and every one of us has at least a bachelor’s degree in fields like history, public history, and education. Read more … […]

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