Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 4)

Part 4: The Challenges

As with any new experiment, there were a number of challenges that presented themselves before and during the workshop. With any sort of project that involves collaboration with the local community as well as international actors, one of the challenges is finding resources to support the endeavor. Participating in the workshop meant that LMU would have to invest in the workshop (with monies and space). That meant convincing the Dean that this was a project worthy of financial investment. Fortunately, the workshop dovetailed nicely with a lot of the initiatives that my college is undertaking – a focus on interdisciplinarity (history and museum studies), an effort towards internationalization (collaboration with German students), and a push for community-based learning (a partnership with the Wende Museum). Tying undergraduate research to university and college strategic planning and curricular initiatives is essential if we wish to get our universities to support it. In this case, the Dean’s Office, the Office of the VP (now Associate Provost) for Undergraduate Research, the History Department, and the European Studies Program all offered monies in support of the project; the History Department also offered space, and both our administrative assistant and I offered our time and labor. In addition, the Wende Museum allowed the students full access to the Museum’s holdings, even as it was in the midst of a thorough inventory. Cristina Cuevas-Wolf also gave generously of her own time, mentoring the students through the process of working in a museum and developing an exhibit. She also arranged for the students to have library privileges at the Getty Research Institute and to meet with local museum professionals. The German students also applied for a series of grants to support their travel to the United States.

Another challenge had to do with a certain imbalance between the German and the American students, which manifested itself in a variety of ways. The German students had already taken a course in museum studies, were well-schooled in the history of East Germany, and had German. The American students were coming to the workshop more or less as blank slates. While some of the students had taken courses in modern European history or other aspects of German history, none had taken a course in East German history specifically or in public history or museum studies, though one was an intern at the Wende Museum at the time. One of the Americans was a German heritage speaker, and a second was taking German (doing a German minor), but the other three had no German. Two additional things exacerbated the imbalance. First, the workshop took place during the regular LMU semester. Whereas the German students could devote all their time to the project, the American students were doing it in addition to their other courses and activities. They were required to devote Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to the workshop but were really unable to do more. The second was that we had the German students do a series of presentations about certain aspects of East German history and museum work. These presentations were designed to help the American students “catch up,” but it also created a certain hierarchy – with the Germans as teachers and the Americans as students. We would have been better served by skipping the presentations and just discussing some of the assigned readings, with the hope that those discussions would get the American students up to speed. Unfortunately, all of this created a situation in which the student pairs were often not really partnerships. A couple of the groups worked really well together, with both students contributing a lot of ideas, but there was a certain friction in others because of this imbalance.

Yet another challenge had to do with expectations. The German students tended to see the virtual exhibit as their project from start to finish, with no limitations on it. But this is not the way that community-based learning works. The workshop was going to produce an exhibit that would be of use for the Wende Museum, so it had to conform to the museum’s expectations as well as its technological capabilities (the original ideas for what the exhibit might look like were quite elaborate). My students were very clear on that. They understood that they would be working in the Wende Museum to produce an exhibit for the Museum – that this was a community partnership. But they also had prior experience with service-learning and community-based learning, which is more widespread in the U.S. than in Germany, so they had a better and more realistic sense of what to expect. This disconnect between expectations and reality sometimes led to frustrations for the German students, who felt constrained by the Museum’s expectations, the structure of the workshop (that they couldn’t constantly be at the museum), the role of the LMU students, and so on. These frustrations spoke to the importance of explaining to students (and this is our responsibility as instructors) that partnerships like this, where different individuals and institutions are contributing resources, mean that those institutions have their own expectations from the project – that the students cannot just do whatever they want, that they have to work with the community partner, that community-based learning means that students have some responsibility to the community.

Next: Conclusion

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