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Museum education versus the culture of fear

The war in Ukraine poses serious challenges to cultural and museum education that are quite apart from the traditional objectives of adult education

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First published in Polish by Marcin Szeląg

For quite some time now, I have had the pleasure of writing posts about cultural education on the EPALE blog. I am mainly focused on museums, as they are my area of expertise thanks to my professional experience and academic interests. Besides, there are others to write and provide information about this field besides me. It is enough to go to this website to verify that what I am saying is true. Quite a number of those texts are interesting case studies presenting knowledge, experience and theoretical contexts reflecting the current advancement and practice of cultural and museum educators who are the authors of those posts. However, because of the war in Ukraine, it has become necessary to look into those aspects of cultural and museum education which are significant in light of the current geopolitical situation and the challenges to be probably faced by adult education in Poland.

pole pszenicy

Wheatfield with Crows, Van Gogh, Google Arts & Culture

Cultural and museum education on the EPALE platform

Texts featured on EPALE, which discuss workshops, seminars and adult-involving activities, present the permanent elements of activities implemented in cultural institutions and outside of them. The range of cultural education and - in particular - the museum education that we receive, thanks to them, includes courses improving teaching skills, as well as community workshopsseminarstheatre classeslectures and participation projects. Some of them are didactic in nature and based on passive absorption of information; some require involvement and workshop activities, and some point towards the emancipative nature of cultural education with its political and social aspects. The topics of EPALE texts also discuss problems in education. Regarding museum education, the main challenge boils down to the fact that it is seen as something with no appropriate range and status by museums, despite several positive changes happening in this respect for some time. This leads to internal tensions and prioritisation, exposing educators’ position in museums in crisis situations such as the pandemic. Given the current political situation, issues discussed on EPALE put lots of emphasis on the critical dimension of museum education, which changes the understanding of what cultural education provided in museums involves and what contemporary museums can become.

Cultural education and modern challenges

It is common knowledge that cultural education provides knowledge on issues relating to history and culture. Therefore, it focuses on events, dates and persons important for specific communities or nations, seen by them as integrating and animating factors boosting cultural activity.  It also presents cultural landscapes composed of the most important elements of tangible and intangible heritage, such as arts, architecture, technology, customs and lifestyles. It can also provide knowledge about cultural institutions, their types, principles, forms and areas of activity. Regarding competencies in the broad sense of the term, it is important to provide education in the appreciation of arts, as artistic heritage is central to cultural education. That is why the knowledge of terms and the significance of the language we use to describe cultural phenomena are often emphasised. This scope of cultural education is reflected in the objectives of educational programmes aimed at exploring and understanding the past, developing of creativity through painting, music and theatre workshops, etc., fostering values and the understanding of one’s own cultural identity and a respect for different cultures and their forms of artistic expression.

But cultural education, including museum education, does not have to be limited to the past. It can also face modern challenges posed by current social problems. That is even more so when this scope of cultural education is extended by adding certain elements of adult education which are more critical and radical. Some of them have already been emphasised on EPALE. They include certain traditions of social teaching practice, such as feminist adult educationanti-discriminatory educationpublic and critical educationart-based adult educationenvironmental adult educationcivic education, to name but a few. These traditions allow cultural educators to emphasise specific education and learning environments, such as social movements, specific groups such as women, particular creation practices such as art and exhibitions or specific social and political problems such as war and colonisation.

I wish to emphasise the critical aspect of adult education in light of the war in Ukraine and its political and social consequences, whose scale we do not know yet. However, we can only guess that the whole educational involvement of cultural institutions will be very important, as it will allow us to support Ukrainians and Russians living in Poland.

Museum education versus the culture of fear

Before 24 February 2022, the term culture of fear in the part of the world where Poland is situated involved a cascade of social, cultural and climatic problems caused by rampant capitalism, unbound liberalism or - as Jason Stanley puts it - the creeping fascism of the western authoritarian democracies On 24 February, the culture of fear started meaning a real risk of brutal war, just like the one waged in Ukraine by Russia, and not just irrational anxiety resulting from the erosion of the rudiments of civic society and the principles of liberal democracy. When culture is really treated as a space where our perception of the world may be radically questioned, this change affecting cultural adult education means that museums are supposed to play an active role as a meeting place and encourage not only intellectual development or creativity but also involve people in issues of justice, awareness and even activism.

This is vital both for Ukrainians fleeing the war and Russians already living in Poland. Because although museums - according to Mary Pratt - can be treated as specific “contact zones” for clashing cultures, their strength consists in the skill to mask this fact. “Contact zones” understood in this way make museums spaces for exchange, activities and relations in the spirit of reciprocity, not hostility. They make their spaces intended for the collective creation of events, debates, creation of knowledge and self-reflection but also places where there is resistance to hegemonic narrations. This approach to museums and museum education departs from deeply rooted convictions that they are motionless, passive spaces and practices indifferent to contemporary social problems. On the other hand, they offer both sides of the conflict a meeting in such contact zones. In Poland, a place of residence for both Ukrainians and Russians, museum education is facing a serious challenge in getting involved in developing relations between them. It also requires museums to create conditions for such meetings.

Texts posted on EPALE are written by practitioners mainly. They show that museum educators, at least some of them, are aware of the need to expand cultural education areas traditionally orientated towards the past and to get involved in solving contemporary political and social problems. We can only hope that Polish museums also see this need and that they will be an enclave of “contact zones”, just like other museums in the world.  Let’s hope that their ability to propose neutrality, objectivity and dissociation from the real world will be effectively used to create a space for relations between the warring parties in the spirit of exchange, not hostility. This serves the purpose of resisting the narration imposed by the dictator, which is aimed at the deadly division of two nations living beside each other.

dr Marcin Szeląg –  is an art historian, educator, and employee of the Faculty of Art Education and Curating at the University of Arts in Poznań. For over a dozen years engaged in cultural education in cultural institutions, particularly museums. He was the head of the Education Department at the National Museum in Poznań and deputy director of the Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław. He has prepared educational projects for diverse audiences, developed scenarios for educational programmes, and consulted projects of newly established cultural institutions on their educational potential. Co-founder of the Forum of Museum Educators and animator of its scientific and research projects. Initiator and author of a research project on the state of museum education in Poland. His research interests are related to the criticism of institutions, analysis of their educational activities, and contemporary art

Further reading:

What a "beautiful" disaster: education and crisis situations

Six tips on how to coordinate online volunteering work


M. L. Pratt, Arts of the Contact Zone,

Portal Edukacji Muzealnej,

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Problem z edukacją kulturową (przynajmniej w odniesieniu do sztuki) polega na tym, że jest to pojęcie dość nieostre i mało intuicyjne. Pamiętam, jak dołączyłem do zespołu osób, które edukację kulturową czynią swoim modus operandi to sam nie za bardzo rozumiałem, po co dodawać nową metkę do czegoś co funkcjonuje od dawna. W końcu jako edukator i kurator projektów społecznych używałem sztuki jako pretekstu do działań a charakterze antydyskryminacyjnym, obywatelskim, aktywistycznym czy querrowym od bardzo dawna. Z kolei, gdy próbuję dystrybuować zdobytą wiedzę dalej to widzę, że zdecydowanie lepiej rezonują takie hasła, jak „sztuka jako narzędzie”, „sztuka jako pretekst” czy edukacja „przez sztukę”. Myślę, że przydałaby się nam wszystkim jakaś środowiskowa narada nad tymi wszystkimi terminami i określeniami :)

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Masz rację - pojęcia są nieostre. Nie jestem jednak pewien czy powinny być ostre. Z mojego punktu widzenia efektywnym kryterium byłby cel i ewentualne zakładane efekty w odniesieniu do zdiagnozowanego zagadnienia. Stąd mi również bliskie jest podejście "pretekstowe" do sztuki jako narzędzia do podejmowania/rozwiązywania konkretnych wyzwań/problemów. 

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