James Paul Gee on Museum-based Learning, the Maker Movement, and How Not To View a Cézanne: An Interview

Last month a number of our digital youth learning projects were mentioned in an article in the New York Times (re: At Play in Skies of Cretaceous Era). While the article largely focused on our new exhibit on pterosaurs and its digital interactives, it also referenced our work with both Minecraft and trading card games. The same article featured a single quote from my friend/mentor/hero James Paul Gee. When I reached out to him about it, he shared the following reflection: “You know, in interviews some of the most important stuff never gets in. It’s an amazing thing.” JPG talking about games, digital learning and museums? Amazing indeed. And I wanted to know what he said. I invited Jim to share some of his thoughts with us on the topic. And he did, as well as on the importance of evidence-based reasoning, how science museums and the Maker Moment might save us from ourselves, how NOT to look at a Cézanne, and much much more.

Hi Jim. As you know, a few years ago, when I had to decide about accepting my current position at AMNH, one of the people whom I made sure to speak with was you. Your advice was really instrumental–.

Jim: I remember that. Thank God the job worked out.

Yes, more than I could have dreamed. Thank you. And now that it has, and I heard that you were speaking with somebody about it, I was really excited to get your take. So when you think about what we’re doing here at the American Museum of Natural History with digital learning, where does your mind go?

Well, my mind goes to the fact that, at least for me, museums have often been a very textual experiences. I have always been taken by the fact that, at art museums, what you do is you walk up to the picture so you can read the little caption. Then you walk back so that you can look at the picture. That gives you a hell of a lot of exercise, but its pretty stupid.

It is not just that the digital revolution brings us the capacity to move beyond this textuality. It’s that we kind of always misunderstood textuality. I mean, language in text is given meaning through the experiences that you’ve had in life, right? Just like with a video game, you understand its manual because you played its game. You know, the reason people can’t understand a physics book is not that they don’t know the English words in it; it is because they’ve never experienced much of what it is about, they haven’t been in the world the text is about. This has always been to me one of the big problems with museum.

William Bullock

You know, we walk in there, often without a lot of experience – about contextualized things like natural history objects or paintings, or the history they’re part of, or with the worlds they were in. And then all we get is a bunch of text (usually by some authority figure who’s simply putting it in an historical context.) Now interactivity and digital media lets you present these images and lets people have a variety of experiences through which they can deepen their understanding of the objects they’re seeing, including the words associated with the objects and texts.

You know, if you go into a painting museum, you tend to have the paintings regimented historically, right? Well, it’s all richer than any one scholar’s particular perspective. You know, Walt Whitman was one of the only two major poets America produced in the 19th century (the other one being Emily Dickinson).  People wonder: How did this guy – who didn’t have much of a real education – get to be such a great poet? One thing people didn’t realize is that in Europe, when people were being taught the history of literature and poetry, they were readings books that were in chronological order. But evidently, in Whitman’s time, American textbooks put poetry from all different periods together, just thrown together in a book. So Whitman didn’t read the stuff historically. He was as likely to read an old poem as if it was modern as he was to read a modern poem as if it was old. He didn’t see progress through time as what constituted the canonical. As a result he was able to draw on a whole bunch of traditions almost simultaneously.  Well, that’s a different way of experiencing poetry – and happened in his case to make him a great poet.

My point just is that text and the objects need to relate to the experiences people have had before coming to the museum, and we have to write texts (or give experiences) that are beyond the one frame that an authority figure has made based on a body of scholarship. I mean, natural history, of course, since it is history, we are going to put it in chronological order. But, you know, there are all sorts of relationships in natural history.  In evolution, these relationships are very multifaceted, right? You don’t have to walk through it in time; you can put objects from very different times together. Think of convergent evolution – when animals don’t share a history together, but they share a similar morphological structure. So I’m just saying there are many ways to organize any collection of objects. Think how powerful it would be to have a Tyrannosaurus rex and then a finch next to it, since we now realize birds are dinosaurs. A person will say, “Wow, look how powerful evolution is. We went from these animals that are famous for being big but gave rise to ancestors who are famous for being little.”

At this point, I explained to Jim that in fact, in 1995, the Museum did just that, re-arranging our dinosaur halls to show evolutionary relationships among the animals, rather than chronologically. More info on that here.

Jim, Let’s see if I got this right. The language museum’s supply to contextualize an art piece or artifact requires previous knowledge to properly understand. But for people who don’t have that previous knowledge or experience, their museum visit might fall flat. However, digital tools can now offer those experiences before they arrive, or while they’re here, or afterwards to help provide that context, to help them create meaning.

That’s true, but it’s not just that. It is of course important to give people those experiences, but I’m saying two additional things.

One thing is we want to give multiple types of experience so they can experience the object in different ways, not just some authority-structured way.

We also want to be able to see the museum itself as an experience, right? So, what is an experience? An experience is something you use in the future. You have an experience so that you can use it in the future to think through. So, yeah, you want to be giving people the experience they need to think through the museum in multiple ways. But the museum itself could be an experience for adults and children to use for thinking out in the world. Because that’s what experience is. So, yes, they have to bring experience in to understand the museum, but we hope they get new experiences in the museum that let them go out in the world and act, and think, and look in a different way.

Otherwise the museum is dead.

Did you just say, “Otherwise the museum is dead”?


Have you been to a museum in the last six months?

No, I’m not a fan of museums.  I don’t like libraries or museums.  I never liked them.

Do you know why?

Yeah, I do know why. Because I had an experience in life some decades ago. I was a real philistine around painting, and I had no understanding of why anybody would stare at one. I was going to go on sabbatical, and I had to go to Washington, D.C. so I decided to try to learn how to appreciate paintings. My idea was that if you go to a museum and you sort of walk through it you’ll learn to understand paintings.  Well, I can tell you – it doesn’t work.

So, I got some books. One thing they suggested is, if you really want to understand a painting, then stand in front of it for a long time. And that’s a very interesting thing because, you know, after visiting a museum you might wonder, “Did I see most of the collection?,” or all of it, or a lot of it, or wonder what you have missed. But this is actually saying something different: you should only see a little of it.

It is like bird watching. Bird watching is better done by staying in one place waiting for the birds than, if you came to see a lot of them, traveling all over.

So then I went every day and sat in front of the Cézanne. They only had one Cézanne so that was easy. All day. But that still didn’t work. It had text written on it. So then I read some books and I still didn’t appreciate it. So when I came back to Boston, and I was dating a new girlfriend, in order to impress her I took her to the museum of art. We’d go around and look at the paintings and she knew we were in front of a Cézanne. I said, “You know, he is really an important painter. That’s really a good painting.”

She said, “Why?”

And I said, “In reality, I haven’t got the foggiest idea.”

Then an old Irish guard came up to us, when he heard this. He said, “Well, do you know why that painting is a good painting?”

I said, “No. I don’t.”

He said, “Look.” He said, “Look how that line and that color has this effect on that panting.” And of course all the museum experience that I had had that did not seem to be going any place had prepared me to realize that he was just telling me a way to look at the painting. All of a sudden that painting clicked in my mind. I saw why it was a beautiful object, why he was an important painter, and I’ve loved Cézanne every since.

So, you see, that’s what I mean by museums as an experience.  I had to have experiences in them to prepare me for this guard to show me where to put my eye and think about it. But when he did that, that redeemed all my experience, and allowed me to now enjoy museums. But the way I go to a museum now is I pick some stuff I’m going to look at and I take my time. I look at it and then I go home. I no longer worry about if I did it in the right order, if I saw the important stuff, or if I saw everything. And I no longer walk up to the little text. So that’s just my way of consuming it.

So let’s move away from talking about the museum as experienced by the general public and talk about museum education for youth, and the opportunities for engaging youth around, in my context, science in a Natural History museum. In my new position I focus on using digital tools through game design and game play, through digital fabrication, and through other forms of digital media production. We just launched a card game we’re actually selling in the store now –.

I heard about that.  That sounds great.

Thank you. It is designed with our youth, which is a new thing for us. We never had youth making something with the museum brand on it before, so we’re, in part, educating ourselves about how it is possible for youth to be not just consuming a game like that, but helping to produce it.

It’s an obligation if you’re a learning organization that the experience that people have in museum are future oriented. That is, they can take them out in the world and think in new ways and use them. Because that’s what human experience is about.  So, then the question is for me: What sorts of experiences are you giving people?

Now, one thing that came out in the New York Times interview is that the journalist kept obsessing [over the pterosaur exhibit interactives and] over the question: Is this stuff really games? I said that’s really the wrong point. You want to ask: is it good interactivity? Is it a good interaction with objects in the world and words, such that I feel I’m a participant in this and I’m gaining something that I can be future-oriented with for my own development. It is the interactivity that is crucial.

Now, in the case of science, again, we can run into the very same things we just said, because there is an authoritative take on science: Science is what people in universities do. It’s what we write in journals. You could decide we’re going to introduce people to that ideology, which is just like, you know, saying the painting museum is just about art history. But we live in a day and age in which America has an utter disdain for evidence. People think the earth is 6000 years old. They think that we should double the carbon in the air. They think that evolution never happened. People are immersed in a world in which things are determined by their ideology. So for me science has a basic respect for evidence, and a basic respect for evidence is something that isn’t only done in a university. All of us in the world, if we’re going to survive, have to pay careful attention to what the world tells us, so that we don’t get hurt and so that we can accomplish our goals, right? We have to really pay attention. If you do something to the world we have got to ask, “What did it do back?” Because the world, if you mistreat it, will bite you back, as it is with global warming.

As you move into the Maker Movement it tells people: Let’s think about how the world works and how we’ve got to pay attention; We just can’t believe anything we want; We have to interact and respect each other, by offering evidence, or paying attention to things. I think that’s great. The Maker Movement is really foundational, on a lot of levels. People trying to design a plane cannot engage in ideology because it won’t fly.

I cannot think of a more important thing to do than to do that, right?

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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