Making the Introduction: Museum School Visits

Almost every museum offers some sort of “introduction to art” among its school visits themes and programs. It sounds so simple, right? Tempting to a teacher, maybe – but daunting to an educator. Finding a way for students to gain a sense of art in one hour can seem like an impossible task.

But for many students, this is their introduction to art. It’s easy to forget how many initial impressions museums make every single day within school programs or guided class visits. Other students, after a less-than-positive experience, might benefit from a new re-introduction. Even the most engaged, enthusiastic, museum-loving student is exposed to a new perspective of art. So to meet the needs of students with little to no awareness of what art or museums are (or can be), where do we start?

While the amount of time, thought, and research that goes into an introductory experience naturally varies by educator, very few (if any) are just choosing objects arbitrarily. From the outside, school visits are sometimes seen as the “easy” work. Rika Burnham makes the excellent point that gallery teaching has historically been passed down to those with the least experience, and undervalued by those outside the field. But as any museum educator worth his or her salt knows, many of the theoretical goals and practical issues that must be taken into consideration are matters that, if handled properly, won’t even come to a participant’s attention.

Personally, the first thing I do is decide what exactly this introduction to art should be. To do that, I have to ask myself:

  • What do I want students to know when they leave?

  • How much variety should I try to include (in terms of medium, technique, time period, geographical area, culture, and artist) in order to give a balanced view of the extant range of art collections?

  • Should I help students understand why “traditional” forms of art, like ancient Greek sculpture, are so interesting, or should I show items they might not be expecting, like a mask made of high heeled shoes?

There’s also the ongoing question of how best to balance information and inquiry. As the museum education field moves farther away from a lecture-based model and into a more discussion-based model, I personally find it necessary to clear up the misconception that museum educators simply provide a lot of facts about works within the museum. An inquiry-based experience (which of course means not only asking the group questions to start a conversation, but creating an opportunity for them to ask questions, consider possibilities, and initiate discussion) aligns much more closely with the tenets of the Montessori method that I was taught and trained in. For an introductory experience, I think that the most valuable role of information is to show that it can change perception. I research works thoroughly, but rarely use all of or even most of the information that I find — just the bits that will open up new avenues for discussion.

So along with choosing specific works based on their place in the art historical spectrum, I keep in mind the potential for discussion about important themes:

  • What are artists trying to do?

  • How does art relate to our life, and why is it important?

  • How do artists use visual techniques to communicate with viewers?

Photo by wallyg

For example, there is an incredible statue of Ugolino from Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Met. The expression, the bodies, the execution, and the story behind it all grab the viewer’s attention. Everyone can identify with the feeling of hunger, and can imagine the horror of being locked up and left to starve. But even before we have puzzled out the story, participants are struck by the anguish in his face (it is often described as sad, or angry, or confused) and note the nakedness of the bodies – both of which seem obvious but are keys to the narrative.

As we move on to the curled toes, the son’s imploring gesture, and the shackles, each discovery opens up new possibilities, increases curiosity, and unlocks the potential for deeper levels of understanding. After we piece together the story, we can talk about what the artist might have been trying to accomplish by creating this piece. We talk about what it might can say to us, how its themes relate to our own lives, and how the object could be used. I love to hear where students would put this statue if it belonged to them – one of my favorite responses so far was an immediate “in the CLOSET!!” The certainty with which this opinion was expressed was both amusing and encouraging, and it provided a great opportunity to discuss how the statue was provoking certain emotions in the group.

I feel that an experience is successful if I can enable visitors to understand that looking at a work carefully really will make it open up. I always explain that we see hundreds of images every day, and it’s easy to glance at something and think you’ve seen it. But just taking a few minutes to examine a work more carefully can change your entire perception of it. Questions start to come up, and even if no answers are provided, new information is revealed and new possibilities are explored.

As far as I can tell, visual literacy isn’t given much attention in contexts outside museum education. But being able to objectively consider and question images is hugely important, especially in everyday life. Advertisements alone give us reason to develop the ability to examine an image closely, understand its message, and recognize the tools being being used to communicate that visual message. The art historian Charles Harrison makes an excellent point in the introduction to his book “An Introduction to Art” (yes, I am quoting an introduction to an introduction in my introduction to introductions):

“While it is self-evident that no one can appreciate a poem or novel who cannot understand the language in which it is written, and that no one can read such things for themselves who has not learned to read, we normally assume that someone who manages not to bump into things is fully equipped not only to make discriminations in the ordinary field of vision but also to find their way around visual representations. Yet this is clearly not the case. If it were, the museums of the world would not be as full as I suspect they are of people feeling slightly disappointed that the things they stop to look at mean so little to them – or working to persuade themselves that what they think they ought to be feeling is what they actually are feeling. In his Letter on the Blind, published in 1749, the French critic Denis Diderot wrote ‘It is perhaps necessary that the eye learns to see as the tongue learns to speak.’”

So another hugely important consideration is what objects have a high potential to draw the attention of visitors who may be unfamiliar with art. Though all art has value, of course, some is more challenging for a new museum visitor to engage with. For example, a Native American storage basket, while clearly finely made, might be a bit more difficult to think about and talk about than something like a Japanese handscroll, which is similar to an illustrated book and therefore builds on something that the visitor is already familiar with. One of my favorite works to use as a first stop in introductory tours is a French tapestry depicting the moment Artemis is turned into a stag by Diana. The feeling of understanding and achievement that visitors have when they determine that this is a narrative image allows them to enter into the experience with a sense of confidence. Exploring this large image of figures making dramatic gestures in an unusual setting enables students to begin a discussion that can lead to consideration of important themes like transformation and identity, of topics like the unexpected but important medium of tapestry, of the ability of objects to communicate messages of power and prestige, or of something else entirely – whatever comes up!

Of course, logistical considerations are also essential components of the experience. I have to ask myself:

  • Is this object’s experience going to be engaging enough and valuable enough to make up for any difficulty in getting here?

  • Is the object clearly visible from a child’s height? Is there a glare on its surface if it’s viewed from a seated position?

  • Is the work in a high-traffic area, an echoey space, or a particularly cold room?

Museums are often an unfamiliar environment, and they can be overwhelming. Constantly dodging other visitors, feeling too cold, or hearing construction or cafeteria noises can get distracting enough to make the experience an irritating one rather than a supportive one. In order to focus on the works, visitors have to have their essential needs met, and only then can any real transformative thinking take place.

That doesn’t mean this is easy. It can be very difficult to eliminate works based only on these logistical issues. There is a great painting of Hercules fighting Achelous in the form of a bull that I would love to share with groups – it’s large, it’s dramatic, it’s intriguing, it has a great back story, and it’s a great example of a type of visual storytelling (small depictions of previous and later scenes are included in the background). It would provide the perfect opportunity to talk about power, achievement, heroicism, identity, authority, transformation, representation, narrative, etc.  BUT, sadly, it’s just not workable. It’s on a different floor of the museum than I usually use, and you have to walk through the crowded Great Hall to get there, and we would sit with our backs to the room and the stream of traffic through it, and a large portion of the top half of the painting is obscured by a glare when it’s viewed from the floor. But really, any one of those reasons would be enough to eliminate it from my list. A child rattled by the stress of navigating through a crowd isn’t going to turn his or her full attention to the object when we arrive. A student who can’t see Hercules’ hands won’t be as likely to take an interest in his feat. And in the time it would take just to get there, we could be discussing an additional work of art.

Finally, my last and maybe most important overarching goal is to show students that art is nothing to feel uneasy about or intimidated by. In my opinion, a key objective in teaching should always be to encourage visitor’s responses and validate their opinions. I just want visitors — especially children, and those who haven’t made the decision to come on their own — to see that there is no pressure, that art is just another way to communicate, and that there is always something recognizable and relevant in the work and its response.

So putting all of these things together to create one “introduction” to “art” is a huge challenge as an educator and gallery teacher. I’m fortunate to be in an encyclopedic art museum with an amazing collection, but that also means that my options are essentially endless. Is there anything you think can’t be missed? Anything that really kills an experience for you? Anything else you think should be taken into consideration?  I would love to open up a conversation about how we, as educators, prepare for these introductory museum experiences.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  As 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 the first post by Christine Healey who provides a working manifesto on school visits that we both hope opens up a dialogue on these matters.  Christine’s post followed by the above 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.

8 thoughts on “Making the Introduction: Museum School Visits”

  1. Something we do, is orientate children to the museum in a space that is smaller and less intense than the lobby. I find that kids are so overwhelmed by the grandiose space of most museum entry spaces that it is impossible to give a good introduction to yourself, the tour, and museum manners. I think it is paramount not to take our comfort level with the institutions we work in everyday for granted and remember that museums are built to impress, which can lead to distracted kiddos, especially if it is their first time to a museum.

    Additionally, an aspect I like to include in my gallery teaching is museum literacy. I often ask “How can we find out when this was painted/drawn/sculpted/etc.?”, causing the children to point out and then read the wall label. I might even ask “Where could I go if I wanted to find out even more information about this artist/artwork?”, which elicits responses such as “Google”, “the library”, or even “ask somebody who works here.” I feel like museum literacy is an important aspect of an introductory art tour, because demonstrating how you can use the resources at the museum will help build confidence for future visits.

  2. Andrea, I totally agree about the importance of that first spatial encounter. When I worked at the Saint Louis Art Museum, our school groups always entered into a massive Beaux-Arts atrium we called “Sculpture Hall” (something that they are actually changing next year with their expansion opening). Most docents thought that this impressive space was great since it left students in awe of the museum — but I always felt that is made students really uncomfortable and disconnected with the museum. What would make a museum seem more elite and out-of-reach than a huge room unlike anything a child has ever seen? I’m always a fan of human-scaled spaces where we can discuss and listen in a more intimate environment with art.

    And I also appreciate your “museum literacy” thought. It’s much different these days when most visitors (including a large proportion of students) can access tons of information on their smart phones or through the internet. Museum literacy is not just about reading the label anymore, but taking the discovery experience with you as you learn more beyond your direct encounter with the object. Museum literacy is quickly becoming connected so closely with digital literacy and information literacy (or just simply learning how to access, evaluate, and use the information that floods us from the internet).

  3. Andrea, thanks for your comments. I agree with you and Mike both about entrance spaces when working with school groups – acoustics alone can quickly turn that into a nervewracking experience. I try to be very conscious of the stress that the confusion of entry may have caused when I first meet a group, and I find that pausing in a quiet space along the way is not only a practical way to introduce the topic or theme that we’ll be exploring together, but is also a great opportunity to adjust the mood with a calm tone, thoughtful pauses, lots of eye contact, etc.

    I do like to plan a route that takes us though some of the spaces in the museum that don’t lend themselves especially well to two-dimensional representation, like the recreation of a Chinese Garden Court or the Velez Blanco Patio, to give a sense of what else is in the museum, of the wide variety of objects and spaces that can be affiliated with a museum, and of the way that a direct experience in museums differs so much from pulling up information on a smartphone. I love your point that people need to know how to maintain a connection that they establish at the museum, and use museum or outside resources to increase familiarity with something that they might return to – or at least remember in a positive light – in the future. Your comment made me realize that in working with school groups I tend to think more in terms of supporting skills for future visits with classmates, family, or friends, but individual encounters with art are of course a powerful hook in building museum literacy. I appreciate the inclusive phrasing of your nicely worded comment, and the reminder of how central building confidence for future visits – of ANY type – is to our work as museum educators.

  4. Kate, I’m glad you mentioned the discussion theme, “What are artists trying to do?” and the related idea, ” What was the artist trying to communicate?”. It seems the artist and his/her intentions can so easily be looked over or forgotten. What rich conversations and food for thought your students must be challenged with!

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thanks for your comment. I think that artist intentions are really interesting, but I struggle with the best way to open the topic with visitors and the best way to use the information for discussion rather than a lecture. It’s a big question! I’ve found that it can be intimidating to people who feel they have little knowledge of an artist or a movement, and/or can turn into a guessing game. If you have developed good questions to address this topic, I encourage you to share them!

      I’ve experimented with this a little, and the best approach I have found so far is to reach the idea of artists’ intentions in a kind of roundabout way, by guiding the conversation toward it carefully. If the group is focused on the work and our discussion, I can ask a series of questions about the impact of the painting, whether the artist expected viewers to react that way, what he or she did to ensure or contribute to that reaction, and any ideas we have about why that might have been the artist’s goal, and get some interesting responses. This can be a good point to fold in information if I have it available, too.

      I feel like this topic CAN turn into a great example of what can be determined about a work by looking at it closely and discussing it, but there are so many variables that it’s easy for the conversation to fall flat! Or maybe that’s just me??

  5. Kate,
    I’m always amazed by how much “simple” logistics challenge museum educators. Every once in a while I’ll get stubborn and want to share a specific object with a group and realize halfway through inquiry that it’s not working due to space constraints. No matter how much preparation “Remember, 5 students can look at a time, let’s switch groups,” it just doesn’t work if the students aren’t comfortable and able to see the object. This is something for museum educators to keep in mind as they develop programs for freelance educators but also another reason why curators and museum educators need to keep in touch with one another during installations – and a huge motivation for senior administrators to encourage that dialogue. Especially if the majority of visitors to the museum are school groups – if it’s possible, why *not* design exhibitions with groups of 30 in mind, instead of designing them for individuals?

    Thanks for this post. I’ll be sharing it with the education planning committee at my place of employment!

    P.S. Yo dawg, I heard you like introductions… 🙂

    1. Rebecca, thanks for your comment, and for working xzibit into it! 🙂 I know what you mean, though – I hate to give up on amazing objects just because they’re inconveniently located. I got a good reminder of why it’s necessary recently, though, when I was asked to take part in a group discussion while standing on an active staircase! Not only was the foot traffic distracting, but I was straining to see, and the experience of wanting to pay attention but not being able to made me very feel irritable about the whole thing. And yes, it made me wonder why in the world this painting had been placed in a staircase – just encouraging people to breeze by without stopping to look closely. The idea of designing for groups is an interesting one, and I would think it’s taken into consideration for “blockbuster” exhibitions… it would be interesting to hear from curators and exhibition design teams to learn how much they plan for groups. Thanks for bringing this up!

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