Last week, ArtMuseumTeaching partnered up with 3 amazing museum educators and the American Folk Art Museum to host the first Museum Teaching Throw Down. The event was a huge success, and I would like to thank the American Folk Art Museum as well as everyone who was able to attend on that cold night in New York. We all wanted to take this opportunity to get our post-throwdown reflections in writing, thinking about the process of exploring, envisioning, and enacting this collective in-gallery experience.
I kicked off the Throw Down by welcoming everyone, and reading a short list of reasons why I, myself, had wanted to do an event like this:
- It just plain sounded fun, and a good way to geek out museum-ed style.
- A gathering like this might be a different way to connect, reflect, and share, both professionally and personally.
- Pushing our teaching practice in public with peers might help make us more responsible to our audience, and in turn, perhaps foster an audience more amenable to the risks we’re willing to take for them.
- It has the potential to ask what museum teaching, learning, and participation can be, with the hopes of taking an active role in shaping what will come next.
- A Museum Teaching Throw Down gives museum teaching a stage, and says that what we do as educators is valuable — and that we’ll pack a room to witness it. This says something powerful to me about our museum education community.
Before we jumped into the gallery teaching experiences, I also evoked Marc Smith, the Chicago construction worker who in the 1980s started the Poetry Slam movement. He would begin each slam by introducing himself, and he trained the audience to respond by shouting “SO WHAT?!?” For Marc, this gave each slam event a clear sense of humility as well as a way to declare that everyone in the room was just as important for participating. I repeated this “SO WHAT?!?” exercise to kick-off our Museum Throw Down, and I think that question stuck with many of us throughout the night and brings us to reflect on our experiences. What follows are reflections from each of the 3 Throw Down educators (PJ Policarpio, Rachel Ropeik, and Jen Oleniczak) thinking about how the night came together, what the experience was like, and some initial responses to the all-important question: SO WHAT?
When I read about the premise of the show Folk Couture at the American Folk Art Museum, I was immediately excited by the opportunity to teach from objects that I don’t usually get a chance to teach from: couture dresses and folk art. What an exciting personal challenge for me to teach from new objects in a fun, creative, and innovative way. Given the range of options from Folk Couture, I was instantly intrigued by designer Bibhu Mohapatra’s inspiration, a rare 19th century Tattoo Pattern Book. My own fascination with tattoos and tattooing culture inspired my choice of objects for the throw down. This inspired me to dig deep and learn more about the specificity of the visual language within the culture and tradition of sailors/maritime workers. In a way, this rare Tattoo Pattern Book can serve as a visual dictionary. From here, I collected about 15 tattoo designs that carry corresponding meanings within the subculture. I imagined what kind of images I might see if I were to look through the 35 waterproof pages of the book.
My Throw Down experience started with having people pair up and share personal experiences with tattoos or tattooing. After, we looked at the Tattoo Pattern Book and I provided some information about the object. The interactive part from my teaching was an old fashioned matching game. In groups, I asked participants to match tattoo designs with their corresponding meanings. (Example: a sparrow tattoo was for a sailor who logged five thousand miles at sea. At ten thousand miles, a sailor could add a second swallow.)
I wanted the participants to understand the rich and distinct visual language in which the tattoos communicated to those who are/were a part of this culture. Going back to the objects, we related our knowledge to Bibhu Mohapatra’s garment and his narrative & inspiration
I took home so many things from the Museum Teaching Throw Down that I would like to think about in my own teaching practice, primarily how to create engaging activities/experiences that are still centered on art/artifacts. It also reinforced my need for research (how much fun it can be!) and providing accurate information, all essential for meaningful and purposeful museum experiences. I also found out that I like working with adults (very important!).
How can I bring this spirit into my work? That’s the question that’s been rattling around my brain since our throw down. I’ll admit, it took me a few days to come down from the high of such an exciting evening at the museum. I’m still in a bit of #MuseumThrowdownWithdrawal (a hashtag entirely too long for actual Twitter usage). But instead of being sad it’s over, I’ve been thinking about how I can keep the high going.
My own teaching philosophy (growing and changing as it does) is still very much based on the object itself, but I wanted to stretch myself and experiment with a participatory group activity that took the object as a jumping off point, and then morphed into its own entity.
So the object observation started us off:
And then we evolved into walking the catwalk in our original creations (Vine courtesy of Rebecca Mir):
The group’s energy started off impressively focused and then grew into a wonderfully playful, creative, positive atmosphere by the time everyone was strutting their stuff and applauding each newly-created look. It reminded me of the fun people can have in the museum when you don’t stick purely to focusing on the object, when you let the object inspire you to do something several degrees removed.
I know this sounds like basic Museum Education 101 stuff here, and it is. But that room full of museum adventurers of all sorts was having such a good time and thinking so creatively that I’m determined to keep (re)affirming the value of fun in my head as I go forward with my work. What can I do with teachers that takes them beyond museum-based lesson planning? What can I do with students that really captures their imaginations in the galleries?
It’ll be a stretch for some people who may not come in with the same desire to experiment that our intrepid throw down attendees had. It’ll be a push for me to keep thinking about new, creative activities instead of falling back on the tested and true. But that’s what I’m taking away from the inaugural Museum Teaching Throw Down (besides my victory, that is… #NotSoHumbleBrag); push for the unexpected and keep my audience on their toes, and maybe they’ll hit the same magical excitement that filled up the American Folk Art Museum galleries-turned-runway that night.
What risk did I take? That’s a question on my mind since last week’s throwdown. I’m not quiet regarding my feelings about improv and museum education, but it’s been something I’ve been regrettably nervous about since starting The Engaging Educator. Tableaux Vivants aside, I’ve been careful (afraid?) not to introduce too many ‘acting’ exercises into my practice among peers. Give me a group of students and I’ll have them walking through ‘jello’ while they are embodying jealousy. Even in my improv class and professional development sessions, I’ll push comfort levels.
But for the most part, I’ve been hesitant to introduce it to peers unless they signed up fully knowing what may happen. And upon realizing I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching, I decided to make my words happen. If we try not to fail, we never succeed. The likes of theatre, selfies and social media came out.
I approached the Throw Down with the opinion that if I won, I wasn’t making people uncomfortable enough. I want people to feel unnerved, out of their skin and element – like they too were experimenting with me. Even now, a week later, I don’t think I pushed people enough.
So bring on the Gallery Teaching Marathon in San Diego. Theatre and social media are coming out full force. What better place to experiment than with my peers? As for the future of NYC Throwdowns – this WILL happen again. And you better believe I’m going to continue seeing how far I can go – because really, what’s the worst that happens if it fails miserably? Nothing.
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SHARE YOUR IDEAS: What are your thoughts about the idea of a Museum Teaching Throw Down? What is the risk? What is the value? SO WHAT? What are some ways that we can use in-gallery practice for professional and personal growth as well as the building of stronger peer communities? Is any of this new, or have museum educators always had some form of a ‘throw down’ to keep things real? Even if you could not attend the first Throw Down, we’d love to hear from you about these issues.
Interested in hosting your own Museum Teaching Throw Down? Go for it! Just please use the hashtag #MuseumThrowDown so we can all connect to the amazing experience and collectively discover new ways to challenge ourselves and our teaching practice. And try to start by having the audience shout back “SO WHAT?!?”