Making the Case for Collaborative Leadership in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

Early this week, it was so fantastic to see the Birmingham Museums Trust announce its decision to bring Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah on as joint CEOs, making a bold leap into co-leadership that can help serve as a model for many other museums and nonprofit institutions in the years to come. I am particularly thrilled to hear this news since, over the past few months, I have taken a dive into the practices of collaborative and shared leadership in museums and nonprofits, thinking more deeply about this approach and seriously asking why more museums are not adopting this. It has been made clear that most museum professionals are not aware of established models to look toward for this practice (few still exist), and the significant benefits of collaborative leadership are not widely understood in our field. Outdated ideas of solo leadership remain the dominant narrative in the field of museums, but that is beginning to change.

I am moderating a panel session on the topic for MuseumNext’s virtual conference this October, bringing together individuals with experience in co-leadership roles in museums and arts organizations. My interest in this issue also comes out of my recent call for our field to upend our thinking about leadership and make some significant changes as we move into the future. Here is some of what I have found, and some helpful readings and resources for those working to advocate for this type of change at your institution. And please, if you know of other examples of co-leadership in practice at a museum or other useful resources, please share (and I can add them in here).

Collaborative Leadership That Works

If the current moment of crises is indeed a unique and unprecedented opportunity for museums to reimagine themselves and emerge as more human-centered institutions, then I cannot think of a better time to seriously consider adopting a collaborative and shared approach to leadership. Not only do collaborative forms of leadership align more strongly with organizational cultures working to advance equity and anti-racism, but it is also increasingly difficult for any single individual to possess all of the skills and abilities needed to lead a complex organization into a future of post-pandemic uncertainties.

In his post entitled “Museum Leadership for the Rest of Us,” Robert Weisberg cites a roundtable conversation among business experts and senior partners at McKinsey that calls into question the hero mentality of directors and CEOs in times of crisis. When asked “Does this mean we are seeing the end of the hero CEO?,” Bill Schaninger responded:

“[W]e’ve seen COVID-19 accelerating the shift away from classic authoritarian leadership to new forms of distributed decision making…. CEOs still trying to hold on to top-down mandates could very quickly become the impediment rather than the solution.”

A small number of museums have moved towards various forms of collaborative leadership, although examples are still difficult to come by and there are very few sustained or permanent commitments to these alternative forms of leadership.  After a bit of a lengthy search, I was able to find a few examples to note:

  • Beginning in 2016, Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black served in co-director roles at the Design Museum in London. Both individuals stepped down from these roles in January 2020, and the institution appointed Tim Marlow in a solo director role as well as the first person to serve as chief executive officer.
  • In 2019, Sabina Sabolovic, Natasa Ilic and Ivet Curlin were collectively hired to take equal share in running the Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna), after the sudden resignation of the Kunsthalle’s previous director Nicolaus Schafhausen.
  • The Five Oaks Museum (previously the Washington County Museum) transitioned from a single director to a co-director model in 2019 with the promotion of Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini in its first co-director roles.
  • At the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, an organizational merger back in 2008 led to a unique dual leadership model based in a public/private partnership structure. Cheryl Donaldson and Laura Valdez currently serve as Co-Executive Directors of the museum, a model grounded in a partnership relationship and based in co-expertise.
  • The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) established a bicultural dual leadership model when it was founded in the 1990s. The partnership between the Chief Executive Officer and Kaihautū (Māori leader) reflects the bicultural nature of the museum. Te Papa acknowledges the unique position of Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand and the need to secure their participation in the governance, management, and operation of the museum. Arapata Hakiwai has served in the role of Kaihautū since 2013, while Courtney Johnston more recently entered the role of Chief Executive Officer in December 2019.
  • And, of course, now the fantastic news from Birmingham Museums Trust, one of the UK’s largest independent museum trusts.

Outside of museums, there are many nonprofits and arts organizations adopting a shared leadership or co-directorship model. A 2017 article in Nonprofit Quarterly shared insights from five leading nonprofits that have developed shared leadership structures, including the Building Movement Project, Management Assistance Group, and the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Arts nonprofit Fractured Atlas has been operating with a shared, non-hierarchical leadership model since 2018, using a moment of leadership transition to experiment with new organizational structures. Fractured Atlas began this new approach with a four-person leadership team, and they have written rather extensively about their experiences with this model thus far (via their blog).

After studying some of the research on the topic along with the experiences of those successfully implementing collaborative and shared leadership models, there are several key benefits that appear to emerge:

1. Leads to more effective decision-making

When it comes to decision-making, a collaborative leadership approach focuses more on quality than efficiency. Making decisions may take more time, but this process brings in more perspectives and ideas and results in doing things better collectively. With this process also comes greater transparency as more individuals and staff are involved in making decisions and talking through ideas. In his study entitled “Shared Leadership: Is It Time for a Change?,” Michael Kocolowski found that organizations identified several benefits of shared leadership, including the “synergy and expertise derived from shared leadership” and “diversity of thought in decision making.”

In 2019, Cheryl Donaldson and Donna Jared, then Co-Executive Directors at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, reflected on some of the keys to making co-leadership work. For them, this model means that co-leaders are bringing their own expertise to the organization and the daily decisions that are made. While each has some autonomous responsibilities, they note that “the lines are blurred, on purpose, to allow us to support one another, to bring different perspectives to decision making, and to hold each other accountable” (see interview with Jill Stilwell).

According to Tim Cynova, a member of Fractured Atlas’s co-leadership team, their shared leadership model “lessens the organization’s dependence on any one person, and strengthens strategic thinking and decision-making capacity across a broad range of staff members” (see Tim’s post “CEO Not (Necessarily) Required”). When there is more than one leader—and when leadership becomes part of organizational culture—it becomes even more critical to spend a lot of time thinking together, sharing ideas, communicating, and being as transparent as possible.

2. Cultivates innovation and growth

For many organizations adopting collaborative and shared leadership models, there is an observed increase in innovation and experimentation. Kocolowski observed that “flow and creativity seem to flourish in a shared leadership environment,” and that such shared leadership models are particularly important for the growth and development of new ventures and projects. “Co-leadership allows you to think bigger and dream knowing you have a thought partner to dream with,” noted Donaldson and Jared at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.

In a traditional top-down leadership model, there is often a sense that the knowledge, expertise, and ideas of those at the very top are more valued and important. This way of siloing and isolating innovation in a single leader or small group of managers can work to prevent an organization from truly reaching its potential. A collaborative organization aims to unlock the knowledge, lived experiences, and creative capacities of its entire team, breaking down the barriers that prevent new ideas from bubbling to the surface.  As Darlene Nipper of the Rockwood Leadership Institute puts it, “What we’re able to accomplish together is way more than I believe any one person could accomplish.”

3. Centers the value of relationships

A shared leadership model brings attention to the relational and collaborative aspects of work as well as the ways in which the value of relationship itself can be incorporated into the leadership structures of an organization. As social justice activist and author adrienne maree brown proclaims in her book Emergent Strategy (2017), “Relationships are everything,” and the depth of those relationships determines the strength of a system or organization.

For many in co-directorship roles, they develop a strong sense of connection, respect, and mutual trust with their counterpart. For these models to work effectively, an organization needs to center these values and understand the importance of relationships within organizational culture. Donaldson and Jared reflect about their experience at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, “As co-leaders, we’ve come to understand it is the partnership relationship that is leading the institution, not us an individuals.”

4. Promotes shared leadership across the organization

“Shared leadership does really work, and when it’s working well, it’s not just about the few people who are codirectors, it’s actually about the whole organization,” states Susan Misra, co-director at the Management Assistance Group. Collaborative leadership is not just about the individual leaders sharing power and working together—it is also about changing organizational culture and mindset to be more collaborative. For most organizations successfully adopting a shared leadership model, developing a co-directorship is just the beginning of a longer process of building collective structures and new ways of working that include the voices of all staff. Erin Matson, Co-Director of Reproaction, acknowledges, “The co-directorship model is a powerful was to expand the leadership capabilities of your organization.”

For Donaldson and Jared, their co-leadership approach at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery models a flattening out of the organizational chart. They expanded their shared leadership approach to include director level staff who are invited to work together as a shared group rather than only oversee their own specific departments or areas. Other organizations, including Fractured Atlas and the Five Oaks Museum, have used this moment of collaborative leadership to also deeply explore pay equity and transparency. When organizations take this approach, leadership growth can occur across an entire team and begin to have a powerful effect on many areas of work and practice.

5. Aligns with anti-racism and equity

With collaborative leadership comes the opportunity to examine what power looks like within your organization and to reimagine how it operates in more equitable and inclusive ways. For some organizations, the shift to co-directorship emerges during a transition out of a particularly oppressive situation with traditional leadership. Overall, a top-down, individualistic model of leadership is in direct contradiction with efforts to advance equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. In their discussion with CompassPoint team members about shared power, co-directors of several social-justice-focused nonprofits noted that forms of traditional, hierarchical leadership just did not align with the work they do as organizations.

As noted in Leadership and Race: How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice, a report developed through a research initiative of the Leadership Learning Community:

“We often reward people whose leadership style is aligned with the individual model of the dominant culture, but not those who engage in more collective forms of leadership. This serves to render invisible the leadership of many women and people of different races/ethnicities.”

The report’s authors continue:

“Leadership can play a critical role in either contributing to racial justice or reinforcing prevailing patterns of racial inequality and exclusion…. To achieve racial and social justice, we need to move beyond the emphasis on the power of individuals to a philosophy of interdependence and building connections.”

Fractured Atlas Board members Christopher Mackie and Russell Willis Taylor state that the shared leadership model in their organization makes “a powerful statement against the inevitability of hierarchy and the racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive social institutions and organizations that it enables” (see their post “Thoughts on Co-Leadership: What So We Think We’re Doing?”). For Fractured Atlas, their non-hierarchical leadership team helps advance their core values of anti-racism and anti-oppression by modeling an inclusive approach that fosters a diversity of voices, perspectives, and skills. By questioning and breaking away from the commonly accepted ideas of leadership based in white dominant culture, organizations can move toward more inclusive forms of decision-making, collaborative practice, and collective workplace culture.

Taking Action to Build a Different Future

In her June article “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge,” Yesomi Umolu, Director and Curator of Logan Center Exhibitions at the University of Chicago, sharply highlighted the broken foundations of colonial violence and exclusion for museums, writing:

“at a time when many civic institutions are being exposed for negligence of duty, museums must recognize their shortcomings and develop new ways of thinking and doing.”

By replacing the outdated, broken, and harmful structures of individualistic leadership and leader-centered organizational hierarchy, we have the potential to reinvent museums as vibrant, thriving, equitable institutions that are better equipped to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our times and more fully care for their staff and their local communities. Yet nothing is going to change unless we question our assumptions, fight against the entrenched barriers of the status quo and the “we can’t” mentality, and begin to take action to make change happen. I hope that this post includes some information and resources that can support those making arguments for collaborative leadership right now, and that it might help spark more institutions to consider moving in this direction.

Series on Leadership

This is the third post in a series called “Leading Towards a Different Future” that takes a deeper dive into ideas about leadership and some steps for taking action. I am, of course, open to questions, conversation, and bringing together more ideas that can help us move toward changing museums. Add to the Comments below, message me via social media, or send me an email at murawski27@gmail.com.

Other posts in this series include:

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About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Independent consultant, change leader, author, and nature lover living in Portland, Oregon. I am passionate about transforming museums and non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. After more than 20 years of work in education and museums, I bring my personal core values of deep listening, collective care, and healing practice into the work that I lead within organizations and communities. Learn More.

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Header Image: “brainstorming over paper” by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: Principles & Practices

Written by Andrew Palamara, Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, Stephen Legari, Emily Wiskera, and Laura Evans

After our initial discussion of developing a trauma-aware practice, we have had several conversations about what T-AAME could become. We initially began thinking about T-AAME in reaction to the trauma inflicted by COVID-19, but it has taken on new urgency in recent weeks with the killing of George Floyd.  We have spent time thinking about what would distinguish trauma-aware practice from our regular work as art museum educators. Wouldn’t best practice approaches already be sensitive and responsive to individual experience and need, including trauma? While the answer is yes, we believe T-AAME is still a little different.

Namely, unlike traditional art museum teaching and practice, T-AAME asks art museum educators to be mindful and responsive to implicit or explicit trauma.  An awareness of trauma is no simple task, especially when most art museum educators are not trained therapists. The word ‘trauma’ itself encompasses many different human responses, but it still carries a heavy connotation in our society. It’s not safe to assume that all museum-goers will have experienced something traumatic prior to their visit, but everyone still deserves some compassion and care from us. Compassion and care are the core values of T-AAME from the art museum educator’s perspective, while connection and empowerment are two of the main goals for visitors.

According to recent surveys conducted by Wilkening Consulting, museum-goers have strong reservations about participating in guided tours or programs in the galleries when they visit museums again. We will have to confront a new set of limitations and reinvent our best practices in response. As we continue to develop and refine T-AAME, we have developed a list of supportive and foundational resources about trauma that have informed our approach (see the end of this post for an access link).  We hope to continually update this list and welcome others to contribute resources as well.  We have also begun to articulate some principles and practices of T-AAME. We believe these ideas can be applied to online and in-person programs and are practices that could easily and safely be incorporated into our work as we return to museums. Many are approaches with which you are, no doubt, already familiar and we are highlighting them here to emphasize that certain practices are already sensitive to trauma.  Others may be new approaches or only require slight modifications to make widely-used practices more trauma-aware.

PRACTICE

Creating Relationships with Trained Therapists

We know that good art museum education, especially practices that focus on personal interpretation and perspective, can be therapeutic without being therapy.  But, because T-AAME is at the intersection of art museum education and therapy, we strongly advocate for working with a licensed therapist who has training in trauma-informed practice and experience working with groups and/or teaching. Many therapists regardless of their modality can help with this initiative. Art therapists, we feel, might be especially well placed to work with given their strong connection to the creative arts and to dialoguing with and through art objects.  You can find a list of registered art therapists in your area through the Art Therapy Credentials Board or the American Art Therapy Association.

Preparing a Tour & Preparing your Group

To borrow from art therapy language, setting the frame is an important activity at the outset of a group visit. Set the boundary around what participants can expect from an experience and also the limitations of what the experience can provide. It is important to adapt language and attitude for different groups and their needs. It is also worth noting that this does not mean we are always engaging in serious talk and dire warnings. Helping to get yourself and your group ready should come from a place of warmth, openness, curiosity and can include playfulness and humour. Understanding the goals of the visit can inform our style of preparation. This holds true for virtual visits and live ones.

When planning a tour or program, carefully consider the individual identities within your group to select appropriate works of art and topics of discussion. Along with being aware of the group, it is also important to be aware of your own presence. Do you have any particular stressors that you need to be aware of? Develop and practice techniques to center yourself and manage your own emotional activation when facilitating a group.

Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) write about establishing brave spaces instead of safe spaces for dialogue. They advocate for groups to create ground rules for discussion together so that terms like “safe” and “judgment” are defined clearly by everyone involved. For example, when starting a conversation about a social justice issue in the museum, you might begin by asking, “What do you all need from each other to be honest and vulnerable in this conversation?” This makes time for the group to collectively set the terms for their interaction with each other.

While Arao and Clemens use this as a framework for conversations about social justice, it could be adapted as a more compassionate opening to any museum program. In the coming months, museum visitors will likely feel some kind of anxiety about sharing an enclosed public space with other people. If you are facilitating some kind of program in the galleries, you might ask your group, “What do you feel comfortable doing together?”

Palamara
Andrew Palamara welcomes a group of visitors to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo credit: Erin Geideman.

As explained in Museum Objects, Health and Healing, it is important to craft appropriate warnings for potential emotional activation when looking at and talking about art. Avoid using terms like “trigger warning” or cautioning the group in a way that will increase anxiety. Instead, select terms that encourage visitors to apply their own emotional skills to navigate and stay in control of their experience. Cowan, Laird, and McKeown (2020) offer a few suggestions:

Remember to take care of yourself. You decide how much of this to see. Some visitors have strong reactions. Your reactions are unique to you. It’s okay to be emotional. Reach out if you need help. Do this in your own way” (p. 183).

Group Discussion and Dynamic

Facilitating careful and sensitive conversations is a critical part of art museum education, and paraphrasing or re-voicing (O’Connor & Michaels, 1996) is widely considered to be a best practice in these discussions. In T-AAME, we advocate for a scaffolded approach to paraphrasing, which eventually results in participants speaking to one another, rather than to or through the facilitator or mediator.

Terry Barrett visited with a group of Laura’s university students in the fall of 2019, before COVID-19, and facilitated many discussions about works of art.  Barrett set up several ground rules before the conversations started.  He asked us to speak loudly and to one another (and not to him) so that everyone could hear.  He would frequently remind the group to talk to each other.  He melded into the group – sometimes standing with us, sometimes behind us, sometimes in front of us – giving us the feeling that he was with us rather than removed from us.  Barrett asked for no side conversations (anything that wanted to be shared to a neighbor, could be shared with the group) and no put-downs, and emphasized that listening was as important as talking.  If he couldn’t hear someone, he would simply ask for them to speak up or ask the person farthest from the speaker if they could hear.  Very occasionally, he would paraphrase, if what was shared was a complicated idea or if he needed clarification.  Mostly, he asked provocative questions and moved the conversation forward as the group spoke to one another. He listened far more than he spoke and he emphasized to the group that listening was a form of participation.

Inspired by Barrett, we believe that limited paraphrasing can be a T-AAME practice as it empowers the participant to speak without mediation and connects members of a group.  We think this works best with older participants (not “littles”) and can be eased into or scaffolded by starting out with more traditional paraphrasing and slowly stepping back while introducing the rules of speaking loudly and to one another, while avoiding side conversations and put downs.  The ultimate goal is for participants to be speaking directly to one another, responding to one another, and feeling connected to one another.

Modes of Response and Engagement

Allow for the time and space for deep reflection to occur. Instead of always asking visitors to verbally respond to a work of art as part of a conversation, pass out paper/notecards and pencils for written responses.[1] Tell your participants, up front, that the writing is completely anonymous, that you don’t want them to write their names on their responses, and that after everyone is finished writing, you will randomly read some of the notecards out loud.  Ask a question or provide a clear, open prompt that gives participants the opportunity to express themselves, emotionally or creatively.  They can write just a few words, a poem, a story, or whatever comes to mind as it relates to the question or prompt. After giving the group time to respond, collect the responses. Shuffle the cards and read them out loud without providing any commentary. The responses are for the group to hold in their mind, but not to critique or comment on. An added benefit of this activity is that it can be comfortably done while wearing a mask.

students-writing
Students writing an object based personal reflection in the Clark galleries. Photo credit: Tucker Bair.

Another trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new sensory experiences that contradict those of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection. One method is to incorporate multi-sensory objects or prompts into your program, as is commonly done as a best practice. For example, if discussing the process of mummification in Ancient Egypt while exploring an object like the Dallas Museum of Art’s Coffin of Horankh, participants could feel a piece of linen wrap or smell frankincense and myrrh, two oils used in the embalming process. If shared touch objects are of concern in the short-term, ask visitors to touch something of their own, such as their purse or clothing and make a sensory connection to an object they find in the galleries. Use their selection as a point of discussion.

Sensory exploration can also be done verbally. If exploring a scene such as Mountain Landscape with an Approaching Storm, the group could be prompted to describe a place that they have been to that looks or feels similar to the scene in the painting. If they were inside the scene of the painting, what would they hear? Feel? Smell? Taste? If they were amongst the group of villagers in this painting, what path would they take to castle on the hill? What would they encounter along the way?

DMA-memory-care
In the DMA’s Meaningful Moments for Memory Care Facilities program, participants match texture samples to what they see in the works of art. Photo credit: Dallas Museum of Art.

In Activity-Based Teaching in the Art Museum (2020), Kai-Kee, Latina and Sadoyan illustrate an approach to eliciting low-risk, movement-focused emotional responses from a group:

Our group collects in front of Portrait of Madame Brunet (ca. 1861-63), an early work by Édouard Manet. “If you like this,” Lissa begins, “stand to your right. If you don’t, stand to your left.” Her word choice is intentionally open ended. “This” could mean the person depicted in the portrait, the way in which she is represented, the painting style, the artist, and so on, or a combination of factors. “Take a moment to really think about this question, and tap into your reaction.” Lissa is purposefully slow in leading the group through these steps, creating  space for her visitors to sensitize themselves to the work for their emotions to unfold over time. As the participants start to move their bodies in response to the prompt, Lissa adds another dimension: “Stand closer to the painting if it is a strong feeling, and farther back if it is the opposite. If you are undecided, you might find yourself in the middle.” She then invites the group to share the reasons why they have selected their current positions. “Please listen to others’ responses,” she adds. “They might even affect your decision. Feel free to change your mind, and your position, if you find someone else’s reasoning compelling.”(pg. 134)

We consider Kai-Kee, Latina, and Sadoyan’s approach to be trauma-aware for several reasons. It allows participants to incorporate movement as a mode of response and it acknowledges different levels of trust within a group. Participants are able to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable and to demonstrate reciprocity by changing their position in response to others’ ideas. This approach empowers the visitor by valuing their feelings and opinions while also connecting visitors by giving them the opportunity to observe and react to others.

Making

Until recently, participatory opportunities for museum visitors were an important way for them to be able to externalize something of their lived experience and enter into creative dialogue with the larger museum community. Open studios, creative workshops, arts-based and written feedback, and community exhibitions are all well-established tools that art educators have used to connect with their participants and connect their participants to the museum. COVID-19 has presented serious constraints about the safe use of art materials.

DMA-meaningful-moment
Participants of the DMA’s Meaningful Moments program explore a variety of materials in the art studio. Photo credit: Dallas Museum of Art.

As creative professionals, the education teams in museums have been quickly adapting and are using a number of simple, digitally-based tools. These include participants sharing their artwork made at home, photography, and digital-art. The gradual return to live encounters means that participants will not be sharing materials for some time. Organizing with groups to bring and use their own materials is one solution.  Another is the exclusive use of easily disinfected materials such as markers, scissors, colored pencils, paintbrushes, needles, and knitting / crochet tools. But, the intention and use of participatory activities remains important and perhaps even more so as we consider the traumatic impact of COVID-19 on large portions of our populations.

The American Art Therapy Association has a guide for best practice of the use of art materials based on CDC recommendations.

The studio remains an important practice whether live at the museum using the appropriate guidelines or in the virtual studio. Along with empowerment through art-making, the art studio will continue to be a place for social connection. The careful attention of facilitators, the casual conversations, and the sharing of work are all essential ingredients in maintaining the connections to communities and visitors that educators have built over many years.

Google Doc for Resources:

Inspired by La Tanya S. Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List, we started an open-source document of trauma-focused resources:

TRAUMA-AWARE ART MUSEUM EDUCATION RESOURCE LIST

We hope that you will contribute to this document and share it with colleagues.  Likewise, we welcome any and all feedback on T-AAME.  We are grateful and buoyed by the responses we have received so far and we would appreciate hearing about your experiences incorporating any of these practices into your work.

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Works Cited

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Places: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. In Landreman, L. (Ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Cowan, B., Laird, R., & McKeown, J. (2020). Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship Between Exhibitions and Wellness. Milton Park, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Kai-Kee, E., Latina, L., & Sadoyan, L. (2020). Activity-based teaching in the art museum: Movement, Embodiment, Emotion. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

O’Connor, M., & Michaels, S. (1996). Shifting participant frameworks: Orchestrating thinking practices in group discussions. In D. Hicks (Ed.), Discourse, learning, and schooling (pp. 63-103). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[1]  This is another engagement strategy that Laura has witnessed and participated in when teaching with Terry Barrett.

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About the Authors

LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.  Evans received her Ph.D. in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu

STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at slegari@mbamtl.org

ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at andrew.palamara@cincyart.org

RONNA TULGAN OSTHEIMER has worked in the education department of the Clark for more than eighteen years, first as the coordinator of community and family programs and then, for the past nine years, as director of education. Her goal as a museum educator is to help people understand more fully that looking at and thinking about art can expand their sense of human possibility. Before coming to the Clark, Tulgan Ostheimer taught at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the education department. She holds an EdD in psychological education from the University of Massachusetts and a BA in Sociology and American Studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She can be reached at rtulgan@clarkart.edu

EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org

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Featured Image: A mediator (educator) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts working with children. Photo credit © Mikaël Theimer (MKL)

No longer in extremis: A letter of resignation & courage

Reposted with permission from Andrea Montiel de Shuman’s Medium page.  Visit to read more from Andrea.

Written by A. Andrea Montiel de Shuman

I have been told that if we stay quiet and play the system, eventually things will change. But how am I supposed to have hope if at my institution decades of museum education and visitor-centered practices were dismantled in a matter of a few years?  Those practices led to the inclusion of my communities. I remember the first day I visited the DIA and saw myself in art, embraced as part of humanity, by the creative collective memory of the multitude of nations. Those practices that made me feel accepted, no longer an alien, because that day the DIA was speaking directly to me: the immigrant, the Mexican, the woman of color — and it told me that I belonged.

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”

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About the Author

ANDREA MONTIEL DE SHUMAN is a digital experience designer that focuses on public-facing digital experiences to help visitors find personal meaning in art. Among other collaborations, Andrea serves as Program Co-Chair for Museum Computer Network, as Committee member of the Tech & Media MUSE Awards, and as an Education Program Advisor for the future Smithsonian Latino Galleries, and she has been involved in a number of reflective digital initiatives with Knight Foundation and AAM, mainly discussing ethic/moral implications of emerging technologies. Currently, she is interested in exploring opportunities to use the power of experience to set traditionally underrepresented audiences, especially indigenous communities.

A Moment for Accountability, Transformation & Real Questions

Reposted from Museums Are Not Neutral website. Visit to learn more. Expose the myth of museum neutrality and demand equity-based transformation across institutions

Written by Mike Murawski

As protesters have gathered in the streets of more than 2,000 cities, towns, and communities across the United States to stand against police brutality, white supremacy, systemic racism, and the violent oppression of Black communities, museums across the country have decided to post images of artworks by Black artists (without statements and without the permission of many of these artists), share their own vague and often hollow statements of ‘solidarity,’ and post the #BlackoutTuesday black squares on their social media accounts without considering the impact. Many of these predominantly white museums have been called out for their superficial and performative acts (see more about SFMoMA, Guggenheim, the Met, and Nelson Atkins, just to name a small few), and more will be held accountable to these statements as we see whether or not they commit to making the changes needed to dismantle racism, take action, and transform their institutions.

In addition to using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, several institutions have also used the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral. While we never claim to control the use of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag, it has certainly represented a grassroots movement for all of those who stand against the myth and lie of museum neutrality. La Tanya S. Autry, curator and co-producer of Museums Are Not Neutral, writes via Twitter: “we hate seeing people co-opt it to perpetuate more abuse. Museums could identify their investment in racism, apologize, and create community-derived action plans.”

For any institutions who have used the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag in recent days, I would simply ask that your team reflect on what this means for you, and where your organization stands when it comes to actions and transformative changes that tear down and refuse the system of white supremacy that is the foundation of most museums. “Museums Are Not Neutral” is a message and call to action that has been around for many decades (long before hashtags), and it continues to be a powerful call to action right now in this moment because of the time, energy, labor, risk-taking, and truth-telling of so many Black museum leaders, curators, educators, organizers, and activists. When you use these words, back them up with action — stop causing harm and commit to change!

I am grateful for the real questions shared by Madison Rose (@nomadiso) via Instagram on June 2, 2020, the day that many referred to as #BlackoutTuesday. I wanted to share these questions below as a way to help guide institutions and those in positions of authority within museums to think through their own process of internal reflection, critique, and transformation. This is not a moment to “check the boxes” and do something just because everyone else is doing it — this is a moment for true leadership, substantive and seismic change, and for institutions to choose to stand apart as they directly address racism, colonialism, and oppression within their walls and in conversation with their communities.

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[posted by Madison Rose @nomadiso]

In 2017, co-producers of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement, La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski dedicated their time to refuse the myth of neutrality that many museum professionals often take and calling for an equity-based transformation of museums.

It’s essential to hold their message during this time. To acknowledge the politics in everything we do. Museums are always making choices where to spend their time, their money, and their influence. A simple post on Instagram providing solidarity because the public forced them to is bare minimum. Highlighting dead Black artists with an inspirational quote isn’t support. It’s time for internal institutional critique to start to dismantle white supremacy, inequities, and colonialism in our institutions. Can museums be redeemable?

Some real questions to ask:

  • What work are you doing internally to fight institutional racism?

  • How accessible are you making that information?

  • Who is making decisions?

  • Are you redistributing the white wealth?

  • Is there Black leadership?

  • Are you owning your mistakes and making amends?

  • Are you laying off BIPOC workers?

  • Are you donating to Black community organizations?

  • What is the % of Black art do you have in your collection?

  • What are you going to do with your stolen African artifacts?

  • What efforts are you making toward decolonizing your museum?

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Action & Resource Guide: Museum Education Roundtable

Reposted with permission from Museum Education Roundtable (MER) blog.

Written and compiled by Museum Education Roundtable Board of Directors

The Museum Education Roundtable stands alongside those protesting violence against Black people in Minneapolis and around the country. Museum educators are bridges to and producers of cultural knowledge. We care for our communities intellectually but also emotionally, socially, and physically. As such, we have a responsibility to address structural injustice, oppression, racism, and abuses of power. Museums are not neutral, and neither are those who work in these privileged institutions.

We are angered by and mourn the killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others. We stand with those condemning the violence against and ongoing oppression of Black people in the United States. Our thoughts, words, and actions are with anyone organizing to dismantle systems of oppression.

These are only the most recent instances emerging from centuries of violent, structural racism in the United States. To end this cycle of injustice, we all must come together to recognize the insidious nature of white supremacy and the ways it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including and especially our cultural institutions.

We encourage our members and readers to take action and have compiled the following resources for folks seeking an entry point. As a Board, and within a museum field, that is predominately white, we must center our Black, Indigenous, and racialized colleagues, partners, and visitors. We have privilege inherent to aspects of our identities and power in our position within the cultural landscape.

Here’s what we can do right now: 

Here’s what we can do within the museum field: 

For museum workers who are, or want to become allies, advocates, accomplices:

  • Recognize how this violence affects Black, Indigenous and colleagues of color deeply and differently than white colleagues;
  • Make space for Black friends, colleagues, and family to grieve and mourn; center them and their experiences rather than your own;
  • Talk with kidsstudentscoworkersfamily, and friends about race;
  • Join or start reading and discussion groups like Building Antiracist White Educators, centered around racial equity
  • Support BIPOC organizations in a sustainable way, not just during crises; send funds to thought leaders and changemakers that you learn from using platforms like Venmo or Paypal; become a Patreon member of podcasts that challenge your bias;
  • Confront your own bias and unearth the ways that white supremacy has benefited you; then start dismantling it.

Resources for white people confronting anti-black racism:

We offer MER’s platform to amplify the voices of museum colleagues of color, and uplift liberatory work in our field. If you have thoughts, blog posts, or resources to share with the museum education field, we welcome you to do so in this space. We can be reached at dearmuseums@museumedu.org.

We acknowledge that much of the framework for organizing how museums can and should respond to injustice has been the labor of people of color, in particular Black women. We thank Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown (#MuseumsRespondToFerguson); La Tanya Autry (#MuseumsAreNotNeutral); and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie (#SayHerName); Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi (#BlackLivesMatter); and Porchia Moore and nikhil trivedi (Visitors of Color).

In solidarity.

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About Museum Education Roundtable

Formed in 1969, the Museum Education Roundtable fosters professionalism among museum educators by encouraging leadership, scholarship and research in museum- based learning. MER provides leadership in professional development for a broad and diverse audience of museum practitioners and educators. Through its publications, programs, and active communications network, MER:

Supports professionalism among peers and others committed to excellence in museum-based learning. Encourages leadership, scholarship, and research in museum-based learning, and advocates for the inclusion and application of museum-based learning in general education and life-long learning.

MER publishes the Journal of Museum Education, the only American journal that is devoted to the theory and practice of museum education. Written by museum and education professionals, JME articles explore innovations in the field of museum education, teaching strategies for use in museums and other informal learning environments, visitor research, and evaluation.

MER hosts an annual program each year in Washington, DC, and a members reception at the AAM annual conference. In addition, MER partners with regional groups to present programs that offer networking opportunities and discussions around issues of the JME.

What does it mean to be human in this moment?

Written by Emily Turner

There’s a sentence that’s been haunting me lately: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”(1). It’s a beautiful concept that encompasses the good and the ugly of what museums have been, what they are, and what they could be. It expresses the potential for museums to assert definitions of humanity that are liberatory, healing, and affirmative while leaving room for the essential question “but for who?” 

What is our role and responsibility to help people think and feel about what it means to be human in this moment? What does it even mean to be human in this moment? What does it mean to be essential or vulnerable? What does it mean to survive? Who will? I keep thinking about what our actions – as neighbors, colleagues, and culture workers –  communicate about what we think it means to be human right now. As to be expected, the impacts of the virus are not being felt equally. Essential workers are still largely low wage workers; access to health care is still restricted and costly; educators are still trying to meet students’ needs with too few resources; the elderly are still disposable; it’s still expensive to be poor. The systems that prop up what “normal” looks like are still pushing folks to the margins. 

As the few museum staff left try to creatively adapt to serve the needs of their community, they ultimately express what they think those needs are and what they believe is the museum’s unique position to fill them. What people will be comforted by, what will help them navigate their day, what will help them make sense of their emotions or the news will depend drastically on how the pandemic is affecting their material reality. Content designed for people who are bored is probably not going to resonate (at least not in the same way) with people still riding the bus every day to work or whose loved ones lie in a hospital bed they cannot visit.

Yes, people are looking for history that affirms a sense of self, distractions, or art as a therapeutic process. People are also looking for more mundane balms – to hear someone express a similar feeling, to speak aloud, to know their child is occupied for thirty minutes. People are also in crisis. 

Ruminating on life in the pandemic has been a continuous exercise in getting absorbed in and extracting myself from my own isolation, emotions, hardship, and drama. I’ve been generally disappointed with museum leaders (individuals and institutions) who are unable to pull themselves out of their own internal turmoil, who seem unable to instinctually care for others in a time of crisis. You know, the ones who assume their priorities are the top priority, that whatever choices they make will be justified as long as they can save the institution, that if people know just how long and hard these decisions were they will understand them and feel okay. It can feel like asking the world for what in reality is so little – for those who hold the power to consider our experience and let it impact their choices. To take time to listen, or communicate frequently even if incompletely. To put others’ needs before their own or the needs of the institution. As I try to articulate and find examples of the leadership I am looking for within myself, my institution, and my community this is what I’m getting stuck on. Whose humanity is being affirmed through our choices and in the ways we reach out?

  1. Marc O’Neill in Gaynor Kavanaugh’s Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum. Leicester University Press, 2000.

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About the Author

EMILY TURNER: Seattle-based museum educator and creative historian who strives to infuse joy and creativity into the museum experience and encourages visitors of all ages to think critically about objects and their stories. Through writing and comix, Emily explores issues of representation and labor in art and history museums. An officer for the Museum Educators of Puget Sound, she is active in her community as a mentor and an advocate for emerging museum professionals.

The Power of Collective Action: PMA Union Announcement

Written by Members of the Division of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The past few months of pandemic response have given the museum education community plenty of reason for heartbreak. Many of our colleagues across the country have been laid off or furloughed. Programs into which we’ve poured months of creative planning have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. MoMA and other institutions have announced budget shortfalls for the coming fiscal year that all but guarantee further cuts to education and programming. Even those of us who have been granted the reprieve of continued employment for a few months know that everything could change tomorrow. 

It’s not easy to stay optimistic in the midst of such incredible uncertainty, so it feels especially important to share news that’s hopeful. On Friday, May 22, an overwhelming majority of eligible staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced our intent to unionize in affiliation with AFSCME District Council 47. While it’s hard right now to separate how essential an empowered workforce is from the context of the current crisis, this moment comes for us at the end of a full year of organizing. 

Motivated in part by the revelations in last year’s Art + Salary Transparency Spreadsheet, our colleagues from departments across the museum started talking to each other, finding common ground, and building solidarity. It won’t surprise you to learn that museum educators have been deeply involved in this effort. We know how to create community, facilitate challenging conversations, and consider multiple points of view. We know you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and we have embraced inspiration from other museum union campaigns (the New Museum Union, Tenement Museum Union, BAM Union, and New Children’s Museum, just to name a few). And as educators, we’ve come to value the process of organizing as much as the end product. We’ve learned how to build consensus and disagree without falling apart. We’ve experienced immense vulnerability and resilience, both within ourselves and with each other. 

Friday’s announcement doesn’t mark the end of our campaign; it’s only the beginning of a new, public phase. All of the unknowns associated with reopening during a pandemic have given renewed urgency to PMA staff advocating for a voice in decision-making. Now more than ever, museum educators and our public-facing colleagues need safe, accessible, and equitable working conditions. And we need a mechanism for preventing the financial impact of museum closures from landing disproportionately on positions and programs that serve the public. We know that unionizing isn’t the answer to every challenge we face today, but the past year has taught us to believe in the power of collective action to effect change for the better. 

If you want to learn more about the PMA Union campaign, you can read our press release (PDF link and full text below) and visit our website at PMAunion.com. We also have Instagram and Twitter accounts under the handle @PMA_Union where we’d be thrilled to receive support. Finally, please reach out to us at solidarity@pmaunion.com to continue the conversation. 

Members of the Division of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Lindsey Bloom

Anna Bockrath

Gina Buoncristiano

Leigh Dale

Amy Danford

Rosalie Hooper

Adam Rizzo

Sarah Shaw

James Stein

Greg Stuart

Angela Vassallo

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PMA Union Press Release (PDF)

May 22, 2020 For immediate release:

PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART WORKERS FORM UNION

Today, staff from across the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) announce our intent to unionize in affiliation with AFSCME DC47.

We have collected authorization cards from a supermajority of union-eligible staff and are requesting voluntary recognition from the museum’s senior management. Voluntary recognition of staff unions has been granted recently at other cultural organizations, including the LA Museum of Contemporary of Art and The Shed, and clears the way for more expeditious and collaborative bargaining.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art serves the people of Philadelphia, and we must emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as a safe, accessible, and equitable place where all Philadelphians can engage with the arts. For this to be possible, working people must have a seat at the table in museum decision-making. By unionizing, we are taking important steps to ensure that the eventual reopening of the museum prioritizes visitor and staff safety; to empower staff in the face of incidents of harassment and discrimination like those publicized in January of this year; and to prevent the financial impact of the museum’s closure from landing on the programs that serve our community and the workers who are already the most vulnerable. It has never been more important for workers to have a say in our own working conditions, especially when our workplaces are also public spaces.

We are facing challenges that our institution and city have never faced before. We know that whatever the future brings, we will be better able to face it with an empowered workforce that can bring all our passion and creativity to bear in service to our community and collection. We are eager to take on these challenges in solidarity with one another and in cooperation with management, executive leadership, and the Board of Trustees, which is why we have requested voluntary recognition.

The new PMA Union will be affiliated with AFSCME DC47. District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME DC47) represents workers at several Philadelphia cultural organizations, including the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Zoo, as well as about 6,000 other professional workers in the city’s public and private sectors. AFSCME is the leading union for representing museum professionals nationally and covers workers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Tolerance, Milwaukee Public Museum, and other institutions.

We are unionizing to win a seat at the bargaining table, to have a say in the decisions that impact our lives and livelihoods, and to ensure that the PMA continues to be a leader in Philadelphia and the nation. We are unionizing out of love for the arts, the museum, and each other.

We hope that museum leadership and our Board of Trustees will see that a unionized workforce will create a stronger, more resilient museum, and look forward to voluntary recognition and a collaborative bargaining process.

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Featured Image: Graphics for the PMA Union by Nick Massarelli.

Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis

Written by Jason Porter

All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff. 

Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions. 

And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work —  is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities. 

MoPOP PopCon
MoPOP PopCon

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.  

But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time. 

I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention

It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection. 

Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.

There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement. 

After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.   

All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.

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About the Author

JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.

Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.

Inviting Intimate Conversations on Our Fears and Anxieties about the Future

Written by Justina Barrett, Catherine Ricketts, Greg Stuart, and Alicia Valencia

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art during this moment of unprecedented change in the face of the COVID-19, we’ve been thinking about our past in order to grapple with the anxieties we have about our future, as many of those who are reading this in 2020 are probably doing. It’s in this light that a public program we developed, called The Designer Is In, feels remarkably prescient.

In October of 2019, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened the first stage of the exhibition, Designs for Different Futures, which is a collaboration with our institution, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Walker Art Center. This exhibition explores how contemporary designers imagine, respond to, and ask questions about the future. As we in the Public Programs department were in the planning stages for the exhibition, we were noticing that many of the issues tackled in the exhibition, including climate change, the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence in our lives, and the heightened role of digital surveillance–just to name a few–were making us feel anxious.

In talking with one of the curators of the exhibition, Michelle Millar Fisher, we envisioned that visitors would need a space to process, relax, and decompress after engaging with this content. This led to the creation of the Futures Therapy Lab, a space where on any given day, visitors could make art, peruse a library of books crowdsourced from staff and community members about themes in the exhibition, respond to questions on a share wall, and just generally hang out.

The Futures Therapy Lab was also designed to be an active programming space, with artist talks, drop-in art-making workshops, a program called SciFi Sundays–in which local science fiction authors would read excerpts of their works–and more.

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Visitors interact with the Futures Therapy Lab’s offerings.

Within the scope of programming we were developing for the Futures Therapy Lab, we felt we needed something more specifically tethered to the world of “therapy,” and in this lab space of experimentation, we wanted to engage visitors on a smaller scale at the level of intimate conversation, and we thought designers could fill this role with our visitors. We were certainly not imagining that they would replicate or replace the role of a trained and licensed therapist, but that if we approached the topic of therapy in a playful way, it could be an opportunity to engage our audiences in the kind of rich conversations we were imagining the exhibition would provoke. We also wanted to go into this project with the idea that a designer may not be interested in solving problems or bringing visitors to a meaningful resolution, but that it was more important to use this opportunity to pose questions and challenge assumptions, much like a good therapist would do.

To meet these goals, we implemented The Designer Is In, bringing designers and visitors together for discussion in the Lab after experiencing the exhibition. The cast of designers who could facilitate a purposeful experience in the Lab was central to the efficacy of this program. The design field is by nature broad, cross-disciplinary, and constantly evolving, and this is especially true in the case of the Designs for Different Futures exhibition which covers an expansive range of themes. Multiple and potentially conflicting ideas may come to mind when imagining the role of a “designer” – how they tackle big questions, work through problems, and test possible solutions. For our purposes, we looked for “designers-in-residence” who could explore these complex impressions together with visitors, and approach speculating about the future in constructive, collaborative ways. We reached out to artists, designers, and practitioners from the Philadelphia area who, not only grapple with similar questions or topics to the ones posed in the exhibition, but also maintain civically minded, people-centered creative practices that depend on the kinds of collaboration and conversations we intended to encourage.

For two hours on Thursdays and Saturdays, a designer-in-residence was available in the lab to speak one-on-one with visitors about the issues and content presented in the show. A total of 10 designers-in-residence participated in the Designer Is In, coming from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, including Maia Chao of Look at Art Get Paid; Paul Farber from Monument Lab; Yadan Luo from OLIN; Raja Schaar from Drexel University; Michelle Johnson from the University of Pennsylvania; Stephanie Carlisle of KieranTimberlake and Uncertain Terrain; Andrew Wit of WITO; Scott Page of Interface Studio; and Alex Gilliam of Tiny WPA. Our intention was not to have a designer-in-residence speak to the specifics of every object in the exhibition. Instead, each individual was to offer their own perspectives regarding designing and planning for the future, based on what they encounter in their own distinctive practices. We asked designers-in-residence to speculate with visitors about the experience of designing for the future in terms of their own disciplines, and provide deeper dives into specific themes when it made sense given their backgrounds.

To structure this experience, and further suggest therapeutic engagement, we designed an “intake form” for visitors to fill out before meeting with our designers-in-residence. The intake form included brief Likert scale questions to gauge a sense of confidence or apprehension in what design can accomplish. Below these initial questions, we included a brief description of the designer-in-residence present in the Lab that day, and a few different topics specific to their practice which could act as starting points for discussion, such as “Public Art and Belonging”, “Walls and Bridges”, and “Youth-Designed and Built Placespaces.” As part of the development process, we knew we needed to have outside collaborators working with us on the intake form and experience of The Designer Is In, so we partnered with Josephine Devanbu from Look At Art Get Paid and Paul Farber from Monument Lab. Devanbu and Farber helped us think through the experience of the interaction between a visitor and a designer-in-residence from start to finish, and with their input we designed an intake form that could provoke questions, start a dialogue, and guide the conversation.

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The designer is in fact “in,” and ready for visitors. Photo by Raja Schaar.

Now that we had built and designed the program, would visitors participate? Certainly, this is a question that precedes every public program, but we were dipping our toes even more into the unknown than usual. Fortunately, from the very beginning, we found that our designers-in-residence were almost continually engaged with visitors during their two hour stints, and visitors were spending as much as a half hour talking with them.

We collected reactions from visitors on the back page of the Intake Form, asking, “What’s one thing you want to take with you from your experience today?” Some expressed their reactions to the exhibition itself, which ranged from “Terrifying,” to “Yolo baby!” Those who felt tense after seeing the exhibition reported that they appreciated the opportunity to talk through that tension. At the end of their Designer Is In sessions, one wrote, “I feel better. Interesting collaborations and innovations. There really is good here!” Others, after seeing the exhibition, expressed a desire for human interaction: “I just want to connect, be in touch;” “Where is the human element amid so much technology?” Designer Is In offered just such an opportunity, and elicited responses like, “A pleasure to discuss this exhibit with a designer. [It made] this exhibition personal.” In addition to the personal nature of the program, visitors appreciated its informative quality: “Important to have experts communicating a well-informed perspective about design rather than reactive or overly optimistic models. Thank you for having experts present to interpret this exhibit,” wrote one visitor.

We concluded each designer’s residency with open-ended follow-up questions. One theme in their feedback was the benefit of this program to the designers’ own practice. The opportunity to speak about their work with a diverse cross-section of visitors sparked new ideas and offered fresh perspectives. For instance, designer-in-residence Raja Schaar reported having spoken to a neuroscientist, an international diplomat for climate change and women’s rights, a banker, a software developer, recent design graduates, kids in STEAM magnet schools, videographers, and dancers. These conversation partners offered her “a totally new perspective” and “a new strong argument point for [her] research.” Often, designers’ work is very specialized, and the Designer Is In program allowed our collaborators to test ideas and to practice discussing their work with the general public, proving mutual benefit.

Now that this program is finished, we’ve been asking ourselves what lessons we’ve learned, and how can these lessons be applicable to the broader museum community, regardless of whether this exhibition travels to your site or you have a dedicated programming space like our Futures Therapy Lab.

Communication is hard. Communication is crucial.

One of the challenges that we faced in developing this program is how to communicate what the program even is to visitors. While the experience of therapy might be one that many of our visitors share, it’s not expected in a museum setting, and it took a lot of explication, both on the part of our Futures Therapy Lab staff–educators who were on the front lines of communicating with the public in the space–and on the part of the designers-in-residence themselves. We could have done more to better communicate the nature of the program at the outset, and even–after some helpful feedback from one designer-in-residence–at the start of the exhibition before visitors even entered the Futures Therapy Lab.

A more positive outcome regarding communication around this program was the internal communication engendered amongst us as staff. Even though the four of us all worked in Public Programs at this time, we all have different programs we are responsible for, and somewhat different audiences. It was a nice opportunity to break down even the small silos that exist among us.

From “we” back to “me”

One of the biggest takeaways from this program, especially given how much our regularly scheduled programming and teaching takes the form of group conversations or even larger format lectures and performances that reach hundreds, is the importance of reaching our visitors one person at a time. Furthermore, by creating a public space for “therapy,” our hope is that this program in some small ways reduces the stigma regarding seeking treatment for mental health.

As we’ve been reflecting on this program through the lens of our own thoughts and anxieties during this period of global pandemic, this type of programming feels more relevant than ever. Live interpretation in special exhibitions in our museum has typically been limited to guided tours with volunteer docents. The Futures Therapy Lab and the Designer Is In more specifically gave us a footprint within the exhibition to populate with educators and collaborators; it opened us up more (in the art museum world) to strategies employed by progressive historic site and history museum practitioners when dealing with difficult content.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience trains its members to challenge visitors’ preconceptions, foster dialogue and spark civic action that enables the past to activate the future. Historic sites across the country that are responsibily interpreting the history of slavery and race have turned to live interpreters to do so.

In a post-pandemic America, museums will have to argue for why they matter even more. What if museums just become warehouses of objects with only online programming? These curated spaces of reflection and emotional engagement could be a reason to come into the building. The live, skilled facilitator helping visitors process the content of a gallery may prove to be the best return on investment museums will make.

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Illustration from Futures Therapy Lab staff member, Samuel Solomon, reflecting on The Designer Is In.

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About the Authors

JUSTINA BARRETT holds a master’s degree in early American material culture from the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware complements well her interest and love of sharing Philadelphia with visitors. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she works as Site Manager for Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove, two historic homes in Fairmount Park administered by the Museum. She also designs programs and trains guides to share the Museums’ collections with the public. Working with Museum curators, preservation professionals, and other stakeholders, she advocates for preservation and public access to local historic sites.

CATHERINE RICKETTS works on performance programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a special focus on music programming. She is also an essayist and songwriter. Her writing on art, music, grief, and spirituality has been published in The Millions, Image, and Paste. Read and listen at http://www.catherinedanaricketts.com

GREG STUART is Coordinator of Adult Public Programs and Museum Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to joining the PMA, he worked in Public Programs and Education at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University, and as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

ALICIA VALENCIA is a former ArtTable Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art working in Public Programs, and holds an MDes from Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Art, Design, and the Public Domain. She completed her undergraduate education as a Brown|RISD Dual Degree student, earning an Sc.B in Psychology from Brown University and a BFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She has previously worked at the Boston Museum of Science in Early Childhood Interpretation, the Providence Children’s Museum, and the Decorative Arts and Design Department at the RISD Museum.

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Featured Image: Installation view of Another Generosity, a work in which visitors encounter an inflatable pod measuring 15 feet in diameter; first created in 2018 by Finnish architect Eero Lundén and designed in this incarnation in collaboration with Ron Aasholm and Carmen Lee. The pod slowly expands and contracts in the space, responding to changing levels of carbon dioxide as visitors exhale around it, and provoking questions about the ongoing effect of the human footprint on the environment.  Photo from philamuseum.org exhibition website.

Code Red for the Museum Education Profession

Written by Brian Hogarth

Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 20, 2020; revised with edits and updated figures, April 30, 2020.

The museum education profession is, for the second time in a decade, taking a serious blow that could have a devastating impact on the future of the profession.

For both educators and museum management, this is a critical moment. Decisions made now will have repercussions beyond the immediate fiscal crisis. I know. I have been in decision making positions and impacted positions before — in 1990, in 2001, in 2009-10, and now this crisis, which dwarfs all the previous situations.

The immediate situation is daunting. Revenues have plummeted. With buildings closed, most education programs cannot take place. There is not enough cash on hand to meet payroll, so a variety of layoffs, furloughs and/or salary reductions are taking place.

An anonymous excel spreadsheet has been circulating that shows numbers of positions affected. There are approximately 3,400 layoffs and 8,500 furloughed positions listed at several hundred institutions across the country as of April 30, 2020. The numbers might be small in comparison to the almost 30 million workers that have applied for unemployment in the overall economy. But what’s notable is how many of these affected positions are educators and other front-line positions. Moreover, this is “the first phase” with more layoffs possible when the current fiscal year ends in a couple of months. And more institutions still have to report in.

The critical question for me, as with prior recessions, is why education staff is, yet again, bearing the brunt of these layoffs? What impact is the loss of many positions going to have on the long-term viability of the profession and the public value of museums?

Even before the virus/lock down situation arose, many young professionals were voicing concern over the lack of paid internships and low starting pay for positions in museum education, relative to the higher costs of living in large cities where many museums are concentrated. Many have noted the increasing numbers of contracted, part-time, or seasonal positions (the gig economy at work). In some of the major institutions in New York City, large numbers of gallery educators are now as-needed employees. Cancellations of programs means the almost immediate cancellation of these work opportunities. Granted, some institutions have agreed to pay workers for scheduled work for the next month or so and there have been pay reductions for full-time staff.

Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.

The net effect is not encouraging for the health of the profession. Right now, it looks unsteady and volatile. People who work on museum programs along with other front-line staff are seeing that their jobs are expendable. The few that remain in positions will feel guilty and will be under added pressure to retain near normal amounts of programming. This will put added stress on their plates and some will leave when alternative opportunities come up.

This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.

Museums that mainly hire people with the means to work in the profession will have difficulty engaging more diverse publics. These publics will prefer to support organizations that are more reflective of their needs, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Statements from museums to the press often refer to the need for endowments and collections to be preserved for the future viability of the organization. If fiscal matters are all that matters, then museums begin to resemble banks, who’s job is to preserve the assets of the bank for the benefit of investors. But museums exist to serve the public. They commit themselves to being mission- driven, and those mission statements usually say something about education and public value. Museums should be asking — how are we preserving our educational mission? What critical and essential work can we continue to provide for the public, even while our buildings are closed? Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these. Scientists warn that further pandemics will arise, on top of the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Now is a good time to rethink public services and to prepare for the next crisis.

The big question for museums is– is this a time for retrenchment, pulling up the drawbridge and retreating behind the walls? Or is it time to fulfill the promise of museums as outward-facing, publicly-spirited organizations? How about forming new partnerships, with libraries, with other disciplines like the performing arts, to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities? What about offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities? What about rethinking the role of education, beyond the constant production of events on site, and instead, getting out into the community and other sectors of society, to conduct more research and evaluation, to redesign services around what people really need and want rather than what we as experts, assume the public wants to consume? Now is a good time to articulate and roll out new public benefits and to continue the good work around diversity and inclusion. It’s time to redefine education work as essential, as core to the mission and its fulfillment. Let’s not emphasize self-preservation above all else. Preservation and access are not one before the other, but both/and. Like yin and yang, they are interdependent. Educational work is not a matter of convenience, when times are good. It is unfinished work that continues with each generation. It helps to preserve the institution by building social value across life spans, which translates into support.

About a decade ago, before the last big round of layoffs, I conducted an informal survey of museum education departments, and discovered that such departments averaged around 5-7% of annual operating budgets, including salaries, but not including any one-time project grants. While there are many lucrative grants that directly support education programs, it often comes as a surprise to the public to know that large events raising money for education often end up supporting general operating costs. If education is deemed to be an essential part of the mission, we must be careful not to use education as a convenient flag to wave for supporting what is deemed to be more important, inward facing tasks.

If mission statements articulating the importance of education and public engagement are to be taken seriously, and if museums expect to attract a diverse pool of applicants to fill future public-facing positions, then they need to come up with a more sustainable formula for the steady provision of those services. Just as interest drawn from endowment investments is applied to operating expenses at steady levels over several years so as not to affect the principle, so each museum should commit to never falling below a certain threshold of support for education and public programs. To weather the ups and downs of funding individual programs, it would help to endow more mid-level, full-time positions in education (endowments typically go to curatorial positions, and occasionally to Directors of Education) and to create a small fund to support paid internships to provide pathways for a more equitable and diverse pool of future museum staff. This is too important a task to be left up to individual museum organizations. It should be strengthened at the national level in terms of museum assessment programs and professional standards.

The central importance of education work in cultural organizations needs to be recognized and elevated. Words like this are not enough. There needs to be actionable steps taken. I invite readers to consider additional ways of building and securing a more positive outlook for the museum profession. Right now, and far too often, museum education takes a beating. Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future.

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About the Author

BRIAN HOGARTH is the Director for Museum Education Programs at Bank Street College in New York City. A native of Toronto, Canada, Brian worked in performing arts management before becoming Manager of Public Programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and Head of Interpretation at the Glenbow in Calgary. In the US, he has been Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Education at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was for ten years Director of Education at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He has taught classes in art history and museum education at Johns Hopkins (Online) Museum Studies, Johnson Community College in Overland Park, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Brian holds an MA in East Asian Art History and a BA in Fine Arts/Theatre.

 

 

Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: A Conversation

By Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara

In an essay reflecting on how his past trauma influenced his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, writer Geoffrey Mak said, “Our lives are not going back to normal, as one way of being has been abruptly and unilaterally aborted, without our consent. Instead, we’re left with the grief for tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars evaporated, and a future of promise that was wiped out for an entire generation.”

Mak speaks to something profound – a collective trauma – that many people are struggling to comprehend, the magnitude of which is still beyond our ability to envision or understand because it is ongoing. In our field, we’re grappling with acknowledging that loss alongside a desire to do what we can to ensure a better future. In light of this, four of us gathered over Zoom to talk about what we are calling trauma-aware art museum education.  We wanted to figure out how we, as educators, can be more prepared to encounter trauma when the public returns to museums and how we can cultivate safe experiences for visitors to process the effects of these unprecedented times. We are sharing the transcript of the first convening of our trauma-aware art museum education (T-AAME) group.

ScreenShot
Talking about trauma-aware art museum education via Zoom. From upper left, clockwise: Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara.

Laura: Could everyone go around and introduce themselves and then we can jump into the topic of trauma-aware art museum education?  Andrew, could you start us off?

Andrew: I’m Andrew Palamara, the Associate Director of Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). I manage the training, evaluation, and recruitment of docents at the CAM.

Emily: I’m Emily Wiskera, Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art. I oversee educational programming for visitors with disabilities.

Stephen: I’m Stephen Legari, Program Officer for Art Therapy at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). I facilitate museum-based art therapy groups, supervise interns, manage our community art studio, and collaborate on research.

Laura: And, I’m Laura Evans. I’m a professor at the University of North Texas and I run the Art Museum Education Certificate program. I am so happy we could all be together right now, thinking about this important topic. Maybe, before we jump in, we can talk about the terminology. “Trauma” is a pretty heavy term. How are we defining trauma in relation to COVID-19?  Can we explain why we are using the words trauma-aware?  What does that mean?

Stephen: Trauma is both a heavy term and a prevalent one. Our discussion around what it means to become trauma-aware as museum staff, particularly educators, is to both acknowledge with sincerity and respect that trauma is everywhere. But trauma is also highly subjectively experienced and expressed. Museums, by their nature, are environments where people’s collective and individual narratives are elicited and we cannot ignore, in good conscience, that this includes stories that are traumatic.

Laura: And, a result of this pandemic will inevitably include trauma: major traumas and micro-traumas. As you said, Stephen, we cannot, in good conscience, ignore these experiences of trauma when we return to our museums.

Emily: But, I think we should also keep in mind that not everyone will experience this pandemic as traumatic. For some, school and business closures may have removed them from otherwise toxic or trauma-inducing environments. Others may be experiencing multiple layers of trauma, as we are seeing with the tragic rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases. Experiencing trauma is an almost universal part of the human experience. But as in all situations, context and resources play a role. We should also be aware that in-depth processing of trauma likely won’t be immediate. We begin to work through trauma and start the process of healing when we feel emotionally safe to do so.

Laura: And, we can play a role in creating those safe spaces. But, before we talk about what that might look like, Andrew and Emily, do you want to tell us how and why you started thinking about trauma-aware art museum education and why you think it is important that we explore this right now?

Andrew: In January 2020, the Learning & Interpretation team at the CAM went through a half-day training on trauma-informed practice with Amy Sullivan, a local counselor with a private practice called Rooted Compassion. It revolved around understanding our own personal trauma before we begin to understand it in others. Once the pandemic hit the U.S., something clicked with me: this might be the most urgent time to formalize a trauma-aware approach to what we do at the museum. This is going to take a psychic toll on our personal lives and how we think about going to public spaces going forward. I reached out to Emily to see what she thought about it.

Emily: When Andrew reached out to me, I had been considering how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting our communities and how the unique assets of the museum could be best used in response. Andrew’s thoughts about the public experiencing the pandemic as trauma connected with research that I had just stumbled upon. This early study out of China revealed a significant increase in acute Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms related to the pandemic. It seemed only natural to me that if the public was experiencing a change, that museums needed to adapt their strategies to be relevant and responsive to the experience of the public.

Laura: When Andrew and Emily came to me with this idea, I thought the perfect person to give some perspective was Stephen because of his training and his unique role as an arts therapist at the MMFA. Stephen, how does the MMFA already consider trauma in its programs and in its interactions with visitors?

Stephen: We have a community oriented practice in our education department  that goes back more than 20 years. The model of project development was founded on co-creation with community and clinical partners. In this way, becoming informed about the needs of groups who may have been impacted by trauma grew organically. These could be folks living with mental-health problems, people with complex migration histories, people negatively impacted by their experiences as patients and the list goes on. Each collaboration taught us something new. Fast-forward to 2017 and we felt equipped to have a full-time program dedicated to actual therapeutic work.

Laura: Have any of us already had a trauma-aware experience at a museum or know of someone that has?  Maybe one that you witnessed?  If so, what was that like for you or for them?

Andrew: One of my colleagues, Sara Birkofer, led a discussion with a local art therapist of an exhibition by photographer Sohrab Hura called The Levee, and we explored the intersection of emotion and mental health through Sohrab’s photographs. We started with a quick mindfulness exercise, then talked about how the brain processes trauma. She guided us as we walked through the exhibition, which featured several dozen photographs of Sohrab’s travels through the American South as one artwork. That prompted us to think about how we gravitate toward images that reflect our mental state. It was really profound to hear how other people processed their life experiences through another person’s art, and I was floored by how quickly we established an environment of trust and openness with each other. Coincidentally, right before I attended the program, I had learned that one of my docents had passed away, and this conversation really helped me process that news in a meaningful way.

sarcophagus
A roman sarcophagus depicting a battle scene. Soldiers and horses clamor over each other around the marble sides of the sarcophagus. Dallas Museum of Art.

Emily: For me, a trauma-aware museum experience starts when the lived experience of the visitor takes priority over art history. Educators may drop in bits of historical information, but their primary goal is to encourage participants to build personally meaningful pathways to connect to art, and in turn, themselves. I witnessed this in action as an intern when my former colleague, Danielle Schulz, was guiding a discussion around a Roman sarcophagus. Danielle encouraged group conversation simply by having participants start by describing what they noticed. The conversation developed naturally, leading the group to discuss who would be entombed in a sarcophagus that depicted a battle scene. When Danielle asked, “What emotions does this object evoke for you?,” one participant shared that it reminded her of her daughter who passed away as an infant. The participant expressed that with the death of her daughter, she was mourning all of her daughter’s unrealized potential. She connected this feeling with the grown soldiers on the sarcophagus, wondering if the scene was a reflection of who the entombed person was, or what they might have been.

Laura: I have had communal experiences that are similar to what you two have just described but I’ve also had solitary experiences in art museums that have allowed me to process trauma. I was severely anorexic in high school and, after getting help, went through recovery for many years after. When I was doing my PhD, I focused on Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, THIN, which is about women in treatment for their eating disorders. I first saw the exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art and I walked through the show crying. Even though I wasn’t there with anyone, I saw lots of other girls and women crying, holding hands, patting one another on the back, and it made me feel connected to them in some way. I remember catching eyes with a guard and she gave me a sympathetic, understanding smile that made me feel like it was okay to continue processing in that space. I read through the visitor comment book and it was full of narratives of women who were similarly moved by the art. Even though I thought I had recovered by that point, that experience helped me heal in a way I didn’t know I needed.

Hearing about and talking through these stories was helpful to me in thinking about experiences we’ve already witnessed or participated in that we might consider to be trauma-aware.  I know this is a seedling of an idea still, but what do we all think some of the characteristics are of what we are calling “trauma-aware art museum education” from the museum educator’s perspective?  What could it look like?  Sound like?  Feel like?

Andrew: In my review of trauma-informed resources that I’ve come across, two key qualities have emerged: empowerment and connection. In museum education, these are givens. We’ve already embraced teaching practices that empower visitors to have a voice in their interpretation of art and their experience in a museum. With that, we put a great deal of emphasis on social connection, whether it’s active (a dialogue with visitors about art) or passive (watching a performance). But I think there’s a new urgency to these characteristics in a post COVID-19 world. More than ever, we need to make space in our programming to empower the public, as though they are not just recipients of our content, but active participants that find personal meaning in museums and the art inside of it. That goes hand in hand with our need to be socially connected to each other. I think we have tacitly acknowledged that by visiting museums and caring about culture; in other words, we go to museums because we want to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. I think we saw this in the examples we just shared at the CAM, the DMA, and at Smith. Now, I think art museum educators have to make that social connection more direct and active, and we’ll have to be compassionate and creative in how we carry that out in practice.

Having said that, it’s not all about empowerment and connection. We have to consider qualities like building safety and trust with our visitors, resilience, patience, awareness of others in relation to ourselves, and reciprocity among many, many others. Emily, you’ve thought a lot about how the science behind trauma relates to what we do in museum education. Where have you seen connections between trauma and these ideas of empowerment and connection?

Brain
A diagram on the brain, with the caption “Brain Structures Involved in Dealing with Fear and Stress”. Prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and amygdala are labeled. image credit: NIH Medical Arts.

Emily: There are a few key attributes of trauma that inform the trauma-aware approach to museum education. First, is that trauma is not stored in the brain in the same way as other memories. Instead of being stored as narratives in our minds, traumatic events are imprinted on the amygdala through the emotional impact and sensory information experienced during the time of trauma- fragments of sound, smell, sights, taste or touch. A trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new emotional and sensory experiences that contradict the experience of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection.

A second important note is that trauma is pre-verbal. Reliving traumatic events often shuts down the speech center of the brain, making it difficult to express the trauma in words. This information has great ramifications to our practice as museum educators. In our programs we have traditionally explored ideas through discussion. If we want to provide visitors with productive ways to express their experience, we need to open our practice to include more visceral, emotional, or sensory-based modes of engagement and response, rather than purely verbal ones. The good news is that a trauma-aware approach to museum education is in line with Universal Design principles of multi-modal engagement and is beneficial for all, not just those who have experienced trauma.

Photos-Diebenkorn-Smell
Left: A group of five adults use their bodies to  interpret the lines of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 29.  Right: Within a group of seated participants, a woman puts her nose up to a clear plastic scent jar which is held by the program facilitator. Dallas Museum of Art.

Stephen: It is to ask the question, how can art and art education/the art educator help facilitate experiences of containment, reassurance and safety? Trauma makes a better lens than a label. If we use trauma as a lens to appreciate both the intense difficulties some of  our visitors faced and also the brilliance of the resilience to deal with those difficulties, then we can better adapt to them and encounter  them with some kind of genuine presence. Seeing people as traumatized is simply pathologizing them and risks contributing to that trauma.

Laura: “A better lens than a label.” That is a good frame. What could trauma-aware art museum education look like from the visitor’s perspective?  Sound like?  Feel like?

Stephen: I am encouraged by what Ross Laird calls safe-enough museum experiences. If we accept that a great deal of museum content and exchange can be provocative for the visitor, then we have a framework of how to receive and manage those experiences. From the visitor’s perspective, I would encounter staff that are warm and genuine in their welcome. I would feel included even if it’s hard for me, as a visitor, to return that same measure of friendliness. I would be given some fair warning that museum content and activities can be challenging and that I might feel things. I might also be given some information about the limitation of the experience, i.e. that this is not therapy. And finally, I would encounter some flexibility in the pacing of the experience and in the attitudes of the staff who themselves can model calmness even if things get a little emotional.

Laura: Why do we think museums and art museum educators, in particular, are good places and people to do this kind of work?

Emily: The unique assets of the museum make it the perfect place for healing to begin. Since trauma affects the speech center of the brain, our public will likely be seeking out non-verbal modes to explore and express their lived experience. Visual art, a non-verbal mode of communication, is a natural fit. Another unique aspect of the museum is its ability to be a location for social interaction. Museums have moved beyond simply acting as stewards of objects or mausoleums of the past. Our value, as institutions and educators, lies in our ability to bring people together. Using art as a tool to make individual connections and share ideas, the museum provides an environment where we can be vulnerable and build social bonds. Socialization is our most fundamental survival strategy, but it is exactly this which breaks down in most forms of mental suffering and it is what we have lost during these months of pandemic isolation.

Laura: Yes, what makes museums so unique – our objects – also makes them ideal spaces for healing connections. We can all relate to objects; we all have a relationship with objects in our lives; we have all had a profound connection to an object. And, moving around, walking through, wheeling through a museum, coming close to look at a detail in a painting, moving around a sculpture; the physical movement that is required of touring a museum and looking at art can be helpful to process things too.  Elliott, Lissa and Lilit do a beautiful job of emphasizing the importance of movement in museum education in their new book.

Andrew: I see this as an extension of the DEAI work that educators in the field have prioritized in recent years. Through scholars like Paulo Friere and bell hooks and resources like the MASS Action project and Museums Are Not Neutral movement started on this site, museum educators have acknowledged the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our society and our cultural institutions. Our work requires more empathy and action on our part to ensure that museums are truly for all of our communities. Today, we still see these inequalities as communities of color are disproportionately affected by the spread and treatment of COVID-19. Just like the Museums Respond to Ferguson movement in 2015, I think this is another moment in time when we can put our social obligations to the public in clearer view.

Laura: For all of us, it’s important to make a distinction between art museum education and art therapy. This trauma-aware approach can be therapeutic but isn’t intended to be therapy, right? In Museum Objects, Health and Healing, Cowan, Laird, and McKeown write about how museum staff can, “Facilitate the therapeutic — but don’t do therapy.”  This is a really important distinction that I want to take some pains to highlight. Stephen, can you elucidate some of the differences between art museum education and art therapy in museums?  Like, what do you want art museum educators to know about why and how their work is different than your work, for example?

Stephen: My colleague who runs our well-being program and I have had to really tease out what’s the difference between a program that’s well-being focused and a program that is therapeutic, that is a therapy program. As an arts therapist, what I want to help people with the problems that are present for them and use the museum and its resources as a tool to achieve some therapeutic goals. Sometimes that means being really present with the problem and staying with the participants as those layers are being revealed.  In art therapy we are taking more risks and letting people know that discomfort and dealing with stuckness will be part of their journey. Whereas what my colleague aims to do is help people arrive and build positive experiences that are strengths-based, resilience-based, and pleasure-based. She and her collaborators meet people in the here and now and offer new experiences that help people leave feeling refreshed by their encounters with art and art-making. I can only imagine what a valuable resource that will be post-COVID; to feel refreshed by art and the people facilitating it.

Andrew: That brings up a question that I’ve had. Do you feel like there’s anything that museums have traditionally done in their educational programs that is not trauma-aware and we could dissuade each other from doing?

Stephen: I would say that any activity that prioritizes the information or the teaching, or even the outcome, over the participant experience is not trauma-aware. The sharing of participant’s material without their consent is not trauma-aware. And perhaps the presumption that our museums are for everybody is not trauma-aware. These are colonial institutions that have historically excluded an awful lot of voices and there is a  need to be actively working on that history in the present in real-time.

Laura: I know you have The Art Hive at the MMFA. Can you tell us more about it and why an open studio like the Hive could be important in the wake of COVID-19?  Why might this be a good thing for museum educators to implement post-pandemic?

ArtHive
Looking through a set of honeycomb shaped shelves, for a view of the Hive art studio. The room contains tables and chairs and the back wall is storage for a variety of art supplies. Photo by Christine Guest, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

Stephen: An Art Hive, or an open studio, I feel is a really positive, low-cost response to a diversity of needs. We know that giving visitors the opportunity to externalise their experience at the museum in some way is helpful and participatory. There are a range of responses that people have and need from art, some people need really structured experiences because it helps them feel re-contained and some people feel really encroached upon by the limitations of a structured experience. An open studio can accommodate both and really emphasize the autonomy of the visitor to make what they need to or seek the support they need to work through a creative response.

Laura: I love the idea of museums embracing the open studio concept in the wake of the pandemic, where people can use their hands to make what they feel moved to make and where they are tacitly or explicitly socializing with others in the museum. Like you said, Stephen, it is low cost and low risk but, potentially, high reward. Maybe now is a good time to wrap-up and pick this up again at another time?

Stephen: This is such a valuable conversation to be having across museums and across disciplines. I feel there is something tangible that will come of this in terms of our own education towards becoming trauma-aware and hopefully be of use to others.

Laura: I couldn’t agree more. It has been a true pleasure to connect during this time of disconnection and about such important work too. Let’s keep this conversation going. It feels like we are at the precipice of something that we should keep exploring. I hope there are others out there who are interested in thinking about this, talking about this, with us and that they will get in touch. Should we meet back in a few weeks to develop some more practical suggestions for how art museum educators can develop and facilitate trauma-aware programs?

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About the Authors

LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.  Evans received her Ph.D. in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu

STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at slegari@mbamtl.org

ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at andrew.palamara@cincyart.org

EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org

Featured Image: Family activities at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Photo by Caroline Hayeur

How can museums & schools continue their relationship during & after COVID-19?

Written by Stephanie Downey

My career began at the intersection of museums and schools, and it will always be at the heart of why I do what I do.  I discovered museum education while working as a program evaluator for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).  I was doing that work because of my interest in equitable public education but discovered the wonders of object-based learning while evaluating a partnership between DCPS and the Smithsonian.  Through that evaluation, I found connections among my personal and professional experiences and interests that I didn’t even know existed before.  That project more than 20 years ago was a critical turning point that changed the course of my career and led me to museum evaluation.  To this day, even though my interests in museums has grown beyond object-based learning, and my work ranges from exhibition evaluation to audience research, it is the work focused on museum school programs that lights me up.  

The title of this post is a question that slowly came into focus for me in the last couple of weeks and sent me into a premature grieving for something I worry may never be the same again.  In the middle of March, we watched museums close and school districts across the country send students home. I was alarmed but assumed, like most of us, the closures would be a relatively temporary situation.  Yet as the pandemic has unfolded, it has become more and more clear that things in our country will not go back to the way they were before the virus, certainly not before a vaccine is widely available. 

Through word-of-mouth, I’ve heard that school programs and field trips are very likely off the table for the rest of the 2020. And two weeks ago, Hyperallergic published this news—“MOMA Terminates All Museum Educator Contracts.”  We learned that the Museum of Modern Art told museum educators in an email “it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”  Their projection of “months, if not years,” triggered a great deal of anxiety in me and among many others on social media. 

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As upsetting as it was to read those words from MoMA, I think most of us now realize there is not going to be a quick end to this.  A recent article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic quoted Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh:

“Everyone wants to know when this will end.  That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”  

Following from this expert’s words, the question for me isn’t “will museums keep working with schools during this time?” but instead, how do museums continue working with schools throughout and beyond the pandemic?” 

I believe strongly in the power of museum visits for school children, some of whom may never have been to a museum otherwise.  There is something magical for students about entering a museum space surrounded by authentic artworks, objects, or artifacts they cannot see anywhere else.  But it’s not just me and my bias for these kinds of programs.  Over the years, numerous evaluation and research studies have examined the impact of museum programs on school children, and results show again and again that museum programs make a positive difference in the lives of students.  Most recently, two large research studies—a national study of single-visit field trips to art museums by the National Art Education Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors in 2018 and study of field trips at Crystal Bridges in 2012—both showed that a visit to an art museum has a measurable effect on students’ creativity, empathy, and to some extent, critical thinking.  

But, back to the “how” question.  While it is preferable for students to engage with museums in museums, I advocate for museums not to wait the many months or years it may take for things to go back to “normal,” but instead to prioritize finding alternative ways to keep schools engaged with museums during this time. 

I know many museum educators are already starting to do this, but I suspect it isn’t easy.  While distance learning exists in museum education, it is certainly not the norm and presents a potentially steep learning curve for both museum educators and classroom teachers.  Moreover, even when students go back to the classroom, schools may operate differently and be up against new challenges.  The answer to this question of “how” may require a re-imagining of the relationship between museums and schools. 

I wish I had the answers, but for now, I can only emphasize that, as a researcher and evaluator, I know the data tells us it would be a huge loss not to put resources toward sustaining and building museum-school relationships—first virtually, and eventually back onsite.  I’m sure many of you have already started doing that reimagining.  I would love to hear about it. 

Featured Image: Students in front of Damian Aquiles’ Infinite Time, Infinite Memory, Infinite Destiny, 2003-2005 at the Orlando Museum of Art. Photo by Amanda Krantz, managing director at RK&A.

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About the Author

STEPHANIE DOWNEY: Stephanie brings more than two decades of research and evaluation experience to her position as owner and director of RK&A, a museum consulting firm.  She takes pleasure in working closely with museums and other informal learning organizations to help them make a difference in the lives of their audiences.  Stephanie has undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology and ultimately is driven by her lifelong interest in how humans behave and make meaning.  Prior to joining RK&A in 1999, she conducted educational research and program evaluation in public schools.  Stephanie serves as treasurer on the board of the Museum Education Roundtable, frequently presents at professional association conferences like the American Alliance of Museums and the National Art Education Association, and regularly peer reviews manuscripts for the Journal of Museum Education and Curator.  When not working, you can find Stephanie in the kitchen trying new recipes, cheering on her children in their various activities, and hiking trails along the Hudson River.

A Forum for Reflecting on Practice

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