So Long As You Still Have Something to Learn…


Photo by Wesley Fryer; taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Last week, Marty Knowlton passed away. This was an event that went largely unnoticed by the museum community. Who is Marty Knowlton you ask? Well, he was the co-founder of Elderhostel.

Elderhostel is a non-profit organization founded by Mr. Knowlton and David Bianco in 1975. At its most basic, it is an educational travel organization for adults age 55 and older. However, on a deeper level Elderhostel: “changed the perceptions of aging by introducing a new understanding of older adults as active, engaged learners, travelers, and explorers…and ushered in an era of active learning in retirement.” Ultimately, Knowlton was instrumental in creating an opportunity for an entire generation to mix the social with the entertaining and educational. After a lifetime of learning, Elderhostel found a way to make organized education relevant again.

So, what does this have to do with the museum world? Well, museums and cultural opportunities make up a fair portion of the educational and travel opportunities offered through Elderhostel. Here are just a few of the programs offered on the organization’s website:

  • From Legends to History: Turkey’s Legacy of Civilizations and Culture
  • Traverse Tucson: Its History, Art and Architecture
  • Treasures of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Great Art Centers in New York City
  • Music Along the Mississippi
  • The Maya and More: History and Culture of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize
  • National Treaures: Introducing Historic Philadelphia
  • Classic Tuscany and the Treasures of Florence
  • City Museum: A World of Its Own
  • Dinosaur Encounter at the LA Natural History Museum
  • Working Behind the Scenes to Preserve and Renovate a Shaker Museum
  • Inside San Francisco’s Museums

With nearly 160,000 elderly adults participating in Elderhostel programs each year – and with many of the museum-related programs receiving “most popular” ratings – museums receive a relatively unheralded bump in visitors thanks to the efforts of this organization.

However, this is about more than just bringing elderly visitors through museum doors. Elderhostel has succeeded in adding a different dimension of participation to museums. They have attempted to make the museum a moreĀ  interactive experience: where visitors’ perspectives matter just as much as the curator’s. This is done through tailoring learning experiences to the museum visitor’s/program participant’s interests; providing opportunities for discussion and a forum for expressing opinions about museum collections; and encouraging the view that museums are not only educational institutions, but also venues for socializing and entertainment.

So, Mr. Knowlton, thank you for showing that education extends beyond youth and for promoting museums as a venue for lifelong learning.