All posts by Briley Rasmussen

Reflecting on a Hybridized Museum Practice

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on during August that focuses on the recent book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014). Find links below to additional posts in this series by several of the book’s authors, and please join us for an Online Book Club via Google Hangout on August 20th.

Written by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn, University of Arizona

In our chapter entitled “Collaborating with Communities: New Conceptualizations of Hybridized Museum Practice” in Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014), we explore Homi K. Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity and cultural translation as they apply to our own practices.  We focused on two programs — Peaceful Migrations and Giving Voice — wherein participant voice was key to creating content, programmatic structures, and exhibition design.  In this reflection we demonstrate how these guiding frameworks continue to inspire our practice as museum educators and researchers, and further explore how we utilized these ideas while developing an exhibition entitled [IN] Translation.  Focusing on the concept of hybridity, we reflect on three continuing issues:

  1. the difficulties of including many voices;
  2. persistent hierarchy and departmental separation in museums; and
  3. our desire to include the museum visitor as a key player in hybrid museum practice.

Bhabha (1994) explains hybridity as an act that “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (p. 5).  Through this lens, we view the museum as a place of multiple meanings that produces a mixing and mingling of ideas, opinions, and creative visions. For museum educators, it can foster new ways of thinking about educational practice, programmatic structure, and exhibition content not as separate entities but as collaborating endeavors.   Thus, through the process of developing [IN]Translation, our goal was to work with audiences and artists to rethink how the museum pedagogy can be more experiential in nature.  We were working to transform the museum into an empowering environment that conversed with multiple narratives rather than simply our own curatorial or educational voice.

 Thoughts After Publication

InTranslation installation view
InTranslation installation view

We continue to grapple with hybridity as it relates to museum education and institutional structures.  In the development of educational programs we are trying to include as many voices as possible — which is not always easy.  We have continued working with refugee families who participated in Giving Voice to develop in-gallery activities in which participants collaboratively created narratives about artworks in the museum.  As a result, some of these reflections were affixed as a wall label next to the respective artwork, empowering refugee participants to display ideas about an artwork. While the institution has been more accepting of our work to reflect hybridity within the museum space, it is not as widely pervasive as we would like and only selectively displayed and included.

In relation, we constantly face inquiries and pushback from individuals and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the projects or who have no desire to make museum practice more collaborative across departments and with audiences.  The projects we discussed in the book chapter and the projects we continue to develop & research take significant effort and time in order to avoid falling back into the institutional habits of hierarchy.

Individuals that do not have a relationship with the projects are often reluctant to participate in shared planning – or simply cannot dedicate the necessary time. We believe that their experience in the field is invaluable to the success of collaborative efforts, and yet we are met with frustration when they remain separate from educational motivations and thus the program participants.

Another issue that emerged throughout the development of our chapter and ongoing practices was our inability to anticipate visitors’ responses to exhibitions and educational endeavors addressing racial, political, and cultural interpretations of hybridity.  When addressing such content, many visitors revert to stereotypical views that we are hoping to complicate through hybridized co-creation.  Thus, we have been pressed to develop new experiences in the gallery that foster hybridity within the audiences’ interaction with the museum space and artworks.   This idea of including visitor voice was one of the central components to the curatorial and educational design of [IN] Translation.

Thoughts on [IN] Translation

 Visitor participating with Kristen Cochran's "Notes to self" from the exhibition [IN]Translation ARTIST WEBSITE:
Visitor participating with Kristen Cochran’s “Notes to self” from the exhibition [IN]Translation
Through [IN] Translation, which was displayed in an exhibition space where were not beholden to a defined structure or hierarchy, we were able to explore these above concerns further and reflect upon our practice under conditions that fostered an ideal hybrid between education, curation, artist, and visitor voice.   More specifically, we designed educational installations to supplement the works of art, most of which included opportunities for visitors to add visual or text elements and share stories and reflections. The goal was for the works and the participatory elements to hold equal weight in the design of the exhibit.

[IN] Translation featured eight works of art: one commissioned multi-media work by collaborating curator and artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen, plus seven juried works.  The educational component of each artwork was planned with the artists throughout the development of the exhibition, in order to ensure that the artwork was not inappropriately changed or compromised by the educational elements.  This exhibition provided us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies within a gallery space. We were able to show how the multiple positionalities of educator, curator, artist, and visitor inform one another – migrate within, around, and through one another – in order to foster a different sense of a museum experience.

[IN] Translation was an opportunity to play with the boundaries that normally exist as impermeable divisions between curator, artist, educator, and visitor; we could question how these roles could be seen as transitional, or process based.  Within this exhibition we recognized how ideal this space was, especially considering that freedoms from hierarchical structures will not always be present in a more traditional museum or gallery setting. However, the instance of hybridity, in which these four voices were all present, gave way to dynamic conversations and learning opportunities and are worth noting for our future practice in more traditionally defined spaces.  As we evolve as researchers, museum educators, and collaborators, our goal is to continue to develop programming that positions experiential learning at the core of curatorial and educational design.

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TraciQuinnTRACI QUINN: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Traci’s research focuses on museum and community-based education.  Currently, she is researching instances that challenge the hierarchical structure of museums and exhibition design and how exhibition and program can be collaboratively developed.  After working in museums and community-based organizations for over 7 years, Traci has experience in the various facets of museum education including: program development, docent training, grant writing, community outreach, and institutional partnerships.   As an art educator and a researcher, Traci is committed to the development of museum-based education as a catalyst for culturally rich and dynamic experiences.

MARIANNA PEGNO: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Marianna’s research focuses on community and museum collaborations exploring instances of decentered authority and equitable partnerships. Having worked in museums for more than 8 years, Marianna has experience in museum management, educational programming, and curatorial practice.  She has developed inclusive museum programming including tours for the visually impaired, K-12 enrichment programs for at-risk youth, and a multi-visit program for refugee families.  In practice and research, Marianna aims to transform the museum into a community-centered institution, which is responsive to the voices of its constituency.


“Building Canopies for Multiculturalism: (Re)Turning to the Visitor,” by Joni Boyd Acuff & Laura Evans

“It’s Not Always about You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others,” by Keonna Hendrick

“Eggs, Oreos, and Solidarity: MCRP in Our Daily Lives,” by Melissa Crum

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Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)

On August 20th, brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout.  Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt.  Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!

Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet?  No problem.  As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer readers a special discount.  To receive a 25% discount, go to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA

What’s at Your Core? Knowing What’s Important to You and Why It Matters

Photo by tiff_ku1

I was recently asked “What are your core values as a teacher?” For a moment I was stumped. I have taught students and colleagues about articulating clear and effective core values and the importance of using these to guide strategies and practices. I referenced established core values and used them in my own work as a museum educator. However, I realized that I had been thinking about institutional core values. What are the core values of your museum? What are the core values of your department? While I felt that I had a strong sense of who I was as a museum professional, it has been a very long time since I thought about and articulated my core vales, separate from the institution where I worked. This process was eye opening and resulted in something very valuable—knowing my core values.

So what are core values? In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras  define core values as “the essential and enduring tenets of an organization—the very small set of guiding principles that have a profound impact on how everyone in the organization thinks and acts.” The National Parks Service further defines core values as foundational values that are “so important to us that through out the changes in society, government, politics, and technology they are STILL the core values we will abide by.” I like to think of core values as:

  • Those things that you will go to the mat for and defend doing every time.
  • The things that you will keep doing even if you are penalized for doing so.
  • They must also have a consciously rejected but equally viable opposite (more on this later).

If we re-draft Collins and Porras’s definition for ourselves, core values are the essential and enduring tenets for our lives—the very small set of guiding principles that have a profound impact on how we think and act.

A key to this definition is the phrase “very small set.”  I recently read, “If you have 10 core values, you don’t have core values, you have a shopping list.” Core values should be honed to get at the depths of your guiding principles. You should be able to remember and list your core values on one hand, or may one hand and a thumb, and be able to practice these values everyday, not just on the ideal, perfect once-in-a- lifetime day.

“What do you love to do?” or “How to find your core values?”

I must admit this took me a while. When I had done this work with my own museum colleagues or students it had always been generative group process, but on my own I found myself staring at a blank page. Clearly I had to stand for something, but what? Lots of museum and education jargon floated in and out of my mind. I decided to start making notes throughout the week. I kept an ongoing list on my phone of all the things that I did that were important to me or I felt good about doing, from job tasks, to how I acted in a meeting, to how I taught a program. I also looked for things that I saw in others that I appreciated and respected. In addition, I kept a list of all the things that upset and angered me, both in my own actions and those I saw exhibited in others. The latter I analyzed for what was upsetting me and considered what the opposite might be. From these lists I had a more honed and simplified one, but it was still a shopping list.

The next step was to really get to the core. I took each item on my list and asked a series of questions.

  1. Why is that important to you?
  2. Why is that important to you?
  3. Why is THAT important to you?

This exercise is based on one presented by Geoffrey M. Bellman in “Getting Things Done When You Are Not In Charge” and “Your Signature Path: Gaining New Perspectives of Life and Work.”

While seemingly silly at the outset, this is a very challenging exercise. Each questions requires deeper soul searching and greater clarity. The process asks us to challenge our assumptions and look deeper at the things that we do and why we do them.

Through this process many of my initial ideas remained on my list of core values, others merged, and some fell off all together because I realized that they were more about my own capacities or an institutional culture, not a personal core value.

The final step was to ask myself what was the viable opposite of each value, and did I consciously reject it. As with many things in life, knowing something’s opposite makes you understand it that much clearer. For example, if I value collaboration, the opposite of that would be to work alone without the help or contributions of anyone else and the belief that a single mind makes the best ideas and products. I consciously reject that idea. By the end I was able to be more articulate about why my personal core values were important to me and why I would be willing to defend them, no matter what.

You are probably asking, “What did you come up with?” I came up with a list of five core values. I share them with you only as an example. You core values must truly be your own.

Listening— It shows care and respect for others and builds trust. When teaching in the art museum trust is essentially to creating dialog around works of art. It enables people to feel safe to share their ideas, leading to greater understanding of each other and works of art.

Reflection—enables us to pause and a look back upon what we have experienced and learned.  It is essential for improving our practice as teachers and the experience of our students. It is also critical to aligning our teaching with the goals and values of our programs, our institutions and ourselves.

Collaboration—enables us to create something that is stronger and better as the result of many people contributing to its creation. When teaching in the museum learning becomes a collaborative process in which all participants contribute to the experience, making it stronger and more meaningful than if the teacher solely directed it.

Acknowledging the skills, experiences and contributions of others—When we do this, we show respect for others and value what they bring. Although seemingly simple this is critical to open communication. In the workplace, in our partnerships and in our teaching, this practice can open dialogue, leading to more meaningful interactions, and a greater sense of agency.

Mentoring—mentorship and support can go in all directions, upward to our directors and managers, horizontally to our peers, and forward to a younger generation of practitioners. I am committed to the profession of art museum education and believe that as a practitioner I have a responsibility to contribute to the growth and improvement of the field as a whole. I also believe that I have not made it to where I am today in my career alone. I owe a debt to teachers, advisors, colleagues and the students I have taught. This cycle of mentoring invigorates and improves the field of museum education and thus the experiences of students, the value of works of art and art museums.

Why is THIS important to you?

So why should we do this work. As I said before it isn’t quick and it isn’t easy. But it is valuable.

Core values can help us make decisions. In “Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values,” Rosebeth Moss Kanter explains that principles guide choices. While she is speaking about for profit businesses, this can also apply to us. When we know our core values, our decisions become clearer and simpler.

conquerCore values can help us be our best selves and guide us in aligning our actions with our values. Rosebeth Moss Kanter also writes, “principles are codified, made explicit, transmitted in writing in many media, and reviewed regularly to make sure people understand and remember them.”  While I don’t think you need to scream these from the mountaintop or put them on a t-shirt, I would encourage you to write them down. I keep mine tacked to the wall next to my computer. I see them everyday. As I wrote this I reviewed them and asked myself if they still held true. They guide me day-to-day, project-to-project, and keep me pointed in the right direction. If you are in a safe work environment I encourage you to share your core values with your colleagues. This process can build understanding and generate a discussion about how your shared work embodies the values of your team members.

For me, this process helped me better understand the kind of place I wanted to work and the kind of work that I wanted to be doing. Many of my core values share similar sentiments and ‘lead in a direction.’ Is that the direction that I am going? Is that the direction that this institution is going? Am I living my core values? When we ask ourselves these kinds of questions and live our core values we work smarter and more passionately, our work is more meaningful, and we are better educators.

Reflecting on Our Radical Roots

REVIEW: Progressive Museum Practice: John Dewey and Democracy by George Hein

During an election cycle it is difficult to turn on the television, read the newspaper or listen to the radio without a candidate or pundit talking about democracy and freedom. Yet, rarely does education factor into these discussions and I have never heard any politician address museums as central to a democratic society.  George Hein’s new book Progressive Museum Practice: John Dewey and Democracy elucidates a history of museum education in America that is deeply rooted in building a democratic society and promoting social justice.

John Dewey is often referenced in art museum education for his ideas about active and experience based learning and the promotion of museums as a critical component of a child’s education. George Hein illuminates a much more complex portrait of Dewey. He explores the democratic core of Dewey’s philosophies. Progressive Museum Practice focuses on Dewey’s ideas in relation to museum practice in a Progressive tradition, exploring his predecessors, contemporaries and successors. Hein writes, “What could be more worthwhile than consistently considering how our educational activities might support democracy and social justice?” (Hein, 200). Indeed! This book and the thinking and action it advocates are very worthwhile.

It has been my experience that many museum educators know the work of John Dewey but have read very little if any of his actual work. Who can blame them? Dewey’s writing is dense and complex and often very long. He was a prolific philosopher, writing approximately 40 books and 700 articles in his ninety-two years.

The Essentials of John Dewey and Progressivism

Progressive and Dewey’s core beliefs are essential foundations of Hein’s book, and warrant elucidation here. Hein begins with defining Progressivism, contextualizing Dewey within this movement and outlining Dewey’s theories on education. Three essential attributes of Progressivism that Hein outlines are:

  1. The belief that in our democratic republican society, social problems will not solve themselves; they need to be addressed by direct and sustained social and political action.

  2. A generally optimistic assumption that, although such progress will not come about on its own, society can be improved by concerted and focused social and political intervention that is based on rational policies and actions and that applies the best available scientific practices and findings.

  3. A faith in public education as a particularly useful tool for improving society in the direction of greater social justice and more equitable dispersal of the benefits derived from progress in science and technology. (Hein, 11)

These essential tenets of Progressivism are continuous threads that woven throughout Dewey’s philosophies and writings and a critical understanding of his work.

John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Four Key Beliefs of John Dewey

Dewey believed that education can be the basis for a philosophical system, and that education has both a pedagogic and a social component (Hein, 23). Hein explained four key beliefs of Dewey that define his philosophies:

First, his belief in empirical naturalism, “…the concept that any explanation of life, including thoughts, action and interactions with others, must be based entirely on what we have experienced and have experienced historically—singly or, most especially, collectively. Thus, the definition of “experience” is a fundamental building block of his philosophy” (Hein, 26).

Second, is Dewey’s commitment to a process philosophy, or “determining the worth of any idea by examining the consequences of a belief…based on its consequences in experience” (Hein, 26). Hein goes on to explain, “Dewey’s philosophy does not aim to solve human problems; rather it focuses on the process of addressing problems and the means of ameliorating negative aspects of life and society” (Hein, 27). Thus, reflection on our experiences and what we have learned from them is essential.

Third, Dewey’s philosophies are based on a concept of “human behavior as a social activity” (Hein, 27). Dewey understood human life on a biological model, individual parts interacting in symbiotic relationships. Thus, concepts of community, individuals interacting and self-regulating as part of a larger group, was fundamental to Dewey’s thinking.

Fourth, Hein explains the impact of Darwinian evolutionary thinking on Dewey’s philosophies. Darwin’s theories (On the Origin of Species was first published the year of Dewey’s birth, 1859) demonstrated that change was part of natural life cycles, and that it has direction rather than being viewed as a disruption. Dewey’s philosophies addressed change, not through external forces, but rather through “interactions between an organism and its environment, including social environment” (Hein, 29).

Hein explains that:

“For Dewey, the pedagogic aspects of progressive education were necessarily linked with the social goals of progressivism…In order to engage in progressive educational practice, museum staff need to keep progressive social aims as well as pedagogic practices foremost in planning both exhibitions and programs.” (Hein, 38)

This is, in fact, Hein’s thesis.

Interrogating Museum Education through the Progressive Lens

Hein interrogates three periods in the history of museum education, Dewey’s predecessors, his contemporaries and his successors, each roughly a century apart. With each Hein examines the progressive aims of individuals and institutions, looking at what the social goals of museum practice. Looking to Dewey’s predecessors, Hein characterizes Charles Wilson Peale as a “proto-progressive” in the early republican period in the United States. Peale established his museum in Philadelphia with an expressly educational mission. In the early years of the American democratic experiment, Peale, and his contemporaries amongst the intellectual elite of Philadelphia, believed that education, and thus the museum, was essential to build and sustain a democracy. Hein argues that “Peale pioneered that notion, reaffirmed by Dewey a century later, that as educational institutions, museums should be in the service of democracy, and should provide education that leads to better informed, critical citizens for a more egalitarian society” (Hein, 66).

A century later, Dewey and his contemporaries in the progressive movement, saw education and museums as integral components to ameliorate social problems growing out of increased industrialization, urbanization and immigration. Hein highlights the pioneering work of John Cotton Dana, Louise Connolly, Anna Billings Gallup and Laura Mary Bragg. While Dana’s work is relatively well known today, Hein brings forth the work of these three women and reveals our professional heritage as passionate and driven social radicals. Each woman, in her own way, sought to make museums more accessible to a broad public and responsive to their communities through integrated mission driven programs.

Hein also examines progressive practices in art museums and debates of this period, that also remain relevant today, namely the purpose of art museums as primarily educational or aesthetic. Discussions of Benjamin Ives Gilman, George Brown Goode, and Theodore Low, are particularly enlightening and relevant today in light of recent debates about cuts in professional education staff and increased emphasis on acquisitions over access. Hein brings forth some truly radical ideas and programs that circulated in the early twentieth century that would shock even some of our most liberal educators today. Art museum directors might positively faint! The examples discussed include the Met’s work with the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union in the early 1940s that included evening tours, lectures, and concerts and participation in selecting works for exhibitions, and the work of the New Deal programs, the Federal Arts Project, and the Works Progress Administration that brought art and arts education to a broad public through commissioned public art and establishing small art centers around the country. Hein shows us that our work today has strong historical precedent and these predecessors are arguably far more progressive than we are today.

Hein gives particular attention to a discussion of Albert Barnes. He devotes an entire chapter as well as a section of the discussion on progressive education in art museums, to Barnes’s impact on Dewey’s thinking and the friendship between these two men. Hein notes that Barnes’s reputation as a cantankerous and disagreeable individual has resulted in the tendency to ignore him when considering Dewey and to ignoring his progressive thinking and actions. In art museum education today many associate John Dewey with Art as Experience and his thinking on aesthetic experience. However, this aspect of Dewey’s thinking did not come until late in his career. It was through his discourse and friendship with Albert Barnes that Dewey became engaged with aesthetics. Barnes can be seen as both influencing Dewey’s idea and encouraging him to give them systematic thought, as well as experiment with these ideas and putting them into practice through his foundation and classes. Like Dewey, Barnes shared a deep commitment to potential of education and particular art to benefit and improve the lives of people.

Hein’s discourse on Dewey’s successors looks at museum education in the 1960s and more contemporary practices. Hein argues that the 1960s was America’s most progressive moment, despite progressivism’s association with earlier in the century. Changing museum practices are situated within this period that saw the growth of the civil rights movement, women’s rights, free speech movement, protests of the Vietnam era and a wave of government policies and programs ushered in under President Johnson, including Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Action, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as well as the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Visitors at the “The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction” exhibit at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Hein highlights the works of three pioneering institutions that illustrate the reemergence of progressive practice at this time, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Science Centers, and the Boston Children’s Museum, each addressing different aspects of progressive practice. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, as a satellite of the Smithsonian, addressed underserved audiences in economically depressed areas through establishing a community driven and focused museum. Museum exhibitions were community generated and focused on neighborhood issues and concerns, most notably The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction, mounted in 1970. Science Centers, such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco, founded by Frank Oppenheimer in 1969, developed engaging hands-on learning experiences that engaged curiosity in everyday things and the world around us. Oppenheimer, who attended the progressive Ethical Culture School in New York as a child, combined his interested in popularizing science and a socio-political agenda, “[his] faith that better science education—based on interactive exploration of the natural world through close observation, experimentation, weighing evidence, and critical thinking in the Deweyan sense—could lead to a better world was repeatedly mentioned…” (Hein, 171).

Dewey argued that schools should be models of a democratic society and community, ones in which children had a voice and rights. Hein points to the work of the Boston Children’s Museum in the 1960s as a museum that created this type of model of democratic communities for children and their parents, both within the museum and working with community partners to reach broader audiences.

Progressive Museum Practice in Museums Today: Are We Embracing Our Potential?

Hein’s final chapter focuses on progressive practice in the twenty-first century, and takes a much less institutional driven approach. He states, “Progressive theory in action combines pedagogic practice with the political aspects of progressivism. The examples discussed here are not presented as models to be reproduced elsewhere, but as indications of what can be accomplished” (Hein, 181). As such, Hein runs through a brief discussion of a number of projects and practices that have progressive potential. Some of these include new technologies, innovative exhibition methodologies, and staffing structure. The one institution he addresses specifically is the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and its mission to promote social justice. He also addresses the potential of exhibitions to take on socio-political goals with a discussion of Mining the Museum, presented by Fred Wilson and The Contemporary at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. However, Hein notes that this exhibition, while still greatly discussed as groundbreaking, was mounted twenty years ago.

While Hein’s book adeptly unpacks and elucidates the complex and interwoven philosophies of John Dewey, and illuminates the rich and radical past in museum education in the United States, the book came to a soft and disheartening conclusion. The early chapters of this book were filled will discussions of art museums and the role art played in progressive practice. However, in Hein’s final chapters that address our practice since 1960 there was scant reference to art museums. I do not argue that Hein is an insufficient researcher, to the contrary; rather I argue that art museums have lost their progressive goals and thus their progressive practice.

While Hein regards the 1960s as our most progressive era politically, within the art museum, I argue it is one of our most conservative. In this era the art museum saw the increasing professionalization of art history and curatorial practice as well as other professions within the art museum, including museum education. From the 1960s and arguably into today there has been a rise in the notion of art museums as bastions of unmediated aesthetic experience. Education in these hollowed halls sought to transfer knowledge about art history. Am I being dramatic? A little. But, when attending conferences or discussions with colleagues from all types of museums, I often feel that art museums are lagging far behind in their understanding and willingness to embrace their truly progressive potential to impact individuals and society.

In my graduate school classes we would often ask “WWJDD? (What Would John Dewey Do?)”. So, art museum educators, WWJDD, if he were here today? I think that he would be pleased to see many examples of progressive pedagogy, but charge us to embrace the political aspects of progressivism, and thus a truly progressive practice. I believe that we have an obligation for a greater social commitment. As a field, as institutions, as educators, are we committed to progressive practice?

Opportunities for Advocacy: Strategic Steps for the Future of Museum Education

Co-authored with Scott Winterrowd, Curator of Education, Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and co-guest editor of the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

What a difference a few months makes!!! In February of this year we sent off the final drafts of essays for the upcoming issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME). The 2012 summer issue, “Professionalizing Practice: A Critical Look at Recent Practice in Museum Education,” looks at the development of the field of museum education since the late 1960s, and poses strategic questions for the future of the profession. This issue contains essays and reflections by Elliott Kai-Kee, Marianna Adams, Jim Angus, Ben Garcia, and Ken Yellis. A few months ago we felt confident about the growth of the field and cautiously optimistic about the path for the future we were proposing.

The impetus for this issue of the Journal of Museum Education was a series of conversations about the history of museum education in the United States, and in particular, how this history seemed little known and even less sited in current practice. While we both explored the history of the profession as a means to inform and give a conceptual framework to our present work, a frustration grew with the realization that the dialogues we were having with colleagues at conferences, seminars, and online seemed redundant. These contemporary conversations seemed unaware of the work that had come before, and thus not profited or advanced as result of it.

We began this project in an effort to spark interest in exploring recent professional history to better inform our present practice. We came to understand that there was dual purpose to this project—to examine the recent past to inform the present, and to assess progress and propose a moment of renewed strategic visioning for the profession.

The recent cuts to education at the J. Paul Getty Museum have certainly raised the level of uncertainty as to the position of education in museums. Our concerns have been bolstered by reports of further cuts to education programs around the country, including key leadership positions. But, in these moments there are also strong and clear voices. The powerful letter written by Robert Sabol, National Art Education Association President, was inspiring and made me proud to be an art museum educator and member of NAEA. However, the power of our collective professional voice is needed in this situation. We need to hear from all museum education advocacy organizations and their members.

The actions and events of the past few months are opportunities for us as museum educators to ask ourselves what we stand for, what we believe in, and what we want the future to be. We believe that this issue of the JME could not have been better timed had we been able to plan it. An examination of our history can reveal how our profession has grown as the result of setbacks, challenges and the work of dedicated, articulate practitioners. It also reveals how our field has developed and deepened the thinking and rigor of our work.

Teacher leading thinking activities in the galleries. Photo by Mike Murawski.

Are we saying the sun is shining; everything is fine, soldier on? Absolutely not! These moments make clear that we must be strong, articulate advocates. While we have spent many years advocating for our collections and our audiences, did we forget to advocate for ourselves? Our strongest advocacy tool is smart and rigorous work. We must examine our practice and demand innovative, and quality thinking and programming. These are opportunities to reach out to our colleagues within our museums and our communities, confident in what are are about and we can do and be.

Ben Garcia’s compelling essay for the JME titled “What We Do Best: Making the Case for the Museum Learning in its Own Right” (available for free download) is premised on the notion that museums are unique environments and we should be focused on doing the work that museums do best. This idea is certainly shared by many others in art museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has premised his thinking on this very notion (See “The object of art museums” and Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust). However, unlike Cuno’s policies, Garcia advocates for a progressive understanding of the unique “learning power” of museums and museum collections. At the core of Garcia’s proposal is our role as museum educators to advocate for museum education.

Colleagues, what is your vision for the future of museum education? How can you be an advocate for this future? While the sky may not be falling, we must always remember that as museum educators we must educate about our work, as well as about our collections.

Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission

The other evening I had the honor of seeing Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in conversation with Robert V. Taylor, his student and spiritual leader and author,  and the museum director, Michael Govan. The conversation centered on spiritual paths to being more human and connecting with the world and others in meaningful ways that bring about profound world change, like ending apartheid. Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Taylor stressed the importance of listening and making decisions to connect with and include others in human interactions each and everyday. It is the collective power of inclusion and care that can bring about great change in our world. Archbishop Tutu’s profound statement “I need you to make me human, and you need me to make you human,” struck me as he spoke, and has stayed with me. It is in the essence of personal interactions that we become human. As the conversation continued, I wove these two worlds—the art museum and the spiritual—together in my mind.

Photo by Harald Walker

The museum collects and displays exemplary works of art that tell myriad stories of human activity. But they themselves are not human and they do not speak. These objects are endowed with profound significance and import by the humans that discuss, interpret and make meaning around them. The personal interactions we have in the art museum explore and unlock the humanity in works of art; it is via these interactions that museum objects can help us develop empathy and imagination. That is, in our encounter with them and with each other we can become more human.

Recent events, including the J. Paul Getty Trust’s choice to make deep and shocking cuts to their museum education program and specifically to their exemplary teaching program, concerns me greatly. The choices of the Getty Trust are not alone in the increasing devaluing of teaching in our museums and society as a whole.

In his 2004 book of collected essays, Whose Muse?, Jim Cuno, currently Getty Trust CEO, writes:

“I think that by providing and preserving examples of beauty, museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world and urge their visitors to undergo a radical decentering before the work of art…. To experience beauty is … to experience an ‘unselfing,’ and all the energy we formerly put into the service of protecting, guarding, and advancing the self is then free to be in the service of something else.”

I wish to ask Mr. Cuno, exactly how do you think this process happens and how did it happen for you?

I have witnessed these moments when eyes and minds open in art museums. I am a museum educator. I teach. I believe deeply in the power and potential of works art to have profound impact on individuals and the world. But I also believe that this quality is not innate and the process is not always transparent. We learn about art and how to engage with it and the humanity of it. Many of us had families or teachers that took us to museums and talked to us about art and encouraged our curiosity. We can sometimes forget that we were not born interpreting paintings and ancient Greek vessels.

It was delightful to witness Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Taylor on stage as models for a teacher and student relationship. Their exchange demonstrated compassionate listening, deep mutual respect and personal growth. It also revealed the often subtle yet profound way teachers guide and support their students.

I am a former Getty gallery teacher. The professionalism of this position afforded me the ability to think deeply about how visitors to the museum were connecting with and appreciating works of art in the Getty collections and how to guide and support them in this process. It also afforded me a sustained daily practice and commitment to teaching. As a gallery teacher I gained more experience teaching in two or three weeks than most docents would receive in a year. I was also supported in reflecting upon and developing my teaching practice by a devoted cohort of fellow gallery teachers and other professional education staff.

I have devoted my career to facilitating moments of ‘radical decentering’ and being human with works of art because I think these experiences are important. I also believe that this doesn’t happen by accident or coincidence. I believe that the institution and the gallery teacher must value this as a goal and plan this outcome as they would any other aspect of their strategic plan.

I see many museums offering less and less training and support for teaching, caring less and less about the quality of the teaching and interactions people have in museums. When this happens, the breadth and depth of educational programs and access to these programs are compromised. In the Getty’s pre-packaged response that appeared on this blog and others, Jim Cuno claims that “this approach will not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum.” He goes on to state:

“An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multimedia tours, will enable us to meet our goal of 100% guided tours within the constraints of our budget.”

But what will the quality of that experience be? How will a multimedia tour unlock the humanity of works of art for diverse visitors with a variety of learning styles and prior knowledge? When the Getty staff and volunteers are given only a few months to prepare for this ‘approach,’ it is clear that teaching, visitor experience, and the relevance of the Getty collections to all audiences are not central the Getty Trust’s strategic goals.

Maybe we have become victims of our own success. Truly great teaching looks like nothing. It looks effortless and sometimes even magical. But these are teachers who have devoted their lives to being great teachers and are dedicated to their students. Teaching is hard, very hard. And great teachers are amongst our strongest assets. When art museums support their collections through personal human interactions, these moments of humanness and ‘unselfing’ occur. This is when our collections shine and are the most profound. This is when we have real public value.

Don’t our students, visitors, and collections deserve great teachers?

This post is the author’s own and does not necessarily represent the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.