Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission

The other evening I had the honor of seeing Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in conversation with Robert V. Taylor, his student and spiritual leader and author,  and the museum director, Michael Govan. The conversation centered on spiritual paths to being more human and connecting with the world and others in meaningful ways that bring about profound world change, like ending apartheid. Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Taylor stressed the importance of listening and making decisions to connect with and include others in human interactions each and everyday. It is the collective power of inclusion and care that can bring about great change in our world. Archbishop Tutu’s profound statement “I need you to make me human, and you need me to make you human,” struck me as he spoke, and has stayed with me. It is in the essence of personal interactions that we become human. As the conversation continued, I wove these two worlds—the art museum and the spiritual—together in my mind.

Photo by Harald Walker

The museum collects and displays exemplary works of art that tell myriad stories of human activity. But they themselves are not human and they do not speak. These objects are endowed with profound significance and import by the humans that discuss, interpret and make meaning around them. The personal interactions we have in the art museum explore and unlock the humanity in works of art; it is via these interactions that museum objects can help us develop empathy and imagination. That is, in our encounter with them and with each other we can become more human.

Recent events, including the J. Paul Getty Trust’s choice to make deep and shocking cuts to their museum education program and specifically to their exemplary teaching program, concerns me greatly. The choices of the Getty Trust are not alone in the increasing devaluing of teaching in our museums and society as a whole.

In his 2004 book of collected essays, Whose Muse?, Jim Cuno, currently Getty Trust CEO, writes:

“I think that by providing and preserving examples of beauty, museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world and urge their visitors to undergo a radical decentering before the work of art…. To experience beauty is … to experience an ‘unselfing,’ and all the energy we formerly put into the service of protecting, guarding, and advancing the self is then free to be in the service of something else.”

I wish to ask Mr. Cuno, exactly how do you think this process happens and how did it happen for you?

I have witnessed these moments when eyes and minds open in art museums. I am a museum educator. I teach. I believe deeply in the power and potential of works art to have profound impact on individuals and the world. But I also believe that this quality is not innate and the process is not always transparent. We learn about art and how to engage with it and the humanity of it. Many of us had families or teachers that took us to museums and talked to us about art and encouraged our curiosity. We can sometimes forget that we were not born interpreting paintings and ancient Greek vessels.

It was delightful to witness Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Taylor on stage as models for a teacher and student relationship. Their exchange demonstrated compassionate listening, deep mutual respect and personal growth. It also revealed the often subtle yet profound way teachers guide and support their students.

I am a former Getty gallery teacher. The professionalism of this position afforded me the ability to think deeply about how visitors to the museum were connecting with and appreciating works of art in the Getty collections and how to guide and support them in this process. It also afforded me a sustained daily practice and commitment to teaching. As a gallery teacher I gained more experience teaching in two or three weeks than most docents would receive in a year. I was also supported in reflecting upon and developing my teaching practice by a devoted cohort of fellow gallery teachers and other professional education staff.

I have devoted my career to facilitating moments of ‘radical decentering’ and being human with works of art because I think these experiences are important. I also believe that this doesn’t happen by accident or coincidence. I believe that the institution and the gallery teacher must value this as a goal and plan this outcome as they would any other aspect of their strategic plan.

I see many museums offering less and less training and support for teaching, caring less and less about the quality of the teaching and interactions people have in museums. When this happens, the breadth and depth of educational programs and access to these programs are compromised. In the Getty’s pre-packaged response that appeared on this blog and others, Jim Cuno claims that “this approach will not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum.” He goes on to state:

“An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multimedia tours, will enable us to meet our goal of 100% guided tours within the constraints of our budget.”

But what will the quality of that experience be? How will a multimedia tour unlock the humanity of works of art for diverse visitors with a variety of learning styles and prior knowledge? When the Getty staff and volunteers are given only a few months to prepare for this ‘approach,’ it is clear that teaching, visitor experience, and the relevance of the Getty collections to all audiences are not central the Getty Trust’s strategic goals.

Maybe we have become victims of our own success. Truly great teaching looks like nothing. It looks effortless and sometimes even magical. But these are teachers who have devoted their lives to being great teachers and are dedicated to their students. Teaching is hard, very hard. And great teachers are amongst our strongest assets. When art museums support their collections through personal human interactions, these moments of humanness and ‘unselfing’ occur. This is when our collections shine and are the most profound. This is when we have real public value.

Don’t our students, visitors, and collections deserve great teachers?

This post is the author’s own and does not necessarily represent the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.


15 thoughts on “Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission”

  1. Brilliant observations and an accurate accounting of the facts. I’m proud to say I suggested you become a gallery teacher and not a docent. I sure saw the compassion on you.

  2. Great article. The author poses real -and urgent- questions. These times demand more effective and human ways of approaching art. Education is an art that needs discipline and risk. The Getty seems to be avoiding its responsibility. Education is not optional. Bravo for this thoughtful article.

  3. Thank you Briley for such a thoughtful consideration of the issues at hand. I wish James Cuno had been as thoughtful in his own decision making.

    This all reminds me of a quote I read recently by Alistair Smith:

    “At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world that no longer exists.”

    If only institutions like the Getty could see themselves as learners–even a little bit. {Sigh}

  4. Thank you for this inspiring post. Teaching empathy is one of those intangible things museums can do so well.

  5. Briley, your comments honoring the professionals who teach in art museums is so eloquently written. The seemingly effortless “magic” created by an excellent museum educator often affects our students in ways beyond what we can imagine.

  6. I worked at the Getty Center from ’95-2003. Never was my time collaborating and planning events for visitors better than with the Museum Education department. What an amazing group of people. Passionate, caring, smart, filled with ideas to make a museum visit even better than I could ever imagine. I was so in awe of the education deaprtment’s commitment to the public’s experiences while visiting the Getty Center and Villa. In the article it was described so well, spot on, as there was a “certain magic” to how effortless their teaching programs were (and still are). “Truly great teaching looks like nothing” yet I value and admire the work that goes into being a truly great, inspiring and motivating teacher. It does appear effortless. So sorry for all these seeming endless changes and philosophical shifts at the Getty. Methinks it is an institution headed in the wrong direction with a focus on things and acquisitions and not people, teaching and learning. There has got be a balance in place for both, certainly the Getty has the resources to manage both efforts.

  7. I too was at the Getty as an education intern in the early 90s. That experience helped shape my perspective on Museum Education and sharpened my skills as a gallery teacher . I’m sad to see what happened and applaud you, Briley, for writing about what museum education could and should be, and how quality is better over quantity. Institutions have their rise and fall, and it seems I was lucky enough to be there for the rise. Hope the Getty has a quick return to be regarded as a leader in the field of museum education.

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