Museums Unplugged

I have a confession to make: I’m new to the museums world. Until a few months ago, I was working as an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher in London. I loved this job, teaching students from every corner of the world. But there was always a part of me that longed to work in a museum environment. I studied history to postgraduate level, volunteered in historic homes, and visited the many museums and galleries London has to offer in my spare time. So when a post came up at my local museum, I jumped at the chance.

Whilst working as a teacher, I stumbled across a theory that would drastically change the way I approached teaching. This theory, it seems to me, incorporates values that could also be applicable to museums so I’d like to share it with you, if I may.

One lunchtime, I frantically searched for materials to teach my afternoon class. The school academic manager apparently noticed how stressed I was and asked me if I had ever tried teaching ‘unplugged’. I hadn’t. I had no idea what he was talking about.

He promptly presented me with a text called Teaching Unplugged by Meddings and Thornbury. ‘There’, he said. ‘No need to prepare anything. No photocopying. Just go in the classroom, open any page and take the lesson from there.’

This was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measures. I had always – this one particular day being an exception, of course – planned my lessons meticulously to suit the needs of individual learners. This seemed like a lazy, one-size-fits-all approach. The students would see right through it. But on this occasion, I had to try it since I had nothing else to fall back on.

I recall leaving the classroom during the coffee break and bouncing into my manager’s office: ‘They love it! I love it! It’s amazing – I’ve never seen a group of students so animated!’

From then on, I used Teaching Unplugged for every afternoon class.  It was my bible. I took it everywhere with me and tried to convince other teachers of its merits.

The Unplugged method appealed to me in part, no doubt, because of its revolutionary intent. It wanted to overhaul the status quo and change the dynamics within the classroom – from top-down, teacher-led, to responsive and student-centred. The old way looked like this: the teacher sat at the front of the classroom, having chosen the learning content for that week, and controlled the play/pause button on the CD player. They set the topics: ‘Today we’re going to talk about food.’ They followed a set way of teaching grammar: ‘Turn to page 17 of the textbook. We’ll be looking at the present perfect continuous.’ Unplugged was a backlash against the tedium of the so-called ‘materials-driven’ lesson. Language wasn’t spoon-fed by a predetermined syllabus. It emerged organically. If a phrase or piece of vocabulary arose during the course of a lesson that interested us, we would hone in on it. As the teacher, I would try to bring English to life and offer instances of when and how to use it in a practical, everyday sense. We might then look into related vocabulary and analyse its form. In short, the Unplugged way of doing things encouraged both teacher and student to go off piste and discover what lay beyond the surface of the traditional textbook.

My colleagues were generally split into two camps over Unplugged – the traditionalists and the under-40s. The former were sceptical of this new-fangled ‘approach’. Without a clear learning objective or structured lesson plan, what was the point? It could only breed classroom anarchy, disgruntled students and confused teachers. How could you measure progress and success if no one knew what they were aiming for? Besides, they’d seen many different approaches come and go over the years. Little wonder they were cynical of the Unplugged upstarts. The under-40s also eschewed Unplugged. They saw it as regressive, dogmatic even. A return-to-basics approach would not sit well with students who expect digital technology to be engrained in every part of their learning.

If I would not persuade my colleagues of the merits of Teaching Unplugged, at least my students were enamoured.

So what’s this got to do with museums? And why is a chap who created a website to promote social media and new/digital technologies in museums preaching about the Unplugged method? Firstly, I think it’s important to point out that Unplugged was misinterpreted by many of its critics. As Meddings and Thornbury have stressed, they don’t advocate an electronic blackout. Far from it. But rather than obsessing over using iPods, CD ROM course book extras, interactive whiteboards, and homework apps, teachers should remember what their role in the classroom is. Surely, it is to be responsive to the learners’ needs, not to force-feed them a repetitive diet of mass-made materials.

This is not so far from the point made about using technology in museums by Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson. Teachers, like museums, must constantly evaluate their approach and ask why they are using a particular tool. What function does it serve? How is it helpful for the student or museum visitor?

I think the Unplugged ethos can be translated and made relevant for museums. Rather than cram in as many artefacts, text, games, audio-visuals, and interactives into a space, get the basics right. Curate to a minimal. The job of the curator is surely not to overwhelm visitors but to pique their interest. Provide the tools that are necessary for visitors to dig deeper. Treat visitors as partners in your project, not lemmings. After all, museums should not be in the business of lecturing, but of empowering. If a visitor wants to go off on a tangent and investigate the architectural history of the museum building by using augmented reality, more power to them. If another visitor is interested in reading the correspondence between a network of artists, or in watching a biographical film about a medieval scholar on the museum’s iPads, they should be able to do so.

Like I said, I’m new to the museum world. But I do feel passionately that museums, much like language schools, should be places of interactivity. They should be responsive, empowering, and should heed the lessons of Teaching Unplugged – less really can be more.


6 thoughts on “Museums Unplugged

  1. Pingback: Curate to a minimal? | museumlines

  2. Luke Meddings and I have just finished a Devon Unplugged teachers\’ course in Barnstaple and the only museum we went to at the beginning of the course, as a whole group, was the Museum of British Surfing.

    This little museum in Braunton North Devon is very much an unplugged type museum, small, uncluttered and with a range of articles designed to pique people\’s interest further. In fact 5 of our teachers decided to have a surf lesson down the road in Croyde afterwards, partly inspired by what they saw in the museum.

    Good luck with your work in museum pedagogy. Could you recommend any museums you know which you would describe as unplugged in their spirit and ethos?

    • Thanks Mark. Very much at start of quest to find an Unplugged style museum/exhibition space. So far, so rare. Like the sound of the Museum of British Surfing!

      Are you on Twitter to continue discussion? Hope to find ‘museum (and non-museum) people’ there who can point us in the right direction and/or critique Unplugged in a comradely fashion.


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