Category Archives: Field Notes

Reflecting on Our Radical Roots

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

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

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

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

The Essentials of John Dewey and Progressivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Key Beliefs of John Dewey

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

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

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

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

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

Hein explains that:

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

This is, in fact, Hein’s thesis.

Interrogating Museum Education through the Progressive Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The What and the Where of Art Museum Education

Educational practices in art museums don’t often make the pages of major newspapers, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this article, “From Show and Look to Show and Teach,” in the New York Times a few months ago (see also Lindsay Smilow’s earlier response to this NYT article). After a cursory glance, I assumed it would detail educational activities as part of an ongoing commitment to fostering free-choice or constructivist learning experiences in some of the most well-known museums on the planet.

As I read, two assumptions of the author began to take shape:

  1. “education” in museums is equated primarily with engaging in processes of art making; furthermore, museum guests expect such offerings under the auspices of “participatory events;” and
  2. the locations of education programs provide significant but conflicting messages.
Whitney Studio, designed by LOT-EK. Photo by Inhabitat

On one hand, the writer cites the director of the Whitney asserting that “education is part and parcel of what we do” after explaining that the physical space for educational activities (presumably at other institutions) is often physically isolated. Shortly thereafter, the author lauded the rather unique Whitney Studio, a “pop-up” center for education at the Whitney that is not only isolated, it is separate from the building altogether. It seems metaphorically significant in this instance that this temporary space is made from enormous shipping containers.

These assumptions prompted me to reflect on my own thoughts about what constitutes education in museums, and where that education should occur. As a graduate student in the mid-1990s I was fully ingratiated in the paradigm of Discipline-Based Art Education, in which aesthetics, art history, art production, and art criticism are considered basic subject areas from which to derive content for art education—while art production for me has always been one way to come to a better understanding of art, the conversations that may be engendered in gallery and other spaces have always been far more intriguing and significant in my own educational practices.

I am certainly not the first person to reckon with the importance of art making as part of an overall educational endeavor. My colleague and friend, Professor B. Stephen Carpenter, made an interesting comment during a panel presentation on reconceptualizing curriculum at the 2012 NAEA convention in New York City. He questioned, ever so briefly, whether or not the act of art making is, in fact, the primary goal/foundation of every model of art education, though his question specifically focused on eco-environmental curriculum. At the time, I thought… if it is primary, then where does that leave the myriad other discourses that surround art education and art museum education? What happens when we as professional educators privilege a particular kind of knowing over all other ways of relating to objects in the museum, particularly when few people excel at those skills, especially as they are presented in very short classes?

The article featured other examples of art-making-as-education in spaces outside the museum, such as Open Field, a grassy space next to the Walker Art Center, and several digital spaces, including online art production classes offered by the Museum of Modern Art. Art museum education has long been relegated to basements and other hidden or cordoned-off areas of the museum, and I pause to wonder what messages are being transmitted when learning is offered outside the physical space of the museum.

Does this practice reify the notion that education is a by-product of the more serious business of being in the galleries? Or is it simply a practical response to a space issue for educators who are increasingly offering educational opportunities that are responsive to their particular learning communities, collections, and spaces?

If one considers art making to be an important exercise with which to engage in order to understand art, a separate space is necessary for obvious reasons, as art can be (and should be) messy. If not, then the what and the where of art museum education is an important and evolving conversation.

I invite you to add your own thoughts and perspectives below, so we can continue to engage in productive exchange about these ideas that are core to our profession.

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

Resting at MoMA. Photo by Just Karen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Harald Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.

Speaking the Same Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To achieve excellence in art museum teaching, museum educators:

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

Education and preparation for excellent art museum teaching requires:

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

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

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

Museum Environment

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


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


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

Personal and Social Learning

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

Cultural Appreciation and Participation

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

NAEA Breakdown – Museum Education Edition

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

Total Museum Education Sessions: 76

Total museum educators presenting: 185 (plus or minus)

Most Frequent Session Topics:

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

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

Community and family audiences – 8

Museum-school partnerships – 6

Visitor-centered programs / listening to visitors – 5

Evaluation – 4

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

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

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

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

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

IMLS Strategic Plan: Creating a Nation of Learners

Link to IMLS Strategic Plan, 2012 – 2016: Creating a Nation of Learners

The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan, which includes some key challenges for museums as we move firmly into the second decade of the 21st century.

Here is my favorite quote from the Center for the Future of Museums post about the new IMLS plan:

On how museums of the future might need to be different in order to meet the needs of their communities

Museums and libraries for many years were seen as repositories for information, for content, for objects, for paintings, and as places to go and experience things in a very non-interactive way. Now we’re in a world where it’s much more about your own experience of the information, the object or the art. I think the staff in museums has to be ready and willing to accept the role of facilitator of the individual or visitor experience. In a way, it’s giving something up—you don’t control the experience anymore. You try to make it useful and helpful but also flexible so that the visitor can really get what they want out of the experience not what you want them to have. It’s being willing to really walk in the visitor’s shoes and create experiences that are meaningful to them and allow them the opportunity to develop their own understanding and their own skills.