Can Museums Solve America’s Education Inequality Problem?

left-right: Eric Klinenberg, Sean Decatur, Jeanne Gang (Photo by Lina Fisher)

What is the role of a city museum? What comes to mind for most people is a stuffy, academic institution where you have to whisper and can’t touch anything. For Sean Decatur, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

At SXSW’s Building Resilient Public Spaces in a Time of Crisis panel discussion, Decatur, architect Jeanne Gang, and sociologist Eric Klinenberg came together to highlight how public institutions can play an important role in bringing communities together – if properly designed. In the case of the natural history museum, Decatur says, “We don’t just serve the visitors to the museum; we serve the city in a large number of ways.” Stretching back as far as 1909, when the museum hosted an education program with the New York City Department of Public Health on the tuberculosis outbreak, to 2020 when the hall of ocean life was transformed into the second largest vaccination site in the city, it has served as a hub for New Yorkers to learn about and mitigate crises affecting everyone.

But the museum can’t just host programs and expect people to come; Decatur also prioritizes reaching out to communities who might think it isn’t for them. The Beyond Elementary Explorations in Science (BEES) program allows public school fourth and fifth graders to use the entire museum as their classroom for a week. In the upcoming election, it will serve as a polling place. Decatur says these programs, while providing important public services, can also compel people who come in for a different reason to maybe come back for the exhibits later.

For Gang – who designed the deservedly hyped new expansion to the museum – the physical architecture of a space has the power to invite accessibility. She designed the entry to directly contrast with the typical “exalted” steps up to a museum, instead having people enter on the ground level from Central Park. The new wing’s bonelike, organic design, with large holes peeping into different wings, creates “a sense of wonder, so that when visitors come into the space, they can be curious to explore things in all these openings.”

At the end of the day, programming and physical design can either make a space feel welcoming, or reinforce class-based barriers to education and art. Klinenberg notes, “There’s a whole set of extraordinary new buildings that exist for people who can afford to get in. One of the Democratic problems we have is, for people who are doing well in America, it can often look as if everything is great. ‘Have you been to the new Apple Store? Look at what my country club just built.’ We’ve created a world in which there are quite compelling, well designed, welcoming gathering places for people who can spend their way into it.” In order to shift this dynamic, architects, museum directors, and sociologists must apply those innovations to truly public spaces – always asking, “How do you make sure the doors are really open?”

Building Resilient Public Spaces in a Time of Crisis

Culture Track

Wednesday, March 13, 10am, Austin Convention Center, Room 9AB

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