I have to admit that I am a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to books about how we look at and experience art. So when I found out about the recently published books by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford as well as Ossian Ward, I was more than just a little curious (I ordered them right away and began to dig in during the winter holidays).
First, let me dive a bit into the pages of Rendez-Vous with Art. This book reads like an enjoyable travelogue of the great museums of the world, retelling in lush detail a series of art encounters as filtered through the interests, knowledge, passions, and opinions of de Montebello (Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years, 1977-2008). At café moments and interludes, both authors engage in brief conversations about how we experience art, how we think about it, and how we look at it. The book is, as the authors write, “an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art” (9). Visiting the Louvre, the Prado, the Palazzo Pitti, the Mauritshuis, the British Museum, the Brancacci Chapel, the Met, and other notable art sites, their conversations focus on their experiences with masterpieces and lesser known works that allow them to escape the crowds of some of the more popular cultural destinations.
I happened to be reading this book during the days leading up to a workshop I was facilitating with our docents at the Portland Art Museum, spending time in the galleries looking at an absolutely electric El Greco painting on loan to our museum from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I was searching for a new way to frame our extended experience with this masterpiece — a way to prompt our viewing of the painting in a way that could transcend the art historical facts of the painting’s creation and context. Could a work like this speak to us today about something meaningful? As a viewer, what does this work mean to me? De Montebello provided the tee-up:
“A characteristic of great works of art is that they persistently catch our attention and beckon us. It is like a piece of music that we want to listen to ad infinitum or a book that we love re-reading — because one never exhausts what a great work has to give, whether it’s in the detail or the whole…. It has an ability not just to defy time, but also to communicate through time, even to people who do not and cannot know much about the beliefs of the people who made it or the message it was supposed originally to have. Somehow, inexplicably, a great work of art transcends its own age.” (31, 34)
While I may not agree with de Montebello when it comes to how we shape visitor learning experiences and use social media & digital technologies to broaden public engagement (among other things), I did enjoy his grandiose statements about the powerful nature of experiencing art. The hustle and bustle of a crowded art museum can certainly be music to a museum educator’s ears, yet I know that many of us, like myself, also seek out the more intimate, quiet, deeply rewarding experience of being the only person standing in front of a masterpiece (how many of us sneak into the galleries when the museum is closed to steal away our own time with art?). De Montebello muses on the challenge of viewing art amidst the crowds of popular, well-visited institutions … or, as they write, “the hell of looking at art with other people” (128). As Gayford recounts, de Montebello originally wanted the title of the book to be “The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.”
At times, both authors seem rather grumpy about the millions and millions of people who crowd into museums to see masterworks of culture and history, but their questions about how we experience art in these contexts raises interesting issues about marketing, image reproductions, and digital collections. For example, given the deep crowds of camera-phone-wielding tourists crammed in front of the Mona Lisa on any given day, is it more valuable or meaningful to look at a high quality digital image on my iPad (here in the quiet comfort of my own home or office)? And how does our repeated exposure to beautiful, massive publicity banners and posters showings close-up details of masterpieces effect our expectations of the actual museum gallery experience with these artworks?
How Do We Experience Contemporary Art?
OK, let me shift gears here, from talking about experiences with Egyptian sculpture, Renaissance masterpieces, and nineteenth-century portraiture to experiencing the art of now — contemporary art that can be scattered across a gallery floor, projected on multiple walls, consuming a massive space, requiring us to talk to someone or eat something, confusing, perplexing, and having no apparent start or finish.
“The old rules of not touching a work of art or of reverentially paying homage to each picture in a state of quiet awe are now gone….” (Ward 8)
Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking makes a fresh pairing with Rendez-Vous with Art, focusing on art created since 2000 that frequently expects viewers to perform, interact with, or complete the piece in front of you. In this highly readable, straightforward book, Ward offers a set of tools that go beyond just looking and might help provide a way to make sense of contemporary art. While an art critic and art world insider himself, I think he succeeds in his attempts to combat the ubiquitous and opaque ‘art speak’ that so frustratingly surrounds contemporary art. He writes (and I quite agree):
“Too often, these gatekeepers [curators and critics] stand in the way of the understanding of a work of art by using a morass of theoretical jargon and pseudo-philosophical art-speak. This kind of clever-clever writing about art does very little to bolster or boost an artist’s cause, other than perpetuating more reams of similarly hard-to-fathom ‘discourse.'” (20)
So how does Ward propose we cut through the verbose jargon and allow for better experiences with contemporary art? His central foundation is to “start from zero” and wipe the slate clean — tabula rasa — using the first word TABULA as a mnemonic device for the approach he proposes. While I don’t want to give away all the details (after all, you should read the book yourself and explore this approach), here is a very brief summary:
Time: Always a good idea to start with a few minutes of calm contemplation, looking, and exploration. Take stock.
Association: What is the personal resonance or ‘hook’ for you? This can be a visual attraction or a connection with a memory or experience you’ve had. Make some associations.
Background: Use some basic ways to learn a bit more about the backdrop of the piece or the artist — using the title, label, press release, museum brochure or website, etc.
Understand: After looking, connecting, and learning a few basic background facts, the piece is more likely to sink in a bit more. What might be some broader messages at play here?
Look again: Simple as it sounds. After a bit of pondering, go back and look or engage with the work even more. Did you miss a detail?
Assessment: After these first four steps, you’re now in a better place to decide whether you think the work is good or not. But Ward reminds us not to hastily jump to this step (which we all do far too often).
Much about this method of looking at contemporary art or thinking about an encounter makes sense, and reaffirms many existing pedagogies and educational philosophies already informing museum practice. In addition, throughout his book, Ward provides us with wonderfully pithy ‘Spotlight’ features that lead us through parts of the TABULA approach with individual works of contemporary art — including explorations of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Carsten Holler’s whimsical Tate Modern installation Test Site (2006), Glen Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow (2005), and Roger Hiorns’s amazing and enormous Seizure (2009). When the TABULA approach seems a bit lacking, at least the discussions of contemporary art are enjoyable and digestible.
Everything Comes Full Circle
The entire experience of reading these two ‘looking at art’ books side by side became eerily connected when I reached the final pages of Ward’s book only to find a Spotlight on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1661) — a painting that de Montebello and Gayford could have easily included in their travels. Ward comes around full circle to the more traditional ways of looking at art that form the foundation of Rendez-Vous with Art, writing: “there is no better way to slow down and tabulate one’s appreciation of art than by sitting with one of the Old Masters.” No matter what approach or strategy you take when it comes to encountering art of any time period or culture, is there anything more essential than spending time to look, perceive, and use our multitude of senses to take it in?
“It’s not rude to stare at art. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s the least you can do. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Don’t think, just look, take it all in. Soak up your surroundings, feel the space in front of you, set your mind free, let your internal monologue recede and allow your eyes to settle. When was it that you last allowed yourself such a moment?” (Ward 148)
Recently, the use of questions in art museum teaching has been questioned. In their book, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee wonder “why we ask questions at all.” They have observed too many instances of questions that merely stand in for the delivery of facts, questions that limit viewers’ responses, or questions aimed only at “getting the students to talk.” They write:
“Even so-called open-ended questions always define a finite horizon of response that limits the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent” (100).
Are they right?
While they have written an eloquent, essential book that I am very grateful for, I do not agree with their premise that because some docents or educators ask terrible questions, questions in general are a flawed pedagogical tool. Every teaching method has unsatisfactory practitioners. That does not mean the teaching method itself is bad. More likely it means that some practitioners are not buying into the philosophical underpinnings of the methods, or, in some cases, that they don’t have enough experience or good mentorship.
I can assure you that many docents or educators could also botch Burnham and Kai-Kee’s described methods. Does that mean their methods are bad? Certainly not. I have been with Burnham for an experience with an artwork, and it was powerful. I don’t disagree that what she does works wonderfully for her audiences. However, I also don’t agree that all audiences can or will look for an hour at a painting without prompting through questioning. I have taught audiences for whom this works just fine, but over ten years of teaching literally thousands of tours at art museums, I believe that museum educators must not do away with open-ended, non-leading questions.
In Defense of Questions
Why not do away with questions? Because some groups have never been to a museum before, or looked for longer than a few seconds at an artwork. Some groups have rarely been asked their opinion before. Some groups have not experienced learning as interpretative and dialogic instead of didactic. Some groups have had no practice listening to each other. Some groups are scared to death of sounding stupid. Some feel highly uncomfortable in the galleries. “We are the only people who look like us here,” a student once said to me on a tour at the Whitney Museum, and when she broke down in tears, so did others in the group and so did I. Some groups don’t even want to travel to the area where the museum is. When I taught high school in the South Bronx, my students said they did not want to go on field trips to Manhattan. “Too many white people in Manhattan, Miss,” said one student, and I don’t think he was joking. Some groups are still thinking about the backpack they were forced to check in the lobby. Some are just marveling at the museum – a place entirely new to them. Some are hungry or wondering when they will be allowed to go to the bathroom. Perhaps some students (hard to believe for us art lovers) are simply not interested in art. (I don’t blame them. We all have affinities. I would probably not have been enthusiastic about a school field trip to a car mechanic unless ways to be engaged in the topic were modeled for me.)
For many groups, questions will help them move through fear, discomfort, distraction, or lack of experience or affinity. By asking questions, we model the rules of interpretative play that Burnham and Kai-Kee propose. “Look keenly…share your observations…ask questions… listen to and respect what others say…be patient” (130). We hope that they might internalize these modes of inquiry and use them to think about not just art but the visual culture we live with.
In my experience, questions are critical in modeling how to explore a work of art. When we ask, “What do you notice?” we model for students that their observations are important and meaningful. When we ask, “What more do you notice?” we model that their initial observations are not enough. When we ask, “Where do you see that?” we model that their observations are best grounded in the work. When we ask interpretative questions such as, “What can you guess about this place?” or “How would you describe this person?” we model that their hypotheses are valuable even without a higher degree in art history. When we ask, “What makes you say that?” we remind them to ground their interpretations in observations. When we offer curatorial interpretations or artists’ quotes and ask them what they think of these ideas, we model that the conversation around art in the galleries is still alive and far from complete. When we ask, “Do you agree or disagree?” (with curatorial or artists’ statements or with other students’ thoughts), prompting them to explain their answers, we model that debate and an openness to multiple interpretations are appropriate and they are capable of it. When we ask, “Do you like it? Why or why not?” we model that their opinions matter. When we ask about how art relates to their own lives, we model that what you see in a museum can have an impact beyond its walls. When we ask students to offer up their own questions about the artwork, we model how they can conduct their own conversations with an artwork – on their own or with a group.
Do Burnham and Kai-Kee really think that questions like these “define a finite horizon of response?” For every single one of these questions, I can imagine an unlimited array of responses. These are the kinds of questions that experienced lookers ask themselves about an artwork without prompting. But what of the groups with the aforementioned preoccupations or inexperience? Our role as educators for every visitor – not just the experienced lookers – is to model these modes of inquiry. I love Burnham and Kai-Kee’s model for dialogical teaching. In their model, imagined as a four-sided diagram, or diamond, participants in a dialogue move between any of four roles:
The mover pushes the dialogue forward with statements or questions.
The follower supports the dialogue with evidence, encouragement, or just active listening.
The bystander stands back, views the dialogue from afar, perhaps metacognitively.
The opposer actively disagrees with another’s point of view. (87-89)
Many viewers would not naturally know how or be willing to take on these roles. Questions can help. When we ask questions, we model the role of the mover for students. When later in an experience (or even in the beginning of one), we ask them to raise their own questions about an artwork, we invite them to be movers. When we ask students to think about what others have said and express their agreement or disagreement we are asking them to be both bystanders and, possibly, opposers. We are modeling the role of listening to the whole of the conversation and stepping in when they have a different opinion or even if they want to agree or support as a follower.
Later in their discussion of this dialogical model, Burnham and Kai-Kee describe what I think of as the most exciting kind of question. If you’ll allow me an extended metaphor, the questions I have already described are the meat-and-potato questions – the questions to facilitate a sustained, filling experience with an artwork. But then there is the Boeuf Bourguignon of questions – the one that has been simmering so long it excites the palate upon contact. The educator has reflected on an artwork for days, weeks, even years, and has come back again and again to a question that she cannot answer, that she wants to hear as many thoughts on as possible. It is “a question that is real for [the teacher], a question she wants to share with the students, and whose answer she does not already know” (91).
I had the good fortune of being able to research the painting for months. I read Motherwell’s writings, asked a curator at the museum for background on the work, spoke to a conservator about it, and looked at it carefully for extended periods. I was even able to gather with educator colleagues in front of the painting and discuss it. During this latter session, a question came up that none of us could answer definitively. It stuck with me through all my research. I knew I wanted to share it with the participants in my session.
Motherwell was fascinated by collage. When he discovered it, he said, he took to it like a “duck to water.” He said the experience of making collage was like “making beautiful love for the first time.” The painting I was planning to discuss, according to one curator, “could be read as a translation to another scale of one of his collages.” My colleagues, after seeing his collages, had been perplexed. The painting was not nearly as good as his collages, they agreed. Their question became: Why even make the painting? Why not stick with collage? Indeed, in Motherwell’s writings he describes getting more pleasure out of making collage: “I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play. Which painting, in general, is not, for me, at least…” (Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio). So the question stuck with me. Why even make paintings? I wanted to ask this question because after all my research and time looking at the artwork, I still found it fascinated me.
After a long, free-wheeling, open-ended discussion of the painting, I proposed the question to my first group. There was silence. Uh-oh, I thought, maybe this question was only interesting to me. Maybe, like Burnham and Kai-Kee suggest, I had asked a question that limited “the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent.” Maybe I had asked a question unrelated to their experience of or interest in the artwork. But I sat with the silence for a few moments, and people began to speak up.
“Perhaps,” one said, “he wanted to make something bigger than collage would allow.”
“Perhaps,” said another, “he couldn’t make as much money from collages.”
“I think,” said yet another, “he could learn something about his collages by making the paintings.”
“I think he needed them for his legacy – to be considered important.”
We laughed about some of the answers, and there were plenty of perplexed looks as we sat with the question. It was another way into the painting. Yes, it was influenced by my own experiences with and interest in the work, but it was an open-ended, genuine, and satisfyingly riddling question and the range of answers took us places we hadn’t yet been in the conversation.
Sometimes no one answers questions like this, and I think that’s OK, too. These questions are modeling something that all questions should model, and I think these questions throw into sharp relief. They model that we are all learners, and we are learning together. We are asking questions because we are genuinely curious about their answers.
About the Author
JACKIE DELAMATRE: museum educator, currently teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, and the Neuberger Museum of Art. Until this summer, she taught at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim Museum for nearly a decade. She has coordinated research on the effects of looking at art on critical thinking skills, founded programs for teens as well as babies and their caregivers, and written for the Journal of Museum Education as well as several museum and museum education blogs, most recently for Museum Questions. She holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. from New York University in Fiction. She is at work on a novel.
Written by David Bowles, Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cross-posted with Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.
This blog post is about listening and reflection. As a museum educator, my job is to listen. On a good tour, I learn about as much about art from visitors as they learn from me. I also learn something about their lives. But often it seems like these moments evaporate. So for the past two years, I have been posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from my gallery experiences on Facebook.
I limit myself to one moment per tour. I try to stick to the facts, and not interpret the child’s ideas in my own words. I describe the context succinctly, and stick to a few sentences at most. I imagine reflecting on the teaching experience with someone who has never heard of the field of museum education – so no jargon allowed. When it makes sense, I include a visual of the artwork that sparked the teachable moment.
The moments I capture tend to be funny, which is why they make good Facebook posts. But they also highlight important moments of discovery, and often mark pivot points in gallery conversations. I try to focus on what Piaget might have called moments of disequilibrium – those wonderful, maddening moments when you discover for yourself that what you thought was simple, is not.
Here are three such experiences, some thoughts on what I’ve learned about school tours and student visitors along the way, and tips for anyone interested in giving this a try.
1. Fear of the Unknown
“A 7th grade student on a tour in the Ancient Egypt galleries this morning pointed out that he would rather be chased by mummies than velociraptors.”
I think the young man’s logic was that mummies chasing him through the Museum were likely to shuffle along slowly, while raptors are nimble pack hunters (as anyone who saw the kitchen scene from the original Jurassic Park can attest). He makes a valid point. This comment sparked a stimulating conversation among the class about fear of the unknown. We sat in the dimly lit gallery surrounded by sarcophagi and other tomb equipment unearthed along the Nile, and other classmates chimed in with their honest reactions to the unfamiliarity of the experience. After several other students also expressed fear, one young lady allowed that she “sort of liked being scared.” I asked her if it felt “safe scary” and she nodded. The young man whose comment started the conversation smiled at her and nodded as well.
These students feel slightly scared by the unknown Egyptian galleries filled with mummies and other ancient artifacts. But they are attracted to the unknown. The unknown in a museum setting, like the unknown in movies, is “safe scary.” For them, what is interesting about this space at the Met is not the connections they can make to their school curriculum, or the comparison between the ancient and the contemporary, but the opportunity to exist temporarily and safely in a space outside of the safety and routine of the everyday.
2. Time Travel
“6th grade student, after discussing a sculpture of the historical Buddha: “So, is the Buddha like the Doctor? Doctor Who I mean.” Mind expanded.”
If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, close this browser and go watch some. The Doctor is an extravagant, brilliant, and charismatic alien who explores the universe trying to help the helpless, ease suffering, and generally leave things better than he found them. His ship, the TARDIS, can travel anywhere in space or time. Since he seems to like Great Britain, he comes to Earth a lot. Coincidentally, the show is produced by the BBC, so the Doctor is invariably British, as are his plucky human companions. The Doctor is a troubled hero, whose views on the universe are often transcendent as well as maddening.
On some level, the young lady who asked me if the Buddha was anything like the Doctor understood that the story of the Buddha, like the story of Doctor Who, is about creating an impossible narrative of characters who can save the world. On another hand, she may have been reaching for a way to connect historical information about the Buddha (i.e. he really existed, he was a prince, he traveled throughout India and Nepal, etc.) with the more incredible aspects of his story (i.e. his description of concepts like samsara and nirvana, his awakening or enlightenment, etc.) She seemed interested in the Buddha not as a representative of another culture but as a superhero, an embodiment of the type of figure that could save the world. In short, I think she saw a role model.
3. Love and Marriage
“2nd grade student this morning after hearing that Theseus ditches Ariadne after they escape from the Minotaur: “Well, maybe he was too young for marriage. I mean, you shouldn’t marry someone you just met. You should like, get to know each other first. But it was still mean of him.”
Like the Greek myths that inspired it, this discussion offered an interesting analysis of human behavior. After telling these students the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, I asked students what they thought of the story’s ending. The first flurry of responses focused on abandonment and notions of fairness; everyone agreed that Theseus made a bad choice. Well, nearly everyone. I pushed for dissent, and asked if anyone had another point of view. This young lady had been sitting silently for a while, and when she did speak it was with energy.
On some level she was trying to make Theseus’ decision to abandon Ariadne acceptable. On a deeper level, I wonder if this student, like the young lady who compared the Buddha to the Doctor, was thinking about role models. As you can see in the comments left by my Facebook friends, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ explores these ideas very effectively as well. Whether or not this student had seen the movie (and I suspect she had), it was a powerful reminder to me about making room for respectful dissent when interpreting works of art. Students really absorb the lessons that they learn from movies, so it makes good sense to keep tabs on what those lessons are – and what ambiguities they might offer.
So what patterns have I noticed about kids’ interests at the Met?
Many of these conversations involve discovering new frontiers, and the thrill and fear that accompany real, authentic exploration. As long as the fear of the new doesn’t overwhelm the group, it can be very productive if acknowledged. There’s a lot to be said about the transformative power of discomfort; just ask an oyster.
Humans are social animals; we look to others for tips on how to behave. Many students are searching for role models, and some have found them in fictional characters. These young people are looking for ways to connect these characters and their worlds to the real world around them, and they will do so at the first opportunity.
Museum educators often talk about contemporary connections: strategies or concepts that help visitors understand something unfamiliar by tying it to something personally familiar from today. When students initiate their own contemporary connections, they often do so in unpredictable ways that can be surprising, humorous, or subversive. There is something to be said for letting students make their own connections instead of doing it for them. Kids will bring pop culture with them into the museum regardless, so ignoring its power means missing opportunities for authentic discussion.
Keeping up-to-date on popular trends among young learners can really help make genuine connections that make complex ideas accessible. It can also highlight key misunderstandings about objects or the stories objects tell. For example, the idea that you should get to know your future partner well before committing is a very particular approach to marriage, presumably not one endorsed in most ancient societies.
Some Takeaways for Museum Educators
1. Listen. Really Listen.
Focus on what students are really saying when they respond to your questions, not just what you think they mean. This is hard. Use the words they use to define academic terms and abstract concepts. If a student’s comment strikes you as snarky or disruptive, lean in to it. Find out more. Let them know you’re interested in their thinking. Give them space to explain. If they don’t want to explain to you, consider asking them to turn and talk with some of their peers. Listen to what you hear, and think about how it connects to your own ideas about the content or lesson.
2. Let students drive the conversation.
My boss sometimes talks about how effective museum educators need to be a ‘Guide on the Side’ rather than a ‘Sage on the Stage,’ and this is vital to effective gallery teaching. Use a light touch to keep the conversation moving. Stay goal-oriented, but don’t get so attached to your goals that you lose sight of the importance of the process of discovery for your participants.
3. Ask for divergent thinking
Seek out dissenting ideas so that you are encouraging participants to think both deeply and individually. Some works of art open themselves up to a wide range of possible interpretations without ever committing to just one – examples might include many modern and contemporary art objects. Other works of art, like a Gupta period Buddhist sculpture or ancient Roman sarcophagi, have very specific meanings that their makers intended; there are incorrect understandings of some works of art, and that is important for us to acknowledge. Those misunderstandings are often great starting points for real inquiry if you can help students ground their misunderstandings in the visual elements of the artwork! Either way, seeking out divergent thinking empowers students to discover and craft the complexity of interpretation for themselves.
4. Reflective Practice needs others
I think the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after having done it) is an important part of professional practice. Both are hard to do, and both benefit greatly when other people can be sounding boards. I find these status updates help me slow down and think about the choices I’ve made. Better yet, doing so gives me immediate informal feedback.
Give it a try!
About the Author
DAVID BOWLES: Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art. David oversees the strategic planning, staff and volunteer training, program implementation, and evaluation of all aspects of guided K-12 school tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In collaboration with colleagues, he also develops resources for educators, in particular for educators who are bringing students to the Museum on guided or self-guided visits. David also teaches across a range of audience areas, including K-12 educator programs and adult gallery talks. Before this, he worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as Manager of School Programs. He earned his M.S.Ed from Bank Street College and a B.A. with Honours from McGill University. David’s postings on this site are his own and don’t necessarily represent the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Editor’s Note: Given the meaningful ongoing dialogue about the role(s) of museums in society and our communities, I am thrilled to repost this piece by Jamie Harrison in which she reflects on her visit to the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg — the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration, and future of human rights. From inviting multiple perspectives to embracing complexity, Harrison thinks deeply about core aspects of teaching and student learning through her experience of the exhibits and design of the Museum of Human Rights. I am most excited to share her perspective as a classroom teacher since so many museum educators (paid staff and volunteers alike) are working toward similar goals, allowing for museums to be a place for learners to be challenged; where we can struggle to make meaning, recognize others’ perspectives, participate, and create personal relevance. I encourage readers to click on links to the many teaching strategies that Harrison provides, and explore the resources of Facing History and Ourselves.
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Written by Jamie Harrison, high school teacher, Brandon, Manitoba
Museums are invaluable to education. The carefully selected exhibits, information, and artifacts provide tangible and visual evidence for exploration, reflection, and dialogue that support lessons in the classroom. Museums allow students to build upon prior knowledge – to see things differently.
In late October 2014, I had the opportunity to attend an educator’s preview of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At the time of my tour, many of the galleries were still under construction, but what I was able to see led me to think deeply, and at times differently, about how I teach in my own classroom.
Here are 8 lessons I took away from my visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:
1. Take Students on a Journey
As you move through each of the museum’s eight levels, it becomes progressively brighter (a symbolic – and physical – movement from darkness to light). It is thoughtfully and memorably planned to lead visitors in, to build knowledge, and to lead us toward hope. In the classroom, I take students on Facing History’s Scope and Sequence journey, exploring the role of the individual in society, the concept of “we” and “they,” the supporting history of human rights in Canada and throughout the world, the memory of those who were left voiceless, and the choice (and call) to participate in our own communities.
2. Invite Multiple Perspectives
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is highly interactive, with videos, games, and activities meant to encourage participation from all visitors. The space provides multiple perspectives that contribute to our understanding of human rights. Many of the events and issues explored in the museum stem from people, governments, and societies only seeing, or contemplating, a single perspective. As educators, we need to foster safe and respectful classroom environments, ensuring that students have the freedom to both contemplate and express multiple perspectives on a variety of issues. Doing so promotes personal growth and it allows students to see things beyond themselves – teaching strategies like contracting and fishbowl can help students to hear each other.
3. Give Students Opportunities to Struggle with Making Meaning
On the second level, visitors are greeted by a visual and interactive timeline of important moments in human rights history. There is a video screen that runs the entire length of the wall, posing the question: What are human rights? Likewise, much of the art on display on this level – and throughout the museum – is open to interpretation, allowing each viewer to linger over their personal interpretations and meditate on the messages they draw from the pieces that they see. In our classrooms, we can use the working definitions teaching strategy to engage students in their own explorations of key issues. Analyzing visual images gives students a framework to interpret artwork.Giving students the opportunity to make their own meaning in the classroom promotes the intellectual involvement of students and recognizes that words and images can bear multiple, and often deeper, meanings as it is our beliefs, values, history, and understandings that give words and images value.
4. Make Room for Other Ways of Knowing and Learning
The second level of the museum also looks at the Indigenous perspective and Canada’s journey toward recognizing the human rights of all individuals and groups. The Indigenous artwork here reflects groups from each of Canada’s provinces and territories. The space allows room for performance, storytelling, and discussion, and is annexed by a space for ceremony and smudging meant to recognize, and encourage, the values and traditions of our First Nations peoples. If the medium is the message, how are we using different mediums in our classrooms to teach students about the past and about the world in which they live?
5. Students Need to Deal with Complexity Because Life is Complex
The third level of the museum examines the history of protecting human rights in Canada, including a look at the Canadian Bill of Rights. The exhibits on this level demonstrate that not all issues of human rights are easy to decipher – the processes involving human rights can often be lengthy and difficult. As we work to equip students for the complexities of our world, we can bring complex case studiesand resources into the classroom, and we can ask questions that perhaps have no “right” answers.
6. Encourage Personal Connections
At the time of my visit, there was a temporary exhibit entitled “Peace” on the sixth level. Developed by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the exhibit focuses on Canada’s role in peacekeeping and how that role has been challenged and has evolved throughout history. Two reflection walls encourage participation from visitors. Each provides a guiding question and asks visitors to make personal connections to the content. It provides an outlet for students to examine the impact that peacekeeping has on their identities and on the identity of Canada as a whole.
7. Choose to Participate
Level seven focuses on inspiring change – on choosing to participate. This level houses an exhibit looking at change and a communication wall where visitors are encouraged to reflect upon what they imagine the future to look like and how they can help to inspire positive change in that future.
8. Help Students See Beyond the Classroom Walls
The final gallery in the museum leads to the tower of hope – the peak of the museum – meant to symbolize a merging with the sky. The tower’s viewing platform provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Winnipeg: the now and the future. Here you are surrounded by warmth and light – a true journey from the darkness. We need to help our students take and apply their learning beyond the walls of the classroom. They need to carry their knowledge, beliefs, and values with them so that they can apply them throughout their lives.
How do you use field trips and museum visits in your courses? What impact do such visits have on your students?
JAMIE HARRISON is a high school English and Social Studies teacher in Brandon, Manitoba. Having been fortunate enough to have had a teacher who believed strongly in interacting with history – in facing history as a way of learning about ourselves – she strives to carry that same enthusiasm forward in her own teaching. She does this through interdisciplinary learning, hands-on exploration, and educational travel. Jamie is married with two children.
Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso
Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education.
The Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art is unique because we focus on learning by doing. That means we design activities for people of all ages to learn about works of art from the collection by participating in a hands-on way. The activities we create to accompany works of art prompt visitors to engage in ways that are different from the standard didactic approach of a wall label. In C3, we want to provide experiences where visitors can make personal connections by drawing, writing, making, and discussing works of art with each other.
This kind of active engagement carries a certain stigma; many people assume that it’s only for kids, mainly because we are used to seeing activities like these in children’s museums. Part of our design process is to evaluate visitors’ experiences by observation, interviewing and counting. We’ve learned that half of our participants are adults and that there is a reoccurring theme in their comments regarding why they participate. So, why do adults flock to C3 to draw, write, make, and talk about art? Because it connects them to a childlike curiosity and creativity which, as an adult, often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and tasks.
In January 2014, we installed a large table in the middle of the C3 Gallery, that hosts three activities that rotate on a monthly basis. As a part of the evaluation of these activities, we interviewed visitors about their motivations for participating, their past experience with art making, and their view of the value derived from participating in a making activity at the Museum. I was repeatedly intrigued by the responses of the adult participants.
For example, I spoke with a couple participating in a portrait drawing activity which encouraged close looking at the proportions and scale of the human face. The couple, in their mid-thirties, each claimed to have no artistic experience. Through our conversation, they divulged that they both graduated from arts-based college programs. “I went for fashion, like a BFA in Design, and he went for Graphic Design. We don’t really draw in our free-time though, I mean, he does for work,” the woman stated as she looked over at the man who accompanied her. He added, “Yeah, but just on the computer.” Then the woman broke in, “And I do for work, but it’s not the same. Like, I do fashion sketches, not this kind of drawing.” I prodded them a bit to understand what “this kind of drawing,” meant. “Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”
This idea was reinforced by further conversations with other adult participants: drawing, making, and discussing in C3 is fun in a freeing kind of way. I interviewed another thirty-something couple drawing at a light box activity designed to assist in the making of hybrid imagery. The man began with, “I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here.” The woman with him agreed, “Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.” A sixty-something man participating in the portrait drawing activity remarked, “I used to take art classes, but it’s been so long ago… it’s like I forgot that and I saw this and I remembered.” This feeling of nostalgia for something that is no longer a part of someone’s everyday life was also a common response from adults. Many adults responded that they enjoy drawing or making but, “don’t do it enough.”
Aside from drawing-based activities, the Center for Creative Connections also has a drop-in art making area with large communal tables called the Art Spot, which we say is the place for “anytime art-making for everyone.” We invite visitors to explore their creativity by making creations out of unexpected or everyday materials. Every two months we change the materials and provide a prompt to inspire ideas. Each time I’m hesitant and wonder, “What will people make with this?” But, I am always delighted and surprised by the imaginative creations that are made and left behind. Children often come to C3 and head straight for the Art Spot, while adults can be a bit more tentative. However, regardless of age, most visitors stay anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours, with an average of about 20 minutes. Once they gather their materials they become immersed in their creation. For some it is a hands-on problem solving activity while for others it is about manipulating materials. How can you combine these objects (cups, spoons, paperclips, wire, egg cartons, cardboard, etc.) into something unique and surprising? This kind of open-ended activity, reminiscent of childhood playing and pretending, is not often made available to adults. I frequently watch my eight-year-old daughter take something like a toilet paper roll and turn it into a piano for her dollhouse, or repurpose a cardboard box to make an enormous rocket ship. This nostalgia for childhood play was brought perfectly into perspective by a recent Art Spot creation.
At the DMA, learning can take many approaches and forms. We strive to be inclusive so that we can reach visitors with a multitude of interests and experiences and preferences for learning. In the Center for Creative Connections, our mission is to engage visitors of all ages with works of art and the creative process of artists. We hope that by designing participatory ways to learn we will provide fun and playful activities for all of our visitors, regardless of their age.
How Are You Engaging Adults in Unexpected Ways?
As museum education steps further away from a traditional didactic style and more towards an inclusive approach that attempts to reach a multitude of interests and learning styles, the question of how to engage adults is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. What if our adults want a lecture? What if they shy away from participatory activities? Will we isolate a large population of our adult audience by trying a new approach? These are valid questions to consider, and making a change does not imply that you have to make a 180-degree turn, but rather consider offering varying opportunities including these types of child-like playful activities. How are you engaging adults in unexpected ways? What successes and struggles have you come across as you experiment with offering new adult experiences?
Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.
About the Author
JESSICA FUENTES: Center for Creative Connections(C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art. Jessica received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Her thesis was a collaboration with her then six-year-old daughter to explore self-guided family experiences in art museums. Jessica’s daughter remains an important resource in her work developing interactives and activities which provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with works of art through drawing, making, and discussion. Jessica is also an artist and a member of 500X Gallery, one of Texas’ oldest, artist run cooperative galleries. In her down time, she can usually be found with her daughter enjoying an art museum or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Dallas Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Exceptional post that I wanted to reblog from Incluseum about the Northwest African American Museum’s response to Ferguson and the lessons learned. Thanks to Chieko Phillips, Leilani Lewis, and everyone at the Incluseum for sharing these insights.
In the weeks that have followed the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, museums and museum professionals across the country have been wondering how to respond. A twitter hashtag, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, was launched the day after the verdict announcement to promote and document discussion on the topic. The Association of African American Museums (AAAM) released a statement and a group of museum bloggers collaborated on a response to the recent events (more on that soon). Examples of how museums have responded are few while questions about how to best respond abound. Given this situation, we are happy to share an article our friends Chieko Phillips and Lailani Lewis from the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) wrote for the AAAM’s latest newsletter on how their museum responded to Mike Brown’s shooting back in August. The article below, which was also…
The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies may help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?
Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.
Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.
We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines. Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.” We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role — as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do they relate to the mission and audience of your museum? Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.
Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest”in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.
We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement (show link) about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American museums. We know that this is not the case. This is a concern of all Americans. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook — that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.
You can join us by…
Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
In light of recent events concerning the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ongoing protests, conversations, debates, arguments, emotional outpourings, and moments for learning that are occurring for all of us, I simply wanted to post some links to resources that might help support teaching and learning during this time of crisis and healing. Or perhaps to just start — or continue to build — a process of learning and peaceful conversation. Most of these have been circulating since August, and I have found them extremely useful for my own personal learning as well as broader implications for museum teaching practice. If any museums, libraries, teachers, or schools are utilizing other resources in terms of addressing these pressing issues with your communities, students, and audiences, please add them in the Comments section below or send them to me directly at email@example.com so I can add them here. This is considered as an organic, growing list of resources sourced by the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community and our readership.
My heart goes out to everyone in my hometown of St. Louis. Please stay safe.
“Whether you find yourself teaching in a schoolhouse, in your living room with your children, at a community meeting filled with movement members, in a church basement with others who seek racial reconciliation, or in a detention center common room, [these] resources … provide a snapshot of what is being taught, what is being felt, and what is being created each day.” – Marcia Chatelain
“Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus,” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain for Dissent Magazine online, reflecting on the #FergusonSyllabus project after the Grand Jury decision pertaining to Ferguson, Missouri.
The Illipsis: on Ferguson, riots and human limits— in this second installment of The Illipsis, Jay Smooth looks back at the events in #Ferguson and asks how we can truly apply Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice that “riots are the language of the unheard.”
Katherine Brooks wrote a short piece for HuffingtonPost on December 5th that surveyed how artists have been quick to echo the nation’s near constant calls for justice and clarity in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. As she writes, “The landscape of St. Louis might be marred by isolated acts of vandalism and law enforcement crackdowns, but art is still flourishing.”
“#BlackLivesMatter – Teachers and Students,” (VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 10, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison and everyone who participated in these conversations.
“Ferguson – Share what you are learning and teaching,”(VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 7, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison who hosted the conversation with Renee Watson, Christopher Rodgers, Chris Sloan, and Janae Williams to talk about police brutality, the murder of black men, racism, and what we are teaching after Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner… and more.
“Teaching #BlackLivesMatter: Countering the Pedagogies of Anti-Black Racism,” Friday, December 19, The Graduate Center, CUNY. An event where we can think through how to address racialization and state power as scholar-teachers, working at the level of both immediately executable plans for teaching/research, and longer term strategies for making the academy accountable to racial violence. The event will begin by breaking into smaller groups and contributing to a collaborative syllabus. Please feel free to add to it beforehand, or if you can’t be at the event, join the Google Doc around 10:00 am next Friday (12/19).
#MuseumsRespondToFerguson – Margaret Middleton of the Boston Children’s Museum began this hashtag now being used to track the way that museums are responding to issues related to Ferguson. Middleton also created a Pinterest Board “Museum Response to Ferguson” with relevant links and resources.
TWITTER CHAT: Dec. 17, 2014, 2-3 PM (EST). Join this live Twitter chat on social justice, advocacy, and the museum field’s responses to the issues of racism, injustice, and police brutality. Follow and join the conversation using the tag#museumsrespondtoferguson.
Reposted from Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.
TheMuseum Questionsexploration of school visits to museums has been sorely lacking the context of a literature review, as noted by Christine Castle of Museum Education Monitor. Happily, Dr. Lynda Kelly told me about a report she wrote in 2011, which is excerpted below. The report was commissioned by The Sovereign Hill Museums Association in Australia. Lynda is Head of Learning the Australian National Maritime Museum, and prior to this worked in digital and audience research at the Australian Museum, Sydney. She has written and consulted widely in this field in Australia and for museums internationally. The full report, with a full bibliography included, can be found here. Thanks to Lynda for allowing me to share this much-shortened version. -Rebecca Herz
Student Learning in Museums
It has long been recognised that museums are educational institutions and that their school audiences are critical in both sustaining visitation and, through offering a positive and inspiring experience, can influence lifelong museum visiting habits (Falk and Dierking, 1997). This report outlines the evidence for student learning in museums under the frame of the contextual model of museum learning (Falk and Dierking, 1992, 2000), coupled with review of published studies primarily drawn from the work of DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) and Groundwater-Smith and Kelly (2003-2011). Given the parameters of this review, the focus is on the physical museum space, coupled with the role of the teacher and museum staff. For more information about the impacts of the online and mobile spaces on educational activities see the list of resources at the end of this report.
The Personal Context and Student Learning
Field trips offer deep cognitive learning beyond facts and concepts to include process skills and draw on other places of learning such as museums. Learning on a field trip is a valuable supplement and addition to classroom instruction and a way to prepare students for future learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Students are more likely to remember social and personally relevant aspects of field trips, yet also dislike and keep less favorable memories of these trips that seem overly structured and leave little room for their personal visit agenda (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Based on the elaborateness of children’s descriptions it was concluded that high personal involvement, links with the curriculum and multiple visits to the same institution embraced long-term learning impact (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Wolins et al, 1992).
Affective outcomes, such as increased motivation or interest, sparking curiosity or improved attitudes towards a topic, may be more reasonable given the short-term nature of field trips (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Visits to science centres can positively impact attitudes towards science for students who are already interested in and engaged with science (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).
Students felt that in order to be substantively engaged in cognitive learning they needed to: know how things worked; be able to think through ideas; have opportunities to ask questions; be able to handle, manipulate and closely examine artefacts and exhibits; be able to seek out information from several sources in language that is appropriate to their age and stage of development; and be stimulated through all their senses (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
When looking at emotional learning, students expressed a desire to be emotionally connected, while at the same time not emotionally confronted. The students in this study indicated that they welcomed opportunities to be fully engaged with provocative questions, fascinating and puzzling exhibits and clear, well-structured and accessible information (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
In the majority of cases the aspect of the field trip that was recalled subsequently was the content and/or subject matter presented during the field trip (Falk and Dierking, 1997).
Even after years had elapsed, nearly 100% of the individuals interviewed could relate at least one thing they learned during an early-elementary-school field trip, and most could relate three or more things (Falk and Dierking, 1997). Students retained information about sharks from an exhibition in a marine park in Italy up to three months after a visit (Miglietta et al, 2008). Sixteen months after visiting a science centre in Israel students recalled facts and details of their visit such as exhibitions, activities and guides’ input (Bamberger and Tal, 2008).
The Social Context and Student Learning
Students are more likely to remember social aspects of their visit. The social interaction occurring on a field trip is an important part of the experience and supporting students’ in sharing their experiences enhances learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
Students like learning with their friends. While they recognised that a visit to the Museum was primarily designed by their teachers to assist in their learning, they also wanted it to be a satisfying social occasion when they could learn with and from their peers (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
Visits are highly social experiences for students. A study of sixth graders stated that they had more control over their own learning when interacting with their peers rather than adults who tended towards control (Birney, 1988).
A study of student talk found that school visits to museums assisted in building relationships between students through cooperative interactions and discourse (DeWitt and Hohenstein, 2010).
The Physical Context and Student Learning
Students wanted to feel safe and comfortable and to move around readily unimpeded by a number of prohibitive signs. They also wanted areas to be well-lit and inviting and find physical spaces scaled to their ages and needs (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
The novelty of the setting may distract from students’ conceptual learning if novelty is strong (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
The degree of structure of a field trip is the subject of much disagreement in the literature – how much should the experience be mediated and teacher/educator-led, and how much should be student-led, based on free-choice learning? DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) identified several issues around structured visits:
To maximise cognitive and affective outcomes field trips need to provide moderate amount of structure while still allowing for free exploration.
Well-designed worksheets can be effective in promoting discovery-based enquiry if exposing students to a wide range of relevant information.
Well-designed worksheets may tap into already available interpretive material thus extending the richness of information.
The use of pre and post visit activities can enhance the cognitive and affective learning outcomes.
In a museum setting structure experiences, such as guided tours, specific detailed tasks can increase cognitive learning but may dampen enthusiasm.
Structure, including worksheets, may limit the ability for students to explore and engage with the unique aspects of the museum setting.
Based on a rage of studies, McManus (1985) recommended that worksheets should be designed to encourage observation, allow time for observation, focus on objects not labels, be unambiguous about where to find information and encourage talk.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
Teachers value museums as sources of rich learning and social experiences (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Falk and Dierking, 1997; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009). Teachers’ agendas for the trip will influence their subsequent classroom practice (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Research reveals that teachers have complex and comprehensive reasons for field trips, valuing these as learning and educational opportunities and as chances for social and affective learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Teacher motivations for school trips include connecting with classroom curricula, providing a general learning experience, enhancing student motivation, exposure to new experiences, change in setting or routine and student enjoyment (Kisiel, 2005).
Students with teachers who were both enthusiastic about science and engaged in extensive follow-up activities expressed more positive attitudes towards science after their museum visit than students in other classes (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).
DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that field trips are enhanced when the teacher:
Becomes familiar with the setting before the trip.
Orients students to the setting and agenda and clarifies learning goals.
Plans pre-visit activities aligned with curriculum goals.
Plans and conducts post-visit activities to reinforce the trip and enables students to reflect on their experiences.
THE ROLE OF THE MUSEUM AND MUSEUM EDUCATORS
Limited research has been undertaken into the role of museum educators in school visits and researchers are only beginning to examine the role of the museum in the student visit (Griffin, 2004). However, of the literature consulted it is clear that collaboration between teachers and museum educators and other staff in program development brings positive results in terms of enhanced outcomes of student visits and in strengthening relationships.
DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that teachers’ goals may not be the same as those of museum educators which, in turn, can cause confusion and impediments to learning. Teachers also may have multiple goals for the visit, whereas museums may be too focussed on the logistical aspects of the visit, such as wayfinding, parental consent, safety forms, transportation, financial transactions and orientation (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
When programs are developed in alignment with school curricular and teacher goals rather than the museum’s objectives, integration of the visit into classroom practice is more likely (Xanthoudaki, 1998).
Successful museum-school collaborations are often characterised by the museum reaching out to teachers and developing material in conjunction with them (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009).
Australian Museum staff who had participated in the 2009 Teachers’ College found this had a positive impact upon all participants, and that teachers had a great deal to offer in the way of advice. Staff felt that they had benefitted in terms of getting close to their audience; learning about how the Museum could better engage teachers and students; networking and connections made to enable further discussion and consultation to take place; and stimulating new ideas for programs (Kelly and Fitzgerald, 2011).
Featured image by Universal Pops at Flickr.com. Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.
This past June, I participated in a two-week workshop at Harvard University’s metaLAB called Beautiful Data: Telling Stories with Open Collections. Thanks to a grant from the Getty Foundation, the metaLAB brought together over twenty curators, technologists, educators, and scholars to grapple with how we might use publicly available data from museum collections in our work. In the first week, speakers as varied as digital museum specialists to experience designers to scientists who study vision all pressed us to think of our work in unexpected contexts. In the second week, we took what we’d discussed and applied them to projects of our own.
Over the past four months, I’ve let the ideas and theories of Beautiful Data percolate in my visitor-centered soul, and I’ve come to realize this: although open collections is a movement born in the digital realm, I believe its principles are essential to how a 21st-century cultural institution can reach visitors today—whether virtual, physical, or personal.
What are Open Collections?
“Open collections” is a museum technology term that refers to a museum (or more appropriately, a GLAM—gallery, library, archive, or museum) “opening” all of collections data for anyone to freely use, reuse, or distribute it. In this context, data refers not only to an image of an artwork in a collection, for example, but all of an object’s “metadata” or supporting information, such as artist, time of creation, subject matter, size, medium, and so on. If the collection of your museum is digitally open, you release an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to easily pull that data into lots of different contexts, such as websites or apps. The idea, according to the OpenGLAM movement, is that it allows “users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.” (For a more in-depth explanation of museum APIs, check out this blog post from the SFMOMA Lab.)
Metadata sounds like tombstone information—in other words, that basic information that lives on a museum label, and on its own, might not necessarily be that compelling. The magic of open collections data, though, is that through technology, all those individual bits of information can be packaged together and unpacked, visualized and disseminated in different ways. In short, like many of our most successful museum education programs, the cool stuff happens when you release it into the wild and let people play.
Perhaps the most famous example of a museum opening up its collection is the Rijksmuseum, which in 2011 published an API and allowed free access to high-quality images of its artworks. But most stunningly, it not only allowed, but loudly encouraged anyone who wanted to create new interpretations of those artworks, from coffee cups to clothing. They even hosted a contest on the huge handmade marketplace website Etsy.
Another great example is by Florian Kräutli, one of my fellow Beautiful Data participants, who took Tate’s open collections data and visualized it—noticing that over half its collection is by J. M. W. Turner, prompting him into a rabbit hole of discovery into exactly why that is (you can read his blog post on the project to find out more). Museums are supporting this type of play in-house, too: the Cooper-Hewitt team has a treasure trove of ways they’ve used their collections data on their blog, including a search-by-color tool and “Robot Rothko” (which is just as awesome as it sounds). As his final project, Beautiful Data participant Richard Barrett-Small, formerly of Tate, built on the Cooper-Hewitt’s color tool to create Colour Lens, a color visualization explorer for multiple museum collections.
In short, the big idea here is that open collections allow cultural institutions to complete their educational missions: not only showing our objects to as many people as possible (no matter where they are in the world—thanks, internet!), but giving people ownership of our collections and spaces by welcoming them to engage in any way they can dream up.
Investigating Transformative Experiences with Art
Let’s turn back to my personal experience at Beautiful Data. It’s rare that museum staff are ever able to think about the what ifs and why nots, to set aside time to imagine, play, and prototype. Happily, at Beautiful Data, we had two full weeks to do exactly that.
As a visitor-centered museum educator, I think a lot about the humans experiencing our institutions. As a visitor-centered museum technologist, I think about people too, albeit those in the ether of the web—no less real than my students, though often more anonymous. At Beautiful Data, though, we went extremely big-picture—this meant discussions of data visualizations (graphical ways to show stories about data), institutional collecting patterns and preferences, and thinking about how not just staff but organizations could collaborate together through comparing and sharing their collections data.
To be honest, this sometimes frustrated me. As one of two educators in the group, I was always asking, “but what about the people who will actually use this information?” That question was certainly on the minds of other participants, but I came to realize that “users” could just as often mean internal staff members as external visitors.
With all this in mind, for my Beautiful Data final project, I decided to tackle an idea that has been a seed in my work for some time: amassing stories or personal connections with works of art from museum visitors, and seeing what patterns I could find about how people interact with collections. I posted a survey asking people to share their “transformative experiences with works of art,” and waited to see what I’d get.
I was struck by the stories I received. Regardless of length or whether the respondent was a museum professional or a scientist, even if they had only seen the work one time, each story was full of heart—beautiful, nostalgic, sometimes wrenching connections between a work of art and the person’s own life.
Despite a week blissfully surrounded by all things nerdy-tech (read: 3D printers, APIs, and Lytro cameras), instead of building a minimal website or massaging the words into data, I instead was compelled to handwrite key phrases on paper, print out full responses and images of their chosen piece, and pin them to a wall. My project quickly turned into a completely physical installation: a purposefully unscientific data visualization of the responses people had submitted.
Documentary photos of my installation can be seen through the photo gallery below, or you can visit my album on Flickr.
Some stories were long, others just a handful of cryptic sentences. Some had art historical, factual descriptions backing up their thoughts; others never looked up a single extra bit of information about the artwork after they saw it. Some ruminated on the object for many years; others were hit in the gut all of a sudden upon turning a corner.
For all that, every single story had two things in common. In each, there was a deeply personal reason behind the individual’s connection to the artwork, and each was written in a tone of reverence—towards the power of these images to arrest a person, to stir up unexpected thoughts or feelings, to stick in their mind for years and years afterward.
Open Collections—Beyond the Digital
When my teen program started up again this fall, I brought my students into the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries to look at a single work of art for an hour (you can read more about this process here.) As usual, I noticed the high schoolers opening up to each other, to new ideas, and to finding ways that art relates to their everyday life—whether a photograph of Milwaukee or a landscape by a Baroque Italian painter. These discussions are guided by the students—I might throw in some useful facts to open up the conversation, but they take the lead. As a result, on any given day, we might relate artworks to religion, politics, narratives, families and friends, or even moods and feelings.
During these sessions, the teens are given permission to engage with these objects in a manner entirely new to them: instead of the 7-second “drive by” glance, they’re encouraged to bring their own opinions, thoughts, and questions to these artworks.
This fall, as I watched the students unfold these pieces and their own thoughts every week, and as I thought about my own project at Beautiful Data, I started to realize how intimately connected my discussion-based teaching style and experience-based project are to the big ideas behind the open collections movement.
In the realm of digital, opening collections data and encouraging people to play with it allows for deeper engagement in and participation with our collections. For my teen programs, which take place physically in the museum, the same goal holds—for my students to feel comfortable engaging with and connecting with the collection. For my Beautiful Data project about transformative experiences with works of art, each respondent was open to having an experience with a work of art that turned out to be intimate and meaningful.
Too often in the museum field, we become siloed. The cross-pollinated conversations and projects at Beautiful Data with folks from many different museum departments helped me see that most of the time, we’re all saying the same thing.
We all want our collections to be open to the public. We all want to give visitors opportunities to engage with objects. All that said, the devil’s in the details, as they say, and, as I learned from fellow participants at Beautiful Data, “openness” might mean different things in different contexts, or to different people within our institutions. For a museum technologist who’s part of the OpenGLAM movement, it might mean creating an API for her institution’s collection. For a curator, it might mean presenting art with minimal labels to allow visitors to bring their own thoughts to the work. For an educator, it might mean hosting a monthly “slow art” day, facilitating a one hour conversation about a single work of art. For a visitor, it might mean taking a selfie with a work of art to share with friends on Instagram—or perhaps having a life-changing, transformative moment with an object—or maybe exploring the collection online even though they live halfway around the world from the institution itself.
If we’re all saying the same thing, then why does it sometimes seem like we’re not on the same page? It might be because we’re speaking slightly different languages (after all, our departments borrow from our content areas—whether technology terms, art history/academic jargon, or educator-ese). It might be because when we are speaking together, we’re only hearing what we want to hear instead of what the other person is actually saying. It might be because we’re not taking time to speak to each other at all.
I can tell you firsthand with Beautiful Data under my belt that it’s worth it to step outside the comfort zone of our own department. Internally, let’s challenge ourselves to learn new vocabulary and have discussions with others outside of our own departments. That way, our principles and beliefs can start to be shared among staff in different areas. When we speak the same language internally, we’ll have the power to push our institutions into a new paradigm, as Jay Rounds discusses in a recent article on Museum Questions, or as Mike Murawski suggests in his article about museums embracing a “digital mindset.”
And externally? Open collections, at its core, is about access to our institutions—whether digitally through collection APIs, physically through innovative programming in our galleries, or personally through highlighting the stories of people who have had powerful experiences with objects. Opening access in this way can be scary, because it can sometimes mean giving up some control, such as rights, an authoritative institutional voice, or even the context and purpose of looking at artwork. But those risky moments are also when great change has the potential to occur. If we want our collections to be relevant and meaningful in the 21st century, we must be brave enough to open up our doors—physically and virtually—to support, encourage, and celebrate the profound and magical experiences with art that happen next, whatever they might be.
Reposted from CODE | WORDS, an experimental publishing project on Medium exploring emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the impact of digital technologies on society.
As the AMC series Mad Men aired its midseason finale back in May, more than two million viewers were graced with an unexpected song and dance performance from senior advertising executive Bert Cooper, played by actor and past Broadway star Robert Morse. In this musical equivalent to hitting the pause button on a much anticipated final season that does not resume until next spring, Morse crooned the lyrical lines first written in 1930: “The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.”
For me, it was certainly one of the most intriguingly beautiful and surprising moments on television in recent years. The song comes during the last two minutes of an episode in which the daily dramas of the show’s characters are laid on top of, and intertwined with, the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point in the episode, everyone gathers around a television, wherever they are, to watch Neil Armstrong take that small step onto the surface of the moon — engaging in one of the most memorable shared human experiences of the 20th century (an estimated 600 million people worldwide were watching the moon landing live on television at that very moment).
Technology, engineering, and new media undeniably acted to create a profound connection. In her Los Angeles Times column about the Mad Men episode, Meredith Blake wrote:
“It was an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection.”
This perspective has particularly resonated with me at a time when I have been grappling with the effects of digital technologies and media on the educational role of museums. Are my own core values of human connection, shared experience, and community co-creation a part of the digital transformation happening in museums? When we’re overly suspect of digital technologies, are we missing out on a greater opportunity to embrace a ‘digital is everywhere’ mentality—a mindset that brings together thinking about digital technologies and the new ways in which humans connect, share, and learn in a digital age?
Yes, and yes.
Well …. how did I get there?
In May 2013, I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (followed by a short thinking piece online) entitled “Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?” that explored my uncertainties about the growing emphasis on technology in museums. Far from being anti-technology, I was, however, exploring some burning questions I, myself, had about the role of digital technology in museum learning and visitor engagement through the polemical dichotomy of ‘plugged in’ versus ‘unplugged.’ Among many questions, I asked:
“As we focus more and more on digital and online experiences, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century? If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experiences in the galleries and across programming?”
After seeing some museums investing more in a single digital project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget, I was genuinely concerned that we might be losing sight of the basic ‘unplugged’ human interactions at the core of learning that allow these institutions and their collections to have public value and mean something to the communities they serve. I even wrote, “when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.”
Yet, I have come to realize that we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today. If the lights go out in the museum and all the WiFi hotspots and screens go dark, we might lose the physical technology infrastructure, but we do not lose the powerful participatory, networked, open source culture that has taken root in our audiences and communities in the 21st century. In this regard, digital technology cannot simply fall away.
In the recent Let’s Get Real 2 report developed from the second Culture24 Action Research Project involving 22 arts and cultural organizations, experts from across the field noted that institutions are struggling to embrace the new realities of audience behavior (via the web, mobile devices, social media, etc.). Jane Finnis, Project Lead, remarks in her foreword to the report:
“this challenge is absolutely not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is first and foremost about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.”
For museums in the 21st century, becoming more aware and responsive to these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset.’ This approach envisions a deeper fluency and understanding of web behaviors, mobile behaviors, and social media behaviors across all areas of museum practice, rather than relegated to the IT, online collections, or website functions of a museum. In her core essay from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology (a must read, by the way) entitled “This Belongs to You: On Openness and Sharing at Statens Museum for Kunst,” Curator of Digital Museum Practice Merete Sanderhoff sets out to define “a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure” (23). She continues:
“Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up for us, we must explore and incorporate not just technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.”
So how might we begin to think more like users, and see our audience as users, as well?
Be More Open
With the rise of the Internet, the phrase ‘open source’ began as a way to describe open access to software source code and the collaborative model for how it is developed. Key elements of this development model have been: universal free access and redistribution of the source code, an openness for users to modify and adapt that blueprint in any way desired, and an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.
In museums today, one of the direct effects of this open source movement can be found in the ways through which institutions have released their collection data. As the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museum) initiative coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation asserts:
“The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.”
In 2013, the Rijksmuseum released 150,000 copyright-free, high resolution images of public domain works — one of several art museums that have made collection data and images openly available online. But they have gone beyond simply releasing images and data, and actively encouraged people to share their collection, remix the artworks to create personalized collections, print reproductions (including everything from posters and canvas prints to coffee mugs and bed covers), and allow artists free reign to use these images to create something new. As of October 2014, visitors had created more than 169,000 new virtual exhibitions through the RijksStudio web platform. Ed Rodley’s recent CODE | WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity” lays out an interesting case for museums like the Rijksmuseum being promiscuous with its collection.
Pushing open use of a collection even farther, in January 2014 the Walters Art Museum hosted its second Art Bytes hackathon to bring together technology and creative communities to use the museum’s rather new API to create games, Twitter bots, scavenger hunts, 3D prints, web apps, e-books, digital docents, etc. This competition not only utilized the collection data to inspire community-wide creative rethinking about the Walters, but it led to a whole series of incredible adaptations, recreations, and visitor experiences with the collection at the core.
One of Denmark’s leading IT lawyers, Martin von Haller Grønbæk, writes in his essay “GLAMourous Remix: Openness and Sharing for Cultural Institutions” from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology:
“All cultural institutions should endeavor to be as open as possible in the sense that as many people as possible should have the easiest access possible to the institution’s content. At the same time the institution should seek to ensure that the freely available content is shared, enriched, and processed by users, whether they are citizens, students, scholars, researchers, or commercial ventures.” (142)
If we think of the concept of ‘open’ in the broadest way possible (beyond releasing collection data), it has the potential to challenge museums to let go of some of their control and the limitations that come with this control. Embracing a mindset of openness changes the way we think about museum practice, inspiring a more participatory mentality focused around creating, transforming, and adapting — without the traditional restrictions that have limited forms of public cultural learning.
“With the web has come a new collaborative approach to knowledge generation and sharing, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and an expectation by users that they will be able to contribute and adapt/manipulate content to meet their own needs.” (Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the 21st Century, 6)
A hundred years ago, people relied on museums as a repository for the knowledge and information related to its cultural collections. If you wanted to learn more about the artists, artworks, cultures, and places of its collection, you walked inside a museum’s grand halls of knowledge. Today, that has completely shifted. Visitors can access far more information through their smartphone or mobile device than any museum could ever hold (87% of people in the US use the Internet, 67% own smartphones, and they have access to more than 672 billion gigabytes of data from more than 1 billion websites).
During a recent visit to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I found myself sitting in front of an amazing Franz Kline painting entitled “Turin” in their Abstract Expressionism collection. While the pithy 98-word unattributed ‘voice of god’ label offered a few tidbits (“Kline used commercial house paints,” and that the painting was “named after a city in northern Italy”), I quickly went to my iPhone to search for more—I was hungry for more. From the 350,000 Google search responses, I instantly found videos, photos, Wikipedia entries, curatorial essays, poetry, music, visitor comments, slow looking reflections, and links to dozens of other museums that had works by Kline in their own collections. While I may have been standing in the Nelson Atkins building, I found myself reaching outside of its walls and connecting digitally with a wide distributed network of authorities and communities of knowledge—even sharing my own content to this mix with tweets and Instagram photos. When I sat down with docents in front of this painting for deeper conversations, we opened up further layers of thoughts, insights, and questions that were not part of the authoritative knowledge repository of the museum.
We have rapidly moved out of the era of passive consumption of content selected by a few experts, and museums now have an opportunity to actively reshape their own authority in this new equation. The digital age does not negate the authority of museums and curatorial expertise, but, rather, it puts this authority in public conversation and dialogue with a wider network of knowledges, voices, and experiences. Cultural authority is not something solely established by a didactic label, curatorial essay, or published catalog; it is negotiated through discussion and collective participation, and shared with our community and the users (yes, I said ‘users’ instead of ‘audience’). with which we connect. In his 2009 essay “A Manual for the 21st Century Gatekeeper,” New York-based curator Michael Connor explores the ways in which the internet, social media, and new collaborative ways of working are fundamentally changing the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences. He writes:
“A curator’s authority pales in comparison to the audience’s vast collective stores of knowledge and passion. How can gatekeepers redefine their role in ways that harness the power of the audience without losing the sense of subjectivity and personal risk that lie behind aesthetic decisions?”
As museums work toward sharing authority, they can begin to allow for the voices of specific communities and the public to be heard inside the walls of these institutions—to speak for themselves. In her guest editor preface to the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on this theme of “shared authority,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello includes a powerful quote from historian Karen Halttunen that relates to the role museum staff play as workers in these public institutions:
“We [must] divest ourselves of the special authority sometimes granted to us … [and we must] enter democratic partnerships with other members of our communities.”
For me, the Memory Jar Project a couple years ago at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History really stands out in terms of a museum working to renegotiate traditional, monolithic structures of authority (using a ‘digital mindset’ in an analog way). Part of a larger community-sourced exhibition project called Santa Cruz Collects, visitors were invited to ‘bottle up’ a memory in a jar, label it, and leave it as part of this exhibit to share with others. The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories initiative also continues to strive toward shared authority and multiple voices (see “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectices: Native Voices”). By redefining authority through these processes of co-creating knowledge and meaning with the community, a museum has the potential to be far more than just a place that holds and disseminates knowledge.
At the core of the digital age are new ways of relating to one another, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, learning, collaborating, and connecting. In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman argue that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.
“People’s relationships remain strong — but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”
Through countless digital projects and social media activities, museums are tapping into global networks and becoming more connected to this growing virtual community (that, in many cases, actually has a strong relationship with a museum’s physical community). As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, stated in a recent New York Times piece, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”
Through the Portland Art Museum’s recent #captureParklandia project, we were able to effectively explore the interconnected network of interest-based social media communities (via Instagram) and the physical communities in Portland itself. The overall reach of this project through Instagram was far larger than the museum’s annual in-person attendance, motivating us to rethink how we define our audiences and the new ways in which we might bring them together through moments of exchange. Rob Stein explores related ideas in his CODE | WORDS essay “Museums… So What?”, writing:
“… the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities?”
The Question Bridge project is a particularly powerful example of using digital technologies in a participatory way to bring people together in dialogue and exchange. Organized by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, this innovative transmedia art project aims to facilitate a question-and-answer dialog between black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and create a platform for representing and redefining black male identity. In addition to its online interactive site, the project has been installed at over 25 museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, and the Missouri History Museum, and includes a multiple-screen video installation as well as a youth development curriculum and specialized community engagement events. The project (about which I encourage you to learn more) is all about dialogue and listening, and it taps into both technology and a digital mindset in order to enhance the connective and collective experience of participants in a digital age.
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In her recent book Museums in the Digital Age, Susana Smith Bautista discusses how notions of place, community, and culture are changing for museums in the digital age. In her conclusion, she writes:
“If museums are to remain relevant, vital, and meaningful, then they must adapt to a changing society, which means not only recognizing and incorporating new digital tools for communication, but more importantly, recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of society as reflected in their communities of physical and virtual visitors.” (225).
As the behaviors of our audiences and communities change, so do the ways in which they learn. A core part of this digital transformation in museums (see “Museums Morph Digitally”) involves expanding our concepts of learning and engagement to be responsive to an Internet culture defined by participation — and not just ‘participation for the sake of participation,’ but as serious involvement in the deep, connected forms of cultural and creative learning that can occur with museums.
Embracing a digital mindset of openness, participation, and connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century—in much the same way that new technologies brought people together for that powerful shared moment 45 years ago to witness Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap.’
After all … the moon belongs to everyone.
* * * * *
On November 12, 2014, the NAEA Museum Education Division hosted a Peer2Peer Hangout that focused on these ideas of ‘digital mindset’ and ‘digital museum practice’ with Ed Rodley, Chelsea Kelly, Michelle Grohe, and Juline Chevalier. It was a lively conversation with lots of good questions from people watching live. View the video archive of this Hangout below:
When the Clark Art Institute reopened its doors this summer, visitors were greeted by an astounding new building by architect Tadao Ando, expansive views of the rolling hills of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and beautifully redesigned galleries for the museum’s extensive permanent collection. With this renovation and expansion, we faced the challenge of how to encourage visitors to engage with the art in new and inspiring ways. Previously, the museum had been renting audio wands; however, these were limited to a single layer of audio and had no screen option. Thus, a new interactive interpretive system was needed to accommodate deeper layers of exploration and engagement with the collection.
Through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the nostalgic audio wands have been replaced by mini iPads, which we call multimedia guides – although they are so much more than that. The multimedia guide currently has 150 objects from our permanent collection, each with a zoomable image, basic information, label, and audio (along with audio transcript). Many of the objects also give the visitor the option to explore the artwork further with varied layers of content. The multimedia guide is free with museum admission or visitors can also download a streamlined version onto their personal device. The guides also include information about the Institute’s founders, Sterling and Francine Clark, special exhibitions, and a grounds map.
This interpretative project was several years in the making. Over the past two years I have worked closely with Media Manager Laurie Glover and Project Manager Viktorya Vilk to develop a system that embraced the mission of the Clark and its dedication “to advancing and extending the public understanding of art.” Central to our approach was the importance of looking at art — we did not want to detract from the importance of this practice, nor replace it with gazing at a screen. Instead, we found ways that would enhance the looking experience and point out things that visitor could not have learned otherwise. In many ways, we were inspired to the Van Gogh museum’s recent app, Touch Van Gogh, which allows audiences to examine the painterly process up close in ways never before possible.
So, how to accomplish these things?
To tackle this bold mission of active looking and learning, our process included months of brainstorming with the Clark curators and educators to decide which works of art would benefit most from additional content. We asked them what stories they liked to tell about the art, what questions they were most often asked, what special thing no one knew. From these stories, we slowly whittled down our extensive list to 150 objects and designated about half of them for additional content. Each of these objects would have no more than three or four sections of content. The content is layered, so there was an option to go deeper if there is interest but we did not want anyone to feel bogged down by the amount of content. We wanted to maintain choice in the pace the information is provided, the depth of knowledge one might be seeking, as well as a direct search for a particular artwork versus a more casual browsing of the collection.
We endeavored to create content that most enhances the visitors’ understanding of the artwork – when it can make the invisible visible and inspire curiosity for deeper learning. We found conservation stories from X-rays that unearthed hidden secrets. We found collection stories from the diary pages of our founder. We also worked with Tristan Interactive to build a semi-customized content management system and develop three kinds of interactive within the application. These include:
1) Drag and Drop: This interactive works sort of like a puzzle, in which small details from the artwork can be matched to the larger whole to reveal interesting details. This works particularly well for very detailed paintings because it encourages the viewer to look back up at the actual painting to find the detail in front of them.
2) Slider: By sliding your finger along a scrub bar the image changes to tell a story or transform an image. For example, this feature works well with our Domenico Ghirlandaio painting, Portrait of a Lady. The transformation shows the painting pre-conservation, when the painting was altered with the addition of a halo and wheel identify the sitter (mistakenly) as Saint Catherine. One of the things that was most important was developing functionalities that could be adapted in various ways: for example, the slider could move something in space, reveal a hidden layer, or move through a narrative.
3) Hotspots: Pulsing circles appear on different part of the image – when tapped, screen pops up to reveal more information about this part of the work.
After our initial beta-build of the device we invited 80 volunteers and docents to act as a sort of focus group. We handed out the multimedia guides with a survey/set of instructions to help guide each individual through the 20-ish objects we had built into the device. The survey asked each person to the rate the difficulty of these tasks (i.e. “play the audio,” “find the Unpack Me interactive,” etc.). Because our focus group was limited to volunteers and docents, the demographic was mostly 50 years of age or older.
As we expected, there was a lot of initial confusion and outright contempt for the devices; mostly because they were perceived as new and scary. This was not a sample group that felt comfortable with technology or even used an iPhone or iPad on a regular basis. However, the more time we spent explaining their functions, the more they found joy and value in them. The less confusing the process became, the more impressed they were! Given our visitor demographic, it reinforced our commitment that the app be intuitive with lots of onscreen help. We worked with the engineers to create built in “hints” that appear on the tablet screen and encourage/guide the user.
Of course, there will always be visitors who do not want to engage with the tablets when visiting the museum. We worked hard to create something that was user friendly and, hopefully, a seamless transition from the traditional audio wand. We hope that audiences will want to engage with the collection in new and deeper ways through the expanded layers of content. Content that is presented in a variety of ways, with the belief that it will appeal to a variety of users.
As many others in the field have already noted, there is a constant grappling with the pros and cons of bringing technology into the galleries. Although I personally believe in the power of individual, intimate experiences with art, I also strongly value the communal experience that can be cultivated through conversation in front of a work of art. I can see the appeal and value of both experiences and I hope that each visitor is able to travel the path that best accommodates their needs. We chose iPad screens because they are shareable, a single headphone to make the experience less solitary, layers of content to pick and choose from. Interpretation should be available to those that seek it; it should spark curiosity and reveal what makes us love a work of art.
We have recently finished conducting an expansive survey in the Clark galleries, both with visitors who used the multimedia guide, and those who did not, to gauge it’s effectiveness, value, and possible issues that might have arisen with usability. Although we are still waiting for the concrete data, preliminary results indicate that our visitors love the app and love using the iPad minis. They enjoyed using the interactives, sharing tidbits with their family and friends, and listening to the audio components. However, those that did not take the device, often voiced negative comments about it. It seems the negativity is rooted in the unknown – something that is new, possibly complicated, and technological.
As is often the case on ArtMuseumTeaching (and a very valuable case), I’d like to open the floor to all of you. What are your thoughts on the future of technology in museum galleries? What are its positive effects and what are the possible criticisms it faces? Can an iPad screen really enhance a solitary and personal experience with a work of art? Or is that kind of thinking becoming increasingly elitist and limiting to everyday audiences?
About the Author
REBECCA FRIDAY: Rebecca earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and Master’s Degree from Williams College, both in Art History. She spent the last two years working as a Curatorial Assistant at the Clark Art Institute. In addition to her contributions on the multimedia guide project and interpretation of the reinstallation of the permanent collection, she also served as curatorial coordinator for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, Cast for Eternity: Ancient Ritual Bronzes from the Shanghai, and Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution. Prior to her position at the Clark, Rebecca worked at the Williams College Museum of Art as well as several New York City art galleries, including Galerie St. Étienne and Robert Miller Gallery. She is currently looking for her next adventure in museum interpretation. Rebecca tweets at @Fridayfridaygrl. Rebecca’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Clark Art Institute’s positions, strategies, or opinions.