The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change in Museums

Reposted from Kiwi Loose in Museums, a project diary blog kept by Sarah Campbell as she embarked on her Churchill Fellowship to research the creative process of museum educators and innovative approaches to museum education. 

Written by Sarah Campbell

As a Churchill Fellow, I have a commitment to share my learning with peers. Since my research trip to the US last September, I’ve been looking for ways to do this and have gained a huge amount from contributing to London-based workshops for museum and gallery educators, organised by engage and GEM (Group for Education in Museums). I hosted the GEM workshop at the V&A a couple of weeks ago and was one of three facilitators. Working with GEM convenor, Laura Lewis-Davies, we decided to riff off the current exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? and discuss what kind of revolution we wanted to see in museum learning practice. The exhibition charts five years of radical change in Western society, culture and music, spanning the period 1966-1970.

It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short time frame, and this motivated us to think back on museum practice in 2016 and project to where we wanted to be in 2020. We peppered the whole workshop with ‘revolutionary’ touches: on arrival, participants were asked to fill out a name tag with both their own name and that of a revolutionary hero/heroine; throughout the event, we had large sheets of paper on the wall, surrounded by images of the exhibition, where participants could add post-its that summarised our current position, our ambitions for 2020, and how we’re going to get there; and at the end of the night, we filled out coloured protest banners, recycling an activity that had been devised for the Families programme in response to the exhibition. The name tags proved a popular ice-breaker and I took great pleasure in seeing Geri Halliwell chat with St Augustine. Laura arranged a follow-up Twitter event where we could all share more information on our choices – check out #gemrevhero.


At the workshop, we split the group in three and each moved from one facilitator to the next. Robert Fleming, Temple Study Centre Manager at the National Army Museum, spoke about the transformation of their museum – due for completion Spring 2017 – and their new interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning practice; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Project Co-ordinator at Heritec, shared her work with The Creative Museum project, which is prototyping new forms of collaboration; and I talked about some of my headline learning from the Churchill trip. This meant we each did the same session three times and unfortunately missed out on seeing the others in action, but it was a great chance to get feedback from the participants. In the spirit of revolution and change, I wanted to explore how the Fellowship has challenged some of my fundamental views on museum learning, I’ve been experiencing an interesting tension between the well-established perceived wisdom of standard museum learning practice, and new approaches that are pushing against this and leading to alternatives.

When planning the workshop, I was discussing these tensions with Laura and thinking about how to engage GEM participants with the subject. I compared these opposing forces to a Pushmi-Pullyu, the mythical, two-headed llama-esque companion of Doctor Dolittle, the equally mythical children’s book character who could talk to animals. The image of a Pushmi-Pullyu randomly popped into my head, and it was a bit of a throwaway comment. However, it ended up being a great way to introduce these ideas and became the basis for my session. I wanted people to have their own views first before I introduced my findings, and hoped to elicit a conversation where people could take different positions on the same topic. To do this, I created ‘The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change’, whereby Pushmi and Pullyu each took a different stance (represented by a speech bubble above their heads on a sheet of A3), and participants were asked to place a small playing counter somewhere along the spectrum in between the two to represent their views. From there, we could discuss the different rationales. It was a quick way to launch into meaty topics and everyone gamely played along and had plenty to contribute.There were three ‘Pushmi-Pullyus of Change’ offering the following pairs of opinions:

  • Learning programmes should be inspired by the collections and exhibitions / Learning programmes in museums can be about anything
  • Museums must engage with and present political issues / Museums must take a neutral stance on political issues
  • Our programmes should be educational first, entertaining second / Our programmes should be entertaining first, educational second

My only regret is that my questions weren’t quite fine-tuned enough. With more time and thought, I could have offered more nuanced phrasing and been more specific, especially around the claim that museums should be ‘neutral’ – I’m well aware museums are anything BUT neutral, but the provocation was meant to be about whether we should be hosting and/or debating issues such as Brexit. The third pairing was stolen directly from my conversation with Ethan Angelica at Museum Hack; he puts these statements to museum learning staff and insists they choose which one they support. To replicate this hard-line approach, I created a ‘no man’s land’ in the middle of the spectrum so that people couldn’t perch in the middle. The activity did generate some gentle debate, although I suspect our similarities outweigh our differences in many respects. I particularly liked how people spoke about using entertainment as a form of ‘stealth education’ – sneak in the learning when people are distracted and enjoying themselves.

While it has its faults, I’m quite chuffed with how my Pushmi-Pullyus worked out. They’ve peaked my interest in ‘gamifying’ discussions (it’s a word, I promise, in fact the gamification of learning’ is a whole thing). It’s commonplace to use postcards as a means of prompting conversation, but I like the idea of being able to represent one’s point-of-view visually and symbolically through a quick game before then explaining further. If you would like to share other examples of games that you use as part of discussions, I’d love to hear from you.

I also enjoyed exploring the combination of the metaphorical and the literal. As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a sucker for similes and metaphors. What makes me even happier is when some aspect of the metaphor is taken literally and folded back into the original idea. I could have just asked people their opinions on the questions above, but to put them along the back of a Pushmi-Pullyu takes it to a different headspace. I picked up this trick from the wonderful artist, Sarah Cole. During her residency at Kettle’s Yard a few years ago, she asked the staff where they felt they were ‘walking on eggshells’ and then positioned short trails of broken shell at these locations around the building. The then Director, Michael Harrison, spent a couple of days having to step over one of these trails every time he went into or came out of his office – like all good directors, he took it with good humour and grace.

About the Author

SARAH CAMPBELL is Head of Learning Programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She has worked previously in gallery education roles at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, The New Art Gallery Walsall, and the National Galleries of Scotland. She supports the work of engage, the National Association of Gallery Education, and is currently the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Board for the engage journal. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2016 to visit US museums and research the creative process of museum educators and new approaches to museum learning. Sarah has a long-standing interest in creative learning, and experimental, playful and unexpected approaches to programming for museum audiences.

Power Up: A story of how one artwork sparked love & connection

Written by Mike Murawski

This week, at the Portland Art Museum’s Members Night, I was asked to work with our Curator of Prints & Drawings and our Conservator to give a series of pecha kucha presentations telling the story about our museum collection coming to life.  We all decided to dive into a recent exhibition on the work of Corita Kent entitled Spiritual Pop, which pulled from and enhanced the museum’s holdings of works by this inspiring artist and activist.

Kent, a nun widely known as Sister Corita, was a highly-influential artist, educator, theorist, and activist who gained international fame in the 1960s for her vibrant, revolutionary screenprints.  She grew up in Los Angeles and, after high school, joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She began screenprinting in the 1950s and by the 1960s had embraced L.A.’s chaotic cityscape as a source of inspiration, transforming the mundane into inspiring and often subversive messages of hope and social justice. One critic once wrote, “Her mission seems to be to surprise us into awakening to delight.”

Kent used the element of surprise to awaken her audience to issues of social justice, in particular, world hunger. The theme of food and nourishment run throughout much of her work, including her 1965 series “Power Up,” which appropriates the slogan of Richfield Oil gasoline in combination with smaller texts from a sermon on spiritual fulfillment by activist priest Dan Berrigan.

It was Kent’s “Power Up” that really stood out in this exhibition, and reached out to visitors and our community.  And for my part of our pecha kucha presentation to Members, I chose to tell the simple yet inspirational story of “Power Up.”

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POWERUPWhen we visit an art museum, deep down inside, we’re largely seeking out creativity, beauty, joy, energy, strength, connection, even love.  When we stand in front of a work of art, perhaps we’re even looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves.  Corita Kent brought all of that to the museum and our community in powerful ways. Having her work on view here at the museum and seeing its deep transformative effect, I am drawn to reflect on how the power of art does spread out to a community and beyond the walls of a museum.

During the Spiritual Pop exhibition, we had dozens of programs and projects that allowed visitors to connect with her printmaking and activism—from conversations in the gallery, guest lecturers, a POWER UP evening for LGBTQ teens, and regular printmaking workshops and demos. At our Miller Family Free Day program, we invited families and children to make a print that reflected something they love about Portland or their hopes for this city.  These prints were compiled into an artist-made book, and a small team of us from the museum hand-delivered it to our newest mayor, Ted Wheeler, just weeks after his inauguration.  That book immediately brought him joy, and it still sits in his office as a symbol of the creativity and love of this city.

Corita Kent’s print series “Power Up” itself has been a catalyst for community connections and outreach, providing an uplifting message of social justice for so many across Portland.  During the confusing, challenging, and unstable times we have found ourselves in these past several months, this single artwork became (and continues to be) a source of energy, joy, and resiliency for many.

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Also during the Corita Kent exhibition, we hosted a series here at the museum called Portland Prints, featuring this city’s energetic, thriving, and innovative printmaking scene.  In partnership with the amazing Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), the museum hosted a series of mini-residencies in which artists made new prints inspired by Corita Kent and Andy Warhol, and visitors could get directly engaged with printmaking.  Illustrator and educator extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt was one of those artists.  She was immediately inspired by Corita Kent’s “Power Up,” and invited designers from around the world to submit their own “power up” drawings and illustrations.

And in they came.  Power up!  POWER UP!  Power UP!   power up!   As our country neared the end of a contentious and emotional campaign season and then into the election itself, there was a tremendous thirst for “power up.”

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Kate brought all these messages together into a single poster print, and here at the museum on the Friday and Saturday following the Election, she printed them.

And then printed more.   And then some more.  Over a day and a half, she had printed and distributed over 800 Power Up posters.  These prints that now hang on office walls, cubicles, school classrooms, and people’s homes across the city (including mine).  The ripple effect of Corita Kent’s activist message of love and humanity exists now in the daily lives of so many individuals.

Thanks to Kate, the Power Up message spread further through zine workshops, design events, and even awesome t-shirt designs by Michael Buchino.  Just this month, our Education team decided to purchase these Power Up t-shirts as an expression of camaraderie and yet another way of keeping this uplifting energy alive.

Back in January, Kate brought her Power Up poster design to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, nearly 3000 miles away from this museum.  The uplifting message of Corita Kent that had inspired our community here was now part of an even larger experience.  Hundreds more of these prints were made and distributed there.  The reverberations of “Power Up” were felt in our nation’s capital and as part of the millions of people who marched that day in solidarity, including over 100,000 here in Portland.  Corita Kent, bless her soul, is undoubtedly looking down upon all of this with a strong sense of joy—seeing her civil rights message from 1965 resonating so strongly and proudly in 2017.

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An incredible story sparked from one simple print that hung on the wall in the lower level of an art museum in Portland, Oregon.

Thank you Corita Kent.

Power Up!

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Note: Thanks and recognition to Kate Bingaman-Burt for many of the images and photos in this post, which came from her social media postings.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

 

Be a CHANGEMAKER – Apply for MuseumCamp 2017 Now!

Written by Mike Murawski

Are you a passionately-creative thinker who wants to make a positive change in your community? Are you frustrated with the slow pace of change at your museum, non-profit organization, community group, or school?  Are you tired of conferences filled with static presentations and “show and tell” sessions that don’t seem to connect with your goals and vision for change?  Do you dream big about taking action, making new things possible, and thinking outside the box?  Do you thrive in a diverse environment filled with others who share your passion, energy, and vision?   Then you need to be seriously thinking about applying for this year’s MuseumCamp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).

MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event hosted by MAH and the inspiring Nina Simon. Each year, the camp brings together diverse, passionate people for a sleep-away experience for adults who learn together through active, creative workshops and activities.  The 2017 MuseumCamp theme is CHANGEMAKERS, and I am so proud to be working with this summer’s group as a Counselor along with the phenomenal Ebony McKinney, Founding Director of Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA — a network focused on empowerment, leadership, and growth of next generation arts and culture workers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In beautiful Santa Cruz, we will spend 2.5 days together exploring the ways we make change in our work, our communities, and the world. We will focus specifically on how we can use creative projects as catalysts for community action and change. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

This year’s MuseumCamp will be challenging — but not in a frenetic, obstacle course way. It will challenge us to confront our fears about change, empower others, and create the future we seek.

Learn more about the details of this year’s MuseumCamp here, and Apply Now — the deadline for applications is March 15th, so you need to get online now and make it happen.

I look forward to seeing many of you there this summer!!!!

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Here are Nina Simon’s Five Reasons to Come to MuseumCamp 2017:

  1. Dive into co-creative project design. A month before MuseumCamp, the MAH is opening a new exhibition, Lost Childhoods, co-developed with foster youth, youth advocates, and artists in our community. You’ll tour the exhibition with the team, discuss its impact, and explore the process behind it. This project is experimental, complicated work. Foster youth are central to every decision and direction. Artists are striving to follow their direction to beautiful ends. Dozens of youth advocates and partners co-own the process and are bringing their own dreams, talents, and connections to the work. At MuseumCamp, we’ll pull back the curtain on Lost Childhoods’ process and product. We’ll brainstorm how to partner with your community on projects that ignite social action.
  2. Meet amazing colleagues and counselors. MuseumCamp attracts creative changemakers of all stripes and backgrounds. Last year Camp welcomed academics, museum folk, librarians, poets, artists, bike advocates, engineers, and one American Ninja Warrior. This year’s applicants include social scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists. We’ve got two incredible outside counselors–Ebony McKinney and Mike Murawski–and more partners coming onboard. You want to meet these people. You want to learn with them. MuseumCamp will help you build a diverse network of inspiring compatriots for your own personal journey to creative change.
  3. Build – and share – a creative action plan for change. The central activity of MuseumCamp is a whole-camp project where we work in teams to make something. (Check out past projects here.) This year, we’re building a creative change toolkit. As a team, you will design it. After Camp, the MAH team will turn it into a beautiful product for you to keep. You’ll create it, use it, and share it with others around the world.
  4. Find out what happens when a museum breaks out of its building. Later this spring, the MAH is opening a major expansion in Abbott Square, the plaza adjacent to the museum. Abbott Square will be a creative heart for the city, offering free events, workshops, performances, and playful programs in partnership with community groups. At MuseumCamp, you’ll be among the first to experience it. If you or your organization are considering doing more work in public space, this is a great opportunity to learn more firsthand.
  5. Relax, recharge, and explore. Swim with sea lions. Ride a 100-year old wooden roller coaster. Sleep in a museum. All optional. All incredible. All at MuseumCamp.
You can apply for MuseumCamp until March 15. Now’s the time. Let’s do it.
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“One Minute Art Project” at the 2014 Museum Camp.

Reflecting on a Thinking, Feeling, Doing, Sharing Encounter with Art

EDITOR’S NOTE: After I read the inspiring post (shared below) by the amazing Susan Harris MacKay, who serves as Director of Teaching and Learning at our own Portland Children’s Museum, I immediately wanted to share it with the ArtMuseumTeaching community.  In it, Susan reflects on a recent field trip to the Portland Art Museum with students from the Opal School, a public charter elementary school embedded within the Portland Children’s Museum. Her reflections hit so many meaningful aspects of museum learning for me—engaging in multi-modal responses with art; co-creating meaning with students; and ensuring that we have high expectations for the types of in-depth student thinking and engagement that are possible in a museum, especially through a self-directed tour.  Finally, Susan and the students from Opal School celebrated the museum as a place of human connection, a place of sharing and love, and a place of understanding.  Enjoy!  – Mike Murawski, ArtMuseumTeaching.com

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Written by Susan Harris MacKay

Reposted from the blog of the Opal School, a beginning school (for children age 3-5) and public elementary charter school (K-5) in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at opalschool.org.

Because it’s Opal School 4th grade, we knew we would deeply explore the complexities of perspective this year. Because it was a presidential election year, we knew we would be thinking together about the issues and the process. Because 4th and 5th graders have a right to know their state’s history, we knew we would focus on stories of Oregon. And because immigration was such a focal point of political rhetoric, we knew we would be working together to understand the immigration and migration stories in our own families, asking what it means to be an Oregonian. These preconceived intentions prepare our minds to be favored by chance. It never fails.

By chance the Portland Art Museum opened a new exhibition, “Constructing Identity” from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art. They had handed us a resource that could not have been more relevant to our work. We accepted the open invitation to go explore.

As I was planning our trip, my mind was prepared with the anticipation of this excursion, and so when I stumbled on the metaphor of “windows and mirrors” one night while reading the Teaching Tolerance website, I knew it would help us approach the artwork we would see. And as I opened the New York Times on my computer one evening this same week, a new video series called “Hyphen-Nation” was there on the front page. I didn’t realize I’d been looking for that, either, but there it was. It is arguable, I guess, that we are more prepared when we rely less on planning and more on paying attention. I can go on. I introduced the concept of windows and mirrors to the group and 11-year-old Alijah said, “Oh, I think someone has a TED talk about that.” I went searching for that and found it was author Grace Lin. Her 12-minute talk was precisely related to what we were talking about. So we watched it. And by chance, I was exploring Powell’s Books one morning just because the rest of our city happened to be shut down with ice, and I discovered the 2017 Caldecott Honor book, They All Saw a Cat. So we read it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This process is, I think, really a matter of, or maybe a result of, staying awake. But also, it’s a matter of understanding that if the classroom is to be in the world and the world is to be in the classroom, it’s our job to pull the two together. It’s our job to help the children see that the things they are concerned with are part of the world outside the classroom. The things they think about and care about that live within our predetermined frame of intent are alive in the concerns of all humanity — now, and in all that came before us. (And if they aren’t, well, perhaps it’s time to consider reframing our intentions.)

It takes time to develop understanding, so we spent time in the week before our visit to the art museum involved in a common Opal School practice aimed at uncovering and co-creating meaning. We “cracked open” the word “identity” and looked inside. As my colleague Tara wrote in a recent post, “We believe there’s a world within a word, and we invite the children to find themselves within these word-worlds… The process of cracking open words and the outcome, a growing web of shared language, strengthens the children’s sense of agency and belonging. It demonstrates how teachers are not transmitters of information and children are not consumers of it. At an early age, these children know they are culture makers.” Taking a peek into the world that lives inside the word “identity” primed the children to situate the title of the exhibit within the meaning they negotiated for themselves, in reference to one another. When you own the language, you own the culture. We don’t need to tell children what words mean nearly as often as we need to ask them what meaning they are making of words. When we do that, the children participate in culture making, and, through a process of reflection, they can become aware that they are.

IMG_8525-255x302Because the children expect to find a place for themselves in the things we do in school, I knew I could expect authentic attempts at making meaning of the art in the “Constructing Identity” exhibition, and so I needed to focus on setting them up to be able to share the meanings they were making. My goal was to support the children to see each piece in the collection as a kind of long-distance offer of connection from one artist to another. I didn’t need to tell them how to connect with the art, how to find meaning in it — I just needed to ask them to, and I needed to give them some tools to do so.

I assigned them each a partner with whom to find eleven different pieces within the exhibition. This was a game they enjoyed as though it were a scavenger hunt of some kind, made even more enjoyable by the fact that they could tell I’d paired them each with a very good friend — something they know I don’t always do. Also importantly, I told them that they did not have to find all eleven. I had chosen that many to try and accommodate the varied temperaments of the pairs. Some would find two or three and dive deeply into those, and some would be more determined to find them all. Either was okay. Either met my intentions to have these artists connect with one another. The final condition that seemed to make the experience successful was that they were independent. As long as they were visible within the gallery to the adults they were with — they were on their own to work. And so they got to it.

Once they found a piece, they were expected to use their sketchbooks to capture the art in pencil and annotate their drawing. They were asked:

  • What might the artist be trying to say about their own identity?
  • What about the art expresses identity?
  • Where are the windows? Where are the mirrors?
  • What is abstract? What is real? What is true?

Here are some representative samples of what was collected:

Sketches

These twenty-six 9, 10 and 11 year-olds had about two hours in the museum’s galleries that day. I wish that anyone who ever doubted that children were capable of being self-directed, engaged, quiet, and focused in an art museum had been able to observe them for a time. The only slight commotion happened when we had to drag them away.

In an interview included in the exhibit catalogue, Bill Hutson, one of the artists whose work is included in the collection, said,

“I don’t think of what they think. You know what matters to me is that they think. I want them to look at the art and feel something. What bothers me is for people to look at the paintings and feel nothing.”

How often do we remember to ask children to feel? How frequently, in our planning, do we consider the emotions that are likely to be stirred by the things we ask them to think about? How likely are we to make predictions based on what students might feel because we acknowledge that there is no meaning without feeling? Feelings make us think. And thinking makes us feel. We know it is impossible not to feel. So we can be sure that the things children are feeling most are the things they are thinking most about and learning most about. How do we ensure they are learning the things we really want them to learn? What do we really want them to learn?

By creating conditions that allow thinking, feeling, doing, and sharing to show up simultaneously, we create conditions for young human beings to do what they arrived prepared and wanting to do: to use strategies of play to make meaning of their experience in order to find a place for themselves in the world.

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Consider, for a moment, what can happen when adults forget how to connect thinking and feeling — what can happen when we look at the expression of other human beings, the offer of connection, the hope for understanding — and feel nothing. The ability to dehumanize others is the result. But when we learn to see that our own identities are constructed in relationship to others, it begins to matter how others feel about what they think — and about what you think. And we begin to trust that when things don’t feel good, we just have to think harder. And we have the confidence that we can, because we don’t have to do it alone.

In “The Age of Rudeness“, Rachel Cusk writes,

“’Make her stop!’ my daughters used to beg me when they were younger and one was doing something the other didn’t like. In other words: Restore to me the primacy of my version; rid me of this challenge to the experience of being me. One might say that what they wanted was justice, impartiality — but impartiality, I usually discovered, was not easy to attain. There were always two sides to their stories, and I lacked the ability to turn them into one. I have prided myself on my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done. But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make it stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.”

Our classrooms can be the places where we learn to endure the impulse to use the power we have to make our discomforts with life’s uncertainties stop — and instead make a practice of understanding. The Constructing Identity exhibition was full of opportunity to do just that. When asked, “Why does the expressive force of abstraction belong to culture and identity?” Bill Hutson replied,

“Because you can make choices that are specific choices… in many ways you can state who you are. You can state who you are even though it’s not a representation of something. You can do this with light, rhythm and color.”

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An encounter with abstract art can become an invitation to stretch our tolerance for the ambiguity we need if we are to find bearable a world that is always subject to change. By inviting us to find our own connection, to make our own sense of things, it pulls us in. We find our own thoughts reflected inside the mirror the artist made for themselves. We find the world inside that piece that is common to us. Like cracking open a word to find what lives inside and to create shared culture, the abstraction invites us simply to bring what we know, and encourages us to share. This sense of belonging is the primary feeling we humans seek, so learning how to think our way there may be the most important thing we do in school. If we’re to fix this mess we’re in, real understanding must become our primary goal, and we must learn to recognize what it is. Because understanding is love.

Encounters with the arts aren’t the only way to create lasting habits of understanding, but their reflective and connective qualities make them one of the best. That is only if we give the young humans in our care chances to connect and reflect. And then do it again. And again. And as we listen to them, be the person they can rely on to bring the world to them, just when they need it most.

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About the Author

5776e121a2938-bpfullSUSAN HARRIS MACKAY is Director of Teaching and Learning at Portland Children’s Museum. In that role, she gives leadership to Opal School and the Museum Center for Learning, and works directly with children in the classroom. Opal School serves children ages 3-11 using inquiry-based approaches through the arts and sciences with a mission to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, curiosity and the wonder of learning thrive. Along with her colleagues, Susan shares these fresh ideas through a professional development program for educators world-wide. Recent work includes chapters in Fostering Empathy Through Museums, and In the Spirit of the Studio, 2nd Edition, and a TEDx talk called, “School is For Learning to Live”. Connect with Susan and Opal School at opalschool.org.

Gallery Teaching Lab: Where Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

Written by Theresa Sotto

What would happen in the galleries if we could only communicate through gestures? How might critics’ reviews about exhibitions be meaningfully incorporated in gallery teaching? How would museumgoers react if asked to draw a work of art as perfectly as possible–the opposite of conventional wisdom in museum education? These are just a few questions that educators from cultural institutions across Southern California have explored in a program developed by and for museum educators.

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Museum educators from three different institutions–Zoe Silverman from the Hammer, Rachel Stark from the Skirball, and William Zaluski from the Getty Center–act out a short skit in a role-playing experiment led by Chelsea Hogan, who then worked at ESMoA. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hogan.

I launched Gallery Teaching Lab (GTLab) at the Hammer Museum in October 2014 with educators from seven Los Angeles museums in an effort to foster innovation in gallery teaching. Now in its third year, the program has doubled in size to include fourteen participating institutions who each take turns hosting a GTLab approximately every six weeks. Twenty-five practitioners between Long Beach and Pasadena have the opportunity to try a new teaching strategy in an ever-changing space and receive constructive feedback from colleagues. Participants can use GTLab as a testing ground for nascent gallery teaching ideas without the pressure of building internal buy-in or fear of an unsuccessful experience with museum visitors. GTLab also offers educators an opportunity to eschew traditional or habitual teaching strategies and set aside their respective institutions’ existing programs or pedagogical philosophies.

Beginnings

The very first GTLab, which was led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was an experiment in facilitating silent conversations in order to create a safe space to explore potentially controversial topics. Veronica was inspired by Child Guidance Toys (1965) by Robert Heinecken, which was on view at the Hammer Museum in the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Object Matter. Created two years after president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Child Guidance Toys poignantly juxtaposes two advertisements of two different products–a toy rifle and a miniature replica of JFK.

Prior to viewing Child Guidance Toys with GTLab participants, Veronica displayed three large sheets of butcher paper, each with a prompt that was relevant to Heinecken’s work: consumerism, gun culture, and the claim that artists make us more aware of social issues. We were asked to silently and anonymously address each of these prompts or someone else’s comments. In a post-GTLab reflection, Veronica wrote that “participants commented on the fact that they enjoyed sharing things that they might not have, had it been a verbal conversation. Others noted that they were able to discuss sensitive topics in a safe environment.”

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A prompt used in a silent conversation led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

After writing and reading comments in response to the prompts in a classroom space, Veronica led us in an inquiry-based discussion of Child Guidance Toys in the exhibition space. In front of the work of art, we wasted no time making connections between the imagery and the serious themes that had already been explored during the silent conversations. The resulting discussion about Heinecken’s work was thought-provoking and multi-layered. But equally thought-provoking–at least for a room full of museum educators–was the conversation about the experiment itself. Educators mused: Did the pre-selected prompts limit conversation about the work of art? Which audiences would this activity be appropriate for? How would the silent conversations differ if they took place in the galleries? Since everyone responding to the prompts were in the same room at the same time, the comments were not completely anonymous. How does semi-anonymity impact one’s ability to freely share one’s thoughts?

Following her GTLab experiment, Veronica incorporated the silent conversation activity in a teacher program–with great success. However, successfully implementing a GTLab experiment with  museum visitors is more of a fortuitous outcome rather than a desired goal.

Experiments in Self-Guided Experiences

For my own first experiment, I was interested in exploring self-guided activities, and not just because I was interested in their format–one that typically doesn’t impart more than basic or cursory information about works of art. In the days leading up to my experiment, other work commitments took priority and I waited until the last minute to consider what I would do. My experiment became an opportunity for me to address two questions. The first: Can a self-guided experience be just as (or more) engaging and foster as much understanding about a work of art as a guided experience? The second question was one that I sometimes face more often than I’d like to admit: Is it possible to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art when you don’t have time to properly research the works of art on view?

I decided to try a semi-self-guided experience with the exhibition Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now because of the wide variety of works, subjects, and artists represented in the galleries. I briefly introduced the exhibition and then distributed prompts in three categories—1) Select, 2) Question, and 3) Translate. Working with partners, participants picked one prompt from each of the categories, one at a time, at random. For the Select cards, participants were prompted to choose a work that they associated with adjectives like secretive, awkward, or friendly. Once a work was selected, partners picked a Question card and discussed answers to prompts such as: “Could this work change someone’s life? If so, how?”; “Why do you think this work was selected for inclusion in this exhibition?”; and “In what ways is this work relevant to people in Los Angeles?” I gave some pairs more than one Question card if they seemed to answer their first question quickly. By the time the pairs completed their Select and Question prompts, they had already discussed their selected work for approximately 20 minutes and were ready to “translate” the artwork. This is where the activity got more experimental. I challenged peers to reflect on what is essential about the work of art and to figure out how those qualities could be translated into another form or genre–such as a Craigslist ad, a restaurant menu, or thirty seconds of sound. Not only was this part of the activity a lot of fun, but it also helped the group come to a nuanced and deep understanding about their selected works while stretching them to think creatively.

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A GTLab experiment informed the goals for this all-ages Discovery Guide.

After the experiment, GTLab participants remarked that they enjoyed completing the activities and they were able to make meaningful connections to their selected works of art. They also raised questions about appropriate audience applications and attendance limitations, and whether front-loading or modeling would be necessary with school groups. All good questions. But despite the overall positive and useful feedback, I never tried the same Select – Question – Translate prompts with actual visitors. For me, that wasn’t the point.

Taking Risks, Breaking Rules

I originally conceived of GTLab to foster innovation in gallery teaching–in my own practice as well as that of my colleagues. In fact, for the first couple of years of the program, I challenged all participants to follow one rule: your experiment should be an activity or strategy that you have not tried before. My experiment pushed me to re-evaluate what I want self-guided activities as a whole to accomplish: to foster personal and meaningful connections to art, to have fun learning with the people you came to the museum with, and to encourage creativity. These are by no means innovative goals. Rather they speak to the heart of what we do as museum educators.

The process of organizing and participating in gallery experiments has made me reflect on Gallery Teaching Lab itself. Innovation isn’t the main goal after all. Gallery Teaching Lab comprises a collective of peers who manage or support educator trainings at their respective institutions. For this professional learning community to be sustainable and useful for all participants, rules and goals should change based on the facilitator, the chosen experiment, and the galleries. What once took place at the Hammer Museum every six weeks on Wednesdays from 12-2PM now occurs at one of fourteen institutions on a day and time that works best for the host institution with goals that make the most sense for the facilitator. As is the case for all good labs, rules are meant to be broken.

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About the Author

THERESA SOTTO is assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, where she oversees educational programming for college, family, and K-12 school groups. Theresa has been working at the crossroads of education and the arts since 2001. Prior to joining the Hammer, she worked at the Getty Museum, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has served as a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Theresa received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is also a published poet.

Museums Marching

Written by Jessica Ruhle

On Saturday, I marched.

I attended my local march in Raleigh, North Carolina, with loved ones. While I marched for personal reasons, it was equally important for me professionally. As a museum educator, the number of colleagues who marched left me joyful and inspired. The Raleigh crowd of over 20,000 people included coworkers from my museum, staff from other institutions, educators, artists, and gallery owners. Part of the power of the march was sharing it with so many people with whom I work in a variety of contexts.

Thanks to social media, that communal experience stretched far beyond my network in North Carolina. As photographs and videos spread, I shared the day with art professionals across the country and the world. As colleagues marched in Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., their images reminded me of how fortunate I am to work with many who feel the same concerns, ask the same questions, and are making the same demands. Within my museum, my local arts community, and my broader profession, there is a shared commitment to public conversations about how our society has operated in the past, how it functions now and what changes are necessary for greater equality and justice in the future.

Of course, a single march is not enough to create change. We cannot simply applaud ourselves and carry on as we have in the past. Gloria Steinem reminded us:

“The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day. A movement is only people moving.”

How, then, will I create movement? What concrete actions can I take to support the causes for which I marched? How can I promote equal rights for women, LGBTQ communities, and people of all races and religions? How can I protect the public discourse around art and science? How can I speak out for appropriate funding of schools, access to clean water for all, and the protection of our environment? Many of my answers are things that I will do as an individual – phone calls to government officials, financial support of non-profit organizations, relationship building within my community, and my own lifelong learning about these issues.

Another answer to the question of what I can do is, simply, my job. It is impossible to ignore that my largest platform is my museum and the programs we produce. As museum staff, we have the honor of encouraging community conversations around the art we exhibit. With that role, how can museum educators translate the energy of the Women’s March into our professional practice?

Much has been made of the creativity of the marchers’ signs. There were funny signs, angry signs, and emotional signs, but they were all direct and clear in their message. I think museums can look to some of the signs for direction.

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Instagram @jordangraceowens
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Instagram @thesoulsofshoes

Be Inclusive

Museums are frequently criticized (appropriately) for their extreme whiteness. Don’t let this be true of any aspect of the museum experience that you influence. Whether you play a role in hiring staff, identifying teaching artists, inviting guest speakers and performers for public programs, or selecting artworks for tours, you have a responsibility to be inclusive. Prioritize racial diversity in your programs and staff to reflect your community more fully and to foster meaningful conversations that represent a variety of viewpoints and experiences.

Examining whom you include shouldn’t start and stop with racial diversity. Ask if you are representing a wide range of lifestyles, perspectives, and beliefs. Include those who challenge your own ways of thinking. Like the march, the museum is a shared space. As a shared space, museums must create meaningful engagement of the many, not the few.

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Instagram @kelsbrink

Spread Truth

Gallery conversations are often open ended. This is important in order to validate multiple interpretations and empower visitors. It is equally important that museum conversations embrace the facts. A recent visitor to my museum commented, “Being a slave wasn’t so bad in North Carolina.” One opinion, stated as fact, can make another visitor feel disregarded, or even unsafe. As museums engage in difficult social discussions, museum educators and gallery teachers will increasingly need to provide historical and current information that may challenge previously held assumptions and beliefs.

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Instagram @rboles

Engage Broadly

Art museum programs should spotlight a full range of disciplines. Invite scientists, social activists, medical experts, legal professionals, historians, musicians, poets, and more to participate in public programs. Art connects to all aspects of life. Therefore, discussions about art should engage more than artists and curators. Creating change will require conversations across all disciplines. Museums facilitate those conversations best when they ignore programmatic norms and build surprising partnerships.

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Instagram @anyalogan
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Instagram @kidximil

Expect Challenges

While so many of us turned out to march, our eagerness for change does not mean the work will be easy. This is not work that can be done in 140 characters. Actively respecting and engaging others is the serious work and it can be uncomfortable. Hard and uncomfortable are often part of anything that is important and necessary. Accept that mistakes happen. When they do, acknowledge them and use any missteps as opportunities to learn, to teach, and to improve.

Most importantly, remember the day we stood together. Remember how many share your goals of equality and justice. Remember that you are not doing this work alone. Remember that even when we are not marching, we are in solidarity.

Share your story from Saturday, January 21st.

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About the Author

jessica-ruhle-tedx-1JESSICA RUHLE is Manager of Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica founded and directs the Nasher Museum’s Reflections Program for visitors with dementia and their care partners. She has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse

Written by Andrew Palamara

Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.

Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.

I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.

I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.

Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:

  •     You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
  •     After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
  •     On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?

After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.

There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a  conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).

My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.

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About the Author

andrew-palamaraANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant 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 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.

 

We the People: The Radical Possibilities of Hope for Museum Learning

Written by Michelle Dezember

“Art is the highest form of hope.”  —Gerhard Richter

Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.

On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People (Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.

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Danh Võ, We The People (Detail), 2011. Courtesy Lawrence and Joan Altma

The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.

hopeinthedark_coverAs I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.

Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:

“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)

Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?

To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.

1. TIME

Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.

Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:

“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)

This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.

2. CONTRADICTION

Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. araponraceIn 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.

To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.

3. UNKNOWABLE

As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.

Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:

“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)

The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.

As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:

“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)

How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?

About the Author

michelle-dezemberMICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.

Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.

‘This is the time when museums go to work’: MuseumNext Keynote Address

Written by Mike Murawski

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to give the keynote address to begin Day 2 of the MuseumNext conference in New York City. My talk expanded on some of my thinking around the vital importance of empathy, change, and social action in museums, and focused on 5 actions we can take as museum professionals.  I’m pasting the video, SlideShare, and extended notes from my talk below.  I hope this sparks more conversations within and among museums about the role our institutions play in our communities and in relation to issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion.  Please feel free to email me at murawski27@gmail.com with any questions, and add Comments or questions below for a more public exchange around these ideas.  I welcome all perspectives, ideas, and voices in this dialogue about museums.  And special thanks to Jim Richardson and the team at MuseumNext for putting together a powerful conference in New York!

Link to SlideShare PowerPoint slides.

Link to Vimeo video.

NOTE: These views are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Keynote Address: “Urgency of Empathy and Social Action in Museums”

November 15, 2016, Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, New York, NY

[I began this address by playing an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which I encourage you to listen to by playing the video below. And crank up the volume or pop on some headphones.]

This visceral performance was recorded by Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Arts Society collective.  It is a striking protest piece that responds to instances of police violence against minorities in this country, and honors the lives of those lost in a way that boldly confronts indifference.

Janelle Monae said, “Silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.”  In an interview about her recording “Hell You Talmbout,” she said something that really struck me and made me want to bring this in to begin our day here at MuseumNext: “It’s important that we see each other as human beings. We need to take care of each other.”  Her piece stands as a form of art that can connect us all as humans through empathy as well as action.

I want to spend some time talking this morning about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions—that’s right, I said actions … not ideas, concepts, or principles.  5 actions that we can all get involved in to help museums reach their full potential as meaningful, relevant, human-centered institutions in our communities.

But before I begin, I would like to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands this theatre now stands here in Manhattan, on which our museums stand, and on which we live and work every day.

ACTION 1: Be More Local

It’s so important for museums to be a ‘local’ place intertwined and inseparable from the local realities and issues.  We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities.  This idea of community is important to address – we use that word a lot and don’t often think about it. What is community, and what is audience?  What do we mean by these words?  For me, so much of this idea of “community” is grounded in geography.  How do we define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood; and how do we learn about the people in this place, what connects us, and what brings us together into a community

So what can we do to help museums be more local?

First, I think there is a false binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community’ that is troubling.  It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included.  We might be feeding this gap, this divide, by simply not addressing it.  What if “the museum” included the people in our local community (including our staff and volunteers)?  What if, instead of just museums seeing themselves as part of their communities, our communities actually saw themselves as part of our museums?  We fight so hard for outreach, but sometimes we just need inreach—a way for us to open our ears and our hearts and let others get involved in new and different ways.

This may sound radical, but I believe it’s also a fact: our community knows more than we do. There is so much expertise and knowledge outside of our institutions that we tend to reject and ignore, but it’s greater than what we hold on to within our institutions.  We have got to start breaking down those walls, listen more, and rethink the way we value some knowledge and stories over others.  Identify and value the assets of our community — their stories, experiences, creative energies, and knowledges.

One powerful example of this local work is The Laundromat Project.  The Laundromat Project brings socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible.  The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2015 in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment into a thriving creative community hub.  I’m looking forward to heading there with a group of conference participants for MuseumNext’s first ever Museum Social Action Project.

ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives

I believe there is a need for us museums to publicly recognize and engage the brave and transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement has forged a new national conversation about the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color in the United States—a conversation grounded in those communities’ own experiences. As stated in their Vision for Black Lives policy statement, the Movement’s vision is to:

“move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”

I know this is something  museums can stand behind unapologetically.  We need to engage with and learn from the Movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating or distorting the work underway. Supporting this work is not putting museums and its employees in a bubble, but rather it powerfully unifies us in support of basic human rights that have been wrongly politicized since the first colonists stepped ashore some 500 years ago.

Some examples of brave, courageous museums that are putting themselves out there to support this work are:

Science Museum of Minnesota: Back in July 2016, they posted a sign at entrance to RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition after tragic killing of Philando Castille in July, joining their community in mourning.  Unfortunately that sign was eventually removed, but I want to acknowledge that courage of those people who sat in a room to make the decision to put that sign up so we can have this conversations about whether museums can do this or not.

New Museum in New York: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, which began back in July 2016 when a group of more than 100 black women artists began meeting at New Museum.  The group took over the Museum for an event in September that included performances, workshops, videos, and a procession. Reflecting on that September event, artist Ariel Jackson recalls: “some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief”

Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture: Among many other ways that this new Smithsonian Museum is collecting, exhibiting, and recognizing the Movement for Black Lives in historic ways, I wanted to draw attention to their acquisition of the Mirror Casket Project into their collection. The Mirror Casket is a sculpture, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance,” with an aim to evoke reflection. This work will be included in future exhibitions at the NMAAHC.

Portland Art Museum: At the Portland Art Museum, we have recently been partnering with members of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the main Black Lives Matter groups working for change across the Portland community.  On August 9, 2016, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, we were the site for a gathering and community social justice art project organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that involved music and dance performances, speakers, and free admission to the Museum and exhibitions.  This was planned, in part, as a result of conversations with our community in conjunction with the opening of two exhibitions which focused on issues of racial violence, police brutality, and social justice activism.  Many of us at the Portland Art Museum wanted to be listening to our community and engaged with our community, so we reached out and had these powerful things happening at the museum. It was a space of creation, a space of community and coming together.

I can’t mention these events without mentioning Teressa Raiford, who is one of the most powerful activists in Portland and probably in many of our communities, who’s putting a lot of this together and who has for the past six days been on the streets in Portland with peaceful protestors standing up for basic human rights. Teressa continues to be an inspiring, driving force behind the ways that the Portland Art Museum is beginning to listen to its community and engage in a new dialogue around race and social justice.

Following up the event in the Portland Art Museum on August 9th, we had a panel discussion entitled “Race in America After Ferguson” where Reverend Tracy Blackman from Florissant, Missouri (one of the pastors that’s been involved in the Ferguson Commission with President Obama and also the Federal Government’s faith-based initiatives work) came and spoke with artist Arvie Smith, Teressa Raiford, and Mykia Hernandez, a young activist in Portland.  With two or three days’ notice we had an incredible crowd from the community come, including docents and staff from the museum who came out to this conversation. It was really important, internally and externally, for the museum to be having these conversations and be seen as a space for these conversations.

In the words of leaders at the Ford Foundation who publicly supported the Movement for Black Lives earlier this summer–and a quote that I think is as timely now as it was back in July:

“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”

ACTION 3: Flip the Script

What does it look like to “flip the script” in museums, to work toward de-centering the traditional power structures of our institution?  How can we actually shift away from the old, traditional narratives that got us where we are today, right now, right here?   How can our work as museum professionals shift power?

Letting go of these traditional historic notions of museum authority and power relationships is essential but it’s also very challenging, and I’m going to break the rules of conferences and do something that you’re not supposed to do. I’m going to read a text panel from a museum exhibition, and this is not a text panel that is a typical voice of authority, it is not what I call the ‘voice of god’ text panel for a museum. This text panel was the intro panel to our new Center for Contemporary Native Art during our second exhibition in that space, written by indigenous artists Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer and unedited or unimpeded by curatorial voice or museum voice. I think it says something powerful. So, when visitors waked into the gallery during Demian and Kali’s exhibition, they were immediately confronted by this wall text panel:

“By entering this space you have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge that all Indigenous thought, creativity, fantasy, activism, & existence is grounded in continual acts of Survivance. You have agreed to forfeit your misconceptions of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness of Indigenous traditional practices. You are not stepping into the past or staring into a picture plane void of Indigenous inhabitants. You are not glorifying Western historical inaccuracies or romanticizing the cowboys & Indians narrative. By entering this space you agree to never again place your hand over your mouth in a mock “war cry” or teach your children to be ignorant of the Indigenous peoples whose land you have claimed as your own. From this moment onward you promise to learn the history of the Indigenous ancestral lands that were stolen/continue to be stolen through colonization & genocide. By entering this space you have agreed to become a lifelong agent against humanitarian & environmental injustice.”

It is such a powerful statement. So, flipping the script can mean changing who gets to write these narratives. The Center for Contemporary Native Art at the Portland Art Museum is one of these spaces where we have experimented with decentering traditional museum authority.

The Center for Contemporary Native Art is a space that we have developed dedicated to displaying the work by contemporary indigenous artists at the museum. It’s supported by an IMLS grant currently and it really gets the museum to step out of the way and let Native people tell their stories.  Through exhibitions in this Center, we’ve been really privileging native voice, native language, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous perspectives. It has been one of the most powerful things I’ve been able to work on in my work in museums and I have to give a shout out to Deana Dartt who was recently our curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and whose powerful vision made this possible.

Another example of ‘flipping the script’ is the long-running initiative at the Portland Art Museum called Object Stories, and these images are just some of the examples of the people whose voices have been brought to the center of our museum during this project: from people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, to recent refugees to Portland, and we currently have on view in that gallery a project that highlights the voices of deaf artists and highlights their work in the gallery.

In her article from earlier this year entitled, “We Need a Decolonized, Not a ‘Diverse,’ Education,” scholar Zoe Samudzi writes:

“Until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete, but wholly-privilege the knowledges and perspectives of the colonizers.”

These marginalised voices and stories, often rendered completely invisible, need to be brought to the center.

One final example – this is just something I thought was amazing project that I just read about this past week or so – at the Detroit Institute of Art, they’re working on an exhibit for summer 2017 to highlight and reflect on the 50-year anniversary of the summer of 1967 rebellion. It’s a year-long collaborative project to uncover home movies and perspectives from people living in Detroit in 1967, and the project aims to reflect on one of the most painful times in the history of Detroit and spur thoughts on how that region can continue moving forward. What an incredible way of bringing community voices and stories into such a significant museum project, and privileging those stories and knowledge in the museum.

ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change

Have a personal vision for change, and work to create a personal vision. I think this is something that’s important.

I hope you’ve had your coffee, because I’m going to have you do something for me before we wrap up here. Put your notebooks and devices down just for a second, take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Now I want you to try and think about: what matters most to you right now? Try to boil it down to a word or a phrase. Now, I want you to shout that out. [audience loudly shouts out words at the same time]

Thank you, and not only is that energy that we need to make change happen in museums, but it also illustrates this need for our own personal vision and purpose to help guide this work. What do you care about? What is your high dream? What is the change you’d like to see? Have a personal vision. Write it down. It doesn’t have to be some sort of perfectly crafted, wordsmithed mission statement. Think about what matters to you, write it down, add it to your desktop background, tape it to your wall, share it on social media, wear it on a tee-shirt. Connect with your core values on a daily basis. Stand behind these values. Share them. Don’t be ashamed of them. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how in the hell are we ever going to get there?

I’m most recently inspired by De Andrea Nichols, an activist, educator and artist in St Louis.  She said in a commencement speech she gave earlier this year at Washington University in St. Louis: “Do what makes you come alive!” Nichols’s “Sticky Note to Self” project is also worth checking out through Tumblr and Instagram.. It is so inspiring to see her inspiration, to see the things that she’s thinking about, done so creatively. She just writes these sticky notes to herself, which is something I’ve been doing more and more.  When you’ve got a moment of inspiration, write it down, stick it somewhere, keep it, reflect back on it on a daily basis so we can keep pushing ahead on this work.

Bring your passion with you to work. I think this is important that we stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion.  One of the things that I’ve been motivated by in my own practice has been this inspiring quote from James Baldwin, which I added to my email signature as a daily, public reminder:

“not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change

I firmly believe museums are people-centred institutions (something I have written about in more detail). Museums are us. If we don’t bring in other people too, our work cannot grow. We need to identify change agents within our institutions. Invite people to meet with you over coffee. Think about the barriers to your work, and consider how those barriers are they people-based.  What people are involved with those barriers? OK, now go have coffee with those people and listen.  Listen to what those people are talking about in terms of why those barriers might exist. It is also important to positively recognise when others take steps in the right direction towards this work.  We need to build supportive, positive, connected communities of change within and among our organizations.

And I think it’s time that, no matter where you are in your organizations (new employee or seasoned veteran); it’s time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as followers and thinking of ourselves as leaders within our institutions. You can grow a community of change in your organisation and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. Remember, museum are made of us people, and our museums are only as empathetic, connected, and engaged as the people who work for them.

An important aspect of building these communities of action is also recognising the new collective platforms and movements that exist now online. If you are on social media, #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondToFerguson are hashtags that are bringing people together to talk about these issues. Also #MuseWomen, #a11y, and the blogs Incluseum, Brown Girls’ Museum blog, Visitors of Color Tumblr site, Queering the Museum Project, Museum of Impact, Museum Hue. And so many more projects that are bringing people together to create these communities of change and communities of action across the field of museums, arts, and culture.

The last slide I want to show is the team of education staff at the Portland Art Museum. We took this photo here last Wednesday morning, which I regretted scheduling that photo the morning after the election here, but we immediately gravitated to this empowering work “Power Up” by artist Corita Kent, who’s been feeding a lot of our souls in Portland with this exhibition on view of her work. I include this photo only to give recognition, honor, and support to this amazing group of educators and to the power that they bring to all of this work at the Portland Art Museum, to our vision for doing good, meaningful, more local work and in building communities of change across our institution. It is not ‘me’; it is a ‘we’ situation, and there is so much power in the people on this team and so many who are not even this photograph.

As we bring on more people to rise to this challenge with us, we can convert ‘aspiring to change’ into ‘real change’. The time has come to move beyond symbolically standing up for social justice. This may often mean breaking the rules but it never involves silence. We need to permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.

CONCLUSION

Let me wrap up with something a bit more personal. One week ago this morning, I was proud to go turn in my ballot alongside my wife, inspired by her power, energy, and resilience.  Just hours later, that night, I found myself in tears, holding my confused 7-year-old son in my arms as I put him to bed.  I know I am not alone when I say I felt numb and almost paralyzed.

I want to close by connecting with the words of writer Toni Morrison, who many of us read during recent days and weeks.  12 years ago, she recounted her own election-induced feelings of depression, paralysis, being unable to write, when an artist friend interrupted her and said, “No, no, no.  This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  That’s our job!”  

So I channel the power of Ms. Morrison at this difficult moment, because This is precisely the time when museums go to work.  That’s our job!

Thank you.

The Sun Will Still Rise Tomorrow: Responding to the Election

Written by Sara Egan

When we originally scheduled visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the classes at a Boston high school in our School Partnership Program, we didn’t consider the date of the presidential election as a factor. My colleagues and I didn’t purposefully plan for the 10th grade students, too young to vote but old enough to be politically aware, to come to this historic institution in the two days following the surprising result. It wasn’t our intention that the 12th graders would come the following week, having had time to begin to process the world in which we awoke on November 9, 2016. But that’s exactly what happened.

Our partnership with these students and their teachers is based on our commitment to respond to where they are and what they need from us to scaffold their development as critical thinkers and engaged museum-goers. We’ve built relationships and cultivated trust with this school over 5 years, coming to understand what they grapple with individually and as a community. At this school, many of the students are Black, Muslim, and/or their families are immigrants. When they come to the Museum, they bring their whole selves to each discussion. So when we found ourselves on the eve of the election concluding a long, polarizing campaign, we recommitted ourselves to putting the students at the center and modified our plan for their visits.

We designed an experience for students to engage with the Gardner Museum in a variety of ways, understanding that everyone processes turmoil differently. First, we welcomed them back to the Museum and gave them a sense of what to expect from the visit. Then we used our temporary exhibition, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books, as a starting point. One theme of this exhibition is the spread of literacy and access to information during the Renaissance, highlighting how society valued knowledge of history, literature and rhetoric during that time. The students took as much time as they needed to explore the exhibition on their own, looking closely with their friends and finding moments of interest and beauty. As a group we discussed the ideas that they discovered in the objects and in the interpretive materials, huddling together over an illuminated choir book or a scientific rendering of marine creatures. Then we honed in on one artwork, a painting of St. Jerome in which they found further examples of the importance of scholarly work and humanistic ideals. This first half of their visit hewed closely to our initial plan, introducing the students to the exhibition while connecting it to their prior experiences at the Museum.

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12th grade students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers write or sketch around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Sara Egan

The major adaption was that the rest of the visit became structured time for the students to reflect, process, and express themselves. Rather than going to another gallery or looking at another artwork, we brought the students to the courtyard in the center of the historic collection. We handed each student a sketchbook and a pencil, invited them to sit on the stone benches facing the courtyard, and introduced a prompt tying together the objects they’d been exploring, the Museum created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the students’ own lives:

Together we’ve been looking at these old books, considering how the artists used text and illustration, and the impact the books had on society. Now you’ll get to design your own book. You can write a story, a poem or a song, draw something you see here or something you imagine, or just take deep breaths and process. If you find it helpful to think of a prompt, you might consider this: When Isabella Stewart Gardner made this museum she said that what the country needed most was art. What do you think our country needs most right now?

It was moving to see how students brought their whole selves to this activity. The 10th grade classes that came on November 8 and 9 spent much of the time asking us and their History teacher questions about the Electoral College, and voicing their fears for what would happen to their families who are undocumented immigrants. Some drew campaign symbols and slogans, some wrote about stamping out hate and encouraging love. The 12th grade students who visited on November 16 and 17 appreciated the escapism offered by the Courtyard. They spoke about the chance to sit quietly in a beautiful space that seems to be a world apart from Boston, a time apart from 2016.

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The sun will still rise tomorrow. Ariana Pina, 10th grade, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Sara Egan.

During all of these classes the other museum educators, classroom teachers, and I tried to spend time with each student to answer their questions and reiterate that we would stand with them and their loved ones. Some students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to center themselves and consider their thoughts and feelings in their own way, and a growing awareness that we, the Gardner Museum educators who they’ve come to know since 9th grade, intentionally created that space out of our deep concern and caring for them. By the end of the visit, after about 30 minutes of reflection and processing, the mood had shifted to one of hope and mutual support.

Since the election, many of us have felt the urgency of action. This set of class visits to the Gardner Museum was a small, immediate action, but one that ripples outward. These students and teachers’ ideas about how to relate to a museum (even a seemingly elite, historic one like the Gardner) might be forever transformed by the half hour they spent nurturing themselves and each other. Their mental and emotional states also changed, and we can imagine that impact was felt in all of the other interactions they had that day. As museum educators, we have the ability to create this space for our visitors – we have the flexibility to respond to our visitors and we have the objects and environments that remind them of the beauty of our shared humanity.

I’ll leave you with a poem written in the Gardner’s courtyard by Jayne Irvy Veillard, a 12th grade student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers:

GREY
By Jayne Irvy Veillard

“Struggle”
We’re struggling
Living in a world where there’s no peace
Living in a world where cries are silenced
Living with the pain among us.
What our world needs is
“Love”
Why can’t we love?
What’s so hard about loving your neighbor as yourself?
Do you not love who YOU are?
“Peace”
Why can’t there be peace?
Why does there have to be war?
What’s so hard about finding peace?
(Pause)
Look into your heart
Is it Black?
The color your heart bleeds
Does it bleed Black?
Black portrayed as ugly and slavery
Black the color of gun shots and cruelty
Black the hatred set up for men
Black, mothers and children crying for help
BLACK! SHOTS FIRED!
Look into your heart
Is it White?
Does it bleed white?
White the color of peace and love
White purity and pure
White sinless
White privileged and power
JUST SHUT UP!
What’s the difference?
Why separate these two colors?
Grey the color of this lead
Grey the unity of black and white
Grey the sound of ones holding hands
Grey we shall overcome aye?
Grey The Middle Ground
What our word needs is Grey!
We need
The Unity
The Power
The Love
No More Struggling
No More Pain
No More Poor
Just more love
All together
One for all
What our world needs is Grey
The happiness of Grey
That’s what our world needs

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About the Author

egan_sara_head_shotSARA EGAN is School Partnerships Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sara was recently  named the Massachusetts Art Education Association’s 2017 Museum Art Educator of the Year.  She teaches preK-12th grade students in the Museum and the classroom using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), trains and coaches teachers in VTS, and conducts research on the impact of the Gardner’s School Partnership Program.  Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes program, and is an adjunct professor of art at Simmons College. She has previously worked at the Andy Warhol Museum and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Sara holds a BA from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Header Photo: A 10th grade student from Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Billie Weiss.

Disentangling Partisanship & Letting Rural America into Our Conversation

Written by Greg Stuart

I am not usually in the habit of writing about projects that are in-progress or incomplete. However, in the wake of the current upheaval our country is experiencing, I feel compelled to share a powerful and cathartic moment I had recently in relation to our two-year Student/Community Curatorial Education Project that we are only just beginning.

First, a bit more about the project.  Here at the Samek Art Museum, a Bucknell University-affiliated museum in rural central Pennsylvania, we’ve been working for the past six months on an exhibition that is curated by Bucknell students with input from the local community with generous financial support from the Maurer Family Foundation. By “students,” I am referring to our Museum Guides in particular, paid work-study employees who serve as part gallery attendant, part roving docent. Our goal is to provide a platform for our constituents to have a say in our exhibition planning while also bridging the very real town/gown divide that exists here, often referred to colloquially as the “Bucknell bubble.” As the Public Programs and Outreach Manager for the Museum, I’m responsible for the aspects of this project related to community outreach and exhibition interpretation, while our Director shapes the curatorial elements of the project.

The first phase of the project involved organizing a meeting with our Museum Guides and a small group of community members to try to suss out issues that were most important to our local community. We were aided immensely in recruiting the community members by the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority, an organization that is deeply embedded in the region. Prior to the meeting, our Museum Guides developed interview questions for the community members intended to elicit narratives and encourage empathy–a process directly inspired by design thinking, which has been written about on this site before. Our goal was to move through the first three steps of the design thinking process, from empathy, to definition, to ideation. Community members would interview each other using the questions developed by the Guides, then we’d come back as a group to brainstorm and refine the process to start developing big ideas about important community issues.

Following the first meeting, the Guides would prototype and test exhibition ideas at a later date with further input from the community.

And then the election happened.

Suddenly, the interview questions that the Guides developed weeks before the election, such as “are there any current events happening right now that you think are most impactful to the region?” or “What would you change about the local community and why?” took on a completely new meaning and sense of urgency.

Not knowing what to expect, we went into the first community meeting bravely, ready to have tough conversations if need be. At the beginning, our discussion focused on how we are even defining what constitutes this community. At first glance, our location in the central Susquehanna valley region often looks fairly uniform—quaint, Victorian-era towns surrounded by rolling hills and farmlands. However, as the community members pointed out, the region is anything but homogenous, with each town informed by a sense of identity often tied to the industry that led to its settlement. For instance, Lewisburg, the home of Bucknell, is shaped most by the influence of the University; the town of Williamsport began as a lumber town; and Mifflinburg’s past and present is informed by its former role as a “buggy town.” Beyond these divisions, towns often have different boroughs or townships, each with their unique sense of identity as well, as many of the community members reminded us.

As the conversation shifted towards the election, stories of discrimination emerged. One community member who has lived in the region her whole life brought up racist bullying that she witnessed in grade school in Mifflinburg. Another community member brought up one of many examples of unintentional racism that she witnesses frequently in living here. I was dismayed to hear our Director, who identifies as queer, mention that, while he has faced discrimination in big cities, he experienced an act of discrimination here that took a more “physical” form. A common theme seemed to be that the community—already divided—would become more so as a result of the election.

I should mention at this point that our group of community members could hardly be called diverse. All were white women in their thirties or forties, and though I have no idea how they voted, all were quick to condemn the violence and racism that President-elect Trump courted openly during his campaign. While this lack of diversity is something we will work to correct in future community meetings, it is telling that our small group most likely ran counter to a lot of what has been said recently about the impact of rural communities in this election.

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A way forward

One narrative to emerge from the election is that liberal coastal elites failed to listen to the impoverished rural heartland (though certainly this has shown repeatedly to be a false narrative, as many of Trump’s supports come from middle to upper-middle class suburbs). We have the opportunity to run counter to this false narrative as a fairly liberal, certainly elite, and often-coastal (at least in its student demographic, if not in its location) institution that was already in the process of letting its rural constituents in on our conversation before the election. Conversely, this community also has the opportunity to have a voice and stand out against this narrative as well in helping us shape this exhibition.  

Though I am focusing mostly on negative aspects of the local community that have surfaced in response to the election, I must stress that many of the comments that came out of our discussion were positive about the benefits of living in rural, small-town PA. A particularly insightful response came from a community member who mentioned that, in a small town where everyone knows everybody else, it is easy to spontaneously, organically, and quickly organize. I can only hope that our finished exhibition  can serve as a catalyst for this type of fluid community organization.

In a post-meeting journal response, Museum Guide Jillian Crooks, responded:

“The attendants confirmed my belief that people who are the most involved in community projects and activities are more interested in new projects and events. The women in attendance all seemed heavily interested in making Lewisburg better and more inclusive. This wasn’t surprising, but it was heartwarming.”

Some final thoughts

One of the larger questions that has come out of this election for Bucknell faculty is whether it is important to suspend academic neutrality when faced with a political perspective that is:

  1. Objectively wrong, or
  2. Violates other norms of greater importance, such as respecting the dignity and rights of others.

While I agree with the AAM’s stance on the importance of continuing to foster bipartisan support for our institutions, I think it is also critical to try to disentangle those aspects of partisanship that go against the caveats mentioned above. As educators, we have a responsibility to present and encourage evidence-based interpretations of our exhibitions and collections, and to foster inclusivity and diversity in our spaces and in our conversations with visitors.

Though I am pleased to share our Student/Community Curatorial Education Project as a case study, I welcome discussions (via Comments below, as well as on social media) on how to go about accomplishing the incredibly difficult task of disentangling partisanship from our ethical responsibilities as museum educators.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

photo1GREG STUART is the Public Programs and Outreach Manager at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University where he is responsible for the Museum’s educational programs, public programs, events, and marketing. Prior to joining Bucknell, he worked as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Loyola University’s Museum of Art in Chicago. He has taught art history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Portland State University, and Concordia University Portland. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Art History and English from Loyola University Chicago.

Getting Outside the Bubble: Museum Social Action Project at MuseumNext

Reposted and revised from MuseumNext, a global conference on the future of museums which has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow.  Check out more details about the upcoming conference in New York by visiting their new website.

MuseumNext is very much a collaboration which brings together museum professionals to share what they feel is important and exciting, that is true of the presentations and workshops which our community propose through our call for papers and through the other activities which form our conference fringe.

Since 2009, we’ve had everything from brainstorming wild ideas with Nina Simon, to a symposium on heritage and retail to playing with the latest sensor technology, but for our conference in New York City we have a very exciting addition to the program.

Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum, challenged us to build a Museum Social Action Project into the program and offered along with Monica Montgomery to make the project happen.

MuseumNext asked Mike to tell us more about this exciting project:

How did the Museum Social Action Project come about?

At a time when museum professionals are increasingly thinking about the social impact of museums as well as the role these institutions play within our local communities, it seemed urgent to get outside the ‘bubble’ of the conference and more directly engage with organizations responding to local realities.

I was invited to present at the MuseumNext conference in New York on the topic of enacting change in museums and converting talk into action, so it felt necessary to get outside the conference venue and ‘walk the walk.’  Not having a strong familiarity with the local communities across New York, I immediately reached out to Monica Montgomery (MuseumHue, Museum of Impact) to explore this idea of a Museum Social Action Project.

Monica and I brainstormed about some possible ideas, and she connected us with the team at The Laundromat Project, an amazing organization that works to bring socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces.  

Why should a museum conference try and facilitate something like this?

As museum professionals, it is vital that we enact a mindset of giving back and supporting grassroots organizations like The Laundromat Project that strengthen our communities. Each and every professional conference should be focusing more on how it can be connected and relevant to the place of its convening, and not just think about locations as conference hotels and convention centers.

Conference sessions, panels, and topics can certainly be more grounded in the realities and issues of the conference’s city and neighborhoods, but I think it’s important to get outside the walls of the conference, explore direct ways to see our ideas in action, and be a responsible part of building stronger communities (beyond the spotlight of the conference).

What is The Laundromat Project?

Launched in 2006, The Laundromat Project brings socially relevant and socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. The LP is particularly committed to long-term and sustained investment in communities of color as well as those living on modest incomes.

Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2016 in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment on Kelly Street in Longwood, South Bronx, into a thriving creative community hub, with artist studios, arts programming, and community partnerships that allow The LP to engage the larger Kelly Street community.  We are honored to be collaborating with Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, The LP’s Director of Programs & Community Engagement, to build this Museum Social Action Project together for MuseumNext.

What’s the project that you’re doing?

Participants attending this Museum Social Action Project will meet staff and artists at The Laundromat Project, learn about their various projects and programs, and tour the Kelly Street Initiative location as well as learn more about that neighborhood.  LP staff and artists will then lead a short workshop and discussion on how organizations can learn more about a neighborhood’s capacities, creativity, and skills through community asset mapping.

Participants will also discuss ways to build a sustained investment in community partnerships, rather than one-sided outreach efforts or one-time program offerings. As a vital part of this project, we also ask that participants find a way to give back to The Laundromat Project and help them create more joyful spaces of creativity and community. Participants can do this by bringing an art supply Gift Card from Dick Blick or by donating directly to the Laundromat Project online (which I strongly encourage people to do, even if you are not involved in this project or the MuseumNext conference).

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The Laundromat Project’s Kelly Street Housewarming Party. Photo by Osjua A. Newton, Copyright © 2015

 What do you think the delegates will get out of it?

The aim is for delegates attending the Museum Social Action Project to be able to gain a more concrete understanding of community-based practices, of how cultural organizations can serve as sites of social action and relevance, of how museums and arts non-profits can bring people together a work to build stronger, more resilient communities.   They will gain skills from The LP staff and from each other around community asset mapping, and really listening to local community voices.  

What impact can the project have?

For me, personally, there are a few big “what if’s” at the heart of this type of Museum Social Action Project.  I know that museums and cultural organizations across the world are striving to be an essential part of their communities; but what if our communities could become an essential part of our institutions?  What if we could effectively re-center this movement for change around our local communities and the power, knowledge, creativity, and capacities that they can bring to our institutions?  What if conferences and professional gatherings spent more time doing and less time talking?

I don’t think we’ll achieve this all at our half-day Museum Social Action Project this November in New York, but I hope others are inspired to do similar types of projects and experiences, getting outside the walls of our conferences and harnessing the power of museum professionals to learn from and give back to our communities.

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The Museum Social Action Project is one of the fringe activities for MuseumNext New York City. The conference takes place 14 – 16 November 2016 at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Find out more about the conference here.

Featured header image: The Laundromat Project Kelly Street Housewarming, Photo by Osjua A. Newton, copyright © 2015.

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