Category Archives: OpenThink

MoMA Education_2012_SMALL

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Written by Marianna Adams, Audience Focus, with Elizabeth Margulies, Museum of Modern Art

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

All three families scheduled for last week had to cancel or reschedule so it gave me some time to think and have some great conversations with museum educators around the country. What emerged as a theme for me this week was thinking about challenges to facilitating exciting, authentic co-participation in family experiences. I’ve invited Elizabeth Margulies, Director, Family Programs and Initiatives, at MoMA to chime in as she has some valuable reflections to share.

MoMA 1

Since 2004, the USS Constitution Museum has been actively involved in experimenting with and evaluating techniques that foster family engagement. Currently their IMLS-funded project “Engage Families” seeks to identify characteristics of family programming that result in active intergenerational engagement, enjoyment, and learning in museums and libraries. To assist that effort, I implemented an online survey of museum and library professionals around the country in November 2013. Two key findings emerged that will be the focus of this post: 1) professionals value and want to create fun, authentic, opportunities for visitors of mixed ages and interests to co-participate and learn together; 2) accomplishing this comes with many challenges. We want to address two frequently cited challenges here.

1. It’s Really About What You Value

MoMA 3The most frequently cited barrier to achieving their vision for engaging family programs in the USSCM study was lack of resources – specifically time, money, space, and/or staff. Interestingly, whenever I ask museum professionals what prevents them from doing anything this is often the first response. For me, these resources will always be in limited supply, therefore, they become expressions of what we value. For example, we might say that regular exercise is important, but unless we really value it, we will not juggle our personal budgets and complex schedules around to get to the gym or that yoga class.

MoMA is proactively addressing how family programs are perceived and value within the organization by engaging in a cross-departmental dialogue.

As Elizabeth Margulies explains:

Retail, Publications, and Education began meeting over a year ago to see how we might build on the success of some publications written by Education and developed by Retail. In our conversations we realized that we could use some help defining what we all wanted and we hired an outside consultant, Stephen Gass of The Gass Company to work with us. The goal is to articulate the personality and voice of the programs, experiences, and products MoMA creates for kids and families along with the values that drive our decisions. It’s been gratifying to find that everyone thinks this is a worthwhile effort. We wouldn’t have known how important everyone felt the child/family audience was if we didn’t bring them all together to discuss it.

If lack of resources tends to be your main reason as to why you don’t have the kind of family experiences you say you want, then this is where your work has to start.

What are ways that you have been able to shift the culture of your organization towards a more family-friendly position?

2. But Parents Won’t or Don’t Want to Participate!

Museum and library practitioners express concern and even frustration at not being able to get the adults to engage or to engage “properly.” This always raises the question “What is proper?” When I have felt like being the “bad” grandparent and check my phone, it’s mostly because I’m bored. Either I’ve been separated from my wonderful granddaughters or what we are being asked to do is uninspired and/or disconnected from what’s important in the artwork.

It always comes back to intention. If we want co-participation across generations then everything we do has to support that intention. I’ve heard from that when they clearly and consistently communicate the expectation that adult caregivers participate, they have better engagement within the groups.

Certainly we want families to feel comfortable doing what they feel is best. There always needs to be room for groups to engage as much or as little as they want. As the educators at MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History advise, if we communicate clear intentions early and often then we will see more co-participation and enjoyment. More importantly, if what we are asking groups to do is compelling then there will be more engagement. Studies suggest that some parents want to hand over the experience to the program facilitator. We always have to graciously accept that some people don’t want the experience we’ve provided. In that case, if we are true to our intentions they will self-select other programs that better suit their needs. It’s also why a variety of youth and family programs is advisable.

MoMA Education_2012_SMALLBut enough about the parents/caregivers. I want to focus more on the responsibility of the museum educators who deliver experiences designed to encourage co-participation and engagement. Some museums are able to hire experienced museum educators for their family programs, giving greater consistency and depth to the experiences. For many museums, family programs seem to be shuffled off to the youngest, least experienced facilitators who are given almost no mentoring on how to engage intergenerational audiences effectively.

In the UK Kids in Museums is “compiled entirely from visitors’ comments. It’s a practical and powerful tool to encourage and support museums, galleries, and historic houses around the country” to more successfully engage family audiences. For example, a few points from their Manifesto speak to the importance of the educator’s approach:

  • Be positive and do away with the word ‘No’. Tell visitors what they can do at the door, don’t pin up a list of things they can’t.
  • Share storieswith each other. Listen. Families can be experts too.
  • Don’t say ssshhhush! If kids are being noisy, ask yourself ‘Why?’ Is it because they’re excited? Great! Then capture that excitement. Is it because they’re bored? Then give them something meaningful to do.
  • Say ‘Please touch!’as often as you can. Everyone finds real objects awesome. Direct kids to things that can be handled, teach respect and explain why others can’t.
  • Give a hand to grown-upsas well as children. Sometimes it isn’t the kids who are shy – parents need your support too. Produce guides, trails and activities so everyone can join in.
  • Be aware of different families’ needs.Use your imagination with signs, symbols, and words understood by all. Design everything you offer to be equally accessible to disabled and non-disabled visitors alike.

The educators for MoMA’s family programs have developed a range of guidelines and self-evaluation tools to support their family educators. Most importantly, family program facilitators are asked to:

Reevaluate. After your program, think about why families might not have participated as you hoped. Possible reasons:

  • Adults didn’t know they were expected to participate;
  • Adults weren’t asked to participate or work with their child until too late in the program;
  • Instructions weren’t clear about what parents were supposed to do, or the activity, discussion was too difficult (even for the adults);
  • The gallery has too many distractions or logistically doesn’t give families enough room to do what you’ve asked;
  • There is a language barrier;
  • Families couldn’t hear you.

PLEASE SHARE

What strategies do you use to facilitate greater co-participation within and across family groups?

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Evaluation Can Be Fun

*     *     *     *     *

ABOUT AUTHORS

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

moma Elizabeth Margulies - HeadshotELIZABETH MARGULIES, Director, Family Programs and Initiatives, Department of Education, joined The Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Elizabeth designs, develops and oversees MoMA’s wide array of Family Programs and resources including gallery talks, workshops, artist talks, film programs, digital projects, activity cards, games, audio guides and the Museum’s interactive space, MoMA Art Lab. She collaborates with MoMA Retail and Publications, on children’s books and products, and in 2010 with Cari Frisch, co-authored, Make Art, Make Mistakes: A Creativity Sketchbook. In 2012, she collaborated with colleagues in Education, the Museum’s Digital Media and Graphic Design Departments, and Rendor Monkey, to launch MoMA Art Lab, an app for the iPad. The app won a 2013 Webby Award in the Education & Reference (Handheld Devices) category, and a Parent’s Choice Silver Honor for app design. Before coming to MoMA, Elizabeth worked in theatrical and television production. She holds a B.S. in Theater from Skidmore and a Master’s of Education from Bank Street College of Education. Elizabeth has taught in both public and private schools in New York.

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Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Written by Marianna AdamsAudience Focus, 2014 Educator-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

I know this sounds a bit too new-agey but it’s what keeps coming up for me after my first full week in my residency at the Gardner Museum. Three families came to the museum this past week and the best way I can describe the experience is that I just fell in love with all of them. They arrived so excited and in good spirits, even if some of the children were a bit wary at first.  Their openness to new experiences reminded me to be more open in turn  to their unique ways of visiting and looking at art. A few reflections are shared below (while the experience are real, the names of the family visitors have been changed).

It’s About Choice & Control

One of the first things I learned from my mentors, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, was that visitors like and need choice and control in their museum experience. When I checked back with the families a day or so after their visit, the one consistent remark was how much they liked doing their own thing. Cole (age 10) told his mom, who had not been able to come to the museum, that he liked the visit because “they let us do whatever we wanted.”

tapestry-smallOne thing visitors like to choose is the pace. Eva, who visited with her two sisters, and her grandniece, Suzie, (age 7) and grandnephew, Chuck, (age 12) said she liked the “very relaxed pace” of the visit and added “this is a great way to come to the museum together.” A rather quick and focused pace was set by 8-year-old Zuri because she wanted to use the family guide, while her father and brother, Cole, (age 10) were happy to keep up. In another family, Baylor (age 10) had recently discovered audio guides and he immediately plugged into one during the visit. This slowed the pace down considerably. As his mother wrote to me the next day, “Using the audio guide really clicked in for Baylor last summer, and has totally changed our museum experience, allowing us both to have more private and quiet looking times as well as more social looking.”

Kids See the Darndest Things

I am continually fascinated by what draws children’s attention and this week’s visits were no exception. Typically it is not what educators tend to include on tours. For example, Suzie was first taken with the missing head on a statue in the courtyard. Throughout the visit she commented on how many statues were missing heads and arms. This caused us all to heighten our attention to what was missing. When we passed along a hallway to go upstairs she paused at a niche housing several stone and marble heads a long with a sculpture missing all limbs and the head. She said, “Oh, so this must be where they keep the heads” and calmly walked on.

combined headless & heads

Because the Gardner is one of the few museums lit primarily by natural light, and there are many cases with small, fascinating objects and notes, sometimes things can be difficult to see. Even though, there were opportunities in all the groups where they were straining to see something they did not ask to use the flashlights. or magnifying glasses. Sometimes I would shine the light where they were looking and everyone in the group would gather round and spend more time looking and talking. Reports from families a few days after the visit suggested that the flashlights were a big hit, even though they never directly asked for them.

combined magnify flashlight

They “Stumped the Chumps

Children frequently stumped us all with their insightful questions that we couldn’t answer. When that happened, all of us, adults and children, got involved in the conversation, equally contributing bits and pieces of what we knew and speculating on all the possible answers. Yes, I could analyze these interchanges and point to how they are modeling critical thinking, good inquiry, and how children need to see that no one has all the answers, but I’m not. They were just beautiful moments of people coming together and puzzling out something. I want to leave it at that.

What About Content?

It’s challenging for educators to intentionally lighten up on content in any museum experience, even though research continually finds that family motivations for museum visits is NOT to learn new knowledge. Families seek an enjoyable time together that serves as a sort of family glue, creating memories that they continue to share. Certainly parents and children like to learn things but it’s not the focus or reason for their visit.

At the beginning of the visits this week, I let families know that I did not have any plans for them, I just wanted to wander around with them, that I didn’t know the collection but there was a Gardner Museum educator with us in case there was anything they wanted to know.  Having a knowledgeable person with us proved to be a popular feature for families, for when questions came up Julia Brucker and Michelle Grohe were there. I’m grateful for their skilled ability to know just when and how much to engage so that the experience stayed in the family and was not diverted to the educator. That said, the families did not automatically think to ask the educators when a question arose. In most cases, after listening to families wonder out loud about something, I suggested asking the museum educator, which they eagerly did and it enlivened the conversation. I’m not sure why this is the case and together with families enjoying but not asking for the magnifying glass and flashlight, it feels like a pattern might be emerging. I will see if it continues in this week’s visits.

talking with volunter and elbow of hanger-onAt one point a group intercepted a gallery volunteer roaming the gallery for just this purpose. The volunteer noticed that Suzie and Chuck were interested in a silver encased ostrich egg and talked to them about it. This brief interchange warmed my heart as the volunteer was focused totally on the group’s interest and experience. She had no agenda except to facilitate visitors’ interest.

Implications for Practice

Realistically we can’t accompany every family group in this way, but it feels increasingly important that we, as educators, connect with audiences on more than an intellectual level. Finding practical ways to fall in love with the visitors seems key to me. When we connect with visitors on a deeply human level then the way we design experiences will change. When we start to see visitors as thoughtful, insightful friends who are eager to explore what the museum has to offer, we stop seeing them as security risks or potential dollar signs. I invite you to find your own ways to authentically connect with your visitors and share what happened.

Note: All the photos were taken with Blynk a tiny time-lapse camera during the family visits. This little gadget is now my new best data-collecting friend. And the “Stumped the Chumps” reference is a nod to Car Talk.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Evaluation Can Be Fun

ABOUT AUTHOR

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

Figure 1: I did this awkward little drawing as a composite memory of many family programs in different museums. While this is from my experience, try a Google image search for "family programs in art museums” and you will find, amidst lots of pictures of kids making art, some images that have this same basic choreography. Yes, the odd tilt of the painting bothers me too.

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Written by Marianna AdamsAudience Focus, 2014 Educator-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

Amid many possible areas of exploration I considered for my residency at the Gardner Museum, I decided to see if I can bring more mindfulness to my own thinking about families in museums. Through my research and evaluation on families in many types of museums and my experience taking my granddaughters (currently 6 & 7 years old) to museums, I have been struck by what Ellen Langer refers to as “mindless” practice. It’s when we keep doing the same thing over and over without questioning the underlying pedagogy or assumptions. We stop paying attention and go on autopilot. Nothing very interesting can happen in that place.

I know that there are increasing examples of innovative and thoughtful work by museum educators in the area of family programs and I encourage you to share those ideas with us here. Yet over the years of both watching and participating in family museum programs three key questions keep emerging for me.

Where is the family in family programs?

Figure 1: I did this awkward little drawing as a composite memory of many family programs in different museums. While this is from my experience, try a Google image search for "family programs in art museums” and you will find, amidst lots of pictures of kids making art, some images that have this same basic choreography. Yes, the odd tilt of the painting bothers me too.
Figure 1: I did this awkward little drawing as a composite memory of many family programs in different museums. While this is from my experience, try a Google image search for “family programs in art museums” and you will find, amidst lots of pictures of kids making art, some images that have this same basic choreography. Yes, the odd tilt of the painting bothers me too.

First, what is billed as a family program often turns out to be a program for kids but the parents/caregivers have to stay with them. Adults are rarely engaged in a meaningful way and connections within the social group are neither acknowledged nor fostered. For example, when a family program facilitator takes families into a gallery, they often sit the children on the floor and the adults (either because they don’t really know what else to do or because they don’t want to sit on the floor) stand around in a semi-circle behind the kids. For me, this is a clear example of an invisible pedagogy. We are teaching adults that this experience is for kids and adults need not participate. When I talk with family program educators, they usually say they want adults to engage in the program. Sometimes they go so far as to imply that it’s the fault of the parents, as in “They won’t get off their cell phones.” Having been one of those adults at a family program who dearly wanted some sort of diversion and thought often about pulling out my phone, I ask, “What are we offering to the adults that is more interesting than their mobile devices?”

A host of questions emerge for me that I would love some e-conversation about: Why do we repeat this model over and over again? Does our training push us towards a developmental model where we know only how to program towards children or adults, but not both at the same time? Is the skill of encouraging parent child engagement one that is better fostered through other disciplines and thus should we be looking at best practices in other disciplines such as social work or psychology?

Why do we use a school model of discussion and interaction in family programs?

I’ve watched many well-meaning facilitators sit or stand in front of a work of art and make eye contact with the children almost exclusively. Not only does this tell parents to stand back but children quickly figure out that they are supposed to look at the facilitator and most of them conform. Children are asked questions and they raise their hand to answer, just like in school. Families tend to have fluid conversations, a lot of give and take, and while we might remind a child to not interrupt we rarely ask our children to raise their hands when having a conversation around the family dinner table. Why then do we default to the school model in the museum experience?

Even more frustrating is that this school model draws attention away from the objects and instead focuses attention on the educator. I’ve taken time-lapse photos and the average time spent looking at the art when sitting in this configuration is about 2-3 seconds – total, unless of course a child is not paying attention to the facilitator and looks at the art anyway.

How does the experience leverage the uniqueness of the museum?

The most important issue for me is that too many of the activities we offer in family programs don’t maximize the value of what the museum has to offer.

Engaging people of all ages in hands-on activities in the galleries can be a wonderful way to guide them into a deeper appreciation of the artwork. Yet, I’m concerned because too often the activities don’t connect very well with the artwork or the way the artist worked. I keep asking, “Why is this activity happening in the museum?” Most of what I see could be done anywhere and, sometimes, would be more effective without the visual distraction and noise of the gallery. I wonder, do we continue to under-maximize the uniqueness of the museum because we aren’t clear on what that is? Or do we operate on the assumption that families aren’t able to grasp it?

What will be my focus at the Gardner Museum this summer?

Figure 2: Sam Bates a.k.a. Smug, Girl with Magnifying Glass, Glasgow, Scotland.
Figure 2: Sam Bates a.k.a. Smug, Girl with Magnifying Glass, Glasgow, Scotland.

As I continued to think about these issues I realized I was focusing only on how the educators planned and implemented programs. I began to wonder if I, too, have gone on autopilot. I know what kind of family experiences I’d like to see in the museum but, as I frequently warn my colleagues, using ourselves as a representative for the general visitor is not very smart. So, during the month of July I’ve invited families to come to the Gardner and allow me to accompany them.

I won’t have an agenda, lesson plan, protocol, notebook, or audio recorder and I plan to allow both the “educator me” and “evaluator me” to recede to the background. I want to explore facilitating “with” families rather than “for” them. I want to pay more attention to invisible pedagogies – both how the physical space itself instructs and how actions from people (me included) communicate behaviors and attitudes. I will invite the families to begin where they want to. I will have a few things with me, such as a flashlight for dark corners, some sketching materials, and magnifying glasses but I may not ever pull them out. I’m imagining, for instance, that as conversations evolve the need for things like that magnifying glass will naturally arise and I will, much like Mary Poppins, slide it out and hand it to the adults so they can facilitate the experience for their family.

Admittedly I’ve had moments of near panic just thinking about the unstructured quality of this experience. I have no idea what will happen and have to trust that if I stay mindful, sensitive, and observant that I will notice new things and be filled with wonder. I’ve invited local museum educators to come hang out with me. They can’t bring notebooks either and they have to agree to talk with me afterwards and write up a reflection of their experience.

The family visits begin on Wednesday, July 9. Meanwhile, I invite your comments. I hope I’ve raised some hackles one way or the other. If everyone is nodding in gentle agreement then I haven’t pushed enough buttons.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Evaluation Can Be Fun

ABOUT AUTHOR

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

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What Might Museums Look Like in the Future? NMC Virtual Symposium

Submitted by Alex Freeman, Director of Special Projects, New Media Consortium

The New Media Consortium’s upcoming Future of Museums Symposium will bring together a collaborative global conversation around issues of technology, museums, and the future. This free, online Virtual Symposium will be held on Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014, and will feature keynote speakers and crowdsourced presentations by your peers.

unnamedAs its name suggests, the Symposium looks toward the future: what might the museum world look like in five years? Ten? Further out? Technologies and practices that are just beginning to show promise in an educational or social context may well be commonplace in that time frame. In this day-long event, we are bringing the research and work behind the NMC Horizon Report 2013 Museum Edition to the greater museum community. The Horizon Report’s advisory board participates in thoughtful discussions about an array of museum technology topics, trends, and challenges in the museum wiki that informs the writing of the report — this virtual event will give participants an opportunity to engage in similar discussions with museum thought leaders in real-time.

The Symposium grows from the NMC’s Emerging Technologies Initiative, which seeks to answer the question of how to keep abreast of emerging technologies that may be important to our collective work as educators. At the core of this initiative is a focus on emerging technologies and the ways they can be applied in the service of teaching, learning, research, and creative inquiry. A major goal is to stimulate systematic thinking and discussion of the real challenges that face our world and our society, and in particular, how emerging technologies might be applied to solve them.

The program will run from 11am to 6pm ET and is going to consist of an opening keynote by Jasper Visser, a lunch Keynote by Nik Honeysett, and a closing keynote by Nancy Proctor with a variety of small group discussions based around topics in the latest NMC Horizon Report > Museum Edition  (BYOD, crowdsourcing, location-based services, and makerspaces).

In the past we have utilized platforms such as Second Life to bring our international community of practice together, but for this special museum edition we are exploring the online communication tool Business Hangouts which shares similar functionality to Google Hangouts On Air. A virtual symposium offers many of the affordances of a face to face conference without the need for travel.

To register for this event please visit: http://go.nmc.org/SympReg

Keynotes and Panelists include:

Jonathan Carfagno, Director of Learning and Audience Engagement, Grand Rapids Art Museum (USA)

Lath Carlson, Vice President of Exhibits, The Tech Museum of Innovation (USA)

Marc Check, Associate Vice President, Information and Interactive Technology, Museum of Science, Boston (USA)

Jennifer Corriero, Executive Director, Taking It Global (Canada)

Alex Freeman, Director of Special Projects, New Media Consortium (USA)

Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, American Museum of Natural History (USA)

Jeffrey Inscho, Web + Digital Manager, Carnegie Museum of Art (USA)

Vivian Kung, Former Director and CEO, Balboa Park Online Collaborative (Japan)

Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums (USA)

Nancy Proctor, Deputy Director for Digital Experience at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Co-chair of the Museums and the Web annual conference (USA)

Ed Rodley, Associate Director of Integrated Media, Peabody Essex Museum (USA)

Sarah Stierch, Susan B. Miller Fellow,  Berkeley Center for New Media (USA)

Mariano Ulibari, Founder and Director, Parachute Factory Makerspace (USA)

Jasper Visser, Author of Digital Engagement Framework and blogger at “The Museum of the Future” (The Netherlands)

Elycia Wallis, Manager, Online Collections, Museum Victoria (Australia)

Holly Witchey, Director, the Wade Project, Western Reserve Historical Society and Faculty of Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins University. (USA)

Photo by Brian Koprowski. Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Have You Ever Had a Transformative Experience With Art?

Have you ever had a transformative experience with a work of art?

I’m collecting as many stories as possible about the experiences people have had with artworks. Please share your story (anonymously if you like) at this Google Form.

Want to know more about this project?

Photo by Brian Koprowski. Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.
Photo by Brian Koprowski. Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Over the past year, I’ve started to think more and more about what the relationship is between objects, contextual/historical interpretation, and our human experiences with them. This interest began after I myself had a transformative experience with a work of art that greatly changed how I think: Agnes Martin’s Untitled #10 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In a teen program discussion, one of my students helped me see the connections between Martin’s work and meditation practice. As I continued to look at the piece on my own and reflect on our group comments, I began to recognize that being with Martin’s painting was when I started to become more comfortable living in ambiguity — a transformative personal and professional turning point.

More broadly, from my teaching practice, I have noticed that our collective understanding of art objects is greatly enriched when we consider both art historical/contextual information and our own personal reactions and interactions with objects. We bring our own background when we look at and interpret art objects (whether we’re alone or in groups)–and I’m interested in how those experiences help us better understand the objects themselves, as well as how these objects can help us create meaning within our own lives.

Although I could not attend the NAEA Gallery Teaching Marathon this spring, I had hoped to explore the topic of transformative experiences with art objects with the Marathon group. The survey above and this very blog post is my digital attempt at exploring this topic with a wider group. I hope you will share your stories with me, and as I collect them, I hope to better understand and share what it means to bring objects, people, and information together. I’m not yet sure what we’ll find — perhaps there will be patterns, perhaps not — but I am sure that looking at these stories as a whole will get us started on considering these questions.

So, I hope you will join in this experiment with me and share your own story!  Please feel free to share the survey with as many folks as you like — the more stories, backgrounds, and people, the better.

Thank you for contributing!

vts-boston

OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums

VTS-bostonFor the past two decades, the overall discourse regarding Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been the subject of rather thorny debate.  The often-cited conversation between Philip Yenawine and Danielle Rice at the 1999 National Docent Symposium (published in 2002) productively drew out many of the disagreements about the role of information in museum teaching, especially with beginning viewers and first-time museum visitors.  In their recent book Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee frame VTS as a restrictive teaching method, wondering about participants’ experience in the galleries: “Have they not perhaps been cheated out of an authentic encounter with the painting?”  These debates continue to today, and, at times, it seems like one needs to draw a line in the sand and decide which side they stand on.

So what is VTS?

For those of you unfamiliar with Visual Thinking Strategies, it is an inquiry-based teaching method developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago and used in museums and school classrooms across the country.  Here is how Philip Yenawine describes it in his latest book Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013):

“VTS uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Growth is stimulated by several things: looking at art of increasing complexity, answering developmentally based questions, and participating in peer group discussions carefully facilitated by teachers.” (19)

Even those who do not practice VTS may be familiar with the sequence of open-ended questions that form one of the main aspects of VTS teaching practice:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see what makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

If you are interested in learning more about VTS, the foundational research behind it, and ongoing research in museums and classrooms today, here are some excellent resources:

Pushing Beyond the Protocol

My own approach toward VTS has been to set aside any controversy and more fully explore the research as well as the practical implementation of these teaching strategies ‘on the ground’ in museums.  Back in 2009, I led a panel at the American Association of Museums conference that called attention to the many questions, challenges, and apprehensions that exist regarding this method.  After interviews with more than 30 museum educators from across the country, I was able to gain a more complete and complex view of how VTS (and the research behind it) is being implemented in art museums—including adaptations of the original protocol, metacognitive dimenions as part of the VTS experience, pushing the boundaries of artwork selection, and alternative applications for docent and teacher training.  I have even found institutions that use Abigail Housen’s “stages of aesthetic development” (the core foundation of VTS) as part of their curatorial practice, the writing of labels and wall texts, and working with teaching artists to examine ways of creating art that addresses developmental stages of the viewers.  In addition to being one of the most commonly used teaching methods in art museums today, it is interesting to see how many other ways that VTS and its research has entered into museum practice.

Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine

PhilipNeroVTSWhile I have never been trained in VTS myself, I have adopted it as part of my own teaching toolbox — often using its open-ended questions as a way to spark looking, talking, and listening with a work of art.  I respect the research and practice involved with VTS, which is why I jumped at the chance to partner with the national VTS organization to bring Philip Yenawine here to the Portland Art Museum.  Philip has been traveling around the country since his latest book was released last year, and his speaking engagement here at the Portland Art Museum (this Saturday, May 3rd, 2:00pm) will be part of that series of talks.

When we were first offered to host Philip’s talk here in Portland, I invited Philip to also join me for a conversation on stage as part of this Saturday’s program (which he gladly accepted).  I wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the applications of VTS with art museum teaching, and discuss some of the ‘burning questions’ that many museum educators have about VTS research and practice.

So, I am using this blog post (and the ArtMuseumTeaching community) to gather some juicy, burning questions that we all might have about VTS in museum teaching.  To seed this “open think” process of gathering your questions, I asked Jennifer DePrizio and Michelle Grohe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (a leading museum in VTS research & practice) to send me some of their questions.  Here is some of what they sent me:

  • We know a lot about what VTS looks like (both in terms of facilitation and types of learning to expect) in elementary students, primarily in grades 3-5.  What does that learning and teaching look like with older students, particularly high school? 
  • Listening is the cornerstone of paraphrasing and ensuring that students know that you not only listened to their ideas, but they were heard as well.  That can be a difficult skill to encourage teachers to develop. Can you really train someone to be a good listener?  How can we design effective professional development experiences that help teachers become aware of how they listen, and how to listen better? What activities and practice can we put into place to help our gallery educators hone their listening skills?
  • Since professional development programs at the Gardner invest a lot of time, over time, with teachers, what does their growth look like in terms of: aesthetic development, comfort with visual art, use of student-centered teaching practices, use of VTS questions with non-visual art, overall attitudes and understandings of teaching and learning and role of visual art in the classroom/school?  
  • What is the long-term effect or stickiness for VTS?
  • What does the use of VTS look like with non-beginners, or with viewers who are moving from beginner viewers (Housen stages I and II), into different aesthetic stages such as Housen’s stage II/III, II/IV and III?  How could we best support their growth while also challenging the students effectively?  What would that facilitation look like?  How would we know that we were addressing the students’ actual questions, not just sharing information that we think would help them?  
  • How do we responsibly respond to the many misrepresentations of VTS that exist?  How do we help colleagues in the field of art museum education understand the nuances that are available within VTS?

ADD YOUR QUESTIONS:

Please help me crowd-source some more ‘burning questions’ about VTS, and use the Comments area below to add your own questions.  If you add your thoughts here between now and Saturday, I’ll bring many of these questions to my conversation with Philip Yenawine here at the Portland Art Museum (and I should be able to post the video of this conversation here next week).

Thanks for helping me think about VTS in this open space for exchange, questions, and ideas!  And I’m looking forward to my conversation with Philip on Saturday (join us if you’re in Portland — the event is FREE and starts at the Portland Art Museum at 2pm).

#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
Cargill_Lounge

Open Letter to The Walker Art Center

Editor’s Note: While ArtMuseumTeaching.com does not frequently republish posts from other sites, there are interesting and urgent issues raised periodically that, I feel, could spark productive conversations, exchange, and potentially even change in our field.  The provocative post below published at Opine Season has already sparked lots of thinking and questioning, and I’d like to utilize the online space and community of ArtMuseumTeaching.com to allow for an OpenThink on these meaningful issues of diversity, audience, community, and social responsibility.  As the letter’s authors state below, “we write this not as disgruntled individuals wanting access to one event. We write this as a collective who are asserting their voice to hold the institutions in their community accountable to a higher responsibility of service.”  I invite everyone to share thoughts, questions, and experiences below.

Written by Chaun Webster, Jeremiah Bey Ellison, Arianna Genis, Shannon Gibney and Valerie Deus

Originally posted at Opine Season on October 29, 2013.

To Whom It May Concern at The Walker Art Center,

We have learned that on October 30, The Walker Art Center will be showing the film, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, and followed by a talk with the director on Nov 9. This film is perhaps one of the most honest and visceral visual representations of the horrors that were part and parcel of the institution of slavery. Furthermore from the beginning, 12 Years a Slave has been, from its firsthand account, to the writer, to the director and leading actor, one of the most highly recognized, fully Black cinematic collaborations in the history of film.

12yearsWe are concerned that though this film is being shown, that peoples of African descent, whose ancestors’ lives and histories were disrupted by the slaveocracy, will be largely underrepresented in the audience. Our position is that equity is not just about the diversity in the art being shown but the material work of creating greater access to exhibitions to ensure that audiences are representative of the subject matter.

We understand that these events were publicized to members of The Walker and on The Walker’s website. As you may or may not know, when marketing strategies are limited in media and points of origin, the race, class, gender and other layers of social location are also limited.

Within the Walker Art Center’s Mission Statement the institution is described as “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences” and having programs which “examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures and communities.” Which communities do you seek to inspire and what questions do you seek to examine with the creative expression of artists?

Over the years we have become acutely aware of the way that art institutions are guided by an exceptionalism that will welcome works of art by select artists of African descent and other historically marginalized groups but will largely have little to no relationship with members of those communities. This in no small way contributes to the issue of representative audiences.

stevemcqueenRepresentative audiences insure that narratives are not placed in a vacuum where art institutions can be absolved of responsibility to the cultures and traditions that those stories come from. When white-dominated spaces, often of a homogenous class, bring work like McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in, they in many ways manage the narrative and the way that it gets interpreted. In these spaces the participant/viewers are freed of any responsibility, social or otherwise, to historically marginalized groups and in so doing re-inscribe the roles of colonialism in art production, distribution, and consumption. In other words, in this case, African art can be present and maybe even a few “exceptional” African artists, but by and large African bodies are unwelcome.

In light of all of this we are calling on The Walker Arts Center to recognize their exclusive practice of not intentionally involving historically marginalized groups at the table for this occasion. This recognition can in part take the form of publishing this letter as an addendum to the material circulated at the screening of 12 Years a Slave and director talk.

We urge The Walker to open up more ticket space for both the screening and the discussion with Steve McQueen. This ticket space would be freely given to reputable organizations of our choice that work with underrepresented youth.

We urge The Walker to arrange another screening and talk with the director that we would host in a community space of our choosing.

Lastly we are calling on The Walker to host a panel discussion at The Walker where we can convene a public conversation on art and social responsibility as it relates to the artist and art institutions.

The tremendous contributions of Africans, on the continent, in the United States, and other parts of the diaspora cannot be understated. These contributions stand in chorus with that of other historically marginalized groups whose communities continue to be denied access to tables carved from their own wood.

The Walker can serve a role in equity as it relates to the production, distribution, and consumption of art in the Twin Cities, but that will require a resolve to listen to its diverse constituents who represent a variety of cultural and ideological perspectives. We write this not as disgruntled individuals wanting access to one event. We write this as a collective who are asserting their voice to hold the institutions in their community accountable to a higher responsibility of service. It is our belief that this is not only possible but imperative as we move forward.

*     *     *     *     *

About the Author

chaun-webster-e1362580382950Chaun Webster is a Twin Cities activist, publisher, and poet in the Black radical tradition. Founding Free Poet’s Press in 2009 with the intention of empowering Black and Brown artists to control their own images, Webster is a 2011 Verve Grant recipient and is preparing for the release of HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethics. More information about Chaun Webster and Free Poet’s Press can be found at www.freepoetspress.com.

RELATED POSTS THAT MIGHT BE OF INTEREST:

Blurring the Lines: Walker Art Center’s Open Field

Reflecting on Our Radical Roots

Making the Conversation More Inclusive

 

wall-plug

Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?

wall-plugI don’t know if it was attending the Museums & the Web conference back in April or just simply recognizing the amount of time I spend navigating technology issues in the museum, but I recently have had a good old-fashioned “freak out” when it comes to museum tech.  Touch screens, apps, MOOCs, mobile-optimized web design, iPad tours, Hangouts, social media, photo sharing, Vine, Instagram, YouTube … EEK!

The budgets and staff support for technology at museums seem to be growing and growing, with some museums investing more in a single technology project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget.  I’ve certainly been an advocate for this shift in 21st century museums — don’t get me wrong.  As a museum blogger but also as a Director of Education, I have truly come to understand and appreciate the benefits of online engagement and the use of technology for interpretation and learning.  But when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.

Earlier this year, I was invited to give a public talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego as part of their “Outside Perspectives” program, so I decided to grapple with this issue in a public forum.  The main risk here was that I have not fully formed my own ideas and position about the role of technology in museum teaching and learning — but I was excited to throw out a series of raw questions and spark a conversation that would no doubt help me shape my own ideas and thinking.  Here is a link to the SlideShare of my PowerPoint:

The title of the talk kicked everything off with a rather false dichotomy between “plugged in” and “unplugged” museum experiences and the preferences museum visitors might have — even assuming that these experiences are separable in some way. But the real core questions I wanted to deal with were:

  • Are we becoming too reliant on technology in museum education?
  • As we focus more and more on digital and online experiencea, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century?
  • If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experience in the galleries and across programming?

During my visit to the MCA San Diego, they had the Lifelike exhibition on view at their La Jolla building. So in preparation for my talk, I took some time to explore the online and digital side of people’s experiences with this exhibition — even adding my own Instagram photos and Vine videos to the mix — and presented these incredible layers as part of my talk about the “plugged in” experience.  I also brought in to the conversation a series of technology projects gaining attention in recent years, including Google Art Project, online courses and Google Hangouts via museums like MoMA, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One and the ArtLens app (showing this project always gets some oohs and aahs), and the Rijksmuseum’s new website.

During my talk at MCASD, I stopped to open the floor for conversation and audience thoughts about the balance between plugged-in and unplugged engagement in museums, and whether we rely too much on technology.  And even after presenting a series of eye-popping, meaningful, transformative technology-based projects and experiences in museums, the audience largely seemed to place more value on the analog and non-technology-based social experiences they have (or develop as educators) in museums. And I am reminded of the human core of my own gallery teaching practice — a core that was highlighted so perfectly by Briley Rasmussen’s post on this site last year after the Getty’s decision to cut its education teaching staff.  In her post, Briley boldly states:

“When art museums support their collections through personal human interactions, … moments of humanness and ‘unselfing’ occur. This is when our collections shine and are the most profound. This is when we have real public value.”

So with these raw questions laid out, I’m curious about other people’s thoughts.  Are museums becoming too reliant on technology and the internet?  Are we sacrificing any of our core values as we dedicate more and more resources and staff to technology initiatives?  How can we create a meaningful balance between the “unplugged” and the “plugged in” as we move forward into the 21st century?  Join the conversation below.

feat-chat

Google Hangouts: Live Video Chatting between Museums & Online Communities

By Brinker Ferguson, Digital Media Fellow, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In the past several months, many museums have begun using live video chat as a way to enhance and foster new online discussions and interactions between museum educators and the public. One of the most popular tools has been Google Hangouts which is part of the Google+ social network. It allows for up to 10 users to video chat together and gives them the ability to broadcast the video stream live to a large audience and even record the session for future viewing. The recorded video, which is archived on the museum’s G+ page and YouTube channel, can be shared on various social networks. In addition, the videos collect (limited) analytics information so museums can track the attention it receives. Users who express interest in a museum video session ahead of time can be alerted when it is about to begin via Google+ email messaging.

This use of video chatting has spawned a new online forum that helps to bring together museum curators, directors, historians and educators with different virtual communities for in-depth conversations of art and ideas. Rather then a YouTube video, which disseminates information in a “I talk, you listen” format, video chatting can enable a more flexible and collaborative seminar style discussion. This idea of accessible online videos is very much in keeping with many museums’ mission of providing an open space for dialogue, learning, and exploration for the public, and working toward developing meaningful online communities of practice.

Current Projects

Though relatively new, there have been a large number of museums using Google Hangouts from all over the globe. This past month alone, MoMA debuted its “Art Hang” series, which brings together art educators with other art enthusiasts to discuss topics surrounding art and identity. The Google Art Project began its #ArtTalk hangouts with the National Gallery on March 20th and more recently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The series, which discusses the stories behind famous works of art, will continue to take place each month at different cultural institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

screenshot of Google Hangout of artist Felipe Iskor
screenshot of Google Hangout of artist Felipe Iskor

Hangouts have also been leveraged in several other artistic ways. For example Google Brazil has used hangouts for their street art campaign, where artist Felipe Iskor created a mural live.

Likewise artists have conducted live studio visits, in which they talk with interested online groups about what inspires them, what their next artwork might look like, and get much needed critical feedback from online art communities.

Understanding Its Impact

Of course, use of a new medium brings new challenges. In trying to gauge the success of video chats, museums are learning how to interpret the relatively sparse analytics information provided by Google+ and YouTube. Statistics like “this video was viewed 5000 times” does not paint a full picture of just how beneficial the video was for the museum and its viewers. It is very clear, however, that hangouts have the ability to reach far greater percentage of the global online community and can do so in a more engaging way. And while it can be difficult to measure the success of these videos, museum educators know it is worth their time to continue exploring the limits of new this technology in order to captivate a broader audience and share more of the museum’s passion for art and cultural heritage.

Possible Uses in the Future

Tools associated with video chatting such as live commenting, image sharing, hash tags, and social media sharing have become additional ways of connecting online viewers with the live discussion. Recently, Mike Murawski of the Portland Art Museum brought up another possible use for video chatting. He suggested using Hangouts as a way of connecting living contemporary artists with museum visitors both in the gallery and online. What would it be like then to talk with an artist about his/her work right in front of the artwork in the gallery? Or watch an artist explaining his/her artwork online while you ask questions?

How can we use these new tools to better facilitate learning and interaction onsite and online in the future? Are there other ways that Google Hangouts or other chatting services will connect people, or perhaps help the museum’s visitors feel closer to its collection?

Anybots meets Wall-E and Eve.
Anybots meets Wall-E and Eve.

Taking this question further in a mini-thought experiment, imagine what would happen if the video feed were not fixed to the wall. What would a more intimate conversation with an artist look like? While you ebb and flow around the gallery, could an artist virtually tag along with you?

One company exploring the idea of digital presence is Anybots, a team that has created a roving avatar robot with video screen projecting the face of a remote participant. The robot is controlled remotely and reacts to speech frequencies to directly address and react to questions or comments from multiple people. Right now, the Anybots are in the hypothetical realm (due to the hefty $15,000 price tag).

While video chatting environments will continue to develop (though at the moment we are not yet sure in what form they will appear) the strides taken by #ArtHang, Google Art Projects, and many other institutions and artist communities will continue to push online connection and conversation.

MOOC-connections1

What Can Art Museums Learn from the MOOC Phenomenon?

Written by Linda Forshaw, guest author
_______________________________________

MOOC-connections1In recent years there has been a new player in the field of education. MOOC (massive open online courses) have taken the world (somewhat) by storm with various free courses from prestigious (and sometimes not so prestigious) universities and colleges. Here is a quick YouTube video describing the basic nuts and bolts of a MOOC, if you are thinking “What in the world is a MOOC?”

Despite there being some skepticism — mainly in relation to the quality of education, incidents of plagiarism, and low completion rates — the popularity of online education platforms continue to grow. In an article entitled “The Year of the MOOC,” Laura Pappano writing for the New York Times reports how the online learning revolution–that reportedly started when more than 150,000 willing students enrolled on an “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course back in the fall of 2011–has grown at an ever increasing pace. As an example, some 370,000 students signed up for the first official courses from edX, a nonprofit MOOC created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. edX is not alone in attracting record numbers of online students. Coursera, a for-profit MOOC created by Stanford professor Andrew Ng, has seen 1.7 million students sign up since its inception.

The pace at which online learning is traveling continues to grow. The year 2013 is set to herald a new offering from the UK’s Open University. Futurelearn, the country’s first real step into MOOC platforms is set to offer courses from Kings College London, the University of Warwick, and others. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., 2U (one of ten startups changing the world according to Forbes) is planning to advance the field of online learning even further by by offering paid, for-credit undergraduate degrees from the likes of Duke, Vanderbilt, and Emory Universities.

With online learning platforms showing no immediate signs of abating, the question remains how art museums can play a role in this sweeping open education movement? It seems that they already are to at least some extent . Initiatives to deliver art to the masses by the likes of the Khan Academy, Google Art Project, The Virtual Hampson Museum, The Giza Archives, and Europeana have been heralded by some as offering an opportunity for those alienated from the world of art to get involved and slated by others who argue that images of famous painting and other artifacts are all well and good, but fall short as an adequate substitution for the real thing.

MOOC1Perhaps the best path forward for museums looking to make inroads in online learning is to create courses that can act as complementary to personal visits, but also provide more than enough information to be sufficient in their own right for those who cannot (for whatever reason) attend in person. Thanks to the Google Art Project and the expansion of the Khan Academy into art history, displaying works online is likely to become increasingly commonplace for museum and art galleries. Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, in their article explaining why the Google Art Project is important, report that other museums have started to make public domain images available for download – namely The Brooklyn Museum,, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The National Gallery of Art. As a result, those who do not get involved may well be left behind.

While there is much discussion about what these open technologies are not, what we do know is that they are expanding opportunities like no other and it can be reasonably said that the museums themselves should join others in discussing the options for learning.

And isn’t learning what it’s all about?

Author

lindaLinda Forshaw is a Business Information Systems graduate from Lancaster University in the UK. A contributor to Degree Jungle, she is a full time writer and blogger specializing in education, social media, and entrepreneurship. Contact her on Twitter @seelindaplay

what-if_2

Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an "innovation" fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?