We Flipped Our Museum — Here’s What We Learned

Written by Emily Kotecki, Distance Learning Educator, North Carolina Museum of Art.

At the North Carolina Museum of Art, we are creating a new model to activate the learning experience before, during and after a visit to the NCMA. Expanding on the online courses we’ve developed and offered for the last five years, we spent the last year piloting a new approach to distance learning. We were inspired by the educational trends of blended learning, the flipped classroom and choice-based art education. These trends aim to personalize the learning experience by providing didactic instruction (like watching videos and reading articles) at home and then have opportunities to apply new knowledge in class so the experience is collaborative and engaging; we wanted to similarly deepen and activate the museum learning experience, so we “flipped” the museum.

This spring, our Flipped Museum pilot program was called “Artists in Process.” Sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina were paired together online to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. We developed an online learning platform with a company in North Carolina to support social interaction and choice-based learning. Students chose one of three concepts and numerous artists they wanted to explore while developing their own work of art and sharing their progress online with each other.

We took away four lessons from this experience and we expect to continue to learn more as we revise the Flipped Museum model.

#1 Students want to make meaningful connections to each other, not just the museum

The 16 classes were organized into pairs based on the level of the art class, geographical location and the teacher’s familiarity with blended learning and choice-based art education. Students from each pair of classes could log in to their specific group in the platform to share progress on their projects, questions and ideas, as well as ‘like’ and ‘comment’ on each other’s work. The pairs of classes also met up at the NCMA for the museum visit.

While we wanted to prepare students to come to the museum and engage with art, students were equally, if not more excited about connecting with and talking to other teens from across the state.

Sometimes we assume that because teens like sharing and communicating online via social media, they’ll automatically be motivated to share with each other. But teens are both excited and intimidated by new experiences. In future programs we will focus on developing specific activities and assignments that build a community between teens online so they are not just ready for the museum, but ready to meet and interact with each other. We would also encourage classes to meet via video conferencing or Google Hangouts before meeting at the museum. Social interaction is the foundation for building a strong distance learning program and if teens feel uncomfortable with each other, it can hinder the entire experience.

Students from Bryson City and Chapel Hill participate in an ice breaker before starting the museum visit.
Students from Bryson City and Chapel Hill participate in an ice breaker before starting the museum visit.

#2 Too much flexibility can be overwhelming

We developed this curriculum to allow for what we hoped would be maximum flexibility for students and teachers. We provided the course content and platform as well as some classroom activity ideas at different points in the course; students had choice over the direction of their project, and we left most of the lesson planning and timeline to the teachers.

Each component of the Flipped Museum aimed to put the learning in the control of the learner – whether that was teacher planning with their partner or students choosing the direction of their project. Students chose one of three concepts and numerous artists they wanted to research; which media they wanted to use; which works of art to include in a virtual exhibition; and ultimately the development and completion of their final project.

What we heard is that teachers wanted more guidance/support in how to guide students. Even though the course provided some activity ideas, teachers wanted more specific ways to encourage online interactions, more specific assignments and discussion prompts, suggested timelines, etc.

In future revisions we’ll work to strike a balance between being too structured and too unstructured, while also being able to scale and sustain the program as it grows from 16 classes to 32 and beyond.

#3 The Museum Visit

In the middle of the course, the class pairs met up at the NCMA for a self-guided experience where they broke into small groups based on the concept they selected (with students from both classes) and curated a virtual exhibition using the social media platform of their choice. Members from the NCMA teen programs staff would meet the classes at the beginning and end of their experience to welcome them to the NCMA and then reflect on their visit.

Distance and digital learning has immense power to transcend the physical walls of our museum and reach new audiences. But over and over again, our evaluations show that visiting the NCMA and seeing the objects in person is the highlight of this experience. Students also looked forward to meeting each other and talking about art with each other. As alluded to earlier, we’d provide more structure to scaffold learning to encourage both collaboration  between students and individual time for students to make their own connections. While not all distance learning programs have to have an onsite component, for the Flipped Museum model, an onsite visit completes the experience.

Photo2
Students from Fairmont High School used Instagram to curate their exhibition during the museum visit.

 #4 Know where and how students access online content

North Carolina is 22% rural. Only 17% of “North Carolina households have fixed Internet connections at a speed the FCC deems the “minimum required to engage in modern life.”’ In a time when museums are developing advanced technologies like user-directed robots, we assume students have access to computers and reliable Internet at home, when in fact our students primarily accessed the online course at school or on mobile devices. We are working with our developers to enhance our platform so that it is mobile friendly and not a source of frustration. Furthermore, the mobile platform should equally support the sort of social and active learning experience in our programs.

In Conclusion…

Dialogue is the foundation for helping students meet our learning outcomes. We aim to create a safe and welcoming space for teens to share, interact and converse with each other online and onsite. In the coming months, we’ll be revising Artists in Process and reflecting on the Flipped Museum model to incorporate guided social learning and dialogue consistently and deliberately throughout the experience.

It seems that more and more museums are taking thoughtful risks as they pioneer new ways to connect with audiences through technology. Mobile apps, digitizing collections, social media, media labs, robots, online learning – these technologies can deepen learning experiences for visitors while also developing transformative relationships with the museum.

Learn more

You can read more about our Flipped Museum model and other distance learning initiatives in museums by checking out the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focusing on “Online Learning and Museums.”

The Creative Spiral: Evolving Practice in the DMA’s Art Spot

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Manager, Dallas Museum of Art

The creative process is often described as cyclical and sometimes, when I’m in it, it can feel like I am going around in circles, ending up where I started.  Hopefully, when I come back around that circular process, my ideas have evolved so though I may be in a familiar place I am truly somewhere new.  Perhaps the path of the creative process is then more like a spiral, repetitious yet constantly moving forward.  This concept not only illustrates an important artistic process that we want to share with visitors to the Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art, but also it describes the methods we employ as our space evolves. The creative process is an inspirational component of C3 and it is exemplified through the Art Spot, a hands-on art making area.

A Brief History

In 2008, the hands-on art-making area within the C3 exhibition Materials and Meanings was called the Materials Bar.  With a total of eighteen standard and tall seats, the space was designed as a communal area for visitors of all ages.  The Materials Bar provided a hands-on experience of the creative process engaging visitors with an inspiration wheel, videos that modeled techniques, materials that encouraged play, and a reflective label writing component.  The materials provided were similar to or related to works of art on view.

Materials Bar
Materials Bar

In 2010, C3 presented its second exhibition, Encountering Space, which involved a complete redesign of the entire C3 and transformed the Materials Bar into the Space Bar.  Though it remained a hands-on making area, the focus on the new exhibition theme was evident in the inspirational prompts and reflective labels. Prompts challenged visitors to “transform a cube of space” or “build a sculpture with positive and negative space.” The label cards not only encouraged visitors to reflect, they also introduced vocabulary about space through a word bank.  Additionally, the seating was expanded to accommodate twenty-six visitors.

Space Bar
Space Bar
visitor created label in the Space Bar
visitor created label in the Space Bar

In 2012, C3 transitioned away from themed exhibitions and towards a more fluid process of rotating works of art.  Along with our process, the physical space changed, reflecting the end of Encountering Space and the beginning of a simplified graphic identity to reflect the DMA brand.  With additional seating for a total of forty-four visitors, the area was renamed the Art Spot: Anytime art-making for everyone.  Since then, we have experimented with different approaches.  For a year we focused on one work of art, Family Portrait 1963 by Martin Delabano.  Although we changed the materials and prompt every couple of months, they always related back to the work of art.  The following year we explored the broader idea of creativity.  We provided unconventional and everyday materials (like red plastic cups, spoons, paperclips, and twist ties) and challenged visitors to make something new and unexpected with them.  More recently we have made connections between the Art Spot materials and our wall of visitor-submitted images with themes like Textual Awareness or Flowers.

Commonalities and Spiraling Forward

For me, the creative process can be simplified to four steps: inspiration, exploration, creation, and reflection.  With each iteration of the making area in C3, we come full circle.  We start with an idea—a theme like materials, space, or creativity— or a work of art.  Next, we explore the possibilities of that idea and play with what it might look like.  Then, we construct it for visitors to experience, and finally we reflect on the actual visitor experience.  Over the years, the various iterations are in many ways similar, but with each new endeavor we learn and revise.  In each iteration we were inspired by visitors, and hoped to inspire visitors — as art museum educators, we place an importance on encouraging visitors to connect with works of art.  Furthermore, the area has always been about three-dimensional making and the creative process.  In our upcoming redesign, we are sticking with these tenants, but are approaching them in different ways.

In the past we strived to inspire participants with the art on view in the Center for Creative Connections, though we found this can be difficult when the works of art are not directly adjacent to the making area.  Often visitors come straight to the art-making area without looking at the works of art or, if they spend time looking at works of art, they may not be thinking of those objects when they arrive at the making area. When we installed Family Portrait 1963 directly in the Art Spot, we hoped that visitors would be more prone to draw inspiration from the work.  We found that despite its positioning and large size, it quickly gets lost behind a sea of visitors when the Art Spot is full.

Art Spot with
Art Spot with “Family Portrait 1963″ and crowd of visitors

In the upcoming redesign, we are installing more works of art in the Art Spot and are strategically placing them near the tables where participants will be creating.  Furthermore, the cases housing these works will have prompts directly on the glass to provoke thought and discussion about the materials, design, and process.  These kinds of prompts can help visitors get into the making mindset, a way of critically looking at and exploring materials.

Also, our approach to choosing works of art has shifted.  In the past we chose works of art that exemplified a concept and might inspire visitors to create.  This time we are taking our inspiration from our visitors.  Over the past few years we have documented the kinds of creations made at the Art Spot.  We know that, regardless of the theme or materials, there are common items that are made: rings, animals, flowers, hats, and woven objects.  So, we started with those observations and chose works of art that visitors might more easily relate to and that had some evidence of both the materials and the method of making.

visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
LEFT: Pre-Columbian Single-Spout Strap-Handle Vessel from DMA collection.  RIGHT: visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
LEFT:  Bamboo basket from DMA collection.  RIGHT: visitor creation displayed in Art Spot

Finally, we will continue to encourage the creation of three-dimensional objects, but rather than having one set of materials, we will offer different materials at different stations that relate to the nearby works of art.  This will offer some variety so that visitors have more options.

Looking Ahead

When the Art Spot reopens in the next week, we will continue to ask for visitor input and revise, because being an experimental space means that we are constantly evolving through the creative process.  We will document the creations visitors make; read the reflective statements they write; talk with them about the works of art, the materials, their creations, and their overall experience to get a sense of what aspects of the new design are working and what we may revise.

How Do You Do It?  Share Your Thoughts

How would you describe your creative process?

How do your programs, activities, and gallery spaces change and evolve?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, and let’s collectively reflect a bit more on our planning and reflection processes for these types of creative, experimental spaces in museums.

Experiments with Abstraction: Museum Throwdown in Denver

OK, so it’s time for another Museum Teaching Throwdown, this time in the Mile-High City of Denver!  Next week, as museum education leaders from across the country gather in Denver for the Bank Street and AAM convening “Leading the Future of Museum Education,” I wanted to take advantage of the amazing group of educators and thinkers to experiment in the galleries (that place where all of our theory and practice comes to life).  For this gathering, we’ve decided to work with the Clyfford Still Museum as our laboratory for the evening, experimenting with different ways of engaging abstraction.  Let me start with the event details, followed by more information about the experimenters and what you can expect.

WHEN: Thursday, May 28th, 6:00-7:30pm

WHERE: Clyfford Still Museum, 13th Ave & Bannock Street, Denver

EXPERIMENTERS:  

  • Joanne Lefrak, Director of Education & Outreach at SITE Santa Fe
  • Seema Rao, Director of Intergenerational Learning at the Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Nicole Stutzman Forbes, Chair of Learning Initiatives & Art League Director of Education at the Dallas Museum of Art
  • Victoria Eastburn, Director of Education & Programs at the Clyfford Still Museum
  • yours truly (yes, I’m involved this time, not just MC-ing from the sidelines)

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT

Simple, thoughtful, creative risk-tasking is still the name of the game for this Denver-based Museum Teaching Throwdown, but we’re utilizing a very unique museum space to focus in on how we engage with abstraction.  Thanks to Victoria Eastburn and her team at the Clyfford Still Museum, we’re able to collaboratively explore the work of a single artist and use these direct and intimate gallery spaces as a laboratory for museum teaching.

Students participating in the InStill program at the Clyfford Still Museum. Photo by Jensen Sutta
Students participating in the InStill program at the Clyfford Still Museum. Photo by Jensen Sutta
Since opening in 2011, the Still Museum has already begun to experiment with a variety of ways to engage students and audiences with Still’s abstract paintings, including public program series such as “One Painting at a Time” and immersive, activity-based school programs such as “InStill.”

The museum teaching gathering on May 28th at the Still Museum will involve a series of short gallery experiences followed by a brief reflection on the entire experience and the importance of this type of in-practice experimentation.

We hope to see you in Denver, or you can follow along on Twitter at the hashtag #museumthrowdown!

Photo from boldlivingtoday.com
Photo from boldlivingtoday.com

A Museum Educator’s Takeaways from Museums & the Web 2015

As someone whose interests, skills, and even job title (Manager of Digital Learning) sit squarely between two areas of museum work—education and technology—I think pretty much nonstop about the relationship between the two. This year, I had the great fortune to be able to attend the 2015 Museums and the Web conference (MW or #MW2015) in Chicago, IL, and think out loud with hundreds of leaders, practitioners, and students passionate about museum technology.

I am active in the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and usually attend the NAEA convention, but this year I was excited to step away from my home base of museum education and into the world of digital. I was not disappointed: I found my tech nerd people (you should have heard the nostalgic sigh when someone showed a GIF of old-school Hyperlapse in action).

However, this is not a post about digital nerdery, so if you understood not a word of that previous sentence, don’t be scared. From here on out, this is my attempt to bridge the areas of digital and education in museums. Here are some of my key takeaways from the MW2015 Conference.

Museums and the Web does conference swag right. Check out those tote bags. Photo by the author.
Museums and the Web does conference swag right. Check out those tote bags. Photo by the author.

Twitter is a magical thing

One of the best things I ever did for my career was sign up for Twitter, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become more involved in the field. It has helped me make deep and vast connections with colleagues I never would have encountered otherwise, from all over the museum field and into art history, academia, and K-12 learning. I now use Twitter as my primary source for museum, art, and tech news; as a place to share resources; to talk about issues in the field; and to store my thoughts during conferences. At MW2015, I was finally able to meet many of my “Twitter colleagues” in person. As someone who’s more introverted, it made approaching someone I’d never met before much easier when I could lead with “I’ve followed you on Twitter forever!” and pick up a conversation where we left off online. I could see the same being true for a student or emerging professional.

And, not gonna lie, it’s both fun and weird to be recognized from Twitter when you’re at a conference. It’s like your own little celebrity moment when you introduce yourself to someone and they exclaim, “Oh! I follow you on Twitter and was hoping I’d meet you!” (Insert blushing emoji here.)

Museum technologists publish—and therefore legitimize the “musetech” field

Museum technologists publish. This topic has been bubbling up both at this year’s NAEA (read Dana Carlisle Kletchka’s speech here) and among the museum educators present at MW2015.

At Museums and the Web, presenters can host professional forums and workshops, but they can also present papers. For paper presentations, you write and submit a formal paper that goes beyond “show and tell” of a project and focuses on theory and practice. At the conference, you’re bundled into a session with two other author-practitioners who wrote on similar topics, and the three of you share key points. These engaging talks give technologists the opportunity to formally publish in their field, a boon for their institution and impressive internally to senior staff. Wrapping publishing into a conference also opens doors for emerging professionals and students to participate in the organization more deeply.

But more than that, it legitimizes museum technology. Emily Lytle-Painter used that turn of phrase when I mentioned how impressed I was with the publishing arm of the conference, and it was an “a-ha!” moment for me. Publishing in this quantity and with such dedication—plus offering the papers online, for free, for anyone to read—helps the museum field at large see how important tech is, because it connects theory with practice.

Michelle Grohe (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and I are thinking about how to adapt this to the field of museum education, and I am hoping to have some ideas to pilot this summer. So stay tuned, and please feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested in this topic.

The author presents on teen programs at the conference along with Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago), Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), and Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs). Photo by Peter Vega
The author presents on teen programs at the conference along with Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago), Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), and Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs). Photo by Peter Vega

We need to be better at translating and advocating for our work

One of my coworkers told me about a moment in the Linked Open Data session where the speakers were asked to do an “elevator pitch,” as if to their director or board, about the benefits of linked open data. Afterward, the audience was asked to raise their hand if they were convinced. Just one person did–in a room of nearly a hundred.

When my coworker—one of our fantastic IT (information technology) staff—told me this anecdote, we had a great discussion about the topic of translating what we do for non-technical staff. One of my biggest pet peeves about the museum field as a whole is that we use specialized language that visitors don’t understand. On top of that, we often use our own content-area words that our colleagues might not understand—curators use art history terminology, educators use teacher-speak, and digital has a host of terms drawn from tech. It’s so easy to forget that others might not know our vocabulary, and few of us are brave enough to ask our peers what the heck a mandala, parking lot, or API is.

Educators are great at knowing our audience on tours; let’s apply that to our own institutions by explaining what we mean when talking to our colleagues, as well as not being afraid to ask coworkers to define their terms. Another tool is metaphor, which Tracey Berg-Fulton suggested at the conference—she “translates” by using art history examples to explain tech to curators, and puts curator needs into tech speak for IT. When we translate what we mean, we gain powerful allies and advocates.

We grapple with the same issues—so let’s collaborate more!

There were countless themes and issues that surfaced during Museums and the Web. Technologists such as Peter Samis (SFMOMA) are thinking about storytelling in the digital sphere. We’re grappling with focusing on process vs. the object, as evidenced by a talk on museum makerspaces by Desi Gonzalez, which in turn sparked a sideline Twitter debate about visitor motivation. Developing projects that aligned with institutional mission came up again and again—as a guidepost, as a tool for advocacy, as a way to develop buy-in from colleagues. And we’re struggling with how to define impact and evaluate digital projects—how do we avoid “anecdata” (anecdotal non-data) and really dig deep into showing change?

I’m sure that more than one of these topics resonated with you as a museum educator–so it’s no surprise that I think we should collaborate more internally, cross-departmentally. The museum technologists leading the deepest organizational change and the most impactful projects are those who have strong collaborations cross-departmentally. So if you’re not already, reach across the aisle of your museum and foster relationships with your tech folks–then we can innovate together rather than separately!

It doesn’t have to be a huge, scary endeavor: start small. Have coffee with one of your museum’s digital/IT staff to learn a bit more about his or her job, and let them know what you do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—your genuine curiosity will go a long way. Find existing projects that you might be able to support, and share what you’re working on. See if there’s a cross-departmental meeting like a Technology Team you could join, or invite your new IT pal to join in an education meeting.

Digital leaders are often museum change leaders

Finally, one of the biggest threads of the conference was about how change is affecting our institutions (you can track lots of different conversations at #MWChange). You’ll notice that “digital” wasn’t in that sentence, but it seems to me that organizational change is, at many institutions, being spearheaded by digital staff. I think this is because digital projects are often catalysts that force museum staff to rethink business as usual. Keir Winesmith (SFMOMA), Michael Parry (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney), Dafydd James (National Museum Wales, UK), Seb Chan, and Aaron Cope (both from Cooper-Hewitt) all led sessions that focused on or touched on institutional change as a result of digital projects. I highly recommend checking out Keir, Michael, and Dafydd’s excellent slides.

Their stories all rang true with one of my favorite books on change and leadership, Leading Change by John Kotter. Kotter proposes eight stages of organizational change, and asserts that it’s a long-term process that requires deep buy-in from all areas and levels. His theory resonates deeply with the change strategies put forth at MW2015. Both Kotter’s book and the papers written by these presenters (here and here) are well worth a read for those of us thinking about deep change in our institution and in the field at large.

*     *     *     *     *

I’m sure you’ll find that there’s lots of overlap between our work as museum educators and the work of our colleagues in technology. After a week with some wonderful museum technologists at Museums and the Web, I guarantee that there is a lot we can learn from each other to invigorate our practice and better serve our visitors.

PS: I also had the pleasure of presenting at the conference with educators Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago) and Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), organized by Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs)! We talked about digital in teen programs, and you can read more about our session on Barry’s blog.

Featured header image: A shot of the closing reception at the beautiful (and massive) Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo by the author.

Mind the Gap: Art Museum Education, Academia & the Future of Our Field

Written by Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Palmer Museum of Art

Keynote Address as National Museum Education Art Educator of the Year, Museum Division Awards Ceremony, NAEA National Convention, March 26, 2015

I would like to begin by thanking the National Art Education Association, the leadership and members of the Museum Education Division, and the colleagues who so kindly nominated me for this award, including Dr. B. Stephen Carpenter at Penn State and Dr. Leslie Gates at Millersville University, both of whom are inspiring educators and supportive colleagues. I would also like to thank Dr. Pat Villeneuve, my mentor from the very beginning of my journey into art museum education who nurtured my interests and provided guidance when I was a (perhaps overly-eager) graduate student at the University of Kansas in the mid-1990s.

What would happen if we reconceptualized writing as an important part of our praxis and practice, and re-prioritized the sharing of information as a necessity rather than viewing it as a luxury? What impact would that have on our field?

I am really proud to see other profoundly dedicated art museum educators in the room who started their careers around the same time as I did, including Amanda Martin-Hamon, Kristina Walker from the Spencer Museum of Art, and Ann Rowson Love at Florida State University. I would be terribly remiss if I did not also thank my incredibly supportive spouse, who is at this time taking care of our two children while I enjoy a brief respite from a Northeastern “spring” in the company of a few thousand fellow art educators. Lassiez le bon temps ruler!

Immediately after it was announced that I won this award, a friend messaged me a note of hearty congratulations and asked if there were any prizes that came along with the award or if it just came with undying fame and glory, at which point I recalled the awards ceremony from last year and realized that the prize with this particular award is the opportunity to share a few thoughts with fellow art museum educators about our field. And then I realized that rambling comments probably wouldn’t cut it and that I needed to really hone in on one subject that I care about—which is, in fact, harder than I thought it would be.

This is my 19th NAEA conference. My first conference was right here in New Orleans. I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas in art education with a concentration in Art Museum Education and I recall flipping through the convention book meticulously, noting the museum division presentations, highlighting the higher education offerings and really struggling over which ones I should be attending. As a graduate student, I wanted to hear from the professors and researchers who were theorizing the field, but as a future practitioner, I was eager to learn from those who were doing the work that I desperately wished to do. It was a quandary deeply felt: which sessions should take precedence? And why?

Even still, thoughts about the relationship between the fields of art museum education and academia are never terribly far from my mind, mostly because I went through the process of earning a doctoral degree in art education, I work at a university art museum, and I teach courses under the auspices of an art education program and an art history department. These thoughts have returned to the forefront lately as a result of a few separate but related events:

First, I am currently co-editing a book on professional development opportunities as they occur in the art museum context, particularly those that utilize contemporary art, which is something I don’t know that I ever would have considered without the suggestion and encouragement of my co-author, who is a tenured professor and whose favorite phrase is “you should be writing about this!” In the conversations that provided the impetus for the book proposal, I recall saying that I thought there were a number of really important voices that simply weren’t being heard because, as art museum educators, we are neither required nor encouraged to publish in the same way as our curatorial counterparts. Art museum educators in general don’t have the luxury of time to reflect on their work, much less write about it, either formally or informally. The problem is that our silence cannot build a foundation for our newest colleagues or expand the understandings of our more seasoned peers.

Second, because very recently on Twitter, Mike Murawski brought me in on a conversation with Michelle Grohe, Elizabeth Nevins, and Susan Spero about who, exactly, is writing about the theory and practice of our field, what resources are necessary to enable a broader discussion to take place, and whether or not we should ditch the “old, outdated hierarchies of publishing, knowledge, and authority.” Arguably, both digital and traditional publishing are valuable—even the academy is rethinking its relationship with digital publishing, mostly through digital humanities. In our field, ArtMuseumTeaching.com has emerged as a vital space to exchange ideas and share resources. I’m proud to be a part of it even in very small ways because it helps to fill a longstanding need for a community of practice amongst geographically dispersed art museum educators. I should also mention here the monthly Google Hangout peer-to-peer initiative of the NAEA Museum Division, which is a great way to hear other art museum educators talk about salient issues. But I also worry that we are neglecting a commitment to the broader, more rigorous practice of academic writing at our own peril.

Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0  (CC BY 2.0)
Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (CC BY 2.0)

Third, in the recent past I began serving on committees with masters and doctoral students in art education who are interested in the field, which lead me to consider more carefully the ways in which art museum educators are prepared for their careers. I want to be clear that I don’t think that there is any one best path to becoming an art museum educator—the field is too diverse and museums are incredibly complex institutions. As I understand it, the most common academic paths for our field include masters’ level degrees in art history, art education, or museum studies programs. Some universities offer minors, areas of concentration, or one-year certifications in museum education either in residence or online. Most of us had at least one internship at a museum. If you don’t mind indulging me with a bit of informal data-gathering, I would like to see a show of hands in order to get a sense of the professional preparation of those in the room.

Please raise your hands if you have a bachelors/masters/PhD?

In art education/art history/educational theory/curriculum & instruction/studio art/(other)?

How many of you did some sort of internship or professional preparatory experience in a museum?

Okay, now: many have published digitally/in peer-reviewed publications/in books?

"Library" by Stewart Butterfield, via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
“Library” by Stewart Butterfield, via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

It seems clear that people who have spent this much time researching and writing required papers and masters theses are up to the challenge of writing—your backgrounds are more academically advanced and intellectually rigorous than most people in the workforce today. But if our conversations yesterday are any indication, the primary reason that we do not publish is a lack of time rather than a lack of interest. What would happen if we reconceptualized writing as an important part of our praxis and practice, and re-prioritized the sharing of information as a necessity rather than viewing it as a luxury? What impact would that have on our field?

The title of my talk is “mind the gap,” which, in addition to being a nice way to remind people to watch their step as they are getting on or off the train in Great Britain, is a call for us to attend to the separation between academia and our field. A few considerations that might inform our thoughts include:

  1. The field is moving away from having an academic home, even as more and more museums are asking for their high-level staff to have advanced degrees, including PhDs. These are widely available in art history, art education, and education. Is it time to consider which of these might be the most flexible, transdisciplinary, and appropriate space to situate our growing field?
  1. The people who teach classes that prepare art museum educators are most generally non-practitioners or individuals who have been out of the museum for a number of years, which is a reality for most academic fields, yet it concerns me nonetheless. Things change, in academia, in education, and museums. How can we as a field reconcile that our practitioners are not always part of the academic preparation of the newest generation of educators? Is it possible to change that, and how?
  1. Increasingly, foundations are interested in the professionalization of our field, notably the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Samuel Kress Foundation, both of whom support or provide seed money for post-graduate education experiences or positions in art museums. Both are genuinely interested in university art museums to the extent that they have commissioned and published online reports about them. We need to collectively harness the interest of a broader constituency and enliven the discourses within which we work. We must be a significant part of this discussion. The best way to do that is to write about and disseminate information on what we do and how we do it.
  1. Our professional organization cares about the research that we do. NAEA has a research commission with an agenda that “is designed to encourage and disseminate research communicating the value of visual arts education and its collective impact on students, schools, community, and society.”  They call particular attention to Professional Learning by stating “NAEA members across all divisions indicated a need for greater understanding of research methodologies and application of these methodologies for their teaching and research. Professional learning about research supports understanding of implications of research for practice and developing capacities for conducting research.” This is a call to all of us.

In short, I am asking us to “mind the gap” not only over a concern about the separation between theory and practice, but also because of the deep belief that we are the most qualified individuals to shape and mold our field. We owe it to the next generation of art museum educators, and we owe it to ourselves.

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Featured Header Image: “Mind the Gap” by Robert Donovan, via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Purposeful Praxis: Reflections on a School Partnership

Written by Sara Egan, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michael Baulier, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers

The School Partnership Program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is like a laboratory for museum education, through which we work for multiple years with a diverse range of students and teachers with a collection of art that never changes. This combination of stable and changing variables has allowed the Gardner Museum to maintain a cycle of theory, practice, research and reflection. The School Partnership Program uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as the primary teaching and assessment method, responding to findings from our 2007 U.S. Department of Education study, Thinking Through Art. We’ve continued to learn and grow since that study, most recently through our work with the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers (EMK), an in-district charter school in Boston. We started partnering with the English Language Arts and History teachers in 2012 and this year added Spanish teachers. While the successes and challenges we encounter working with EMK are specific to our partnership, we hope you will use our example to consider how praxis (the practical application of theory) and research can contribute to your own programs.

Research: Getting to know our audience

Working with the same audience over time is a luxury, but also crucial in our pursuit to consistently tailor our program to the specific needs of our partner students and teachers. Since we work with the students throughout their high school careers, we see the EMK 11th grade students respond to the Museum very differently than they did in 9th grade. We see changes through a variety of data collection methods: surveys, writing samples, long and short interviews, observations, and more. Our program goals include developing visual literacy and critical thinking and communication skills, so we mine the program data to determine how the students are making meaning from works of art and quantify the frequency of critical thinking that they deploy in that quest. The quantitative research tells us where the students are, while the qualitative data helps us to understand the context and explain how, when and why students develop these skills. So, how do we respond when we see that students shift over time from 9th grade comments like,

“Yeah. It’s a nice picture. It’s nice and, I don’t know, it’s colorful”

to interpretations from 11th graders such as,

“This room looks dark and mysterious. Kind of like a church because of all the holy statues and religious references. Maybe it means you can find light even in the darkness?”  

EMK students using VTS to discuss El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
EMK students using VTS to discuss El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Theory: Making sense of the data

The work of constructivist theorists like Piaget, Vygotsky and Duckworth, Abigail Housen’s theory of Aesthetic Development, in addition to our own personal theories of learning and change inform our interpretations of our research. Viewing the raw data through the lens of theory helps our team of educators explain what we see while validating the theories that we are considering. Returning to the EMK example, we know from our research that as these high school students are introduced to the Gardner Museum and begin discussing art using VTS they are primarily concerned with their own observations and prior knowledge. After two years of monthly discussions of art in the classroom and at the museum, they start to wonder about the intent or history of the artist. Housen’s theory tells us that through extensive experience looking at art there will be a development from storytelling to considering new kinds of information such as art history. Piaget’s theory of childhood development contributes to our understanding of why this happens more quickly in high school students than elementary-aged students. We use these frameworks to understand where the EMK 11th grade students are now, and then estimate where they are likely to go next and what kinds of questions they will pose in the months ahead.  The students are capable of abstract reasoning and are interested in the way that an artist’s intentions play out in a work of art. They are also thinking about the VTS process itself and questioning the boundaries of its usefulness with art and across disciplines.

Practice: Putting it all into action

With a solid grounding of data and theory, our next step in August 2014 (Year 3 of partnering with EMK) was to adjust our practice to fit the new reality of these more experienced students’ needs and interests. First we began experimenting with new types of information when the students visited the Museum, for example providing more context about a special exhibition or asking probing questions like, “What do you think might have interested the artist when making this artwork?”  Next, we held intensive professional development for our partner teachers at EMK, collaborating to create “VTS extensions” that use VTS skills to explore new concepts, for example predicting the themes of a new novel or unit of history by examining images.

Collaboration: Insights from Michael Baulier, 9th grade English Teacher

As a STEM school with a strong focus on math and science, EMK relies heavily on relationships with peer institutions to offer opportunities for students to engage in the arts. I embraced VTS because I view this instructional approach as an opportunity to address the dearth of arts education in our school.  What I did not anticipate was the extraordinary impact VTS would have on the daily instruction that occurs in my classroom.

VTS fits seamlessly into my teaching as an instructional strategy that promotes whole-group discussions grounded in visual evidence.  When I ask students the first VTS question, “What’s going on in this image?” I am cuing them to develop claims based on a visual text.  The follow-up question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” requires students to provide visual evidence to support their claims.  In ELA class evidence-based reasoning is at the core of everything we do, whether a student is discussing a visual text during VTS, making an inference while reading a short story, or writing a paragraph to support a thesis statement in an essay.  VTS also aligns nicely with the ELA Common Core Standards’ emphasis on student-centered exploration over teacher-directed instruction, and the development of listening skills and oral proficiency are beneficial to students who are English Language Learners or receiving Special Education.  Instead of frontloading tasks with teacher-generated content knowledge, students engage with texts, take risks, and uncover meaning collaboratively.  Because the subject of VTS is an image, all students have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion in a low stakes environment.  The deliberate focus on active listening and high volume of oral language input for students to process leads over time to increased language output.   I have observed students who are typically reluctant to speak aloud share detailed responses to complex images in the classroom or at the Museum.

In the third year of our partnership with the Gardner Museum we are collaborating more than ever to explore new opportunities for using VTS to enhance teaching and learning in our school.  In November my students visited the Museum to brainstorm ideas for image-based short stories written as part of a VTS extension project.  In April we look forward to hosting our first family event to showcase student work inspired by the Gardner Museum.  The Museum’s eagerness to engage our school community through so many unique learning opportunities makes this partnership especially exciting, because it speaks to the creativity that is so vital to both the arts and education.

Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Photo: Sean Dungan.
Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Photo: Sean Dungan.

Reflection: What did we learn from the cycle of praxis?

The contours of this partnership have changed over time as we listen to our audience through research, interpret what we hear through the lens of theory, and translate our understanding into practice.  Rather than automatically replicating practices that have worked in the past we continually strive to improve and to justify, to ourselves as well as all other stakeholders, the value and relevancy of our program.  At EMK, our partnership is a component of school culture and the value of the arts and critical thinking are infused at every grade.  Teachers and students consider the Gardner Museum as an active part of their campus, visiting independently and attending the Museum’s other programs.  This cycle keeps the work always fresh and exciting, as there is always more to learn from and with our partners.

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About the Authors

Sara Egan and Michael BaulierSARA EGAN: School Partnership Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she connects Boston students and teachers to the Gardner through Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). She teaches preK-12th grade students in the galleries and the classroom, trains and coaches teachers to use VTS, and researches the impact of the School Partnership Program.  Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes. She holds a BA from Vassar College and an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

MICHAEL L. BAULIER: Educator at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, where he teaches English Language Arts to ninth grade students.  Michael is an inclusion teacher who is licensed to teach students receiving Special Education (SPED) support services as well as English Language Learners (ELL).  He earned his National Board Certification for Professional Teaching Standards (NBCT) in 2014.  Michael holds a BA and MAT from Northeastern University and is currently studying at the University of Massachusetts Boston to become a school administrator.

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Header Image: Sara and 9th grade students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Museum Teaching Mashup: Join Us in New Orleans!

Calling all experimenters! Calling all educators (in museums, classrooms, colleges)!  Are you tired of the same old, same old? Interested in playing outside of your comfort zone?  If you are headed to New Orleans for the National Art Education Association or based in New Orleans — and looking for a fresh, fun, experimental way to connect with art and with other educators — we’re mashing it up at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art on the evening of Thursday, March 26th.

WHEN: Thursday, March 26th – experimenters gather at 6:00pm, everyone else gathers at 7:00pm

WHERE: Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp Street, New Orleans — gathering on 5th Floor at both times. 

Join us and throwdown your experimental best with students, colleagues, and members of the NOLA community. We’re opening it up to everyone – you don’t have to be a museum educator or an NAEA attendee. Fan of the Ogden? Casual museum-goer? K-12 art teacher or college faculty?  Person who’s just curious? Join us in shining new light on selected objects in the collection, and connecting with other educators interested in collectively pushing our teaching practices.

Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans
Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans

The Challenge

We’re doing this because we fall into safe patterns in our lives. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Why change our teaching style and methodologies if they are ‘working’? Unfortunately, playing it safe also leads to stagnancy. So let’s shake up the museum experience, throwdown style.  Bring your best, but also walk away with fresh ideas and perspectives.

We want to think together and outside of our comfort zones. Try something that scares you and work with someone you’ve never worked with before. That night, interested educators are invited to meet up at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at 6:00pm, at which time we’ll create small teaching groups, get randomized object assignments, and receive prompts to rapidly prototype short experiences with these objects. Each group will get 45 minutes to plan a 5-7 minute experience to share with a public audience that night. Starting at 7:00pm on the 5th Floor, each group will share their 5-7 minute experience with their assigned object in the galleries — inviting NAEA attendees, educators, students, museum visitors, and the NOLA community to participate in this rapid succession of arts experiences.

After we make our way through this series of in-gallery experiments, we invite colleagues to grab dinner afterwards to reflect on our experiences together, new connections, and burning questions. There are several great restaurants within a short walking distance of the Ogden (and we can make some recommendations the night of, if people are interested).

How Can You Be Involved?

AS AN EXPERIMENTER:

If you are interested in being a risk-taker, and being a part of one of the small groups that tackles this challenge, please contact Jen Oleniczak at jen@theengagingeducator.com in advance of March 26th.  We want to hear from you before we all get to New Orleans! We’ll all need to be at the Ogden (5th Floor) at 6pm to form teams and begin the challenge.

AS A PARTICIPANT:

If you’re not quite up for experimenting yourself but want to be a part of these experiences, everyone is welcome to gather at the Ogden (5th Floor) at 7pm.  We’re also excited to be opening these experiences to the larger Ogden audience that evening.  Please share this event with everyone, including educators from outside the Museum Division of NAEA.

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Will every experience work be a success? Probably not, but we’re not trying to creating the perfect program – we’re trying to push our comfort zones and our ideas of how to approach museum objects. When we constantly try not to fail, we never succeed.  And, as educators, its important for us to designate safe spaces for risk-taking and experimentation in museum teaching.

So let’s throw it down New-Orleans-style and see what happens!

Jen Oleniczak, The Engaging Educator

Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Deborah Randolph, Southeast Center for Contemporary Art

Ellen Balkin, Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum

Museums and Online Learning: A Student’s Perspective

Reposted from Center for Future of Museums (CFM) Blog, February 12, 2015

Note from Elizabeth Merritt: Last December I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, to brainstorm with their staff about museums and distance education. As Michael Edson has pointed out time and again, if museums are to scale up their impact and play a significant role in education in the U.S., they need to exploit the reach of the web. During my time there, Crystal Bridges shared a new initiative they were about to launch: an online course for high school students to take for credit towards graduation. Kirsten Peterson, project director at the educational nonprofit EDC contracted to help develop the project, gave us a brief tour of the course in its pilot form. Anne Kraybill, Crystal Bridges’ distance learning project manager, put me in touch with one of the students who tested the course prototype in 2014. Today’s guest post is by Maddy Windel, a freshman enrolled in a rural public high school, who shares her experience with this foray into online art education.

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Written by Maddy Windel

In October of 2014, I was given the opportunity to participate in the pilot of Museum Mash-Up, an online course being developed by Crystal Bridges.  My English teacher/mother, Kenya Windel, heard about this opportunity through the ARTeacher Fellowship, an initiative that both she and my father have been a part of over the last few years.

Ms. Windel volunteered me for the pilot because she knows I love learning about art in general: What drives the artist? Why did they create this piece specifically? Was it inspired by a big event in the artist’s life? I also love making art. Museum Mash-Up combined all of these interests. I had never taken an online course, but I really wanted to know what one was like (in Arkansas, an online course credit is necessary for all graduates, and I wanted to feel more prepared). I didn’t know that much about the course when I was volunteered. I knew it was about art that could be found at the Crystal Bridges museum—art that has piqued my interest every time I have visited the museum—but that was about it.

The pilot started with an immediate communication push. It was a major part of the course, which was a relief to me because I am from an incredibly small school with a group of close-knit students and faculty. I had never had to deal with not knowing or talking to my teachers before, and I didn’t know what it would be like. The amount of communication I received from the course made this transition much easier. In fact, the course had almost the same level of communication as art courses I’ve taken in the classroom. It also offered much more on the history of the art, and the art projects we completed were a bit more open than those in the classroom. The prompts provided the students with the basics–what the art should be about or reflect on–and let us go from there.

The course centered on examining, interpreting, and discussing art and the process of curating art (how it’s done, who does it, why they do it, doing it oneself). There were also sessions dedicated to making art, whether through sketching, photography, cartooning, or other means, depending on the session and each student’s personal preferences.

Learning deeply about the art and what led to its creation was particularly interesting for me. While I have always enjoyed looking at artwork, Crystal Bridges’ course showed me just how deeply I could go into studying and interpreting art. I developed my knowledge on the fact that the creation of a specific piece of artwork hinged on hundreds of factors that made it what it was. Take, for instance, my favorite pilot session, on the artwork of Andy Warhol and George Tooker. From an unenlightened outsider’s perspective, I could analyze their work in whatever way I chose, but when I dug deeper, I discovered that Warhol insisted he just did art for fun or money, and Tooker was influenced by his neighborhood. I discovered how the artists were raised, how they became interested in art, and how their friendships and their relationships influenced them. All of these factors make the art more intriguing, and I find there is more to look for, or not to look for, a story for each piece.

Analyzing this art online also gave me a taste of what the originals may really be like, both physically and emotionally. No digital image of a piece of art compares to what it looks like face-to-face. While some museums may fear that online exposure may keep people away, I believe it does the opposite. Looking at a piece, absorbing it, may be done to a limited extent on a computer, but I cannot feel the presence of the work–the size, the stature, the beauty—online like I can in person. Online art does serve as a good alternative to those who do not have the opportunity to view the artwork in person due to distance, money, or other reasons, and online sharing gives museums an entirely new method of attracting audiences who might not visit the museum otherwise. Pictures and examples of artwork can help make a mark on a new generation of people who live in this visual age. Images can be of much more help to them than a written description.

Early 19th Century Gallery at Crystal Bridges
Early 19th Century Gallery at
Crystal Bridges

I see the Crystal Bridges’ course as a wonderful opportunity to help students understand and engage with art and with other students who share an interest in it. The course allows students to communicate, work with technology that may be new to them, and enjoy, curate, and make art while being guided by their instructors, but not so rigidly that they don’t get to create their own steps along the way. A few parts of the course were difficult for me personally (I’m not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to technology), but eventually all my difficulties were resolved. The pilot was a wonderful experience. It was one I would love to repeat, and I’ve begun to do just that by taking the course for credit this semester. It’s thrilling to be able to look back and acknowledge, even early on, a conscious change in understanding from taking a course like this, and I hope that feeling is one many students can experience in the future through online interactions and in-person visits to museums such as Crystal Bridges that offer these educational opportunities.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is currently offering the course through Virtual Arkansas for Arkansas public school students. Plans are underway to distribute the course to teachers in any state or country. 

Learn more by reading a recent blog post by Anne Kraybill, “Up Close: Distance Learning and Art Museums.”

Up Close: Distance Learning & Art Museums

By Anne Kraybill, Distance Learning Project Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Check out Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Distance Learning website, which includes research and resources made available to support your distance learning initiatives.

The term “distance learning” can seem antithetical to art museums that espouse the power of an authentic experience with an object. As I worked to develop a distance learning initiative at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I struggled to reconcile the rationale for such a program. After all, Crystal Bridges has a robust and well-funded school visits program that brings students from all over the region. Why would I want to create a program that did not take place within our walls?

First, let me provide a little context. Crystal Bridges decided to pursue a distance learning initiative shortly after the field trip study conducted by Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Dan Bowen at the University of Arkansas. The findings revealed that student gains from a one-time fieldtrip in a variety of outcomes were two to three times higher for students in rural locations. With these findings in mind, we decided to create a distance learning program that would reach more students overall, but particularly students in these rural schools.

Where to Start?

We began with some formative research to determine what path we might take. In July 2013, we hosted a Distance Learning Summit, which brought together more than 40 art museums and arts organizations to better understand the current landscape and approaches to distance learning, as well as envision the future of how art museums might further leverage distance learning. Case study presentations included traditional approaches such as synchronous video conferences—often branded as “virtual fieldtrips”—that connected classrooms remotely, to blended approaches that utilized Learning Management Systems (LMS) before and after an onsite program, to asynchronous approaches such as a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that engage thousands of learners at one time.

While all of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages to consider, the model that resonated with our particular situation was presented by Michelle Harrell and Emily Kotecki from the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). In an effort to increase their reach to teens, they partnered with North Carolina Virtual Public School to develop online courses in the visual arts for high school students throughout the state of North Carolina. This model resonated for a few reasons. First, in the state of Arkansas we have the Digital Learning Act that requires all high school students to take an asynchronous online course for graduation, so this approach was a natural fit. Second, the notion of having such a direct role in a student’s school career was appealing and provided a level of accountability not found in most art museum/school partnerships. Following the trail Michelle and Emily had blazed, Crystal Bridges set out to develop a for-credit online course with the aim of deeply connecting high school students to art history, American history, and museum studies.

Course Development

After an RFP process, we selected Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) as the development partner. Over the course of a year, a cross disciplinary team of museum educators, instructional designers, subject-matter experts, graphic designers, and programmers, developed Museum Mash Up: American Identity through the Arts. Rather than progress through the artworks chronologically, the course begins with contemporary art. The guiding questions ask students “How did we get here? And how have artists shaped and reflected upon American identity?” Crystal Bridges partnered with Virtual Arkansas to offer and deliver the course. Like North Carolina Virtual, Virtual Arkansas is a supplementary provider of online courses that any public school student in the state can take. EDC and Crystal Bridges trained a few online arts instructors from Virtual Arkansas with volunteer students to test the activities and get formative feedback from both instructors and students.

The course has now launched through Virtual Arkansas with a pilot group of about 40 students from all over the state, including the community of Deer, population 680; the community of Hugh, population 1,441; and the community of Star City, population 2,248. Students typically log onto the course during one of their class periods at school. Though the course is asynchronous, students are paced in weekly units and use tools to engage in online discussion. This was one of the most important elements for the design of this course. While there are many valuable websites and other online resources to learn about the arts, we wanted to be sure that the act of “collaborative meaning-making” was not lost. Similar to an onsite program, students begin their lesson by looking at the work of art and sharing their initial observations and interpretations using VoiceThread™. This tool allows for a conversation in the cloud using text, video, or audio and is an excellent platform for students to build on one another’s ideas. Following their initial observations in VoiceThread™, the students read about the art and engage with multi-media materials to ascertain some context about the art, artist, and historical time period. They then participate in another, more in-depth discussion about their new and evolving interpretations.

course

Simultaneously, students are also working on two major capstone projects. The first project is a curated exhibition about their own individual identity using the tool Kapsul™ somewhat similar to a Pinterest board. Through this project, along with videos by curators, designers, and educators, they learn about the curatorial, design, and interpretive process necessary to curate an exhibition. These skills are used in their final project: a virtual exhibition curated by each student using the artworks they learned about during the semester, and research new works in the Crystal Bridges collection. This amazing virtual rendering of the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges was created by David Charles Frederick from Tesseract Studios at the University of Arkansas using Unity™, an immersive game engine that includes rich textures and allows the students to explore the space as if on foot. The rendering is completely accurate to the specifications from the museum blueprints and provides learners with an immersive experience in which they arrange paintings they have researched on the walls, write the labels and interpretation, develop the graphic identity of their exhibition, and most importantly, learn that they can make meaning and conversations between paintings and across history.

bridge1

bridge2

Challenges

Along the way, there were many challenges to overcome and there will be many more as we continue to pilot the course. Content for all of the artwork had to be generated requiring a mass amount of writing. Image rights had to be procured, videos needed to be produced, and external content from primary and secondary sources had to be found. One of the most challenging hurdles we had to overcome was the course approval process with the Arkansas Department of Education. Because this was not a standard course, the state had to approve it under a standards framework. After much work and standards alignment, we were able to obtain course approval for students to receive .5 credit hours in fine arts. The course now satisfies two requirements all high school students must meet for graduation; a .5 credit hour in fine arts, and at least one course taken online.

Beyond the bureaucratic and logistical challenges we continue to encounter and amend, there are, not surprisingly, some challenges in working with high school students. There are a wide range of motivations, with some students passionately interested in learning art and history, and others who are more ambivalent about visual arts and museums. This results in a wide range of responses in the discussions. For instance, students were asked to look at and respond to George Tooker’s, The Ward in VoiceThread™. Their only prompt was “What do you notice and what do you wonder?”

Student One:  it looks like there is a bunch sick people laying (sic) in hospital. like it looks like the ones already laying down are dead.

Student Two: George Tooker’s “The Ward” is a very interesting piece that’s (sic) shows to have many subliminal messages. In the background there are many American flags hanging on the wall in a much brighter contrast to the rest of the painting. I recognize this as a representation of patriotism and American pride. Going on to the next part of the painting, the elderly people lined up in rows on beds. There isn’t much to identify the various elderly by- except as Madeliene said, they have little to no hair- so they are most likely men. The elderly people are lined up on these beds- which do not appear to be comfortable by their stiff appearance. It seems that these people are just existing, not really being anything other than a case number or a medical condition. I believe that this represents the wounded soldiers that have returned from the various wars. When the soldiers came back from the war wounded this is how they were treated oftentimes, in a lifeless building or tent, not having anything to do or participate in, often making them become depressed which slowed or stopped the healing process completely. When Tooker made this painting I wonder why he depicted the wounded soldiers scene as so dreary and negative when he could have followed in the footsteps of others and sugar coat it to pacify the public and make it seem appealing enough. For Tooker’s honesty in this painting I admire him greatly. He really got his point across that the war wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t pleasant afterwards either, because these memories still haunt you…

voicethread

In addition, for many students this is the first time they have taken an online course, so they need support in learning the tools plus very well-defined and articulated expectations of the level and quality of work the course requires.  Everyone is making significant progress. For example, early responses from all but a few students were rarely justified, but just five weeks in, student are better articulating their interpretations with more detail and inference, and justifying their claims with evidence.

Overall, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. There is a level of anonymity for each student that is freeing. They are not burdened by labels that they might encounter in their physical school. They are also able to contribute their ideas without ridicule. The way in which they engage with works of art and learn about the works is multi-model. And they are connecting with Crystal Bridges and the collection in a way that a one-time fieldtrip could never afford. In addition, Crystal Bridges is providing a unique course-offering to the state that expands access to quality arts education.

Next Steps

Crystal Bridges has a large agenda as it continues to expand upon this program. Next steps include:

  1. Conduct an observational study of the current section of Museum Mash Up to analyze instructional design and quality, and measure student perceptions. Follow the observational study with a rigorous, experimental design to measure student outcomes including critical thinking and writing.
  2. Develop an online teacher professional-development program that certifies teachers in any state to teach the course;
  3. Create a second course offering that is grounded in studio and design practice;
  4. Host an online professional learning community where teachers can receive support in teaching the online course.
  5. Host a second Distance Learning Summit (details forthcoming this summer).

Phew!

Final Thoughts

This project has been one of the scariest and most fulfilling in my career. The students are not the only ones who have a stake in the course; we as a museum cannot fail our obligation to them.  I could not have conceived of it without the ground-breaking work by Michelle and Emily at NCMA. I also have to thank the talented and dedicated Crystal Bridges museum educators, Emily Rodriguez and Donna Hutchinson, for all their help in developing, researching, and designing the course outline, as well as EDCs project manager, Kirsten Peterson, for her unwavering dedication and belief in this project, and Diana Garrison, teacher extraordinaire at Virtual Arkansas.

Read about the Distance Learning Project from the perspective of a participating student, “Museums and Online Learning: A Student’s Perspective.”

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About the Author

AnneKraybillANNE KRAYBILL:  Distance Learning Project Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where she is developing online accredited courses for high school students and online professional development for teachers. In her previous position as the school and community programs manager at Crystal Bridges, she developed and implemented all of the Museum’s programming related to K-12 students, teachers and pre-services teacher as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Norton Museum of Art , the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. Anne has a B.F.A. in Photography from Maryland Institute College of Art, a M.A. in Museum Education from The University of the Arts, and a M.S. in Instructional Technology from East Carolina University. She is currently a Doctoral Academy Fellow in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books

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).

Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, by Ossian Ward (Laurence King Publishing, 2014)

books-photo-murawski

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?

This is what it is like when you're standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.  Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
This is what it is like when you’re standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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)

Carsten Höller "Test Site" installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license
Carsten Höller “Test Site” installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

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.

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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)

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Featured header image: Carsten Höller panorama by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Questioning the Questioning of Questions

Written by Jackie Delamatre

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).

In Search of the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ of Questions

Recently, I taught a couple sessions for adults at a Robert Motherwell painting at the RISD Museum.

Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).  http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1998_ochre_still_life_with_blue_stripe
Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966). http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1998_ochre_still_life_with_blue_stripe

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: jackie 3museum 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. 

Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool

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

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“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

Bowles-FB2

“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

Bowles-FB3

“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?

The Unknown

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.

Role Models

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.

Contemporary Connections

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

BowlesDAVID 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.

A Forum for Reflecting on Practice

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