Gravity and Grace: Cross-Departmental Collaboration at the Brooklyn Museum

If I were stitching a sampler about some of my recent museum education work, it might start like this:

A is for Anatsui.  B is for Brooklyn.  C is for collaboration.

Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com
Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com

Where the rest of the alphabet would go, I’m not so sure, but those first three letters reflect my experience working on Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, the retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.  Every show in every museum takes a dedicated team to pull it off, of course, but I’m taking this digital moment to highlight what’s been a particularly wonderful example of cross-departmental cooperation, which isn’t an easy thing, especially in a mid- or large-size institution.  In this case, it led to a variety of ways to engage with the exhibition that ultimately (I hope) makes the show a great experience for our visitors.

We have a downloadable Teaching Resource for teachers who want to bring their students to see the show.  We hosted a conversation between El Anatsui himself, Susan Vogel (filmmaker and author of El Anatsui: Art and Life), and Kevin Dumouchelle (the museum’s Associate Curator for the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands and curator of this show in its Brooklyn presentation):

We have an in-gallery hands-on activity inviting visitors to use paper and twist ties to imitate some of the folds Anatsui and his assistants use to create his massive metal artworks (more on that in a bit).  We have iPad kiosks that solicit visitor responses to the art on display using video questions posed by museum staff.  We have QR Codes to scan for those seeking further context.  And that’s in addition to our array of tours, workshops, and art-making classes designed for families, students, and adults.  So many options for engagement!

So how did all this come about, and what made it so collaborative?

PaperFolding
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

My part in it started when I took on the role of Project Educator for the show.  The Education staff here divvies up a given year’s roster of special exhibitions to assign a Project Educator or two to each show.  These folks represent Education’s voice in interdepartmental meetings and help shape education programming during the show’s run.

From the get-go, Kevin generously shared his knowledge, thoughts, and time with me and Matthew Branch, my fellow Project Educator.  For Kevin, the collaboration inspiration started even earlier in the process: with Anatsui himself.  “The work is so open ended,” Kevin says.  “There was a real possibility for thinking big and thinking of options that we might have been a little bit more cautious about if we had more specific instructions from the artist.”

While some artists provide detailed notes for how their pieces should be installed, Anatsui likes to leave it up to the team at each location.  “That filtered down to every aspect of the show,” Kevin adds.  “Which made it a lot of fun.”  Take a peek at this time-lapse video of the show’s installation. As you can see from the art handlers, designers, and conservators involved, it took a team to get the show up.  Not to mention Robert Nardi in our Technology department, who made this video to share with the internet at large:

Go, team, go!

Adding her enthusiasm and creativity to the mix was Sara Devine, the museum’s Manager of Interpretive Materials, who made sure we had a hands-on activity in an exhibition full of objects that, oh man, do you ever want to touch.  We can’t touch the art, but thanks to Sara’s input, we can do our own tactile experimentation.  Physically embodied engagement?  Check. Multimodal sensory inputs?  Check.  Music to the ears of any art educator.

iPadScreenshot
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

Sara also enlisted representatives from our curatorial and education staff (and, again, Technology’s cooperation) to record several 30-second video clips that ask visitors questions about the exhibition and invite them to enter their responses on iPads throughout the galleries.

All in all, it’s an exhibition that offers visitors a range of ways of interacting, and it could only have been done by creative interdepartmental teamwork. As Sara states:

“I know it sounds pretty obvious, but what allowed this exhibition to be a good example of cross-departmental collaboration was an ongoing and open line of communication, which is surprisingly rare. I think we all very easily get caught up in our own part of the process and forget to reach out, ask for input, and keep others informed. We all made a conscious effort to communicate and I believe that is the biggest reason our collaboration was so successful.”

I couldn’t have said it better.  This opening up of the closed doors–be they metaphorical or literal–between departments is a way many museums approach (or are starting to approach) their work, and it’s an exciting prospect to look forward to.  In Mike Murawski’s recent post about the Museum Education Division sessions at this year’s NAEA Convention, he noted that we’re in “a moment when many major museums are re-imagining (and, in some cases, totally disrupting) the traditional relationships between education and curatorial.”  Sure, it may be testing uncharted waters, but when it works (as it has with Gravity and Grace), it can produce amazing results.

How have you worked to open lines of communications across departments at your institution?  Join the conversation below, and share some of the best collaborations you have been involved with.

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