The Urgency of Empathy & Social Impact in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”

This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity.  This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.

I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.

The words at the beginning of this post come from Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It and founder of the Empathy Library. Krznaric is among a growing chorus of voices who see an urgent need for empathy and human understanding in an era too often marked by violence, hatred, resentment, self-interest, and toxic political and social debates. In his TEDx Talk “How to Start an Empathy Revolution,” he defines empathy:

“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”

In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of  the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.  

Photo of stories written by visitors participating in the "A Mile in My Shoes" exhibit
Stories written by visitors participating in the “A Mile in My Shoes” exhibit, Empathy Museum. Photo from

Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states.  So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?

Museums Are Us, Not It

I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums.  When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do.  So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc.  I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums.  In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:

“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”

This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum.  So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.

The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice

Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities.  Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.

For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic.  The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences.  The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”

Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland.  A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community.  The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.

The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that  immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).

Photo of Object Stories gallery during exhibition "Person, Place, Thing: Objects and the Making of a New Life."
Photo of Object Stories gallery during exhibition “Person, Place, Thing: Objects and the Making of a New Life.” Photo by Cody Maxwell.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.

In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions.  Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:

“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)

The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area.  The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.

Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through  artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project.  The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.

The Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art and N'MPower worked with Youth Media Project mentors to record digital oral histories of the radio show Audio Revolution!
The Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art and N’MPower worked with Youth Media Project mentors to record digital oral histories of the radio show Audio Revolution! Photo from

Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy

The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new.  Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support.  Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible.  And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation.  There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”

We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities.  More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.

So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.

Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums

How do we start an empathy revolution in museums?  How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?

In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises.  I  think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:

  • Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
  • Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
  • Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
  • Active public participation changes museums for the better.
  • Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
  • Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
  • Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
  • Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
  • Museums are not neutral spaces.
  • Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.

These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action.  The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:

  1. Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
  2. Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
  3. Research what other museums are doing.
  4. Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
  5. Work with your partners as equals.
  6. Allocate resources.
  7. Innovate and be willing to take risks.
  8. Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
  9. Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
  10. Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.

Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums.  Take these principles and action steps seriously.  Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community.  See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.

“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)

Let’s be a part of making this happen!

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About the Author

headhot-cannonbeachMIKE MURAWSKI: Founding editor of and currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. He currently also serves as the Pacific Region Director for the Museum Division of the National Art Education Association.  Mike has given lectures and led workshops at institutions across the United States, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among many others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as creative sites for transformative learning and how we can take full advantage of the powerful types of learning, public participation, and community engagement that museums can offer. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Designing an Inclusive Audio Guide, Part 1

Written by Desi Gonzalez, The Andy Warhol Museum

Reposted from The Warhol: Blog, the institution’s online presence for stories about the museum and its exhibitions, programs, education programs, and other news.  Check it out, and learn more about the exciting work happening at The Warhol!

This is the first post in a series on the development process of The Warhol’s new audio guide. 

In 1964, Andy Warhol moved to a new studio in a large New York City loft and covered its walls with silver paint and aluminum foil. Dubbed the Silver Factory, this space became known as a gathering place for artists, friends, and celebrities.

The “open-door policy” of the Factory is something that we’re inspired by at The Warhol as we endeavor to create a communal and inclusive environment within the walls of our museum. One way we’re becoming a more inclusive place is through our commitment to making the museum friendly to visitors of all abilities. Later this summer, we’ll be soft-launching a new audio guide that takes an inclusive design approach. According to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, this is a philosophy that designs with all users in mind from the outset:

“The inclusive design approach will ensure the museum experience is not only accessible for all ages and abilities, but is enriching and satisfying for all. It is not a design style, but an orientation to design.”

Through a series of posts on The Warhol Blog (cross-posted here at, we’ll dive into the process behind our new audio app, which soft-launches later this summer in a limited release and will be available to all museum visitors this fall.

The story starts in the summer of 2014, when my predecessors in charge of digital engagement partnered with the education department to develop experiences for visitors who are blind or have low vision. One component of the project was an audio guide in conjunction with the exhibition Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede. We used low-energy Bluetooth beacons to push content out to visitors based on where they are located in the museum—no need to read numbers on a wall label and type them into a device! Instead, the iOS application notifies you when there is relevant audio nearby.

In conjunction with the app, we also partnered with David White of Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to produce tactile representations of artwork in The Warhol’s collection. Tactile reproductions reimagine the contours and colors of an artwork as different relief layers, allowing visitors to use touch to gain an understanding of what a work looks like. Together, the audio guide app and the tactile reproductions allow visitors with visual impairments to delve into Warhol’s life and practice through senses beyond sight.

Working with our partners at Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to create the Andy Warhol artwork tactile reproductions. This one is a representation of Marilyn Monroe.
Working with our partners at Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to create the Andy Warhol artwork tactile reproductions. This one is a representation of Marilyn Monroe.

We learned a lot from these prototypes, but they were just the start. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve been hard at work to turn these prototypes into a reality. From the beginning of the process, we’ve kept four things in mind:

1. Put users first

We are committed to building an audio guide experience not just for community members with visual impairments, but with them as well. In our design process, we’ve worked closely with consultants with varying degrees of blindness. We talked to our partners even before we drew a single wireframe, exploring what makes a great museum experience and how they use technology. We also bring in our consultants to test prototypes at different stages of the process, allowing the findings from these sessions to guide the next step.

2. Don’t just build for accessibility

We strongly believe that if we design with different abilities in mind, we can craft a better experience for everyone. Even though we’re designing first for visitors with visual impairments, the audio guide will be available to all. Our consultants told us that they like to come to museums with friends and family, so whatever we design should be built for a social experience. Additionally, we currently don’t have an audio guide—and our front desk staff tells us this is one of the most common requests they get.

3. Reimagine the audio guide

Since we started from scratch with this audio guide, this was a great opportunity to depart from the usual way of doing things. We’re not the only ones rethinking the traditional audio guide: The newly-opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles is taking a cue from the irreverent and conversational tone of podcasts in their audio app; the British Museum has experimented with tours with longer audio files organized around themes rather than objects; and SFMOMA has designed a fully-immersive audio experience. In future blog posts, we’ll describe how we’re taking a different approach, splitting up audio content into smaller, modular stops and allow visitors to dive deeper if they’d like to learn more.

Testing the audio guide with our community partners.
Testing the audio guide with our community partners.

4. Start small, dream big

Everything I’ve described above is a tall order! From the outset of the project, we decided getting it right was more than ticking off all the checkboxes. For version one of the app, we have focused on only one floor of the building—floor 7, which displays works and artifacts from Warhol’s birth through to the early 1960s—but we’ve made it as complete an experience as possible. After launching and refining version one of the app, we want to expand to other floors of the museum.

Reviewing an exhibition floor plan with our community partners.
Reviewing an exhibition floor plan with our community partners.

Over the course of this blog series, we’ll be delving into everything from the user research we’ve done in conjunction with our blind and low-vision partners, to the process of imagining a new kind of audio experience, to the technical trials and tribulations of wrangling beacons and building our app from scratch. We’re glad you’ve joined us!

Accessibility initiatives at The Warhol are generously supported by Allegheny Regional Asset District, The Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, and the FISA Foundation in honor of Dr. Mary Margaret Kimmel.

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Header Image: The Andy Warhol Museum by Scoobyfoo,, minor cropping to fit header size. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Art museums as creative laboratories for children’s play, experimentation, and the co-creation of culture

Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom).

Art museums have not traditionally been sites for children’s creative experimentation and play but rather understood as places of collection and display. However, the past two decades have seen young audiences become an increasingly important audience for art museums around the world with many institutions developing new spaces and practices towards children. The philosopher and founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy Loris Malaguzzi once stated ‘children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’ If this notion is true, how does the idea of the art museum as a creative laboratory reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions?

The art museum as creative laboratory

An artist has their studio, a cook has their kitchen, a scientist has their laboratory yet there are very few places in their communities where young children can go to creatively explore, experiment and freely play with ideas and materials. A creative laboratory could be anywhere in a neighborhood — a makerspace as part of a community centre, a tinkering studio in a science centre, a fab lab within a children’s museum, a woodwork area in a secondary school or a digital learning space in a library. Many of these ‘laboratory’ spaces and practices have been and are being developed by interdisciplinary teams within cultural institutions, often in partnership with community groups and university research centres. However, art museums can make a very distinctive contribution. Art museums can draw upon the processes of artists and their curatorial practices to establish a uniquely creative social and spatial environment for the co-construction of art and culture between artists, curators, children, and their parents.

Family activity at Tate Liverpool. Copyright: Roger Sinek

The crucial quality of such environments is the presence of what Simon Nicholson once termed ‘loose parts’[1], these being open-ended materials such as blocks, clay, paint or design software that can be manipulated, adapted and transformed in a large variety of ways. This allows for deep, creative experimentation, questioning, explorative play and discovery-based learning. When such materials are presented in a curated creative environment where meticulous consideration has been given to their selection and presentation, combined with additional equipment and tools to assist experimentation of materials, vast and complex possibilities for exploring artistic phenomena are produced. These environments can also stimulate and support children to develop and express new creative processes and understandings of art and culture. But it is not just a matter of making materials available in a space, these need to be accompanied by artists, educators and curators who are experienced in facilitating young children’s creative play and experimentation. When they engage in careful and systematic observation and critical reflection, they can modify the spatial and social properties of the environment in response to children’s curiosities and discoveries.

The notion of art museums as creative laboratories within their community is built upon the premise that museums are not just for the transmission of culture but additionally a site for the construction of cultural knowledge and shared values. This requires a dialogic and collaborative process between artists, curators, children, their parents and the material environment. The understanding that art museums can also be places for cultural production offers an additional form of audience experience to object-centred and interpretation-based models in the gallery. Of course, transmission-based modes of cultural and artistic production should not be dismissed but rather this needs to be balanced with opportunities for individual and collaborative production of art. Child-centred practice in art museums fundamentally values children as co-creators of art and culture now, as opposed to seeing a value solely investing in the future development of children as adult museum visitors.

My interest in child-centred museum practice

I was first introduced to the interconnected ideas of child-centred practice, creative learning through play, and immersive environment design whilst working as a children’s curator at the Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland, Australia. During this time I worked, as part of a team of highly passionate, intelligent, and creative artists, curators, industrial designers, researchers and creative practitioners, on the development of the children’s program. Collectively we were interested in exploring how the understanding of children as unique, complex, powerful, and creative beings [2] could intersect with new artistic and curatorial practices to construct immersive creative environments that deeply valued children’s artistry and creativity alongside artists.

Through my work in Australia, I continuously found myself asking: how can we construct a form of art museum practice that aligns with the notion of the ‘creative laboratory’ for children? What does it mean to children to experience these environments? In 2013, the children’s team at the Ipswich Art Gallery started to explore the complex concepts, theories and outcomes of these questions through a formal research project.

Atelier van Licht
Atelier van Licht at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Image credit: Atelier van Licht.

I first met Dr. Emily Pringle, the Head of Learning Practice & Research at Tate at a conference in January 2014. We were both very interested in the concept, challenges and possibilities of child-centred practice and its possible intersections with artistic and curatorial practice in art museums. After a series of conversations I made the decision to relocate to England in September 2015 to undertake my PhD under Dr. Pat Thomson at the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The research project is connected to the Tate Learning Research Centre where Dr. Pringle is my co-supervisor.  The focus of my PhD is on the construction of child-centred practice in early years (2-4 years) environments in art museums. My research asks:

  • What are the key conceptual, spatial, and social qualities of these environments?
  • What does it mean to children to experience them?
  • How can children’s experiences be used to inform the future construction of environments within the unique practice context?

My goal is to develop a process-led, critical and reflective heuristic thinking tool that can be used to support conversations between artists, curators, children and parents engaged in developing children’s creative environments. The research will draw on early year’s intra-active pedagogical theory [3] and social constructivism [4] to generate deeper understandings of children’s experiences with human (peers, parents, artists and educators) and non-human aspects (materials, architectural space and curatorial discourse) of curated immersive environments.

Pedagogical documentation, where young children’s learning and theory building is collected using predominantly visual research collection methods such as photography, film and field notes, will be used to guide practitioner learning and reflection during and after the program is presented [5]. This documentation will seek to make young children’s learning more visible within institutional conversations. The reflection will be used to feed into future curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practice and have the ability to be adapted to the unique gallery contexts in which the practice is occurring.  Critical reflection aims to give insights into ‘curation’ of early year’s immersive gallery environment design in regards to the intersection of curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practices. The project thus extends the notion of the art museum as a creative laboratory to the researching, questioning, experimentation and critical reflection of artists and curator’s shared practice.

My inquiry consists of four action research cycles. Each one develops, challenges and reflects on the construction of the reflective heuristic thinking tool. The second phase of the project begins in September this year and the first draft of the critically reflective framework will be presented to the education teams involved in the study late in 2017. After this, I hope to take what we have learnt to the wider art museum community.

By developing an approach that values experiential learning, discovery-based play and critical practitioner reflection, my research will support the construction of more dialogic and collaborative conversations between art museums, artists and the wider community. Through the PhD I will generate new findings on the practices that lead to meaningful experiences for young children in art museums, currently under-researched and under-theorised.

Reflection Questions…

Have you developed children’s creative environments around the ideas of child-centred practice, experimentation, and creative play? How does this reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions within an art museum context?
Please share your comments, experiences, challenges, and reflections.


  1. Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.
  2. James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  3. Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing an intra-active pedagogy, Oxon: Routledge.
  4. Vygotsky, L 1930. Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  5. Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero. (2005). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children publications.


LGBTQ Alliance’s Welcoming Guidelines for Museums

the incluseum

Most of us agree that inclusion is important. However, we might be unsure how to activate this positive ideal in our daily professional practices. Where to begin when so much change and transformation seems needed? This week, we are excited to feature the Welcoming Guidelines that the LGBTQ Alliance, a professional network of the American Alliance of Museum (AAM), has been developing over the last couple years. These guidelines can certainly inform and help facilitate action. Thank you to Renae Youngs for introducing Incluseum readers to these guidelines that have been gathered in this document.

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Over the past two years, an AAM professional network has been developing a broad set of Welcoming Guidelines to help museums be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer staff and visitors. The Guidelines touch on all areas of museum work, are available for free online, and launched at

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The Power of the Pre Visit

Written by Alex Brown and Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

Through a partnership with The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), The Engaging Educator and ABC of NC, students ranging from 2 to 21 years old with Autism Spectrum Disorder came to SECCA as part of an art program funded by The Arts Council of Winston Salem and Forsyth County. Prior to the museum visit, SECCA and The Engaging Educator visited each class at ABC for a Pre Visit, something new for both the museum and the school. This was also the first time the school had taken a field trip to a contemporary art museum.

While educators can all agree that programs for students on the spectrum are extremely worthwhile, many institutions, educators, and schools have trepidation in approaching these programs – but knowledge provides comfort. While the idea of setting up programming for students on the spectrum is multi-faceted, an under-discussed part of programming is the Pre Visit. Going into the Pre Visit, we prepared a visual agenda, social story, and had a touch collection. Below, find our individual reflections on the importance and outcomes of our short but powerful Pre Visits:

Feels Like the First Time – by Alex Brown

I am accustomed to meeting school groups ‘cold’ when they come in the door. I know where they’re coming from, the size of the group, the age range, and I speak with teachers prior to visits to discuss the scope and expectations, but it is difficult to know the feel of a school group if I haven’t met the students. Starting ‘cold’ and getting to know the students during a program works great most of the time, but it is simply not enough for every group. Students on the autism spectrum often require extra attention and care that can be difficult to provide with a ‘cold’ start. That’s when the value of the Pre Visit became clear.

Typical school programs at SECCA last between an hour and an hour and a half. Since most school programs start without Pre Visits, I spend the first five to fifteen minutes with introductions, discussions around the definitions of contemporary art, and a primer on the exhibition. This not only helps students get comfortable in an unfamiliar space and with potentially unfamiliar ideas, it also creates an opportunity for me to ‘read the room’ so I can find out what the students are interested in and the kind of experiences they are open to. ‘Reading the room’ can be anything from a discussion with the students to paying attention to body language. It becomes easier to read students as a program progresses and as discussions unfold. By the middle of a visit, most students feel comfortable in the space and are open to expressing themselves. This process can be decidedly different with students on the autism spectrum.

The ability to read an audience by paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues is based on an understanding of typical behaviors. I am not an expert on autism, but I do know that people with autism often behave in ways that do not conform to traditional behavioral norms. Their behavior is simply different, and it can’t be read using typical behavior as a baseline. This is what makes it difficult to start ‘cold’ with people with autism. I have led programs for special needs classes, special needs organizations, and group homes, and until recently I had never done Pre Visits. I have always met the group like I would have any other. Where most students that are typically developing are comfortable by the middle of a visit, some individuals with special needs did not feel comfortable until the end, if they got comfortable at all.

Through the pilot program and partnership, we included Pre Visits with every class. We met with each class for about fifteen minutes, and in that time we got to know the students, the students got to know us, and we introduced the students to SECCA, the exhibition, and museum expectations using a social story. The value of a Pre Visit became immediately apparent. In one of the pre-kindergarten classes, some students began to cry and showed signs of anxiety when we waked in the room. By the end of our visit, a student who was in tears when I walked in the room had taken me by the hand to show me around her classroom. Responses varied from student to student, but through the Pre Visits we established a shared foundation of comfort with the students. A foundation that carried over to their SECCA visits, eliminating the need to start ‘cold’ and opening more time to explore, experience, and make art.


It’s Not Just You, It’s Meby Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

I haven’t always been a fan of the Pre Visit. So much of what I believe in with improv-based education is the idea of focusing on the current moment – maintaining a presence in the here and now to honestly react and respond to that here and now. Initially, it seemed a bit contradictory to have a Pre Visit with that mentality. The ‘secret’ I’ve discovered after doing a lot of Pre Visits through multiple organizations, including The Engaging Educator, is: the Pre Visit is as much for me as it is for the students.

As one of the people that initiated this partnership, I was insistent on the aspect of a Pre Visit. Modeling the program after the Guggenheim for All program, I saw a lot of success in getting the students ‘ready’ for their visit to the museum, as well as preparing the teachers with expectations. As an educator that has worked with students on the autism spectrum, as well as an improv advocate, my mentality behind the Pre Visit need was simple: while when you’ve worked with one person with autism, you’ve worked with one person with autism, and people are different every moment, it’s imperative to understand individuals where they feel comfortable and where they don’t. Yes, every child would be different. Yes, we were going to roll with it and be flexible and connect to the moment – but spontaneity? NOPE.

Now is a good moment to dispel a misconception about me as an educator. I plan. A LOT. I over plan. A LOT. The reason I over plan? So I can be flexible within a great big structure I’ve planned for myself, scrap things when necessary, pivot on a dime, and connect to the people in front of me. That’s improv.

Back to the Pre Visit – by going into the students’ classrooms, a space where they understand expectations, rules, and interactions, we could see how they connected with those consistent expectations, rules, and space. We could see that the high school class was VERY responsive to the prompts given to them, that the elementary class moved around a lot and like to hold our hands, and that the kindergarten class loved counting. We noticed the wanderers and the ways the teachers interacted with the students by saying, “follow the leader” to line up and the student’s attention span.

Yes, the students got to know us. Absolutely, they heard the social story, learned the expectations, practiced a ‘museum walk,’ and touched samples that would also be at the museum. We got to tailor and inform where we met the kids because of the Pre Visit. We were able to connect with them at a completely different level and prepare with more than just the teacher information (which is so valuable! Never stop doing this, teachers!)

There is an improv and storytelling principle of “starting in the middle” – essentially you get more accomplished by starting in the center of a conversation versus using time with exposition. The same happens with a Pre Visit – instead of using time to assess the group, you have a baseline. You can begin in the middle, and fine-tune the plan based on the individual moment of that student – the student you already have a relationship with. And how much better is that museum visit when you’ve increased your structure – when you’ve over planned for things, thought of possibilities, different directions, and prepared properly for anything? That’s where my flexibility as an educator comes in. Not from an “anything goes” attitude, but a larger structure to move around in. And a Pre Vist built into a special needs program, specifically one for students on the autism spectrum, makes my structure even larger, and my flexibility even smoother.

Have you had success with a Pre Visit program, or working with students on the autism spectrum? Share your comments, challenges, or best practices.

About the Authors

JEN BROWN (OLENICZAK): Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator, a NYC, LA and Winston Salem based organization that specializes in improv based education and development for the advancement of professional, social and communication skills. Through The Engaging Educator, her pedagogical approach has trained educators, students, professionals and individuals from organizations such as W Magazine, SFMOMA, Viacom, Columbia University, The Field Museum, MOMA, UNICEF, and Saks 5th Avenue. Recently the company opened a non-profit Foundation, offering free and low cost improv workshops to educators, at-risk teens and adults, and individuals on the autism spectrum. She holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.

ALEX BROWN: Programs Coordinator and museum educator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As a member of both the curatorial and education departments at SECCA, Alex designs, develops and leads educational programs, family programs, exhibition and non-exhibition-related programs and film programs. In collaboration with the Curator of Contemporary Art and the Curator of education, he is also responsible for creating SECCA’s interpretive materials. By developing and offering programs that appeal to more than just one audience, Alex strives to make contemporary art approachable and accessible to everyone. He holds a B.A in History, Ancient Civilizations and Classics from the University of Iowa and a M.A in Museum Studies from Western Illinois University.

Visitor Response Cards: What To Do When the Exhibition Is Over

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Dallas Museum of Art

Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?

Statistics and Evaluation

As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.

Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts.  When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.

Starry Crown and responses

A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.

In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space.  In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses.  We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.

YLG Post its

After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage?  Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?”  What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets?  Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses?  Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?


When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space.  When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer.  In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses.  The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.”  From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems.  The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.

This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations.  Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:

Kendra categories

From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors.  First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.

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Share your thoughts

What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?

Podcast: 4 Museum Educators & 4 Days at SXSWedu

Posted by Emily Kotecki, North Carolina Museum of Art

From early childhood to higher ed to policy, SXSWedu aims to represent everything innovative happening in education. Museums are just starting to make a presence. I estimate that museum and library professional made up 1% of the 7,000 attendees.

Given our small presence, it was interesting to note where we intersected with the national conversation about the future of education (personalized learning, equity and access) and where we differed (STEM v. STEAM).

I sat down with three other museum educators during our time at SXSWedu: Juline Chevalier from Minneapolis Institute of Art; Claire Moore from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Anne Kraybill from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  We talked a bit about our first-time experiences, perceptions, and reflections on SXSWedu.

(Note: Anne, Claire and I were one of three sessions – out of 400+! – talking about museum innovations.)

Here is a link to the SoundCloud podcast audio (7 min), and we’ve embedded the content below, as well. We hope you can listen to this on your desktop or mobile devices, but please share any problems or issues you have with the media (this is the first ever “podcast” attempt on ArtMuseumTeaching, which is why we’re starting small):

While SXSWedu started just six years ago, it has expanded its offerings every year. For example, this year was first year SXSWedu:

  • had an arts thread
  • had a museum and library professionals meet up
  • had a museum educator on the advisory board (yours truly!)
  • had a “Learning Spaces” track for session proposals

This young conference is still evolving and could look very different in the next few years. As we noted in the podcast, we believe it’s important for the museum field to attend and present at conferences like SXSWedu in order move from the periphery of education to becoming integral to the conversation.


Featured header image from


Unplugging to Plug In: Encouraging Reflective Practice

Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory

This article is a case study about the impact of “unplugging” as it relates to reflective practice for youth and educators. If you’re interested in exploring reflection more broadly, and you’ll be attending the 2016 National Art Education Association Conference in Chicago next week, please join Mike Murawski and myself for our session “Reflective Practice in Museum Education” on Thursday, March 17 at 12 noon (McCormick Place/Lakeside Center/E271a). We’ll unpack reflective practice for museum educators in an interactive, conversational session—we hope to see you there! If you can’t join us, please comment here, tweet us (@chelseaemelie and @murawski27), or follow #NAEAReflect.

The Youth Corps’ Guide to Unplugging. Photo by Da Ping Luo

When talking about unplugging, we always think of technology. However, I define unplugging as a way of regaining full control of yourself, physically and mentally, in any circumstances.
—Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps

In the summer of 2015, a group of New York City high schoolers and college freshmen, students in the Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps program, gather in the Board of Officers room at the Armory, reclined on lean-back floor seating in front of a grand piano. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air, which turns to quiet excitement when two world-class artists enter the room: performance artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit.

During the next hour, Abramović and Levit give the students a crash course in unplugging and being present, major themes of their upcoming winter production—a hybrid performance/immersive experience to introduce audiences to a new method of engaging with classical music. Over the next few months, inspired by Abramović and Levit, a number of these students will deeply explore the concept of unplugging: what it is, why do it, and the unexpected realizations it can evoke about our own selves.

Although some might stereotype today’s teenagers as one of the most “plugged-in,” smartphone-obsessed generations of all time, our students offered sophisticated, thoughtful reflections about how we can truly connect with each other and better understand ourselves. As one of the educators facilitating this project, I had the unique opportunity to experience this deep dive into unplugging alongside my students. This post explores both the impact of “unplugging” and reflective practice on teens as well as its impact on me as a teacher, and offers ideas about how we might apply the benefits of unplugging to our practice as art educators and museum leaders.

20150714 Marina Igor Goldberg with YC 008
Marina Abramović and Igor Levit speak to Youth Corps students in summer 2015. Photo by Da Ping Luo

The Project: Goldberg and the Guide to Unplugging

We understand that not many people today know what it is like to be left in silence, stripped from their cellular devices, or even just stare into someone’s eyes… We stepped out of our comfort zone and… left wanting to try it again.
—Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps

Igor Levit and Marina Abramović’s Goldberg (which ran December 7–19, 2015 at Park Avenue Armory) required patrons to lock up their cell phones, watches, and personal belongings in lockers, then sit in silence in the Armory’s Drill Hall for 30 minutes to “unplug” and mentally prepare themselves to be present to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Levit. Abramović’s method for listening to music was experienced by thousands, including New York City public high school students in a student matinee.

The Youth Corps students were charged with developing ways to help their peers prepare for this uncommon experience. First, Youth Corps researched the artists and concepts behind Goldberg, familiarizing themselves with Bach, Levit, Abramović, performance art, and “slow” movements, from slow art to slow TV.  They met with former Armory artist-in-residence Helga Davis, a vocalist and performance artist, who led the students through an activity in which they stared into each other’s eyes, opening themselves to their peers in a new way. They visited current artist-in-residence Imani Uzuri, whose singing and installation inspired by Sister Gertrude Morgan helped Youth Corps center themselves in mind and body.

A printed Guide to Unplugging became one of two facets of the project. As their driving question for the guide, the Youth Corps responded in writing to the question: What is worth unplugging for? They used verbal storytelling and peer editing to brainstorm and solidify their ideas. Their written responses ranged from getting in tune with nature to bike-riding with no destination in mind, from challenging oneself to communicate with family members, to getting lost in artmaking. Others talked of experiencing theater or acting, and some about meditating or being present on their morning commutes. Across the board, students acknowledged the importance in getting out of your comfort zone in order to unplug—and how worth it the challenge of being present is.

You can read the full Guide to Unplugging here.

For the student matinee, and the second part of their final project, the Youth Corps assisted none other than Marina Abramović herself in creating a short pre-show for 450 students. Although the students had already been introduced to the production through a pre-visit from Armory Teaching Artists, this pre-show experience would ensure that students were present and ready for Goldberg itself. Over two meetings, Youth Corps spoke with Abramović about her method and process, and how Levit and the Goldberg Variations dovetailed with her own art practice. When the Youth Corps asked for any tips she had for experiencing Goldberg, Abramović led the group in an immersive breathing exercise—and it was so powerful that it quickly became clear that the pre-show should include the same.  As Lizmarie described:

[Abramović had us start] by lying on the floor with our faces to the ceiling and having our hands to our hearts and stomachs. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean, and found the comparison between the motion of the waves and the beating of my heart. That is when I realized I was in a full state of relaxation. To me, the noises of kids in the hallway outside faded into a nice summer day with seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore.
—Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps

And so the Youth Corps stood beside Abramović in front of 450 of their peers and shared their own personal experiences of Goldberg, then modeled the breathing exercise through which Abramović led the entire student audience. When she finished, the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall was completely silent, and remained so during both the soundless preface and throughout Levit’s performance. Later, as students filed out, the Youth Corps gave each student a Guide to Unplugging, to explore how they could continue their experience outside of the Armory.

Youth Corps speak to 450 New York City high school students at the student matinee of Goldberg, alongside Marina Abramović. Photo by Da Ping Luo

The Impact of Reflective Practice

We realized that unplugging is about being aware of your surroundings, reflecting on yourself, and being in control of who you are.
—Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps

Although my co-teacher and I felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of reflective practice, the students still showed growth and articulated takeaways from their reflective experiences this semester.

From a quantitative standpoint, data gleaned from retrospective surveys show clear improvement in students’ skills in reflection: 80% of the students said that they reflected on their creative process and that their reflection influenced future choices more often than before they took part in the program. All of the students improved in developing the ability to communicate their ideas and/or find solutions through the creative process. Additionally, 100% also developed interpersonal skills through collaboration and leadership opportunities—closely aligned to the Youth Corps’ realization that reflecting and unplugging is not always a solitary activity, but often relates to our engagement with those around us.

I also analyzed their written statements in the Guide to surface more specific themes about how the students felt the act of unplugging had affected them.

(Note: Percentages will not add up to 100%, since students’ statements often reflected more than one theme.)

In preparation for one of the sessions I am organizing at this year’s National Art Education Association Convention (see note above), I have been thinking a lot about what reflective practice is. The above impacts of “unplugging” identified by our students, are, I believe, all essential to reflective practice, no matter your age and whether or not you are consciously “unplugging” from daily stresses and technology.

Going outside of our comfort zones and opening our minds to new ideas and beliefs allow us to stay nimble, keep learning, and be empathetic. We must be conscious of how we communicate, and ensure we remain connected to the world—both physically aware of what’s around us and metaphorically, empathetic to others’ lives and backgrounds. Staying focused and aware of our surroundings and interactions allow us to be present in the moment. Overall, these practices help us understand ourselves better—both on a personal level and our relationship with others.

Applying Youth Takeaways to Museum Education Practice and Leadership

Be Present

When you stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing, you gain a new experience. You are open to things.
—Joselin, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps

With 40% of the Youth Corps identifying it as an impact of their time spent unplugging, it’s clear that being present is both an essential process in reflective practice and a benefit. In fact, as Terrelle put it, Abramović and Levit’s goal for Goldberg was “to place us outside our comfort zone and challenge us to be present to listen to the music. Marina and Igor wanted us to connect with our mind and body.”

In reflecting about how the semester went overall, my colleague/co-teacher, Pip Gengenbach, and I realized there was so much more we could have pushed the Youth Corps to try in exploring the idea not just of simply “unplugging,” but of truly being present. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and there is always room for improvement, but as I reread and analyzed the students’ writing, I found myself wishing we had facilitated even just one more session to encourage the students not to view being present as an end-game in and of itself, but to keep unpacking why the act is so important.

Even so, we scratched the surface: for example, when writing about paying attention rather than listening to music on her commute, Rachel said, “I realized how much more I was allowing myself to experience.” Leidy found presence in communicating more often with her family: “We express how we feel and look for a solution together.” Destiny models excellent self-care when describing her unplugging mechanism: “I put on a facial mask… close my eyes and center my mind on a blank space… I think of a state of peace and tranquility and allow my body to float.”

These experiences are all ways that we can practice being present in our professional lives. Setting aside a phone and committing not to email during a meeting with staff or colleagues, or during a program; taking time to look for solutions together, in person rather than via email; going for a walk during lunchtime—for that matter, actually taking a lunch; and taking time for self-care outside of work (I for one fully endorse Destiny’s masking regimen) are all small things we can do to be mindful with ourselves and when communicating with others.

Be Vulnerable

Often we feel the need to put up a wall. We don’t want people to see certain parts of us, so we hide. But … when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves and our minds. This is how we begin to surrender to unplugging instead of fighting it.
—Sinaia, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps

One of the most powerful ways that the Youth Corps—and we as educators—experienced vulnerability was through a two-hour workshop with vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, mentioned above. Davis challenged us all to stare into each other’s eyes, in silence, for many minutes at a time. Cory describes what happened next:

We were then given the choice to come closer, go further away, or turn away from our partners. I personally chose to get closer to my partner because I wanted them to experience an awkward moment and adjust to it. I found myself visualizing my partner’s life line, and found it easy to see their comfort zone through their body language. My partner was fidgeting with their hands at first, but later on they adjusted. I also allowed them to look into my eyes without restrictions. I challenged myself to open up and dared myself not to worry about what they thought.
—Cory, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps

Youth Corps work with performance artist and vocalist Helga Davis (right) to explore unplugging. Photo by Pip Gengenbach

Some members of Youth Corps, like Cory, have performance experience, and are used to participating in exercises similar to this one. They understood the intimate kinds of nonverbal communications that can occur. For others, myself included, the experience felt foreign and intimidating. Isatu wrote:

The purpose was to [try] to interpret who we are… I [was] afraid to reveal my true self to someone that I barely know. I felt like my partner was not looking at me, but looking into me: she seemed… more aware of herself than I was. The jealousy that I felt helped me to unlock myself, I let all the painful moments that I have experienced out through my tears, because whatever she saw in me made me free. Unplugging in this way helped me to feel the support of the people around me.
—Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps

Isatu beautifully describes how allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person can, in fact, help you both understand yourself better and connect on a deeper level with those around you. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses allows us to better understand our places in the world. Cory summarized her experience similarly: “We must be able to understand ourselves as a person first, in order to comprehend and change the things around us.”

This almost paradoxical statement directly relates to being an educator and leader. It goes back to the old airline oxygen mask adage (help yourself before helping others): know yourself in order to more deeply connect with others. After all, our jobs are not isolated: we have students, colleagues, and/or a field-wide network whom we not only support and encourage, but of whom we can ask support and encouragement. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, we are able to foster empathetic collaboration that can strengthen our ideas and work.

I wholeheartedly endorse participating in something like this professionally, but perhaps more easily implementable and significantly less intimidating would be to try something like the Youth Corps’ mentor triads. During every Youth Corps program session, each education staff member works with a small group of two Youth Corps, where all members (staff included!) set a goal and hold each other accountable to it. Knowing that we were all equally committed and that we had a small group of people, most of whom we didn’t know well before our triads, who would be checking in on us are powerful incentives to keep on track. We meet for coffee or treats off-site, which made the whole experience seem special and important, but not a huge drain on busy schedules. And having a mixed group—one first-time student, one student who had been in the program already, and one adult educator—was an amazing way to stay fresh but also grounded. This would be easily replicable and powerful with groups of staff from different levels, areas, and even departments.

Challenge Yourself

Personally, I don’t like talking in front of crowds so I was really nervous. But Marina got us prepared by doing breathing exercises closely related to the Abramović Method, which helped me be less nervous…  She made us feel like everything was fine and there wasn’t anything to worry about.
—Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps

How many of us have created activities or goals that we know will challenge our students or visitors, yet perhaps don’t always “walk the talk” ourselves by participating alongside them, or trying something new in our own practice? You’re not alone! As I delved into ongoing reflection with the Youth Corps this semester, I was reminded that it is so important as an educator (and leader) to model taking up challenges, just as we expect our students to do, and to always be learning, never complacent.

Personally, I have been taking this to heart since starting at the Armory this past summer. After many years at art museums, I have been thoroughly enjoying the completely unconventional art we present here, as well as trying my hand at theater education techniques, the field from which several of my coworkers in the Education department come. Since last July, we’ve done role-playing, directed questioning, movement-based activities, “tinkering” with different materials—you name it, we’ve tried it. (And not to worry, we’re all learning from each other: I’ve been vehemently representing the “slow art” guard along the way.)

Although these techniques are certainly not unfamiliar to art museum educators, the fearless, try-anything, “show must go on!” attitude of unabashed risk-taking feels new to me, and is enormously inspiring.  My own challenge for 2016 is to continue to reach—testing and stretching my own abilities as a teacher, and pushing our students in the process to do the same with their own goals and experiences in our programs. (And just in case you’re wondering, yes, my co-teacher Pip is part of my “mentor duo” to hold me accountable for this goal.)

The Fall 2015 Youth Corps cohort. Photo by Chelsea Emelie Kelly
The Fall 2015 Youth Corps cohort. Photo by Chelsea Emelie Kelly

Conclusion: Reflection and Self-Identity

I am grateful to Marina. I think what’s cool about her is that she does things that others are afraid to do. She’s taught me to always stand out.
—Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps

Awareness of self—of our strengths and our weaknesses, of our relation to others and to the world around us—is a key trait of leadership, no matter where in an organization’s hierarchy your job may place you. Understanding our own identity, through reflective practice, allows us to better understand our own work, how we teach, and the place of our institution and programs in our students’ or visitors’ lives.

Youth are in a key phase of their life where they themselves are testing out and defining who they are as people—their interests, beliefs, connections, and communities. But as we all know, it’s not only youth who use museums and cultural institutions as spaces for meaning-making and self-understanding or reflection; visitors of all ages and backgrounds do the same. And it’s important to remember that we ourselves as educators participate in this process as well, every time we reflect on our teaching practice, on our role as leaders in our institutions, or as participants in the world. Being conscious of the reflective process—being present in it, if you will—allows us to be intentional about our teaching practice, improve our connections with our audiences, and ultimately create experiences for all that bring our institutions more deeply into our visitors’ lives.

Header Photo: Lizmarie, high school junior and Phase I Youth Corps, speaks to NYC public school students alongside Marina Abramović and fellow Youth Corps. Photo by Da Ping Luo

How To Give a Good Conference Session

Written by Jen Oleniczak

Tis the season for conferences. American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and the National Art Education Association National Convention are just two of the big ones, but smaller or more regional conference hashtags are starting to fill twitter feeds. One tweet on how to have a good session caught my eye a few months ago. We spend SO MUCH time thinking about ‘what’ we are going to say – when is the last time we dedicated time to ‘how’ we say it? In the age of TED Talks, epic presentation skills and storytelling rule. How can we infuse that enthusiasm and energy into our conference talks?

Now, I’m sure there are quite a few people saying:

‘The message is what matters – not how people say it!’

I completely disagree.

Let’s be honest – when have you politely stayed in a session that was all show-and-tell and the presenter was just reading from their script? Or  because you wanted to meet the presenter/knew the presenter/were the presenter/couldn’t get to the door without being noticed? This happens – not all the time, but more often than it should. The worst part about it? It can be fixed, so it should happen so much less.

While The Engaging Educator is known for our improv-based education in museums, we also lead Presentation Skills and Storytelling Classes, as well as conduct Private Coaching. That tweet about how to have a good session stuck with me – I haven’t seen a lot of articles on how to prepare for sessions! Because it is something we work with people on, here’s our speaking tips for conferences.

Before the conference….

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: This is serious. You should be going over your presentation as many times as possible with as many different people as possible. Get feedback. Think about actors and how incredible live theatre is. They practice CONSTANTLY. This isn’t about memorizing things word-for-word; this is getting the flow and knowing your bullet points, your plan and what you want your audience to walk away with.
  2. DO NOT WRITE THINGS WORD FOR WORD: This stands repeating: Do. Not. Write. Things. Word. For. Word. Two things happen when you write word for word – you end up reading your presentation (and at that point, I ask, why didn’t you just write an article or blog post?) or you memorize word for word and then forget a word, which throws everything off. It’s the same idea behind knowing the alphabet – try saying it without singing it and skip the letters D, P, and W. It’s slower because at this point in our lives, the alphabet is memorized by order. When you take out a step in that order, the rest is harder to recall. Same thing with your conference ‘script’.
  3. Think about how to involve your audience: If your audience is made up of superfans, they are there to hear you talk. You could wax poetic about banana bread and they would hang on your every word. Unfortunately, chances are,your audience is not 100% superfan. So how can you keep them interested? Find ways to engage them. Yes – your program/research/thoughts are incredibly interesting. And you should find new and different ways to reach your audience. Have people draw, brainstorm, share, answer questions, create, move – get them involved, and they will remember your session more, versus quietly texting or Facebooking in the back of the room while you talk. Even if it’s giving them 5 minutes to talk to one another about your focus, you’ve broken the monotony of your voice.
  4. Work on your how: The how is just as important as the what. That’s been one of my biggest mottos with EE – how you say things matters A LOT. Your cadence, tone, volume, speed, disfluencies – all of these connect to how you are perceived as a speaker. When you are practicing, use different ways of saying things – do everything with an exclamation point, throw in a bunch of dramatic pauses, over do your gestures, speed up, slow down. Change it up. And while exclamation points may NOT work the whole time, by experimenting you might find times it does work.If you are plagued by disfluencies – essentially anything that breaks up speech – slow down. I notice many adults struggle with what I call ‘grown up’ disfluencies – the extension of words, the insertion of ‘so’ and ‘you know’. Disfluencies exist both because of habit as well as thinking what comes next. Just slow down!

An hour before the conference…

  1. Warm up your voice: Don’t go in cold! If you’ve ever stumbled over words, you should warm up your voice before a presentation. Do a few tongue twisters – say them slowly and over enunciate.
  2. Don’t over practice: If you don’t know it now, you won’t. At this point, you should just be relaxing, doing a quick run through of ideas and enjoying the conference. Check out your room, if possible, and make sure your tech works.
  3. Breathe: Take a few deep breaths. Now take a few more. Even if you aren’t nervous, breathing correctly allows your voice to be rich, deep and resonant versus shrill and pinched. Make sure you are breathing low, meaning your stomach area expands when you take a breath in.

During the conference… 

  1. Breathe!  THIS IS STILL IMPORTANT! If you find yourself getting lost or nervous or going too quickly – take a breath. Now take another! If you look awkward and nervous, your audience focuses on that and then starts feeling awkward and nervous.
  2. Let it go!  This is the time to fail gloriously. Go big or go home. Just do it. Let it go. All the inspirational songs and sayings!All joking aside – there is nothing to do now except rock it out. So do it now, or forever wish you had.


  1. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t:  Think about what was successful and why as well as what didn’t work. Was it you? The audience? The subject? Even if you aren’t making this presentation again, reflection is priceless. 

Any other tips to add? Add them in the comment section below!

Check out for more articles and resources on speaking.

Header image: Audience at MuseumNext Fringe event, Heritage Sells presented 3 keynotes about preserving and presenting heritage outside museum walls and practices. Photo credits: Maarten Jüngen CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, no changes made.

Museums & the Future of Learning

By Emily Kotecki and Jill Taylor, North Carolina Museum of Art

Over the last year, the North Carolina Museum of Art has been documenting the design process we’ve been using in our IMLS planning grant on the role of museums in next-generation learning. On Saturday, January 30, 2016 (after a week’s delay due to weather), we held a Thought Partner Summit for our two advisory panels and a Future of Learning panel discussion for the public to reflect on the work we’ve done so far and prepare for the final stretch of our grant.

In the morning, our collaborative planning team of P-16 educators from across the state met with three out of the nine thought partners (the other six were not able to attend the rescheduled event). These thought partners are national leaders in the fields of education, museums, and technology. Working in affinity groups, they shared ideas about teacher professional development, experiences for students that happen online and onsite, and participatory gallery spaces. Thought Partners helped groups become aware of potential models for programs, recognize gaps in our planning, and find connections between prototype ideas.

We then invited the public to join the discourse in a lively panel discussion that afternoon (#NCMAfuturelearn) investigating the future of learning and the role of the art museum in shaping and supporting that future. Sylvea Hollis, from the Center for Future of Museums, moderated a panel featuring Corey Madden, executive director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts; Matthew Rascoff, Vice President of Learning Technology and Innovation at the University of North Carolina; and Dr. Keith Sawyer, Morgan Professor of Educational Innovation at UNC-Chapel Hill. The full panel discussion recording is linked here through Livestream.

Here are three (of many) big takeaways from the panel that help us take a closer look at what the future of learning might look like and what role museums might play in that future.

1. How to maximize the learning space

The environment in which people learn can have a huge effect on how they learn, what they learn, the questions they ask, the ideas they generate and so on. Corey Madden used her combined experience as a leader at Kenan Institute for the Arts and a practicing artist to think about how spaces can help shape a learner’s perspective and develop new ideas.

“The key idea of education and art is the creation of perspective. What I’m most interested in, is to give that experience to the audience…It’s not me imposing [my] perspective on them…it’s an invitation, a provocation…to use their curiosity to find themselves in a place where that new perspective is created and that generates more and more ideas.”

But what if that space is virtual? Physical? A hybrid?  What are opportunities in person that are not possible online, and vice versa?

For all the technology we have access to, the “social cultural needs of human beings haven’t changed,” says Corey. We can watch a lecture online and then use that to catapult us into a lively discussion with peers when we get to class or the museum. Technology can free up learners to engage with the human part of themselves. She continues:

“If you combine the portal of technology, the reality of the actual space, and the incredible imaginative capacity of students, you can imagine that you can use place and space to transform how people learn.”

2. Imagining jazz-inspired learning frameworks

If you listen to improvisational jazz, it’s not completely improv. That smooth melody is guided by some sort of structure, whether it’s a genre, chord, or song form.  Similarly, Dr. Keith Sawyer, a jazz pianist, sees effective creative learning as “a process of discovery, a process of experimentation, a process of making failures, and switching gears. I think of it as an improvisational process that is necessary to … becoming an effective creator.”

But the paradox he sees for educators is to: (A) engage in “an improvisational dialogue where the teacher is the one that provides the guidance,” and then (B) balance the top down constraints that come from institutional budgets, state testing, and curricula with the necessary need for “bottom up improvisational creativity that is driven by the learner.”

During the Q&A portion of the panel, a student in the audience who is also a member of the NCMA Teen Arts Council, shared her experience with a teacher who made learning AP Calculus engaging, creative, and relevant to her.

“I’m bad at math, that’s why I love art so much, but I’m in an AP Calculus BC course and I’m doing well in it because my teacher knows how to create an environment where I can learn the way that’s best for me. For example, I made a music video about calculus. Instead of ‘Take me to Church’ by Hozier, [we created a video called] ‘Take me to Calc.’”

Sawyer added that creative learning is not and should not be isolated to the arts, but creative learning should be happening in all fields. “We need creative scientists, we need creative writers, we need creative historians, and we need creative mathematicians.”

3. Technology: Enabler of Human Connections

Matthew Rascoff predicts two categories of technology that will have the biggest impact on the future of education. The first, that he believes is “years off,” is incorporating adaptive learning into education. In this scenario, computers understand the learner’s patterns, make sense of those patterns, and then tailor the experience to exactly what the learner needs at that time.

The second category of edtech which is not years off, but in fact happening right now and will continue to do so, is “using technology as an enabler of better connections among and between people.” It can foster communities of learning so anyone can access and benefit from knowledge about a topic. For example, the Brooklyn ASK app connects curators to the general public in real time. As visitors have questions about an object, they can connect with an expert to share insight and answer their questions.

Innovation Studio staff from the Carnegie Museum exploring the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app. Photo: Drew McDermott,

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, speaks to this exact point in an interview with Nina Simon:

“The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly.”

Echoing Corey’s point earlier – learners can use technology to enhance the human experience and desire for learning.

This discussion was interesting because it focused on themes, ideas, and projections for education as a whole and never got stuck in talking about one ‘type’ of education. In the quotes above and throughout the event, the panelists use the terms ‘educators’ and ‘learners’ interchangeably with ‘student’ and ‘teacher.’ This change in language is one step in the right direction to breaking down silos between educational institutions and organizations. The takeaways are applicable to myriad learning spaces, whether they’re on a college campus, in a museum, community center, or even senior center.

Please share your feedback, comments, or responses on how museums are integral to the future of learning.

Header photo: Courtesy of NC Museum of Art. Christopher Ciccone, photographer

A Forum for Reflecting on Practice