Doing, Not Just Viewing: Working Towards a More Participatory Practice

Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project. Photo by Jean-Francois Hauwaert

I fully acknowledge and embrace the exciting shift that has been occurring in art museums, arts organizations, and American culture in general toward a more do-it-yourself, interactive, user-generated, participatory experience. Yet outside of experimental cases and one-time projects, I often struggle to weave this approach into my daily professional practice and hence into the daily experience for museum visitors (which in my case is mostly school children, visiting with their teachers who have set expectations about what they will see and learn).  And I blame forward-thinking educators like Nina Simon (among others) as well as a whole range of contemporary artists for motivating me to want this level of visitor engagement and participation in the first place (thank you Nina et al.).

So how do we “walk the walk” when it comes to truly engaging visitors and students in creative, participatory, learner-centered experiences in the art museum?

For me, it’s always about taking risks and experimenting bit-by-bit, program-by-program, teacher-by-teacher, and even docent-by-docent as we sharpen our focus on creating a “better” experience with art that connects to people and their lives.  And for this post, I want to hone in on one recent docent training class at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a micro-study of an attempt to weave a hint of participatory practice into the fabric of the art museum, and make it more about “doing” and not just about “viewing.” Is this truly participatory engagement?  To what extent is this something museums have always done?  Not sure. I’d actually rather invite your thoughts and comments, since I think it’s best to open up a dialogue and push these ideas forward.  Please offer your challenges and responses below, and give me something to think about as I create new experiences.

As a field, I think we’re definitely in the process of defining what we mean by terms like “active participation” and “participatory engagement.”  In what contexts can these types of experiences occur, at what level of engagement, for what audiences, and when?  I know my example below does not compare to something on the scale of a contemporary art installation that has children placing thousands of stickers on the gallery walls or the careful planning of in-gallery interpretation like this project on view now at the Skirball Cultural Center, but it connects more to my own daily professional practice with school audiences and docents.

Exploring Van Gogh & Color … in a Participatory Way?

Working within a docent curriculum at a large public art museum, there is still a strong focus on art historical information, as you would imagine.  Within docent training programs at art museums across the country, about 40-50% of the content is purely art historical and about 30-40% of docents’ time is spent listening to lectures about that content (that is based on some data that Stephanie Parrish [Portland Art Museum] and I collected last year from about 100 art museums).  So when beginning to prepare my docent class on the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism collection area, there is always an initial tendency to pull together that PowerPoint slideshow or pick up the phone to call the curator.

But not this time.  I wanted to explore at least one strategy that would get us beyond a purely receptive experience with these artworks, and work toward something that the recent Irvine Foundation report might call “inventive engagement” on the spectrum of creative participatory experiences.  I feel strongly about museum experiences tapping into the “creative” side of learning, and one of the CORE elements of museum learning for my department at the Saint Louis Art Museum is “engaging in creative ways.”  For docents, this creative element of learning is generally not studio-based but rather gallery-based.

So here is how we connected with the idea of color in the painting “Factories at Clichy” (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh:

Looking and Learning:  We started out like many of my experiences with docents begins, with a process of looking and conversation (a la Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee’s process of “guided interpretation”). For about 20 minutes, we examined Van Gogh’s painting as a group, interconnecting comments, observations, and thoughts with information about Van Gogh and the social, industrial, urban, and suburban context of Paris brought into the conversation when it would support or respond to someone’s ideas.

Playing with Color: Next, I asked docents to pair-up, and each pair was provided with a hi-resolution detail photograph of the Van Gogh painting in addition to eight small squares of drawing paper and a set of woodless colored pencils or Art Stix.  Their task was to explore their detail, identify four colors, and then try their hand at creating a color study for each.  My overarching goal here was to allow everyone to play with color — what is it like to layer colors, place them next to each other, use pure color, use thick lines, rub the side of the pencil, etc.  There were very few rules placed upon this exercise, which was intended to support free exploration of color and a fresh examination of Van Gogh’s use of color (which is nearly jewel-like in this particularly-stunning painting … yes, I happen to love this work).

Creating a Color Map: After each docent completed their color studies, they were invited into the next gallery to place them on a large blank “canvas” of white posterboard.  At first, my thoughts were that they would place them on the area that corresponded to the location of their detail — but everyone quickly realized that there was more to it than just tossing down your colored squares.  We began to think, “where do my colors belong? next to which other colors?” and a whole new expressive piece began to take shape.  As more and more color studies were added, the decision-making process became more difficult for participants.  Towards the end, a few individuals hovered over the large grid of color, carefully surveying for the exact place where their own new creations belonged.  After the last colored square was added to the whole, we all stood back and noticed that we had created something entirely new:

Reflection/Discussion: We ended with a brief reflection about the process, the final result, and some of the things we may have learned from the experience.  Many noticed the collaborative and collective result that began with an individual exploration of color from Van Gogh’s painting. A few mentioned their own insights about the subjectivity of color — we all had our own unique responses to the colors in the painting, and that became very evident when they were assembled at the end.  A few participants also reflected on their own process of making the color studies, and especially the challenge of placing them among everyone else’s colors at the end.  While we did reference Van Gogh, I felt that our reflection focused much more on our new creation and the related process.  I ended with a thought from artist Olafur Eliasson, someone well-versed in participatory experiences and art.  Here is the exact quote:

“… color doesn’t exist in itself but only when looked at. The unique fact that color only materializes when light bounces off a surface onto our retinas shows us that the analysis of colors is, in fact, about the ability to analyze ourselves.” (Olafur Eliasson, “Some Ideas About Color”)

Is this truly participatory practice?

The central question I am exploring here is whether this “color map” exercise actually gets us past a receptive, interpretative engagement with art and more towards a creative participatory engagement.  The authors of the Irvine Foundation report define the starting point for participatory practice as beginning when audience members become an “expressive participant in the making of the artistic experience.”  So not just activating the creative mind, but also involving creative expression on the part of the participants.  Check.

I also think that a key element of participatory practice to to cede control to the group in a productive way.  While there are activities that can allow participants to create something, I feel that they need the freedom to organize and remake as they go along (this can be a bit scary for us educators).  When the docents were laying down their color studies on the larger white surface, they began to take creative control over the project (some more than others), which was something I distinctly noticed.  As we all know, being creative is not simply following directions or coloring within the lines, but pushing in new directions and unpredictable pathways.  If we had more time in the galleries, I have no doubt we could have remixed and rethought our color map.  After leaving the museum, in fact, several docents did send me their ideas for adapting and expanding the activity in exciting ways for school tours and programs in the future.

To me, engaging in more and more of these participatory experiences is essential to the work that we do.  Some museums are really blazing the trail for us, which is exciting.  In addition to public programming and exhibition design, it’s also important to consider these practices with our work in docent education and professional training as well as our interactions with K-12 school groups (which make up such a large segment of the museum audience, and the most democratic, diverse, and  inclusive picture of museum use that we have, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill states).  Bit-by-bit, docent-by-docent, and teacher-by-teacher, we can continue to work toward museum experiences that engage the collaborative, co-creative, open source mindset that is present in our communities as well as the next generation of visitors.

What participatory experiences have you developed at your museum?  What are some challenges you face in creating these experiences for K-12 audiences as well as general museum visitors?

10 thoughts on “Doing, Not Just Viewing: Working Towards a More Participatory Practice”

  1. Just wanted to add a quick footnote: the phrase/idea of “doing and not just viewing” comes from something I read recently, but I could not track it down for the life of me. If you know about or can find who wrote that, let me know and I can add that link into my post. I really liked that way of thinking about museums — about “doing” in addition to “viewing.” But the exact words are not my own.

  2. Hi Mike,
    Great post and juicy questions. Maybe kicking in a cycle of “performing and creating, not just reflecting”?

    The concept that jumps out to me with the color map, collective activity is pushing the initial response dialog to a ‘performance of understanding’
    And that happened in a collective group so became an additional, alternative way to know and negotiate the painting and a way to articulate the experience of looking beyond words, individual and collective of the group. The intro of the materials- colorstix and paper became a mediating tool (other than words) to play/wrestle in relation with the painting. I also love how it shakes up the traditional training practice– I wonder if you had some resistant participants….or perhaps the invitation/expectation of shaking up traditional training patterns is understood and comfortable for the group?
    Regarding participation: Gallery conversation is a form particpation but the color play and composition pushed the norms of participating- pushing into trying something new, seems like fairly low social risk/stakes with a group that knows each other, and maybe opened up possibilities for new insights, another layer in a cycle of coming to know this work and this gig of being a docent.

    you always get me thinking! thanks, Judi

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Judi. An experience like this definitely pushes beyond just looking and talking toward, as you so nicely state, a “performance of understanding.” I think it’s the “doing” element of these experiences that pushes the group to new insights.

    This class of docents is no stranger to nontraditional training practice, but I think it had been a while since we had shaken things up. It is so easy to get trapped in the rut of art historical content and lecture, yet that completely ignores so many crucial elements of museum learning and how we make meaning in art museums.

    I really appreciate your ideas … you always get me thinking, too.

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