The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App

“With a culture of questioning, there is always more possibility.” – Debra France & W. L. Gore

“Without a good question, the answer has no place to go.” – Clayton Christensen

“We live in the world our questions create.” – David Cooperrider

Much ink (and many pixels) has been spilled over thinking about the use of questions in museums.  I, myself, have given considerable thought to not only how we as educators employ questions in our own inquiry-based teaching, but also how we might get museum visitors and learners to ask more questions – to wonder more about the objects, collections, stories, and experiences brought forward by museums.  I owe a great deal to the thinking of other educators and cultural leaders like Rika Burnham, Elliott Kai-Kee, Nina Simon, Philip Yenawine, and many of the folks at Harvard’s Project Zero, to name a few.  In countless docent trainings, teacher workshops, school tours, lifelong learning classes, etc., I’ve worked to help cultivate a culture of questioning in the space of the museum – exploring creative questions, structured questions, participatory questions, visitor-centered questions, and questions that take a critical look at the very institutions of museums themselves. So when I visited the Brooklyn Museum last month, I was intrigued and excited to be able to test out their new ASK app as well as chat with some of the Audience Engagement staff about the intiative.

What is the ASK app?

photoASK is the newest iOS app developed by the Brooklyn Museum to allow visitors to ask questions during their museum visit, and have Audience Engagement staff on the other end answering their questions live via the text-messaging feature of the app.  As visitors ask questions, a member of the Audience Engagement staff not only responds to the question, but they know where the visitor is located based on iBeacons that the museum has installed throughout the galleries.  In addition to texting in a question, visitors can also send a photo along with their question.

As the Audience Engagement staff receive visitor questions, they have access to a growing wiki that contains information about artworks, related artworks, historical information, and other questions that have been asked by visitors.  These staff are constantly building this database of content and context, allowing them to more easily answer subsequent visitor questions. The app works in real-time, but only functions while on site at the Brooklyn Museum (if you want to take any of the experience with you, you need to take screen shots or notes, like I did).

In a recent interview with Nina Simon, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, Shelley Bernstein, spoke more about the new ASK app and experience:

“ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.”

The Brooklyn Museum has been testing the ASK app during the past couple of months (summer 2015), and making changes and prototyping new approaches throughout (which is awesome to see!).

My ASK Experience

As I walked along Prospect Park on my way to the Brooklyn Museum, I began downloading my ASK app (yes, I am a super museum nerd – I’m sure very few visitors have their app ready-to-go when they enter the Brooklyn Museum).  Entering the museum, I was prepped to ask questions.

Rather than try to ‘stump’ the app experience and try to ask a series of outrageous or challenging questions, I wanted to really see when I would have the natural inclination to ask a question.  I even wondered how often I have my own questions while I stroll the galleries of a museum (we think so much about questions as part of the museum experience of others, but perhaps rarely think about our own process of questioning as learners/visitors in the galleries). Not having visited the Brooklyn Museum for quite some time, I immediately found myself wandering around trying to find my way without a map.  So question #1 for me was about way-finding:  “Where can I find a map?” An immediate response via the app had me even more excited about my visit (now with map in hand).

ASK experienceI only ended up asking about 4 additional questions during a 2-3 hour visit, but the exchange with the Audience Engagement team member on the other end was enjoyable and surprisingly engaging.  To give you a sense of how natural and conversational it felt, I am pasting a collage of screenshots from a part of our exchange at the right (click on the small image here to access a larger view of the exchange).  The ‘responder’ texted me about twice as many times as I messaged them, which shows a really nice level of engagement.   The conversation basically occurred in real time, without any awkward silences or wait times.

While I was testing the app, the person on the other end was nameless (but I think they’re now testing it with the person’s name included to add more personal connection, which is a fantastic idea).  Towards the end of my visit, the staff member invited me to stop by the kiosk on my way out and say “hi.”  So I did, and ended up meeting Megan Mastobattista, who has been a part of the Audience Engagement Team since March.  We chatted about the project, and I was able to connect a real person to my digital experience (hooray!).

ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it.  Photo from BKM Tech blog.
ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it. Photo from BKM Tech blog.
Overall, I felt that the ASK app experience really succeeded in one area that I know the Brooklyn Museum’s is aiming for with this project: personal connection.  I was highly skeptical of this app when I arrived (to be honest), since I tend to have reservations about anything that creates a culture in museums of asking questions and getting answers – assuming that there is some correct answer to every question, and preventing visitors from simply wondering about art without someone texting them the answers.  From the outside, the ASK app seemed to be trying to digitally replicate the older and outdated model of docents, who try to “know everything” and answer any questions visitors have about works of art, history, artist bios, etc.  But in experiencing the app myself, I felt connected to the answerer, and I also felt that the goal of the Audience Engagement team was not to specifically answer my questions, but truly to engage in dialogue and prompt more thinking or looking on my part.  I could also bring my own knowledge to the exchange, and it was valued and became a building block for further dialogue.

After my visit, I connected with my colleague Monica Marino, Audience Engagement Lead there at the Brooklyn Museum, to get some of her thoughts on some of my questions and experiences:

“Users are consistently surprised when they realize it’s a real person speaking with them.  It’s interesting, even when they go into the app experience knowing that it is a person responding (and even when they meet us beforehand) they have an “ah-ha” moment after about the 3rd exchange.  That’s a prime moment for us to provoke a more in-depth dialogue about what the visitor is looking at.”

One part of the experience I was pleasantly surprised with was the app’s ability to connect me with the same Audience Engagement staff person each time.  While I understand that this must be more challenging when the museum is more crowded, I asked Monica about their thinking about this aspect:

“From our end (the Team responding) it is nice when we can sustain the conversation with one person, however, it has its logistical challenges – for example if we have multiple people sending us messages, we want to be able to respond to everyone quickly which makes it challenging sometimes to stay with the same person.  In addition, it happens that one of our team members has more of a background on a particular object/collection so it’s best when they’re able to respond to the visitor. Having said all of that we try as much as possible to stay with a visitor as they use it.”

Monica also writes more about the thinking behind the opening prompt and the first response to the visitor in this text messaging environment, and how to best spark the conversation I’ve been talking about.

As the Audience Engagement Team at the Brooklyn Museum continues to test and adapt the ASK experience, you can keep in touch via their BKM Tech blog, which is also a great place to learn more about the evolution of this initiative.  Also check out Nina Simon’s interview with the project’s lead thinker, Shelley Bernstein.

As the team at the Brooklyn Museum collects data on visitor questions and behavior, I’m also very interested to see how it shapes the internal decisions being made about collection installations, exhibitions, interpretive strategies, and gallery design.  To play off of the quote as the start of this post by David Cooperrider, are we heading toward a moment in which visitor questions will be shaping the museums of tomorrow.  Will we ever be living in the museums our questions create?

What’s Your ASK Experience?

I’d love to hear from others who have experienced the ASK app.  What can you share with us about your process of questioning and exchange with the Audience Engagement team?  What do you think about this type of museum experience – should we instead be focusing more on human, face-to-face engagement rather than the digital?  Please share and keep the dialogue going.


Plan, Implement, Evaluate: Leveraging All Staff for Program Development

Written by Mike Deetsch, Director of Education & Engagement, Toledo Museum of Art


In 2010 the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) passed its 2015 Strategic Plan with an emphasis on the Museum’s Purpose: Art Education. One of the primary intentions behind the plan was to create a more relevant and sustainable Museum and at this point we adopted the Strategic Objective of Teaching Visual Literacy.  The thought process behind this, brought forward by the Museum’s director Brian Kennedy, was that the Museum would leverage great works of art in the collection to teach people to see better in our 21st century’s image-saturated society.  Since this time there have been a variety of visual literacy-specific initiatives developed by the Museum, including The Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, a docent training class highlighting visual perception, and the creation of a Visual Literacy website.

In November 2014 the Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 47th annual conference for the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).  As part of the preparation for this conference, in January 2014 the education department was charged with designing a professional development program that would train all Museum staff and volunteers on the theories and processes around visual literacy. With the conference imminent, we wanted to ensure that any staff or volunteer in the organization would feel comfortable talking about visual literacy with any of our attending guests.

Before my colleagues and I developed the curriculum, we needed to clarify TMA’s approach to teaching visual literacy and its associated concepts. Our goal was to make the content accessible to a wide audience.  It might go without stating, but not everyone on our staff has a background in art, art history, or art museums.  Keeping in mind that we were going to be training such a diverse audience (i.e. all museum departments as well as docents and other volunteers), our approach couldn’t be intimidating and had to be presented in a fun and engaging way.

We had been incorporating visual literacy concepts into programming in a number of ways since 2010, but those programs largely lived with the education department.  To be successful on this project, it was clear that it was essential to engage a variety of staff members outside of education in order for the concepts to “stick” and be embodied throughout the organization.  Aided by strong support from the director’s office, we pulled together a cross-departmental team of 14 staff, for three consecutive Tuesdays in February 2014, to brainstorm around visual literacy concepts.  This team consisted of staff from curatorial, education, library, marketing, visitor engagement, visitor services, and the director’s office.

Visual Literacy Content Meeting 021114

Our meetings took place in a white board room (three walls covered in white board paint) where we were able to discuss, brainstorm, and illustrate ideas.  While the participants were not always in agreement, we were able to use these meetings (about six hours total) to land on consensus for our key process which include:

  1. an easy to understand definition of visual literacy,
  2. the Elements of Art and Principles of Design as the foundational vocabulary,
  3. the Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, and
  4. the concepts of interpretation distilled into four visual languages.

During these sessions the group realized the value of aligning the TMA’s definition of visual literacy with textual literacy.  The comparison to textual literacy is important for two reasons: one, it makes an analogy that people are already familiar with and, two, it gives the Museum the opportunity to shift the discussion from literacy to language.  The latter shift was key because focus groups had been telling us that literacy implies there are people who are illiterate, while language implies level of fluency.  TMA’s definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, comprehend, and write visual language.  Reading visual language is about the process of seeing, comprehending visual language is about the interpretation of seeing, and writing visual language is about the action you take in response to what you have seen.


With the definition, process, and concepts in place my colleague Kate Blake, Manager of Curriculum, and I drafted the curriculum for the professional development.  From the outset of writing the curriculum we identified a few musts: the program needed to be multidisciplinary, meaning it wasn’t going to be art history-centric; it needed to be activity-based; and it had to be taught in the galleries.

As museum educators we know the value in using a variety of approaches to gallery learning, including group discussion, small group activities, drawing, and independent exploration.  Facilitating activities, opposed to discussion only, would afford us the chance to engage with a variety of learning styles and dabble into a bit of game mechanics.  By making the approach activity-based, we were able to engage our staff in the overall experience which proved to be useful in retaining the concepts  introduced.

Staff participating in Visual Literacy workshop activity.
Staff participating in Visual Literacy workshop activity.

As I mentioned earlier this training was offered to TMA staff and volunteers, in all approximately 300 individuals.  In the end we designed a curriculum of 12 contact hours which introduced the concepts surrounding Visual Literacy, spent time on close looking techniques, and gave special emphasis to the four visual languages.  Kate and I knew that 12 hours was a significant commitment for people to give over during the work week, so we also developed a variety of workshop formats to adjust to people’s schedules accordingly.  Initially each of these sessions was facilitated by full-time TMA education staff but gradually transitioned two of our more experienced docents into facilitators.  These docents, who were both former docent board presidents, had been working closely with staff on visual literacy programming since 2010.

One lesson the facilitators quickly discovered during the workshops was the importance of acknowledging expertise, at all levels, throughout the professional development.  There were content experts, such as curators, as well as other areas of expertise. For example our security staff, which spends more time in the galleries than anyone else on staff, was actively encouraged to contribute their opinions and perspectives.  The guards’ comments were often  the most insightful for their interpretations and their observations of visitor interactions with the collection.

Evaluation and Next Steps

As a means of reflection, we developed an evaluation tool that  allowed us to make real time adjustments. Specifically we measured the digestibility (of content) and overall enjoyment.  To do this, we created a series of online surveys to collect feedback at various touch points during the 12 hour workshop.  The curriculum was grouped into six modules and each module had its own evaluation.  While the evaluation was not a requirement for participation, we collected over 300 surveys.  The general response was positive, with most activities receiving a rating of 5 (out of 6) on a Likert scale. Open-ended questions provided constructive feedback that we were able to act on immediately, such as making a slight adjustment to our definition of visual literacy and dropping activities that did not resonate or were too complicated.

Staff feedback to Visual Literacy workshops.
Staff feedback to Visual Literacy workshops.

All told between April and October 2014, our team of eight facilitated 28 workshops, totaling 336 hours, for 300 staff and volunteers.  The entire experience, from design to facilitation, relied heavily on cross-departmental staff involvement, input, and engagement.  As a result we were able to design a clear and concise introductory visual literacy curriculum which we have been able to repurpose for a variety of audiences and in a multitude of formats since getting the staff involved.  Our staff and volunteers clearly understand TMA’s Purpose is Art Education and that we will achieve it by Teaching Visual Literacy now.

Having the opportunity to share and rely on expertise throughout the Museum proved invaluable throughout the entire process.  How many of you have the opportunity to cross collaborate on projects from start to finish?  If so, what does that look like?  And do you have the opportunity to prototype new ideas?  How can we build that into our practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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About the Author

headshotMIKE DEETSCH: Emma Leah Bippus Director of Education and Engagement at the Toledo Museum of Art, Deetsch is a key member of the Museum’s executive team, leading educational and programming initiatives across the Museum. He is responsible for curriculum development for all audiences, outreach, exhibition interpretive material and management of the docent program as well as conceptualizing innovative public programming.  He oversees a strong, motivated education staff and a highly engaged TMA docent corps responsible for developing visual literacy initiatives and partnering to create opportunities for visual literacy education and awareness.  Prior to joining the TMA staff, Deetsch served as a senior museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition and programs director at the Lexington Art League, and the student programs manager at the Kentucky Historical Society. Deetsch received his master’s degree in art education from the Pratt Institute and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Hanover College. He was chosen in 2011 to participate in the Getty Leadership Institute’s “Museum Leaders: the Next Generation.”

Women in Museums: Two New #MuseWomen Projects

Written by Emily Lytle-Painter, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The MuseWomen Initiative started in 2013 as an impassioned breakout conference session to talk about women and leadership in the museum technology sector. More meet-ups have followed, and the community has responded positively- this is something people want to talk about! Discussion topics include money, skill acquisition, career advancement, as well as how the museum field could be an example for other technology sectors struggling with implementing diversity across their organizations.


The more we spoke about how to better support women in the field, the more we realized that we needed to move from talking to action, and thanks to the ongoing leadership of Brinker Ferguson (@brinkerf) throughout 2015, we have made some important strides in establishing two new projects.

MuseWomen Mentors

Our pilot mentorship program, chaired by Liz Filardi (@lizfilardi) of the Met, is designed to supplement the MCN2015 conference experience (with no formal affiliation to MCN). Mentoring is one of the most important ways to establish a foothold in a community, and we created this program to bring intention and a lightweight structure to something you may already be doing unofficially.

Here’s how it will work: Prior to the conference, we will carefully assign mentor/mentee pairs based on the responses. On the first day, we will host a casual meet-up, and on the last day, we close with happy hour. That’s basically it. We’ll provide some tips to make the most of the experience, but you decide the rest: when to meet during the conference and if you want to keep in touch afterword.

Anyone attending MCN can participate as a mentor or a mentee. If you aren’t going to the conference, please share your email with us anyway, for (what we hope will be) future online iterations.

To join us, please complete the mentorship questionnaire by October 1.

MuseWomen Survey

Additionally, we are collecting information to better understand some of the opportunities and roadblocks for women in the field. Designed by recent graduate Cait Reizman (@MuseumAdvoCait), this survey will help us to better understand the employment landscape for aspiring, current, and past museum workers, interns, and volunteers.

We seek responses from people of all gender identities who live in the United States. Data collected will be anonymized and used to report on women working in museums. We hope to present on the information gathered at future conferences as well as publish a report online in 2016.

The survey takes about 5 minutes, and we are looking for about 50 more responses. Please share your information on the survey by October 1.

Questions about the #MuseWomen Initiative can be directed to the #MuseWomen team at We look forward to hearing from you!

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Header Image: TechCamp Tel Aviv, Photo by Matty Stern, U. S. Embassy Tel Aviv.

It’s Time to Recognize Excellence: NAEA Awards

As art museum educators, we get so wrapped up in our own practice and day-to-day work that there are many things we sometimes do not have time for. From writing that article we’ve always wanted to write to simply spending more time in the galleries looking at art, we can get so busy that these things speed past us. Too frequently, recognizing the work we do as educators also falls by the wayside. So I am calling on you to press the pause button for one moment and recognize the excellent work your peers are doing in the field.

It’s that time of year when we nominate outstanding colleagues in order to recognize and celebrate their efforts and achievements. The NAEA Awards Program  honors exceptional NAEA members from across the seven divisions for their exceptional service and achievement during previous years.  We will honor these great educators in a joint cross-division ceremony during the 2016 NAEA National Convention in Chicago.

Nominate a colleague for the National Art Education Association Museum Division Awards! This is such a simple process, and you can nominate any current NAEA member for Regional Awards as well as the National Award.

Submissions are due October 1!  So act now!

To submit a nomination or to learn more about the NAEA Awards Program, visit

Here is all that you will need to do:

  1. Take 5 minutes and think of someone who is making a difference in your work as a museum educator — whether they are a super supportive mentor, a transformative colleague, or an emerging educator whose hard work is deserving of recognition.
  2. Contact them — shoot them an email saying that you think they simply ROCK, and that you would like to nominate them for an NAEA Museum Division Award (regional or national).
  3. Write a short letter saying how great they are! What has been exemplary about their practice or their role in the field of museum education? What impact are they making at their institution; in their community; in the National Art Education Association? How have they pushed you to become a better educator? Please make them blush when they read it.
  4. Ask your rock star nominee to fill out the short CV form (download editable PDF here) and to select 2 people to write short, glowing letters of support. Again, this is usually very easy, since as a field we are all here to support each other and recognize excellence. Ask the nominee to have their support letters sent directly to you.
  5. Submit this entire packet (nomination letter, CV form, and 2 letters of support) to no later than October 1st. Please don’t miss this deadline! We really want to consider your nomination and recognize excellence in your colleagues.

You can find all of this information and forms by visiting the NAEA Awards website here.

Over the past 30+ years, the National Art Education Association has recognized excellence in nearly 150 museum educators that are members of NAEA, many of them are mentors and colleagues that we have had the pleasure of working with or continue to work with now. The list includes “movers and shakers” in our field, but also the quiet, modest, yet powerful educators who would not have been recognized without being nominated by someone like yourself.

So take the time to recognize the excellent and transformative work happening in our field, and nominate someone for an NAEA Award!

If you have any questions at all, or need help with this process, do not hesitate to email me at or Melissa Tanner at

Remember that the deadline for submitting nominations is October 1st!

Museums & #BlackLivesMatter

Written by Aleia Brown  and Adrianne Russell

Reposted from project CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Read more great essays by leading thinkers in the field by visiting the project on Medium. [republished with permission of the authors]

In the early nineteenth century, a small population of free people of color speckled the United States. Some of them did not disrupt the status quo, but revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina called for the nation to burn.

A founding member of Emmanuel AME Church, Vesey primarily recruited church members for the insurrection. His plan leaked to slave owners before he could make Charleston a site of liberation. The Mayor organized a militia to catch all co-conspirators. Vigilante justice reigned over the city too, but it did not stop for good. On June 17, 2015 self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof reignited that spirit of vigilante justice and murdered nine Emmanuel AME Church parishioners with the intent to start a race war nearly a century after Vesey planned his uprising.

Black people have long struggled for their freedom and civil rights in America. Denmark Vesey is an example of this. Therefore, uprisings across the nation after repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens is not just an inciting 2015 headline. It falls along the continuum of black people protesting against state sanctioned violence and over policing in their communities. So why do museums continually hesitate in responding to Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Charleston and…?

“Mike Brown Silent Protest White House” by Elvert Barnes, CC BY 2.0
“Mike Brown Silent Protest White House” by Elvert Barnes, CC BY 2.0

Are Museums Really Ready to Respond to Ferguson?

In Bridget McKenzie’s Code:Words piece, “Toward the Sociocratic Museum”, McKenzie proposes a new model of museum to counter the existing plutocratic and bureaucratic archetypes that have arisen from plunder and oppression or are discomfitingly in bed with problematic corporate entities, respectively. In theory, the sociocratic museum would forego being participatory and engaging on its surface for “governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities.” Recently, museums have championed inclusion and engagement. But the digital landscape and communities of color have pushed back, creating spaces that discuss their lived experience and critiquing how other people view it.

McKenzie’s piece cited #museumsrespondtoFerguson, a Twitter chat we co-host the third Wednesday of each month 1PMCST/2PMEST, as an example of how people-driven movements in the digital realm can inspire change in museums. In 2014, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets protesting the killings of unarmed black citizens by police in Staten Island, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore (and unfortunately many more in subsequent months). These actions were inspired, organized, shared (and ultimately spied on) via a host of digital platforms, most notably Twitter, which has the highest percentage of black adult users according to recent research. It’s the digital equivalent of an old-school office water cooler. It’s where news breaks, information is shared, and racist tomfoolery is dragged to the carpet.

Claiming Their Space Digitally

#BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, rallied marginalized people and amplified their unified voices. They claimed virtual space instead of waiting for it to be doled out to them. Traditional gatekeepers were rendered moot. Schools, arts organizations, libraries, and other entities responded with public statements denouncing police brutality, presented related programs, or offered their venues as community gathering spaces.

The Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events, from which #museumsrespondtoFerguson generated, was an industry call-to-arms, primarily asking museums in the United States to similarly reflect upon their internal oppressive practices and actively demonstrate their roles as change agents fully embedded in our nation’s social, educational, and cultural infrastructure. The forward to “Museums, Equality, and Social Justice” (Sandell and Nightingale, ed.) makes this responsibility explicit:

“No matter what a museum’s legal structure, whether publicly funded, or authorised by society to function as a charity, it is expected to contribute to the common good. If its basic values do not include solidarity with the excluded, then the museum is reinforcing that exclusion”

“A Black Lives Matter protest of police brutality in the rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota” by Nicholas Upton, CC BY-SA 2.0
“A Black Lives Matter protest of police brutality in the rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota” by Nicholas Upton, CC BY-SA 2.0

Museums pride themselves on embodying the common good, on honoring its social compacts, and being physically and virtually relevant. Precious resources are devoted to “engagement”, a term so buzzy and overused that it often elicits groans and eye-rolls from museum employees tasked with bringing the nebulous concept to life.

These colleagues regularly communicate via tags such as #musesocial, #musetech, and #museEd to crowdsource solutions and exchange practices, so convening in digital spaces isn’t new. However, using those spaces to openly examine anti-blackness in museums certainly is.

Twitter: The Tool for Activists Online

Social activism is inherently risky but protest in the physical world can take place with a certain degree of professional protection. You can demonstrate outside of work hours or anonymously donate to causes of your choice. But participating in a Twitter chat explicitly dedicated to confronting your current or potential employers’ systemic oppression under your personal account, which might even include your image (and almost overwhelmingly some variation of a “these ideas are mine alone” disclaimer), is practically an act of rebellion in an industry with a long history of conformity, exclusion, and aversion to transparency.

The aforementioned Joint Statement was born digitally and continues to live online, making it more accessible than a paper document. Conversations responding to overarching themes like race, police brutality and community relations dominate the online landscape now. The monthly Twitter chat is a limb of the statement, keeping the conversation alive. Twitter has been the most appropriate online social media platform seeing that it is the most immediate and democratic.

Facebook, the most popular social media platform, originally started exclusively for Harvard students. Eventually, it expanded to a service for all Ivy League schools along with Stanford University. It was not until 2006 that anyone of appropriate age could join the site. Contrarily, Twitter has always allowed anyone with a valid email address to join the site. Anyone can build a sizeable audience without educational, economic or social weight.

While one of the high points of Twitter is that it very democratic, that aspect also hurts our ability to account for everyone engaged in the conversation. Twitter allows participants to see the full conversation. It also gives them the choice to be an onlooker without forcing them to participate. Because of this, we know there is a group of people who read the Tweets but do not contribute to the conversation. This is frustrating because it does not allow us to capture a complete sample of the comments surrounding certain themes.

To capture the Tweets that are present in the chat, we use Storify. While Storify provides a great summary of the chat, it does not retain tweets if a user deletes them. We are still researching the best tools for tracking tweets on a limited (i.e. no) budget. So far, NodeXL (visual) and TAGS (archiving) are possible contenders due to free, open source templates, although the TAGS archive reflects some bias in its often incomplete results.

Twitter is also useful in the sense that it’s immediate. It’s a space for discourse and thinking aloud in public. And it has a record for social change. Among many other times, Egyptians most notably used Twitter in 2011 to organize actions in hopes of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak. Its record for serving as a platform for social change made it the top choice for housing #museumsrespondtoFerguson.

>>View #Museumsrespondtoferguson on Storify<<

This particular Storify, which focused on museums and oppression illustrates how Twitter introduced new perspectives and sources outside the mainstream to some of our chat participants. Margaret Middleton noted, #BlackLivesMatter has completely transformed the way I see the world.” Through these chats, Twitter continues to demonstrate to us that we can spread information that disrupts traditional narratives quickly and effectively.

The Stutter-Step Between Hashtag to Action

“Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC” by The All-Nite Images, CC BY-SA 2.0
“Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC” by The All-Nite Images, CC BY-SA 2.0

For all the good Twitter is, it still presents some challenges. How do we move out of an online safe space, to a space of action? We did not even provide a Storify for our fifth chat which asked participants to share anti-blackness work they have engaged since being a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. There were barely any tweets to archive. Instead of seeing action, that particular chat pulled back a veneer and exposed fear and tepid hopes. After several chats, it seemed like participants were still unsure about how to respond to Ferguson. We have pushed for museums and museum professionals to first examine the ways they perpetuate or dismantle oppression. Before museums can truly engage communities, they have to do the internal work. To be sure, this work is not easy, and it is far more complex than providing a tidy and succinct list of ten steps to engage with the black community.

Some comments, like one that relegated #museumsrespondtoFerguson to being “about museum staff talking amongst themselves — not a bad thing, but seems tangential in some way to community engagement,” are discouraging. Museums can’t engage communities of color before acknowledging and working through their role in marginalizing black and brown people. Furthermore, museum professionals cannot continue to cite early museologists like John Cotton Dana without providing the context that Newark struggled with desegregating its public spaces.

While John Cotton Dana wrote about engaging all people and making collections accessible and relevant, black people were not necessarily included in this plan. Dana demonstrated progressive ideas about gender, but never explicitly advocated for race equity. This is the type of deconstruction that needs to take place before museums attempt to engage a community that they have historically turned away. Learning about the likes of Mabel Wilson, in addition to Dana, makes for a more thoughtful and relevant approach to engaging black communities. #museumsrespondtoFerguson seeks to expose participants to different voices and thought processes that museums continue to ignore.

The chat generates thoughtful commentary, and has also inspired #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a conversation about labor and equity in the field. However, participants express some hesitancy, and even fearfulness, in putting these conversations to action. This was especially evident in our fifth chat where participants could barely answer the questions because they had not actually put in work to evaluate or comment on. We have not found the best solution for moving the conversation to action. Jumping back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, participants in their online advocacy never hesitated to take action. Action was intuitive. They believed in change and were willing to work for it.

Maybe, in this country racial change is not intuitive. And while Twitter can foster productive conversations, it has not fostered enough tangible actions in the museum community. The Charleston Massacre unfortunately connects us to the nineteenth century motto of vigilante justice against black people. Museums can no longer view contemporary iterations of racialized violence as traumatic headlines too difficult to work through in their spaces. As organizations with renewed commitment to community engagement, #museumsrespondtoFerguson needs to manifest in gallery spaces, programming and outreach.

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Header Image: “Eric Garner Protests,” Photo by Paul Silva,,  CC BY 2.0

Engaging Multilingual Students: An Educator’s Guide

Written by PJ Gubatina Policarpio

As the new school year officially starts here in New York, I am reminded of the thousands of students in the city, who will eventually descend upon our museums, science centers, botanical gardens, libraries, historical societies, and many other informal places of learning. As always, I am inspired by these young learners who bring a richness of experiences, languages, cultural identities, curiosities, and imagination that make our institutions come to life. In my own practice, I often wonder how I can tap into the wealth of characters and personalities each student brings to the table to create a truly engaging and equitable learning environment for all.

As school programs educator at Queens Museum, I was amazed by the diversity of the students that were coming into the museum; reflecting the demographic of the borough (one of the most diverse in the country!). It was more than I had ever experienced working in other museums/cultural institutions in New York. Based on my own observations and conversations with teachers, I realized that in a class of 35 students there might be knowledge of at least 10 languages whether spoken by the students or by their families at home. Census data shows that close to half of Queens residents (47.8%) are born outside of the US and more than 50% speak a language other than English at home.  Some estimate show that there are more than 150 languages spoken in Queens.

In many ways, I saw myself in these students. As an immigrant, I also come from a multilingual and multicultural home. I consider myself part of generation 1.5, coming to America when I was 13 years old. These students inspired me to reflect on how I can further challenge my teaching. How can my own immigrant background inform my teaching? What are some of the effective teaching strategies I’ve learned the field? And how could I combine this sensitivity and the strategies to engage multilingual students and their peers in the group. So for a couple of months last year, I explored and used many different strategies in our Panorama of the City of New York exhibition, the crown jewel of the Queens Museum’s collection and our most requested school groups tour. The result was an “Educators Guide” which I compiled and illustrated by Megan Leppla. The guide was originally presented for school programs at Queens Museum and am sharing here as a resource for other educators.

  1. 1Check-in with the Teacher.

The classroom teacher should know their students best.  Prior to their visit or right before the tour, check in to see what the teacher’s goals are for the museum visit, what curriculum connections the class is making or want to make, and if there are any special needs or considerations. This is a great time for me to ask if there are other languages spoken or used in the classroom. I also let the teachers know that I welcome and encourage moments to translate key words, questions, concepts, and/or ideas to reach the most students.  This is a great way to collaborate and engage the teacher during their visit.

  1. 2Use active cues to get students attention.

Teaching with the Panorama can be challenging because of many factors, including its size, impressive detail, and a moving model airplane touching down and taking off at LaGuardia Airport! So it’s important to use creative and active ways to gather students’ attention. Check with the teacher to see if they already have strategies in place in the classroom. Some of my favorites include:

Clapping: I like rhythmic clapping because it involves both sound and movement. Make sure that this does not distract other groups.

Sign: First, I introduce the sign language for the word “Focus” and then I reinforce this gesture when I need a student’s attention.

  1. 3Give students equitable opportunities to participate.

Allow students to engage with the Panorama in other non-verbal ways or without being the focus of everyone’s attention. I like to have low-stakes, low-pressure activities for all students to participate in. For example, as students walk into the Panorama, I ask them to think of a word that describes how they are feeling. Then, I ask students to write down the word on an index card. To share I ask students to look at each other’s cards. Students can then be grouped into similar words or ideas for further conversation.

  1. 4Encourage partner talk.

Students often have lots of great observations, ideas, or thoughts but may be uncomfortable with sharing in a new space or in large groups. Give students space to express these observations and ideas comfortably with a friend. You can ask open-ended questions such as: How is this borough different or the same from the last borough we looked at?

  1. 5Affirm students’ background such as knowledge of other languages.

When I hear students speak or use languages other than English, it’s an opportunity for me to relate it back to the Panorama.  I ask questions like: What’s another word we use for “bridge”?” In Spanish? Russian? Farsi? Tagalog? And more. I like to ask: What are some of the languages we speak, hear or read in the classroom? At home? In Queens? In NYC? This allows students to share their own knowledge inside the museum.

  1. 6Activate students’ relevant prior experiences.

In Queens, when students point out LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airport, it is a great opportunity to talk about their own experiences of migration, movements, and travel. Here, I start our conversation with: What are airplanes used for? They are used for people to travel and move between two places. Then I follow up with: What are some of the places you or your family members have traveled to? Santo Domingo, Mexico, Pakistan! In this way, students are sharing their personal experiences with movements on their own terms. By reframing this question, students can freely share their own experience without necessarily answering: “Where are you from?” This is a great way for students to learn more and teach each other.

  1. 7Make room for student questions.

As educators, we often get excited about teaching and sharing knowledge and information that we sometimes forget to stop and ask students if they have any questions or need any language clarifications. Once during a visit with a 2nd Grade group, I kept using the word “gallery” to describe the spaces we were moving in until finally one brave student stopped and asked “What does “gallery” mean?” A-ha!

  1. 8Reinforce vocabulary students are learning in the classroom.

Check to see if there are any concepts or vocabulary from the classroom that you can bring into the visit. Teachers often use the Panorama as a way to learn about rural, urban, and suburban communities. I like to emphasize this classroom connection by asking students to define these terms using the Panorama. I ask students questions like: How can we identify the different communities? Where do you see an “urban” community here? What does “rural” look like? What makes this “suburban”?

  1. 9Engage students actively through multi-sensory activities.

See: Try extended looking. I like to challenge students by asking them to look closely at the Panorama for an extended time, about 2-3 minutes without comments, questions or raising their hands.

Sketch: Use a Telescope! Students can observe closely by sketching a detail (building, bridge, statue!) they find most interesting in the Panorama.

Hear: Create a Soundscape! Each student can make a sound or noise that they might hear or imagine in the space. Direct the soundscape symphony with a meter!

Feel: How does it feel? Have students touch and feel building blocks, models, and other touch objects.

Move: Students can pose like their favorite skyscraper in Manhattan or decide like the Statue of Liberty what their pose might be if they were a statue or monument.

  1. 10Have fun!

The museum is a great place for all students to learn, discover, and come together as a community. What makes the Panorama special is that it gives all of us a singular view of our city. We all have a piece of NYC in us, together with 8 million others, that makes it special no matter where we or our families come from.

I welcome fellow educators to share or reflect on their own strategies that allow students fair opportunities to engage and participate during school group visits.

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Header image: “Queens Museum of Art | The Panorama of the City of New York | tight overview from west of lower Manhattan, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges, etc.” Photo by Chris Devers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Building Community: Reflections on the Ohio Museum Teaching Mashup

Written by Patty Edmonson, Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist, Cleveland Museum of Art; and Hajnal Eppley, Assistant Director, School & Teacher Engagement, Cleveland Museum of Art

Inspired by the Museum Ed Mashup in New Orleans, Cleveland hosted the first Ohio Museum Teaching Mashup at MOCA Cleveland on August 10.  Hosts from a cross-museum team (Nicole Ledinek from MOCA, Gina Thomas McGee from Akron Art Museum, and Bethany Corriveau Gotschall, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppley from the Cleveland Museum of Art) planned a day-long event with multiple rounds of gallery experimentation and discussion.

As hosts, we were excited about working together and were energized by the planning process, but we weren’t sure how successful this event would be in terms of attendance. Previous mash-ups and throw-downs in New Orleans, Denver, and New York took place when educators were already close geographically, or gathered for an event. Would people from other cities really want to travel all the way to Cleveland for this mashup?

The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” Forty museum and university educators, classroom teachers, and volunteers from cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Detroit joined together to experiment, share ideas, and play in MOCA Cleveland’s galleries.

Hosts and participants commented that one of the most important components of the event was the opportunity to meet new colleagues and collaborate. While some larger cities host frequent regional museum education or art education professional development, many of us in Midwestern museums have not had these opportunities. Several participants commented that they were unable to attend conferences and, particularly for those in smaller institutions, they sometimes felt a sense of isolation. For many of us, this event was the first opportunity to meet colleagues in the region and lay the groundwork for future collaborations.

Experiments in the Galleries

We divided the day into two experimenting sessions, modeled after the New Orleans experience. After a quick introduction in the morning, randomly-drawn groups of three received an artwork and planned their experience in 45 minutes. “I found that I was easily able to let go of the desire to understand where they [fellow experimenters] came from and what strengths they brought to the table, instead focusing on working together with whoever happened to be in my group to develop an experience. I’ve been thinking about how that kind of experience is particularly useful in understanding how to approach collaborative work, compromise, and flexibility at my home institution,” reflected one of our experimenters.  

Each team executed their plan in six minutes, and then we gathered for a quick recap. After the event, we asked teams what it was like to serve as an experimenter. One summed up the role as “part mad scientist, part educator, part visitor, part experiential development nerd.” Another said:

“Experimenters are willing to take risks…regardless of whether their activities are perceived to be successful or not they are willing to go with the flow and let their assigned artworks guide the experience, embracing spontaneity instead of shying away from it.”

Because this was the first regional gallery teaching experiment and we knew we were asking some participants to step out of their comfort zones, we wanted to provide an opportunity for reluctant participants to observe first, and join the experimentation later in the day if they felt inspired. After lunch we repeated the format of the morning with a shorter planning period. Groups devised experiences for us to embody art, create stories, explore process, and look in refreshing ways.

Instagram photo by @heep -
Instagram photo by @heep –

One gallery experience designed by Maria Iafelice (Toledo), Kate Blake (Toledo), and Joan Kohn (Cleveland) involved the architecture of the MOCA building, designed by Farshid Moussavi. Experimenters asked participants to share words they would use to describe a stairwell and then use their phones take pictures of various perspectives of the stairwell as they climbed.  At the top, participants were asked to pull up one of the photos they took and physically place their phones together where their photos connected. The result was a participant-generated photo collage inspired by the space surrounding us.

Instagram photo by @heep –

Take Aways

As hosts, we had a number of takeaways. We were truly impressed with the flexibility and creativity of our group. Although I participated as an experimenter in New Orleans, it was equally gratifying to sit back, feel the energy of the moment and watch the magic happen as colleagues worked together! It was especially impressive to see ideas developed between teams of people from different backgrounds—museum educators, classroom teachers, volunteers, and students. Gina reflected:

“I felt really proud to be a part of a special community.”

The format for this event was not brand new. The experiences and discussions we completed together may not all have been radical, trail-blazing gallery experimentation, but this was not the goal. For Midwestern museum and art educators, this event felt like a true beginning to the building of our professional community.

For more pictures, videos, and posts from the event, visit:

Asking Beautiful, Scary Questions: Reflections on “Leading the Future of Museum Education”

Written by Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning and Innovation, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Reposted from the Museum Education Roundtable’s JME40 blog. Be sure to check out their posts exploring the evolution of the Journal of Museum Education during its 40 volume run as a reflections of the field at large.

I recently enjoyed traveling to the great city of Denver, Colorado and participating in the Leading the Future of Museum Education: Challenges and Opportunities, a convening of an amazing group of museum leaders from across the country. This event (May 2015), co-hosted by Bank Street College’s Leadership in Museum Education and the Education Professional Network (EdCom) of the American Alliance of Museums, offered a much-needed opportunity for educators in our field to come together and discuss issues, the future, and ask beautiful, scary questions.

In her opening remarks, Sarah Jesse, chair of EdCom and Vice President of Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced the idea of beautiful questions inspired by the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. A beautiful question is:

“an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Such questions seem to be ingrained in our DNA, for in 1987 a group of 25 art museum educators came together in Denver to explore similar issues and reforms, and to develop a collective vision for the future of the field. The Journal of Museum Education (JME) Volume 13, Number 3, Fall 1988, was dedicated to sharing the insights and key issues from the Denver Meeting. Guest edited and authored by the organizers and participants of that meeting, the JME issue reflected the individual thinking generated through their discussions and widened the conversation to engage more educators from across the field. I am proud to say that two representatives from my museum were in attendance in 1987.

Twenty-eight years later in Denver, our brainstorming and discussions focused on many of the same topics: the empowerment of museum educators as leaders; making our work visible; professional development and career tracks; visitor-centeredness; the lack of diversity and inclusion in our field; and leading change.

Photo by Rachel Goldberg ‏@EducatorRachel
Group brainstorming during convening. Photo via Twitter by Rachel Goldberg ‏@EducatorRachel

Much of the program and conversation in Denver focused on change on many different levels—the ever-changing and vast-paced world in which we live, the shifts and much-needed changes in our field and institutions, the rethinking of museum education, and the changes in us as individuals. Both Kaywin Feldman, the Duncan and Nivan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Marsha L. Semmel, principal of Marsha Semmel Consulting, spoke of our VUCA environment and the need for adaptive and strategic leadership. VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity,and ambiguity, and a catchall for our turbulent, dynamic reality. In order to thrive, we must have vision, understanding, clarity, and agility and be willing to experiment and take risks. Laura Roberts from Roberts Consulting points out there is no one way or single path to get us where we want to go and the “best practices” from the past won’t be sufficient.

We must challenge ourselves to find these new paths and ask beautiful, scary questions, which will inspire us to take risks and head into uncertain territory, and possibly fail. Some of the beautiful questions that emerged from our brainstorming and conversations in Denver:

  • How might we encourage greater diversity and inclusion in our field?
  • How might museums become truly visitor-centered institutions?
  • How might we find balance in engaging both our core and new audiences; balance between co-creation and expertise?
  • What if we broke down silos and collaboration was the new norm?
  • How might we rethink our work with the public education sector?
  • How might we harness the power of technology to expand access, improve engagement, and try new approaches to our work?
  • What if excellence isn’t enough?
  • What if educators became more empowered and began breaking the rules?

To begin exploring the strategies and solutions to these beautiful questions, we must become adaptive leaders and both individually and collectively embrace the gradual but meaningful process of change. Marsha Semmel introduced us to John Seely Brown who believes in social, participatory learning and teaches us that museums need to stop protecting our assets—our stocks—of authoritative knowledge and instead nurture our flows—creating new knowledge. We are poised to cultivate these flows.

Photo via Twitter from Wendy Ng ‏@twin_muses
Marsha Semmel presenting. Photo via Twitter from Wendy Ng ‏@twin_muses

Laura Roberts, who was asked to reflect on and summarize the convening stated in her closing remarks, “museum educators routinely use the sort of skills an adaptive leader needs. Moreover, if we are going to shift our museums from a focus on objects to a focus on visitors and community, it is clear we are positioned to lead the way…” She noted these observations about our character:

  • Educators are trained to elicit observations and points of view and to bring people together in dialogue. We are good facilitators. We have those “soft skills” to be boundary spanners.
  • We are clever, creative, and imaginative. We are good problem solvers. We are good listeners.
  • We practice the skills of collaboration and partnering. We are matchmakers and brokers.
  • We often serve as the integrators in the institution, bringing disparate staff together.
  • We are often “empowerers.” Many educators are refreshingly light on ego.

We have these skills, and we also need to become more empowered and better advocates for our values, our expertise, and our audiences. Insights on the 1988 Denver Meeting from Diane Brigham in JME echo this concept, stating that our role is essential in serving the missions of our museums and that:

“when we realize that we offer abilities that no one else in the museum can contribute, we are better able to offer leadership. We empower ourselves when we are clear about what we are and have prepared ourselves to practice our profession with rigor.”

It is essential for us to be more rigorous and confident in articulating our goals and vision, and ask beautiful, scary questions that will serve as catalysts for innovation and change in our field and our communities.

What are your beautiful, scary questions?

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You can check out #leadmuseumed tweets from the convening here:

More brainstorming artifacts from convening. Photo via Twitter from Kaywin Feldman ‏@KaywinFeldman
More brainstorming artifacts from convening. Photo via Twitter from Kaywin Feldman ‏@KaywinFeldman
Photo of full group of museum educators and thought leaders convening in Denver for "Leading the Future of Museum Education" (May 2015)
Photo of full group of museum educators and thought leaders convening in Denver for “Leading the Future of Museum Education” (May 2015)

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About the Author

karleengardner-150x150KARLEEN GARDNER is Director of Learning Innovation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She leads initiatives and experiments in interpretation and learning, and works to make the museum accessible and relevant for all audiences. Karleen currently serves on the board of directors of the Museum Education Roundtable, on the editorial team, and as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education.

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Header Photo by Ann Rowson Love via Twitter @annrowsonlove

Art Museum Teaching Mashup – Cleveland

Do you want to try something fun while stepping outside of your comfort zone? Join us this summer for the first Northeast Ohio Museum Teaching Mash-up!

Inspired by the NAEA Museum Teaching Mash-up (which you can read about here and here), this gallery teaching experiment offers the chance for Ohio museum educators, students, teachers, and community members to connect, interact with art, and learn from each other in a supportive group of colleagues.

WHEN: Monday, August 10th – 10am-3pm

    • 10-10:15– Welcome, discussion, Experimenter sign-up
    • 10:15-10:30– Introduce format, draw names of group members, assign artworks
    • 10:30-11:15– Experimenter planning time, gallery exploration time for participants
    • 11:15-12:15– Museum Teaching Mash-Up Round 1
    • 12:15-1:30– Debrief, lunch on your own, sign-up for Lightning Round 2
    • 1:30-1:45– Assignments for Lightning Round 2
    • 1:45-2:05– Lightning Round Planning, gallery exploration time for participants
    • 2:05-2:45– Mashup Lightning Round 2
    • 2:45- 3:00– Closing discussion
    • 3:00– Happy Hour at area restaurants for all who are interested

WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106

WHO: Museum educators, students, teachers, community members, and all who are interested are welcome! This event is designed to bring together people from a variety of experiences. Please feel free to forward this invitation to anyone who may be interested.

What should I expect?

For this event, expect the unexpected! Interested educators sign up, are assigned to random teaching groups of 2-3 colleagues, and receive object assignments. After an hour-long prep period, teaching groups will present a 5-7 minute gallery experience for the rest of the group.

Why participate?

Although we are geographically close, we rarely get the opportunity to observe each other and, better yet, work together in the galleries! Take this time to refresh your own practice, get inspired to experiment at your museum, and get to know colleagues across the region. Try out techniques you can use to create unique, engaging, and fun art viewing experiences for your visitors and students.

How Can You Be Involved?

As an Experimenter:

If you are interested in taking a risk and being a part of one of the small teaching groups that tackles this challenge, please contact Hajnal Eppley ( ) by August 1st.

As a Participant:

If you’re not quite up for experimenting yourself but want to be a part of the event, you are welcome to join as a member of the audience. (If you’re unsure, you’re also welcome to watch the first round and join Lightning Round 2 after lunch!)

As a Promoter:

Please share the event with anyone who might be interested. Tweet, Instagram, blog, and email your heart out! Before and during the event, use the hashtag #ohiomashup so we have a collective record of our experiences.

Join us as we experiment, take risks, and see what happens!

Patty Edmonson, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Hajnal Eppley, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Nicole Ledinek, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland

Gina Thomas McGee, Akron Art Museum

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Header Photo: “Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland” by Erik Drost,, CC BY 2.0

Older Adults & Programming for People with Dementia

Written by Lisa Eriksen, museums and non-profit consultant

Reposted from Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) blog, courtesy of Lisa Eriksen and Elizabeth Merritt.  Check out more musings on the future of museums at the CFM blog.

It seems that there is a month to commemorate or celebrate every group, food, and ailment. In May, Jewish-Americans, Haitians, and teen CEOs are acknowledged. Eggs, hamburgers, salsa, and salads are also honored in May. And a multitude of illnesses, such as ALS, Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome, and arthritis (just the diseases beginning with “A”), are brought to public attention.

May is also Older Americans Month, and this past May President Obama, in his proclamation (it is worth a read) acknowledged this truth about our future:

“The United States is entering a new era, and the face of our Nation is growing older and more diverse. For the next 15 years, thousands of Americans will reach retirement age every day, and by 2030, there will be more than twice as many older Americans as there were at the beginning of this century.”

I find it strange—and rather distressing—that both the Older Americans Month proclamation and the 2015 White House Conference on Aging (designed to recognize the importance of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as to look ahead to the issues of older Americans in the next decade) do not mention addressing the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. A year ago, I blogged about the coming dementia epidemic, why museums should take note, and some of the model programs museums are developing to serve this growing audience.

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.3 million Americans have the disease in 2015 (an increase of 100,000 since my last post) and this will rise by 40% in the next ten years to 7.1 million. By 2050, the number of people with dementia is projected to hit 13.8 million and will cost the US over $1.1 trillion (in 2015 dollars). This dramatic rise includes a five-fold increase in government spending under Medicare and Medicaid and a nearly five-fold increase in out-of pocket spending.

I see these increasing numbers reflected in my own personal experience. As my family’s “dementia journey” continues, I have observed how many other friends and museum colleagues have joined me on this path. Even Jeb Bush recently acknowledged his mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s.

Thankfully, I am also seeing an increase in the number of museums developing programs and services for people with memory loss. This past year, in partnership with the regional Alzheimer’s Association, the Oakland Museum of California began a new tour program for persons with early-stage Alzheimer’s and their care partners. The OMCA program is supported in their efforts by Rebecca Bradley, Manager of Access Programs at the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco, where they also offer special memory loss tours. I was honored to observe tours at both institutions and have had fascinating conversations about strategy and method with their staff and the dedicated docents.

Source: ArtNews. Photo by: Jason Brownrigg
Source: ArtNews. Photo by: Jason Brownrigg

One of the main challenges we struggle with as museum practitioners is shifting our focus from learning to engagement. We are trained to emphasize structured learning, fact retention, and imparting new knowledge to our visitors. Yet this is often not the appropriate approach for visitors with dementia. Persons with memory loss and their loved-ones value comfortable, engaging, and joyful experiences outside of daily routines. Through these special programs, museums can provide unique opportunities for people to have meaningful experiences and activities, and to socialize with new people, and their care partners and families.

The Museum of Photographic Arts, in San Diego, CA offers two notable programming initiatives for people with memory loss, and what I find most interesting is their approach to both engagement and assessment. The first program, Seniors Exploring Photography, Identity and Appreciation (SEPIA) promotes “art-based dialog and opportunities to create photographic images.” While it is designed for all seniors, MOPA has adapted the program for people with cognitive impairments, who make up about a quarter of the program’s audience, according to MOPA Lifespan Learning Coordinator Kevin Linde. The program is not too technical, offers choices, and provides experiences not focused on the participants’ memory loss.

The second MOPA offering is in partnership with the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California, San Diego, and three other museums in Balboa Park. The Memories at the Museum program, modeled after the Museum of Modern Art’s Meet Me at MoMA, focuses on conversation and interaction while engaging with art. Participants with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s can stimulate their verbal and visual abilities by discussing artwork in a comforting environment with their care partner.

So how do we know we are successful in our programs for people with memory loss? As I mentioned, assessing “learning outcomes,” as they are usually identified by museum educators, is not really helpful or appropriate for people with memory loss. Instead, MOPA focuses on measuring participant engagement, health, well-being, and positive feelings.

For instance, in March, MOPA piloted a four-week album-making course, My Life Through the Lens, based on the SEPIA program with the Shiley-Marcos Research Center. They blended together evaluative tools from the SEPIA program and those developed by Shiley-Marcos. A program evaluation survey posed multiple-choice plus open-ended questions and program participants could self identify as a caregiver or person with memory loss. Questions such as “what effect did the program have on your mood?” and “what effect did the program have on your relationship with your family member or friend?” helped MOPA understand the affective impact of the program. Kevin shared the survey results with me and I was pleased to learn that a number of participants felt the program had helped to increase their feelings of togetherness, closeness, and strengthening relationship bonds between the person with memory loss and the care partner.

Meet Me at MoMA, article in the NYT:
Meet Me at MoMA, article in the NYT:

I find it particularly exciting that the affective benchmarks developed for MOPA’s memory loss programs are being incorporated into the museum’s assessment of programs for all visitors. When I asked Kevin about this, he shared that the programs for seniors inspired MOPA to take a look at what works across the board in the museum and focus on the overall visitor experience.

What if all museums measured their success by visitor engagement, happiness, and health in addition specific learning outcomes? Kevin says that MOPA continues to focus on improving its evaluation and understanding the impact of the programs beyond the one or two hours when the visitor is at the museum. It is critically important to include the caregiver in both the programming and the evaluation. While working with other museums is helpful, partnering with social service organizations and non-traditional partners (such the Alzheimer’s Association and local universities) is also vitally important to serving growing older adult audiences with memory challenges.

Whether memory–challenged or not, the growing population of older adults will be looking for more meaningful and dynamic experiences within museums, and museum professionals must be ready to adapt programming and experiences for this new generation of elders. An aging population presents museums with both challenges (of retention, financial support, and access) and opportunities (for lifelong learning, enhancing health and well-being).

So I will end with a call for more examples of museums programs for people with memory loss. Please weigh in and help us build a community of practice around museums serving people with dementia and their caregivers. And please  celebrate Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month each June!

Selected Programs

In the comments section associated with Lisa’s CFM blog post, people shared a few programs at art museums that reach individuals with dementia and their caregivers.  Here are some of them, with links to more information (if available):

Frye Art Museum“here:now”

Art Gallery of Ontario“Art in the Moment”

Portland Art Museum — “artNOW” (pilot program)

Indianapolis Museum of Art“Meet Me at the IMA”

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Header Photo: “Art Museum” by astrid westvang,, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Forum for Reflecting on Practice


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