Spinning the Web: Creating a Structure of Collaboration between Schools and Museums

Article excerpt

n foggy mornings, Charlotte's web was truly a thing of beauty. This morning each thin strand was decorated with dozens of tiny beads of water. The web glistened in the light and made a pattern of loveliness and mystery, like a delicate veil. Even Lurvy, who wasn't particularly interested in beauty, noticed the web when he came in with the pig's breakfast. He noted how clearly it showed up and he noted how big and carefully built it was. And then he took another look and he saw something that made him set his pail down. There, in the center of the web, neatly woven in block letters, was a message. It said, SOME PIG! (White, 1952, p. 77)

If you remember the story, you will recall that Charlotte was a spider who lived in a barn with a community of other animals, including Wilbur the pig. Upon learning of the threat to Wilbur's life posed by the farmer's desire for bacon, the animals combined their talents and shared interests in a collaboration that saved Wilbur. At the center of the collaboration, and at the center of her web, is Charlotte, whose spinning brings the animals together to achieve their desired goals.

This story illustrates an inclusive, non-hierarchical model of interaction that can lead to effective collaborations between people in organizations such as schools and museums. Picture two contrasting models of human interaction in an institution. The first model is a ladder. One person stands upon each rung of the ladder, trying to maintain a secure foothold while simultaneously attempting to clamber up to the next rung until reaching the top of the ladder, which represents the uppermost pinnacle of the professional or social sphere. Because each rung can accommodate only one person, individual competitiveness and isolated ambition are prized characteristics, and the talents of others can be perceived as threats to one's own advancement. The second model is a web, circular in shape, with interwoven, connected lines. Each person's niche is located at an intersection, and the web is constantly adapting and evolving.

These two contrasting images represent two types of organizational structure found in most institutional settings, including schools and museums. The hierarchical ladder is based on the needs of a compartmentalized, rigid factory of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, while the flexible web structure depicts the integrated networks of contemporary technology. This "web of inclusion," as Hegelson (1995) has termed it, relies on constant dialogue and strong connections for its effectiveness. It serves as a useful model for the type of collaborative relationships that can develop between people in schools, museums, and other connected settings.

In his discussion of interpretation as a social and political act, Said (1983) similarly contrasts what he terms a "religious" community, based on excluding people who are not experts in a particular field, with a "secular" community in which all individuals are involved in the process of learning and sharing their knowledge. The great era of museum-building in the United States took place in the 19th century, and many museums retain their traditional intellectual and organizational hierarchies that comprise what Said (1983) terms exclusionary, or "religious," communities. Such structures make the possibility of true collaboration difficult by their denial of the equality of all perspectives and an insistence on privileging certain positions and objects. In contrast, the structure of the web promotes an egalitarianism that welcomes the voice of every participant and asks such questions as: What do we need? What can we give? Who needs what we have? What are other needs?

If, using Said's definitions, we consider the field of art history as a religious community, with a belief in the sanctity of the art object in the museum and the inviolability of authoritative interpretations, and we consider museum education as a secular community that aims to create collaborative and egalitarian relationships in which each voice is equally valid, then we can perceive why there is frequently a disjuncture between the interests of the museum educator and the curator. …