Letting Go and Opening Up: Teen Voices in Art Museums

By Chelsea Emelie Kelley, Milwaukee Art Museum, and Patty Edmonson, Cleveland Museum of Art

When museums share interpretive control of their collections, amazing things can happen. Many museums are reimagining how visitors can interact with and engage in their collections, through technology, after-hours adult programming, and even hacking (both sanctioned and independent).

Recording video content with teens as part of the Teen CO-OP program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Recording video content with teens as part of the Teen CO-OP program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Teen programs provide a very different kind of opportunity for museums to experiment with interpretation. Because many teens participate in multiple programs for extended lengths of time, they become advocates and resources for our museums and its collections. Teens at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art have been part of two experimental interpretive strategies that go deeper than one-day-only programs, providing not only learning experiences for students involved, but powerful tools and content for their institutions.

From the museum educator’s perspective, we—Chelsea Emelie Kelly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Patty Edmonson at the Cleveland Museum of Art—originally connected because both of our programs create video content featuring teens for our collections. However, we’ve come to see that there are more connections and applications to what we’re doing than simply producing object-focused, teen-made videos. We share our programs and projects below, and we’re now thinking about how we can make use of this content beyond teen audiences. Read on and share your thoughts with us!

Teen CO∙OP at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Patty Edmonson, Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist

The Teen CO∙OP started in 2013, and it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest teen program. We chose ten students from a pool of applicants to participate in a two-week summer session, where we trained them to work with the public and create their own programming. They use these skills during our monthly family days, called Second Sundays. CO∙OP members work in our interactive gallery, Gallery One, answering visitor questions and starting conversations about art and the museum. During these events, they also help with studio projects, pass out the teen guide they made, and create Vine videos. The CMA is working toward a more visible teen presence and authentic teen voices.

Video has been a tool for us to hear these teen voices and get students to think about storytelling in museums. During our summer session we created short films with a local production company, North Water Partners. Each student began by choosing an artwork and we interviewed them about their initial reactions before they knew very much about the piece. After these first interviews they read about their artworks and we talked about historical context. We asked them to complete a series of small tasks: choose three words that describe the artwork; describe this to someone who can’t see; write a tagline for the artwork; tell a story about this artwork; make a Vine about it. These tasks became pieces that they could include in their storyboards. Some also created their own typography or imagery to incorporate into their video.

One of the biggest challenges was balancing fun and appropriateness. I wanted the students to feel comfortable being silly, but there were several moments when we stopped to talk about respecting the art and museum. We also went out on a limb by letting the video content come from their ideas and observations, not solely art historical information. We are not creating mini art historians here. That said, we did have to navigate one interpretation of a portrait with a shadow that looked like a bruise. The student was interested in creating a story of a battered woman, but we stepped in to talk about why this story might not be the best one to imagine, and spent time looking at more portraits and their shadows.

Through these videos, the teens learned to look closer. They seemed excited that their observations were valid and their confidence grew. I also saw their public speaking abilities improve after being behind the camera, which can be tough. One of our big goals was to capture an authentic voice, and we chose not to correct language that museums wouldn’t normally approve, like “I’m finna to the grand ball” (as in fixing to go). I felt that by letting their real voices come through, we let them know that they can be themselves in a museum.

We hope to show these videos on our website, and you can see some of the good and bad Vines under the account, CMA Teen CO-OP. Our plan next summer is to make content that can better fit into our app, ArtLens.

Satellite High School Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum Satellite Program group, 2013-14
Milwaukee Art Museum Satellite Program group, 2013-14

Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning

The Satellite High School Program is an art history focused weekly gallery program at the Milwaukee Art Museum for sixteen arts-interested teens from the Milwaukee area to connect with works of art and each other. As part of the program, teens choose a work of art in the Museum collection to study and interpret, and share their ideas in a final project. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with how they share using video in two very different ways.

In the spring 2013 program, teens had one semester to choose a work, study it, and make a creative response to it, in visual art, writing, music, or media of their choice. I wanted to be sure their work was shared with a wider audience, so I used my own personal DSLR camera to film them with their artwork and creative responses. I had them write their own voiceover explaining their piece, their connection to it, and their response project, making sure that the video was just about one minute long for quick, easy consumption. Here’s just one of their videos, featuring Joel:

That project was successful, but I wanted to turn much more of the creation over to the teens themselves. I knew I had a chance to do just that when we received funding to buy a set of iPads for the Education Department.

This fall, as part of a school year-long program, a new group of teens had a different task: they shared their personal connections to their work of art through a video they created on an iPad. Over the course of the semester, they created video blogs (vlogs) reflecting on their changing thoughts about their work of art. They also received “readers” with basic information on their work of art or artist, and led a group discussion with all the Satellite students about their piece to get others’ opinions and thoughts. At the end of the semester, they created midterm videos piecing together with their reflection vlogs to show their evolution of thought. Here is ZouaPang’s video:

Teens continually asked themselves what they were still wondering about, and much changed over the course of the semester. When asked what she learned after an early session, Alana responded: “I learned how to better analyze paintings.” Her answer to the same question at the last session of the semester was much richer: “I learned a lot more about how to analyze art and research which I think is really cool because now instead of just looking at a piece and saying ‘pretty picture’ I notice more things about the pieces I see.” Alana’s video—and all her research and analysis!—is below.

One-to-one iPads came with their own set of challenges. Instead of solo weekend troubleshooting with DSLRs and iMovie, I found myself with a wonderfully excited group who wanted to use the iPad for much longer than I’d anticipated! In fact, I learned that students about doubled the time I usually allotted to use the iPad comfortably and feel good about their work.

Next semester, the same group of students will continue to explore their artwork and create more formal videos for a wider visitor audience about their work of art. We’re going to kickoff the semester with some visitor studies: teens will go into the galleries and do a card-sort exercise with Museum visitors to discover what people actually want to know about works of art (thanks to Marianna Adams for this activity!). Then we’ll pool our data and discuss how we might format our videos for a larger audience, as well as how the teens think we should share the content.

Your Thoughts?

We’re now in the phase of thinking about what we can do with the content our students have worked so hard to create. We know their voices are important and engaging, and are thinking about how best to share them. Since ArtMuseumTeaching.com is a forum for practice, we would love to open our questions up to all of you. What other purposes might these videos serve? Would they be interesting to other audiences? Where and how should these videos be shared? Please share your thoughts with us, as well as comments or questions, below!


12 thoughts on “Letting Go and Opening Up: Teen Voices in Art Museums”

  1. Great post, Chelsea and Patty! Thank you so much for sharing these incredible projects!

    At the Portland Art Museum, we recently developed a partnership with the Native American Youth Association (NAYA) Family Center to connect urban Indian, high school-aged youth and the art from our Native American collections. With nearly 40,000 Native Americans living in the Portland metropolitan area—over half of them under the age of 18—the Museum created an opportunity for a group of NAYA youth to explore their sense of identity and cultural pride through the Museum’s community-based interpretive platform of Object Stories. Each participating student was asked to choose an object from the Museum’s Native American collection that resonated with them in some meaningful way, conduct research on the work, and then record their personal narratives about the artwork. The stories created by Native youth are being presented along with their selected artworks in the Museum’s Object Stories gallery. We also recorded stories with three Oregon native mentors working with us on this project, including artist Lilian Pitt.

    The experiences and stories that are part of the “Listening to the Ancestors” project offer an alternative teen perspective on these works of Native American art and provide an avenue for understanding historic Native art in the context of the modern urban, Indian youth experience.

    You can find the stories for this project by entering “NAYA” into the Search field at http://objectstories.org/stories/

    Bringing in these perspectives has been so important, and the process itself of working with teenagers was so rewarding for the education and curatorial staff involved. I agree that these types of interpretive projects have the potential to provide museums and powerful tools and content.

  2. I mentioned this on the Museum Hack Hangout page, but I taught a course this semester at the University of Missouri entitled “New Media in the Museum.” They were college freshmen, maybe a little older than the students in your videos, but probably only by a year or two. We had to have similar discussions about respecting the art but I had to push them to be a little silly. As Honors students, they very much wanted to be “mini art historians.”

    Here are a couple of the videos they created:

    Originally, I hoped the content created by my students could be used as overlays in an augmented reality app. Visitors would scan an artwork and have a selection of videos from different perspectives about that piece to view. Unfortunately, while the process of creating the overlays was simple, getting them to work in the Museum was not, especially since we’re working in a small museum with limited resources. So now, very much like as you have discussed here, we now have wonderful videos created by students without a good way of sharing them. I plan to use them often with the middle schoolers since they seem to really appreciate being categorized as “teens” with the high schoolers. After creating these videos, we went on to read about Museum Hack, and they worked in groups to create alternative tours of various museums and public art on campus. It was a great experience! I’ll be teaching the course again in the fall, so I’m eager to hear others’ ideas as well.

  3. Thank you, Chelsea and Patty for sharing about your teen programs! And Mike, it’s also great to hear about your partnership with NAYA. Doing meaningful work with youth can only add to the value a museum has within it’s surrounding community.

    At the Smithsonian’s ARTLAB+, a teen digital studio located in the Hirshhorn museum’s sculpture garden, we’ve had three years to focus on what interest-driven youth programming can look like at a museum (http://artlabplus.si.edu/). We’ve have settled on a drop-in, after school program where teens can check out media and participate in artist/mentor led workshops inspired by museum content. It’s been a steep learning curve where we truly had to learn from our audience in order to serve it. Teen vote with their feet and what we’ve found is that they want to learn about museum’s only if it’s relevant to their personal interests. An example of that can be found in the video Joel made for MAM’s Satellite High school program. He mentions his interest in seeing street art represented in the museum before talking about the artwork in the gallery.

    Teens are very aware of authenticity and the power of their participation. I think museums are seeing the effectiveness of using teens as representative to grow new audiences. ARTLAB+ staff’s have found it is equally important to put the means of production in their hands of the teens. An example of this is in a video they made of the Hirshhorn’s Barbara Kruger installation. Staff used the model of a client/artist relationship so teens would work within the “design constraints” of the museums agenda. Teens are paid to do this so they learn professional skills, as well as digital, that can be used on resumes or for college applications. You can find their video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT4Fqpn3XYU . Another model we’ve used for integrating teen productions with museum exhibitions is to have them develop a song or story that get’s shot in the museum. There has been some interesting results that bring humor and a street vernacular into the museum galleries: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yl49LR-vXc8

    I’m excited to see the dialogue about teen programs. The extent we let teens impact our institutions is a fascinating subject that brings up not only how we interact with our audiences but how our audiences can inform how we deliver museum content.

    1. Ryan, so glad you popped in to comment and share the HIrshhorn’s programming! I’m a huge admirer of ARTLAB+–you guys are doing amazing work. I love that the projects are completely driven by students–sometimes related to works of art, other times linked to the institution’s site itself. We have a successful artist/client program as well called ArtXpress, a summer studio program where students are essentially commissioned by the Museum to create a collaborative mural advertisement that runs on the side of a Milwaukee County public bus for about a year, inspired by the themes of our special exhibition and positively addressing an issue in the city.

      Linking programs to relevancy–whether music video production, street art, or the skills necessary for a working artist–are so key to making programming powerful for these students. And your last point about how implementing these programs can impact our audiences as a whole is field-wide food for thought!

      PS: The Halloween Shuffle is definitely going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

  4. Rachel, I think you bring up a great point about the difficulty some students have when it comes to loosening up a little bit. It can be really tough with college students who have some experience in museums, or come with a preconceived notion of what they’re supposed to sound like. With these older students I try to give them projects that allow for both serious voices and opportunities for informal interpretation, and we talk a lot about the different audiences museums have. It’s sort of eye opening for students to realize that solid art historical research supports even the silliest of programs or activities. Validating both ends of the spectrum helps, but I haven’t found the magic formula. Time and practice. We also spend a lot of time practicing distilling information into super short soundbites/text, and the difficulty of that seems to surprise our college interns. I think realizing that it’s hard work helps validate it in their minds too – that it’s a skill worth learning.

  5. First, thank you for sharing what your museums have been doing with teens!

    Second, a question for Patty: I am so curious to hear about how CMA decided to create a Vine account vs. using other similar social media like Instagram. Would you be able to share any insight as to your museum’s decision process? Thanks!

  6. Hi Crystal,

    In the Education & Interpretation department, we use Vine as part of educational programming (not for marketing) and we like the smoothness of the app vs. Instagram. I also like the challenge of creating something in only 6 seconds. I’m working on a presentation with a colleague and a few other museum professionals about using Vine, for the Museums and the Web conference in April. You can search for me on Vine as ‘Patty E’ and my colleague ‘Art Lust’ to see some of our experimentation. These are personal accounts, however, and our marketing department uses an official Instagram account because its more versatile, but I can’t speak for them, http://instagram.com/clevelandmuseumofart. They don’t make too many videos using this account (although look for one of me creating a DIY stamping project). The teen Vine account flies a little under the radar, and institutionally I think we are headed for more buy-in about teen-created content and social media contributions.

  7. Thank you so much for these interesting teen-projects you shared with us! I work as museum educator in the Education Department of the Uffizi Gallery and I was asking myself if projects like these could be effective also in museums that have medieval and renaissance art collections, because it’s very difficult to enchant our teens on old masters’ works of art…

    1. Hi Anna,

      Long delay in reply here… I do think it can be hard, and we asked our teens to make videos on what they consider “older” works of art due to rights and reproduction issues. Spending time with any artwork and showing teens how things can surprisingly relate to their lives helps. Some students love things they consider a little weird, like reliquaries, and some just love anything with luxurious materials, and others like things that depict a story. Get to know them a little, and then you can figure out how to meet them where they are.

  8. As a teacher of Art at in Ireland (High-school) I am thrilled to see such fabulous projects in action. Thank you for your videos! We have recently been tasked, by the Department of Education, to incorporate more literacy and numeracy into our lessons. For me asking students to write and speak about their art and historical figures from the world of art is always an enriching experience for them.

    One third of our art history coursework for Leaving Certificate in Ireland is art appreciation and students regularly struggle with this area because their confidence in their own voice and opinion is not nurtured by the curriculum. This results from too much focus on rote learning in the past and a lack of time for covering a vast course that incorporates demanding practical and academic work.

    Hooray for Chelsea Emelie Kelley, Milwaukee Art Museum, and Patty Edmonson, Cleveland Museum of Art you are an inspiration!

    This term I hope to work with some local galleries to develop small educational engagement for teens and young adults that will follow in your footsteps. Fingers crossed that they will be half as successful as these projects. I will be watching with interest to see how you guys are doing.

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