A Manifesto for Schools Visiting Art Museums

An important aspect of our role as art museum educators is to welcome and induct teachers and their students into museum protocols in a way that is warm and inviting. There are so many ‘do’s and don’ts’ about visiting the museum it can make them intimidating places to visit and that’s not the message we want to send before they have even set foot in the place. We know how great they are and for so many reasons.

Photo by Michael Edson

I’ve been trying to think of ways to better support teachers and help them to prepare for their visit so that student gain the maximum value for their efforts in getting there. Teachers are busy and we need to be strategic about the information that we send out and request, so that everyone is prepared for an amazing and wonderful museum experience. The Getty Center has created a short introductory video and lesson plan so students know what to expect, which looks useful. I am mainly concerned that with all of the information we need to communicate. How do we expect teachers to cut through to the most vital material?

I’ve come up with some lists of items I consider to be important and would like to present it in the form of a manifesto.

How can we best prepare teachers and their students for their visit?

By making;

  • program offerings clear and concise
  • booking procedures easy to follow and not too complicated
  • it easy for teachers to let us know what their expectations are, for example; what is the context of the visit such as a broader unit of study, curriculum requirements or a fun end-of-term activity
  • our behavioural expectations explicit

How do we like teachers to be prepared?

We find that teachers can help to create more effective learning experiences at the museum for students when they;

  • have visited the museum independently prior to bringing the students and have seen the content of the exhibition(s)
  • know about the museums facilities, such as where to check-in when the group arrives, the best spots for lunch, and of course the toilets
  • have briefed accompanying teachers and chaperones about museum behaviour protocols and have the capacity to manage their allocated student group
  • understand that artworks are precious and fragile so students must behave in a respectful manner and teachers model these behaviours
  • understand that the museum is a shared space with other visitors and everyone is mindful of this
  • know that we don’t mind if a visit is at the beginning or end of a unit of study.

What are the things that can make a visit go from great to amazing?


  • teachers have prepared students by telling them what they can expect to happen and what is expected of them on the day
  • students know they must leave their bags, drink bottles (and mobile phones) in the bag room
  • teachers supervise their students in small groups in the museum
  • students have empty hands, helping them to listen and focus their attention, to be completely ‘in the moment’ whilst we are in conversation and showing them through the gallery
  • students ask lots of questions about artworks and the museum
  • worksheets are designed so that students are engaging directly with the experience of being in the gallery and not looking for facts they can find on the website (which can be good preparation or a follow-up activity to extend the value of a visit) and these are completed before or after the allocated time with an educator
  • the language used to discuss artworks is not completely new to the students and that even if they don’t know what the words mean, they can become part of their everyday language and expression
  • teachers trust us and our ability to encourage deep, rich, sophisticated conversations about a few artworks that requires moments of silence for time to think and look so students can make considered responses
  • when teachers have activities planned for the time outside their facilitated tour, independent activities might include observational sketching or writing tasks

How about from amazing to incredible?

By providing teachers with;

  • complementary tickets to visit prior to bringing their students
  • well designed booking forms
  • maps specifically designed for visiting school groups
  • an easily accessible bag room or cloaking facilities
  • somewhere dry and sheltered to enjoy a picnic lunch
  • suggested itineraries for how to structure a whole day visit
  • meaningful worksheets to give to their students that focus on self-reflection and observation using open ended questions and enhances the experience of being in an art museum
  • introductory lesson plans to use in class before the schools visit

Thank you for visiting and please come back with your family.

Teachers reasons for visiting art museums are complex and may range between taking students out on a treat, to meeting very specific curriculum goals as prescribed by departments of education. For some students the most that can be gained from an art museum experience is learning how to look at art, and learning that knowing what questions to ask is more important than being told the answers. I want teachers and students to understand that some artists challenge traditional ways of thinking and assumed societal conventions through the language of art and it is not to be dismissed because formal appreciation does not help us to understand it. Given that some research has shown that many children only experience the art museum during a school visit makes this an enormous learning experience and makes a museum visit all the more valuable and we need to go to the extra lengths to ensure these audiences are welcomed.

These lists are by no means conclusive so…

I would like to open up the conversation and really look forward to reading your comments about what should be added or omitted.

How do museum educators prepare visiting teachers and their students?
What is the experience of booking an education tour at your museum like?
Are videos useful to demonstrate what will happen or are there too many variables?

If museum-visiting-teachers are reading this, it would be terrific to get your perspective too.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  As ArtMuseumTeaching.com has been active now for more than 7 months with tens of thousands of readers, I always want to make sure we cover the full range of issues pertinent to our field and areas of practice. One area which has received little attention in the recent discourse (especially in key publications) has been our work as educators with our school communities — especially the nuts and bolts of developing transformative, meaningful experiences with students on tours. And I didn’t even need to make a call for posts, as several contributors recently submitted their own thoughts and reflections on this issue.  So I invite you to read this first post by Christine Healey who provides a working manifesto on school visits that we both hope opens up a dialogue on these matters.  This post followed by an additional reflection from Kate Sutlive who writes about her own practice in preparing for and leading inquiry-based school tours that introduce students to art. Enjoy, and as always, add your thoughts and perspectives to the mix.


10 thoughts on “A Manifesto for Schools Visiting Art Museums”

  1. This is a really clear and concise manifesto (aka outline of best practices). I would appreciate the following posts to explain how to do some of these things. I’m sure that at some museums and with some schools, it will be more difficult to get teachers to come ahead of time. It would be great to hear stories about how to do it, and stories about fantastic failures (and subsequent successes). Or even what a good booking process looks like, both for big museums with big budgets and small museums with small budgets but tech savvy and intrepid educators. Not that you have to do all this, Christine, just that if this is a series, a bit of elaboration would be wonderful!

    At the Voelker Orth Museum, where I work as a school programs developer, we have all bookings handled by phone and have specific (and very limited) time frames because we are very small and have two educators and only one classroom. At the New-York Historical Society, we have an online booking system for teachers and educators log in and sign up for those booked tours. It is custom-made because we have in-house developers and it works because we have many freelance educators. There are pros and cons to each, so it would be great to hear from other museums about what they do.

    Thanks for starting this discussion!

  2. I am interested to know why you classified “providing teachers with introductory lesson plans” as an exceptional case (amazing to incredible), rather than a basic expectation. In my experience as a docent, education intern, and high school teacher, teachers who use museum-generated lesson plans bring students to galleries who are already familiar with art language and ask deep questions. Providing lesson plans that are easily “consumable” (worksheets already generated, materials spelled out, clear learning goals connected to state and national standards) allows teachers to get on with the real work of teaching, especially if they are not comfortable teaching around museum collections. Even if it’s only a matter of giving teachers a vocabulary to use, or a set of questions to ask, this sort of preparation almost guarantees a more substantial and memorable visit for students.

  3. Great discussion!
    I spent several seasons working in Community & School Programs with the Met Opera Guild, and found many insights here very applicable to introducing students and teachers to the performing arts, as well as fine arts.

    How do folks help teachers to take advantage of having materials/guidelines/resources in advance? Or find the time to make a trip themselves prior to coming with a class? All our teachers are wonderful, but they are so incredibly busy; I always want to be sure I’m helping them and not heaping more on them.

    And if anyone works with additional staff or volunteer support, we’ve had great success in making sure on our end that staff/volunteers are prepared for students to be new in an artsy environment. Why should they know all the rules automatically? Why should they be instantly fluent in the jargon we use every day? We had an usher over zealously react to a student using a cell phone (and it happened to be her tweeting how excited she was to attend her first opera). Working closely with the ushers and docents to educate them that kids may simply not be aware of ‘theater’ or ‘gallery’ etiquette went a long way.This usher has since turned into a guru of hot spots in the lobby when she directs kids to tweet or post online during intermissions when its allowed.

  4. I taught art for over 30 years before retiring. Scheduling the tour, the bus and chaperones was quite a task when I had multiple buildings. One thing that I did with classes that helped was a practice run. I set up a “gallery” in the hall, discussed gallery manners including: 1. No running, 2. Be good listeners and quiet talkers, 3. Don’t touch unless you’re told it’s allowed. (Explain that the oils and acids in our skin would actually cause long term damage to works.) 4. Ask questions using our art vocabulary, 5. Understand that the gallery belongs to all of us and we need to be respectful. We talked about viewpoints, looking at something from about 12 feet away and then from 3 feet away to see what we saw differently.
    I tried to have one chaperone for every 6 students. In order to take more than one class we split the group into two to go with different docents for their tour with a switch mid way. Often I had students carry a paper folded in quadrants to draw four things they saw in the gallery/museum that they found appealing or disturbing so we could talk about it the next class. I collected these for the next class. We had great experiences but a lot of it is letting students know what to expect and how to behave appropriately. One year we had copies made of some image from the gallery or museum that they could take away as a souvenir. Many still had them at the end of the year and had embellished them independently to use as a bookmark. We had the date of their visit on them and many told me they’d taken their family over a weekend after that. I’m glad there is a concern and a continuing relationship between galleries and museums with schools. Some of our students would never experience it without a field trip. A field trip removes the intimidation factor.

  5. Thank you everyone for your feedback on this post (and other places in social media). I’ve really enjoyed reading how educators (internal and external to the museum) prepare students for their visit to the museum. Since having written the post I’ve had time to reflect and (train more volunteers) so I have thought very carefully about how we welcome students groups at my museum. Trying to make small improvements everyday. I’ve come up with a guideline – or handy checklist – for what (I think) museum educators need to remember. I’m hoping that Mike will be able to add it to the blog post above and I welcome your feedback to further refine and develop it. The list suits my museum, colleagues, education volunteers and teachers I work with. Welcoming students to the museum isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and I look forward to continuing the conversation to learn about the ways you welcome school groups.

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