Category Archives: Teaching Tools

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Telling to Live: Testimonio as Educational Praxis

Preface by Betsy Andersen, Founding Director of Museo Eduardo Carrillo

At the start of 2013, Museo Eduardo Carrillo began to explore the potential of curating original exhibitions online.  We determined that our focus would be on mid-career artists whose engagement in their art continued well past their college years.  We drew inspiration from The International Museum of Women and Museo de las Mujers de Costa Rico who have long been pairing art with thoughtful essays.

Lorraine García-Nakata, "The Alchemist," Pastel on Paper, 29”x 30,” 2005
Lorraine García-Nakata, “The Alchemist,” Pastel on Paper, 29”x 30,” 2005

One of our goals was to allow the artist to select a writer who they felt would expand the experience of their art through the written word.  It has been a thrilling collaborative process. As one of few online museums and as the only artist endowed foundation to represent a Mexican American artist, innovation is part of Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s DNA.

When I began a conversation with San Francisco-based artist Lorraine Garcia-Nakata and Cornell University Associate Professor Ella Diaz the exhibition took on a new dimension.  In this partnership, the Museo would not only host an online exhibition and essay, but also extend the experience to Professor Diaz’s undergraduate students.  Her students would examine the art through the “testimonio” framework which was the focus of the class.  It was an innovative and forward thinking idea. And we welcomed it wholeheartedly.

Because Eduardo Carrillo was an influential artist and Professor of Art at University of California Santa Cruz for 25 years until his death at age 60 in 1997,  Museo has felt that part of our mission is to encourage scholarship in the next generation by giving those students an opportunity to have their work published. Because the essays were so thoughtful and well written under Professor Diaz’s guidance, Museo did publish them online and they remain in Museo’s “On View” archives with the exhibition Navigating by Hand: The Art of Lorraine Garcia-Nakata.

Future exhibitions include the work of artist Jose Lozano with an essay by Professor Dianna Santillano and The Duron Family collection with Professor KarenMary Davalos. We are looking ahead to furthering this experiment that Professor Diaz instigated.

_______

Written by Ella Diaz, Cornell University

Lorraine García-Nakata: Navigating By Hand, an online exhibition of historically important Chicana artist Lorraine García-Nakata, was launched at the Museo Eduardo Carrillo in November 2013. This retrospective sampling of work, spanning several decades, was seeded by a separate exhibit I curated for the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, that included her work. Over conversation, Lorraine and I found easy nexus regarding artistic practice as social change, public pedagogy, and Chicana aestheticism, evolving from 1960/1970s civil rights philosophies informing both professional and personal choices––values often absent in art institutions that default to viewing art minus the broader human context.

Lorraine García-Nakata, "Friends, No Matter What," Charcoal/Pastel On Paper, 7' x 4' 2” , 2008
Lorraine García-Nakata, “Friends, No Matter What,” Charcoal/Pastel On Paper, 7′ x 4′ 2” , 2008

When Lorraine asked me to write a curatorial statement for her solo exhibit, I agreed. The web-based format offered room for in-depth survey of her work that would identify and interpret its complexity and related cultural grounding. Being an artist, writer, and a museum professional, Lorraine shared that curatorial statements about artists of color often play it safe, hovering obvious descriptions of art, a historical idea, or repeating culturally flat references. Having read my published article, “Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Autobiography, Performing Testimonio: New Directions in Latina/o and Chicana/o Visual Aesthetic” (published 2011 in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social), Lorraine appreciated my view of Latina/o and Chicana/o visual and performance artists who push autobiographical literary boundaries and testimonio by telling their stories as collective experience, bearing witness to sociopolitical and historical events in non-written forms.

Testimonio literature is integral to Latin American and Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/a literary canon, offering an individual’s story reflecting a whole community, urgent human circumstance, and significance/meaning of daily life. Having scheduled a 2013 fall course at Cornell University on testimonio, along with my conversations with Lorraine, I designed curriculum engaging literary testimonio and alternative visual and performing art forms that would test boundaries of this literary genre.

From I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984), a canonical testimonio, to Latina Feminist Group’s formative anthology, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001), this course included testimonio as educational praxis, an important component of Chicano/a Studies pedagogy. Incorporating Lorraine’s body of work, the course linked to the Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s online exhibition launched in November 2013. After a semester of critical inquiry of the testimonio genre and visual analysis of 1960s and 1970s civil rights murals, students were adept in this literary form. With close review of Lorraine’s visual art and selected writings, students began writing (see Museo’s website archive) revealing how García-Nakata visualizes her story as a comprehensive experience, testifying to the power of everyday life. Students conveyed, in clear resonant voices, how Lorraine speaks to viewers through her life events, childhood innocence, hopes, vulnerability, desires in later years, and raising of children.

Student Photo: From left to right: Professor Ella Diaz, Sarah Proo, Ashley Elizondo, Carmen Martínez, Stephanie Martinez, Elizabeth Ferrie, Kerry Close, Eamari Bell, & Gabriela Leon. (Not pictured: Phoebe Houston)
Student Photo: From left to right: Professor Ella Diaz, Sarah Proo, Ashley Elizondo, Carmen Martínez, Stephanie Martinez, Elizabeth Ferrie, Kerry Close, Eamari Bell, & Gabriela Leon. (Not pictured: Phoebe Houston)

Working with an artist and a museum, I designed a dynamic, interdisciplinary pedagogy for students regarding genres of Latina/Chicana prose. Students considered ways we tell our stories beyond printed autobiography. Through interpretation of works by Lorraine Garcia-Nakata as narrative, they made insightful commentary that she digested and the public witnessed.

_______

Written by Lorraine García-Nakata, Artist        

Lorraine García-Nakata, "1950’s Self Portrait," Charcoal on Paper, 7’x 4’ 2”, 2008
Lorraine García-Nakata, “1950’s Self Portrait,” Charcoal on Paper, 7’x 4’ 2”, 2008

When young, I took myself through a disciplined process resulting in a clear understanding that my life required the creative process. From that point, it was never a question, rather a quest informing my life as an artist, parent, art/cultural specialist, and as a museum professional who introduced to the field progressive best practices linked to redefinitions of community, further evolution of curatorial and public programs, development of partnerships of mutual benefit and related reciprocity, and use of accurate terminology.

As Latino contemporary artistic work has become part of the broader aesthetic, I’ve expected research, interpretation, and related writing (from within and outside our culture) to delve the complexity of Latino cultures: Chicano(a), Uruguayan, Indigenous, Caribbean, Afro Cuban, Afro North American, other cultures of Latin America, and the growing population of mixed race contemporary youth that embrace all parts of their identity. I’ve also expected exhibitions to expand beyond, and not regularly default to, group or cultural holiday exhibits. When Cornell Professor Ella Diaz approached me about an exhibit focused on figurative art by women of color, I agreed to lend my work. As a next generation, first voice (from within the culture) scholar/curator, Ella was not afraid to critique periods of our contemporary Latino history (that later evolved), such as the gender-biased framework of early phases of the Chicano movement or initial perceptions/invisibility of our LGBT Latino population. Ella also possessed a capacity to witness, interpret, and scribe the nuance of my artistic work, which is not overt or linked to the “expected” Latino iconography or color palette.

When approached by the Museo Eduardo Carrillo regarding a solo online exhibition, I agreed only if Professor Diaz could write the curatorial statement. It also seemed important for the Museum Director, Betsy Andersen, and Ella to meet. An interpretive component was developed by Ella, which included a Cornell graduate seminar focused on my work. I was delighted that students would research my work in depth and produce individual writings. I was excited to read them. For an artist, museum exhibitions are important as well as research of one’s work by a key academic institution. Cornell student writings were published on the Museo’s website, adding another important educational/interpretive element. We all worked hard to mount this exhibit, and it was clearly of mutual benefit to the Museo, myself as artist, Professor Diaz as curator, and participating Cornell students. The online exhibition provided a multi-level experience for the viewing public and offered a forum for publishing research by our next generation scholars.

While I am active in the local/national community, my artistic work is not obvious or overt in its protest or politic, but it does testify. It also challenges assumptions about how we live, how we intend our action. Being an artist, writer, and musician can be solitary and hard work. It’s a responsibility. Yet, I have long since committed my life to this practice and it will continue to be how I navigate my life.

*     *     *     *     *

Click the link below to read the essays written by nine undergraduate students at Cornell University who enrolled in Professor Ella Diaz’s fall 2013 course “Telling to Live: Critical Examinations of Testimonio.”

Read Essays from Cornell University Students

Lorraine García-Nakata, "Facio Nova Omnia II: Colonia" and "Facio Nova Omnia II: Indigena" (Diptych), Pastel on Paper, each 7’x 3’ 9” 2005
Lorraine García-Nakata, “Facio Nova Omnia II: Colonia” and “Facio Nova Omnia II: Indigena” (Diptych), Pastel on Paper, each 7’x 3’ 9” 2005

All Artwork ©2013 Lorraine García-Nakata protected under U.S. and International Law. Other than for exhibition related uses, no part of this material can be altered, reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without prior written permission of the copyright owner and artist, Lorraine García-Nakata/Lorraine García. This includes all rights now in existence or which may hereafter come into existence, including but not limited to authorship, documentation, lectures, or any other creation or presentation by Lorraine García-Nakata/ Lorraine García in any artistic medium, print, audio, electronic, video, CD ROM, photographic, digital, film, and any future medium.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

andersenBETSY ANDERSEN: Founding Director of Museo Eduardo Carrillo, created to extend the artist’s work and compassionate legacy into the world.  Andersen received her Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Santa Cruz.  Since that time she has enjoyed being the host of a radio interview show devoted to the visual arts and has explored producing documentaries on regional artists.

emd233ELLA MARIA DIAZ: earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, teaching several courses at William and Mary and developing the College’s first Chicana Literature course in spring 2005. Her research pertains to the interdependence of Chicano/a and U.S. Latino/a literary and visual cultures. Her dissertation, “Flying Under the Radar with The Royal Chicano Air Force: The Ongoing Politics of Space and Ethnic Identity” explores these intersections and, for this project, she received The College of William and Mary’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2010. She was a Lecturer in The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute between 2006—2012. Her current book project explores the historical consciousness of a Chicano/a arts collective that produced major and canonical works of poetry, art, and literature. Diaz has published through Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, U.C. Santa Barbara’s ImaginArte, and in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social.

Lorraine-garciaLORRAINE GARCÍA-NAKATA: Since 1973, Lorraine García-Nakata has been a “pilot” with the world-renowned Sacramento Chicano artist collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF). One of six original primary muralists, Lorraine was the only female artist asked to join her fellow pilots José Montoya, Esteban Villa, Juanishi Orosco, Stan Padilla, and Juan Cervantes in painting the renowned and historic South Side Mural located in Sacramento, California. Ms. García-Nakata is a recognized visual artist and has exhibited extensively since 1970 on a local, regional, national and international level. Adept in a range of visual arts medium, she is noted for her large-scale works in drawing and painting. Lorraine is also recognized for her command of mixed media, printmaking, installation work, ceramics, and sculpture.

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OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums

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

So what is VTS?

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing Beyond the Protocol

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

Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine

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

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

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

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

ADD YOUR QUESTIONS:

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

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

#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
Nothing signifies 'play' like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.

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).

marathon

Gallery Teaching Marathon in San Diego

Gallery Teaching Marathon Flyer_2 (1)The ArtMuseumTeaching community has been growing now for more than 2 years, providing an online forum for educators and museum professionals to reflect on practice, teaching, learning, technology, public engagement, diversity, professional development, and a whole host of other issues and topics. During the past year, Google Hangouts have become a new medium to extend these text-based relationships into face-to-face, real-time conversations — bridging enormous distances to bring people together to reflect on the practice of teaching and learning in museums.

Most recently, I have become interested in new ways to bring museum educators together physically in museum contexts, enacting and inquiring into our teaching practices while further building community in an openly-networked fashion.  Our museums’ galleries are increasingly becoming open spaces in which communities of teachers & learners can connect, intersect, and come together to make learning visible and then reflect upon our practice in a shared, public space. Last week, ArtMuseumTeaching partnered with the American Folk Art Museum to host the first-ever Museum Teaching Throw Down – an event that brought together more than 60 museum colleagues and friends from across New York City (and beyond) to actively engage in teaching experiences led by the fabulous trio of Jen Oleniczak, Rachel Ropeik, and PJ Policarpio.  Stay tuned for further post-throwdown reflections and reports from this amazing evening.

marathon-smallExtending this work to bring museum education peers together to reflect on our practice, ArtMuseumTeaching is partnering with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) during the National Art Education Association national conference at the end of this month to host its first Gallery Teaching Marathon.  This event will feature 9 art museum educators leading a series of teaching experiences in the galleries throughout the entire day, actively engaging participants in looking, writing, drawing, questioning, social media, and theatre as well as reflective discussions about teaching and learning in the museum context. Admission if FREE, and all are welcome!

Here are the details, followed by the current schedule of amazing experiences.  Please use this blog post as well as the ArtMuseumTeaching Google Community to stay up-to-date on any schedule changes or announcements.

MCASDmapWhen:  Sunday, March 30th, 11am-5pm – link to Google+ Event Page
Where:  Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Downtown location (1100 Kettner Blvd)

Before planning your day on this Sunday, we encourage you to first check the NAEA conference schedule (which includes dozens of incredible sessions, events, and forums focused on museum education and all areas of art education).  Make note of the conference sessions happening this day, and then squeeze in some time to walk over to the MCASD-Downtown to join us.  The easy walk from the Convention Center to the MCASD-Downtown location is about 10-15 minutes through sunny downtown San Diego.

MARATHON SCHEDULE

11:00-11:40am
Layers of Meaning
Experience led by Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

It’s been said that every work of art tells a different story. But, what if there was more than one story to tell? In this session, we’ll engage with a work of art and investigate it together, layer by layer, to uncover the many meanings within.  Directed looking and facilitated conversation, designed to uncover the context(s) of the work.  In this session, participants will engage in looking, talking, writing and drawing; consider the many contexts of the work, including time, gallery placement, and their own personal interests; search for the artists’ message or intention, building on what the group knows and discovers together; and determine how the artwork is relevant in today’s world, and on a personal level.

11:45am-12:25pm
#DramaticPossibilities
Experience led by Jen Oleniczak, TheEngagingEducator.com

Focusing on movement and theatre-based ways of exploring art, and continuing the conversation beyond the gallery by using social media.

12:30-1:25pm
Teaching with Thinking Routines
Experience by Heidi Hinish and Liz Diament, National Gallery of Art

Slow down, look carefully, and enjoy time spent in conversation around a work of art.  In this session, we will model a teaching strategy called a Thinking Routine to guide the discussion. Thinking Routines were developed by researchers at Harvard University’s Project Zero. The routines are short sets of open-ended questions that are designed to help learners engage with complex ideas and objects, to foster rich engagement, and to build understanding.

1:30-2:20pm
Collaborative Poetry, Meet Interpretive Dance
Experience by Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Let’s see what happens when we use a work of visual art to inspire us to two other creative art forms.  We’ll discuss an artwork together, then let it inspire us with both words and movement.  Adventurous experimenters welcome.  No poetry, dance, or even museum experience required.

2:25-3:15pm
VTS-ing VTS
Experience by Michelle Grohe and Jenn DePrizio, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Whether you love it, loathe it, or don’t yet know about it—VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) is a force within art museum education.  Join us for a open forum to explore the possibilities and limits of this pedagogy.  Ever wondered what VTS looks like with more experienced viewers?  This is your chance to participate in a VTS discussion with colleagues and reflect together on our professional practices.

3:20-4:10pm
What Does This Artwork Want?
Experience by Elliott Kai-Kee, J. Paul Getty Museum

Participants will start with the question, “What is this particular artwork asking me to do?” and as a group perform responses that arise. A brief discussion follows, of how “doing with” relates to “talking about” objects.

4:15-5:00pmCANCELLED (due to illness … we hope Chelsea feels better soon)
Investigating Transformative Experiences with Art
Experience by Chelsea Kelly, Milwaukee Art Museum

What are the connections between individual, art historical, and experiential/group interpretations of works of art? How might we use these experiences to create relevancy for our collections and humanize our institutions? Inspired by the work we do as educators to support, study, and take part in transformative experiences with art (in the spirit of Elkins’ Pictures and Tears, Armstrong & de Botton’s Art as Therapy, and Burnham & Kai-Kee’s Teaching in the Art Museum), join me in a group discussion that will begin with sharing our own personal transformative experiences with art, then branch out to explore the above questions. PLEASE BRING: A story about a transformative experience you have personally had with a work of art, and a picture of that artwork to share (on your tablet or printed out is fine).

ArtMuseumTeaching HAPPY HOUR

check out these amazing drinks at Craft & Commerce, location for this year's Happy Hour

Whether you can attend part of the Gallery Teaching Marathon or not, the ArtMuseumTeaching community invites you to an evening Happy Hour for further networking, community-building, and to learn more about how to get involved.  For this year’s Happy Hour, ArtMuseumTeaching is pairing up with Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC), a nonprofit organization for museum professionals whose work is focused on museum audiences. Here are the details for the Happy Hour:

When: Sunday, March 30th, 5:30-7:00pm – link to the Google+ Event page
Where: Craft & Commerce, 675 W Beech St – http://www.craft-commerce.com/

So if you plan to be in San Diego for the NAEA conference, we hope to see you at the Gallery Teaching Marathon and Happy Hour on Sunday.  Should be lots of fun as we meet new people, connect with old friends, and celebrate the work we do as educators!

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Forget About the Price Tag: Engaging with a Masterpiece

Bidding during the auction for Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," New York. AP
Bidding during the auction for Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” New York. AP

This past November, the art market grabbed headlines around the globe with the record-breaking auction purchase of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” With nearly 500 news stories (and counting), this trio of canvases has garnered nearly Miley-Cyrus-level media attention — a frenzy obsessed with auction prices and billionaire collectors. When it was announced that this series of canvases was going to be on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of our Masterworks series this winter, I immediately began thinking about how one can get past the media craze and dollar signs in order to dig deeper into the core significance of this ‘masterpiece.’  How might we address the complexities of how visitors would experience a work like this?  What are some ways in which we could bring audiences into a closer connection with this work?  How could I, myself, have an experience with this work in a meaningful and personal way?

Standing in front of this triptych myself for the first time in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum, I was initially overwhelmed and distracted by the news stories that have provided so much baggage for this intriguing portrait.  What was I going to have to do to dig deeper — to start discovering this ‘masterpiece’ for myself? As I stood there, I thought of the words of British philosopher and art historian John Armstrong, who in his 2000 book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art writes:

“If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.”

Perhaps the best way to start tackling this painting was to actually deal with the fraught idea of a ‘masterpiece’ and how that determination effects the experience we can have with art.  For me, this type of exploration is best done with others.  So early in the New Year, I invited our docents to spend some time with me in front of the Francis Bacon triptych to do some close looking, to connect with some of the scholarship on the work, and to start the process of digging deeper into the work’s significance.  With only a few days notice, we had about 60 docents show-up for these open explorations of teaching with and experiencing a modern masterpiece.

What Exactly Is a ‘Masterpiece’?

Visitors crowd around Picasso's "Desmoiselles D'Avignon" at Museum of Modern Art in New York,
Visitors crowd around Picasso’s “Desmoiselles D’Avignon” at Museum of Modern Art in New York,

Across the country, visitors consistently flock to museums to see noted masterworks (whether through traveling special exhibitions, celebrated groupings of masterpieces, as part of some museums’ collections).  Yet, an artwork’s prestige can create a situation (like the insomniac) in which the pressure to ‘get’ the famous work prevents us from having any type of valuable experience at all.  This situation is more common with modern and contemporary art, which might not always meet the traditional or popular criteria of a masterpiece.  So what do we mean when we say a painting is a masterwork or ‘masterpiece’?

This question is a weighty one and comes with a lot of historical, cultural, and political baggage — yet I began my sessions with our docents by directly addressing this very topic.  Faced with defining the characteristics of a masterpiece while seated in front of the Bacon, our group of docents and I discussed how a masterpiece traditionally has “stood the test of time,” or is a particularly iconic work within a major artist’s career.  In our conversations, we also touched a bit upon the individual experience we have with a masterpiece — something that draws us in and keeps us thinking, questioning, wondering.  In my own experiences visiting museums as well as teaching with art, I do find that certain works of art continuously draw us back in for repeat encounters, offering new challenges and insights each time we sit in front of them.  We questioned the idea of who gets to define a ‘masterpiece,’ proposing that perhaps we as individuals get to make that determination for ourselves.

However, people frequently look to experts or scholars to help us determine which artworks might be considered masterpieces, so I thought I’d bring in a few of their ideas.  Back in 2010, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a series of art scholars and experts about this very question posed by the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz entitled “Masterpieces?”.  Here are a few responses:

“For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance, and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists.” -Stephanie Barron, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And the paintings that move you so much words fail you — those are the masterpieces.” -Michael Kareken, artist

For our engagement with the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum, it was important for our discovery to push past monetary value (which, of course, remains the elephant in the room) in order to see how this painting might appeal to us in a more complex, meaningful,and perhaps elusive way. We began to unknowingly take the advice of a quite terrible but catchy pop song as we proceeded: “forget about the price tag.”

Aaron Doyle and Evan Tewinkel, preparators at the Portland Art Museum, install the Bacon triptych. Jamie Francis/The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com

Engaging with a Masterpiece: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)

Moving past the auction price and the weight of this work being a ‘masterpiece,’ we were now faced with looking at this immense triptych of 6-foot-tall canvases and making some meaning of our own.  But how to do this?  How to begin to dig deeper?  I immediately went back to John Armstrong, and a recent book he co-authored with writer Alain de Botton entitled Art as Therapy.  Probing at the larger purpose and relevance of art (and quite critical of the art market, itself), Armstong and DeBotton offer philosophical strategies for approaching art in a new way, beyond the normal historical or stylistic concerns toward a more personal, human approach:

“Getting something out of art doesn’t just mean learning about it — it also means investigating ourselves. We should be ready to look into ourselves in response to what we see.” (p. 72)

murawski-teaching-with-baconWhile I generally gravitate toward this type of approach, it seemed particularly appropriate as a framework through which to view this visceral and intensely human set of paintings by Bacon.  After briefly talking about Armstong and De Botton’s ideas, the docents and I spent much of our sessions with quiet, guided looking followed by small group conversations to talk about what we were noticing, thinking, and wondering with the Bacon portraits.  I acknowledged that this would only be the beginning of our experience with these paintings, and read a few quotes from Bacon himself to help us peel back more layers of meaning in these portraits.

“In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person.”- Francis Bacon

“When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.” - Francis Bacon

Before we left the Bacon triptych as a group, I invited each docent to return to this painting at another time, sit with the work alone on a quiet afternoon, and spend about 20 or 30 minutes doing some sketches and open reflective writing.  For me, the most powerful prompt for this type of written response has simply been “What is this to me?” — a question directly inspired by John Armstong and one that I have used repeatedly in my own gallery learning as well as teaching with larger groups.  And I feel that if we can begin to answer this question for ourselves, we can also begin to open up a new type of experience for our visitors with great works of art.

The sessions I led with the docents in front of the Bacon triptych were by no means the type of neatly packaged, “transformative” experience we sometimes strive for. I had to remind myself that there was value in simply opening up a process of discovery and not ending in some grand culminating moment of clarity.  After all, this was a complex artwork filled with a shifting sense of energy, fragility, violence, and deep emotion that would reward a more sustained and circuitous path of learning. In her chapter entitled “Intense Looks” in Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham discusses the deep journey of contemplation, research, and gallery teaching that can often lead us, as educators, to our own transformative experiences with art. As she aptly writes:

“As museum educators, we must never forget that in every gallery dialogue we lead we must strive simultaneously to discover both the artworks we look at so intensely and the process itself of discovering artwork…. As teachers, our own difficulties in making sense of art, the experiences of frustration, the long detours and false starts, all chart a terrain whose exploration expands our capacity for empathetic listening and responding, for encouraging intense looking, and for moving dialogue forward.”

It may be these cumulative, layered experiences we have with masterpieces that allow us to change the way we see art as well as ourselves.  But these types of experiences take time and repeat encounters with a work of art — they don’t happen in the seconds or minutes that we typically spend glancing at a painting such as the Bacon triptych, and they also often don’t necessarily happen when we’re leading a guided experience with an artwork. As I concluded my session with our docents in front of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” I encouraged them all to see our collective experience as simply the beginning of a deeper process of looking at this work; a process they would need to culminate on their own, in their own personal way, and in collaboration with future visitors to the museum.

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Bringing the Museum into the Art History Classroom

Written by Karen Shelby, Assistant Professor of Art  History at Baruch College, City University of New York, and co-founder of Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR).  This post was originally published online at Art History Teaching Resources, a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing art history survey teaching materials between teachers.

mona-lisaMost art history instructors include a museum visit or two in the semester schedule. But what if a museum or gallery visit is difficult to arrange dependent upon geographic location of the college or university, class size, or the time the class is offered?

Even though I have access to numerous museums because I teach in New York City, I found that some of these challenges prohibited my students in engaging with the museum in what I considered to be a meaningful way. I often teach jumbo art history survey classes and there’s just no way for one instructor to physically tour 100 students around a museum at once in any meaningful way. If not class size, then my city college students’ schedules – job 1, job 2, family, other classes – meant they couldn’t make the visits I scheduled. For these and many other reasons, I increasingly found that it was often no longer possible to engage the students with a teacher-led museum visit (though where I can, I always still do!).  Through several discussions with Michelle Millar Fisher at AHTR, we came up with the idea to film some of the museums in the city in order to help facilitate professor-led discussions in our classrooms before our students hit the museum.

Google Art Project lets us inside the Tate Britain (among many other art museums) from our computer or mobile device.
Google Art Project lets us inside the Tate Britain (among many other art museums) from our computer or mobile device.

There are certainly helpful projects out there already that pointed towards our idea. But, while Google Art Project and Google Maps Street View allow students to view the interior and exterior of museum spaces, they are stilted and do not study the exterior façade and environment in the necessary depth of an academic exercise. We want our students to consider the politics of the museum space – how, why, and where the artwork is located in the museum, and the museum architecture itself.

We ultimately got this project supported by two Baruch Learning and Technology Grants that supported the work of filmmaker and editor Thomas Shoemaker who filmed at least ten museums as well as two discussions among museum educators and art history instructors. We’re still working on uploading some of them to the AHTR site, and also redubbing them – one part of the learning process was realizing that having a score was distracting. We are currently reinstating the “wild sound” they were created with. We are in the process of editing and uploading the following films: The New Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Tenement Museum, and PS1 (we have some fabulous footage of Five Pointz from the 7 train before it was torn down). In addition, we recorded a conversation among Michelle, architectural historian and Big Onion Tour Guide Ted Barrow, and myself about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another between Laura Lombard, manager of University Programs and Partnerships, and Mike Obremski, a gallery guide, at the Rubin Museum of Art.

We hope that the availability of the short museum segments will enhance professor/student engagement for a variety of academic disciplines. But for art history, these films can provide a number of pedagogical objectives. I use these films as introductions to the self-guided museum visits that I must now assign to the 100+ students in my jumbo courses. We also view the films in class after the students have toured the museum and handed in their formal analysis assignments. The traditional formal analysis assignment now includes a section that asks them to critically evaluate the museum space. The goal is to make them aware of how the decisions made by museum personnel subconsciously affect each visitor.  My model is Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach’s “The Universal Survey Museum.”

Duncan and Wallach analyze the Louvre, considering the information imparted to the visitor through the deliberate placement of the works of art, the organization of the galleries, and the architectural frame of the Louvre. They provided me with some ideas to create a list of questions for the survey student to consider as he or she moves through the museum, including:

    • Where is the museum located?
    • What does it look like on the exterior and interior?
    • What art historical period does it reference?
    • Why do you think this style was chosen?
    • How is the museum organized in the interior?
    • What cultures are featured?
    • Which are difficult to find?
    • What do you think about this organization?

Both Michelle and I have had some great pre- and post-visit class discussions spring from watching these films with our students. In one of Michelle’s classes, after students visited the Met independently (watching the Met Museum film before and after and discussing as a class), the students were asked to analyze the film that showed the Studio Museum in Harlem (without knowing the name of the institution) as an extra credit question on their midterm. Students showed confidence and facility with describing and interpreting the similarities and differences between the two exteriors, interiors, and neighborhoods. For example, they didn’t know the flag outside the Studio Museum in Harlem was David Hammons’ African American Flag, but they could interpret the difference between its symbolism (alternative, wishing to make a new statement about the politics inherent to the American flag) and the symbolism on the facade of the Met (classical, traditional, patriarchal). It was fun to parse this further after the exams were handed back, and to be able to continue to discuss – in a multifaceted way – spaces of display long after the museum visit had happened.

We’re pleased to have these films available and we hope they become a valuable resource to the arts teaching community. The goal is to add to the collection with the help of the recent Kress Digital Resources grant awarded to AHTR, but also from contributions from our peers.

We’d love to hear what you think of this project. What would you need changed or adapted in order to use it in your classroom or teaching environment? Could you make similar videos of institutions and places in your locality that we could post and share on AHTR?  We’d love if others in the AHTR or ArtMuseumTeaching community would add to the collection expanding it beyond the currently New York City-centered focus. Help us create some additional assignments or discussion points to be added to the AHTR site. We want your feedback and participation!

Editor’s Note:  Here at ArtMuseumTeaching, I’m interested in the thoughts and feedback from museum educators about using museum videos and short films to prepare students for their own self-guided visits to our institutions.  What are other ways in which art history faculty might connect their students to art museums, collections, and learning spaces they provide?  Are there ways in which emerging technologies might allow museums to ‘enter’ the jumbo survey classroom in unique ways?  How might museums work toward connecting better with the needs of college and university faculty who might not be able to visit with their students?  Your thoughts, questions, and ideas are welcome!

**This post was originally published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR).

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Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums

“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.”  - Adam Gopnik

conversationOver the past 20 years, research in the fields of museum studies and museum education have firmly established the importance of the social dimension of visitors’ museum experiences and the learning that happens in museums (see this great 2012 post from Regan Forrest’s Interactivate blog).  In addition, a wealth of research from more than 50 years of educational psychology speaks to the social and cooperative aspects of learning in more formal educational settings (see this extremely useful resource packet developed at Stanford on “Learning in a Social Context”).  So whether sitting in a classroom or walking through an art museum, we learn and make meaning through our interactions and conversations with the people around us.

Last week, I was invited to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to give a talk to their volunteer docents on the topic of “dialogic and conversational touring.”  I have always been a strong advocate for conversational pedagogy in museums, practicing this form of teaching myself on a regular basis as well as spending considerable time these past several years thinking about how to bring conversation into the core of docent education and tours.  Thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the docents at the Crocker, I used this as a way to crystallize some of my thinking about the learning power of conversation in museums.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Crocker’s docents and education staff (special thanks to Jill Pease and Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick), and I thought I would share some reflections here on the topic of conversation and museum teaching.

What Does ‘Conversation’ Mean to Me?

When I examine what ‘conversation’ means to me and my own practice of museum teaching, two unsuspecting people come to mind:  critic and curator Michael Brenson and contemporary Anishinabe-Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore.  Back in 1996 at the “Conversations at the Castle” series of discussions between artists, critics, and the public about contemporary art and audiences, Michael Brenson addressed the core democratic notions of conversation.  The following quote from Brenson has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums:

“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”

Rebecca Belmore, "Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose" (1992)
Rebecca Belmore, “Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose” (1992)

Since beginning my museum career in a largely contemporary art museum, I have formed so much of my own teaching practice from ideas of pedagogy and human connection advanced by contemporary artists. While didactic wall texts, curatorial essays, and academic lectures often over-intellectualize and dull the interests that contemporary artists have in education and public engagement, I continue to find that so many artists are constantly thinking about the ways that their work can bring people together to think, talk, exchange ideas, make connections, and have meaningful conversations about issues relevant to our lives.

Rebecca Belmore is one artist whose work has powerfully ignited my own thinking about conversation, about whose voices get to be part of a conversation (or don’t), and about the role that power plays in the conversations we might have in institutions such as museums.  I first encountered her performance and installation work during one of my feminist and gender studies courses in graduate school, specifically her 1992 piece entitled Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose (shown above).

In this work, Belmore arranges a circle of chairs taken from her own kitchen and the living spaces of women closest to her. Viewers are invited to sit down, put on a pair of headphones dangling over each chair back, and listen to the stories of Belmore’s female community talking about their lives as native women in Canada. What strikes me most about this work is how Belmore welcomes participants into a circle of community, a form of talking circle that embraces voices that would likely otherwise go unheard.

Sparked from inspirations such as these as well as years of in-gallery experiences, I’ve developed some overarching frameworks that have helped me think about creating an environment for conversation while teaching in an art museum.  First of all, I continue to find that the structures of engagement, or physical arrangement of people in the space of the gallery, has a strong correlation to the type of conversations that can occur.  In addition to simply how we arrange our groups, there are certain power relationships that we create as we position ourselves as educators and facilitators of meaningful conversations. I’m going to briefly dive into both of these areas, but far more pixels could certainly be spilled about each topic — and I hope maybe we can have some discussion in the Comments section below to pull out more ideas.

Structures of Engagement

In preparing to speak about “conversational touring” at the Crocker Art Museum last week, I spent considerable time thinking about the underlying structures that can establish a conducive environment for meaningful conversations (or that can prevent them from happening).  For me, the physical space we create with our group is always so important, sending an immediate message about the types of interactions we expect to have.  I used the photos below (pulled randomly from Flickr and Google) to illustrate a few examples of how we, as educators, can create better structures of engagement in the galleries.

Staff Tour of Sin and Salvation

Of these four gallery teaching experiences, which do you think might have the best conversations taking place?  Which of these photos looks most like tours that you have experienced, or even that you might lead yourself? (I, myself, have led plenty of tours that looked like the photos on the left)

The two images on the left show a much more traditional and common structure of engagement, with an educator or “tour leader” at the front near the artwork and then the group a bit farther away.  While this is a completely valid and effective way to lead a tour, it just does not lead to lots of conversation.  Any dialogue and exchange happening is between the tour leader and the participants, with very little participant-to-participant communication possible (the core of that social, cooperative dimension of learning).  When the docents at the Crocker were examining these photos with me, they also noticed how much the participants body language seemed to support their mediocre levels of engagement.

By contrast, the two photos on the right show a very different structure of engagement — something that actually looks a lot more like Rebecca Belmore’s circle of chairs.  The educator or tour leader becomes a part of the group, and the structure of the circle creates a more effective space of engagement where focused looking, questioning, and thinking can occur. It creates a better environment for conversation and discussion, as well as greater participation among the group (students and participants are not as detached from the experience — teachers and students all become learners in the gallery experience).  While this subtle difference can seem fairly obvious, I could not even begin to count how many docents or educators I have observed that struggle with making connections with visitors — much of which could be solved with a simple re-arrangement of their group.

Power Relationships

As we make decisions about the physical arrangement of our groups, it is also important to be aware of the power relationships (often unintended) that we set-up between ourselves and our group, and among the group itself.  In a good conversation, as Michael Brenson describes, “ownership is shared.”  We aim to create a safe environment for open exchange and dialogue in which everyone’s voices and ideas are respected.  This type of open conversation can be very difficult to achieve if we set-up a one-sided power dynamic with our group.

In the two photos on the left (below), we see fairly typical docent-led school tours.  By standing and towering over their group, however, the docent or educator has established a traditional teacher-student power relationship that will not lend itself as well to open exploration, creative wondering, and meaningful conversations among the students.  Feel free to try this out — have a conversation with someone in your office with one of you standing and the other person sitting on the floor.  Yep … awkward at best.

power-relationships-images

The two photographs on the right (above) show exchanges in which the educator and students are closer to the same level; no one is towering over the other.  These students likely feel more empowered to look, question, wonder, and discover along with their docent or educator, breaking down the traditional power relationships between ‘teacher’ and ‘student.’  In my own teaching experiences, this almost always rings true — as soon as we all sit on the floor and are at a level playing field, the conversation ignites and we are all more open to sharing our thoughts, insights, and questions.  With adult groups, arranging a semi-circle of gallery stools is an easy way to establish this conducive environment for meaningful conversation.

How do you create meaningful conversations in your museum?

It was so great to have the afternoon last week to work with the Crocker Art Museum docents on these (and other) issues regarding conversational touring.  We had lots of fun modeling the power dynamics of a tour through a quick theatre exercise on stage, and we worked on developing creative, participatory questions to spark meaningful conversations with works of art.  I even had a chance to talk briefly about the role of artwork selection on a conversational tour, as well as something I like to call “researching for stickiness,” or how we can research information about artworks in a way that helps open up pathways to spark dialogue and thinking.  Even with all of this, we were only able to scratch the surface in terms of “dialogic and conversational touring.”

I would love to hear some of your best strategies for igniting meaningful conversation in the galleries:

  • How important is conversation for tours and education experiences at your museum?
  • What is your favorite way to start a tour that will be focused on conversation?
  • How do you set-up that expectation from the beginning?
  • What types of teaching techniques do you find bring out the most interesting discussions (for students or adults)?
  • How do you ensure that the diverse voices of participants and students can be heard?
Photo by Stephen Ironside

What’s the Value of an Art Museum Field Trip?

Photo by Stephen Ironside
Photo by Stephen Ironside

By Anne Kraybill, School and Community Programs Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Early in my career, I worked at an art museum that experienced what many art museums have experienced, a steady decline in school tours. Our tours did not cost anything to the schools, we had a grant for some transportation and the school district had funding as well. As an institution, we were puzzled. If the tours were barrier-free in terms of cost, what could be causing this? This was just around the time of the initial implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and we had anecdotal evidence that preparing for the NCLB test was deterring administrators from approving field trips during the months preceding the exam.  But even in the non-test prep months, attendance was down.

As I progressed throughout my career, I continued to face the challenge of convincing administrators that a trip to the art museum is a worthy endeavor. Even with funding for transportation, it has been a difficult case to make with little rigorous research available to back up our arguments. Through my teaching practice in the gallery, I can see the connections students are making: the critical thinking and inference, and the expansion of their interpretive framework that opens up their world. But could it be proven? We needed hard numbers:  How does a one-time field trip to an art museum actually impact a student, and is that impact enough to convince an administrator?

Fortunately, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art inherently believes in the power of the field trip and the multiple effects it has upon student learning. Thanks to the generosity of the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable foundation, the Museum established a $10 million endowment that provides every school with transportation, substitute teachers, and a lunch for students during their museum visit. This makes a field trip barrier free and as one might imagine, the demand was high. Everyone wanted to visit the Museum when we first opened. But as I had experienced previously, financial barriers are not the only challenge to ensuring school visitation. How could we ensure that five or ten years from now we still had the same interest and support from school administrators?

Photo by Stephen Ironside
Photo by Stephen Ironside

Located in the Ozarks, Crystal Bridges is the first large art museum in the region. Prior to the opening of our Museum, schools would have to drive to Tulsa or Little Rock to visit an art museum. The combination of never having an art museum in the area, plus a demand for field trips that exceeded our Museum’s initial capacity, lent itself to a natural experiment. We contacted the University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform to measure the impact a one-time field trip has upon students.

Researchers Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel Bowen designed a random assignment study. Schools applied to visit the Museum in grade levels or pods. Groups were matched and then randomly assigned whether they would get the field trip right away, or if they would get the field trip later. Once the study began, the treatment group visited the Museum and the control group was surveyed. Following the field trip, the treatment group was surveyed (an average of three weeks after). The research was conducted from March through December 2012. There were almost 11,000 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools throughout the region in this study.

Tour Methodology

Crystal Bridges school tours are similar to those at many art museums. We use interactive dialog that allows the tour to be student driven. Students make observations or statements and Museum Educators respond through paraphrasing, questions, or layering additional contextual information for the student to a level of understanding that they might not get to on their own. For many students and their teachers this is their first time on an art museum field trip. We want to be sure they know this is not about the passive reception of information. We emphasize to the students that this tour is about their ideas, and we produced a video to help deliver this message:

Tours are led by Museum Educators that are on staff rather than a volunteer corp. As they are leading tours daily, the educators are continually refining and reflecting. In addition, peer review and mentoring is part of the training process.

The Findings

Photo by Stephen Ironside
Photo by Stephen Ironside

The researchers were interested in revealing several areas of possible impact. These included cognitive and non-cognitive skills from knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, tolerance, historical empathy, and desire to visit museums in the future.

  • Overall, students remember what they learn from works of art! Shocking I know, but students were able to answer very specific questions about contextual information, demonstrating that they retained that information not because they had to for a test, but because it was interesting information to keep.
  • In critical thinking, students also displayed more observations and inferences if they had been on a field trip.
  • Students indicated that they would be more open to diverse opinions, even if they were in opposition to their own thinking.
  • Students were better able to imagine a situation unlike their own in the form of historical empathy.
  • There was also a built-in behavioral measure indicated if the treatment or control group would be more likely to come back to the museum. The treatment group did independently return with their families at a higher rate than the control. In all of the areas there is an impact, but the most significant impact is found within student populations that are considered to attend low-socio economic and/or rural schools.

With recent research in non-cognitive abilities as a predictor of student success, these findings help to make a rigorous case to administrators, policy makers, philanthropists, and educators that there is significant value in a field trip.

To learn more about the findings and research methodology, read the article in Education Next.

To hear the research team discuss the findings, view the September 16th Media Conference.

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About Author

AnneKraybillANNE KRAYBILL: School and Community Programs Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. With a team of educators, she developed and implemented all programming related to K-12 students, teachers, and pre-service teachers as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. She is currently developing a distance learning initiative for Crystal Bridges and pursuing her Ph.D. in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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“Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators

As museum educators, we’re always trying to get visitors to slow down, but sometimes we have a more immediate task, convincing them that they are in fact looking at a work of art. Recently three New York City educators got together and talked about the most common “Is this art?” situations we’ve encountered.

Rachel Crumpler on Jackson Pollock: “My four-year-old could do that.”

Observing Jackson Pollock's 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)', Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/
Observing Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/

Before you stop reading, let me acknowledge – yes, I have chosen a cliché. My intention is to use Pollock as a stand-in, a canonical example, of any number of more process-based works. For instance: Kazou Shiraga’s slippery barefoot paintings, Zarina’s meticulous Pin Drawings, Franz Kline’s definitive brushstrokes, or even John Chamberlain’s crunched-up cars. These works often challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what kind of art they will (or should) see hanging on the walls of the museum.

The responses vary, ranging from “My four-year-old could do that” to “It looks like scribble-scrabble, finger painting, a car wreck, a big mess.” Or the hardest response for an educator to field: the uncomfortable polite silence punctuated with a quick roll of the eye or a smirk shared between friends. Once uttered, perhaps coaxed forth, responses invariably question the artist’s skill and the overall value of the artwork. (Confession: I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to get annoyed when a visitor sneers and likens an artist to a four-year-old, insulting some of my favorite children as well as some of my favorite artists.) In fact, these comments are often coming from visitors who feel affronted by the unexpected and are responding defensively.

Many of the initial comments a Pollock (or any process-based work) elicits refer to how the painting was made – and also often indicate a hesitation to accept the work as art. Though stated defensively, these comments are not entirely off base. I think it’s important to first acknowledge and accept the hesitation. That’s something I love about museums. There is always some artwork that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges my own definition of what art can be. In his time, Jackson Pollock was pushing the envelope; with his artwork, he was asking questions about how art should look and how art can be made.

Conversations in museums, thankfully, are not meant to appraise the quality of the artworks viewed, but rather to unpack the inherent ideas. After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand. For Pollock, I would want to return to the implicit observations made in the initial comments and how they relate to the creative process. What about the painting makes it look like scribbling, finger painting, a mess? Where, specifically, in the painting do you see that?

The ensuing conversation will vary, depending on who is taking part and what the original comments were; any number of approaches could move the discussion forward.

I might show some of Pollock’s earlier and more representational work from his years with the Art Students League. Looking at the two works side by side silently states that the abstraction is a choice, not a matter of ability. I might ask the group how the two would be different to make. Or I might share that Pollock lived with his wife Lee Krasner in a farmhouse on Long Island. He would spread his canvases out on the floor of his large studio, and using brushes, sticks and sometimes a turkey baster loaded with house paint, he would begin to squirt, pour and drip onto the floor. I might ask the group to see if they can identify the painting’s starting and ending points. Alternately, I might ask the group to envision a four-year-olds drawing and compare it to the Pollock – how do the two differ, and what do they share in common?

The differences found in the all-over painting style may point to Pollock’s control of the paint and academic knowledge of composition. The similarities, however, might allow for greater understanding of Pollock’s process and more nuanced interpretations of his work. In fact, the response “my four-year-old could do that” may be more insightful than the participant (or educator) realizes.

Four-year-olds, still learning language and ways to interact with other humans, often express themselves physically. Anger is communicated through clenched fists and stomping feet; sadness, through a down-turned glance or the curl of the spine. And sometimes, it just feels good to run. For a four-year-old, movement is a primary means of engaging with the world. Likewise, Pollock chose to engage with the canvas through movement. Rather than communicating through recognizable images, he dripped, dribbled, spilled and splattered the paint in a dizzying dance across his studio floor. The painting we see can be read as the aftermath, a record of the artist’s intuitive physical expression.

Jen Oleniczak on Kiki Smith: “That’s disgusting, how is it art?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describing something as beautiful is as benign as saying your day is ‘fine’ – neither offer information and both are frustrating without more information. The same can be said for calling something disgusting – and much like asking why a day is just ‘fine’ asking why a person thinks something is disgusting often ends up with the retort of “because it just is.”

A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled "Lilith," 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.
A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled “Lilith,” 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.

Aesthetics are subjective, and much art can be overlooked because it is not outwardly ‘beautiful.’ Having the experience of teaching with classic and modern art, I’ve heard the “pfft, that’s disgusting” in front of works not traditionally ‘beautiful’. While it’s fairly easy to call a floral Rococo work ‘beautiful’ and ‘art’ – what about a gritty Kiki Smith?

My goal as an educator is not only to have visitors appreciate craft in a work that isn’t traditionally ‘beautiful,’ but also to understand the art AND beauty is often in the idea, as well as the work. Kiki Smith’s Tale encompasses that very balance. Smith is known for her representations of the body, usually altered in gasp-inducing ways. Tale is a sculpture of a woman crawling on the ground with a long trail of feces (fake) following behind her – admittedly, a bit cringe worthy, even for the savviest of art viewers. and easily something a visitor could dismiss as disgusting. But when examined closer, the work, like all of Smith’s body works, is brilliantly complex.

When in doubt, I bring out the inquiry guns for students and adults alike. Just the title of the work, Tale, provokes the question: why do you think Smith used Tale and not Tail? What could the title imply? A quote from Smith herself opens the conversation further:

The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something – like that you’re dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it’s so apparent in one’s own being. (as cited in NPR “Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile”)

Just those brief questions and an artist quote allow the work to gain a life – and let people stop and think about the ideas behind a work of art. Everyone has personal ‘garbage’ and that new connection between art and life is exposed with Smith’s quote. The work becomes an experience and the idea behind it becomes intriguing, thought-provoking and even beautiful.

Shannon Murphy on Isamu Noguchi’s Akaris: “I got the same thing from Ikea.”

Yes, Ikea sells beautiful paper lanterns, and it’s jarring to see a similar object in a museum. Isamu Noguchi’s version of the paper lantern, the Akari, has been knocked off since he began designing them in the early 1950s. I frequently meet visitors who get snarky upon seeing one during a tour. They are understandably suspicious of my “tour,” especially if it ends at the gift shop where they can purchase an Akari. Yet, this is the very reason why I love the Akaris. You can take a sculpture home. If you don’t actually want one, the concept alone is worth investigating more — high art specifically made to be affordable.

Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

I understand how some of the mystique can be lost when it’s possible to take home the work of art, especially when it comes with an on/off switch. As an educator, I invite visitors first to consider how the Akari is different from the Ikea lamp. If the soft glow of the handmade paper doesn’t capture them, I invite them to look inside and inspect the hand-crafted bamboo armature. Then, I like to share the story of the object to place it in a historical context. Akaris were conceived in 1951 when Noguchi was visiting a small town in Japan called Gifu. The mayor of the town asked Noguchi to re-design the traditional paper lantern. Noguchi went to work and designed hundreds of Akaris in various abstract shapes. The story continues for decades as Noguchi struggled to exhibit Akaris as fine art, while still selling them at a reasonable price. The struggle is often said to have cost him a Grand Prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale where he insisted on exhibiting the Akaris along with his stone and metal sculptures. Much to Noguchi’s dismay, the Akaris were stuck in a realm of applied art.

Sometimes, the artist’s words resonate with visitors. Noguchi said “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.” The Akaris were, “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce.” Saying the word “love,” while looking at a glowing light and knowing there was a history of struggle wins visitors over every time. Money! And then with a wry smile, I remind my group that the Akaris are sold downstairs in the shop. I tell them that it won’t last forever, the paper will one day begin to turn and the bamboo will give. Its authentic beauty does last for many years though, and it could be the last thing you see before you go to bed every night. Try that with Starry Night.

Which objects do you find people asking “Is this art?”  How have you handled it?  We’d love for everyone to share their stories here.

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ABOUT THESE 3 NEW YORK CITY EDUCATORS

rachel-crumplerRACHEL CRUMPLER works as a museum educator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Noguchi Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. She also teaches art classes for Foster Pride, a non-profit organization that provides free classes to children in the New York City foster care system. She holds a MA from Stony Brook University in Art Theory, History and Criticism. Rachel’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

OleniczakJEN OLENICZAK: Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC-based organization that specializes in theatre, improv, and movement workshops and professional developments for educators. With a dual background in art history and theatre, Jen is also a museum educator, trained actor, and improviser. She’s worked as an educator with the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, Noguchi Museum, and New York Transit Museum. Jen keeps herself busy performing with National Comedy Theatre and searching for new delicious food spots. Jen’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or The Frick Collection.

shannon_bwSHANNON MURPHY: Currently teaches at the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She is constantly experimenting with new strategies to engage visitors and students with art. Shannon holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is working on her MA at the City College of New York. In her free time she enjoys yoga, papermaking, and playing soccer with friends. Shannon’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

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Teaching for Independence: Empowering Learning in the Art Museum

Prefatory Note: Before ArtMuseumTeaching.com went public, there were several months when it was simply my own personal (private) online space to reflect on my practice as well as larger issues around teaching and learning in museums.  It was (and is) so valuable to write about what we do as educators and museum practitioners, even without publicly sharing that writing.  Since the site went public back in February 2012, these reflections (along with those of nearly 2 dozen other practitioners) have been openly shared via this unique online ‘bazaar’ that spotlights practice — from million-dollar cutting-edge initiatives and multi-year projects to simple, personal reflections and moments to add one more teaching tool to our belts.  And while conferences such as the NAEA, AAM, and Museums & the Web — among others — can surface some truly incredible, thoughtful work happening in museums today (some of which has been highlighted on this site), it is also important to provide a space for reflections and conversation around a more daily teaching practice.  This post is an attempt to maintain those types of reflections on this site, and to encourage others to share their teaching & learning experiences as we continue to build this online community of practice.

A couple weeks ago here at the Portland Art Museum, I had a unique opportunity to work with a group of students visiting from neighboring Portland State University as part of their Freshman Inquiry course entitled “The Work of Art,” led by artist/educator Sarah Wolf Newlands.  This multidisciplinary course examines the ‘work’ that goes into artistic production, but goes way beyond that to explore the role art plays in our lives.  As the course site describes:

“It looks at the work art does in the world — how it shapes, reflects, disguises, complicates, challenges, or brings reality to our assumptions about the world…. What are the artistic levers with which we can move our world forward? What can looking through the lens of ‘art’ at the products from a broad range of disciplines reveal about ourselves, our culture[s] and our society? How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How does art influence cultural change? How can we use the arts to build community?”

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One of my own goals when working with groups of college students and adults in the galleries (and in the classroom) is always to break down the often rigid expectations of “what we do” in front of a work of art — moving past the assumptions that we need to behave a certain way or know something specific before we can have an experience with art. I also aim to teach for independence — an approach to our ‘work’ with art that empowers a participatory, learner-centered process of making meaning and attempts to break down the constructed hierarchies between teacher and learner, professor and student, expert and novice, institution and audience.

“The visitor’s response and experience come first, before the museum’s, before the history of art.” —Rika Burnham

For me, at its heart, teaching for independence asks that educators (whether in the museum, K-12 classroom, or university lecture hall) strive to facilitate deep, collective experiences with art that leave participants and learners better equipped to look, explore, question, and engage deeply on their own without always relying on the museum or an ‘expert’ to lead that process.

Opening Up the Learning Experience: An Hour with Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth

As the PSU students gathered in the gallery, we began with a quick discussion of “what does learning look like in an art museum” to establish an atmosphere of thinking and reflection.  Then, we dove head first into a 60-minute co-learning experience with a single work of art — Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth (2006). The experience was intended to be multi-modal, involving various ways of thinking and openly responding to the artwork in front of us– a process similar to other experiences about which I have written.

bradford3Here is a quick outline of our experience with Bradford’s piece  (and I always want to be clear that these tips and strategies are not ones that I necessarily invent, but are inspired by some of the ‘Jedi knights’ of museum education like Rika Burnham, to whom I am greatly indebted. I also do use some of these strategies repeatedly when I am in the galleries, since some are just exceptional ways to open-up an experience of freedom, comfort, creative looking, and excitement):

  1. Looking: We began with 1 minute of quiet looking, then having students share their initial observations with a person sitting next to them.  We followed that with another minute of quiet looking, this time using a paper tube as a telescope to see the artwork differently — followed by more sharing with their neighbors about anything new they noticed.
  2. Question: Students were asked to write down one question or wondering they had for this work of art.
  3. 60-Second Sketch: Everyone spread out across the gallery and then had 60 seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge.  Students were asked to lay all of the sketches in the center of the gallery, walk around and see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interested them (and was not their own).
  4. Sketching with Language: Students had several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by using only language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing. I call this “sketching with language,” something pulled from Jack Kerouac and his creative process.
  5. Reading: In small groups, students shared their writing by reading it aloud– really honoring their writing by reading it directly instead of simply summarizing or paraphrasing it (which is what we too often do).
  6. Conversation Extender: By this point, students have had some serious time to look at Bradford’s work, share and exchange ideas about what they see and what they think about it, and do some sketching and writing to deepen or even shift their interpretations.  To extend their conversations and spark further thought, each group received a small packet of historic photographs from the 1921 Tulsa race riots — an event that historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and an event that has been strongly connected to this work by Bradford.  Each group of students was simply asked to continue their conversation about the Bradford piece, yet to see how this added layer of historic images (powerful in their own right) might build or shift that conversation in any way. In talking about his own work, Bradford once says: “It’s about … tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath.”
  7. Group Discussion: During this entire experience thus far, students have been building personal meaning or sharing their ideas in pairs or small groups. So to wrap up, each group brings their thoughts and insights to the full class as we spend the last 10-15 minutes in an open discussion about the artwork and our experience with it.

Learning to See Learning in the Art Museum

For me, much of the experience with this group of college students was about empowering them to learn to see learning in an art museum (and with a work of art) differently — to begin to see looking and learning with art in a more active, participatory way that also allows for shared authority around knowledge and interpretation.  To help me gain a better understanding of how (or whether) this happens, I invited students participating in the experience described above to send me an email with their reflections after their museum visit. Here are a few great insights from their reflections:

collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford's "Scorched Earth"
collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford’s “Scorched Earth”

“Usually when I go to an art museum, the experience isn’t as fun and exciting. It’s hard for me to look at a work of art and really dissect it…. I probably will never get to just sit down in front of a work of art and analyze it with that many people again, and it was an awesome experience. Thank you for taking the time to teach our class fun tools that we can use in an art museum to really get the most out of our time there.”

“It was really cool to spend a solid hour just looking into what the piece could be about, what it could mean. I’m glad that you opened up the learning experience by allowing us to interpret the painting in our own way, then discuss with one other person, and then discuss in small groups. I think this allowed each student to really get the most out of what other students were understanding and interpreting from the work.”

“This experience was very enlightening because we learned so much from so little. It was profound to get so much out of little more than looking, thinking, and discussing.”

“It’s crazy how observing a piece for just a little longer than a glance can change your perspective of a piece and your understanding of it…. If more people were to do what we did today and take time to observe art, they would see it in totally new ways.”

This type of learner-centered, participatory meaning-making is something I continue to explore in the museum context, but I think it also has significant implications for how we conceive of art history teaching outside of the museum.  What if we allowed for more active, open-ended looking and exploration with art, and hold back some on the passive transfer of information?  What if we used drawing, movement, or creative writing as another way of looking deeply at art?  What if we really focused our teaching more on creating and supporting independent learners who see and think for themselves?

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This post has also been published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing Art History Survey teaching materials between teachers and stimulating conversations around pedagogy in the arts. The site was initiated in 2011 by Michelle Jubin and Karen Shelby, products of the CUNY Graduate Teaching Fellows program.

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Why Museums Can Excel in Online Learning

“The recent development of MOOCs (massive open online courses) can provide museums with valuable possibilities for education, community outreach and multi-disciplinary collaboration.”

The quote above by David Greenfield, a doctoral candidate in Learning Technologies at Pepperdine University, was part of a paper entitled “MOOCs, Museums, and Schools: Natural Partners and Processes for Learning” presented at the recent Museums & the Web Conference in Portland theorizing about the potential of partnerships with schools and community members in developing online museum courses. Museums are already starting to realize those possibilities in the area of online courses.

The Museum of Modern Art, the Tate and my own North Carolina Museum of Art are currently offering extended online courses similar to MOOCs. These courses are different from each other in content, audience, and style, yet they are all pioneering engagement with local, national, and global audiences through objects in their specific collections. Their experiences offer important lessons to future museum MOOC-makers.

Why Museums Can Excel Online

MoMA Educator Deborah Howes interviewing MoMA Conservator Glen Wharton in front of 'Untitled,' 1993 by Nam June Paik. Photo used with permission (c) MoMA 2013.
MoMA educator Deborah Howes filming a segment for MoMA Online Courses in front of a Nam June Paik piece.

Why are museums uniquely suited to be leaders in this field? For one, museum education is predicated on informal, constructivist learning approaches which encourage the learner to control their learning. Similarly, online courses allow students to go through the content at their own pace, constructing their own meaning from discussion forums, assignments and projects. Deborah Howes, Director of Digital Learning at MoMA, said, the pairing of museum education and online learning is, “conceptually, very much aligned.” She continues:

“Museum education teaching is based on the curiosity of people who come from all different walks of life and have any number of questions about what excites them. Teaching online, we offer different kinds of learning experiences–videos of behind the scenes tours, slide shows of art works, DIY experiments–and students explore this variety according to their own interests to create meaning.”

Second, museum learning is often social. Visitors come in groups, field trips, or with families to share the experience of looking at and discussing objects. Learning Management Systems like Blackboard, Moodle, and Haiku allow for similar discussions and facilitate group collaboration.

At the North Carolina Museum of Art, students who might live hundreds of miles away can work together on a video project and post art projects to receive peer feedback. MoMA and Tate also encourage this type of online community through discussion boards. MoMA online course alumni have created their own Facebook groups to extend the learning community, some of which are in their third year of operation

MOOCs Multiply Museum Outreach

Elizabeth Moore, an NCVPS Photography student stands with her work in an exhibition in NCMA's education gallery. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art.
Elizabeth Moore, an NCVPS Photography student stands with her work in an exhibition in NCMA’s education gallery. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art.

Online learning can offer virtual windows to the extensive, beautiful, and awe-inspiring collections that museums have to offer. The NCMA is located in the middle of North Carolina, a state 560 miles (900 km) long. The virtual courses offer both synchronous and asynchronous components. Each week the instructor is in charge of opening the module (or unit) and hosting one live class with students. Otherwise, students go through that module and complete assignments at their own pace. Modules can include articles, assignments, discussion forums vocabulary wiki’s and/or multimedia. Over half of our online high school students live hours away and may never have even heard of their state art museum. Online, they can take our courses, be exposed to art spanning 5,000 years of all mediums, including sculpture, photography, paintings, and mixed media.

Once students take online classes at NCMA, we want to find ways to bring them to the brick-and-mortar building. To do that, we host exhibitions that highlight work from our online courses, which encourages students to visit the NCMA in person (see photo). We’ve also offered field trips and buses to our annual teen event.

The Tate’s reach stretches nationally and even globally. Rosie Cardiff, e-Learning editor at Tate, found that 31% of her students based outside the United Kingdom, with just under 10% living in Australia and New Zealand. Similarly, MoMA has both a national and international reach. A woman from rural Canada who took one of the online courses thanked Howes for the opportunity to interact with a global community of contemporary art lovers that she could not find locally. “A museum can provide that type of community and support,” Howes says.

Financing Remains a Challenge

Both the MoMA and NCMA courses started because of grants from Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Foundation, respectively. Both of these grants end soon, and both institutions are seeking future funding for the growth and expansion of the courses. MoMA charges $150–200 for their self-guided course and $200–350 for their instructor-led courses. Those fees will help sustain the program, whether or not they receive a future grant. The NCMA, on the other hand, does not charge for their courses, instead, high school students receive school credit. While we encourage students to visit the NCMA to see their exhibition or attend a field trip, we don’t have additional funds to cover their travel.

In Tate’s case, Rosie Cardiff explained that “initial funding for developing the courses came from the Tate Online core budget.” Tate charges £20 ($31) for unlimited course access. Cardiff says the courses “have now paid for themselves and cover costs of ongoing maintenance and copyright fees, etc., but they don’t generate much in the way of profit.” When asked what advice she would give to future museums or institutions looking to invest in developing online courses, Cardiff advised thinking “carefully about the business model for the online courses if you are planning to use them to generate revenue. Courses can be costly to produce and you need to think about ongoing maintenance costs, especially if the courses are tutored.”

Cardiff and her team presented an evaluation of their courses and their changing business model at Museums & the Web 2012.

An inside look at the Tate online courses. Courtesy Tate Museum.
An inside look at the Tate online courses. Courtesy Tate Museum.

Grounded in Specific Collections

As museums create online courses, resources, or distant learning programs, Howes advises they “think creatively about the unique qualities of their collection and what that could offer to a global audience. Anyone can do a course on modern art if they have a collection, but how do they offer a unique look on this topic?”

Similarly, the Tate and NCMA courses offer visitors opportunities to engage with and respond to art specific to their collections. The NCMA courses use art in the permanent collection as catalysts for learning about topics such as game design, advertising, fashion, photography and videography. The multimedia we provide include videos of art in the galleries, interviews with museum staff or local, North Carolina experts in that particular field. All three museums offer opportunities to watch video interviews with artists, curators, or experts, as well as demonstrations of artist technique and process.

Full Speed to the Future

David Greenfield believes that when it comes to museums and online learning, “we’re in the evolutionary stages of what’s going on.” As pioneers of a new educational format, museums join with for-profit companies like 2U and Coursera in shaping a field that is rapidly changing. In fact, as of May 1, 2013, MoMA, along with the Exploratorium in San Francisco, has announced a new partnership offering professional development MOOCs for K-12 teachers.

“Museums”, says MoMA’s Deborah Howes, “have a chance to rewrite art history in a way that is relevant to where they are.” MoMA, Tate, and NCMA are already doing just that.

ONLINE COURSE DETAILS:

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Courses Online

  • Audience: lifelong learners, general public
  • Cost: varies from $150-350
  • Length: 5-10 weeks
  • Course topics (selected): From Pigment to Pixel: Color in Modern and Contemporary Art, Experimenting with Collage, Modern Art 1880-1945, Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting, etc.
  • Instruction: Self-guided and instructor-led options

North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) Virtual Courses

  • Audience: North Carolina public high school students
  • Cost: Free; only available to high school students for credit
  • Length: semester
  • Course topics: Videography, game design, fashion, advertising, photography
  • Instruction: Instructor-led

Tate Online Courses

  • Audience: lifelong learners, general public
  • Cost: £20
  • Length: 6 units per course, self-guided
  • Course topics: Artists’ Techniques & Methods, Introduction to Drawing Techniques
  • Instruction: Self-guided

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

KoteckiEMILY KOTECKI: Associate Coordinator of Teen and College Programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Emily creates online and onsite programming for these audiences, including art competitions, arts councils, and developing online courses.  Prior to museums, Emily worked at The Washington Post as a multimedia politics producer covering the 2008 presidential campaign. She received her received her Master of Arts in Teaching from The George Washington University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Journalism from American University. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyKotecki or visit www.emilykotecki.comEmily’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the North Carolina Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.