By Olga Hubard, Teachers College, Columbia University
We all know that one way we grow as museum education professionals is by sharing our practices and the thinking that surrounds them. In most cases we do this through traditional presentations: our ideas and experiences tidily packaged; challenges and difficulties presented as something that occurred (safely) in the past, and which we now frame as food for productive reflection. The experimentation and messiness that is so often part of our work — at least if we take the risks necessary to keep evolving — do not often occur in front of our colleagues. That is, unless we participate in a Gallery Teaching Marathon like the one that took place in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the NAEA conference this spring.
I left the Gallery Teaching Marathon both inspired and hopeful. One important reason was the very nature of the marathon: a group of seasoned museum educators guiding each other in engagements with works of art. Some, by their own admission, did “something they had never tried before;” others shared approaches that had been tried and tested but with works that were new to them. The fact that these educators felt comfortable enough to make themselves vulnerable in front of their colleagues is indicative of extraordinary trust among this community. As well, it reflects the passion and indomitable spirit of a group of professionals who have helped shape our field from the ground up.
For those of us who have become accustomed to teaching in the galleries, it was a luxury to be on the audience end of things, with the primary responsibility of helping make meaning of a series of compelling artworks. It was also fascinating to witness a range of teaching approaches that overlapped as much as they were different. I know many of us left the marathon with new ideas — particular strategies that we plan to borrow from our peers, and which will likely be incorporated into our practice soon enough.
I am ready, for example, to invite viewers to think more explicitly of the layers of meaning that a work might yield (Niki Ciccotelli Stewart), or to encourage them to enact the movements they might make if they could go inside a picture (Jen Oleniczak). I am also keen to have visitors post written questions on the periphery of a work (Heidi Hinish and Liz Diament), or to ask them to do what a particular work “is asking them to do” (Elliott Kai-Kee). More than anything, I am curious to see what happens as other educators in the group borrow and adapt this or that approach, make it their own, and come up with yet other ideas. It is this sort of cross-fertilization that keeps things moving along.
Another gain for me was renewed empathy with audiences. Throughout the marathon, I was acutely aware of how I responded to the various conditions that shaped our gallery interactions. When did the pace of a conversation leave room for my comments and when did it seem too fast or too distant from my ideas? In the case of non-discursive activities, when did I feel too self-conscious to really be in the experience and when did I feel comfortable “going for it”? How did the educator’s demeanor influence my interaction with the work and with others in the group?
By taking the participant’s seat, I was also able to re-discover something I already knew — or thought I knew. Like all of you, I have known for years that partner talk is a valuable approach in the galleries (of course!). But at MCASD, when a group got too large, or when for whatever reason I did not feel prepared to share my thoughts in a group dialogue, how grateful I was to be able to share what had been in my mind all along with a partner! The next time I facilitate partner- or small-group work I will do so from a renewed level of empathy and awareness. Perhaps like me, some of you also left the marathon with your own “re-learnings,” which can only work to enhance visitors’ experiences in the museum.
Beyond specific strategies and empathy, the gallery teaching marathon animated some larger issues that underlie our work. Two that are particularly alive for me at this point:
- If the experiences that took place in MCASD are in any way representative of the field, it would seem that we have come to accept that the meanings that viewers shape through words and rational thought are no more worthy than those they shape through poetic and non-discursive modalities. In an educational milieu that values rational thinking and word-based forms of meaning making above all, this places us at the vanguard–but also in tension with the status quo. Given this, how might we work to deepen and strengthen a commitment to poetic/artistic and multimodal ways of knowing so that museum visitors can continue to benefit from rich, multidimensional experiences with museum objects? How might we articulate the educational worth of diverse modes of meaning making? And how might we avoid dichotomizing rational, word-based approaches vis-à-vis more poetic ones, which might put us at risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water — or from recognizing when the two intersect?
- A few times during the marathon, I heard participants note that certain activities had taken them away from, rather than closer to, the works that were the target of our exploration. In the same breadth, these people added something along the lines of, “I’m not sure that it matters, though; the activity was worthwhile anyway.” For us educators, this raises a question of intentionality: When are our activities meant to bring us into deeper interaction with an object? When are they meant to spark off creative activity beyond the work itself? When are they meant to do both–or to do something different altogether? Does it matter and, if so, in what way? (These questions remind me of my colleague Megan Laverty’s provocative idea that perhaps the main purpose of art is to generate more art.)
With these and other questions in mind, throughout the marathon, part of me kept wishing for more time to debrief and reflect on what we were all experiencing. The rest of me was content with the limited reflection time we had, however — there was something wonderful about spending an entire day in the midst of practice; a day of sharing our work in the making; our practices in all their messiness and all their (realized and yet-to-be realized) potential. Perhaps an idea for another occasion might be to have a one-day gallery teaching marathon followed by a half-day reflection session.
But back to the event at MCASD. Early in this post, I said that the Gallery Teaching Marathon left me hopeful. I meant it. As I think back to our day together, I am hopeful for what is to come for our field, full as it is of courageous and dedicated educators who continue to build from the ground up, and to push us all to think and play and interact in thoughtful, imaginative ways. This is significant work for us as educators, and I trust that in time it will lead to more meaning-full museum experiences for visitors.
UPDATE: Response from Elliott Kai-Kee, J. Paul Getty Museum
“Olga Hubard’s reflection on the issue of non-discursive and ‘poetic’ approaches versus word-based and ‘rational’ approaches struck a responsive chord with me. I like the way she cautions us against putting the two in opposition rather than seeing them as ‘intersecting,’ or even better, complementary. Indeed, I think it’s crucially important to figure out ways to work them together. I commonly see docents separate their school-group lessons into ‘activity’ stops and ‘discussion’ stops. How is it that we have defined the two in ways that result in such a dichotomy? They must get this from us somehow. Is it a reflection of an argument pitting engagement against interpretation? Materiality against symbolism? The Gallery Teaching Marathon demonstrated a wonderful variety of approaches to the practice of gallery teaching. Is there a way of thinking about teaching that brings them together in a way that would make them more powerful in combination?”
About the Author:
OLGA HUBARD: Associate professor of art education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Olga is interested in the humanizing power of art and in how educators can help promote meaningful art experiences for learners. She has published extensively about this issue, particularly in the context of museum education. Her scholarship has appeared in journals including Studies in Art Education, Curator: The Museum Journal, International Journal of Art and Design Education, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Journal of Museum Education, and Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association. Olga’s writing is informed by years of experience as a museum educator and art teacher, and by her ongoing studio art practice. She holds doctoral and master’s degrees in art education from Teachers College, an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and a BA in Art History from the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico). Olga’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Columbia University’s positions, strategies, or opinions.