Do Museums Make People Smarter?

Can museums make you smarter? A team of researchers based in Arkansas thinks they can. But what about California? Those of us who live in San Joaquin County have some handy tools in our own backyard that can help us answer this question for ourselves.

Having fun getting smarter: Pioneer School at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Having fun getting smarter: Pioneer School at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

According to a recent New York Times article, the researchers have found a positive correlation between exposure to museums and a number of skills and personal qualities. The study focused on visitors to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, of Bentonville, Arkansas. It was conducted by Brian Kisida and Jay P. Green, from the University of Arkansas, and Daniel H. Bowen, of Rice University.

The project lasted about a year. Thanks to the gift of a generous donor, the researchers had the ability to select a random sample of school groups and invite them to visit the museum for free. Among this group were significant numbers with little exposure to cultural institutions like art museums. Another group of students not invited served as a control group, against whom findings about the visitors could be compared. Altogether, about eleven thousand students and five hundred teachers participated.

The researchers assessed both groups several weeks after the invitees visited the museum. Doing so enabled them to compare not only knowledge about art, but also tolerance, historical empathy, and interest in visiting museums in the future. Coded tickets given to all participants allowed the researchers to determine which subjects returned to the museum.

In the end, the researchers found notable differences. "Students…selected to visit the museum on a field trip," write the researchers, "demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy, and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions."

In a word, the visitors had become "smarter."

The study has limitations. For instance, it focused on one specialized art museum. Obviously, additional research is in order. What better way to do so than to visit a local museum on your own?

Two that come to mind offhand are the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, in Lodi, and the Haggin Museum, in Stockton. Both have impressive collections, and both have a number of educational programs to enhance the experience of visitors.

But why take my word? Why not take your family and/or friends to a museum and test the research? My totally unbiased opinion is that your own experience will probably end up supporting the findings from Arkansas.

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