To enlighten us on just about anything from ancient art to zoology, 760 new museums have been launched in the United States in the past decade.
This is part of the culture boom that has brought the number of museums in the country from 2,156, in 1970, to today's 4,609. They are visited by 353 million people a year, according to Lee Kimche, director of the Institute of Museum Services, as opposed to the 60 million people a year who attend professional basketball, football and baseball games.
The national culture boom, however, seems to be attended by an educational bust.
Respect for education is down, people in the ed biz seem to agree. Illiteracy is up. Newspaper reading, and even television viewing, appear to be declining.
Museums must not only collect and preserve evidence of past cultures, they must help safeguard culture against the clear and present danger of illiterate robotism -- a substitution of the computer for the mind and replacement of the soul by disco "experience."
Scientists recently discovered the importance of the "corpus callosum," Kimche recalled in a recent speech to educators. It is the bridge between the two hemispheres in the human brain. The left hemisphere contains our language and analytic ability. The right side contains artistic and musical ability and space perception. If the corpus callosum is cut, information cannot pass from one part of the brain to the other, rendering even "brainy" people stupid.
Museums must be our corpi callosi, said Kimche, whose institute was established by Congress four years ago to assist museums in their educational work and to ease the costs of their increasing popularity.
In the past the federal government has paid attention only to formal education, Kimche told a congressional committee. That is just one hemisphere of the brain -- the left side. Now it is time to integrate or, rather, to build the bridge between schools and museums. That is what the new Department of Education should do.
We can learn the color of animals or the height of trees from a book, a lecture or a film, Kimche continued. But seeing a real object from King Tut's tomb, patting a live rabbit in the zoo or pushing the button of a Science Museum computer gives us more than cerebral knowledge. It becomes part of the whole person.
Museum people, in general, realize this and try to make their exhibits attractive and instructive to children and the untutored as well as the connoisseurs.
School people, in general, do not yet quite realize how much museums can help them. In Cleveland, for instance, the school board built a beautiful planetarium. Then it ran out of operating funds and closed it. The Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the best endowed in the country, offered to take it over for the benefit of the school children, but the school board wanted no such intrusion on its turf.
In other cities, including Washington, it is up to the individual teacher to organize field trips to art galleries, science museums, zoos, or planetariums. That puts the burden of collecting bus fares and lunch money and making all the other arrangements on the individual teachers. Few teachers bother.
In some places, however, school-museum cooperation is enthusiastic and imaginative.
In Boston, for instance, the superintendent of public schools is so convinced museums are important that he has funded the Museum Education Collaborative, a special training program to teach teachers how to augment their curriculum with visits to various musuem collections.
Boston also has one of the two largest and most exciting of the country's 88 children's museums. The other is in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Boston Children's Museum, which recently moved downtown to a wharf near the popular Quincy Market, will open a Japanese artisan's house, shop and ornate garden on Thursday. It plays host to many regular school programs in basic science, technology and Americana.
Children from the slums and highrent districts alike swarm through the exhibits, armed with note pads, clip boards, sketch books, cameras and bright-eyed enthusiasm.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum makes quite a point of collecting artifacts, natural history specimens and historic toys, as well as finding new ways of involving children, as no classroom instruction can, in various aspects of human culture.
Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor living-history museum in Massachusetts, teaches history by letting children use its early 19th-century looms, woodworking tools and fireplace cooking utensils.
Many museums attempt to deal with touchy social issues such as race relations and sex education -- rushing in where school boards fear to tread.
The Columbus (Ohio) Center of Science and Industry and the Museum of the City of New York have what they call "non-threatening" drug education programs for children as well as adults.
The Afro-American Museum of Detroit has a mobile museum with an exhibit on black inventors. Before the mobile museum comes around, techers receive specimens, patent numbers and explanations of the inventions, so they can discuss them beforehand.
The New Jersey State Museum in Trenton is breaking new ground in teaching children archeology. It let them dig in sandboxes to find and chart treasures the way archeologists do.
Education is not only for children. More than 45 percent of the population will be older than 45 during this decade, and many of these people turn to study for its own sake, to fill their leisure time.
Through associate programs, lecture courses, organized tours and film and music programs, museums of all kinds increasingly are turning into adult education centers as well as collections.
But despite increasing demand, museums are facing hard times. They are uniquely affected by inflation, because most of their income is from endowments, stocks and bonds, which are dwindling in the face of rising costs. In 1950, for instance, the Corcoran Gallery of Art endowment paid more than half of its expenses. Today the endowment pays for 7 percent.
This forces museums to charge admission, and to reduce popular programs as well as the care they must give the nation's art and historic treasures and collections.
Ther is also a temptation in Congress to skimp on the small federal assistance given many important museums through the Institute of Museum Services -- some $10 million out of the $1 billion museums spend annually on their public services.
This temptation must be resisted. We depend on our cultural resources in hard times even more than in affluence. The nation's strength in all aspects -- economic and strategic -- depends on the quality of its education. And education, we are beginning to learn, takes many forms.
We need that corpus callosum.