All posts by Mike Murawski

Responding to the Getty Cuts: “A Significant Step Backward”

Photo by Skeevo

At the beginning of the month, the J. Paul Getty Trust sadly announced that it was cutting 34 jobs in its museum division, with the education department being the hardest hit with the loss of 19 employees (almost 40% of their staff).  According to the Los Angeles Times, the expected annual savings of $4.3 million to be redirected to art acquisitions.  Volunteer docents are expected to replace these professional museum educators in leading tours at the Getty.

“Everything the museum does cascades from its collection. The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else.”James Cuno, Getty president and chief executive

This news has certainly sparked many emotional, passionate conversations among museum educators over the past few weeks, as well as some serious soul-searching about our profession.  For me (and I know for many others), the Getty has stood as a bastion for museum teaching — one of the major institutions dedicating its educational mission and vision to forwarding the work of professional gallery teaching.

The work of Elliott Kai-Kee and the entire incredible teaching staff at the Getty has lifted the field of museum teaching to a new level over the past several years. Even beyond Elliott’s recent seminal book co-authored with Rika Burnham, the Getty educators’ recent session at NAEA prompted a great discussion about the role of visitor questions in museum teaching and learning.  Getty educators have always done a wonderful job of evaluating and assessing the work they do, providing reports online, and disseminating valuable data about learning in museums.  For more than a decade now, the Getty Research Institute has also brought in exceptional scholars-in-residence for their Museum Guest Scholar program, including Brigid Globensky, Rika Burnham, George Hein, Kim Kanatani, Sarah Schultz, Dana Baldwin, Kathleen Walsh-Piper, Ray Williams, and Marla Schoemaker.  This keen emphasis on museum education and teaching has been truly inspiring.

Last week, the National Art Education Association responded to the Getty cuts with a letter from its president, Robert Sabol, submitted to the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times.  I would recommend that everyone read the letter which has been circulating for the past week.  Upon first reading Sabol’s letter myself, I felt proud to be a museum educator and a member of the National Art Education Association.  I wanted to quickly highlight some excerpts from the letter that I found particularly meaningful for our profession as well as museums in general (and I’ll leave any commentary to readers, who can add their thoughts below):

“The recent decision by President and CEO of the Getty Trust James Cuno to eliminate 19 positions in the Museum Education Department represents a significant step backward as well as a lack of understanding of the public value that museum educators provide.”

“Mr. Cuno’s statement, ‘The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else,’ is out of step with how the museum field and external environment are evolving…. many art museums are shifting from being solely ‘about something to being for somebody….”

“While the collection and preservation of works of art are essential, for museums to remain viable in the future they must also demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities, which is precisely what museum educators are trained to do.”

“Works of art will always be central to the missions and purposes of museums, however, their continued relevance to individuals and contemporary society is dependent upon establishing meaningful connections with the people that view them, something that museum educators are uniquely trained to do.”

I commend Robert Sabol, the entire Board of NAEA, and the Museum Education Division (including the passionate and insightful leadership of Anne Manning) for such a meaningful response to the Getty.  You have affirmed the human-centered nature of the work we do as educators, and framed the immense public value inherent in that work.

I hope that this continues to spark productive conversation and dialogue around this moment, and I invite everyone’s thoughts and reflections below.  I also hope to feature additional posts in the weeks ahead that can take a closer look at the implications this decision has on our field, our profession, and our vision moving forward.

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UPDATE: Read Briley Rasmussen’s follow-up post: Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission.

This post is the author’s own and doesn’t represent the Saint Louis Art Museum’s or the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Book Spine Poetry: Museum Edition

The charismatic chaos of museums, captured in book spines.

While I just missed National Poetry Month, I wanted to play with an idea I encountered from Maria Popova on her always creative, interesting, and well-worth-reading site Brain Pickings.  During April (actual National Poetry Month), she shared a series of posts that showcased her talents in the field of book spine poetry (aka using the titles of books printed on their spines to create freeform poetry).  Apparently book spine poems have been all the rage these past few years, so I thought I would try my hand in some creative book spine arrangement.  Here is my first attempt:

The inadvertent poets:

  • Museums in a Troubled World by Robert Janes — although his subtitle frightens me, “Renewal, Irrelevance, or Collapse?”
  • Letting Go? edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, and a great read that shows how much art museums can learn from the practices of public history.
  • Engaging Art edited by Steven Tepper and Bill Ivey, includes the great essay “Artistic Expression in the Age of Participatory Culture” by Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi.
  • Conversation Pieces, the excellent book by Grant Kester on creating understanding in contemporary art through creative dialogue.
  • Making Museums Matter by Stephen Weil — just read this recap of Nina Simon’s 2011 MidAtlantic speech.
  • Teaching in the Art Museum by Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the Jedi knights of museum education.
  • Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson — although you’d think he could come up with a more creative title (joking).

Submit your own!

Send me your own book spine poem on museums — just use TwitPic or shoot me a link to your pic via Twitter @murawski27.  I will happily post everyone’s poems that I receive, and we can add to volume 1 of book spine poetry.  It can be a great way to take a midday break, and take a few minutes to tap into your creative self.

Book Spine Poem from Stephanie Ruse ‏ @smruse

Awesome!  Thanks Stephanie!

Teaching with the iPad: Adding a New Dimension to the Museum Experience

Back in 2011, I attended a fantastic session led by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire at the National Art Education Association conference about how the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was using iPads with their docents — and how they were training the docents to use this newly adopted technology.  I remember sitting in the audience thinking: “A. I will probably never own an iPad myself,” and “B. Our docents will probably never use iPads.”  It turns out I was wrong on both accounts — I got my own iPad 2 within a couple months of attending that session (I think Apple still owes Kris and Sheila their commission), and we now have about half a dozen docents using an iPad on their tours at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a number that I hope grows in the next year.

So what’s the big deal with the iPad?  Does it really add anything to a tour that we couldn’t already do without this device?

A study from the Pew Research Center released earlier this year indicated that 19% of adults in the United States own a tablet computer, and that statistic is rising significantly (probably much higher by the time I write this).  I also read somewhere that Apple has sold approximately 200-220 million iPads worldwide since the product’s first release in 2010.  So I thought it was about time that I more fully utilized this device in my own teaching practice, and then lead a workshop for our docents on the ways in which the iPad (and tablet/mobile technology in general) can add a new dimension to the museum experience for our visitors.

I personally began using my iPad on tours a little less than a year ago.  My first experience was with a group of 2nd grade students from an city public school, and we were scheduled to visit the African art galleries.  It had always been a bit of a challenge to make those galleries come alive, since they were small, dimly lit spaces with the objects up high in big plexiglass cases.  Was there something I could load onto my iPad that would enrich the experience?  I found a video of an African buffalo mask (similar to the one in our collection) being performed in a ceremony in Burkina Faso, so I downloaded that to my device just as I was heading from my office to greet the group.  As I led them into the African gallery with the “Buffalo Mask,” I was nervous that something would go wrong and my iPad experiment would crash and burn.  I popped out the mobile device, clicked play on the video, and quickly noticed that every student in the entire group was silent and paying very close attention to the video.

I had intended on only playing about 20 seconds, but we actually stayed and watched about 3-4 minutes (not recommended, but it worked with this group).  While the video of the African dance ceremony played, I invited the students to discuss everything they noticed in the video: the movements of the dance, the sounds of the drums, and the community gathered in the background. Then our discussion turned back to the “Buffalo Mask” before us in the gallery — a really great exploration that had the students looking more closely and connecting in a more meaningful way.  Their level of interest had skyrocketed.  Was this just because I brought this short video clip into the galleries with me?  Was it this simple to deepen the level of understanding and engagement on my tours?  I remember leaving this tour with a lot of excitement about using the iPad in the galleries, but questions about whether the focus was truly on the objects … or was the focus too much on the technology?

Research and Best Practices

Back when I attended Kris and Sheila’s NAEA session last year, there were not a lot of resources to guide the use of iPads on tours.  I remember contacting Kris after the session, and she sent me some thoughtful tips based on her own experiences with docents.  Since then, though, she, Sheila, and their colleagues have written some useful “best practices” based in their research on using iPads in the galleries.  Here are links to the most useful:

  1. “iPads on Tour,” written by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire for the Museum-Ed Blog.  Nice short overview of key things to keep in mind when enabling docents and educators to use multimedia on the iPad to enhance their tours.  Their best tip (and a “Golden Rule” for me) is Organize Your Stuff.  I have used FileApp Pro, which they recommended, and it seems to serve my needs for bringing video and images together into an easy-to-access folder.  This means I’m not fumbling around to find the content while I’m in the middle of my tour.
  2. “Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: A Case Study,” authored by Ann Isaacson, Sheila McGuire, Kris Wetterlund, and Scott Sayre, now a chapter in the American Association of Museums 2011 book entitled Mobile Apps for Museums.  This more in-depth article discusses a study that the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts conducted on their docents’ use of iPads and visitor response.  They found that “all of the museum visitors were engaged during the iPad portion of the tour” and that “all thought it added to their understanding of the works of art.”  A good tip that you can pull from this article is that, like any gallery prop, the iPad or mobile device should be used judiciously to avoid making it the focal point of the tour.

Other than bringing the iPad on tour or using it as an educator, the device has wide-ranging applications for museum education, learning, and audience engagement (that I’m not going to discuss in detail here).  I would even go as far as to say that each day a museum somewhere probably launches a new iPad app or is offering a program that utilizes the iPad and other tablet devices.  It has truly become the new bandwagon (for good reason, I think).  If you’re interested in some of the uses of iPads through museum apps, Hyperallergic reviewed “3 iPad apps that recreate the museum experience … almost” back in December, and Scott Billings wrote a great piece for MuseumNext a couple years ago about “what can the iPad do for museums?”

Bringing the iPad into the Galleries: A Sample Tour

So why all this thinking about iPads and touring?  Well, I decided it might be good to have a conversation with our docents about the benefits of bringing a iPad with you into the galleries.  Therefore, last week I offered an open workshop for any interested docents — about 15 attended, and about 10 were interested but unable to attend.  My workshop demonstrated a handful of ways that the iPad can enrich the museum experience, focusing mainly on ways in which additional content and context can be introduced to gain a deeper understanding of the objects themselves (again, the focus should always be on the art and objects, not on the technology).

On our workshop tour, we discussed using the iPad in three galleries of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection: African art, Impressionism (mainly Degas’s sculpture), and contemporary art.  I am going to quickly review the use of the iPad in these three areas, and link to some of the multimedia content we viewed in the galleries.

African Art: For our time in the African galleries, I demonstrated two uses of the iPad.  First, I showed how a tour guide could use a map application like National Geographic’s World Atlas to show students the location of Africa on the globe, and then zoom into the regions and countries that might relate to the objects on the tour.  I have had a lot of success with this map app on my tours, and I find it more effective than paper maps or color print-outs.  In addition to the map, I showed the video I mentioned above of the Buffalo Mask dance, which we all agreed would enrich and deepen visitors experience with the mask on view (not just school children, but adults too).  After exploring the map and video, I discussed how important it is to keep your multimedia content to a minimum — in other words, do not have 3 videos to show along with a map for one stop on your tour.  I recommend that docents choose approximately 3-4 multimedia items (photos, maps, videos, etc.) for their entire tour, and spread them out across the tour.  Remember, you don’t want the iPad to become the focus of the tour.

Impressionism/Degas: We moved up to the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism galleries, and I spent some time with the sculptures by Edgar Degas that our museum has on view.  First, I quickly showed a video of Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Horse in Motion’ images from 1878 along with our Degas Galloping Horse of a slightly later date. The museum label even refers to this experiment in capturing motion, and it was powerful to see these images and the Degas side-by-side.  Then we moved to Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years to compare our bronze version (cast after the artist’s death) with hi-res detail images of the original wax and mixed media sculpture that Degas created himself (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington). This sparked an interesting discussion of the appearance of our bronze, the surface textures, and the fabric, and I think we all left wanting to explore our Degas further.

Contemporary Art: Finally, we discussed the various types of content one could bring into the contemporary art galleries. I focused primarily on artistic process, or artists in their studios.  This is something I know visitors enjoy seeing, and I feel it deepens our understanding of the artworks and the artists themselves. I brought in two examples. First, I showed a video of Toots Zynsky, a contemporary glass artist, working in her studio to create, heat, and mold one of her well-known glass forms.  We’ve had curators discuss her process before, but the video really helped the piece come alive in a new way.  And finally, I ended the workshop with a video clip of Gerhard Richter painting with one of his squeegees — a process that visitors are always confused by.  Seeing Richter carefully pull paint across his huge canvases certainly helped me gain a better understanding of these massive paintings.

For me, this was a good place to start with our docents, and it was my goal to keep it simple.  I know that iPads and mobile devices allow for many more types of experiences, including augmented reality (see excellent paper from Cherry Thian from 2012 Museums & the Web) or using real-time video applications (FaceTime, Skype, etc.) to bring artists, curators, or community members into the galleries for Q&A and dialogue.  But for the human-centered experience that is the guided tour, these simple uses of the iPad can truly add a powerful dimension to the learning experience.

What is your best use of the iPad on a tour or teaching experience?  Are there ways we can push the best uses of mobile technology into tour experiences?

Crowdsourcing in the Art Museum

“Crowdsourcing poses a tantalizing question: What if the solutions to our greatest problems weren’t waiting to be conceived, but already existed somewhere, just waiting to be found, in the warp and weave of this vibrant human network?”

-Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

How many times have you been facilitating a learning experience with a group of teachers, docents, or public visitors in the galleries, and the best ideas or questions come from someone in the group?  This is a pretty regular occurrence for me, as visitors and students bring new noticings, insights, and wonderings to the process of experiencing a work of art.  But I wonder how many times we neglect to solicit the ideas, thoughts, and questions of visitors and learners in museums.  Are the “solutions to our greatest problems” simply waiting to be found in the crowds of people that enter our doors every day?  What are some ways we might tap into the “power of the crowd” to drive forward our work as educators?

So what is crowdsourcing anyway?

There are several definitions of “crowdsourcing” out there, but the popularity of the term seems to have originated in an article written by Jeff Howe in Wired Magazine back in 2006 called “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.”  The use of the term — and the concept — has exploded since then, with cultural and corporate phenomenons such as American Idol, Wikipedia, Flickr, Amazon, and even the New York Times using crowdsourcing strategies to create, organize, share, filter, judge, or sell their content and products.  Check out 4 great examples of the most recent social crowdsourcing projects.  At the core of most crowdsourcing is an open call to a diverse, heterogeneous group for their involvement in a task, inviting them to bring their experiences, what they already know (the ‘wisdom of the crowd’), and their likes & dislikes to the process. Customers, consumers, and audiences now become potential partners or creators — part of building something new.  With the internet and social media making it easy to gather a ‘crowd’ of millions online at no cost, the strategy of crowdsourcing has become largely based on technology.

Here is a succinct video from Jeff Howe that helps define crowdsourcing (from his perspective):

Several art museums have utilized various crowdsourcing strategies to allow the public to curate and plan exhibitions.  The most trail-blazing example is probably the Brooklyn Museum’s Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition, which involved an open call for people to submit photographs, an online audience evaluation of those images, and then finally an exhibition in 2008 of the crowd-curated photographs. Nina Simon praised this project on her Museum 2.0 blog as “what museum innovation looks like.”  During the run of the exhibition, she wrote:

“A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.” (Museum 2.0)

Other art museums have also recently engaged in the crowdsourcing craze, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s somewhat controversial “The Art of Video Games,” the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection” and the Walters Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition “Public Property” (a title selected by the public through their crowd-curating process).  So it appears that several museums have taken up the torch to further explore these participatory strategies, and I know there are many I’m not listing here.  Museum visitors are, to use Jeff Howe’s words, beginning to “participate meaningfully in the process” by which their experience is created, and they are in a way becoming the “people formerly known as the audience.”

How can we bring crowdsourcing into museum teaching?

crowdsourcing during a high school tour

As an educator, I have been more interested in the ways that we might bring crowdsourcing beyond curating and into museum teaching and learning experiences in the galleries.  I first got to play with crowdsourcing in the galleries when my work with the CoLab began a few years ago. Working with groups of teachers to envision and prototype transformative learning experiences for the museum and their classrooms, we have used some crowdsourcing strategies to allow the ‘wisdom’ and experiences of the group to bring certain questions and ideas to the surface.  I’ve used this strategy with docents as well as teachers, and it has been a fun and effective teaching tool.  Here is one easy crowdsourcing exercise you can try out (since the groups are small, it’s probably not officially “crowd”-sourcing, but let’s not split hairs):

Generate some data: Engage your participants (students, teachers, visitors) in a brainstorming process focused on a single task. For example, you might ask a group of visitors on a tour to come up with as many questions as they can about a work of art we have been exploring. After each individual generates a list of interesting and creative questions, they get into groups of three to share their questions and decide on the three best questions from their group. Each group writes these questions down on individual slips of paper.

Crowdsource it: Now you have some data to be crowdsourced … let the craziness begin!  Each participant should have a slip of paper in their hand with a question written on it.  The group stands in the middle of the gallery, and they are asked to rapidly exchange their slips of paper (emphasis on rapidly).  After the facilitator says “stop,” people pair-up, read the questions they have, evaluate them, and then each pair works together to assign points to their questions.  We usually ask each pair to assign exactly 7 points to their two questions (meaning that if one question gets a 5, the other gets a 2; or one can get a 7, the other a 0).  We do this rapid exchange and scoring for several rounds, adding some fun twists to the exchange process (participants might be asked to dance as they exchange slips of paper … something to keep it silly is always good).

See what surfaces: After several rounds of scoring, participants add up the total score, and now you can see how the group filters, organizes, and evaluates the data they were provided.  People can stand in a line according to the total score of the question they have, and we begin to see what are the most important ones to bubble to the surface that day.  Present the top three or top five items to the group.

Act on the results: It is important not to stop there.  Do something with the results of this process.  If you uncovered 3 really juicy questions about a work of art, bring those questions to the work and spend some time thinking deeply about how you might respond to them.  During a recent teacher institute at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, we asked a group of educators to crowdsource some prototypes for new ways the museum could engage its community, and we then focused on the top three ideas and envisioned how they might be enacted through a more extensive process.  I always feel like the success of any participatory strategy hinges on whether it goes anywhere or leads to something new.  For public crowd-curating, I think much of the success depends on people having the benefit of seeing their input manifested in the product or exhibition itself.

Have you experimented with any crowdsourcing in the galleries?  What are some things we might learn from crowdsourcing tactics, both in-person and online?  Are there ways we can push these strategies into more public, social learning experiences in the museum (other than exhibition curation & design)?  Stay tuned for updates as I experiment further with crowdsourcing in the art museum.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

UPDATE: I wanted to add a link to this post through the Center for the Future of Museums in which guest bloggers Wesley Hsu and Vivian Haga tell us about the My Gallery Interactive project:

Integrating Collaboration and Technology to Create a Crowdsourced Experience

Doing, Not Just Viewing: Working Towards a More Participatory Practice

Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project. Photo by Jean-Francois Hauwaert

I fully acknowledge and embrace the exciting shift that has been occurring in art museums, arts organizations, and American culture in general toward a more do-it-yourself, interactive, user-generated, participatory experience. Yet outside of experimental cases and one-time projects, I often struggle to weave this approach into my daily professional practice and hence into the daily experience for museum visitors (which in my case is mostly school children, visiting with their teachers who have set expectations about what they will see and learn).  And I blame forward-thinking educators like Nina Simon (among others) as well as a whole range of contemporary artists for motivating me to want this level of visitor engagement and participation in the first place (thank you Nina et al.).

So how do we “walk the walk” when it comes to truly engaging visitors and students in creative, participatory, learner-centered experiences in the art museum?

For me, it’s always about taking risks and experimenting bit-by-bit, program-by-program, teacher-by-teacher, and even docent-by-docent as we sharpen our focus on creating a “better” experience with art that connects to people and their lives.  And for this post, I want to hone in on one recent docent training class at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a micro-study of an attempt to weave a hint of participatory practice into the fabric of the art museum, and make it more about “doing” and not just about “viewing.” Is this truly participatory engagement?  To what extent is this something museums have always done?  Not sure. I’d actually rather invite your thoughts and comments, since I think it’s best to open up a dialogue and push these ideas forward.  Please offer your challenges and responses below, and give me something to think about as I create new experiences.

As a field, I think we’re definitely in the process of defining what we mean by terms like “active participation” and “participatory engagement.”  In what contexts can these types of experiences occur, at what level of engagement, for what audiences, and when?  I know my example below does not compare to something on the scale of a contemporary art installation that has children placing thousands of stickers on the gallery walls or the careful planning of in-gallery interpretation like this project on view now at the Skirball Cultural Center, but it connects more to my own daily professional practice with school audiences and docents.

Exploring Van Gogh & Color … in a Participatory Way?

Working within a docent curriculum at a large public art museum, there is still a strong focus on art historical information, as you would imagine.  Within docent training programs at art museums across the country, about 40-50% of the content is purely art historical and about 30-40% of docents’ time is spent listening to lectures about that content (that is based on some data that Stephanie Parrish [Portland Art Museum] and I collected last year from about 100 art museums).  So when beginning to prepare my docent class on the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism collection area, there is always an initial tendency to pull together that PowerPoint slideshow or pick up the phone to call the curator.

But not this time.  I wanted to explore at least one strategy that would get us beyond a purely receptive experience with these artworks, and work toward something that the recent Irvine Foundation report might call “inventive engagement” on the spectrum of creative participatory experiences.  I feel strongly about museum experiences tapping into the “creative” side of learning, and one of the CORE elements of museum learning for my department at the Saint Louis Art Museum is “engaging in creative ways.”  For docents, this creative element of learning is generally not studio-based but rather gallery-based.

So here is how we connected with the idea of color in the painting “Factories at Clichy” (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh:

Looking and Learning:  We started out like many of my experiences with docents begins, with a process of looking and conversation (a la Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee’s process of “guided interpretation”). For about 20 minutes, we examined Van Gogh’s painting as a group, interconnecting comments, observations, and thoughts with information about Van Gogh and the social, industrial, urban, and suburban context of Paris brought into the conversation when it would support or respond to someone’s ideas.

Playing with Color: Next, I asked docents to pair-up, and each pair was provided with a hi-resolution detail photograph of the Van Gogh painting in addition to eight small squares of drawing paper and a set of woodless colored pencils or Art Stix.  Their task was to explore their detail, identify four colors, and then try their hand at creating a color study for each.  My overarching goal here was to allow everyone to play with color — what is it like to layer colors, place them next to each other, use pure color, use thick lines, rub the side of the pencil, etc.  There were very few rules placed upon this exercise, which was intended to support free exploration of color and a fresh examination of Van Gogh’s use of color (which is nearly jewel-like in this particularly-stunning painting … yes, I happen to love this work).

Creating a Color Map: After each docent completed their color studies, they were invited into the next gallery to place them on a large blank “canvas” of white posterboard.  At first, my thoughts were that they would place them on the area that corresponded to the location of their detail — but everyone quickly realized that there was more to it than just tossing down your colored squares.  We began to think, “where do my colors belong? next to which other colors?” and a whole new expressive piece began to take shape.  As more and more color studies were added, the decision-making process became more difficult for participants.  Towards the end, a few individuals hovered over the large grid of color, carefully surveying for the exact place where their own new creations belonged.  After the last colored square was added to the whole, we all stood back and noticed that we had created something entirely new:

Reflection/Discussion: We ended with a brief reflection about the process, the final result, and some of the things we may have learned from the experience.  Many noticed the collaborative and collective result that began with an individual exploration of color from Van Gogh’s painting. A few mentioned their own insights about the subjectivity of color — we all had our own unique responses to the colors in the painting, and that became very evident when they were assembled at the end.  A few participants also reflected on their own process of making the color studies, and especially the challenge of placing them among everyone else’s colors at the end.  While we did reference Van Gogh, I felt that our reflection focused much more on our new creation and the related process.  I ended with a thought from artist Olafur Eliasson, someone well-versed in participatory experiences and art.  Here is the exact quote:

“… color doesn’t exist in itself but only when looked at. The unique fact that color only materializes when light bounces off a surface onto our retinas shows us that the analysis of colors is, in fact, about the ability to analyze ourselves.” (Olafur Eliasson, “Some Ideas About Color”)

Is this truly participatory practice?

The central question I am exploring here is whether this “color map” exercise actually gets us past a receptive, interpretative engagement with art and more towards a creative participatory engagement.  The authors of the Irvine Foundation report define the starting point for participatory practice as beginning when audience members become an “expressive participant in the making of the artistic experience.”  So not just activating the creative mind, but also involving creative expression on the part of the participants.  Check.

I also think that a key element of participatory practice to to cede control to the group in a productive way.  While there are activities that can allow participants to create something, I feel that they need the freedom to organize and remake as they go along (this can be a bit scary for us educators).  When the docents were laying down their color studies on the larger white surface, they began to take creative control over the project (some more than others), which was something I distinctly noticed.  As we all know, being creative is not simply following directions or coloring within the lines, but pushing in new directions and unpredictable pathways.  If we had more time in the galleries, I have no doubt we could have remixed and rethought our color map.  After leaving the museum, in fact, several docents did send me their ideas for adapting and expanding the activity in exciting ways for school tours and programs in the future.

To me, engaging in more and more of these participatory experiences is essential to the work that we do.  Some museums are really blazing the trail for us, which is exciting.  In addition to public programming and exhibition design, it’s also important to consider these practices with our work in docent education and professional training as well as our interactions with K-12 school groups (which make up such a large segment of the museum audience, and the most democratic, diverse, and  inclusive picture of museum use that we have, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill states).  Bit-by-bit, docent-by-docent, and teacher-by-teacher, we can continue to work toward museum experiences that engage the collaborative, co-creative, open source mindset that is present in our communities as well as the next generation of visitors.

What participatory experiences have you developed at your museum?  What are some challenges you face in creating these experiences for K-12 audiences as well as general museum visitors?

Rethinking the Way Museums Work with Teachers

Experiences that provide for the professional and personal growth of teachers play an increasingly vital role in museums’ efforts to connect with educational reform. Faced with the complex demands of teaching and learning in the 21st century, museums across the country are rethinking the ways they interact with teachers.  At the recent 2012 National Art Education Association conference in New York, I was fortunate enough to lead a session with William Crow (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Rachel Bernstein (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) that examined how art museums are collaborating with teachers to develop a “co-expertise” approach that allows for co-creating resources, co-delivering programs, and developing dedicated spaces for a shared exchange of ideas.

As we described through our own work, this “co-expertise” model can afford museums a new way to build meaningful exchanges with teachers and to develop new partnerships with teacher professional learning communities. One central question (of many) that guided our thinking was:

  • In what ways might a “co-expertise” approach catalyze a shift in what learning looks like in a museum, and allow for new ways in which teachers and schools access those types of informal learning?

Since teacher voices are essential to this approach, I spent some time interviewing teachers that I work with through the Saint Louis Art Museum and the CoLab.  The teachers I spoke with had all directly experienced various programs shaped by the co-expertise model, from summer institutes to school partnerships (learn more about the CoLab’s recent work by clicking here, here, and here). I asked each teacher what “co-expertise” means to them, in their own words — how would they describe their shared learning experience with the art museum and with other teachers, and what key things make this approach successful to them and their students?  Here is a short video compilation of these teacher voices, gathering insights from teachers across grade levels, subject areas, and even coming from 3 different states:

To me, these teachers’ perspectives (among many others) have been so inspiring, focusing in on some of the essentials of the co-learning experience.  In my own work with teachers and conversations with colleagues (including William Crow and Rachel Bernstein), a few aspects of the “co-expertise” model have bubbled to the surface for me:

  • Letting go. By this, I mean museums letting go of their ‘authority’ over knowledge and meaning-making, and instead empowering teachers to collaborate with museums as we work together to explore ways to learn from collections.  This model of co-creating learning experiences WITH museums — as opposed to passively receiving content FROM the museum authorities, whether that be text panels, audio guides, curators, or even educators — is so central to rethinking the way teachers interact with museums. It may be one of the most daunting aspects, too, since it requires many museums to broaden their approach to learning.
  • Recognizing teachers as experts. Part of achieving this “letting go” is simply valuing teachers’ voices and recognizing teachers as creators of content, knowledge, and meaning in relation to museums. Professional development workshops can be re-envisioned with more of an emphasis on developing communities of practice where we learn from each other no matter what our “home” educational setting might be (school classroom, university, museum, etc.).
  • Shared growth and experimentation. This sense of creating a community of practice then builds toward a shared, reflective process that leads to professional growth on the side of both teachers and museum educators. Through an open process of thinking ‘outside the box’ and taking risks, we can all move forward in our practice as teachers and learners.

Through this work that I have been engaged with thus far, I feel that the art museum has begun to make a shift in what it has the potential to become: a dynamic cultural landscape where authentic, learner-driven experiences are developed and enacted by teachers and their students. These experiences are empowering teachers to chart their own pathways in unpredictable ways and inviting parallel exploration, risk-taking, and fresh discovery on the part of their students.  And isn’t rethinking the way museums work with teachers ultimately about envisioning a new way to engage students in museum learning?

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

Beyond Just Staring: Personal Discovery as Core to Museum Learning

“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)

A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences.  Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task.  Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:

  • What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
  • What is the importance of any particular work to me?

Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery.  To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).

“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)

Bruce Yonemoto, Untitled (NSEW 8), 2007

After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make.  I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers).  Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.

If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)

No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself.  Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception.  We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say.  “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60).  While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.

Photo by Clint Gardner

While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer.   Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.

Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art

“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)

A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences.  Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task.  Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:

  • What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
  • What is the importance of any particular work to me?

Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery.  To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).

“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)

After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make.  I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers).  Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.

If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)

No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself.  Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception.  We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say.  “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60).  While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.

While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer.   Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.

‘Getting In On the Act’: Exploring Participatory Arts Practice

A recent study published by the James Irvine Foundation (October 2011) entitled Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation draws insights from nonprofit arts groups and experts to explore a new model for understanding and supporting participatory arts practices, a growing trend here in the United States as well as across the globe.  Here is how the reports’ authors begin to frame this “siesmic shift” towards a participatory arts culture:

“Technology has fundamentally changed the way people interact, learn, and think about culture. Contemporary notions of creativity, shaped by Web 2.0, center on shared construction of cultural identity and an ethos of participatory experience…. The open, free and instantaneous exchange of digital content affords people the resources to control their own creative experiences and make their own meaning. Interactive experiences of all sorts are now an expected norm.” (6)

But, then the report got a lot more interesting to me…

This shift is about more than just technology. People are thinking about the experience of culture differently than in the past, placing value on a more immersive and interactive experience than is possible through mere observation…. Americans are activating their own creativity in new and unusual ways … [as] part of a larger ‘participatory economy’ in which social connection eclipses consumption. Americans want to meet the people who make our products, share in the work of the makers, and make things ourselves.” (6)

The report’s human-centered focus brings much-needed attention to the ability of the arts (and arts institutions) to connect people, to create shared experiences, and to contribute to the cultural fabric of the communities in which we live and work.

Photo by Santiago Ochoa

For art museums (and museum educators, especially), the report provides an extremely meaningful tool for reflecting on how we involve audiences in shaping their own experiences and making their own meaning. The report’s “Audience Involvement Spectrum” provides a nice, workable model for audience engagement, from “receptive” involvement (the type of spectating and educational enrichment occurring in the vast majority of arts museums) to increasingly “participatory” involvement (the types of crowd-sourcing, co-creation, and public artistic experiences that more and more art museums are slowly striving toward).

The report is worth a close read.  It asks some essential questions about arts programming in the 21st century, and I think art museums would have much to gain by thinking more about how they fit into this new landscape of active arts participation.  As museum educators, we have our hands on the wheel when it comes to programs — and the Irvine report clearly and strongly states that “attracting the next generation of audiences and visitors will require a transformation in programming” (11).  At the core of this transformation is both thinking outside the box (‘the box’ in this case being the rigid walls and traditions of art museums) and letting go of institutional and curatorial authority so that visitors can feel comfortable and empowered to shape their own creative experiences.

If you have a chance to peruse the Irvine Foundation’s report, I’d love to hear how your institution’s programs (or your own teaching philosophies) fit on their spectrum of audience involvement.  Has your institution embraced any of these aspects of participatory arts practice?  Do you value these types of creative, artistic experiences when you visit art museums yourself (or do you shy away from them for more passive types of engagement)?

How Can We Get Museum Visitors to ASK More Questions?

While museum educators (myself included) spend a lot of time thinking about the types of questions we ask to visitors and students, I’m not sure we spend enough time considering how to motivate visitors to ask their own questions? We know that getting visitors to ask questions can be an extremely important way to tap into their sense of “wonder” and curiosity, both key elements of a meaningful museum learning experience. So how do we get visitors to ask more questions?

My own thoughts on this topic were sparked by a session at the 2012 National Art Education Association conference held in New York. Entitled “Visitors Ask, We Learn: Visitor Questions that Shape our Teaching” and led by Elliott Kai-Kee and William Zaluski from the Getty, the session explored a project in which Getty Museum gallery teachers collected every single question visitors asked them. There were attempts to categorize the questions and make some sense of them in a more scientific manner, but that never materialized. Instead, the project brought attention (and reflection) to the ways that visitor questions can help drive inquiry in museum learning, and to the teaching philosophies and strategies that create a welcoming environment for different types of visitor questions. As Kai-Kee stated in the closing of their session, “gaining questions is to gain participation.” Which brings us back to the key question:

How do we get visitors to ask more questions?

Photo by Wexner Center
Photo by Wexner Center

1. Model Curiosity

One technique that many educators use (including those at the Getty) is simply modeling the type of curiosity and open discovery that we want in our visitors. Choose an object early in a tour, and demonstrate some of the types of questions we might pose — information-based questions, museum-related questions, personal questions, and questions that allow us to use our imagination. The idea here is that visitors will feel more comfortable if you, as an educator, have opened the door to these types of questions. Being transparent about your motives here can be helpful, so that visitors or students know that you expect them to ask similar questions as the group moves to new objects. Creating a comfortable and inquiring environment for visitors is key to getting them to ask questions that matter to them.

2. Start with Visitor Questions

Elliott Kai-Kee mentioned this during their NAEA session. After introducing an object on a gallery talk or tour, he simply states: “I’d like to start with a question you might have for this object.” Of course, wait time is crucial here … remember to allow for silence if needed, and those first visitor questions will eventually spring up. This strategy truly uses visitor questions to drive the learning experience, and gallery teacher & visitors become fellow inquirers. Object selection can play an important role, too, as there are definitely some artworks that will likely spark more immediate questions in visitors. For example, in my own experiences, a large enigmatic painting by German artist Max Beckmann might draw out more immediate questions and curiosities than a Worcester porcelain coffee cup.

3. Cataloging Our Questions

Sometimes, it can be quite productive (especially for school groups) to allow time for students or visitors to brainstorm a list of questions they might have about an artwork. This can be as simple as each person writing down as many questions as they can about an object. An educator can take this further by inviting participants to pair up, review each others’ questions, and select one or two to share with the larger group. By doing this, you can quickly generate a large number of questions driven by students’ or visitors’ interests — a great place to begin a conversation about an object.

4. Creative Questions

One very effective “thinking routine” developed through Harvard’s Project Zero and the Artful Thinking project is called “Creative Questions.” This routine provides students with a series of question stems, and encourages them to be creative and come up with a list of several questions about an artwork — using the suggested stems only if they need help brainstorming different types of questions. While I tend to avoid using worksheets in the galleries, I often use this with students — and it can generate some interesting and fun questions (I especially like questions that come from the stem “How would it be different if…”). As with many thinking routines from Project Zero, this strategy can expand and deepen students’ thinking in relation to a work of art and encourage their curiosity.

5. Having a Conversation with the Artwork

We may have success in getting visitors to ask questions about the artwork and its information/context (who’s the artist, when did she make it, how was it made, how did the museum acquire it, how much did it cost, etc. etc.), but it is quite rare for students and visitors to be invited to ask questions of the artwork? By this, I mean encouraging visitors to pretend that they are having a conversation with the painting — what would they ask it? Not the artist, but the actual painting itself. Yes, this stretches the imagination (a bit too much for some traditional visitors, truth be told), yet can be such a creative way to further our exploration and inquiry. I constantly ask adults, teachers, and students to do this with artworks in the galleries, and I always find that it taps into a more complex level of engagement. Participants frequently ask quite personal things of the painting — for example, when working with an Anselm Kiefer piece one afternoon, a teacher asked “Are you mad at me?” At the same session, other teachers asked “Why are you so chaotic?”, “Are you still becoming?” and “How did your world begin?”

What are some other ways that you have been able to motivate visitors and students to ask questions? How do we continue to create these learning experiences driven by visitor questions?

*     *     *     *     *

Featured header image: 1/19/11 PAGES Gallery Tour, from Wexner Center for the Arts, Flickr.com, Photo by Jay LaPrete, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

NAEA Breakdown – Museum Education Edition

As art museum educators from across the country begin to pack their bags and head to New York this week for the National Art Education Association annual conference (Wed-Sun), I thought it might be interesting to offer a quick breakdown of the sessions being offered in conjunction with the Museum Education Division.  And it’s important to note that the Museum Education Division is celebrating its 36th year, having been created during the annual conference held in St. Louis back in 1976 (go Cards!).  So, what’s hot this year?  Let’s run some of the numbers:

Total Museum Education Sessions: 76

Total museum educators presenting: 185 (plus or minus)

Most Frequent Session Topics:

Technology (digital media, blogging, podcasting, etc.) – 13

Teacher professional development & resources – 10  (duh, it’s NAEA — thousands of teachers attending)

Community and family audiences – 8

Museum-school partnerships – 6

Visitor-centered programs / listening to visitors – 5

Evaluation – 4

Docents – 4  (WAY down from last year — I guess docents aren’t cool anymore)

Looking deeper at the topics and issues being addressed this week in sessions spread all across the New York Hilton and Sherton hotels, one can find a distinct focus on museum audiences — and expanding those audiences to non-traditional groups.  Other than the sessions dealing with larger issues of community and family outreach, almost two dozen sessions bring attention to exemplary work being done to connect with the vision-impaired, English language learners, teens, young children, homeschoolers, pediatric patients, students with autism, etc.  A handful of sessions will be addressing the needs and questions of visitors, and how museums can listen to those voices to develop more effective programs, interpretives, and tours. Another dozen sessions will be exploring strategies to engage those visitors — from theatre activities and multi-sensory tours to newly-designed gallery spaces and art-making projects that inspire creativity.

When I ran a quick analysis of the session titles and short descriptions, the most common words used (outside of “art” and “museum”) were, in order of frequency: learning, education, programs, research, teaching, visitors, community, and technology.  I only find this interesting as it pertains to how our field describes the work we do to a larger audience — the vocabulary and terms we use to label what we do best.  The word “learning” was used more frequently than “education” and “programs” combined, perhaps providing a sense that our field is thinking of itself more as “museum learning” than “museum education” (a distinction the Brits have drawn for quite some time).  Of course, this blog is titled “art museum teaching,” so I suppose I’m already behind the curve ; )

All in all, I am surprised to not see more sessions using the word “participatory” now popularized by Nina Simon.  It does pop up some, but not as frequently as “interactive” or “conversation.”  More so, I’m amazed to not see more sessions (there is at least one) addressing the conflicts, challenges, and collaborations that exist between education and curatorial.  This seems to be a growing concern or issue among colleagues across the field, with several museums actively restructuring or retooling in order to ensure that these collaborations take place between educators and curators.  Perhaps the goal for NAEA in 2013 could be to convince some curators to present sessions with us, making strong connections with education (and we can, in turn, lead parallel sessions with them at CAA making similarly strong connections with curatorial).  Who’s with me?

For those of you packing your bags for New York, travel safely and I’ll see you there!  And for those not attending this year, please check back here — you’ll definitely see some updates as well as new content once NAEA concludes (and new authors, as the community of contributors to this blog is about to grow!  If you’re interested in contributing, just let me know via Twitter or in the Comments below).

Reading Murals – Telling Stories

The power of stories—whether telling our own, listening to those of others, or building them from our imagination—has a deep connection to human development and learning. Telling stories allows us to learn about ourselves, but it is also an act of “mutual creation involving interactions and understanding between teller and listener” (1).  For museums, storytelling can tap into personal, cultural, and family-based dimensions of learning that have the potential to create more meaningful experiences.

During a recent advanced institute organized by the CoLab and National Writing Project sites in 3 states (Piasa Bluffs Writing Project at SIUE, South Coast Writing Project at UCSB, and Gateway Writing Project at UMSL), a multiprofessional community of educators experimented with storytelling as a way to engage with a 1932 mural by Mexican artist David Siqueiros—now in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  The hard-hitting subjects depicted in the mural connect with the realities of Mexican politics at the time, with Siqueiros delineating the cause and result of the corruption of the administration of Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles [more information about the mural can be found through the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s online resource].  This quite somber and personal mural by Siqueiros seemed to lend itself to a more personal form of exploration, so we engaged with the piece through a series of strategies that included various forms of storytelling — creating stories with words and sharing stories with our bodies.

After spending time looking at the mural and navigating the architectural space in which it exists, our group of teachers and educators were asked to focus in on details within the piece and create a series of quick sketches.  We then spread our sketches out across the floor for everyone to explore, and individuals were invited to select one sketch (not their own) that they might connect with a meaningful story.  Those sketches then launched each person into writing a story informed by a close study of that drawn response, adding words directly on top of the sketch.  Here are some excerpts from those stories:

P’s Story Sketch

P: “A woman who has seen much – who endured much and who is still open to what life has to offer. She opens her hand, gesturing for those who will give to her, a sensing that life has come today in the form of men with guns. She can hold her own in the face of those things that may seem as if they could cause harm. She holds her knee to her chest and it brings comfort to her. She feels stable and centered while around her she is surrounded by a man who frowns, who has, without emotion of any kind, shot his neighbor as directed. She has witnessed the death of others not once, but many times….”

S: “The sun now shines on part of this street. Most people, most faces are still in shadows. Later today, later this year, later this century, the light will shine on the whole village, allowing the whole world to see what we all wish could have stayed covered up or better yet, could have never happened.”

Story-writing became story-telling as participants verbally shared their own stories with each other in small groups, working together to select one “critical moment” from their stories to explore more deeply.  Each group wrote down their selected “critical moment” on a sheet of paper, and we then moved down to the sidewalk to physicalize these moments through Image Theatre exercises [read more about Image Theatre in the Teaching Tools section].

To launch into this process of bodily learning, I selected a couple of volunteers to model a technique called “body storming”—the physical equivalent to brainstorming. In “body storming,” participants are invited to silently (communicating only with physical gestures or facial expressions) and rapidly create a series of body shapes or group poses in response to a prompt.  For this exercise, I invited each group to body storm the “critical moment” pulled from their stories.  Groups spread out along the sidewalk adjacent to the busy State Street that runs in front of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and they explored their stories through this theatre and movement strategy.  After they body-stormed through their ideas, each group was asked to build a single movement composition to perform for the entire group.

To create a space for the performances, we all formed a circle around our new public “street theatre” venue here in Santa Barbara, interrupting the flow of pedestrians (several whom stopped to peek at what we were up to). Each group shared their group pose or movement, and I jumped in to play the Joker — a concept coming directly from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed that authorizes the Joker and spectators to make changes to the performance.  In this strategy, spectators become “spect-actors,” according to Boal, and they are empowered to transform the performance in a variety of ways.  For these group performances, we invited “spect-actors” to add themselves to the group pose, change something about it, or make new connections beyond the group’s story (to people’s own lived experiences, for example).

After each group shared their performances (and were subject to the wild card actions of the Joker and “spect-actors”), we returned up the steps to the Siqueiros mural for final reflective writing and processing. After engaging our bodies in new ways, this gave participants some time to allow their minds to let the experience soak in and reconnect with the visual images that sparked our creative explorations. The stories we had explored, envisioned, and enacted as a community of learners brought Siqueiros’s images into our own professional and personal lives … and brought our lives into the faces and stories of that powerful mural.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

Notes:

1. C. Abramson, “Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education,” Education 118 (1998), p. 441.