Category Archives: Spotlight on Practice

Thinking Space: Connecting Art & Math in the Museum

Written by Rebecca Mitchell and Andrea Kantrowitz

Focus for a moment on an object in front of you. How do you understand its shape? How would you represent it by drawing it? Imagine turning or rotating it. What would it look like then? How could you create something with the same shape?

You’ve just utilized spatial intelligence, your capacity to analyze and transform visual and mental imagery in two and three dimensions. This capacity is fundamental to both math and art, and a has been found to be a key indicator in students’ long-term academic and professional success.  A growing body of research in educational psychology and cognitive science is looking at ways to enhance spatial intelligence, such as a recent study which showed that spatial training improves 6-7 year old children’s math calculation.

When we look at and create art, we are exercising spatial intelligence to analyze and construct objects and images.  Rich experiences with works of art have been shown to significantly enhance student math achievement, as documented by the Framing Student Success program that studied the effects of standards-based instruction that integrated high-quality visual arts, math, and literacy content in three high-poverty New York City Public Schools. These findings support a growing trend  in K-12 programs across the country to merge arts instruction with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, pioneered by Rhode Island School of Design’s STEM to STEAM initiative.

Our challenge:

How can the excitement around the potential of the arts to contribute to STEM education, along with current research on spatial ability be shared in an art museum setting, so that PreK-12 teachers can bring the ideas into their classrooms? Here we’ll share the activities and discussions that we designed with this aim. The two-hour gallery session was a part of a week-long teacher institute, VAST (Visual Arts and Sources for Teaching) held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this past July. The overall theme for VAST was integrating art across the curriculum. Our session was led by Andrea Kantrowitz, Assistant Professor at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, who co-wrote and implemented the Framing Student Success curriculum; Rebecca Mitchell, former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Lynda O’Leary, Distance Learning Coordinator at PMA.

Through a series of structured activities (individual, small group, and large group) – looking at art, drawing, creating sculptures, discussing, and choreographing a short dance on a work of art (yes, you read that right!), the teachers engaged their spatial thinking skills to think and create in two- and three- and even four- dimensions.


The setting: Temporary exhibition, Minimalism in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and permanent collection galleries

Audience: 80 PreK-12 teachers (in groups of 20 at a time)

Format: 2 hours

Materials: stools, sketchbooks, pencils, grid paper, scissors, circular stickers (we used mailing stickers)

Translating 3-d into 2-d:

After a short introduction to the Framing Student Success study and some research findings about spatial thinking, the teachers began their first activity. With pencils and sketchbooks in hand, the group spent 10-15 minutes drawing Robert Morris’s Untitled (Battered Cubes) from 1970, a piece made up of four large cube-like objects. Andrea explained that there was no “wrong” way to draw the sculptures, and that a variety of approaches would be beneficial to our discussion later. Since there were art teachers and classroom teachers in each group, we didn’t want anyone to feel self-conscious about their drawing ability. Andrea emphasized that it was the thinking and problem solving that was most important, not how “accurate” the drawing looked. The teachers sat wherever they felt comfortable, and drew the sculpture from whatever angle they preferred.

teachers drawing Robert Morris’s
teachers drawing Robert Morris’s “Untitled (Battered Cubes)”

The teachers then watched a minimalist dance performance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs and filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1973, Calico Mingling (available here: and notated it however they wanted to – through sketches, notes, or some combination of the two. Again, the goal was to observe closely and record these observations with pencil and paper. In the Childs piece, the dancers move around and through a grid pattern on the ground, located at Robert Moses Plaza at Fordham University.

Many ways to solve a problem:

We gathered the teachers back together and placed the drawings of the sculpture on the floor. After a walk around the circle to look at all of them, we discussed the variety of approaches – while some people showed multiple viewpoints in one drawing, others focused on what they could see from their vantage point. Next we looked at everyone’s notes/sketches of the dance, which revealed even more variety. Some people focused on one dancer’s movements, while others watched for overall patterns among all of the dancers. Still others counted steps, traced arcs of the movements, or looked for relationships between the dances and the grid below their feet. All of these approaches yielded successful results, and the variety of solutions enriched the group’s understanding of both the sculpture and dance. We discussed the challenges and strategies to translate three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface, and the added complexity of movement and time.

teachers looking at the drawings on the floor
teachers looking at the drawings on the floor

Building it out again: three dimensions

Now it was time to experiment with creating something three-dimensional from a two-dimensional material: paper. Working with a 1 1/2 inch dot grid on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, a pair of scissors, and small circular stickers, teachers created sculptures. No specific instructions were given except to create something three-dimensional based on the grid. The teachers cut, folded, and taped. Discoveries were made, and sculptures were adjusted. They learned what worked and responded to their new knowledge as they continued to build. As expected, this exercise resulted in a wide range of sculptures – size, shape, and orientation. We displayed the sculptures in the center of the room and discussed the process and results.

teachers' paper sculptures on display
teachers’ paper sculptures on display

Introducing time: the fourth dimension

Happily, there was a Carl Andre sculpture installed in the exhibition, which consisted of 17 copper squares, arranged in a line on the floor. Another grid! This gave us, the facilitators, the idea to culminate this part of the session with physical activity, something we thought would also benefit students when these ideas were translated into a classroom. Andre’s sculptures are meant to be experienced by walking over, around, and on them. Taking inspiration from Childs’s dance, we split the larger group into groups of 4-5 teachers and gave them 10 minutes to create a dance on and around the sculpture. Although coming up with choreography was a new experience to many of the teachers, they embraced the challenge and had fun working together. Again, the final pieces showed great variety:

Some moved in grid-like movements: forward, backward, side-to-side, while others incorporated more organic movements. Some were in unison, others had each dancer moving in a unique way. All utilized the length of the sculpture and responded to its structure.

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On a concluding walk through the galleries, we took note of how artists throughout time and place use the grid to organize space. For example, the use of one-point perspective in a Canaletto painting or the incorporation of multiple perspectives in an 18th century Japanese screen. From grids on floors, to decorations on the ceilings, to paintings, drawings, decorative arts, and sculptures on view, it became clear that grids abound in art and architecture. We began to consider the world around us in new ways and recognize underlying structures that order our built environment.

These exercises drew the teachers out of their comfort zones and encouraged them to engage in creative play – looking, drawing, creating, dancing, and discussing. They considered spatial relationships from several perspectives and through different means. It is our hope that the teachers left the session with practical ideas for the classroom, an enriched understanding of spatial intelligence, and a new appreciation the interconnectedness of art across the disciplines.

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About the Authors

mitchell2REBECCA MITCHELL is the former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she taught students in the galleries, organized teacher programs, and wrote teacher resources (to view the PMA’s teacher resources, please visit She has a B.A. in art history from Smith College and an M.A. in art history from the University of Delaware. She currently resides outside of New Haven, CT, where she is spending time with her two young children, but remains active in the art museum education community.

kantrowitzANDREA KANTROWITZ, EdD, is an artist and researcher, who has lectured and given workshops internationally on art and cognition. As the director of the Thinking through Drawing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, she organized a series of international drawing and cognition research symposia, in collaboration with colleagues from the U.K. She holds a B.A in Art and Cognition from Harvard University and a MFA in Painting from Yale, and an Ed.D from Columbia University in art education and cognitive studies.  She teaches foundation drawing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and art education at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She worked for many years as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools and has been involved in multiple local and national arts in education research projects.  Her own art work is represented by Kenise Barnes Fine Art. 

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.”

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:

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

Queer Art and Activism – Open Call to LGBTQ Artists

Written by PJ Policarpio, Brooklyn-based community engager, educator, and curator

Last summer I was invited by Dixon Place to organize an exhibition of visual art in conjunction with HOT! Festival: NYC’s Celebration of Queer Culture, the world’s pioneering and longest-running LGBTQ Art Festival featuring visual and performance art.

Working with co-curator Beck Feibelman, we organized Visualizing Queerness: 7 Contemporary Artists, bringing together work by seven artists—Ana Benaroya, Zen Browne, Tinker Coalescing, Machine Dazzle, Sara Lautman, André Singleton and King Texas —who sought to represent themselves and their circles with a combination of respect, wit, dignity, defiance, and glamour, defying queer stereotypes and characters. They created beautiful and dynamic images of communities either on or just under the surface, displaying clarity of vision and boldness of expression that are important to the work of making their communities visible and powerful. As they should be.

This year’s exhibition, RALLY: Queer Art and Activism, will focus on art defined by an atmosphere of social unrest and violence across the country and its impact on art and art making for queer artists. We are interested in the varied aesthetic approaches to resist, protest, and address widespread injustices against vulnerable communities.  See more information about the Open Call for Artists below.

Ana Benaroya, 3 AM Part 1, 2013. Courtesy of artist.
Ana Benaroya, 3 AM Part 1, 2013. Courtesy of artist.

OPEN CALL to LGBTQ Artists – RALLY: Queer Art and Activism

Exhibition dates: July 2015 – August 2015 in New York City

HOT! Festival The NYC Celebration of Queer Culture

The oldest annual LGBTQ festival in the world has been a pioneer of queer arts and culture for over 20 years. An inspiration for other queer festivals across the globe, HOT! Festival offers an artistic refuge to so many passionate voices in our community.

DIXON PLACE, a laboratory for artists since 1986, is dedicated to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theater, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, literature & visual art at all stages of development. Challenging artists and audiences, this local haven encourages and inspires artists of all stripes and callings, and places special emphasis on the needs of women, people of color, seniors, youth and LGBTQ artists. Dixon Place is located at 161A Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, NYC.

Exhibition curators: Beck Feibelman and PJ Gubatina Policarpio

Restrictions: Original works on paper, photography, paintings, and mixed media works are eligible.

Key dates:

Submission deadline: June 14, 2015

Exhibition dates: July – August 2015

Opening reception: TBD

Submission info: To be considered for this exhibition, email images of original art, portfolio or website to: by June 14, 2015.

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Editor’s Note: While is typically not a space for Event Postings, Calls for Papers, Calls for Artists, or Job Postings, I wanted to share this Open Call for Artists from AMT contributor PJ Policarpio.  PJ was involved in the first-ever Museum Teaching Throwdown, an amazingly high energy event back in 2014 which brought together about 80 museum educators around ideas of experimentation and risk-taking.  PJ’s artistic and professional practices span across the arts and culture sector, including work with the Brooklyn Museum and Queens Museum.  His drive to curate and pull together projects like Visualizing Queerness and the exhibition at this year’s HOT! Festival is inspiring, and worth supporting and sharing through the ArtMuseumTeaching community.  Please share this with any LGBTQ artists that you have connections with, or, if you are in New York in July and August, I invite you to attend this exhibition.

We Flipped Our Museum — Here’s What We Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#2 Too much flexibility can be overwhelming

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

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

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

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

#3 The Museum Visit

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

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

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

 #4 Know where and how students access online content

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

In Conclusion…

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

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

Learn more

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