It is impossible not to be utterly fascinated and inexplicably drawn to a unique event that hits the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston this weekend … Cliff Diving! Yes, the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has made the ICA its US leg of the tour for the second year in a row, bringing professional cliff divers from all over the world to jump off the cantilevered roof of the museum building and plunge into Boston Harbor 80 feet below. It’s almost enough for me to hop onto a plane right now, and see this for myself. I love the idea of 23,000 people gathering at an art museum to connect with an extreme event based entirely on risk, fear, and pushing the limits.
I have often figuratively compared the risk of experimenting in museums with that of “jumping off a cliff,” so the direct connection with the ICA’s event was irresistible for me. But I want to turn my attention now to a slightly-less-death-defying yet perhaps even riskier set of museum experiments with public engagement that were enacted a few weeks ago at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Why RISKIER? Well, that’s because these experiments were envisioned, designed, and enacted by a group of 18 part-time volunteer interns over the course of 10 weeks this summer at the Saint Louis Art Museum. These interns had never done anything like this before, so we were all faced with more fear and uncomfortability than any professional cliff diver likely experiences (except for maybe that first plunge off the cliff). And the best part about this intern-driven series of public engagement experiences is that the participating interns chose to call it Gallery Diving (yes, the connections with cliff diving keep on coming).
What is Gallery Diving?
It all started in June when the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program began and a group of enthusiastic interns came together to begin our explorations. As I have previously written about, the entire project began with individual need statements (“What do you need most today?”) and some open thinking about how museums might connect with those needs. We had several weeks of exploring the museum in a variety of ways, including drawing, writing, personal response, theater exercises, movement, and conversation. We also learned about other experimental museum programs such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Fields, the Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light, the Dallas Museum of Art’s Center for Creative Connections, and the UCLA Hammer Museum’s Machine Project — all great inspiration for designing museum experiences that engage a broader public in new, active, and less-information-centered ways.
A few weeks into the program, the interns were then asked to begin envisioning and building their own public engagement experiences that might explore the museum in a new way — perhaps even something that connected back to their personal need statements. This process took several weeks, and we used some elements of design thinking and ResponsiveDesign (from my work with the CoLab) to harness a mentality of risk-taking and failing forward. Project teams were formed, and everyone’s ideas were refined and supported by the entire group (in what turned out to be a truly collective process).
During one of the last meetings, we all came together to try and title this project — what would we call it? How could we encapsulate all the experimentation we had been involved in during the summer, as well as the experience we hoped to generate with the public audience? We threw 18 possible titles into a crowd-sourcing process, and the phrase “gallery diving” came out on top. What a fantastic metaphor for this type of elastic experimentation in which we would be asking public visitors to “dive” into the unknown within the galleries of an art museum.
On August 9 and 10, the interns enacted their Gallery Diving projects across the museum — 14 projects in total. Through creative writing, closer looking, collaborative drawing, blind contour drawing, dance & movement, retitling works of art, theatrical performance, music, poetry readings, use of social media, and a range of enticing conversations, this group of energetic and dedicated interns connected with more than 500 museum visitors during this 2-day period. Some of these participants came to the museum for the first time to be involved in one or more of these projects, and many museum visitors stumbled across these projects and stayed for hours. The experiences were powerful as hundreds of people learned to connect with their art museum in a whole new way … and as a group of undergraduate and graduate student interns learned to see the museum through a very different lens.
“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”
– Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report
You can find out more about this series of public engagement projects by visiting the Gallery Diving Tumblr site that the interns designed themselves as part of their projects: gallerydiving.tumblr.com
You can also download the unofficial program/schedule for the Gallery Diving projects here: Summer_Intern_Public_Engagement_Schedule.
So what did I learn from this experience?
As a constant learner myself, I always find that working with student interns can force me to reflect on my practice and its philosophical grounding in surprising, unexpected ways. First, I believe that there is an incredible value to bringing in a diverse group of voices to the museum, openly and freely exploring the galleries and collection in nontraditional ways, and then empowering the group to share their perspectives and to take action on the issues and questions that bubble up out of these conversations.
I also gained an ever greater understanding of the power of “yes, and” thinking over “yes, but” thinking. I did not want this summer to be a constant barrage of “no” every time an intern came up with an idea. We brainstormed and came up with lots of really interesting ideas, and then built from those ideas toward the projects that were implemented at the end. The idea of creating a more positive mentality in museum work is something that really interests me, especially because I have run into the “big bad no” so many times. I hope to explore this more fully in a future post. But for the purposes of our summer internship program, I made every attempt to establish the museum as a safe, creative space for ideas to be formed and to flourish.
What did the interns take away from this experience?
Well, I think it would be best to hear from them in their own words. So I invite this summer’s interns to add their reflections and thoughts in the “Comment” section below to help document the significance of this 10-week experience. While I know that many of them are returning to college right now, I hope some of their voices can be added to this conversation.
Special thanks to everyone at the Saint Louis Art Museum who supported this project (from Education, Marketing, Protection Services, Curatorial, and the Registrar’s Office) and especially the entire 2012 Summer Museum Teaching Intern group who, in ten short weeks, certainly gained the fearlessness and tenacity of professional cliff divers. Each and every one of them has now begun the much larger task of transforming museums one experience at a time. Please never stop ‘gallery diving.’