Category Archives: Field Notes

Why Museums Can Excel in Online Learning

“The recent development of MOOCs (massive open online courses) can provide museums with valuable possibilities for education, community outreach and multi-disciplinary collaboration.”

The quote above by David Greenfield, a doctoral candidate in Learning Technologies at Pepperdine University, was part of a paper entitled “MOOCs, Museums, and Schools: Natural Partners and Processes for Learning” presented at the recent Museums & the Web Conference in Portland theorizing about the potential of partnerships with schools and community members in developing online museum courses. Museums are already starting to realize those possibilities in the area of online courses.

The Museum of Modern Art, the Tate and my own North Carolina Museum of Art are currently offering extended online courses similar to MOOCs. These courses are different from each other in content, audience, and style, yet they are all pioneering engagement with local, national, and global audiences through objects in their specific collections. Their experiences offer important lessons to future museum MOOC-makers.

Why Museums Can Excel Online

MoMA Educator Deborah Howes interviewing MoMA Conservator Glen Wharton in front of 'Untitled,' 1993 by Nam June Paik. Photo used with permission (c) MoMA 2013.
MoMA educator Deborah Howes filming a segment for MoMA Online Courses in front of a Nam June Paik piece.

Why are museums uniquely suited to be leaders in this field? For one, museum education is predicated on informal, constructivist learning approaches which encourage the learner to control their learning. Similarly, online courses allow students to go through the content at their own pace, constructing their own meaning from discussion forums, assignments and projects. Deborah Howes, Director of Digital Learning at MoMA, said, the pairing of museum education and online learning is, “conceptually, very much aligned.” She continues:

“Museum education teaching is based on the curiosity of people who come from all different walks of life and have any number of questions about what excites them. Teaching online, we offer different kinds of learning experiences–videos of behind the scenes tours, slide shows of art works, DIY experiments–and students explore this variety according to their own interests to create meaning.”

Second, museum learning is often social. Visitors come in groups, field trips, or with families to share the experience of looking at and discussing objects. Learning Management Systems like Blackboard, Moodle, and Haiku allow for similar discussions and facilitate group collaboration.

At the North Carolina Museum of Art, students who might live hundreds of miles away can work together on a video project and post art projects to receive peer feedback. MoMA and Tate also encourage this type of online community through discussion boards. MoMA online course alumni have created their own Facebook groups to extend the learning community, some of which are in their third year of operation

MOOCs Multiply Museum Outreach

Elizabeth Moore, an NCVPS Photography student stands with her work in an exhibition in NCMA's education gallery. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art.
Elizabeth Moore, an NCVPS Photography student stands with her work in an exhibition in NCMA’s education gallery. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art.

Online learning can offer virtual windows to the extensive, beautiful, and awe-inspiring collections that museums have to offer. The NCMA is located in the middle of North Carolina, a state 560 miles (900 km) long. The virtual courses offer both synchronous and asynchronous components. Each week the instructor is in charge of opening the module (or unit) and hosting one live class with students. Otherwise, students go through that module and complete assignments at their own pace. Modules can include articles, assignments, discussion forums vocabulary wiki’s and/or multimedia. Over half of our online high school students live hours away and may never have even heard of their state art museum. Online, they can take our courses, be exposed to art spanning 5,000 years of all mediums, including sculpture, photography, paintings, and mixed media.

Once students take online classes at NCMA, we want to find ways to bring them to the brick-and-mortar building. To do that, we host exhibitions that highlight work from our online courses, which encourages students to visit the NCMA in person (see photo). We’ve also offered field trips and buses to our annual teen event.

The Tate’s reach stretches nationally and even globally. Rosie Cardiff, e-Learning editor at Tate, found that 31% of her students based outside the United Kingdom, with just under 10% living in Australia and New Zealand. Similarly, MoMA has both a national and international reach. A woman from rural Canada who took one of the online courses thanked Howes for the opportunity to interact with a global community of contemporary art lovers that she could not find locally. “A museum can provide that type of community and support,” Howes says.

Financing Remains a Challenge

Both the MoMA and NCMA courses started because of grants from Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Foundation, respectively. Both of these grants end soon, and both institutions are seeking future funding for the growth and expansion of the courses. MoMA charges $150–200 for their self-guided course and $200–350 for their instructor-led courses. Those fees will help sustain the program, whether or not they receive a future grant. The NCMA, on the other hand, does not charge for their courses, instead, high school students receive school credit. While we encourage students to visit the NCMA to see their exhibition or attend a field trip, we don’t have additional funds to cover their travel.

In Tate’s case, Rosie Cardiff explained that “initial funding for developing the courses came from the Tate Online core budget.” Tate charges £20 ($31) for unlimited course access. Cardiff says the courses “have now paid for themselves and cover costs of ongoing maintenance and copyright fees, etc., but they don’t generate much in the way of profit.” When asked what advice she would give to future museums or institutions looking to invest in developing online courses, Cardiff advised thinking “carefully about the business model for the online courses if you are planning to use them to generate revenue. Courses can be costly to produce and you need to think about ongoing maintenance costs, especially if the courses are tutored.”

Cardiff and her team presented an evaluation of their courses and their changing business model at Museums & the Web 2012.

An inside look at the Tate online courses. Courtesy Tate Museum.
An inside look at the Tate online courses. Courtesy Tate Museum.

Grounded in Specific Collections

As museums create online courses, resources, or distant learning programs, Howes advises they “think creatively about the unique qualities of their collection and what that could offer to a global audience. Anyone can do a course on modern art if they have a collection, but how do they offer a unique look on this topic?”

Similarly, the Tate and NCMA courses offer visitors opportunities to engage with and respond to art specific to their collections. The NCMA courses use art in the permanent collection as catalysts for learning about topics such as game design, advertising, fashion, photography and videography. The multimedia we provide include videos of art in the galleries, interviews with museum staff or local, North Carolina experts in that particular field. All three museums offer opportunities to watch video interviews with artists, curators, or experts, as well as demonstrations of artist technique and process.

Full Speed to the Future

David Greenfield believes that when it comes to museums and online learning, “we’re in the evolutionary stages of what’s going on.” As pioneers of a new educational format, museums join with for-profit companies like 2U and Coursera in shaping a field that is rapidly changing. In fact, as of May 1, 2013, MoMA, along with the Exploratorium in San Francisco, has announced a new partnership offering professional development MOOCs for K-12 teachers.

“Museums”, says MoMA’s Deborah Howes, “have a chance to rewrite art history in a way that is relevant to where they are.” MoMA, Tate, and NCMA are already doing just that.

ONLINE COURSE DETAILS:

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Courses Online

  • Audience: lifelong learners, general public
  • Cost: varies from $150-350
  • Length: 5-10 weeks
  • Course topics (selected): From Pigment to Pixel: Color in Modern and Contemporary Art, Experimenting with Collage, Modern Art 1880-1945, Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting, etc.
  • Instruction: Self-guided and instructor-led options

North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) Virtual Courses

  • Audience: North Carolina public high school students
  • Cost: Free; only available to high school students for credit
  • Length: semester
  • Course topics: Videography, game design, fashion, advertising, photography
  • Instruction: Instructor-led

Tate Online Courses

  • Audience: lifelong learners, general public
  • Cost: £20
  • Length: 6 units per course, self-guided
  • Course topics: Artists’ Techniques & Methods, Introduction to Drawing Techniques
  • Instruction: Self-guided

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

KoteckiEMILY KOTECKI: Associate Coordinator of Teen and College Programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Emily creates online and onsite programming for these audiences, including art competitions, arts councils, and developing online courses.  Prior to museums, Emily worked at The Washington Post as a multimedia politics producer covering the 2008 presidential campaign. She received her received her Master of Arts in Teaching from The George Washington University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Journalism from American University. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyKotecki or visit www.emilykotecki.comEmily’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the North Carolina Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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

Photo by tiff_ku1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is THIS important to you?

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

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

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

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

What Can Art Museums Learn from the MOOC Phenomenon?

Written by Linda Forshaw, guest author
_______________________________________

MOOC-connections1In recent years there has been a new player in the field of education. MOOC (massive open online courses) have taken the world (somewhat) by storm with various free courses from prestigious (and sometimes not so prestigious) universities and colleges. Here is a quick YouTube video describing the basic nuts and bolts of a MOOC, if you are thinking “What in the world is a MOOC?”

Despite there being some skepticism — mainly in relation to the quality of education, incidents of plagiarism, and low completion rates — the popularity of online education platforms continue to grow. In an article entitled “The Year of the MOOC,” Laura Pappano writing for the New York Times reports how the online learning revolution–that reportedly started when more than 150,000 willing students enrolled on an “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course back in the fall of 2011–has grown at an ever increasing pace. As an example, some 370,000 students signed up for the first official courses from edX, a nonprofit MOOC created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. edX is not alone in attracting record numbers of online students. Coursera, a for-profit MOOC created by Stanford professor Andrew Ng, has seen 1.7 million students sign up since its inception.

The pace at which online learning is traveling continues to grow. The year 2013 is set to herald a new offering from the UK’s Open University. Futurelearn, the country’s first real step into MOOC platforms is set to offer courses from Kings College London, the University of Warwick, and others. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., 2U (one of ten startups changing the world according to Forbes) is planning to advance the field of online learning even further by by offering paid, for-credit undergraduate degrees from the likes of Duke, Vanderbilt, and Emory Universities.

With online learning platforms showing no immediate signs of abating, the question remains how art museums can play a role in this sweeping open education movement? It seems that they already are to at least some extent . Initiatives to deliver art to the masses by the likes of the Khan Academy, Google Art Project, The Virtual Hampson Museum, The Giza Archives, and Europeana have been heralded by some as offering an opportunity for those alienated from the world of art to get involved and slated by others who argue that images of famous painting and other artifacts are all well and good, but fall short as an adequate substitution for the real thing.

MOOC1Perhaps the best path forward for museums looking to make inroads in online learning is to create courses that can act as complementary to personal visits, but also provide more than enough information to be sufficient in their own right for those who cannot (for whatever reason) attend in person. Thanks to the Google Art Project and the expansion of the Khan Academy into art history, displaying works online is likely to become increasingly commonplace for museum and art galleries. Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, in their article explaining why the Google Art Project is important, report that other museums have started to make public domain images available for download – namely The Brooklyn Museum,, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The National Gallery of Art. As a result, those who do not get involved may well be left behind.

While there is much discussion about what these open technologies are not, what we do know is that they are expanding opportunities like no other and it can be reasonably said that the museums themselves should join others in discussing the options for learning.

And isn’t learning what it’s all about?

Author

lindaLinda Forshaw is a Business Information Systems graduate from Lancaster University in the UK. A contributor to Degree Jungle, she is a full time writer and blogger specializing in education, social media, and entrepreneurship. Contact her on Twitter @seelindaplay

Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?

 

The Landscape of Arts Inclusion in Public Schools

Emily Shallman and I started talking about exclusion in arts and education while we were both working on our respective Master’s degrees. Lately, I have been eager to ask her to blog about her extensive research in inequitable access to the arts in public schools. Her findings suggest that museums, along with many non-profit arts organizations, are needed as key partners in providing equitable arts engagement and learning for students. Emily’s research prompts me to consider the museum’s place in the “landscape” of arts access, best practices for partnering with schools, and if museum’s are achieving their full potential to impact students. How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities? With more dialogue about these questions art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves. – Aletheia Wittman, The Incluseum

You can also read this post in its entirety on The Incluseum website, including additional citations and notes. The Incluseum is a blog and project to promote social inclusion in museums coordinated by Rose Paquet Kinsley and Aletheia Wittman. Art Museum Teaching and The Incluseum are co-hosting this post in hope that Emily’s work and observations can catalyze a broader dialogue among museum professional and educators.

* * * * *

artwork-hangingArts education is a complex system today, as public schools–in conjunction with Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s), local arts organizations, teaching artists, art specialists, volunteers, museums, school boards, the state legislature, and national policy–work in collaboration to deliver the arts to children. This intertwined web of arts advocates is a reaction to the worsening reality that the arts are no longer a stable piece of public school curriculum, with many schools excluding the arts altogether. The arts have had to react, and find a solution for inclusion in this landscape of severe budget cuts and focus on math and literacy. Rather than demanding to be included in the daily curriculum, with a mantra of “Do not cut the arts,” the arts have forged new partnerships to keep arts education alive in some public schools.

Let me paint the picture for you as best I can in an effort to make arts education more transparent, so that you can see how you fit into this landscape, and where there is room for improvement.

Schools, in the way they deliver (or do not deliver) arts education to children are highly diverse. This diversity means that public school A in Los Angeles, CA, is very different from public school B in San Francisco, CA, based on school population, size, parent involvement, student engagement and achievement, and of course, arts education. In the same way, public school B in San Francisco is also drastically different from public school C in San Francisco. Public schools are increasingly centered on the local, as arts education funding (at least in California) is distributed by local school districts. This distribution of funds, while on the surface entirely equitable, is not.

While each public school may get an equitable amount (based on school population and size, among other factors), PTA’s can quickly change the picture of arts education. More affluent schools tend to have more active PTA’s, and usually raise additional funds for academic programs that they value (and this sometimes includes the arts). Moreover, schools can decide how best to use the money they do receive—does this mean hiring a teaching artist for a week-long intensive for third graders in dance instruction, or does it mean buying new music stands and replacing outdated instruments, or does it mean using these funds to add to the overall school budget to help save a teacher from getting laid off (and hoping that teacher involves her students in arts learning)?

As you can see, arts education in public schools gets complicated quickly, and the picture can also seem rather bleak. However, I believe we are in a golden age of opportunity and collaboration.

Getting Arts Education into Public Schools

Local arts organizations, arts non-profits, and museums, have been afforded the opportunity to help deliver arts education to public school children. These institutions can provide a critical piece of learning to students, and if the success is documented, these collaborations can have a large impact on student learning. Unfortunately, there is no one model to follow when it comes to arts education delivery. As schools are centered on the “local” so is the delivery of the arts. The report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2011) summarizes this nicely, stating:

Photo by Michael Baltz
Photo by Michael Baltz

“Almost every community—indeed almost every school—that tries to address the vexing problem of how to get more arts into schools does so differently. A complex patchwork of arts education services across the country is the result, representing a mix of delivery models that include standards-based sequential arts curricula taught by arts specialists; formal and informal arts integration strategies; and short and long term teaching residencies for artists…There is no one model that works best for every community, and no single solution for the host of economic, pedagogic and logistical challenges faced by arts education advocates.”

Much progress is still to be made in terms of equitable and engaged learning with the arts, however. Interestingly (as based on my thesis research), a local elementary school in San Francisco with a high-poverty student population was a target of grant funding for the arts and actually had so many arts programs that the teachers were concerned about having enough time to teach other subjects. Comparatively, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an average socioeconomic student population (neither affluent, nor high-poverty) had very limited arts education, despite a very vocal and committed PTA full of arts advocates. Lastly, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an affluent student population and a highly involved and highly funded PTA, had hired a full-time art specialist (a very rare occurrence, I can assure you) to teach sequential visual art to all students for an hour each week. The national trend, however, is still that those students in the highest poverty areas are the ones with the least amount of arts education, and are those that could most benefit from them.

Pioneering Partnerships

There are substantial connections and programs to be cultivated with schools and outside organizations to bring quality arts education to all children. The arts, more than any other academic subject, is an area pioneering these partnerships. One successful example is seen at the Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) here in San Francisco. At CCM, public and private elementary-school through high-school students can participate in creative field trips such as claymation, music studio, or innovation lab taught by museum educators.

art-collagesHigh school students can work at the museum in the C.I.T.Y. (Creative Inspiration Through Youth) Teen Program, a paid employment opportunity, helping run exhibits and getting job experience in an arts non-profit environment. In addition, CCM has a growing outreach program, teaching claymation workshops at after-school programs in the Bay Area. While CCM’s programs are quite established and the link to childhood and youth arts education is evident, I know of other arts institutions that are taking baby steps toward inclusion. For example, some art museums now have field trip guides (sometimes just a folded pamphlet) for elementary students to learn about famous artworks in understandable language.

Arts advocates, one school at a time, are inserting the arts, sometimes briefly, to change the landscape of learning. Hopefully this trend will continue to gain momentum. I know that it takes a whole ecosystem of arts advocates, from those working at the national and state level who make policy that supports equitable and quality education, to those at the local level, who raise additional funds for arts education to be taught in public schools, to teachers who understand the importance of the arts, to researchers who publish this knowledge, to people who have been impacted by the arts who share their stories to create more arts advocates.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a full-time arts specialist in every school, in addition to a visiting teaching artist and relevant field trips to museums, as well as after-school arts programs by local arts organizations? Just think of all those students could accomplish!

How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities? With more dialogue about these questions, art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves.

Arts Education Advocacy Resources

EMILY SHALLMAN has a BA in Elementary Art Education with a Washington State Teaching Certificate and Reading Endorsement from Western Washington University, and a MA in Urban Studies from the San Francisco Art Institute. Emily has experience as an Art Specialist, teaching visual art to grades K-5. Her MA thesis researched the history of arts education in public schools, as well as case-study analysis of the inequality of arts education based on socioeconomic factors. Currently, she works at SFAI, serves as a Board Fellow for the California Alliance for Arts Education and runs a children’s illustration blog www.illustrationsby.com. She lives in San Francisco, CA with her husband and two cats.

NAEA 2013 Breakdown – Museum Edition

Photo by Thomas Hawk
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, one of the places hosting NAEA museum preconference activities and a must see while in Fort Worth. Photo by Thomas Hawk

Once again, art and museum educators from across the country (and outside the US) begin to pack their bags and prepare to head to Fort Worth, Texas, next week for the National Art Education Association annual conference (March 6-10). And I thought it would be interesting again this year to offer another quick breakdown of the sessions being offered in conjunction with the Museum Education Division. There are some great sessions being offered this year, in addition to an exciting pre-conference program run by the Museum Division that will for the first time include lots of in-gallery teaching focused on some of the great collections in Fort Worth.

The following stats are pulled only from sessions officially labeled “Museum Education,” so keep that in mind — there are certainly lots of other sessions across divisions that engage with museums, museum learning, and how museums interact with schools and higher education (and I always encourage museum educators to branch out and participate in sessions beyond our “comfort zone”).

But within our own Museum Education Division, here is what it looks like this year at a glance. Click here to compare with last year’s numbers.

Total Museum Education Sessions: 75

Total museum educators presenting: 159 (plus or minus — with 23 people presenting more than 1 session this year)

Most Frequent Session Topics:

  • Visitor/Audience Engagement (various ways of being more responsive to our audiences and visitor needs, etc.) – 11
  • Teacher Professional Development – 9 (duh, it’s NAEA — thousands of teachers attending)
  • K-12 Museum/School Partnerships and School Programs – 8
  • Technologies (iPads, blogs, online communities, etc.) – 7
  • Family Programming – 6
  • Interpretive Resources (gallery didactics, print, web, and mobile) – 6
  • Peer Learning & Communities of Practice (for museum professionals) – 5
  • Art Making & Working with Artist – 5

Rather than focusing on what IS popular or in the spotlight this year, I’m so much more interested in what is NOT so popular or prevalent. After reviewing all of these sessions, I found it interesting that the least frequent topics (although still addressed by someone) include Latino outreach and curatorial collaborations. These both seem cause for concern. Our museum recently has some great senior staff discussions around the November article “Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up with Our Changing Society” (see the powerful graphic below). Author Ben Davis quotes the 2010 Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) report “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums,” worth a read for what it says about the scandalous state of diversity in the visual arts:

“This analysis paints a troubling picture of the ‘probable future’ — a future in which, if trends continue in their current grooves, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society.”

changing-face-of-americaWhile these issues may come up more frequently at AAM, ICOM, or other professional conferences with wider participation than arts educators and art museum educators, the issue is certainly something we, as a field, must be addressing as central to our work. Perhaps these issues will find themselves woven into myriad sessions on visitor and audience engagement in general, but I do fear that when we use the words ‘audience’ or ‘visitor,’ there is a chance that we might unintentionally still be thinking of white, non-Hispanic visitors. I only present this as a potential spark for some conversation, and I’m always open to being corrected and proven wrong (please, prove me wrong here!).

In addition to this blind spot, I also am concerned about the lack of sessions pushing core collaborations with curators — an area that was also severely lacking last year at NAEA. This year, the word ‘curator’ was only mentioned twice in any of the 75 Museum Education Division sessions. At a moment when I know that many major museums are re-imagining (and, in some cases, totally disrupting) the traditional relationships between education and curatorial, this lack of engagement via this year’s NAEA sessions is worth notice. Especially because I know that this issue will find its way into most of the dinner conversations each night in Fort Worth as well as the quick coffee chats we have in the halls between sessions, as it did last year. I am guilty myself, as we have not drawn much attention to this here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com. Given this, I would love to find ways to share the successes and failures of our curatorial collaborations and partnerships, and find ways to push this type of work forward. If you are doing work in this area, let’s get some posts up to shine some much needed light on these collaborations.

Lastly, when I ran a quick analysis of the session titles and short descriptions this year, the most common words used (outside of “art” and “museum”) were, in order of frequency: community, visitors/audience, learning, education, and engagement. While I’m not sure how much this actually tells us, I continually find it interesting to examine the language and vocabulary we use to describe the work we do as museum educators (in fact, there is a session on this very topic on Thursday morning, “Intentional Language: How We Describe Museum Education Can Make All The Difference”). This year, the word ‘community’ rose to become the most common word in the session descriptions, followed by visitors and audience — perhaps showing a bit of a shift in how we are perceiving our work and its relationship with the communities in which we exist. A couple of the least common words to note are ‘curator,’ as mentioned, as well as ‘experimental’ (something we should be doing and sharing more and more).

FlyingSaucerFor those of you attending the NAEA Convention in Fort Worth next week, I would like to extend an invitation for you to join the editors and authors of ArtMuseumTeaching.com for a casual Happy Hour event on Thursday, March 7, from 5-6pm at the Flying Saucer (111 E Third St, a short walk from the Convention Center). We’re interested in continually extending and opening up this conversation, and wanted to find a moment at NAEA to pull together anyone who has been involved in the project thus far, as well as anyone interested in learning more.

What: ArtMuseumTeaching.com Happy Hour
When: Thursday, March 7, 5:00-6:00pm
Where: Flying Saucer in Fort Worth, 111 E Third St

I look forward to seeing many of you in Fort Worth, and also getting more of your voices and perspectives involved in the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community!

A Teaching Interview: THE Audition for Museum Educators

Stricken with those awful nerves that overcome your system while you try to remember those lines you were up past midnight cramming into your head, you cling to your crumpled, dingy papers for dear life – the papers that contain the information you were trying so hard to memorize, the statements you need to naturally and conversationally say. You know you know it, but every time you try to say something without glancing at your papers that are quickly becoming damp from your sweaty palms, your brain freezes. Your name is about to be called as you sit in the uncomfortable chair, fidgeting with the sticker that betrays your best outfit. Doors swing open, and a smiling voice says, “We are ready for you.”

This scenario easily depicts almost every audition I’ve ever had. It also depicts the ‘teaching interviews’ or ‘sample tours’ or even ‘classroom simulation’ I and many other museum educators have had to do as part of interview processes. As a still-sometimes actress, if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, call it a duck – museum educators audition for their jobs. A lot. Good monologues do not get actors cast – and good information doesn’t always get museum educators hired. Technique plays a large part in both careers, posing the question: Isn’t it about time we start paying more attention to how we are saying things, and not just what we are saying?

Teaching AuditionIn an audition, the actor is usually provided with an opportunity to bring in a prepared monologue. The actor will perform said monologue and the director makes a decision if the actor is getting called back or sent on their way. Generally speaking, the actor will spend hours, days, even weeks finding that perfect monologue that not only showcases their skill set as a performer, but also connects with the particular role they are auditioning for. If an actor is auditioning for Cosette in Les Mis, their first choice wouldn’t be a piece that brings people to gut-busting laughter. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

For the teaching interviews I’ve had the pleasure and anxiety of experiencing, it all starts with successfully completing the in-person/phone interview. Then there is the nerve-racking moment of reading the invitation to do a teaching interview. While each institution is different, usually the main idea is to assemble a sample tour (or tour stop) and, with a nod to multimodal learning, an activity for that stop. Usually the prospective educator has about a week to put together this stop and spends countless hours researching the collection, choosing objects, picking that ONE object that will showcase knowledge, teaching skill and personality. Just like an actor auditioning for a role.

actors warming up prior to auditions
actors warming up prior to auditions

But actors will warm up before auditions – take 10 minutes and walk into Ripley-Grier and see dozens of actors at all times doing tongue twisters, stretching, working on breath support and even adjusting their posture. They’ve realized that it’s not just about what you are saying – while the selection is important, it’s equally about how they are saying those words. There is the old adage that you can make people interested in a banana bread recipe if you are interesting enough. In museum education, you might know every fact about Rembrandt and his Self Portrait that hangs exquisitely in the West Gallery at The Frick Collection – but, if you can’t capture your audience and if you can’t be heard, then what?

Some museums are picking up on this idea and calling it what it is.  I had the pleasure of being at the Denver Nature and Science Museum at the end of January to lead professional development workshops and found they audition their education staff. There is an educator position entitled “Performer – Facilitator” and part of the interview is a legitimate audition. According to David Allison, Visitor Programs Manager, and Samantha Richards, Educator/Coordinator for Earth Gallery Programs, after the telephone interview, “they [the candidates] are asked to prepare a monologue and a science facilitation…we also have them do a ‘cold read’ of a script.” When asked why, David replied, “The cold reads show us the comfort level they have with improvisation and the ability to ‘ramp up’ their performance on the spot…the prepared pieces both shows us how well they prepare and also what their instincts are around performing and presenting dynamic shows to our guests.” Samantha added, “The cold read also shows us their performance skills…it is as much about how they wear the cape and how engaging they are as how comfortable they feel.”

For the educators who are uncomfortable with the performance aspect, DMNS has an alternative. According to Samantha, “We do also offer the option of reading two contrasting stories instead of monologues.” The audition section of the job description itself is very clear:

Two contrasting monologues (e.g. comedic and dramatic, 3-5 min each) with some movement;

OR

Choose two children’s stories to read. For one, pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading one on one with a child. For the other pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading to a large group, where you would need to use dramatic voices and movement to tell the story.

David added, “Some educators take to it quickly and can easily adapt. Others struggle. We can generally tell very quickly if someone is a good fit or not for our team.”

The audition aside, DMNS also does ask for a science facilitation – the information and research is still there. They are also focusing just as much on the presentational aspect of the positions. Samantha added to this idea: “It is very important that our staff is comfortable doing everything from talking to one child about a rock to wearing an astronaut suit and ‘being’ an astronaut in front of a hundred visitors.”

Teaching interviews are not much different than auditions. As educators, it’s time to start focusing on how we are saying the things we are saying. Take an improv class. Do deep breathing before a tour. Pull out some tongue-twisters to get the muscles in your mouth ready to say those artist names and movements without tripping over syllables. We are not actors – but – we have an audience. And taking advantage of every trick of the trade will only make us more engaging and our passions more interesting. In the words of Kid President during his pep talk, “Boring is easy, everybody can be boring. But you are gooder than that.”

Have you had a teaching interview/audition? Does your institution conduct them? How did/do you prepare? Should more museums have auditions and practice-based interviews for education positions?

Art Museum Teaching: Year in Review

year-in-reviewAs the first year of the ArtMuseumTeaching site wraps up, I thought it would be good to post a brief “Year in Review.”  Not that we need any more end-of-the-year lists or calls for resolutions, but I think it can be meaningful to take a minute and look back at some of the issues that have been on our minds this past year.  From the Getty staff reduction to a cantankerous teenager writing about museums, there have been a lot of sticky topics that we’ve discussed here on this site.

Through its inaugural year, ArtMuseumTeaching has grown from a tiny blog seedling planted back in February to an online community that now has 16 authors, 52 posts, and more than 50,000 views from readers in 99 countries.  I hope that the online community and conversation around this site will continue to grow, include more perspectives, and be a space of exchange where we can connect on issues of teaching, learning, and community engagement that matter most.

Year in Review: 5 Most Read Posts of 2012

mia-teen-visit_21. “Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement” (October 2012): Howard Hwang’s indictment of museums in his teen article for LA Youth sparked the most widespread discussion of the year, bringing out some great perspectives on teen engagement as well as some key questions and challenges we should all be addressing.

getty_center_west_pavilion_bw2. “Responding to the Getty Cuts: A Significant Step Backward” (May 2012): While we all have become well-acquainted with the budget cuts and lay-offs of the recent recession, the move earlier this year by the Getty to cut its education staff caught many of us by surprise — and was certainly a crisis moment for our profession.

teaching-photo3. “Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission” (May 2012): One of the real crisis moments of the year for our field also brought out some exceptional reflections from within, and this thoughtful post from Briley Rasmussen helped us focus on the human element of our shared work in museums.

ipad-moma24. “Teaching with the iPad: Adding a New Dimension to the Museum Experience” (April 2012): As technology edges its way into every museum, the iPad has been drawing a lot of attention. While we don’t know what device or new technology will sweep across museums over the next few years, it was nice to look at some of the basic ways that a simple tablet device can transform even the most traditional museum experience.

diver-charlestown-patch-com5. “Gallery Diving: Interns Tackle Public Engagement” (August 2012): One of the big themes of 2012 was definitely ‘experimenting in museums,’ and I am still so proud of the risks that this group of interns took this past summer through our public engagement project. It inspires me to continue pushing toward a DIY mindset.

Enjoy these popular posts from 2012, and see you in 2013 — a year that promises to bring a whole new set of challenges, success stories, and new ways of thinking about both the theory and practice of art museum teaching.  If you would like to share the projects you’re working on or the issues and challenges you are grappling with, please add your voice to this growing community (and just send me a tweet at @murawski27).  Cheers!

Teens’ Vision for Docent-Led Tours

Sara shares her thoughts on Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant's "Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers." Photo by Nate Pyper.
Sara shares her thoughts on Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant’s “Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers.” Photo by Nate Pyper.

How do we engage teenagers at art museums? Our museums offer powerful classes, internships, and multi-visit programs–but their reach is limited. For many teens, their first (and sometimes only) exposure to an art museum is through a school field trip. There are already a number of great conversations on this site posing suggestions and challenges for ideal school tours, which consider the needs and perspectives of the museum educator and the classroom teacher.

But what about asking the students themselves?In summer 2012, we did just that at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  A group of fourteen teen interns teamed up with ten docents to delve deep into what can make a school tour successful and engaging.  They worked to jointly share ideas and troubleshoot concerns. The session was such a hit for both groups that we decided to bring back five of those students this fall to share their thoughts with our full docent corps–all 100+ of them!

We taped the dialogue so that we could share the teens’ ideas as faithfully as possible. The video below shows the five summer teen interns in dialogue with our docents. The teens quickly do a check-in/icebreaker with the docents, describe the summer program, and facilitate a Q&A session.

What I found particularly powerful about the teens’ suggestions is that they are not only relevant to teen audiences–these tips can be used for younger and older visitors, too. In the spirit of continuing the conversation begun by these young people and our docents, I’d like to offer some of my own take-aways:

  • Take the time to get to know each other (even if the tour is only an hour). Over the summer, I began our sessions with a “check in” activity, inspired by the Milwaukee Writing Project, as a way for us to get to know each other. If you know your audience, you can tailor your tour to their interests from the get-go. As Rosehaydee said in the video, it can bring the group together and set a friendly tone.
  • Be aware of your group–and do what they want to do. Be in tune with your group and their reactions: if something’s not working, move on rather than pressing it.
  • Be yourself. Share your passion, and be friendly and relaxed. As Sensei said, if you are enthusiastic about what you’re discussing, chances are good that your group will respond to your enthusiasm.
  • Museum tours can be intimidating. Teens are aware that docents and educators are extremely knowledgeable; and it’s scary to offer your thoughts in front of not just a docent but also your peers. To support conversation, Steven suggested using clear, simple language (without being patronizing), and Rosehaydee encouraged us to acknowledge student voices, even if they’re not the “right” answer, so teens know they’re being heard.
  • Technology is a tool, not a goal. When asked if museums should use more technology to engage teens, responses were mixed. Yes, technology is cool and lots of teens use it–but not all teens have access, and technology is not always successful or necessary. If the activity can be done equally as well or better in analogue format, it’s probably not worth it to try to use a gadget. But if it’s something that can only be done with technology–like Skyping with an artist or out-of-town group–then take the time to give it a try.
  • Remember that we all learn differently. To combat teen boredom, Rosehaydee suggested calling on specific individuals to get them to pay attention, but Sensei noted that sometimes it can be just as effective to try a pair-share or solitary writing activity. This reminded me that museum educators and docents have a responsibility to provide many different kinds of learning opportunities for our students. We need to know when to support and when to gently challenge them.
  • Respect the group; think of them as family. One of my favorite suggestions from the teens over the summer was for docents to think of the teens as their children or grandchildren. To me, this gets to the heart of working with any visitor that comes into our space: respect them–their prior knowledge, their interests, their reasons for coming to museums in the first place. We can learn from visitors as much as (if not more than!) they can learn from us.

Sometimes, as we plan programs and tours, educational goals and strict standards can overshadow the much more abstract magic that can come from engaging with works of art. I’m glad these young people remind us of the steps we can take to achieve that “bigger picture”: a museum experience that is supportive, interesting, and fun. Such experiences help teens know that museums are places where they can be themselves, connect with peers who also love art, enrich their thinking, or simply take a break from a busy day of school.

Fragonard
Helena discusses Fragonard’s “The Shepherdess” in the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries. Photo by Nate Pyper.

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.