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On Epiphany, an Epiphany about Museums as Safe Places to Encounter Otherness

by Jacqueline Langholtz, Manager of School and Group Programs, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello on

Happy Epiphany! As we begin the new year, I’m drawn to reflect on the long-lasting impact of “encountering otherness” on a museum visit.

I promise this post has nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions or a 2015 “best of” list. It won’t help you form a new healthy habit, but if it leaves you feeling #blessed, well, me too. It’s about something that happened back in September.

My fall was a whirlwind of work travel, new projects, staff training, and seven friends’ weddings. The constant motion didn’t leave much time for reflection. Over the holiday break, I’ve had that time.

Remember Louisville? #AASLH2015 and the Power of Possibility? Photos prove that I was there (shout-out to my 2014 SHA classmates!) and a slideshow on Google Drive lets me know I actually pulled off that presentation that an SHA classmate and I dreamed up while waiting for our flight home out of Indianapolis a year and a half ago. “City Mouse and Country Mouse: Supporting Student Learning in New Environments” was about what happens when students experience an entirely new environment on a museum visit.

Museums are safe places to encounter otherness...and to have a good laugh!

Museums are safe places to encounter otherness…and to have a good laugh! Photo courtesy of Monticello.

My co-presenters and I shared examples of “city mice” visiting our rural sites and seeing mountains or wildlife for the first time, as well as “country mice” encountering urban environs—including escalators—for the first time. We explored the inherent learning opportunities offered by new experiences, the importance of museum staff valuing and making room for them, how to identify your site’s unique aspects—also known as chaos triggers for school groups—and strategies for preparing students for their visit.  I had an enormous amount of fun during our presentation, was so impressed by co-presenters Jennifer Niemi, of Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tim Hoogland, of the Minnesota Historical Society, and left the session feeling all the feelings. Early the next morning, I rushed off to wedding number five.

It wasn’t until many weeks later that I had a palm-to-face epiphany about our topic.  It was one of those “But what does it all MEAN?” moments.  Yes, making space for multi-sense student learning is of value, yes, I believe that it’s okay to cut program content to make room for individualized memory-making and place-based learning, and yes, I am certain that experiencing new environments at museums and cultural institutions can change lives – but why?

It’s so obvious – am I the last museum professional in the world to have this conscious realization?

Museums are safe places to encounter otherness.  Not only are they safe places (live to tell about it); when they’re at their best they’re fun places (want to tell about it!). Sure, this gives regular museum-goers positive reinforcement to be open-minded, culturally-aware, and world wise. We willingly seek out otherness. But for a young child or student who may never leave their neighborhood—who may understandably harbor fear or worry about anything beyond their daily scope, the power of experiencing the “other” and having “the other” be fun, photo-worthy, tasty, surprising, or otherwise memorable—a museum visit can truly be life-changing. It can begin to build compassion, break down stereotypes, and humanize the world around them.

When we learn that just because something isn’t our “normal” that it is still of value, we begin to sow the seeds of peace. How’s that for the Power of Possibility?

Jacqueline Langholtz is the Manager of School & Group Programs at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. A recording of “City Mouse and Country Mouse: Supporting Student Learning in New Environments” is available here

P.S. I should come clean and say that this post does, in a way, have to do with New Year’s resolutions – my goal to blog more!

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