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A Museum Experience Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

“Dialogue isn’t for everyone.”

These words were said to me recently regarding change in an educational mission. I couldn’t agree more – it’s why we as educators carry a toolbox; activities for any occasion, any learner, and keep them at the ready for our audience.

Fresh from this experience, I read another article by Judith Dobrzynski, this time drawing attention to Bruce Bratton, a Santa Cruz columnist who outwardly attacks Nina Simon and the changes taking place at the MAH. While Bratton is cited by Dobrzynski as an “institution” in Santa Cruz, I hesitated to give him attention, realizing everyone has an opinion. However, since art journalist Dobrzynski addressed the article, it’s only fair to have an opposing piece.

A museum experience is not one-size-fits-all.

Pop Up Museum turn Living Room as part of Santa Cruz Open Streets. Photo by Karen Kefauver. http://www.santacruzmah.org
Pop Up Museum turn Living Room as part of Santa Cruz Open Streets. Photo by Karen Kefauver. http://www.santacruzmah.org

After my initial inflammatory reaction to the Times Op-Ed, I now commend Dobrzynski for drawing attention to the other side. As museum educators, we are consistently looking for ways to make art interactive and for experiences to happen in the gallery. There are people that just want to sit, look at a works and have a quiet moment. This is still available – on my recent trip to MFA Houston, I was welcomed into quiet galleries and had a beautiful moment with a Turrell Ganzfeld, alone. Even in a busy NYC museum, you can find yourself alone in a space, enjoying the art.

But it’s not for everyone.

Some people literally do not know what to do with a work in front of them. They think it’s important, only because it’s hanging on a museum wall. They look at the label and don’t have a clue what that odd decimal-ed number is. Exhaustion sets in after seeing the whole place, and they leave, barely remembering anything. Hopefully they come back, but chances are, some of them don’t. Nothing inspired curiosity, so why come back?

The truth is, we aren’t all art nerds. Formalism isn’t sexy to anyone but art people. Museums, unless they want to be seen as elitist institutions, have to appeal to more than just the art appreciators. Museum programming opens up the world beyond the quiet sitters and lecture attendees.

The problem with both Bratton and Dobrzynski is neither quotes any specific interactive programming as a problem. Sure, in her Times piece, Dobrzynski critiques interactive art, but really, people hated the Impressionists too. But where is the study of the actual programs? Dobrzynski is a New Yorker – I promise you there is no shortage of programs she could attend and critique. Bratton states in his column:

Remember … when you could sit or stand and just think about the art pieces you were able to see in person? Think how many thousands/millions of students and artists were influenced by seeing circulating masterpieces or from the local collections…not now. Consider the impact on the next generation of art and history-lovers; the kids. Where can we take our kids now to learn how to experience a real museum; a place that challenges the attention span a little? There are experiential activities everywhere, as I mentioned but the former MAH was our only real museum environment that offered art in a museum context; a respectful place that created the sense that what you’re seeing is important, and worthy of your consideration.

Why can’t you sit in the gallery any longer and look at a work of art? I popped onto the MAH event listing, and found a film festival, some walks that take place outside of the museum and a free Friday event that features music after 6:30pm. Which of these events are disruptive to the people who don’t want participatory experiences? Furthermore, which events change the ‘real’ museum environment?

And which events bring new visitors? new people to see museums as important cultural institutions?

Bratton posted some support to his article, and a few mentioned my next point – this idea of a ‘real’ museum. What is a real museum? In the past, it was an activity for society. Dress up, visit the salon, look at the work deemed appropriate to be hung on the walls. But as times changed, the ideas behind museums have changed. Said nicely in an article that addresses this change, “in the last few decades, as the museum field has grown more serious about independent learning, deep audience engagement, and participation, museums have been able to bring that inspirational experience to more of their visitors.”

Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com
Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com

Isn’t this a good thing? Don’t we as a society want museums to be seen as incredible places where people can think anything and connect with our past as humans? All people are not the same, and not everyone is a quiet sitter or a lecture attendee – and not all of the sitters or lecture attendees understand why the art is ‘important’ or why it’s there. I’ve given member tours, and gently pushed passed the initial “I already know everything, I’ve been to lectures” to the “wow – I’ve never seen that in this work before.”

Museums are links to our history. Art is not created in a bubble – each work has stories, amazing stories, attached to the artist, the process, time period, acquisition. But for some people, they see a canvas on the wall with some paint. They think it’s important because it’s hanging in a museum, but they don’t understand WHY.

And for many people, they don’t even go to the museum because of hours, past experiences as kids brought to expand their attention span, stigma. So if they go to attend a dance party, and take part in an amazing conversation on a work in the African collection they never knew existed, great. Even better if the experience inspires them to come back. Museums are for everyone.

So kudos to Nina Simon for revising the MAH mission statement and taking chances to make the museum a participatory space for the WHOLE community. Congrats to Museum Hack, for challenging the notion of what a museum tour is. Three cheers to Brooklyn Museum for every First Saturday. And the biggest thank you to every single education department working to make the institution accessible, available and awesome to everyone.

And to Bratton and Dobrzynski, an open invitation to come as my guest to any participatory program that I am leading or attending. Before you write another criticism, I encourage you to be an active participant. Try asking other participants what they think. Open your mind and attempt to see that a museum experience is not one-size-fits-all.

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Editor’s Note: Given that Judith Dobrzynski’s opinion pieces have once again flared controversy and passionate responses from many in the museum and education community, I wanted to take this opportunity not only to feature Jen Oleniczak’s personal response, but also to utilize the community of practice that exists at ArtMuseumTeaching.com to share additional responses from contributors.  Below are some of this community’s response to this issue and to this challenging of participatory practice in art museums.  I also invite others to post their response and thoughts below in the Comments section, and add to the rich exchange already happening.

Rachel Ropeik

As a museum educator with an art historian’s training, I sometimes feel split on the “museums as experiential space” vs “museums as reflective space” debate. Personally, I love having quiet time to sit and bask in the presence of an inspiring work of art.  But professionally (which is, of course, personal, too) I’m aware that not everyone enjoys that sort of museum engagement, and, more importantly, some people feel active barriers blocking their way to it.  For those people (and of John Falk’s five types of museum goers–explorers, facilitators, experience-seekers, professional/hobbyists, and rechargers–it’s a minority who only want reflective museum time all the time), there need to be alternatives provided.

Museums have a well-established international history of being large, stuffy, intimidating institutions full of stringent rules to be followed.  That doesn’t sound fun, even to me, who loves museums passionately.  Instead of furthering that stereotype, we need to do what we can to, if not destroy it, poke some serious holes.  We need to meet visitors where they are, not where we think they should be.  Our visitors (and yes, that includes more and more who view our collections online and never set foot inside our galleries) should welcomed using a whole range of techniques that will stimulate and intrigue and invite and amuse and confound.

Museums have always been contemporary spaces serving contemporary audiences’ needs, and what those contemporary audiences need changes right along with history.  While we who work in museums may be dedicated to preserving the legacy of the past, we are also dedicated to sharing that legacy with the public.  Like it or not, time marches on, and continuing to look backward to the past for some sort of ürmuseum is never going to cut it in a society that’s moving ever-faster forward into the future.

Felice Cleveland

My father visited me as I was studying abroad in Paris. He had to get his passport in order to make the trip and we went to the Louvre where I was taking a class at the time. My father is not what you would call an art aficionado and hasn’t visited museums extensively. We were in a gallery with just one piece of artwork, a lot of people were taking pictures, and all of the lights in the room were trained on this one piece. All of the visual cues were in place and my father whispered to me, “Is this something important?” It was the Venus de Milo.

I think of my father often as I work to create programming and educational materials. Museums often don’t have to work hard to already convince the art-lover to visit. It is working to be inclusive and open doors to people who might not see the museum as a resource. The museum I currently work at is in a residential neighborhood and our collection is contemporary installation art. Some of the work is very complex and deals with challenging issues. It is important to me that the museum is more than a place to just view artwork every once in awhile. As a museum educator, I want to create a safe place to explore new and challenging ideas. I want to create programming that welcomes all audiences. I want to create a place that is a laboratory to experiment with new ideas and materials. I want to create a go-to place for the community. If museums don’t work to include the community – then what is the purpose? How do we make ourselves relevant if we don’t invite visitors to share and explore? Do we just house art? Do we just put artists on pedestals? What is a real museum? How can we respect the creativity that our community brings to viewing artwork? I have seen museums come in many shapes and sizes, which is one of the reasons I love them so much and keep exploring museums in new cities the world over. I want to be surprised and see things in a new way. There are all types of museums for all types of people. And on different days people want different experiences at different museums. As a museum educator, I work to create experiences for as many visitors as possible to engage on the level that they feel comfortable with. And every day I work to open our doors just a little wider.

Sweet Spots for Engaging Parents in Family Spaces

Museum Educators know that providing experiences for family audiences are a valuable way to advance the museum’s mission, expand its audience, and strengthen its place within the community. A relatively new way many museums are providing for families is with interactive exhibits. In recent years, these family spaces have evolved from engaging only children to engaging the entire family.

This shift has opened up new areas of study in family learning, broadly defined by the Family Learning Forum as “a special form of free-choice learning” that results in “shared meanings among and between family members.” I like this definition because it presents children and adults as being equally active in family learning. While many family programs and family spaces in museums focus on outcomes for children, I wondered what I could learn if I studied the adult half of the family learning equation. In 2011, I took a look at how adults, in the context of their families, used the Building Zone, a family space located in the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Through observations and surveys, I uncovered a few sweet spots for parental engagement.

Blocks

photo by ijiwaru jimbo
photo by ijiwaru jimbo

I already knew that blocks provide endless learning opportunities for children, but now I’m starting to think they are the absolute perfect toy. The majority of parents’ active engagement took place in the Building Zone’s two block areas. One at the front of the room consists of bins of small blocks with various architectural shapes and designs and larger foam blocks. The other block area spans the back wall of the room and has two different types of large plastic interlocking blocks. The block areas were the most popular places for caregivers to actively play with their children. I even occasionally observed adults building structures by themselves.

There is just something about the act of building that excites people of all ages. In her recent blog post, Gretchen Jennings makes this observation about museum Maker Spaces:

I also think their emphasis on family and multi-generational participation is a welcome change; often discovery and play spaces have been perceived, either because of their design or because it was assumed, as places for kids only, and adults just stood and watched or wondered off to see the rest of the museum.

My theory is that blocks can be interacted with on many different developmental levels. It doesn’t matter whether the fun stems from exploring the cause-and-effect relationship of knocking down a tower or exercising complex problem solving and abstract reasoning skills – blocks can interest people all ages. The adults I observed were much more interested in helping their children build than pretending to drive a toy truck.

Books

Photo by Svante Adermark
Photo by Svante Adermark

Another common area for parental engagement was the Book Nook, a corner of the room with pillows on the floor, bookshelves, and a few puppets. As with blocks, adults seemed comfortable interacting with their children around books. The children in the Building Zone were all pre-readers, so this is another area in which caregivers could use their knowledge and skills to help their children. The Book Nook was also the only area, aside from the block areas, that I observed adults engaged with the materials by themselves. A couple of times, I saw adults reading the children’s books silently to themselves.

Again, I believe the books appealed to the adults’ developmental level. Stories, like blocks, can be approached and interpreted in different ways. High-quality picture books have layers of meaning embedded in their text and illustrations that require abstract thought and background knowledge to understand.

Benches

The two adult-sized benches in the middle of the Building Zone were one of the most popular places for adults to be in the family space. While caregivers played the most in the block areas and the Book Nook, a different kind of engagement was taking place on the benches – caregivers were observing the children.

Part of the Family Learning Forum’s definition of family learning is learning about each other. While Susie Wilkening of the Reach Advisors is right to be concerned when parents don’t engage with the museum content at all, I think it’s important not to overlook observing one’s children as a form of parent engagement. This is especially true when you consider that the adults I surveyed hoped that they would be able to observe their children playing in the Building Zone and said that being able to observe their children having fun is one of the things that makes a family experience positive. I’m curious to know what readers think about active versus passive forms of parent engagement. To what extent should museum family spaces be designed to encourage parent’s active participation, and to what extent should they be designed for passive observation?

Museum family spaces are sites for complex social interactions and learning experiences. Focusing on the family as a whole in the areas of family learning and parent engagement allows museums to create meaningful experiences for all their visitors. Have you noticed any sweet spots for engaging parents with children in your museum?

Book Spine Poetry: Museum Edition

The charismatic chaos of museums, captured in book spines.

While I just missed National Poetry Month, I wanted to play with an idea I encountered from Maria Popova on her always creative, interesting, and well-worth-reading site Brain Pickings.  During April (actual National Poetry Month), she shared a series of posts that showcased her talents in the field of book spine poetry (aka using the titles of books printed on their spines to create freeform poetry).  Apparently book spine poems have been all the rage these past few years, so I thought I would try my hand in some creative book spine arrangement.  Here is my first attempt:

The inadvertent poets:

  • Museums in a Troubled World by Robert Janes — although his subtitle frightens me, “Renewal, Irrelevance, or Collapse?”
  • Letting Go? edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, and a great read that shows how much art museums can learn from the practices of public history.
  • Engaging Art edited by Steven Tepper and Bill Ivey, includes the great essay “Artistic Expression in the Age of Participatory Culture” by Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi.
  • Conversation Pieces, the excellent book by Grant Kester on creating understanding in contemporary art through creative dialogue.
  • Making Museums Matter by Stephen Weil — just read this recap of Nina Simon’s 2011 MidAtlantic speech.
  • Teaching in the Art Museum by Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the Jedi knights of museum education.
  • Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson — although you’d think he could come up with a more creative title (joking).

Submit your own!

Send me your own book spine poem on museums — just use TwitPic or shoot me a link to your pic via Twitter @murawski27.  I will happily post everyone’s poems that I receive, and we can add to volume 1 of book spine poetry.  It can be a great way to take a midday break, and take a few minutes to tap into your creative self.

Book Spine Poem from Stephanie Ruse ‏ @smruse

Awesome!  Thanks Stephanie!