Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.
At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.
Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.
No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.
In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.
At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.
Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda). Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.
In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:
Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.
More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?
The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.
While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.
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About the Author
AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.
This week, at the Portland Art Museum’s Members Night, I was asked to work with our Curator of Prints & Drawings and our Conservator to give a series of pecha kucha presentations telling the story about our museum collection coming to life. We all decided to dive into a recent exhibition on the work of Corita Kent entitled Spiritual Pop, which pulled from and enhanced the museum’s holdings of works by this inspiring artist and activist.
Kent, a nun widely known as Sister Corita, was a highly-influential artist, educator, theorist, and activist who gained international fame in the 1960s for her vibrant, revolutionary screenprints. She grew up in Los Angeles and, after high school, joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She began screenprinting in the 1950s and by the 1960s had embraced L.A.’s chaotic cityscape as a source of inspiration, transforming the mundane into inspiring and often subversive messages of hope and social justice. One critic once wrote, “Her mission seems to be to surprise us into awakening to delight.”
Kent used the element of surprise to awaken her audience to issues of social justice, in particular, world hunger. The theme of food and nourishment run throughout much of her work, including her 1965 series “Power Up,” which appropriates the slogan of Richfield Oil gasoline in combination with smaller texts from a sermon on spiritual fulfillment by activist priest Dan Berrigan.
It was Kent’s “Power Up” that really stood out in this exhibition, and reached out to visitors and our community. And for my part of our pecha kucha presentation to Members, I chose to tell the simple yet inspirational story of “Power Up.”
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When we visit an art museum, deep down inside, we’re largely seeking out creativity, beauty, joy, energy, strength, connection, even love. When we stand in front of a work of art, perhaps we’re even looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Corita Kent brought all of that to the museum and our community in powerful ways. Having her work on view here at the museum and seeing its deep transformative effect, I am drawn to reflect on how the power of art does spread out to a community and beyond the walls of a museum.
During the Spiritual Pop exhibition, we had dozens of programs and projects that allowed visitors to connect with her printmaking and activism—from conversations in the gallery, guest lecturers, a POWER UP evening for LGBTQ teens, and regular printmaking workshops and demos. At our Miller Family Free Day program, we invited families and children to make a print that reflected something they love about Portland or their hopes for this city. These prints were compiled into an artist-made book, and a small team of us from the museum hand-delivered it to our newest mayor, Ted Wheeler, just weeks after his inauguration. That book immediately brought him joy, and it still sits in his office as a symbol of the creativity and love of this city.
Corita Kent’s print series “Power Up” itself has been a catalyst for community connections and outreach, providing an uplifting message of social justice for so many across Portland. During the confusing, challenging, and unstable times we have found ourselves in these past several months, this single artwork became (and continues to be) a source of energy, joy, and resiliency for many.
Also during the Corita Kent exhibition, we hosted a series here at the museum called Portland Prints, featuring this city’s energetic, thriving, and innovative printmaking scene. In partnership with the amazing Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), the museum hosted a series of mini-residencies in which artists made new prints inspired by Corita Kent and Andy Warhol, and visitors could get directly engaged with printmaking. Illustrator and educator extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt was one of those artists. She was immediately inspired by Corita Kent’s “Power Up,” and invited designers from around the world to submit their own “power up” drawings and illustrations.
And in they came. Power up! POWER UP! Power UP! power up! As our country neared the end of a contentious and emotional campaign season and then into the election itself, there was a tremendous thirst for “power up.”
Kate brought all these messages together into a single poster print, and here at the museum on the Friday and Saturday following the Election, she printed them.
And then printed more. And then some more. Over a day and a half, she had printed and distributed over 800 Power Up posters. These prints that now hang on office walls, cubicles, school classrooms, and people’s homes across the city (including mine). The ripple effect of Corita Kent’s activist message of love and humanity exists now in the daily lives of so many individuals.
Thanks to Kate, the Power Up message spread further through zine workshops, design events, and even awesome t-shirt designs by Michael Buchino. Just this month, our Education team decided to purchase these Power Up t-shirts as an expression of camaraderie and yet another way of keeping this uplifting energy alive.
Back in January, Kate brought her Power Up poster design to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, nearly 3000 miles away from this museum. The uplifting message of Corita Kent that had inspired our community here was now part of an even larger experience. Hundreds more of these prints were made and distributed there. The reverberations of “Power Up” were felt in our nation’s capital and as part of the millions of people who marched that day in solidarity, including over 100,000 here in Portland. Corita Kent, bless her soul, is undoubtedly looking down upon all of this with a strong sense of joy—seeing her civil rights message from 1965 resonating so strongly and proudly in 2017.
An incredible story sparked from one simple print that hung on the wall in the lower level of an art museum in Portland, Oregon.
Thank you Corita Kent.
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Note: Thanks and recognition to Kate Bingaman-Burt for many of the images and photos in this post, which came from her social media postings. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Are you a passionately-creative thinker who wants to make a positive change in your community? Are you frustrated with the slow pace of change at your museum, non-profit organization, community group, or school? Are you tired of conferences filled with static presentations and “show and tell” sessions that don’t seem to connect with your goals and vision for change? Do you dream big about taking action, making new things possible, and thinking outside the box? Do you thrive in a diverse environment filled with others who share your passion, energy, and vision? Then you need to be seriously thinking about applying for this year’s MuseumCamp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).
MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event hosted by MAH and the inspiring Nina Simon. Each year, the camp brings together diverse, passionate people for a sleep-away experience for adults who learn together through active, creative workshops and activities. The 2017 MuseumCamp theme is CHANGEMAKERS, and I am so proud to be working with this summer’s group as a Counselor along with the phenomenal Ebony McKinney, Founding Director of Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA — a network focused on empowerment, leadership, and growth of next generation arts and culture workers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In beautiful Santa Cruz, we will spend 2.5 days together exploring the ways we make change in our work, our communities, and the world. We will focus specifically on how we can use creative projects as catalysts for community action and change. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have battle scars to share, we want you here this year.
This year’s MuseumCamp will be challenging — but not in a frenetic, obstacle course way. It will challenge us to confront our fears about change, empower others, and create the future we seek.
Learn more about the details of this year’s MuseumCamp here, and Apply Now — the deadline for applications is March 15th, so you need to get online now and make it happen.
I look forward to seeing many of you there this summer!!!!
Dive into co-creative project design. A month before MuseumCamp, the MAH is opening a new exhibition, Lost Childhoods, co-developed with foster youth, youth advocates, and artists in our community. You’ll tour the exhibition with the team, discuss its impact, and explore the process behind it. This project is experimental, complicated work. Foster youth are central to every decision and direction. Artists are striving to follow their direction to beautiful ends. Dozens of youth advocates and partners co-own the process and are bringing their own dreams, talents, and connections to the work. At MuseumCamp, we’ll pull back the curtain on Lost Childhoods’ process and product. We’ll brainstorm how to partner with your community on projects that ignite social action.
Meet amazing colleagues and counselors. MuseumCamp attracts creative changemakers of all stripes and backgrounds. Last year Camp welcomed academics, museum folk, librarians, poets, artists, bike advocates, engineers, and one American Ninja Warrior. This year’s applicants include social scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists. We’ve got two incredible outside counselors–Ebony McKinney and Mike Murawski–and more partners coming onboard. You want to meet these people. You want to learn with them. MuseumCamp will help you build a diverse network of inspiring compatriots for your own personal journey to creative change.
Build – and share – a creative action plan for change. The central activity of MuseumCamp is a whole-camp project where we work in teams to make something. (Check out past projects here.) This year, we’re building a creative change toolkit. As a team, you will design it. After Camp, the MAH team will turn it into a beautiful product for you to keep. You’ll create it, use it, and share it with others around the world.
Find out what happens when a museum breaks out of its building. Later this spring, the MAH is opening a major expansion in Abbott Square, the plaza adjacent to the museum. Abbott Square will be a creative heart for the city, offering free events, workshops, performances, and playful programs in partnership with community groups. At MuseumCamp, you’ll be among the first to experience it. If you or your organization are considering doing more work in public space, this is a great opportunity to learn more firsthand.
Relax, recharge, and explore. Swim with sea lions. Ride a 100-year old wooden roller coaster. Sleep in a museum. All optional. All incredible. All at MuseumCamp.
I attended my local march in Raleigh, North Carolina, with loved ones. While I marched for personal reasons, it was equally important for me professionally. As a museum educator, the number of colleagues who marched left me joyful and inspired. The Raleigh crowd of over 20,000 people included coworkers from my museum, staff from other institutions, educators, artists, and gallery owners. Part of the power of the march was sharing it with so many people with whom I work in a variety of contexts.
Thanks to social media, that communal experience stretched far beyond my network in North Carolina. As photographs and videos spread, I shared the day with art professionals across the country and the world. As colleagues marched in Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., their images reminded me of how fortunate I am to work with many who feel the same concerns, ask the same questions, and are making the same demands. Within my museum, my local arts community, and my broader profession, there is a shared commitment to public conversations about how our society has operated in the past, how it functions now and what changes are necessary for greater equality and justice in the future.
Of course, a single march is not enough to create change. We cannot simply applaud ourselves and carry on as we have in the past. Gloria Steinem reminded us:
“The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day. A movement is only people moving.”
How, then, will I create movement? What concrete actions can I take to support the causes for which I marched? How can I promote equal rights for women, LGBTQ communities, and people of all races and religions? How can I protect the public discourse around art and science? How can I speak out for appropriate funding of schools, access to clean water for all, and the protection of our environment? Many of my answers are things that I will do as an individual – phone calls to government officials, financial support of non-profit organizations, relationship building within my community, and my own lifelong learning about these issues.
Another answer to the question of what I can do is, simply, my job. It is impossible to ignore that my largest platform is my museum and the programs we produce. As museum staff, we have the honor of encouraging community conversations around the art we exhibit. With that role, how can museum educators translate the energy of the Women’s March into our professional practice?
Much has been made of the creativity of the marchers’ signs. There were funny signs, angry signs, and emotional signs, but they were all direct and clear in their message. I think museums can look to some of the signs for direction.
Museums are frequently criticized (appropriately) for their extreme whiteness. Don’t let this be true of any aspect of the museum experience that you influence. Whether you play a role in hiring staff, identifying teaching artists, inviting guest speakers and performers for public programs, or selecting artworks for tours, you have a responsibility to be inclusive. Prioritize racial diversity in your programs and staff to reflect your community more fully and to foster meaningful conversations that represent a variety of viewpoints and experiences.
Examining whom you include shouldn’t start and stop with racial diversity. Ask if you are representing a wide range of lifestyles, perspectives, and beliefs. Include those who challenge your own ways of thinking. Like the march, the museum is a shared space. As a shared space, museums must create meaningful engagement of the many, not the few.
Gallery conversations are often open ended. This is important in order to validate multiple interpretations and empower visitors. It is equally important that museum conversations embrace the facts. A recent visitor to my museum commented, “Being a slave wasn’t so bad in North Carolina.” One opinion, stated as fact, can make another visitor feel disregarded, or even unsafe. As museums engage in difficult social discussions, museum educators and gallery teachers will increasingly need to provide historical and current information that may challenge previously held assumptions and beliefs.
Art museum programs should spotlight a full range of disciplines. Invite scientists, social activists, medical experts, legal professionals, historians, musicians, poets, and more to participate in public programs. Art connects to all aspects of life. Therefore, discussions about art should engage more than artists and curators. Creating change will require conversations across all disciplines. Museums facilitate those conversations best when they ignore programmatic norms and build surprising partnerships.
While so many of us turned out to march, our eagerness for change does not mean the work will be easy. This is not work that can be done in 140 characters. Actively respecting and engaging others is the serious work and it can be uncomfortable. Hard and uncomfortable are often part of anything that is important and necessary. Accept that mistakes happen. When they do, acknowledge them and use any missteps as opportunities to learn, to teach, and to improve.
Most importantly, remember the day we stood together. Remember how many share your goals of equality and justice. Remember that you are not doing this work alone. Remember that even when we are not marching, we are in solidarity.
Share your story from Saturday, January 21st.
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Manager of Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica founded and directs the Nasher Museum’s Reflections Program for visitors with dementia and their care partners. She has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.
Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.
I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.
I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.
Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:
You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?
After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.
There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).
My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.
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About the Author
ANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team.
When we originally scheduled visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the classes at a Boston high school in our School Partnership Program, we didn’t consider the date of the presidential election as a factor. My colleagues and I didn’t purposefully plan for the 10th grade students, too young to vote but old enough to be politically aware, to come to this historic institution in the two days following the surprising result. It wasn’t our intention that the 12th graders would come the following week, having had time to begin to process the world in which we awoke on November 9, 2016. But that’s exactly what happened.
Our partnership with these students and their teachers is based on our commitment to respond to where they are and what they need from us to scaffold their development as critical thinkers and engaged museum-goers. We’ve built relationships and cultivated trust with this school over 5 years, coming to understand what they grapple with individually and as a community. At this school, many of the students are Black, Muslim, and/or their families are immigrants. When they come to the Museum, they bring their whole selves to each discussion. So when we found ourselves on the eve of the election concluding a long, polarizing campaign, we recommitted ourselves to putting the students at the center and modified our plan for their visits.
We designed an experience for students to engage with the Gardner Museum in a variety of ways, understanding that everyone processes turmoil differently. First, we welcomed them back to the Museum and gave them a sense of what to expect from the visit. Then we used our temporary exhibition, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books, as a starting point. One theme of this exhibition is the spread of literacy and access to information during the Renaissance, highlighting how society valued knowledge of history, literature and rhetoric during that time. The students took as much time as they needed to explore the exhibition on their own, looking closely with their friends and finding moments of interest and beauty. As a group we discussed the ideas that they discovered in the objects and in the interpretive materials, huddling together over an illuminated choir book or a scientific rendering of marine creatures. Then we honed in on one artwork, a painting of St. Jerome in which they found further examples of the importance of scholarly work and humanistic ideals. This first half of their visit hewed closely to our initial plan, introducing the students to the exhibition while connecting it to their prior experiences at the Museum.
The major adaption was that the rest of the visit became structured time for the students to reflect, process, and express themselves. Rather than going to another gallery or looking at another artwork, we brought the students to the courtyard in the center of the historic collection. We handed each student a sketchbook and a pencil, invited them to sit on the stone benches facing the courtyard, and introduced a prompt tying together the objects they’d been exploring, the Museum created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the students’ own lives:
Together we’ve been looking at these old books, considering how the artists used text and illustration, and the impact the books had on society. Now you’ll get to design your own book. You can write a story, a poem or a song, draw something you see here or something you imagine, or just take deep breaths and process. If you find it helpful to think of a prompt, you might consider this: When Isabella Stewart Gardner made this museum she said that what the country needed most was art. What do you think our country needs most right now?
It was moving to see how students brought their whole selves to this activity. The 10th grade classes that came on November 8 and 9 spent much of the time asking us and their History teacher questions about the Electoral College, and voicing their fears for what would happen to their families who are undocumented immigrants. Some drew campaign symbols and slogans, some wrote about stamping out hate and encouraging love. The 12th grade students who visited on November 16 and 17 appreciated the escapism offered by the Courtyard. They spoke about the chance to sit quietly in a beautiful space that seems to be a world apart from Boston, a time apart from 2016.
During all of these classes the other museum educators, classroom teachers, and I tried to spend time with each student to answer their questions and reiterate that we would stand with them and their loved ones. Some students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to center themselves and consider their thoughts and feelings in their own way, and a growing awareness that we, the Gardner Museum educators who they’ve come to know since 9th grade, intentionally created that space out of our deep concern and caring for them. By the end of the visit, after about 30 minutes of reflection and processing, the mood had shifted to one of hope and mutual support.
Since the election, many of us have felt the urgency of action. This set of class visits to the Gardner Museum was a small, immediate action, but one that ripples outward. These students and teachers’ ideas about how to relate to a museum (even a seemingly elite, historic one like the Gardner) might be forever transformed by the half hour they spent nurturing themselves and each other. Their mental and emotional states also changed, and we can imagine that impact was felt in all of the other interactions they had that day. As museum educators, we have the ability to create this space for our visitors – we have the flexibility to respond to our visitors and we have the objects and environments that remind them of the beauty of our shared humanity.
I’ll leave you with a poem written in the Gardner’s courtyard by Jayne Irvy Veillard, a 12th grade student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers:
GREY By Jayne Irvy Veillard
“Struggle” We’re struggling Living in a world where there’s no peace Living in a world where cries are silenced Living with the pain among us. What our world needs is “Love” Why can’t we love? What’s so hard about loving your neighbor as yourself? Do you not love who YOU are? “Peace” Why can’t there be peace? Why does there have to be war? What’s so hard about finding peace? (Pause) Look into your heart Is it Black? The color your heart bleeds Does it bleed Black? Black portrayed as ugly and slavery Black the color of gun shots and cruelty Black the hatred set up for men Black, mothers and children crying for help BLACK! SHOTS FIRED! Look into your heart Is it White? Does it bleed white? White the color of peace and love White purity and pure White sinless White privileged and power JUST SHUT UP! What’s the difference? Why separate these two colors? Grey the color of this lead Grey the unity of black and white Grey the sound of ones holding hands Grey we shall overcome aye? Grey The Middle Ground What our word needs is Grey! We need The Unity The Power The Love No More Struggling No More Pain No More Poor Just more love All together One for all What our world needs is Grey The happiness of Grey That’s what our world needs
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About the Author
SARA EGAN is School Partnerships Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sara was recently named the Massachusetts Art Education Association’s 2017 Museum Art Educator of the Year. She teaches preK-12th grade students in the Museum and the classroom using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), trains and coaches teachers in VTS, and conducts research on the impact of the Gardner’s School Partnership Program. Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes program, and is an adjunct professor of art at Simmons College. She has previously worked at the Andy Warhol Museum and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Sara holds a BA from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Header Photo: A 10th grade student from Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Billie Weiss.
I am not usually in the habit of writing about projects that are in-progress or incomplete. However, in the wake of the current upheaval our country is experiencing, I feel compelled to share a powerful and cathartic moment I had recently in relation to our two-year Student/Community Curatorial Education Project that we are only just beginning.
First, a bit more about the project. Here at the Samek Art Museum, a Bucknell University-affiliated museum in rural central Pennsylvania, we’ve been working for the past six months on an exhibition that is curated by Bucknell students with input from the local community with generous financial support from the Maurer Family Foundation. By “students,” I am referring to our Museum Guides in particular, paid work-study employees who serve as part gallery attendant, part roving docent. Our goal is to provide a platform for our constituents to have a say in our exhibition planning while also bridging the very real town/gown divide that exists here, often referred to colloquially as the “Bucknell bubble.” As the Public Programs and Outreach Manager for the Museum, I’m responsible for the aspects of this project related to community outreach and exhibition interpretation, while our Director shapes the curatorial elements of the project.
The first phase of the project involved organizing a meeting with our Museum Guides and a small group of community members to try to suss out issues that were most important to our local community. We were aided immensely in recruiting the community members by the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority, an organization that is deeply embedded in the region. Prior to the meeting, our Museum Guides developed interview questions for the community members intended to elicit narratives and encourage empathy–a process directly inspired by design thinking, which has been written about on this site before. Our goal was to move through the first three steps of the design thinking process, from empathy, to definition, to ideation. Community members would interview each other using the questions developed by the Guides, then we’d come back as a group to brainstorm and refine the process to start developing big ideas about important community issues.
Following the first meeting, the Guides would prototype and test exhibition ideas at a later date with further input from the community.
And then the election happened.
Suddenly, the interview questions that the Guides developed weeks before the election, such as “are there any current events happening right now that you think are most impactful to the region?” or “What would you change about the local community and why?” took on a completely new meaning and sense of urgency.
Not knowing what to expect, we went into the first community meeting bravely, ready to have tough conversations if need be. At the beginning, our discussion focused on how we are even defining what constitutes this community. At first glance, our location in the central Susquehanna valley region often looks fairly uniform—quaint, Victorian-era towns surrounded by rolling hills and farmlands. However, as the community members pointed out, the region is anything but homogenous, with each town informed by a sense of identity often tied to the industry that led to its settlement. For instance, Lewisburg, the home of Bucknell, is shaped most by the influence of the University; the town of Williamsport began as a lumber town; and Mifflinburg’s past and present is informed by its former role as a “buggy town.” Beyond these divisions, towns often have different boroughs or townships, each with their unique sense of identity as well, as many of the community members reminded us.
As the conversation shifted towards the election, stories of discrimination emerged. One community member who has lived in the region her whole life brought up racist bullying that she witnessed in grade school in Mifflinburg. Another community member brought up one of many examples of unintentional racism that she witnesses frequently in living here. I was dismayed to hear our Director, who identifies as queer, mention that, while he has faced discrimination in big cities, he experienced an act of discrimination here that took a more “physical” form. A common theme seemed to be that the community—already divided—would become more so as a result of the election.
I should mention at this point that our group of community members could hardly be called diverse. All were white women in their thirties or forties, and though I have no idea how they voted, all were quick to condemn the violence and racism that President-elect Trump courted openly during his campaign. While this lack of diversity is something we will work to correct in future community meetings, it is telling that our small group most likely ran counter to a lot of what has been said recently about the impact of rural communities in this election.
A way forward
One narrative to emerge from the election is that liberal coastal elites failed to listen to the impoverished rural heartland (though certainly this has shown repeatedly to be a false narrative, as many of Trump’s supports come from middle to upper-middle class suburbs). We have the opportunity to run counter to this false narrative as a fairly liberal, certainly elite, and often-coastal (at least in its student demographic, if not in its location) institution that was already in the process of letting its rural constituents in on our conversation before the election. Conversely, this community also has the opportunity to have a voice and stand out against this narrative as well in helping us shape this exhibition.
Though I am focusing mostly on negative aspects of the local community that have surfaced in response to the election, I must stress that many of the comments that came out of our discussion were positive about the benefits of living in rural, small-town PA. A particularly insightful response came from a community member who mentioned that, in a small town where everyone knows everybody else, it is easy to spontaneously, organically, and quickly organize. I can only hope that our finished exhibition can serve as a catalyst for this type of fluid community organization.
In a post-meeting journal response, Museum Guide Jillian Crooks, responded:
“The attendants confirmed my belief that people who are the most involved in community projects and activities are more interested in new projects and events. The women in attendance all seemed heavily interested in making Lewisburg better and more inclusive. This wasn’t surprising, but it was heartwarming.”
Some final thoughts
One of the larger questions that has come out of this election for Bucknell faculty is whether it is important to suspend academic neutrality when faced with a political perspective that is:
Objectively wrong, or
Violates other norms of greater importance, such as respecting the dignity and rights of others.
While I agree with the AAM’s stance on the importance of continuing to foster bipartisan support for our institutions, I think it is also critical to try to disentangle those aspects of partisanship that go against the caveats mentioned above. As educators, we have a responsibility to present and encourage evidence-based interpretations of our exhibitions and collections, and to foster inclusivity and diversity in our spaces and in our conversations with visitors.
Though I am pleased to share our Student/Community Curatorial Education Project as a case study, I welcome discussions (via Comments below, as well as on social media) on how to go about accomplishing the incredibly difficult task of disentangling partisanship from our ethical responsibilities as museum educators.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GREG STUART is the Public Programs and Outreach Manager at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University where he is responsible for the Museum’s educational programs, public programs, events, and marketing. Prior to joining Bucknell, he worked as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Loyola University’s Museum of Art in Chicago. He has taught art history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Portland State University, and Concordia University Portland. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Art History and English from Loyola University Chicago.
Reposted and revised from MuseumNext, a global conference on the future of museums which has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. Check out more details about the upcoming conference in New York by visiting their new website.
MuseumNext is very much a collaboration which brings together museum professionals to share what they feel is important and exciting, that is true of the presentations and workshops which our community propose through our call for papers and through the other activities which form our conference fringe.
Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum, challenged us to build a Museum Social Action Project into the program and offered along with Monica Montgomery to make the project happen.
MuseumNext asked Mike to tell us more about this exciting project:
How did the Museum Social Action Project come about?
At a time when museum professionals are increasingly thinking about the social impact of museums as well as the role these institutions play within our local communities, it seemed urgent to get outside the ‘bubble’ of the conference and more directly engage with organizations responding to local realities.
I was invited to present at the MuseumNext conference in New York on the topic of enacting change in museums and converting talk into action, so it felt necessary to get outside the conference venue and ‘walk the walk.’ Not having a strong familiarity with the local communities across New York, I immediately reached out to Monica Montgomery (MuseumHue, Museum of Impact) to explore this idea of a Museum Social Action Project.
Monica and I brainstormed about some possible ideas, and she connected us with the team at The Laundromat Project, an amazing organization that works to bring socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces.
Why should a museum conference try and facilitate something like this?
As museum professionals, it is vital that we enact a mindset of giving back and supporting grassroots organizations like The Laundromat Project that strengthen our communities. Each and every professional conference should be focusing more on how it can be connected and relevant to the place of its convening, and not just think about locations as conference hotels and convention centers.
Conference sessions, panels, and topics can certainly be more grounded in the realities and issues of the conference’s city and neighborhoods, but I think it’s important to get outside the walls of the conference, explore direct ways to see our ideas in action, and be a responsible part of building stronger communities (beyond the spotlight of the conference).
What is The Laundromat Project?
Launched in 2006, The Laundromat Projectbrings socially relevant and socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible. The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. The LP is particularly committed to long-term and sustained investment in communities of color as well as those living on modest incomes.
Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2016 in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment on Kelly Street in Longwood, South Bronx, into a thriving creative community hub, with artist studios, arts programming, and community partnerships that allow The LP to engage the larger Kelly Street community. We are honored to be collaborating with Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, The LP’s Director of Programs & Community Engagement, to build this Museum Social Action Project together for MuseumNext.
What’s the project that you’re doing?
Participants attending this Museum Social Action Project will meet staff and artists at The Laundromat Project, learn about their various projects and programs, and tour the Kelly Street Initiative location as well as learn more about that neighborhood. LP staff and artists will then lead a short workshop and discussion on how organizations can learn more about a neighborhood’s capacities, creativity, and skills through community asset mapping.
Participants will also discuss ways to build a sustained investment in community partnerships, rather than one-sided outreach efforts or one-time program offerings. As a vital part of this project, we also ask that participants find a way to give back to The Laundromat Project and help them create more joyful spaces of creativity and community. Participants can do this by bringing an art supply Gift Card from Dick Blick or by donating directly to the Laundromat Project online (which I strongly encourage people to do, even if you are not involved in this project or the MuseumNext conference).
What do you think the delegates will get out of it?
The aim is for delegates attending the Museum Social Action Project to be able to gain a more concrete understanding of community-based practices, of how cultural organizations can serve as sites of social action and relevance, of how museums and arts non-profits can bring people together a work to build stronger, more resilient communities. They will gain skills from The LP staff and from each other around community asset mapping, and really listening to local community voices.
What impact can the project have?
For me, personally, there are a few big “what if’s” at the heart of this type of Museum Social Action Project. I know that museums and cultural organizations across the world are striving to be an essential part of their communities; but what if our communities could become an essential part of our institutions? What if we could effectively re-center this movement for change around our local communities and the power, knowledge, creativity, and capacities that they can bring to our institutions? What if conferences and professional gatherings spent more time doing and less time talking?
I don’t think we’ll achieve this all at our half-day Museum Social Action Project this November in New York, but I hope others are inspired to do similar types of projects and experiences, getting outside the walls of our conferences and harnessing the power of museum professionals to learn from and give back to our communities.
The Museum Social Action Project is one of the fringe activities for MuseumNext New York City. The conference takes place 14 – 16 November 2016 at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Find out more about the conference here.
What can museums learn from approaches, models, and practices in other fields? How are we continuing to frame and define empathy and relevance in museum programming? Are we doing the research, making the connections, and learning from what else is out there?
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I love good storytelling on the radio – whether listening to NPR as a child in the back seat of my Dad’s car, pulling over to a parking lot to catch the end of StoryCorps, or indulging in a podcast while I fold laundry. I love a good story; it’s partly why I love history. Last month, I attended a live event about Out of the Blocks, a documentary series on my local NPR station. The pieces began to fall together for me and I started considering this radio program in relation to dialogue-based museum programming.
Out of the Blocks is a program from WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the simple concept of sharing the stories of people living on one block in Baltimore, radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick create a series of episodes that present captivating narratives of real life. After interviewing everyone on one city block, they edit together interviews into one hour of radio that is lovely to listen to – opening perspective, building empathy and understanding. The show and podcast are well worth checking out; it’s truly amazing to hear interviewees share stories and see how editing, soundscape and production buoy those narratives.
However, it was the live event that really got me thinking. On stage, in real time, Baltimoreans whom Henkin and Patrick interviewed spoke about the project. Interviewees shared their first impressions of Henkin and Patrick, talked about being interviewed and, most movingly, what it was like to hear their own stories and voices in the final program on the radio. In front of a sold out auditorium of listeners and fans, many of them shared that it was both frightening and empowering to experience what eventually aired.
In his opening remarks, Henkin described the show as an experiment in radical empathy – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling and that the process of having people intently listen to that story feels good – it makes you feel like you matter. Producing this show is intensive and involves selecting a block to focus on, meeting and building relationships with everyone on that block, conducting hour long interviews with each person, editing all of those interviews into one episode and building the musical backdrop that amplifies and supports those stories. In the end, Henkin shared that he imagined each block as a mosaic of experiences and stories and, indeed, the city of Baltimore as a larger mosaic of those city blocks.
The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
The relationships built through the process – between the producers, interviewees, neighbors and a broader community of listeners
In late September, I visited two major history museums in town with a friend– the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Maryland Historical Society. In the galleries, there are glimpses of the “Baltimore mosaic” Henkin described, visible in the form of a personal object with a particularly evocative story behind it, a student curated show featuring photographs of the process of historical inquiry and research, or an exhibit designed as an immersive environment – transporting one through theatrical techniques to a different time and place. Yet, there weren’t nearly enough of those provocative and arresting personal stories that tether historical events to the experiences of real people.
When we teach in history museums and exhibitions, we sometimes get caught up in the intoxication of historical documents, artifacts, objects and buildings to the detriment of the emotional, personal, story-driven voice of those who experienced a place or event. Sometimes this may be because it’s hard to find voices, particularly of those not present in the historical record. And there is a sense of the need for “neutrality.” But even if we can’t necessarily “interview” people who are long gone, we as a field benefit from a continuous reminder about the power of visceral, real stories from real people – especially in the face of larger interpretive narratives that address the history of organizations, nations and institutions. There is power in specificity, and scaled, personal and connective stories.
Ideas I am walking away with
Here are some reminders and lessons I’m taking away from Out of the Blocks:
Relationship building. It takes a long time to create an episode of Out of the Blocks (about 8 weeks). The commitment to interview everyone on one block, each person for an hour, takes time. And there is also time spent hanging out and getting to know the people on that block. This may be part of why interviewees feel comfortable sharing their stories.
The power of storytelling and the importance of transparency. The power of storytelling isn’t new. But at the Out of the Blocks live event I was reminded of how powerful it is to know the “backstory.” Hearing directly from both producers and interviewees added depth, nuance and made clear that the project was meaningful to everyone: the producers and the interviewees.
The notion of sharing and listening as radical empathy. There is power to both sharing stories and having them heard. As staff at institutions and cultural organizations, we need to remember both pieces – dialogue is both talking and listening.
What if we applied the same intensive techniques Henkin and Patrick use to interpreting our historic buildings, sites and spaces? What if in the same ways they interviewed everyone living on one city block during one moment in time, we “interviewed” everyone who lived in one place through time –the people who occupied the space before a building was built, the people who built the building, the people who worked in the building, renovated, occupied and used a space in different ways through time, and the people who are there now, in the neighborhood. In this way, we might get closer to addressing the mythology of the “period of interpretation” as Frank Vagnone writes in his blog and the Anarchist’s Guide of Historic House Museums, co-authored with Deborah Ryan.
At one point in during the live event, Henkin shared that he and Patrick have been asked about the agenda for this series. What did they want to get out of this? What were they hoping for? Their response has been that there is no agenda but that if there were one, it would be to just show up and listen. What would it look like if museums just showed up and listened? What kinds of exhibitions, programs, partnerships and relationships might materialize? What can we in museums learn about programming and story from this kind of work? What examples of similar approaches in museums, libraries, at historic sites have you seen? Let’s amplify them.
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About the Author
BETH MALONEY works as an independent consultant, bringing educational expertise to museums and cultural organizations in the form of curriculum and program development, interpretation, visitor experience planning and professional training. In addition to partnering with a wide range of museums and historic sites, she teaches undergraduate courses that explore museum work and learning through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Former Board member and Past President of the Museum Education Roundtable, Beth serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. For more information and to be in touch, please visit www.bethmaloney.com.
Header Image: Photo by Wendel Patrick. Aaron Henkin conducting an interview for “OUT OF THE BLOCKS,” 2012, photo courtesy the artists.
Photos included in this post are by Wendel Patrick, used courtesy of the artist.
Written by Sarah Watkins, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Reposted with permission from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights blog, the institution’s online presence for stories about the museum and its exhibitions, programs, education programs, and other news. Check it out, and learn more about the exciting work happening at the CMHR. Original post by Sarah Watkins, September 3, 2016.
I have always believed that museums are powerful places. Visiting a well-done exhibit can help us to grow by opening our minds and hearts to ideas that we may never have even considered. For me, the travelling exhibition Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artistsis a perfect example of this.
On display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights until September 18th, Sight Unseen showcased the photography of acclaimed international artists, all of whom have varying levels of vision loss. I was fortunate enough to work with some of these artists to create a lecture series called Shooting Blind, which explored the idea of taking photos without the use of sight. Now that I can reflect on this experience, I have come to realize that this exhibition and these artists have helped me to discover a new perspective on photography and ability.
What is really interesting about Sight Unseen is that the art seems familiar but foreign at the same time. In today’s world, everyone takes photos – at home with family, out with friends, on our cellphones and tablets and with our digital cameras. The act of taking photographs has become commonplace, and for this reason we can all connect with this exhibition. The artists in this show, however, aren’t just taking photos or documenting a moment in time; they are communicating a message. They think very deeply and consciously about what they are going to photograph.
I used to take thousands of photos with my digital camera in an attempt to capture the exact thing that I was seeing with my eyes. Now, because of this exhibition, I have a different perspective. I take fewer photos, but I think more deeply about each one. I look beyond what is in front of me and consider why I am taking the photo. Am I trying to capture an image of the bridge, or the way that the evening light creates patterns out of shadows that reflect the shape of their source? Is it the fog on the water that is most interesting, or the stillness that it communicates the minute before I jump in the lake for a morning swim?
After visiting Sight Unseen, I see the photographs in a new way. When I look at the photo created by Evgen Bavčar that shows an outstretched hand touching the face of a stone statue, I no longer see just the objects. Rather, I see the careful exploration and discovery of something unknown. I can’t help but think of the artist, exploring the world in ways that I could never imagine, through the sense of touch. Similarly, I used to think of the amazing light paintings created by Pete Eckert as abstract art. His photographs created in a completely dark room with flashlights and other light sources seemed random. Now, the swirling colours and rays of light make me think of energy. Each model is represented differently, the colours and patterns as unique as the person they are highlighting. To me, this sense of energy was something previously imperceptible until Pete showed it to me through his work.
This change in perspective has me questioning what it means to be “able” to do something. If photography isn’t about sight, then maybe dancing isn’t always about what we do with our legs, and speaking isn’t always about sounds coming out of our mouths. This is the lesson that I have learned from Sight Unseen. There is more about us that is the same than different, so no matter what our differences are, we all deserve to have our humanity, dignity and rights respected in the same way.
*Sarah Watkins is a Interpretive Program Developer for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Header Image: Gerardo Nigenda, Entre lo invisible y lo tangible, llegando a la homeostasis emocional (Reaching Emotional Equilibrium Between the Invisible and the Tangible).
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)
Let’s be a part of making this happen!
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About the Author
MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com and currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. He currently also serves as the Pacific Region Director for the Museum Division of the National Art Education Association. Mike has given lectures and led workshops at institutions across the United States, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among many others. He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as creative sites for transformative learning and how we can take full advantage of the powerful types of learning, public participation, and community engagement that museums can offer. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.