Category Archives: Experimenting in Museums

We Don’t Need New Models, We Need a New Mindset

Editor’s Note: I have been following EmcArts ever since they announced their first round of Innovation Labs for Museums back in 2011, and have had the pleasure of meeting with their staff as well as those working with the ArtsFwd initiative.  I was also fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Association of Art Museum Directors meeting this summer in Dallas, where Richard Evans gave a great presentation on innovation as part of that organization’s thinking around education.  The team at EmcArts and ArtsFwd is working to help make a break with our patterns of “business as usual” and develop new capacities and mindsets to tackle the major adaptive challenges facing museums in the 21st century. The post below by Karina Mangu-Ward does such a fantastic job of highlighting this shift in practice and ‘mindset’, to use her word.  I thought it was worth sharing with ArtMuseumTeaching community as a way for museum professionals at all levels of their organizations to reflect on the models and mindsets underlying our practice as well as the real challenges we face.  I invite readers to comment below about how you see these models operating at your institution, and how you might help support change towards a new mindset in museums.

Written by Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts

Reposted from the blog at ArtsFwd, an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as a guest at the Dinner-vention 2, organized by Barry Hessenius of Barry’s Blog and WESTAF. On October 9, I’ll join seven other dynamic, forward-thinking leaders in the arts to discuss some of the most pressing challenges across the field. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and engaging in what should be a spicy conversation.

To prepare for the Dinner-vention, Barry asked all of us to capture our preliminary thinking in a briefing paper that responds to the topic: “Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward.”

I’ve shared my briefing paper below. I encourage you to read the papers of the other seven guests, which you can find here.

What’s a model, exactly?

I’m a very literal person, so the first thing I did when tasked with this briefing paper was look up the definition of “model.”

Model (n): 1) A standard, an example for imitation or comparison

OK, got it. A model is like a blueprint. Or a recipe. So, this Dinner-vention is a debate about standard or best practices in our field. We’re taking a long hard look at the routines we’ve replicated again and again because they work, or at least they’re supposed to, or they once did.

What models are we questioning?

My next step was to plainly state what I see as the old model in each of the areas Barry mentions (plus I added strategic planning, evaluation, and artistic development).

However, I assume every model evolved to meet a particular challenge. So I also tried to name the challenge I think we’re facing right now in that area. For me, there’s nothing worse that poor problem definition. We can reform our models until we’re blue in the face, but that’s useless unless we get clear about the future we want and the challenges we’ll face in getting there. Only then can we answer the question: why aren’t our models working?

I think this was a useful exercise, so I’ve shared the results below. It’s wide open for debate. My hope is that it serves as a starting place for a shared understanding of the standard practices we’re questioning and the real challenges we’re faced with as a field, so that we can begin to understand whether our approaches are the right ones.

In each case, I see a stark disconnect. The old models we’re using aren’t matching up with the deeply complex challenges we’re faced with right now.

Income/Revenue

  • Old model: Ticket sales + government + foundation + corporate + wealthy patrons + small donors + endowment income = Balanced budget
  • New challenge: To generate new sources of sustained revenue and capital

Audience development

  • Old model: Sell subscriptions and market shows
  • New challenge: To engage new and more diverse groups of people in meaningful arts experiences

Governance

  • Old model: Give/get boards focused on fiduciary oversight and maintaining stability
  • New challenge: To cultivate boards that are partners in change

Evaluation

  • Old model: More ticket sales, more revenue, bigger budget, nice building = Success!
  • New challenge: To evaluate the success of our organizations based on the value they create in people’s lives

Leadership development

  • Old model: Attend leadership conferences and seminars, build your network, wait for your boss to finally leave/retire/die. (Alternatively, change jobs every year.)
  • New challenge: To develop a generation of new leaders equipped with the tools they’ll need to tackle the wickedly complex challenges the future has in store

Artistic development

  • Old model: MFA programs, residencies, commissions, occasionally a grant, get a day job
  • New challenge: To support artists in making a living and a life

Strategic planning

  • Old model: Decide where you want to be in 5 years. Outline the steps to get there in a long document no one will read.
  • New challenge: To plan for the future in a way that allows us to stay close to our core values and make incremental improvement while also making room for experimentation, failure, and rapidly changing conditions.

Funding allocation

  • Old model: The money goes to whoever the funder says it to goes to. Usually bigger organizations run by white people in major cities.
  • Our challenge today: To distribute funds in a way that is equitable, geographically diverse, and creates the most value

Note: I decided I was too ignorant in the areas of creative placemaking, advocacy and arts education to weigh in. I’ll leave that to my colleagues.

Here’s my main argument

Over 60 years in the field, we’ve developed standard practices, or models, in all these different areas. They worked for a while. Now they don’t. This has given us a false notion that we need new models in each area. This is wrong.

Models, best practices, recipes, and blueprints work only when your challenge has a knowable, replicable solution. Sure, there are some challenges that fit this mold. I’d argue that having a great website, designing an effective ad, doing a successful crowd funding campaign, and producing a complicated show are all challenges where best practices, models, and experts are really valuable. You might not know the solution, but someone does, and you can find it out.

But what happens when there actually isn’t a knowable solution to your challenge? When there is no expert, no model to call upon? When the only way forward is through experimentation and failure?

I’d argue that every one of the big challenges I name above falls into the realm of complexity, where the search for replicable models is fruitless. There isn’t going to be a new model for generating revenue that the field can galvanize around that will work for every or even most arts organizations. Nor is there going to be a long lasting model for community engagement that can be replicated by organizations across the country. For the deeply complex challenges we face today, there simply isn’t a knowable solution or model that can reliably help us tackle them. These kinds of challenges require a new way of working.

We don’t need new models, we need a new theory of practice

Instead of new models, I’d argue that we need a new theory of practice, one that champions a different set of priorities in how we do our work.

Our old models imply a vision of success that’s rooted in growth, stability, and excellence. They drive us towards efficiency and competition by perpetuating an atmosphere of scarcity. They are not as creative as we are.

What if a new vision of success in our field could prioritize resilience, flexibility, and intimacy? What if we could be enablers, not producers? What if we could harness the abundance of creative potential around us?

This new vision of success doesn’t demand consensus around a new set of standards, best practices, or “examples for imitation,” it demands a new way of thinking and acting that empowers us to shift and change our routines all the time, as needed.

A proposed theory of practice for the future

Here is my call to the field: a proposed set of practices that align with the world as it is today, not as it was before:

  • Let’s get clear about the challenges we’re facing and if they’re complex, treat them as such
  • Let’s ask hard questions, listen, do research, and stay vulnerable to what we learn.
  • Let’s question our assumptions and let go of what’s no longer working.
  • Let’s embrace ambiguity and conflict as a crucial part of change
  • Let’s bring together people with different experiences and lean into difference
  • Let’s experiment our way forward and fail often
  • Let’s recognize the system in which we’re operating.
  • Let’s rigorously reflect and continuously learn

In conclusion

When I set out to write this post, I wanted to question the premise that a conversation about “broken models” could even be useful in a time when expertise, excellence and replicability are the values of the past. I wanted to propose that we move past the very notion of models – let’s jettison the word itself from our vocabulary.

In the end, I guess you could call what I’ve proposed a kind of “new model.” But I’d rather think of it as a new mindset.

Read more about Innovation Stories, the National Innovation Summit, and tools & activities you can use in your own organization by connecting to the ArtsFwd blog.

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About the Author

karina-mangu-wardKARINA MANGU-WARD: Director of Activating Innovation for EmcArts, Inc. Karina leads the development of ArtsFwd, an interactive online platform that extends learning about innovation among arts leaders and organizations nationally and internationally. She took on the role of Director of Activating Innovation in August 2011. In addition to her work at EmcArts, Karina is a New York based producer and filmmaker, whose projects include an original web series, an interactive online documentary series, promos, how-to videos, and event videography. She received her MFA in Theater Management & Producing from Columbia University, where she wrote her thesis on the strategic use of online tools and technologies for arts organizations. She holds a BA from Harvard College.

Evaluation Can Be Fun

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

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

One of the great luxuries I value about my time here at the Gardner Museum has been the opportunity to have rather leisurely and unstructured conversations with museum educators here and at other museums in the Boston area. I appreciate the value of not always having an agenda and not needing to solve a problem. We bounced ideas off each other and I always came away with a fresh perspective, a deeper conviction in my intuition, and lots of new ideas. Our talks often meander around the relationship between a museum experience or program and how we choose to evaluate it. A few themes have emerged from the conversations so far.

There is Life Beyond the Survey

MA-SURVEYOver the years I have not made a secret of how much I don’t like written questionnaires, paper or online, despite how much I end up using them on evaluation projects. Why? The written survey is the most difficult methodology to do well. It’s the default methodology that most people think of when planning an evaluation and most of them are tedious and poorly focused. It’s a blunt instrument that cannot capture much in the way of subtlety and nuance (and life is so much about nuance). In recent years, with the plethora of online survey programs, we are drowning in surveys so survey-fatigue is a reality. Most surveys are really asking for the visitor to tell us that we did a good job (e.g., How satisfied were you with this experience?) and not enough about how the visitor values or benefits from the experience. Besides, the written questionnaire usually does not reflect the spirit of the experience we’re trying to evaluate, bringing me to my next point.

Match the evaluation method to the experience.

Imagine yourself at a museum’s “evening hours” event. There is a great band, wine, engaging activities going on throughout the galleries, good friends, and a happy crowd of people of all types and ages. The atmosphere is both relaxing and energized at the same time. As you stroll towards the door to leave the museum, someone hands you a piece of paper. It’s a survey asking you to evaluate this time you just had and it smacks you out of the pleasant, liminal state you spent several hours dropping into. That’s an example of how the survey methodology is not well matched to the quality of the experience you just had.

So what methodology might better align with the evening program experience you imagined yourself attending above?

First you start with what you want to know and why.

So often we select the methodology before we figure out what we want to know and why. We decide on surveys or focus groups when those may or may not be the best ways to collect the data. Often we collect more data than we know what to do with. Here’s an example that came up in a recent conversation:

Like many art museums, the Gardner offers several community nights with free admission throughout the year and these events are very well attended. Primarily, the Gardner wants to know if these events are indeed attracting people from communities close to the museum. Yes, we could easily get zip code information via a written questionnaire. The problem is that we tend to throw in a lot of other questions that we don’t really need the answer to. The other area of inquiry the Gardner would like to know about revolves around how visitors connect to the museum. So let’s keep those two data points in mind, residence and connection, as we think about how to get useful information.

Think creatively about ways to get that data and match it to the spirit of the experience.

How could we get zip code data and not make people fill out a survey?

Imagine a big map (maybe near the wine bar because most everyone would go there), with zip code areas and neighborhoods clearly identified. Give people a small colorful adhesive file folder dot and invite them to put it on their zip code. It becomes a fun, social activity and, for some reason, people like to find themselves on a map. It’s simple and inexpensive. At the end you have a picture of the zip code distribution of your audience. You could do this for other evening events and compare the maps.

MA-response wall

What about the ways visitors connect to the museum?

One methodology that I love to experiment with is embedded performance assessment. This means that visitors don’t realize they are providing evaluation data, even when we tell them, because the process is engaging on it’s own. At a workshop for the Gardner Museum education staff this week, artist-in-residence Paul Kaiser inspired us all to explore new ways to engage visitors and possibly end up with some interesting evaluation data.

MA-galleryPaul first introduced us to the concept of collaborative writing, using the example of Japanese renga poetry. He then provided us with a set of words —  rising, distant, enclosed, fold, release — and asked us to take the spirit of renga into the galleries, substituting the verses for objects, spaces, or views based on that set of words. We did it and were struck by how beautifully the experience honored the spirit of what Mrs. Gardner did in the ways she arranged objects to suggest ideas or relationships.

We played with ways to use this activity with visitors, discussing ways to engage families and adult visitors at community nights in something similar. Perhaps if we created a more playful set of words to match the feel of these events, visitors would find it enjoyable. We brainstormed possibly having a place where people could post their responses and read what others thought about. Having these responses could be a rich data source that helps us better understand ways that visitors make connections to the museum. We were jazzed!

What are some unconventional ways that you have collected rich and useful data about the visitor experience?

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Meeting the Future Head On: Future Reports, Trends, & Next Practices

“The purpose of strategic foresight is to prime your imagination to envision different futures — some of the many ways that the world could evolve into more than an amped-up version of today.” – Elizabeth Merritt

What does the future hold for museums?  What are museums (or, more accurately, the people working in museums) doing right now that deserves to be shared, examined, and reflected upon?  How can museums think more critically about their role in the transforming landscape of education — now and in the years ahead?  We all have these questions floating through our minds, but may not often have the time and space to chew on them or hear others’ thoughts.  I, myself, have a pile of printed reports, trend watches, and ‘future of museums’ readings sitting on my desk, and every once in a while I glare at it and wish that I could absorb it all in a few minutes like Neo in the film The Matrix.  Without superhuman powers, though, I decided to dive into that pile this week.

In an exceptional Museum-iD post gathering perspectives from global museum innovators in response to the question “What will museums be like in the future?,” Adam Rozan from the Oakland Museum of California remarked:

“… museums will thrive, using challenges as opportunities to test new business and engagement models, and, in doing so, meeting the future head on.”

So it’s in that spirit that I wanted to bring together and share a group of resources from the past 6 months that present and analyze trends, future thinking, and ‘next’ practices in museums and education that help us meet the future head on.  I hope that you find this list useful, and please add additional resources, links, and ideas to the Comments section below — allowing this to become a more organic resource.  Let’s dive in, shall we…

Visitors engaging with a sea of all images that were posted on Flickr during a 24-hour period and dumped into the exhibition space in the "What's Next" exhibition at the Future of the Photography Museum in Amsterdam. Photo by foamamsterdam
Visitors engaging with a sea of all images that were posted on Flickr during a 24-hour period and dumped into the exhibition space in the “What’s Next” exhibition at the Future of the Photography Museum in Amsterdam. Photo by foamamsterdam

Next Practices in Art Museum Education

NextPracticesIntended to take us beyond “best practices,” Next Practices in Art Museum Education is a new compilation of information from the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) member museums and their innovative approaches to engaging the public with the arts through diverse learning opportunities. Next Practices incorporates 100 case studies of the recent and ongoing educational programming that its member museums have designed and implemented.

The resource underscores the many forms art museum education can take, and provides practical and inspiring ideas for future programming at institutions worldwide.  The resource represents a much-needed survey of the exceptional educational practices happening in art museums across the country, and ranges across ages and types of engagement & learning.

NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Museum Edition

HorizonReport2013Released in November 2013, the NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Museum Edition examines key trends and technologies in the museum sector, as well as significant challenges that museums are faced with in adopting these technologies.  The report hones in on six emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment:

  • BYOD (Bring Your Own Device): given the increasing number of people who take their smartphones and other devices with them everywhere they go, the BYOD movement is an effort to move away from a top-down system of providing devices toward a practice that instead provides the networks and frameworks through which museum visitors interact with a range of content on their own devices.
  • Crowdsourcing: A method of gathering ideas, information, or content from a wider public community around a shared goal — capitalizing on the power of collective intelligence and public knowledge, as in the case of Wikipedia. Crowdsourcing strategies are being used by museums to curate exhibitions, gathering metadata around artworks or artifacts, promoting community engagement, and crowdfunding new projects.
  • Electronic publishing: Near and dear to my heart, electronic and digital media are continuing to redefine the publishing avenues of museums, tapping into modern digital workflows and social media activities to develop new forms of content and significantly extend the reach of that content beyond the limits of traditional print.  Beyond making these electronic platforms available to anyone, the report identifies the next phase of electronic publishing as linking these platforms together to produce new types of content.
  • Location-based services: Enabled by WiFi access points, GPS, RFID tags, and crowdsourced positioning technologies, location-based services are now available to deliver up-to-the-moment information that is related to a particular spot — guiding visitors through spaces, directing them to exhibits and objects that match their preferences, and triggering information and content specific to the visitor’s exact location in the museum.
  • Natural user interfaces: While we are already familiar with technologies and devices that respond to the natural movements of gestures of the human body (taps, swipes, arm motions, and natural language), there are prototype technologies being developed that extend these capabilities and combine facial expression and gesture-sensing technology with voice recognition that could allow museum visitors to interact in an increasingly natural fashion.
  • Preservation and conservation technologies: While museums have always addressed issues of preserving and conserving cultural heritage, these practices are being challenged by questions around how to preserve and conserve via digital materials as well as working with digital and time-based media — requiring new approaches and new skills that bring in electronic and multi-disciplinary perspectives to digital preservation efforts.

I was fortunate to be part of the 44-member Advisory Board and the process that helped identify these technology trends currently affecting the practice of museum education, interpretation, and visitor experience, and I look forward to the next annual report in this NMC series.

TrendsWatch 2014

TrendsWatchCenter for the Future of Museum’s annual forecasting report, TrendsWatch 2014, summarizes six emerging trends identified through CFM’s research and the Dispatches from the Future of Museums, CFM’s free e-newsletter. The report explores how each trend is playing out in the world, investigates what this means for society and for museums, shares examples of how museums are engaging with this trend, and suggests how museums might respond.  Here are the six trends/topics that this report identifies:

  • “For Profit for Good: The rise of the social entrepreneurs”
  • “Synesthesia: Multisensory experiences for a multisensory world”
  • “A Geyser of Information: Tapping the big data oil boom”
  • “Privacy in a Watchful World: What have you got to hide?”
  • “What’s Mine Is Yours: The economy of collaborative consumption”
  • “Robots! Are Rosie, Volton, Bender and their kin finally coming into their own?”

The report’s author, Elizabeth Merritt, writes in her introduction:

“As you read about these six trends, think about how they will shape the world, what it would be like to live in the world they may create, and how you and your organization might respond…. Personally I think the most important and challenging question question is raised in ‘For Profit for Good': How big an impact do museums want to have on the world, and how can we ensure that the good we do is good enough?”

A great read, and certainly a report to look forward to each year from CFM.  And speaking of CFM, here are a few more resources and future thinking items from their realm.

Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem

BuildingFutureComing out of a convening organized in September 2013 by the American Alliance of Museums (AAMC) and The Henry Ford, the “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem” report includes essays by educators, students, researchers and reformers that summarize and explore how leaders from the worlds of education and museums can work together to integrate the nation’s assets into what they call a ‘Vibrant Learning Grid.’  The convening and report asks the big question: How can museums and schools collaborate to create a new future for education?

The report pulls together leading thinkers and related case studies that focus on this and other core, burning questions, addressing a range of issues that include:

  • investing in greater capacities to support and manage partnerships
  • strengthening family engagement and envisioning parents as co-learners
  • building open learning networks across community institutions
  • leveraging digital learning and collaborative technologies

The report ends with a powerful “Call to Action” that came out of the second day of the convening, with some practical suggestions for moving the conversation forward and enacting change. They share several ideas, including increasing awareness, sharing information, disrupting conventional thinking about the educational landscape, and implementing radical experiments that increase the role of museums in an expanded view of education.

Guide to the Future at the 2014 Annual Meeting

CFMFor those of you heading to Seattle this weekend for the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), there are lots of great sessions, panels, and events to attend that bring together leading thinkers to discuss the future of museums as well as existing trends.  The CFM’s Elizabeth Merritt shared her insights recently via the CFM blog, and I encourage you to take a look (even if, like me, you are not attending the AAM conference this year).  You’ll find sessions discussing almost all of the reports I list above.  If I were attending AAM this year, one of my top picks would be “Crowdsourcing to Community Sourcing: Engaging Visitor Input” with Jeff Inscho, Lori Phillips, Daniel Davis, and Petra Pankow.

Share Your Thoughts

What are some of your ideas about the future of museums, and the ‘next’ practices that will help museums thrive?  And what are your thoughts about these types of reports and publications that spotlight ‘innovation’ and ‘future thinking’ — are they limited in their scope, or helpful as we all reflect on our own practice?  What sources do you look toward when thinking about new ideas, experiments, and projects?

Long Live the Spirit of Play: Tracking a Theme through NAEA 2014

By Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Nothing signifies 'play' like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.
Nothing signifies ‘play’ like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.

What do maker spaces, bodily collisions with strangers, and sculptures made of Turkish delight have in common?  They were all part of sessions at the recent 2014 National Art Education Association Convention in San Diego.  To be more specific, they were all part of sessions that focused on a theme threading through the four days of sun and arts teaching: the spirit of play.

That’s how I’m referring to it, at least.  The same idea was talked about as “being OK with failure”, “going in without predetermined outcomes”, and “iterative approaches”, but it was all shades of the same thing, and it was popping up everywhere.  (Side note: The importance of play in our work lives has been a topic beyond the museum sphere for a while.  Here’s a nice, clear Psychology Today article from 2008 that talks about what play means for our brains.)  People are interested in testing new ideas without knowing how they’ll end up, and I love it.  Like my theme tracking after the last AAM Annual Meeting, I want to follow this one through the NAEA Convention, highlighting some (though by no means all) of the conversations, actions, and tweets that made it one of my top conference takeaways.

Talking about play started out at the Museum Education Division Preconference, which was hosted at Balboa Park, home to some inspirational collaborations between cultural institutions.  Collaboration was the theme of the Preconference, and the very first session of the day, a keynote panel of experienced museum collaboration facilitators, included advice like:

and

Conference attendees were excited about this theme, too, and talked/tweeted about it throughout the day.

Seema Rao of the Cleveland Museum of Art reminded us about taking chances.

David Bowles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art talked about what motivated him to take part in the Noguchi Museum’s Teacher Think Tank (a program that started with the open-ended goal of getting museum educators and K-12 teachers together to think about museums and schools working together).

On Saturday morning, a session called Museum Maker Spaces: Creating and Play for Adults (not to be confused with “adult play”) took up the playfulness banner.  I’m sorry to have missed that session, but thanks to colleagues like Emily Holtrop (from the Cincinnati Art Museum) and Cate Bayles (from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center), I heard about some of its key themes on Twitter.

No pressure for an end product?  What do we get out of play?  As the larger debate continues about how to make museums relevant, I’m glad these are some of the issues being posed.  I’m a firm believer that the museum can be a space for more than an in-depth, object-centered experience.  As a museum educator, yes, that’s at the heart of what I do in many ways, but is it the only thing I do?  No.  The only—or, dare I say best—thing visitors can experience when they come to a museum?  Heck, no!

Museums can be many things to many people.  For those of us dedicated to making museums meaningful, setting up experiments and pushing the boundaries of what makes a “good museum visit” is a great way to find out what some of those many things might be.

That was exactly the spirit of the Gallery Teaching Marathon, organized by this site’s Mike Murawski and hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Sunday of the NAEA Convention.  As any regular reader of ArtMuseumTeaching.com knows, Mike is a voice for pushing our museum education practice, and he invited us to do just that through in-gallery sessions throughout the day.  In his original email looking for educators interested in leading a session, here’s how he put it:

“I would encourage people to think of this as an opportunity to try something new, take risks, and know that you will be among supportive colleagues, peers, and educators.”

And for those who ventured into one or two or all of the Gallery Teaching Marathon sessions, risks and newness were there for them to find.  Without speaking for my talented fellow educators who offered a wide range of experiences in the galleries that day, I will say the session I facilitated was exciting and invigorating to lead, and I hope fun to take part in.

photoWe used Richard Serra’s site-specific work, Santa Fe Depot to inspire us to write found poems, to focus on the environment around the work (up to and including the tourists dancing on top of Serra’s forged steel blocks, the commuter trains arriving and departing immediately next to us, and the pile of “organic sculpture” a dog had left behind next to the artwork), and finally, to create our own interpretive movements based on the words we’d generated.

Throughout the day, the Marathon sessions were full of eager, interested attendees, gung-ho for all the weirdness that might come their way and then ready to reflect on it. For my part, I found it incredibly liberating to be trying something with no idea how it would go over.  I liked explaining to the experimental adventurers at my session that I’d never done this before and talking about which elements of what we did made them uncomfortable and why.  It felt like an exciting deviation from what I expect from my own teaching, which led directly to me thinking about how to make it less of a deviation.

How can I take that spirit of fun, unexpected experiences in the museum and layer it into my job?  How can I give the teachers I work with—especially now, when so many are stressed over standards and evaluation—the same kind of joyful, playful invigoration that I felt from all these NAEA sessions and colleagues?  How can I spread my own belief that sometimes the most fun you can have in a museum comes from doing something within its walls that you would never have expected to do?

That’s what I’ve come home thinking about, and I’d love to hear if this idea affected any of you, too.  Any anecdotes to share about how the spirit of play has impacted your museum work?  Any advice for spreading the enjoyably surprising?  Any other NAEA sessions you attended that connected to this idea?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

If you want to read more about some of the things I’ve mentioned, check the Twitter hashtags #naea14, #naeamused14 (for museum-related content), and #galleryteachingmarathon.  There’s also my complete Storify account of the Convention, which has plenty more tweeting about the spirit of play, and Olga Hubard’s recent reflection on the Gallery Teaching Marathon itself (touching upon some of these same ideas).

In the Midst of Practice: Reflections on the Gallery Teaching Marathon

By Olga Hubard, Teachers College, Columbia University

Liz Diament leading part of a gallery teaching experience with Ai Weiwei's "Marble Chair."
Liz Diament leading part of a gallery teaching experience with Ai Weiwei’s “Marble Chair.”

We all know that one way we grow as museum education professionals is by sharing our practices and the thinking that surrounds them. In most cases we do this through traditional presentations: our ideas and experiences tidily packaged; challenges and difficulties presented as something that occurred (safely) in the past, and which we now frame as food for productive reflection. The experimentation and messiness that is so often part of our work — at least if we take the risks necessary to keep evolving — do not often occur in front of our colleagues. That is, unless we participate in a Gallery Teaching Marathon like the one that took place in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the NAEA conference this spring.

I left the Gallery Teaching Marathon both inspired and hopeful. One important reason was the very nature of the marathon: a group of seasoned museum educators guiding each other in engagements with works of art. Some, by their own admission, did “something they had never tried before;” others shared approaches that had been tried and tested but with works that were new to them. The fact that these educators felt comfortable enough to make themselves vulnerable in front of their colleagues is indicative of extraordinary trust among this community. As well, it reflects the passion and indomitable spirit of a group of professionals who have helped shape our field from the ground up.

For those of us who have become accustomed to teaching in the galleries, it was a luxury to be on the audience end of things, with the primary responsibility of helping make meaning of a series of compelling artworks. It was also fascinating to witness a range of teaching approaches that overlapped as much as they were different. I know many of us left the marathon with new ideas — particular strategies that we plan to borrow from our peers, and which will likely be incorporated into our practice soon enough.

Participants engaging in movement and pantomime strategies led by Jen Oleniczak.
Participants engaging in movement and pantomime strategies led by Jen Oleniczak.

I am ready, for example, to invite viewers to think more explicitly of the layers of meaning that a work might yield (Niki Ciccotelli Stewart), or to encourage them to enact the movements they might make if they could go inside a picture (Jen Oleniczak). I am also keen to have visitors post written questions on the periphery of a work (Heidi Hinish and Liz Diament), or to ask them to do what a particular work “is asking them to do” (Elliott Kai-Kee). More than anything, I am curious to see what happens as other educators in the group borrow and adapt this or that approach, make it their own, and come up with yet other ideas. It is this sort of cross-fertilization that keeps things moving along.

Another gain for me was renewed empathy with audiences. Throughout the marathon, I was acutely aware of how I responded to the various conditions that shaped our gallery interactions. When did the pace of a conversation leave room for my comments and when did it seem too fast or too distant from my ideas? In the case of non-discursive activities, when did I feel too self-conscious to really be in the experience and when did I feel comfortable “going for it”? How did the educator’s demeanor influence my interaction with the work and with others in the group?

By taking the participant’s seat, I was also able to re-discover something I already knew — or thought I knew. Like all of you, I have known for years that partner talk is a valuable approach in the galleries (of course!). But at MCASD, when a group got too large, or when for whatever reason I did not feel prepared to share my thoughts in a group dialogue, how grateful I was to be able to share what had been in my mind all along with a partner! The next time I facilitate partner- or small-group work I will do so from a renewed level of empathy and awareness. Perhaps like me, some of you also left the marathon with your own “re-learnings,” which can only work to enhance visitors’ experiences in the museum.

Beyond specific strategies and empathy, the gallery teaching marathon animated some larger issues that underlie our work. Two that are particularly alive for me at this point:

  1. If the experiences that took place in MCASD are in any way representative of the field, it would seem that we have come to accept that the meanings that viewers shape through words and rational thought are no more worthy than those they shape through poetic and non-discursive modalities. In an educational milieu that values rational thinking and word-based forms of meaning making above all, this places us at the vanguard–but also in tension with the status quo. Given this, how might we work to deepen and strengthen a commitment to poetic/artistic and multimodal ways of knowing so that museum visitors can continue to benefit from rich, multidimensional experiences with museum objects? How might we articulate the educational worth of diverse modes of meaning making? And how might we avoid dichotomizing rational, word-based approaches vis-à-vis more poetic ones, which might put us at risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water — or from recognizing when the two intersect?
  1. A few times during the marathon, I heard participants note that certain activities had taken them away from, rather than closer to, the works that were the target of our exploration. In the same breadth, these people added something along the lines of, “I’m not sure that it matters, though; the activity was worthwhile anyway.” For us educators, this raises a question of intentionality: When are our activities meant to bring us into deeper interaction with an object? When are they meant to spark off creative activity beyond the work itself? When are they meant to do both–or to do something different altogether? Does it matter and, if so, in what way? (These questions remind me of my colleague Megan Laverty’s provocative idea that perhaps the main purpose of art is to generate more art.)
Elliott Kai-Kee leads group to openly explore the question "what is this particular artwork asking me to do?"
Elliott Kai-Kee leads group to openly explore the question “what is this particular artwork asking me to do?”

With these and other questions in mind, throughout the marathon, part of me kept wishing for more time to debrief and reflect on what we were all experiencing. The rest of me was content with the limited reflection time we had, however — there was something wonderful about spending an entire day in the midst of practice; a day of sharing our work in the making; our practices in all their messiness and all their (realized and yet-to-be realized) potential. Perhaps an idea for another occasion might be to have a one-day gallery teaching marathon followed by a half-day reflection session.

But back to the event at MCASD. Early in this post, I said that the Gallery Teaching Marathon left me hopeful. I meant it. As I think back to our day together, I am hopeful for what is to come for our field, full as it is of courageous and dedicated educators who continue to build from the ground up, and to push us all to think and play and interact in thoughtful, imaginative ways. This is significant work for us as educators, and I trust that in time it will lead to more meaning-full museum experiences for visitors.

UPDATE: Response from Elliott Kai-Kee, J. Paul Getty Museum

Olga Hubard’s reflection on the issue of non-discursive and ‘poetic’ approaches versus word-based and ‘rational’ approaches struck a responsive chord with me. I like the way she cautions us against putting the two in opposition rather than seeing them as ‘intersecting,’ or even better, complementary. Indeed, I think it’s crucially important to figure out ways to work them together. I commonly see docents separate their school-group lessons into ‘activity’ stops and ‘discussion’ stops. How is it that we have defined the two in ways that result in such a dichotomy? They must get this from us somehow. Is it a reflection of an argument pitting engagement against interpretation? Materiality against symbolism? The Gallery Teaching Marathon demonstrated a wonderful variety of approaches to the practice of gallery teaching. Is there a way of thinking about teaching that brings them together in a way that would make them more powerful in combination?”

About the Author:

hubardOLGA HUBARD: Associate professor of art education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Olga is interested in the humanizing power of art and in how educators can help promote meaningful art experiences for learners. She has published extensively about this issue, particularly in the context of museum education. Her scholarship has appeared in journals including Studies in Art EducationCurator: The Museum JournalInternational Journal of Art and Design EducationJournal of Aesthetic EducationJournal of Museum Education, and Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association. Olga’s writing is informed by years of experience as a museum educator and art teacher, and by her ongoing studio art practice. She holds doctoral and master’s degrees in art education from Teachers College, an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and a BA in Art History from the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico). Olga’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Columbia University’s positions, strategies, or opinions.