All posts by Mike Murawski

Object Stories: Rejecting the Single Story in Museums

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Early in 2012, I came across a particularly inspiring TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” quoted above, warns that if we tell or hear only a single story about a people or culture, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice. As I was listening to Adichie’s transformative words, I immediately thought about museums and the cultural power they have historically possessed to tell a single story—the single story. As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the 21st century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.

Since first listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk almost a year ago, I have experienced an exciting career and life transition as I moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, to become the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. And these issues of power, voice, storytelling, and community engagement are central to one of the Museum’s most widely expanding educational projects, Object Stories. Launched almost 3 years ago, this project begins to address the need for museums to reject the single story, to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries. This post provides a much-needed spotlight on the Object Stories project, and I will definitely follow-up with future posts that reflect on the further challenges and successes of this exciting work.

Explore more than 1000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org
Explore more than 1,000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org

The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project was recently featured by EmcArts and ArtsFwd in their ‘Business Unusual’ Contest, and I’m very proud to say that we won the contest with a broad base of support from across our community (the Mayor of Portland even gave us a shout out, along with dozens of other cultural organizations across Oregon). Originally posted on ArtsFwd.org, the text below was created through a full team effort from the Education Department, including Stephanie Parrish, Amy Gray, Danae Hutson, Jess Park, Betsy Konop, and especially my amazing predecessor Tina Olsen, who passionately led this project from its inception to where it stands today. As a team, we are pushing this project to new areas and breaking down boundaries inside the museum as well as both locally and globally.

• • • • • •

In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience. We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.

Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.

How Object Stories works

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection. On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.

The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.

Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue

This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.” The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback.

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.

A new platform for community collaboration

Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.

Big impact with room for growth

The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.

We’re super excited about where this project has been and where it is going, but I wanted to end with some open questions to invite your thoughts:

  • In what ways does storytelling and personal meaning-making enter the fabric of your institution?
  • What are some challenges to having these types of projects enter the ‘mainstream’ of museum planning around visitor experience and interpretation?
  • How can museums do a better job to design and support opportunities like this for visitor and community voices to enter the galleries?
  • And, finally, a big question that is very much on our minds: what is the next step for projects like this?

Please post your thoughts and questions below, and add to the ongoing conversation. You can also learn more about the thinking behind Object Stories by reading Nina Simon’s interview with Tina Olsen at Museum 2.0.

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

Epilogue: Why Museums Don’t Suck – Connecting with Howard Hwang

Flickr photo of visitor at California Academy of Sciences, one of Howard Hwang’s favorite museums these days. Photo by Alastair Green.

Many times when I have encountered a brusque and surly teenager in the museum (whether on a tour, in a program, or simply visiting with his or her family), I do wonder what that kid will be like years down the road.  Maybe it’s the parent in me, but I can’t help thinking: will that teenager still roll their eyes during museum visits? will they perhaps change, and gain a new perspective toward museums?  These same questions arose when I first read Howard Hwang’s now-infamous article “Why Museums Suck” — would he really be such a choleric and grumpy person after he became an adult?  Could we ever see Howard visiting a museum alone or with his family, and loving it?  If I could only hop into a time machine, and ask him myself.

Well, as it turns out, no time machine is necessary!  As I dug further and further into the LA Youth article, I not only found out that Howard wrote the piece 11 years ago (part of a fall 2001 issue), but I was able to get in contact with Howard himself to ask him a few questions. And while I would have loved to actually use a time machine to write this epilogue to my original post “Why Museums Don’t Suck,” I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article, his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later.  In my opinion, this is a fascinating turn of events in a story that has garnered so much attention from across the museum community.

Here are my notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang:

and now, the rest of the story…

Thoughts on writing the original LA Youth article: I began by asking Howard to tell me a bit more about why he wrote that article back in 2001 about “why museums suck,” and his thoughts at the time. He remembers writing the article as part of a group/community paper, focusing mostly on it being a piece that kids his age would read. It grew out of a high school project in which he was analyzing museums, so the article seemed a natural extension. “I wanted to be very honest, very blunt, and not sugar-coated,” recounts Howard.  After writing the article, he recalls telling his sister, “I want to write something that will make people feel that I am talking to them.”  This is a tone that made the piece more visceral for me and many of the museum professionals who have since commented, and I think it represented a certain level of honesty that many of us admired.

Thoughts on reading the article 11 years later: Howard’s editor from LA Youth (11 years ago) contacted him recently to let him know about all the back-and-forth going on in the blogosphere about his article, thinking he might enjoy seeing the ArtMuseumTeaching.com blog post and comments. So Howard did, and then he also read his original article which he hadn’t returned to since it was first published.  So what was his immediate response?  “My face turned bright red,” says Howard. He told me that he feels totally embarrassed by his teen article, especially because his entire perception of museums is completely different now.  I asked him a little more about why he might have written something like this back as a 15-year-old, and he remembers being very “A.D.D.” with a low threshold for attention — something had to really jump out at him to win his favor.

Current thoughts about museums: It was great to hear that Howard’s attitude towards museums has totally changed. But I asked a little more about why, and how did that change come about.  Howard attributes much of this shift to visiting museums in college for certain classes.  Majoring in molecular biology at the time, Howard says “I really started going to museums when they related more to my own interests.”  And those interests were obviously there in Howard when he was 15 as he capped his grouchy LA Youth article with unique praise for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, writing: “All you museum people should go over to the Natural History Museum. This is a great museum.”

Any favorite museums these days? My final question for Howard related to any museums he might visit regularly now, and why.  He quickly mentioned the California Academy of Sciences, which he visits regularly (being a resident now in the San Francisco Bay Area), and actually just visited a few weeks ago to see their newest exhibits. Our conversation concluded with a brief discussion of what might make a museum more attractive to him these days, and Howard spoke of the volunteer tour guides and docents that interact with the public.  “The quality of tour guides,” says Howard, “are a very powerful thing for the museum experience, increasing the attractiveness of museums.”  He recounted the knowledgeable tour guides at the California Academy of Sciences during tours he has taken, and he wrapped up our conversation chatting about the importance of human interaction in museum learning.

I extend an enormous thanks to Howard for agreeing to talk with me about his article and his thoughts 11 years later, and I appreciate how much his article challenges us as museum professional to reflect on the extent to which we do, or do not, ‘suck’ when it comes to teen audiences.  All we can do is continue to reach out to all audiences, and know that cantankerous teenagers may very well grow up to be dedicated, thoughtful museum visitors.  Thanks, Howard!

Link back to original post: “Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement”

When Bloggers Collide

I recently was invited to participate in a panel session on museum blogging at the 2012 Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference, which was luckily hosted in nearby Seattle. The session was pulled together by power blogger Ed Rodley (aka Senior Exhibit Developer at the Museum of Science in Boston) and moderated by what I would now consider the new James Brown of museum technology, Koven Smith (aka Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum).  It was my first time attending MCN — which I had followed closely via Twitter during their last conference — and I was blown away at the energy and passion of this group of museum professionals that represented so many areas of museum work.

Since this conference has sparked a lot of thinking for me, I may end up writing a few MCN-related posts in the next week or so, but for now I wanted to focus on the reason I was there in Seattle this past week — the bringing together of a diverse group of active bloggers to dissect the how, why, and who of museum blogging.  For me, this was the first time meeting these other bloggers “in the flesh” or face-to-face — what would happen?  I could not help thinking about my favorite lines from the 1984 classic film Ghostbusters:

Egon: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Peter: What?
Egon: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter: Why?
Egon: It would be bad.
Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

Luckily, just as in the movie, that’s not what happened at all.  It turns out, when bloggers collide, you get some productive conversations about professional and personal (or offline and online) identity, the complex networks that these blogs build online, and the ways in which these online entities may even push museum thinking forward.  In this post, I would simply like to introduce those who came together for this MCN session, and then lay out three questions that I spent time thinking about before participating in the panel (and that we grappled with a bit during our conversations).

The Blog Roll

Here is a quick run down of the other bloggers/blogs represented at this exciting MCN session:

Ed Rodley, Eric Siegel, Me, & Suse Cairns

Suse Cairns blogs at Museum Geek, and is also currently a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She holds a unique position as an emerging museum professional without a museum institutional affiliation, perhaps permitting her to strike up a bit more of a disruptive conversation (or maybe that’s her indie rockstar background). She contributed a guest post to ArtMuseumTeaching.com about “Getting Uncomfortable in Museums.”

Ed Rodley blogs at Thinking About Museums, and currently works as Senior Exhibit Developer for the Museum of Science, Boston. He also coordinates a series of conversations & explorations among the Boston museum community that he has dubbed “Drinking About Museums,” posted to his blog regularly (here is the most recent installment). Ed and I are in a similar boat in which we blog independently of the institutions we work for — making for a slightly more complex situation when it comes to our more ‘rebellious’ ideas or questions. I’m grateful that he pulled this panel together for MCN.

Eric Siegel blogs at The Works, a New York Hall of Science blog, and is currently that institution’s Director and Chief Content Officer. With 30 years of experience in museums, Eric writes about challenging aspects of innovative projects in exhibition, technology, and education as well as collaborations and current thinking in museum work. One of his great recent posts discusses the ReGeneration exhibition being developed at the New York Hall of Science that will bring together contemporary art and science. Not only does Eric blog about projects like this, but he also supports his staff creating their own blog content across the institution — see SciSpotlight.

Session Attendees — OK, this was the real fire power at the session. Almost everyone who attended the panel also blogs themselves, and some for longer than the entire panel combined.  During the session, we asked how many of them had their own blogs, and the photo on the right shows the sea of hands (as good as an iPhone can show it). In hindsight, we should have really thrown more questions out to the “audience” and had a richer conversation about blogging — and not just our blogs.  I wanted to give a shout out to everyone who submitted their blogs to our session’s Twitter feed, but I know there are more.

So that gives the long and short of who was there for the session, and it might also help many of you connect with more of the museum blogging community.  Now I wanted to quickly frame some of the issues I brought to the table during the session, and then I invite your feedback and comments below.

Museum Blogging Issue #1: Who Reads This Stuff?

After writing for and managing this blog for over 9 months, I have come to be quite fascinated by blog readership … or clicker-ship, as I’d rather call it (mostly because I can measure how many people click on the blog, but I can’t measure how closely they read it).  First of all, there is the actual number of people that museum blogs reach.  I estimate that across a few dozen museum blogs (17 of them are listed above), there are approximately 1-2 million people accessing these sites each year.  And I don’t think this figure is exaggerated — I recently met an art blogger who gets about 1.25 million hits a year, showing how widespread the reach of this form of content can be.  And I want to be clear here: I am not associating the number of hits or clicks with the value of a blog’s content or the blogger.  I frankly don’t care whether a blog gets 1 million hits a year, or 100 hits a year — if they both have thoughtful, quality content, then they both serve an important role in this online thinking space.

Beyond the sheer number of hits or clicks, I am way more interested in the organic web of interactions that can take place online after a blog post is published.  For example, a blogger can share their post via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, and their own circles of colleagues and peers.  Then, others share or retweet the post, and the ideas start to spread in unpredictable ways.  Search engines also direct people to the blog from Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. Then, people from across the world have the chance to add their thoughts and comments on the blog itself, or on Twitter and Facebook, and the conversation grows beyond the blog.  Furthermore, other bloggers can respond to your ideas through their own posts.  For instance, my recent post on teen engagement in museums has pingbacks from 4 other blogs — and each of those blogs has its own social media networks and clicker-ship.  The term ‘blog’ often seems so two-dimensional and self-directed when you consider the three-dimensional interactions, relationships, and ideating that can potentially ripple out from each post.  After hearing a great “Ignite” presentation at MCN from Lori Byrd Phillips on “open authority,” I think I am going with the term “BAZAAR” instead.  More to come on that idea in a future post.

Museum Blogging Issue #2: Do Blogs Really Have the Power to Create Communities?

Sometimes people can get quite cynical about blogs, thinking that it is just a bunch of people talking to themselves. Can these sites really create relationships among people and professionals?  Are blogs really a way for people to collaborate online and share ideas, questions, and processes?  Well, I would not have created this online forum (now with 14 authors) if I didn’t think that it had the potential to create an online community of practice in the field of art museum education. My experience thus far proves that people really do come together through a blog to exchange ideas, ask questions, and challenge each other.  Since us art museum educators only come together a couple times a year at conferences (and most museum educators are not able to even attend these conferences), I do find that online communities are finding a new role in the professional field. There is certainly more that sites like ArtMuseumTeaching could be doing to enhance peer engagement, and I hope to explore some of these in the upcoming months.

This whole question of how we build online communities is something that really interests me, and I will be partnering with some amazing colleagues (Dana Carlisle Kletchka and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl) to explore this through a session at next year’s National Art Education Association conference — a session that will have a rich online, digital presence before, during, and after the conference.  So I leave these questions open: how do we build communities of practice online, and what does that mean in terms of the way we work, interact, and play together?

Museum Blogging Issue #3: How Well Do We Play With Others?

My final thought simply opens up more questions about how we develop expansive, boundary-crossing communities online.  As bloggers, how well do we play with each other?  If you have your own museum blog, how many times have you invited other museum bloggers to write a guest post, commented on their blog, or added a link to their blog on your site?  Do bloggers reach out to make connections with other bloggers outside of their own national and cultural boundaries?  What about across types of museums and academic disciplines?  Even outside of the blogging circles — how well do we connect with other existing forms of online interaction (Google Hangout, Blog Talk Radio, or other online communities such as Digital Is)?  I, myself, have a lot of work to do in many of these categories, but I wanted to lay out these questions so that we can be thinking of them as we push forward in the blogosphere.

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So, I really enjoyed attending MCN, and it sparked all kinds of questions and thoughts in my mind about this site as well as large areas of my professional work.  I invite your thoughts and perspectives below, and I am open to all suggestions as to how to grow the community already forming around this online “bazaar” I call ArtMuseumTeaching.com.

During the conference, MCN publicized Twitter hashtags for each session, so I wanted to make available an archive of all of the tweets up to this point that used our hashtag: #mcn2012tale.  Here it is in PDF form, with lots of great questions and thoughts from those attending the session and beyond: TweetArchive_#mcn2012tale

Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement

Note: This is NOT Howard Hwang.
Flickr photo by Kaptain Kobold.

This week, one of the contributing authors here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, brought to my attention a recent column from LA Youth written by 15-year-old Howard Hwang who felt compelled to write about his distaste for visiting museums.  His piece entitled “Why museums suck” seems to have already generated an interesting response from the museum community and beyond, so I thought perhaps I would throw this post up and see if, in fact, anything productive could come from this teenager’s rant.  Howard admittedly hates museums, but he recently decided to visit six of them in the LA area anyway and then filed his ‘report.’

So the question presents itself: do museums really suck?

I’m probably not using Howard’s exact language or ideas when I define what it means for a museum to “suck,” but I think many of the reasons for his lack of connection with these institutions are not necessarily new. For him (and he is definitely not alone), museums are boring and not frequently places where teenagers go to have fun and hang out.  But is this entirely true? While Howard’s article seems to provide an opportunity for us museum folk to lament on the perpetual problems museums have engaging teenagers (adding fuel to Howard’s flame), I would rather take this as a moment to shine some light on what museums are doing that doesn’t suck.  I’m certainly not saying that museums are doing everything necessary to engage teen audiences (far from it), but I would rather counter Howard Hwang’s diatribe with some thoughts on “why museums don’t suck.”  And then maybe the conversation can productively refocus on what museums could be doing better to connect with teens like Howard.

So what are some ways that art museums are pushing forward with teen engagement?

It only seems appropriate to begin this look at museum teen programs and offerings by checking out what some of the museums that Howard visited actually offer for teens.  In other words, if Howard had decided to hop on the Internet before his visits, what would he have found about their offerings for he and his friends?

  • Norton Simon Museum: Not sure Howard would have found much at the Norton Simon. They do offer a Teen Art Academy program, but the next session is not being held until December 1st when artist J Michael Walker leads a group of teens through the galleries to examine self-portriature, followed by a workshop in which students create their own self-portraits.  Pretty cool artist to work with, but certainly not a pop-in experience (the workshop asks teens to give up 3 hours spread across 2 days).
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Being one of the largest art museums in the country, it is not surprising that LACMA has a range of teen programs.  But it’s still exciting to see LACMA trying out new ways of bringing in the teen audience.  They offer teen art classes periodically and a free NexGen membership to those 17 and under, but I think Howard would be more interested in their “After Dark” teen night that is free for teens, ONLY for teens, and offers a chance for LA teens to hang out, see art, and have fun.  LACMA also has offered a teen High School Internship Program for several years, which sounds like a great opportunity for interested teens (perhaps not Howard) to learn more about museums and gain in-depth experiences with art and artists.
  • J. Paul Getty Museum: Hmmmm, looks like the main Getty Museum does not offer any programs specifically geared toward teens.  The Getty Villa does have an interesting Teen Apprentice Program and Summer Latin Academy, but I think both sound more suited to Howard’s ‘nerdy’ friend Jennifer than to him (perhaps maybe even too academic for her). But, come on Howard, you can’t beat those views of LA from the Getty.
  • Skirball Cultural Center: The Skirball offers an interesting Teen Corps volunteer program that exposes interested teens to a range of museum jobs and skills. Yet, I think the work that the Skirball has done to rethink its visitor experience and interpretation model has done more to improve its experience for teens than anything else.  Howard seemed to connect to this institution more than any other, likely in large part due to their work to reinvent exhibition design. I also noticed that they installed an exhibit a few years ago on immigration in LA that was told from the perspective of local teenagers — and that would only happen at an institution that seems to truly value teen voices.
Teen Art Lounge at the Walker Art Center. Photo by starfive

Outside of Howard’s tour-de-LA-museums, there are lots of art museums that have developed robust programs to connect in meaningful ways with teenagers.  I wanted to highlight a few of them, but this list is no where near exhaustive.  Almost all art museums these days offer something for teens, from drawing classes and high school art projects to full-blown teen councils, teen-designed websites, parties, internships, etc.  Here are a few of the best that I have learned about over the past several years (please add your favorites by commenting below):

WACTAC: Working to target teen audiences and engagement for more than the past 15 years, the Walker Art Center certainly gets a nod here.  I remember speaking with their education staff a few years ago during a visit I made to Minneapolis, and I was blown away by everything they were doing to attract teen audiences and, more importantly, to listen to teen voices as they programmed and planned.  Their WACTAC (Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council) provides the institution with a dedicated, core group of teenagers who work closely with staff to plan program and events for teens.  Past programs have included teen art exhibitions, printed publications, performances, film screenings, artist talks, and art-making events. They even worked to design the museum’s teen website, which I think is awesome (how many museums let go this much, and open the thinking process to teenagers). The Walker also holds teen art workshops, exhibits the work of area teenage artists, and offers additional internships for this age group.

MoMA Teens: While I have always been a fan of MoMA‘s teen website called Red Studio (which is really quite fantastic, you should check it out), I recently learned more about their other offerings for teenagers. Beyond Red Studio’s teen interviews with artists and online art activities, MoMA offers free classes, film screenings, Teen Night Out events, and other websites designed by and for teens. One, called Pop Art developed in 2009 in conjunction with MoMA’s Youth Advisory Council, seems to be a new way to browse selected work in the collection and share them with friends (and I’ll admit that I spent a bit too much time on the site making my own collections and simply exploring the artworks that popped up on my screen). And if you’ve ever been to MoMA on one of their Free Fridays, you know that they are not having too much trouble attracting young audiences.

Teen Night at the ICA Boston. Photo by believekevin

ICA Teens & the National Convening for Teens in the Arts: The institution that has continued to impress me the most when it comes to teen audiences is the ICA Boston.  Like the Walker and MoMA, they utilize a core Teen Art Council to help them plan events for teenage audiences, such as their upcoming Teen Night in November that merges early hip hop with the imagery of dreams through live music, breakdancing tutorials, and spinning all night from the ICA teen DJ collective (yes, you heard me correct … they have their own DJ collective).  The ICA also runs a program called Fast Forward that brings together teenagers around creating film, video, and new media. Yet above and beyond all of these individual programs, the ICA Boston has worked to pull off its annual National Convenings for Teens in the Arts — an event that was initiated “in response to the lack of opportunity for students and educators to collaboratively discuss the issues, challenges, and possibilities facing the field of contemporary arts education for urban teens” (2011 Education Report). The convening brings together teen arts leaders and museum educators to explore the role museums can play in youth development, teen program advocacy, and experimenting in museums. The ICA has created an Education Report for each of the past events, and these documents are available on their website and totally worth a close look.

This just skims the surface when it comes to teen engagement in museums — notable mentions should also go out to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Youth Insights program, as well as the much smaller but perhaps equally-as-powerful YouthSmart program at the Saint Louis Art Museum that hires Summer Teen Assistants to work closely with education staff and artists as well as lead tours for thousands of youth groups (unfortunately, you can’t find much information at all about this incredible opportunity for teens at SLAM, making it that institution’s best kept secret).

While this wide array of teen councils, parties, and online activities certainly shows that museums are paying attention to teens, I’m still unsure how these types of programs make a difference for the drop-in teen visitor (like Howard).  Have these institutions and others changed their visitor experience due to their close work with teenagers?  Is the remainder of the museum experience simply “business as usual” (which, for Howard and most teens, would mean ‘boring’)?

A Challenge to Museums

So I’m going to wrap-up this post where I started, and let the conversation turn back on museums.  As I mentioned, the link to Howard Hwang’s article came to me via a great colleague and friend, Dana Carlisle Kletcka, who directs education programs at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State (meaning that she is constantly struggling with issues that pertain to the slightly older teen audience). In her email to me, she summed up what many of us museum educators are thinking when we read Howard’s words and reflect back on our own efforts (or lack of effort) to listen to teenagers, open up opportunities for younger voices to be heard in our institutions, and allow for something interesting to happen as teens like Howard walk through the door.  So I’ll give Dana the last word here, and I invite your thoughts and responses below:

“[Howard’s] words certainly made me wonder what museum staff and volunteers can do to respond to his very honest assessment of museums, which is present in a certain portion of the population whether we like it or not…. What I had hoped to do by passing along this article was to stimulate thinking as to how the role of educators in museums–volunteer or not–can mitigate and in fact change such superficial reactions to the museum. What if he had been in a group with a really good docent? What if he had engaged in conversation with the other nameless gallery visitors who challenged his “I could do that” thinking? What if he had been greeted at the door by a friendly adult? What if he had engaged in any type of art-making activity that showed him just how challenging it can be to make something with your hands in concert with your mind?

“I’m certainly not suggesting that we modify our practices to suit one surly 15-year-old. But it is worth pondering how the work that we do is a catalyst for changing such opinions and in fact igniting sparks of intellectual curiosity that will grow in time.”

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

UPDATE: I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article (actually written in 2001), his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later. Here is the link to my “epilogue” to this post, which includes notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang: “Epilogue – Why Museums Don’t Suck: Connecting with Howard Hwang”

Teen group drops by for a visit at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.

OpenThink: Making the Conversation More Inclusive

On this blog, I have been wanting to experiment with a more “open,” participatory format for posts that engage us all in a dialogue with each other — something that steers away from the “I know something I want to share with you” and moves more toward “I wonder about something and I’d love to know what you, my peers, think.” So I’m going to give this a try in a new category that I’m calling OpenThink. I’ll experiment with some other technology-based ways of doing this, but I thought I would start out by just inviting your thoughts in the traditional “comments” field below. I’m keeping it simple this first time, mostly because I am typing this from the beautiful island of Barbados as I attend the Fifth International Conference on the Inclusive Museum.

My questions for us to consider in this OpenThink are focused around my interactions during Day 1 of this fascinating and fruitful conference:

  • How can we make the conversation about museum education more global and inclusive?

  • What are some ways in which we can more effectively connect and share our practice across borders & boundaries?

  • Do we have a professional responsibility to ground our work in a consciousness of the world around us? Why is this important and valuable for the field of museum education?

The conversations I have had thus far at the Inclusive Museum conference have made me immediately wonder about some key fundamental questions that this transformational knowledge community has been asking for several years. I want to pull some of the language they use in their 2012 conference program to help define and clarify what I might mean above by “more global and inclusive,” and to frame some of the key issues this group is grappling with:

“The annual conference continues to ask fundamental questions about the role of museums during rapid change that characterizes societies everywhere in the world. It is envisaged that museums, both as a creature of that change and also as agents of change, are places where museum practitioners, researchers, thinkers, and educators can engage in discussions on the historic character and future shape of museums. The key question of the conference is: How can the institution of the museum become more inclusive?

“No longer the universal individual citizen of our recent modern aspirations, visitors of today are recognizably diverse. The dimensions of this diversity are material (class, locale, family circumstances), corporeal (age, race, sex & sexuality, and physical and mental characteristics), and symbolic (culture, language, gender, family, affinity, and persona). These are the gross demographics, the things that insist on our attention. But if we take the time to look more closely at today’s public, it is qualified by intersections and layers of identity which immediately turn the gross demographics into dangerous oversimplifications. The paradox of today’s public is that, in an era of globalization, actual cultures are diverging: dispositions, sensibilities, values stances, interests, orientations, affinities, and networks.”

And the question that resonates with me the most…

“How do we create a museum where the text is open, where every visitor is allowed the space to create their own meanings, where no visitor is left out?”

Here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, out of the 75 countries accessing the site, only about 20% of the readership comes from outside the United States, and more than one third of those are from Australia, Canada, and the UK. Only 2.5% of those who visit with this site are from nations outside the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. I’d like to open this up more, but I am not exactly sure where to start (although attending the Inclusive Museum conference has been a good beginning, meeting museum peers from across the globe who share a passion for transforming what learning looks like in museums — I hope several of them will be adding their voices to this site in the upcoming months).

So I have posited my wonderings — now I ask you to chime in and add to the conversation below.

(CAVEAT: Given that I am in Barbados, I will do my absolute best to get comments posted promptly — but do bare with me, especially as this Tropical Storm Ernesto makes its way across the island this morning … should be interesting).

Dancing to Jackson Pollock: Exploring Multi-Modal Responses to Art

Originally posted on ArtMuseumTeaching.com on February 5, 2012 – the site’s inaugural post. 

As schools and museums work to meet the demands of the 21st century, there has been a renewed emphasis on developing an interdisciplinary culture of inquiry where teachers and students integrate insights and modes of thinking. Through my own teaching practice, I have frequently explored ways in which interdisciplinary inquiry can occur in the art museum, considering productive ways that we might bring musical, kinesthetic, and linguistic modes of thinking to the act of interpreting and making meaning of a work of visual art.  Responding to a single work of art through a process that involves multiple modes of thinking from across creative art forms, I continue to consider how each strategy makes meaning and asks questions in a different way–ultimately seeing how these approaches can be woven together to build toward more complex cognition as well as a deeper understanding of not just the artwork, but also of ourselves as learners/thinkers.

In November 2011, I led an in-gallery workshop for teachers at the High Museum of Art as part of the Project Zero/CASIE conference. The experiences centered around an extended engagement with  Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A,” 1948, which was on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a special exhibition.

LOOKING: Bringing the group’s attention to Pollock’s painting before us, we spent some time looking and recording our initial observations and wonderings.  Since part of the goal of this workshop was to connect to Project Zero’s work (via Ron Ritchhart) with “making thinking visible,” participants were encouraged to record their thoughts and responses in a journal throughout the entire engagement with this painting.

SKETCHING WITH LINES & LANGUAGE: I framed the next stage of our experience with this painting around the ideas of Jack Kerouac, an experimenter of spontaneous language as well as a contemporary of Jackson Pollock.  In his “Essential of Spontaneous Prose” (1959), Kerouac writes that “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words.”  This near-manifesto of spontaneous written response inspired me to develop some way for participants to be “swimming in a sea of language,” in Kerouac’s words, with the painting by Pollock. This process began with everyone drawing 2 or 3 significant lines that they find in the painting, then completing their “sketches” using only language and words. Following Kerouac’s method, there was no editing — just writing in a constant flow.

MAKING THE PAINT COME ALIVE THROUGH SOUND: Exploring Pollock’s canvas through sound originated in my own heightened interest in Pollock’s own passion and association with jazz music. Lee Krasner once remarked that Pollock thought that jazz “was the only other really creative thing that was happening in this country.” For the next phase of this workshop, we turned the gallery into a ‘sound lounge,’ breaking into small groups and experimenting with the spectrum of sounds we could create with just our bodies and the stuff in our purses, bags, and pockets. Each group was asked to create a sound composition in response to the painting. This ‘found sound’ exercise became a way of pulling out the basic structures of the painting that have a relationship with our sense of perceiving rhythms, tempos, and more improvisational structures embedded in the paint.

We finished this exercise with a quick reflection — what did people notice about this activity, and about the sounds each group performed?  Participants noticed that the sounds created were very rhythmic and controlled, despite the seemingly chaotic and disorderly nature of the painting. Others noted that this exercise allowed them to respond to the painting in ways not possible through words alone — that this acoustic response tapped into a new, almost unconscious element of the artwork as well as the creative process.

performing the sounds of the painting

MINING THE LAYERS OF PAINT THROUGH MOVEMENT: Examining a Jackson Pollock gesture-field painting without kinesthetic thinking would seem inadequate, especially if we think of the famous Hans Namuth films of Jackson Pollock dancing around his canvases, dripping paint across their surfaces. Dance critic Roger Copeland actually called Namuth’s film of Pollock “one of the world’s most significant dance films,” demonstrating that “the fundamental impulse behind abstract expressionism was the desire to transform painting into dancing.”

For this workshop, I decided to model various types of dynamic movement response, inviting volunteers to come to the front and improvise with the painting — then asking each small group to create a dynamic, three-dimensional moving response to the painting (adding words and sounds as needed).  Becoming the layers of paint allowed us to pull them apart, get inside them, and use our bodies to make meaning.

volunteers creating 3 types of dynamic movement

We let the group performances speak for themselves, not overtalking them or reducing these personal and embodied meanings to a set of art historical associations with Pollock and his process — and I will refrain from overtalking them here, as well.  Yet a key goal for this workshop was for teachers to become expressive participants in an artistic experience, pushing beyond mere “spectating” or “learning at a glance” toward something more aligned with enhanced engagement or participatory arts practice in which the creative mind is activated and the focus shifts from the product to the process of creation.

SO WHAT? ENVISIONING INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK IN THE CLASSROOM: With the few minutes we had remaining, I felt compelled to deal with the “so what?”  Why did we just do this?  In what ways might we bring this experience back to our own spaces of learning (museums, classrooms, etc.)? Much of our discussion centered around what interdisciplinary learning looks like: connected, collaborative, free, lots of parts coming together as a whole, and building toward something more meaningful.  The best culminating moment for me was when one teacher said that he felt the whole experience was about “synergy.”

The last few remarks before the workshop ended inspired us to wonder what Jackson Pollock had actually taught us about learning.  Weren’t the layers and topographies of this painting paralleled in our own landscapes of learning, and in this multidimensional and multi-modal experience with this painting.  I think we all left the workshop feeling that Pollock’s “Number 1A” was an essential part of the conversation about learning, and building to learn.

The workshop ended with the words of choreographer Merce Cunningham — click here for the quote.

Experimenting in Museums: What do you need most today?

Photo: Yang Weidong – http://www.smh.com.au

For the past 4 years, Chinese artist Yang Weidong has posed a deceptively simple question to over 300 Chinese intellectuals: “What do Chinese people need most today?”  These wide-ranging interviews have now become the core of a book by Yang as well as a in-progress documentary film titled “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese, and “Signal” in English.  As for their answers … “Of China’s thinkers,” Yang tells NPR’s Louise Lim,  “more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.”

“Freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and “free space for creative work” are combined with other responses in which people talked about the need for faith or spiritual life.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut succinctly puts it, Yang’s project is about “China’s thirst for freedom.”  His simple question opened up some really powerful conversations with China’s intellectual and creative class about sincere needs and legitimate concerns — conversations that, interestingly enough, have not yet been shut down by the Chinese government (despite repeated searches of Yang’s home and after some of the interview tapes have been confiscated).

Taking the spark of motivation from Yang’s inspiring and ongoing “Need” project, I recently decided to develop an experimental prototype that would explore how museums might interact with this idea of personal/universal needs — real, sincere needs that could build toward new forms of public engagement. For the second year in a row, I am facilitating the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a unique program that brings together a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students to explore and create different types of museum teaching and learning experiences.

On the first day of this summer’s program, I invited each of our 18 interns to take some time and reflect on the big question: “What do you need most today?”  Not thinking about museums or art in anyway, their task was simply to dig into their own, personal needs and decide on one that seemed urgent right now (‘today’).  After everyone had identified their “I need” statement, they wrote their needs on large pieces of posterboard and stood on the front steps of the art museum so I could take each intern’s photo (see the Pinterest board of all the photos).

For me, this was planting the seeds of a 10-week project through which these interns are slowly and intentionally developing their own public engagement projects to be enacted in August. And the next step pushed things in that direction the following week, as each intern was invited to reflect on their need statement and think about how, in some way, museums might fulfill that need — thinking creatively and outside-the-box.  Below are just a few excerpts from those reflections:

An engaged community: “Experiencing art is a tangible way to engage with and learn about others – it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, which builds a community by sharing experiences that can be taken home with you. In this way, the art museum offers a unique setting for community engagement. I believe that viewing art as this kind of open invitation is what inspires visitors to return, and it is the museum’s responsibility to continue this discussion”

A variety of choices: “I believe the museum setting encourages a structured approach to the works contained within them … the standard Look, Read, Look, Move On.  [B]ut without encouraging or allowing new ways to interact with the works, most viewers will stay within the confines of the standard viewing methods.  By encouraging a variety of ways to interact with the works within the museum, it will allow for a visit that breaks from the norm, and encourages the development of new avenues of interest, and make visits a more unique experience.”

Stories: “People love stories — to feel connected to their fellows even across the boundaries of nationality, culture, and language.  We like to know that we are not alone in our desires, our longings, and our needs. [And] an art museum seems to me to be the perfect place to go to find stories.  One could invent a story based on a single painting or sculpture; perhaps all the works in a gallery could be different parts of the story; maybe the different parts of a story are scattered across the museum and the game is to find them all.  Art museums have endless possibilities for finding stories.”

For the past 3 weeks now, we have been extending our conversations about these needs and how they might build toward a public engagement project at the museum.  First, we laid out everyone’s needs and did a short mapping activity — a great way to make our thinking visible and allow us to explore potential connections and relationships among the group’s needs.  Then, from there, everyone got into pairs based on “adjacent” needs on the map, and each pair interviewed each other about their need and how it might translate into a museum-based project.  Most recently, we all connected with experimental museum work at institutions such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Field and the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement programs, paralleling our learning about “public engagement” and social practice with our own developing ideas.

As we enter our 4th week of this summer’s program, I think we’re heading in interesting directions.  This week, we will begin to form more concrete ideas and develop prototypes for projects.  While I know we have lots of questions to ask and issues to navigate, I am excited to have launched into this project over the summer.  The Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program has always been an exceptional time and place for experimentation, especially due to the diverse and energetic group of students who participate each summer.  For me, exploring museum work from the point of view of personal and universal “needs” has the potential to make these projects so much more relevant, sincere, and “real” (however you define that).  And these are all things on the minds of museums — and especially museum educators — as we trudge through the second decade of the 21st century.

Much like artist Yang Weidong’s “Need” project, mindful museums have tremendous potential and power in their engagements with communities and the issues that these communities care about most.  Sometimes simply discovering those needs is an important first step, building up from them to create opportunities for engagement and learning that are more responsive and relevant to the issues facing us ‘today.’  Towards the conclusion of his 2009 book entitled Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes provides us with some provocative thoughts that may connect with why this type of work is valid and valuable:

“All museums have the responsibility and the opportunity to become synthesizers, and foster an understanding of the interconnectedness of the problems we face, both environmental and social. A mindful museum can empower and honour all people in the search for a sustainable and just world — by creating a mission that focuses on the interconnectedness of our world and its challenges, and promotes the integration of disparate perspectives.” (p. 166)

“It has been noted that ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ Will communities continue to care about museums in their current guise? Will museums discover what they care about? Or are museums at risk?” (p. 168)

I will certainly be posting again as the summer’s intern program continues and we get closer to the series of public engagement projects we plan to enact on August 9 and 10.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and perspectives below.  How might you tap into “needs” (external/internal/audience) as a core for experimental program development?  How important is this type of work for museums?  Share your stories and practices here or on Twitter via @murawski27.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

Experimenting in Museums: Taking Risks with How We Work

“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”

-Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report

Experimental work in museums has been a topic of conversation for quite some time, and many museums have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects.  But earlier this spring, many of these explorations and ideas came together in a unique and powerful way in a session at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting entitled “Experimental Museum Projects: Creating a Community of Practice.”  Presented by Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum), this session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees — and the entire museum community — with an Elastic Manifesto for Museums and Artists.

photo by Kristin Mckee

For me, this has sparked some great conversations with colleagues and staff about taking more risks with the work we do, and fueled my own fire to “just make it happen” (to use the words of the Manifesto).  And here’s the really crazy thing … I didn’t even attend the conference!  I had heard about the session prior to AAM, and connected to the Elastic Manifesto and related materials through Maria Mortati’s blog (which includes the Elastic Manifesto, Elastic Manual, and supporting Bibliography with some must reads!).  The presenters also started the Experimental Museum Projects group on Facebook, and their session was tweeted and retweeted to a very widespread audience on Twitter.  So before AAM had even ended, people across the country had already been discussing the ideas surrounding this flexible manifesto and embracing experimental work.

Far beyond the boundaries of the conference, this session is now living its potential to empower these types of experimental projects and to help museums create platforms and spaces for new kinds of creative experiences.  To support the open conversation that has been ongoing since AAM, I wanted to launch a new series of posts called “Experimenting in Museums” on ArtMuseumTeaching.com and include more voices and projects to the mix.

As you read the perspectives posted in this series, you can add your own thoughts to the conversation in 2 ways: (1) add comments to the blog posts, and (2) contact me via Twitter @murawski27 if you are interested in contributing your own post to this series.

EXPERIMENTING IN MUSEUMS SERIES

Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content

“Often I set up a platform and ask a question, in one way or another, and then invite people to come in. It’s a conversation, a call and response.”

Keetra Dean Dixon, interview by authors (2010)

Museums are often all about control — controlling what visitors see, controlling the information presented about objects, controlling the ways in which visitors can create meaning, and even controlling the types of technology or devices we can use to access their collection or extended resources. A “well-curated” exhibition or gallery passively delivers a specific message to a targeted, restricted audience.  But, as the authors of Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content offer, “participatory design turns this idea on its head.”

While focusing on the profession and field of design (which is actually a broad field that obviously has so much overlap and integration with museums), the ideas forwarded in this book resonated with me in terms of how museums are struggling to engage in more participatory acts.  The mantra I take away from the authors text as well as their interviews with a wide range of innovative designers is this: “participatory design replaces monologues with conversations” (25).  This not only resonated with me, with seemed to ring true with all the the future-of-museums talk going on these days to find ways to harness the massive engagement with Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Vimeo, YouTube, and Twitter that has conditioned the public to contribute, connect, and create.

How does participatory design work?

In her introduction to Participate, designer and writer Helen Armstrong defines the best participatory design as soliciting content from users and then translating that into something greater than the initial contribution.

“The initial contributions are simple, easily carried out by the user: a photograph, a sketch, a doodle, a word, a movement, a vocalization, a touch. But when put into the context of a larger participatory project, user content flourishes in unexpected ways.” (12)

I love to be reminded that the seed of a good participatory project is really something very simple (and doable), encouraging broader involvement.  Sometimes it is so easy to get wrapped up in some multi-layered, complex idea that sounds cool to us, but that no one in their right mind would actually take the time to participate in/with.  I will always remember one of my design professors in college who harped on about KISS … Keep It Simple Stupid!  This “less is more” dictum never fails, though, when looking to museum visitors for contributions.

For museums, like designers, relinquishing control means celebrating process-oriented work that is not ‘complete’ until visitors or audiences participate, and celebrating the unpredictability this process brings.  I would even say that we need to be open to entirely new types of participation that might simply end with social interactions or conversations — something we often think will get us somewhere, but we need to recognize that sometimes we are already there.

“Content is not king — contact is.”

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed (2010)

The book does make the necessary connections with museums.  In the chapter on modularity and providing structures for these largely open-ended undertakings, they quote Nina Simon saying, “The best participatory experiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engaging in the activity” (Simon, Participatory Museum, 13). Even though we find ourselves ‘breaking the rules’ and removing restrictions to get participatory work done in museums, any participatory process needs rules, constraints, and parameters to prevent it from descending into muddled confusion. Even just making the structure of your project and process transparent to your participants and contributors can help keep to the plan.

Participate also rightfully spotlights some of the recent identity, branding, and promotional campaign designs at the Walker Art Center, including a great interview with Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator at the Walker.

Overall, I think there is great value for museum educators in engaging with the field of design and design thinking, especially as we work toward similar goals of empowering 21st-century audiences to contribute, interact, and become makers and doers.  I’ll be following up in the next several weeks with some of my own nascent attempts at making this site a bit more participatory in various ways.  Stay tuned…

Piensa en Arte and Critical Pedagogy

Co-authored with Jessica de la Garza, Museum Educator Advisor for Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, Mexico.

Utilice este lazo para traducir esta página en español.

To what extent is the practice of museum teaching a truly democratic process, aimed at bringing multiple voices together, seeing things from multiple perspectives, dialoguing, discussing, debating? As museum educators, do we view learning as an ongoing dialectic process that is built around the experiences of the student — even breaking down the hierarchies between teacher and student?  How often would we define our own practice (or the programs we plan, facilitate, or present about) as authentically embracing openness, respectful dialogue, serious inquiry, equity, and comfort with ambiguity?

These are difficult questions we should be asking ourselves as we reflect on the pedagogies we adopt to deepen learning and increase student or visitor engagement in our museums.  And one teaching methodology that exists to support and guide this type of Freirean (à la Paulo Freire) framework is Piensa en Arte.  Never heard of it?  Well we’re about to remedy that.

What is Piensa en Arte?

Piensa en Arte is a visual arts education initiative of the Fundación Cisneros and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC), aligned with the Fundación’s deep commitment to improving education, promoting the appreciation of modern and contemporary art, and sharing Latin America’s impressive cultural contribution with a wider audience.  Through conversational questioning, the use of conditional language, inclusion of contextual and cultural information, and guided reflection, the Piensa en Arte methodology supports mediated learning as the framework for collaborative learning experiences around works of art. Overall, the approach emphasizes learning as a shared endeavor, empowering students to generate their own knowledge. As the CPPC’s website describes:

Piensa en Arte develops a series of exercises that, although generated from works of art, are not recognized immediately as being directly linked to them.  Once the exercises are solved, learners discuss the artist’s work in relation to their own problem-solving endeavors.  Like the artists whose work they discuss, learners become active participants in the development and questioning of cultural meaning rather than the passive recipients of cultural products, and apprehend education as a process of investigating, questioning and creating.

To date, Piensa en Arte has been implemented in Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States. The program has reached more than a thousand educators, who in turn have brought it to hundreds of thousands of students.  One of the main ways it reached the United States was through a unique collaboration between CPPC and Wheaton College, which led to the publication of an Education Guide that provides a useful guide to this teaching methodology as well as a set of teaching posters for use in the classroom designed by Wheaton students and CPPC educators.

The Learning Process of Piensa en Arte:

 Piensa en Arte is a methodology that combines the use of various tools, including questioning as a strategy to mediate the conversation along with contextual information related to a work of art. A crucial aspect of the methodology is the inclusion of contextual information that places the work of art historically and culturally.

While the focus of the methodology is to emphasize the art object as a primary source for the exploration, contextual information (carefully selected) and questioning are essential for the best application.  An essential component of the methodology Piensa en Arte is mediating learning as a framework to create teaching experiences in a group through conversation.

The process suggests to start the first conversation with the students asking them to establish the rules of the good listener and good talker, having them make a list of attributes of each of them. It is then followed by questioning as a strategy to mediate the conversation. These questions are organized into categories and intended to create a climate of interaction between the students:

Key Questions, that initiate and sustain conversation, and support students to formulate their own ideas:

  • What do you think can / could be happening in this picture?
  • What else do you think can / could be happening in this picture?
  • What do you see in this picture?
  • What else do you see?
  • What do you see that makes you say / think that?

Questions Seeking Visual Evidence, that encourage students to provide comments to support their interpretations:

  • Is there anything else? What makes you think / say …?  Please describe it.
  • What specifically do you see?
  • What is the visual evidence that support your opinion?
  • What elements in the image you have to think / say …?

Follow Up-Questions, that invite the exchange amongst students who seek an interest in contributing different views and fosters visual evidence that support interpretations that were not originally thought by them:

  • Who can add something that … thought / said about …?
  • What do we see behind it … thought / said about ….?
  • What other visual evidence can we say about …?
  • Who can reply to the comment / idea that …?

Questions after providing contextual information for students seeking to return to work as a primary source, after receiving contextual information from you, allowing for the further enhancement of their approach to the works of art.

  • Now that we know …
  • How does this information provides to our conversation?
  • What else can we say about this picture based on this information?
  • What else do you see in this picture now that we know …?
  • What would you add to the previous thoughts / ideas now that you know the artist’s words?
  • How does this affects your thoughts / ideas know that we are having information about the work of art?

It is through the combination of these questions as a strategy to mediate the conversation, plus having the tools for a conversation, as well as the supply of contextual information about the work of art that will facilitate an exhaustive and rich discussion between students. This approach gives priority to the thinking processes of individuals.

Why is Piensa en Arte one of the best kept secrets?

Well, first, we hope that we can help the methodology become less of a secret.  And, in addition to questioning, there are several core elements of Piensa en Arte that make it worthy of sharing with colleagues and educators (both in museums and in the classroom):

Use of Conditional Language: Language is a powerful thing, especially when working to create equitable, empowering conversations with students in which the teacher attempts to take a neutral stance.  Piensa en Arte recommends paying close attention to the words we use as mediators of conversations, applying words such as “would,” “could,” and “might” when asking questions and rephrasing students’ interpretations.

Providing Contextual Information: While some visual literacy strategies prevent an educator from bringing additional cultural and historical information into the discussion, Piensa en Arte values the way that the context surrounding a work of art can build cultural awareness. Using relevant information to deepen the dialogue, this approach focuses on works of Latin American art from the CPPC (or similar artworks from your own museum’s collection) and can remind students that they are part of a global community.

Enabling Reflection: At the core of the Piensa en Arte approach is the element of reflective practice and metacognition. As outlined by Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy must involve asking questions about our own thinking process.  In this way, Piensa en Arte enables students to become aware of the teaching methodology being used and how it is structured.  For example, after becoming familiar with the process, students might be asked “What questions do you notice I use frequently during our conversations?” or “How do you think these questions help us analyze the work of art?”  This can also model a reflective practice for students, who can apply this metacognitive process to other areas of school and non-school learning.

Modeling Inquiry & Dialogue: Overall, the Piensa en Arte methodology can be a process of inquiry that the students can learn from.  Teachers are regularly modeling this open exchange of ideas and opinions so that students can use it respectfully to converse among themselves and ask each other questions.

“Never does an event, a fact, a deed, a gesture of rage or love, a poem, a painting, a song, a book, have one reason behind it. In fact, a deep gesture, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys. Only some of these are close enough to the event or the creation to be visible as whys. And so I have always been more interested in understanding the process in and by which things come about than in the product itself.” -Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (1994)

Note: Some of the information above has been taken from one of the tutorial programs of Piensa en Arte of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC), written by Maria del Carmen Gonzalez, Curator of Education of the CPPC, 2006.  Special thanks to Maria for her vision in developing and promoting this transformative approach to teaching with art.

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.