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Jeanette Winterson

When Learning is Cool: What it Means to Be Sparked

Sparks fly at the Boston Museum of Science. Photo from

From a little spark bursts a mighty flame” -Dante Allghieri

The spark is more than just a concept that museum professionals carry around on a day-to-day basis. Creating sparks is a real and actual everyday goal, and for some museum professionals, it is a decided lifetime mission… At least, this is the way that sparks functioned at Pacific Science Center.

Generally, the spark is understood to be the moment in which a visitor realizes that something– the educational object, experiment, or work of art in front of them– is deeply and sincerely cool. It’s a moment of connection. The spark is a synapse that bridges the junction between the way that we understand the world and how we understand a thing in front of us. Often the spark seems so cool because it gets you to think about something in a new way.

You’ve been sparked before. Try to remember a time when you saw something or took part in an activity (in a learning environment or elsewhere), and you uncovered something that you considered wholly and incredibly awesome. Some things that have sparked me are Paul Revere’s Ride, this speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, this poem, and this scene from Dead Poet’s Society, for example.

That’s not to say that these same things should also spark and inspire you. Sparks are personal connections– and they happen in museums everyday. In fact, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to say that the creation of these connections is often the aim of integrative exhibitions and museum programs. Sparks don’t always necessarily inspire a person to change career paths, but they ignite or strengthen interest in something.  There has been research performed and theories drawn on how to inspire certain kinds of connections in certain kinds of museums, and curiosity (often a post-spark result) has been called a key to happiness by psychologists.

The following is an excerpt called On a Thing Called Art, written by Jeanette Winterson. This clip is about art, but she presents a case for the importance of connections. I find it to be the best case for sparks that I’ve yet to come across. Have a listen:

Sparks ignited in museums and other learning environments (informal or otherwise), lead to connections and curiosity. Schools, museums, community centers, and educational programs provide unique opportunities to open ourselves up to new sparks of interest that may have lasting impressions on the way that we view particular subjects and situations.

I write this post to provide an outline of what I mean when I use the word “spark” in blog posts. Because the spark (inspiring it, sharing it, and understanding it) serves as significant fuel for my professional interests, I felt the need to introduce the topic in my own terms. Please feel free to respond with your own takes on the concept, or with messages about things that have sparked you.

Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Blogging, Community Engagement, Education, Museums 3 Comments