The purpose and the only purpose of museums is education in all its varied aspects from the most scholarly research to the simple arousing of curiosity…and it must always be intimately connected with the life of the people.
Ted Low, The Museum as a Social Instrument, 1942
Maybe you heard about “Ted” Low’s gallery talks, or about his legendary trips to Europe, which featured him as the tour guide. But Low was more than a lecturer or a tour guide, he was the Director of Education at the then Walters Art Gallery for 34 years. He was also a visionary museum educator who, while a graduate student in art history and adult education at Columbia, wrote The Museum as a Social Instrument, for the American Association of Museums. It was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942. In it Low related all museum activities to the broader purpose for which they were intended by public-minded founders like Henry Walters, many of which were implemented during his tenure at the Walters. His insights could not have been more perceptive.
Ted Low was a populist – an advocate for the public – and a scholar. His writings and opinions about educational philosophy and the practice of art museums have actually defined the field of museum education for nearly 70 years. In his seminal publication The Museum as a Social Instrument,Low tackled everything from what he called the archaic system of teaching art history, to curators and conservators who were too focused on research and objects. Yet he was a strong advocate of scholarship and the need for adult education. His strongest and most provocative educational philosophy, however, was in support of the leadership role of Education within the museum, and for museum educators who he called the “general practitioners” in the field of art history. His advocacy for the importance of education was echoed fifty years later in 1992, when the American Association of Museums (AAM) published Excellence and Equity which challenged museums to “…place education – in the broadest sense of the word at the center of their public service role”.
It was always about the audience. In Low’s view museums were not just for the privileged few, but for everyone – for the community. Too many museums, he felt, were hypnotized by the charms of collecting and scholarship, and the opportunity to become a vital social instrument became lost. A museum needed to recognize how to appeal to people who not only came through its doors, but also to those who in any way could be reached by its influence. In Low’s day it, was radio and TV. In our day, it’s websites, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter. To attract the public you provided programs that were interesting, accessible, and relevant to their lives, and more advertising. If visitors were in book groups, show them manuscripts; if they were scientists, connect science and art. Find the commonalities within the group. “The only way to meet people is at their own level and with what they want, not with what you want to give them.” According to Low, “if they don’t see what they like – they won’t come back!” What better way to affirm Ted Low’s philosophy of public access than when the Walters instituted free admission to the general museum in 2006!
When Ted Low wrote “The time has come…when museums should realize how important technology is for their present and future work” it was the 1940s and radio was prominent. Yet Low urged museums to use the latest in new technologies – projectors, movies, and slides, more audio and less writing – to provide context for making objects relevant to people’s lives. Most of all, he felt the new technology of television had great promise! In fact, Low was on TV for nine years, from 1954 – 1962, with TV seriesHeritage, Key to the Ages, and Man the Maker co-produced by the Walters and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. During the half-hour series Low and guests related the Walters’ collections to plays, historical novels, books, and many other disciplines of interest. Well received, it had an audience of nearly 50,000. Not bad for the early days of TV!
Over the years Low published two books – The Art of Reuben Kramer (1963), and The Perils of a Tour Leader (1976), and numerous articles on all aspects of museum education. He directed programs for school classes, matching changing curricula with the collections, taught teachers and volunteers how to use the museum effectively, started adult education programs on a regular basis in 1948, offered free public lectures on Monday evenings and expanded existing Sunday afternoon lectures. He added lunch-time lectures, afternoon gallery tours, and Member trips to Europe, especially to sites of medieval art and architecture, his special interest. Most of these programs have continued at the Walters today, and have become the foundation for the Education Division. What is more significant is that programs such as these have become standard practice in most museums across the globe.
Ted Low challenged museums to find their “uniqueness” in order to attract visitors. His willingness to experiment, to be flexible and change with the times, is vital to the success of museums today. Upon his retirement from the Walters in 1980, friends and former colleagues created the annual Ted Low Lecture, a fitting tribute to the popular lecturer. As I enter my 11th year as Director of Education and Public Programs at the Walters Art Museum, I am struck by three things: 1) that the Education Division today is a true reflection of Ted Low’s vision; 2) that the more I know about Ted Low, the more I realize how much he was ahead of his time; and 3) that I am so fortunate to be following in his legendary footsteps.