All posts by Juline

Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.

Resting at MoMA. Photo by Just Karen

How long can you spend in a museum gallery before you need to sit? Do you visit exhibitions with friends or family who take a lot longer to view artwork than you do? (Yes, mom, I love you, but even I, the museum professional, cannot read every word in an exhibition as you can.)

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space?

At the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, we recently explored these questions in a rather thoughtful way. I must give most of the credit to the wonderful team of staff members that did the “heavy lifting” on this project. The manager of special events led the charge, and we were joined by the coordinator of academic programs, the membership manager, and the director of development and external affairs. (One thing I think we do really well at the Nasher is collaborate across departments like this.)

We have this space at the Nasher that we generally call “the computer alcove.” It is a nondescript area where there’s been a long wooden desk with 4 computers, some tables and chairs (furniture that is also used in our cafe) and access to an outdoor terrace. Students and general visitors check their e-mail at the computers, but not much else. Sometimes, during the school year, we see Duke students studying there, but not all that often, and we knew it could be much more than it was.

We wanted to offer our visitors several things in this space:

  • An inviting/welcoming place to sit and relax
  • A place where Duke students can study and work – ideally we’d like to be a destination spot for studying and hanging out
  • A place where staff can have informal meetings
  • A place where people can talk on their cell phones
  • A place where visitors can engage in a hands-on activity and/or explore supplemental reading materials

First, our manager of special events looked at the existing space with a critical eye and asked this question, “What can we do with what we currently have to make this a nice environment?” There were MANY simple things that instantly made the area more inviting. These included:

  • Raising the shades so people could see the terrace outside (and know they could go out there if they wanted)
  • Cleaning the terrace on a more regular basis
  • Moving the artwork on the terrace close to the windows, instead of at the far end of the space
  • Opening the umbrellas on the terrace so the space looked “open” instead of “closed”
  • Arranging the furniture in a more pleasing way – this included thinning out the amount of furniture and spreading it out a bit more

It was amazing to me just how big a difference simply raising the shades made. It’s important to remember that we all become “blind” to our museum environments. The more familiar we are with a space, the harder it is to see how it could be off-putting or unpleasant.

For the last weekend of our special ticketed exhibition “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) we rented some fun furniture as an experiment. We knew there were going to be a lot of people in the museum, and we wanted to see what effect the furniture had. It made a huge difference.

The Nasher Museum’s alcove/lounge with mobile interactive and rented orange furniture.

We had a summer intern track use of the space over four days. She started tracking before the furniture arrived, and once it was installed, the number of people in the space shot up. Around 20% of all visitors to the museum used the “lounge” over the fours days.

To me, that’s a big number. That means one in every five people spent some time there. And, most people spent an average of 15 minutes in the space. Our intern also interviewed people to see what they liked about the space, why they had come over in the first place, and what else we could do to make it more inviting. Many people said they wanted to know exactly what they were allowed to do there. This was especially gratifying to me, since I had suggested we put signs in the lounge that read “Welcome to the Lounge. What can I do here?” and then list all possible activities. Some in the group thought that was too limiting, but it seems like people want explicit information (something that’s not surprising.)

Sadly, we had to return the rental furniture, but we are now on a mission to find some permanent furniture that will be inviting, but also work for special events, be durable and not ridiculously expensive.

I am looking forward to continuing to track the use of the space, and find creative ways to make the museum an inviting location for all our visitors. And I re-ask my starting question to spark some conversation, and to hear more about what spaces you might have or be developing at your museum:

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space? What can they do there?

Speaking the Same Language

I am the newly-minted President-Elect of the North Carolina Art Education Association (NCAEA). This is an exciting role with a sometimes-daunting set of responsibilities. Most of the 600+ members of NCAEA are K-12 art teachers, so, as a museum educator, I am determined to listen carefully to their needs and wants to best represent them. Even though both museum educators and K-12 art teachers seemingly have the same central mission, we often speak very different professional languages and don’t always understand or appreciate the others’ job.

I had my first taste of the President-Elect “action” during the delegates assembly at the recent National Art Education Association conference in New York. Representatives and delegates from each state (and some from Canada) were part of the assembly activities that lasted a day and a half. One of the most interesting and productive things we did was comment and vote on Position Statements for the organization as a whole. For those who don’t know, the position statements put into writing the platform and position of the NAEA’s executive director and board (representing the membership) on a specific topic or issue. This ostensibly makes advocacy and lobbying a little easier. Plus, it lets the membership know what the association stands for.

Two of the five Position Statements we reviewed concerned art museum education. It was exciting for me to see that museum teaching and learning was really part of the fold, since I can sometimes feel like we’re a little on the edges in NAEA. The Position Statements were ultimately approved (and you can read them in full below), but during the discussion (before voting took place) several delegates had some critical feedback. I assume these delegates were K-12 art teachers, since there were only 2 other museum educators in delegates assembly (out of 100).

As these other perspectives were voiced, I realized that they came from a place of fear and worry. Many teachers are working in states or counties that are getting rid of full-time art teachers, and replacing them with artists-in-residence and the occasional field trip. A few delegates wondered aloud why museum education needed two whole position statements and if we were “tooting our own horn” too much. It may seem like they were resentful or critical of museum education, but I think they were actually concerned that art museum visits could replace classroom art education.

Of course, museum education is here to support and enhance what happens in the classroom, not replace it. I had the opportunity to say just that to the entire delegate assembly, and I’m really glad I did. It made me realize, however, just how much art teachers feel under attack. It must be awful to feel the need to justify your very presence in schools.

So, I’m on a mission, as President-Elect of NCAEA (and President in the future), to help museum educators and K-12 art teachers communicate better, support and defend one another, and spread the art love around.

NAEA Position Statement on Excellence in Art Museum Teaching [Adopted March 2012]

NAEA believes that the opportunity to discover, understand, and appreciate original works of art from cultures past and present is a vital part of a complete education. Furthermore, NAEA asserts that excellent teaching is necessary to foster profound and memorable learning experiences in the museum environment. Excellent museum educators help people see and understand the world in diverse ways and provide them with knowledge and skills to face an ever-changing future.

To achieve excellence in art museum teaching, museum educators:

  • Create a learning environment where students feel safe, comfortable, and respected, enabling them to engage in dialogue with works of art, with each other, and with the museum educator.
  • Actively engage students in processes of creative and critical thinking.
  • Employ a variety of teaching approaches and strategies to connect effectively with diverse learners.
  • Connect the arts to student lives through careful choices of art objects that reflect the complexity and diversity of human cultures and experiences.
  •  Collaborate with and support Pre K-16 educators and other community partners to create meaningful museum experiences that enrich and support learning in and beyond the classroom.

Education and preparation for excellent art museum teaching requires:

  • Deep knowledge of individual works of art and their makers.
  • Knowledge of aesthetics, art history, art practice, art criticism, and other disciplines as they relate to works of art.
  • Knowledge and application of education history, theory, and research relevant to museum learning and the needs and characteristics of learners and museum audiences including Pre K-16, families, and adults.
  • Professional development and ongoing learning to enhance their effectiveness as art museum educators.

NAEA Position Statement on the Benefits of Art Museum Learning in Education [Adopted March 2012]

NAEA believes that art museum learning is a fundamental component to a high quality,effective, and balanced education.

Museum Environment

  • Art museums are valuable cultural resources that offer learners a rich physical and social environment in which to experience and engage with original works of art from different time periods and cultures.


  • Facilitated learning experiences with works of art cultivate global perspectives and an appreciation of the diversity of cultures, ideas, and human experiences.
  • Firsthand study of original works of art engages students in making connections across disciplines and enriches their understanding of other subjects.
  • Through close examination of artworks, students learn about creative processes, techniques, and materials.


  • The study of works of art promotes the development of creative and critical thinking skills that are important to success in life as well as in school. These include inquiry, analysis, and interpretation as well as flexibility, imagination, and reflection.

Personal and Social Learning

  • Art museum learning opens students up to new ways of seeing, experiencing, and connecting to themselves, others, and the broader world.
  • In art museums, students learn from each other and from adults, including docents, museum educators, and artists. They gain confidence and knowledge about using museums and discover the range of careers that museums offer.

Cultural Appreciation and Participation

  • Students who visit art museums often develop an appreciation for cultural organizations and are more likely to use museums as a resource for life-long learning in the arts.