Category Archives: OpenThink

We the People: The Radical Possibilities of Hope for Museum Learning

Written by Michelle Dezember

“Art is the highest form of hope.”  —Gerhard Richter

Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.

On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People (Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.

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Danh Võ, We The People (Detail), 2011. Courtesy Lawrence and Joan Altma

The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.

hopeinthedark_coverAs I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.

Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:

“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)

Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?

To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.

1. TIME

Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.

Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:

“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)

This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.

2. CONTRADICTION

Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. araponraceIn 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.

To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.

3. UNKNOWABLE

As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.

Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:

“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)

The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.

As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:

“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)

How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?

About the Author

michelle-dezemberMICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.

Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.

Museums & the Future of Learning

By Emily Kotecki and Jill Taylor, North Carolina Museum of Art

Over the last year, the North Carolina Museum of Art has been documenting the design process we’ve been using in our IMLS planning grant on the role of museums in next-generation learning. On Saturday, January 30, 2016 (after a week’s delay due to weather), we held a Thought Partner Summit for our two advisory panels and a Future of Learning panel discussion for the public to reflect on the work we’ve done so far and prepare for the final stretch of our grant.

In the morning, our collaborative planning team of P-16 educators from across the state met with three out of the nine thought partners (the other six were not able to attend the rescheduled event). These thought partners are national leaders in the fields of education, museums, and technology. Working in affinity groups, they shared ideas about teacher professional development, experiences for students that happen online and onsite, and participatory gallery spaces. Thought Partners helped groups become aware of potential models for programs, recognize gaps in our planning, and find connections between prototype ideas.

We then invited the public to join the discourse in a lively panel discussion that afternoon (#NCMAfuturelearn) investigating the future of learning and the role of the art museum in shaping and supporting that future. Sylvea Hollis, from the Center for Future of Museums, moderated a panel featuring Corey Madden, executive director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts; Matthew Rascoff, Vice President of Learning Technology and Innovation at the University of North Carolina; and Dr. Keith Sawyer, Morgan Professor of Educational Innovation at UNC-Chapel Hill. The full panel discussion recording is linked here through Livestream.

Here are three (of many) big takeaways from the panel that help us take a closer look at what the future of learning might look like and what role museums might play in that future.

1. How to maximize the learning space

The environment in which people learn can have a huge effect on how they learn, what they learn, the questions they ask, the ideas they generate and so on. Corey Madden used her combined experience as a leader at Kenan Institute for the Arts and a practicing artist to think about how spaces can help shape a learner’s perspective and develop new ideas.

“The key idea of education and art is the creation of perspective. What I’m most interested in, is to give that experience to the audience…It’s not me imposing [my] perspective on them…it’s an invitation, a provocation…to use their curiosity to find themselves in a place where that new perspective is created and that generates more and more ideas.”

But what if that space is virtual? Physical? A hybrid?  What are opportunities in person that are not possible online, and vice versa?

For all the technology we have access to, the “social cultural needs of human beings haven’t changed,” says Corey. We can watch a lecture online and then use that to catapult us into a lively discussion with peers when we get to class or the museum. Technology can free up learners to engage with the human part of themselves. She continues:

“If you combine the portal of technology, the reality of the actual space, and the incredible imaginative capacity of students, you can imagine that you can use place and space to transform how people learn.”

2. Imagining jazz-inspired learning frameworks

If you listen to improvisational jazz, it’s not completely improv. That smooth melody is guided by some sort of structure, whether it’s a genre, chord, or song form.  Similarly, Dr. Keith Sawyer, a jazz pianist, sees effective creative learning as “a process of discovery, a process of experimentation, a process of making failures, and switching gears. I think of it as an improvisational process that is necessary to … becoming an effective creator.”

But the paradox he sees for educators is to: (A) engage in “an improvisational dialogue where the teacher is the one that provides the guidance,” and then (B) balance the top down constraints that come from institutional budgets, state testing, and curricula with the necessary need for “bottom up improvisational creativity that is driven by the learner.”

During the Q&A portion of the panel, a student in the audience who is also a member of the NCMA Teen Arts Council, shared her experience with a teacher who made learning AP Calculus engaging, creative, and relevant to her.

“I’m bad at math, that’s why I love art so much, but I’m in an AP Calculus BC course and I’m doing well in it because my teacher knows how to create an environment where I can learn the way that’s best for me. For example, I made a music video about calculus. Instead of ‘Take me to Church’ by Hozier, [we created a video called] ‘Take me to Calc.’”

Sawyer added that creative learning is not and should not be isolated to the arts, but creative learning should be happening in all fields. “We need creative scientists, we need creative writers, we need creative historians, and we need creative mathematicians.”

3. Technology: Enabler of Human Connections

Matthew Rascoff predicts two categories of technology that will have the biggest impact on the future of education. The first, that he believes is “years off,” is incorporating adaptive learning into education. In this scenario, computers understand the learner’s patterns, make sense of those patterns, and then tailor the experience to exactly what the learner needs at that time.

The second category of edtech which is not years off, but in fact happening right now and will continue to do so, is “using technology as an enabler of better connections among and between people.” It can foster communities of learning so anyone can access and benefit from knowledge about a topic. For example, the Brooklyn ASK app connects curators to the general public in real time. As visitors have questions about an object, they can connect with an expert to share insight and answer their questions.

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Innovation Studio staff from the Carnegie Museum exploring the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app. Photo: Drew McDermott, http://studio.carnegiemuseums.org

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, speaks to this exact point in an interview with Nina Simon:

“The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly.”

Echoing Corey’s point earlier – learners can use technology to enhance the human experience and desire for learning.

This discussion was interesting because it focused on themes, ideas, and projections for education as a whole and never got stuck in talking about one ‘type’ of education. In the quotes above and throughout the event, the panelists use the terms ‘educators’ and ‘learners’ interchangeably with ‘student’ and ‘teacher.’ This change in language is one step in the right direction to breaking down silos between educational institutions and organizations. The takeaways are applicable to myriad learning spaces, whether they’re on a college campus, in a museum, community center, or even senior center.

Please share your feedback, comments, or responses on how museums are integral to the future of learning.

Header photo: Courtesy of NC Museum of Art. Christopher Ciccone, photographer

The Museum Salary Conundrum & a 21st Century Salary Agenda

Written by Mike Murawski

In recent years, there has certainly been increased awareness and discussion about salaries within the museum profession.  I can speak from my own place within the field of museum education when I say that this has become a very frequent (and more urgent) topic of conversation at conferences, leadership convenings, and professional meetings in recent months.  Thanks to the efforts of museum activists involved with movements such as Museum Workers Speak, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, protests at individual museums, and several leaders in our field, we are seeing an increase in awareness around museum labor practices, hiring, and worker pay as well as the intersection of these issues with race, gender, and class.

Last week, Joan Baldwin wrote an insightful and widely-read piece entitled “Museums and the Salary Conundrum” via the Leadership Matters blog — a site that emerged in conjunction with the 2013 book of the same name written with Anne Ackerson and studying museum leadership in history and cultural heritage organizations. In her post, Baldwin so clearly and boldly frames the problem of museum salaries:

“we work in an underpaid, under-resourced field. And for too long, too many people have told us that it is such a privilege to participate, that we should suck it up, deal with the fact that we’re thirty and still need roommates to pay the rent, and revel in the fact that we have a museum position.”

Joan quickly followed her post with another this week entitled “The Salary Agenda,” in which she and Anne take a stab at what they think a Museum Salary Agenda for the 21st Century could look like.  I really appreciated this action-focused series of items, which can begin to help the conversation focus on real change — from professional organizations and institutions to graduate programs and individuals.  Here is a quick repost of their Agenda, and I invite everyone to read their entire post and add comments to the already-active conversation on their blog.

From Leadership Matters:

What Professional Associations and Museum Service Organizations Can Do: 

  • Establish and promote national salary standards for museum positions requiring advanced degrees.
  • Encourage museums to demonstrate the importance of human capital in their organizations.
  • Make salary transparency part of the StEPS (AASLH) and accreditation process (AAM).
  • Support organizations in understanding the need for endowment to support staff salaries. A building and a collection don’t guarantee a museum’s future. People do.
  • Create a national working group for #Museumstaffmatters.

What Institutions Can Do: 

  • Encourage networking and individual staff development.
  • Make every effort to provide salaries that exceed the Living Wage.
  • Educate boards regarding the wastefulness of staff turnover.
  • Make criteria for salary levels transparent.
  • Examine the gaps among the director’s salary, the leadership team and the remaining staff.
  • Offer equitable health and family leave benefits (and make them available on Day One of a new hire’s tenure).

What Individuals Can Do: 

  • Do your homework. Understand the community and region where you plan to work.
  • Use the Living Wage index.
  • Be prepared to negotiate. Be prepared to say no. A dream job isn’t a dream if your parents are still paying your car insurance and your mobile phone bills.
  • Ask about the TOTAL package not just salary. If you are the trailing spouse and don’t need health insurance but do need time, make that part of your negotiations.
  • Network. Know what’s going on in your field, locally, regionally, nationally.

What Graduate Programs Can Do:

  • Be open about job placement statistics
  • Teach students to negotiate salaries and benefits.
  • Teach students to calculate a Living Wage plus loan payments and quality of life.
  • Encourage networking, mentoring and participation in the field.

Just as Joan and Anne are not speaking from a position of having solved all these problems, neither am I.  However, I wanted to share their recent writings and ideas as a way to ensure that this conversation remains strong within the field of museum education.  As we enter the spring season of conferences (AAM, NAEA, etc.), let’s make sure to keep these issues at the forefront of many of our conversations about diversity, inclusion, and leadership and work toward making appropriate and necessary changes within our professional organizations and institutions.

Thank you to Joan (and Anne) for sparking another important exchange around these vital issues to our field, and thanks to all the museum thinkers and activists pushing this issue through Twitter chats each week and in-person meet-ups across the country.

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100+ participants at the #MuseumWorkersSpeak rogue session at AAM 2015. Photo from Museum Workers Speak.

Header image: Flickr photo by Tax CreditsCC BY 2.0

 

 

The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Written by Susan Spero

“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed.  Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.”  –Paul Klee

I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country.  My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.

Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working.  Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.

The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking.  It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.

I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”.  From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.

Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.

I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.

One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing.  I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.

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Gallery view with Renoir, Phillips Collection. Flickr Photo by Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.

When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present.  The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey.  Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.

Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.

When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?

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Flickr Photo by Chris Short, galleries at North Carolina Museum of Art. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA.  Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts.  She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.

Header image: Flickr photo by John D., “Forest Stream,” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Supporting Leaders of Tomorrow in Museum Education Today

Written by Wendy Ng & Rachel Trinkley

When you’re regularly working 10-hour days doing everything from implementing strategic initiatives to signing timesheets, how do you manage to be a leader in those circumstances?  Ask any exempt staff (1) and they’ll no doubt share stories of being overworked, under-resourced, and despite the best of intentions, feeling overwhelmed and less than effective. Given this reality, beyond your personal conviction and will power to do a good job, what makes a great leader?  What supports do leaders today and tomorrow need to be successful?  What strengths and skills can museum educators bring to leadership roles?

These questions guided an interactive session we led at the National Art Education Association Annual Convention in March 2015.  During the session, colleagues shared the qualities they believe make a great leader.  If you think about a great leader from your own life, you’ll probably recognize many of these same qualities including:

  • has vision
  • is innovative
  • is a great listener
  • speaks the truth
  • is courageous
  • accepts and learns from failure
  • is strategic when fighting battles
  • knows when to follow rather than lead
  • models behavior for staff
  • brings others along and empowers others
  • is a chief storyteller

From there, we split into groups and tackled the top three leadership issues we face, as chosen by those assembled:

  1. developing and supporting staff
  2. institutional culture change
  3. making change at your level

Since we believe in the power of collective minds, and know that there are incredibly smart, capable people in our work, we endeavored to develop solutions or, at least, resources and places to begin. Here’s what we learned…

Developing and Supporting Staff

Build time into our practice, as individuals and as teams, for reflection.  Given the theme of the convention, use Design Thinking to test, prototype, and create solutions as staff through an iterative process.  Books recommended were Coaching Skills for Non-Profit Managers and Leaders and Managing to Change the World.

Institutional Culture/Climate Change

Create interdisciplinary teams and use Design Thinking to create solutions.  Change takes time and is an investment – you’ll need to weather storms and stay more than two to three years at an institution.  It takes courage to run with it, create a space that doesn’t exist, and ask forgiveness later, not permission.  Flip authority within by trusting others with the reins.

Making change at your level

Whether you are a volunteer, intern, part-time staff, full-time staff, or a director, hold yourself to high standards while knowing your limitations.  Modeling change versus talking about change is more impactful.  Awareness of change leads to more collaboration, which leads to growing success and less discouragement, which generates more ideas.  The book Tempered Radicals was recommended.

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Design thinking, Flickr photo by Cedim News. CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

As we reflected on the outcomes of that session recently, we realized the values, challenges, solutions all still feel relevant to us. When we talked about our current environments and work realities however, some new questions and challenges emerged:

  • has vision – what if others on your team don’t share that vision?
  • is innovative – what if others define innovation differently?
  • is a great listener – what if others aren’t listening to you?
  • speaks the truth – what if others don’t want to hear it?
  • is courageous – what if your courage backfires?
  • accepts and learns from failure – what if failure negatively impacts your job or career? What if others in your institution don’t value failure?
  • is strategic when fighting battles – when does strategy become political and personality-driven?
  • knows when to follow rather than lead – how do you follow when there’s a lack of trust?
  • models behaviour for staff – what if staff are not receptive?  For example, emerging and mid-career professionals tend to prefer flat rather than hierarchical organizational structures compared to more senior professionals.
  • brings others along and empowers others – what if they disappoint?
  • is a chief storyteller – what if it’s a story others aren’t ready to hear? What if your story is competing for airtime, or there’s no one to hear it?

Perhaps these questions, or similar versions, have emerged in your setting as well, whether quietly or loudly. How do leaders tackle these very real, messy issues? What sources of strength, knowledge, or wisdom can we mine to support both ourselves and others?

We invite your thoughts and responses to these and other questions — add to the Comments below, or share your questions via social media.

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Notes

[1] The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act determines many employment standards, including who is or is not “exempt” from overtime pay. Many museum workers are exempt from overtime pay due to their work duties.

About the Authors

WENDY NG: Manager, Learning at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, where she oversees School Visits, Traveling Programs, and the Hands-on Galleries.  Previously, Wendy worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario as Coordinator, Elementary School and Teacher Programs, and other museums in Washington, DC and London, England.  She holds a BFA and BEd from York University, a MAT in Museum Education from George Washington University, and is certified by the Ontario College of Teachers.

RACHEL TRINKLEY: Director of Education for Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington DC, a new children’s museum being developed for the nation’s capital. Prior to joining the museum, she worked at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio), where she managed the docent program and served as Assistant Director of Learning. She holds a BA from Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, and an MA in art history from Ohio State University.

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Header Image: PopTech Flickr photo, “2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, no changes made to photo.

 

Responding to the Events in Ferguson and Beyond: The Northwest African American Museum’s Example

Exceptional post that I wanted to reblog from Incluseum about the Northwest African American Museum’s response to Ferguson and the lessons learned. Thanks to Chieko Phillips, Leilani Lewis, and everyone at the Incluseum for sharing these insights.

the incluseum

In the weeks that have followed the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, museums and museum professionals across the country have been wondering how to respond. A twitter hashtag, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, was launched the day after the verdict announcement to promote and document discussion on the topic. The Association of African American Museums (AAAM) released a statement and a group of museum bloggers collaborated on a response to the recent events (more on that soon). Examples of how museums have responded are few while questions about how to best respond abound. Given this situation, we are happy to share an article our friends Chieko Phillips and Lailani Lewis from the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) wrote for the AAAM’s latest newsletter on how their museum responded to Mike Brown’s shooting back in August.  The article below, which was also…

View original post 1,734 more words

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies may help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how to connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role — as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do they relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest”in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement (show link) about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American museums. We know that this is not the case. This is a concern of all Americans. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook — that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…

  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out ArtMuseumTeaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Look at the website for International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues

Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons

Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum

Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0

Mike Murawski, ArtMuseumTeaching

Paul Orselli  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog

Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities

Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums

Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities

Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org

Rainey Tisdale, CityStories

Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes

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UPDATE: “Museums and social responsibility: A statement from New England Museums Association,” December 15, 2014.

UPDATE: “Practical and Compassionate Advice on Museums and Community Conflict,” December 16, 2014, written by Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum and President of the Association of Midwest Museums.

"Eric Garner Protest Union Square to Rockefeller Center," Photo by Dave Bledsoe, Flickr.com
“Eric Garner Protest Union Square to Rockefeller Center,” Photo by Dave Bledsoe, Flickr.com

Header Featured image: “End Police Brutality,” Photo by Jamelie Bouie, Flickr.com

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Written by Marianna Adams, Audience Focus, with Elizabeth Margulies, Museum of Modern Art

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

All three families scheduled for last week had to cancel or reschedule so it gave me some time to think and have some great conversations with museum educators around the country. What emerged as a theme for me this week was thinking about challenges to facilitating exciting, authentic co-participation in family experiences. I’ve invited Elizabeth Margulies, Director, Family Programs and Initiatives, at MoMA to chime in as she has some valuable reflections to share.

MoMA 1

Since 2004, the USS Constitution Museum has been actively involved in experimenting with and evaluating techniques that foster family engagement. Currently their IMLS-funded project “Engage Families” seeks to identify characteristics of family programming that result in active intergenerational engagement, enjoyment, and learning in museums and libraries. To assist that effort, I implemented an online survey of museum and library professionals around the country in November 2013. Two key findings emerged that will be the focus of this post: 1) professionals value and want to create fun, authentic, opportunities for visitors of mixed ages and interests to co-participate and learn together; 2) accomplishing this comes with many challenges. We want to address two frequently cited challenges here.

1. It’s Really About What You Value

MoMA 3The most frequently cited barrier to achieving their vision for engaging family programs in the USSCM study was lack of resources – specifically time, money, space, and/or staff. Interestingly, whenever I ask museum professionals what prevents them from doing anything this is often the first response. For me, these resources will always be in limited supply, therefore, they become expressions of what we value. For example, we might say that regular exercise is important, but unless we really value it, we will not juggle our personal budgets and complex schedules around to get to the gym or that yoga class.

MoMA is proactively addressing how family programs are perceived and value within the organization by engaging in a cross-departmental dialogue.

As Elizabeth Margulies explains:

Retail, Publications, and Education began meeting over a year ago to see how we might build on the success of some publications written by Education and developed by Retail. In our conversations we realized that we could use some help defining what we all wanted and we hired an outside consultant, Stephen Gass of The Gass Company to work with us. The goal is to articulate the personality and voice of the programs, experiences, and products MoMA creates for kids and families along with the values that drive our decisions. It’s been gratifying to find that everyone thinks this is a worthwhile effort. We wouldn’t have known how important everyone felt the child/family audience was if we didn’t bring them all together to discuss it.

If lack of resources tends to be your main reason as to why you don’t have the kind of family experiences you say you want, then this is where your work has to start.

What are ways that you have been able to shift the culture of your organization towards a more family-friendly position?

2. But Parents Won’t or Don’t Want to Participate!

Museum and library practitioners express concern and even frustration at not being able to get the adults to engage or to engage “properly.” This always raises the question “What is proper?” When I have felt like being the “bad” grandparent and check my phone, it’s mostly because I’m bored. Either I’ve been separated from my wonderful granddaughters or what we are being asked to do is uninspired and/or disconnected from what’s important in the artwork.

It always comes back to intention. If we want co-participation across generations then everything we do has to support that intention. I’ve heard from that when they clearly and consistently communicate the expectation that adult caregivers participate, they have better engagement within the groups.

Certainly we want families to feel comfortable doing what they feel is best. There always needs to be room for groups to engage as much or as little as they want. As the educators at MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History advise, if we communicate clear intentions early and often then we will see more co-participation and enjoyment. More importantly, if what we are asking groups to do is compelling then there will be more engagement. Studies suggest that some parents want to hand over the experience to the program facilitator. We always have to graciously accept that some people don’t want the experience we’ve provided. In that case, if we are true to our intentions they will self-select other programs that better suit their needs. It’s also why a variety of youth and family programs is advisable.

MoMA Education_2012_SMALLBut enough about the parents/caregivers. I want to focus more on the responsibility of the museum educators who deliver experiences designed to encourage co-participation and engagement. Some museums are able to hire experienced museum educators for their family programs, giving greater consistency and depth to the experiences. For many museums, family programs seem to be shuffled off to the youngest, least experienced facilitators who are given almost no mentoring on how to engage intergenerational audiences effectively.

In the UK Kids in Museums is “compiled entirely from visitors’ comments. It’s a practical and powerful tool to encourage and support museums, galleries, and historic houses around the country” to more successfully engage family audiences. For example, a few points from their Manifesto speak to the importance of the educator’s approach:

  • Be positive and do away with the word ‘No’. Tell visitors what they can do at the door, don’t pin up a list of things they can’t.
  • Share storieswith each other. Listen. Families can be experts too.
  • Don’t say ssshhhush! If kids are being noisy, ask yourself ‘Why?’ Is it because they’re excited? Great! Then capture that excitement. Is it because they’re bored? Then give them something meaningful to do.
  • Say ‘Please touch!’as often as you can. Everyone finds real objects awesome. Direct kids to things that can be handled, teach respect and explain why others can’t.
  • Give a hand to grown-upsas well as children. Sometimes it isn’t the kids who are shy – parents need your support too. Produce guides, trails and activities so everyone can join in.
  • Be aware of different families’ needs.Use your imagination with signs, symbols, and words understood by all. Design everything you offer to be equally accessible to disabled and non-disabled visitors alike.

The educators for MoMA’s family programs have developed a range of guidelines and self-evaluation tools to support their family educators. Most importantly, family program facilitators are asked to:

Reevaluate. After your program, think about why families might not have participated as you hoped. Possible reasons:

  • Adults didn’t know they were expected to participate;
  • Adults weren’t asked to participate or work with their child until too late in the program;
  • Instructions weren’t clear about what parents were supposed to do, or the activity, discussion was too difficult (even for the adults);
  • The gallery has too many distractions or logistically doesn’t give families enough room to do what you’ve asked;
  • There is a language barrier;
  • Families couldn’t hear you.

PLEASE SHARE

What strategies do you use to facilitate greater co-participation within and across family groups?

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Evaluation Can Be Fun

*     *     *     *     *

ABOUT AUTHORS

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

moma Elizabeth Margulies - HeadshotELIZABETH MARGULIES, Director, Family Programs and Initiatives, Department of Education, joined The Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Elizabeth designs, develops and oversees MoMA’s wide array of Family Programs and resources including gallery talks, workshops, artist talks, film programs, digital projects, activity cards, games, audio guides and the Museum’s interactive space, MoMA Art Lab. She collaborates with MoMA Retail and Publications, on children’s books and products, and in 2010 with Cari Frisch, co-authored, Make Art, Make Mistakes: A Creativity Sketchbook. In 2012, she collaborated with colleagues in Education, the Museum’s Digital Media and Graphic Design Departments, and Rendor Monkey, to launch MoMA Art Lab, an app for the iPad. The app won a 2013 Webby Award in the Education & Reference (Handheld Devices) category, and a Parent’s Choice Silver Honor for app design. Before coming to MoMA, Elizabeth worked in theatrical and television production. She holds a B.S. in Theater from Skidmore and a Master’s of Education from Bank Street College of Education. Elizabeth has taught in both public and private schools in New York.

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Written by Marianna AdamsAudience Focus, 2014 Educator-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

I know this sounds a bit too new-agey but it’s what keeps coming up for me after my first full week in my residency at the Gardner Museum. Three families came to the museum this past week and the best way I can describe the experience is that I just fell in love with all of them. They arrived so excited and in good spirits, even if some of the children were a bit wary at first.  Their openness to new experiences reminded me to be more open in turn  to their unique ways of visiting and looking at art. A few reflections are shared below (while the experience are real, the names of the family visitors have been changed).

It’s About Choice & Control

One of the first things I learned from my mentors, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, was that visitors like and need choice and control in their museum experience. When I checked back with the families a day or so after their visit, the one consistent remark was how much they liked doing their own thing. Cole (age 10) told his mom, who had not been able to come to the museum, that he liked the visit because “they let us do whatever we wanted.”

tapestry-smallOne thing visitors like to choose is the pace. Eva, who visited with her two sisters, and her grandniece, Suzie, (age 7) and grandnephew, Chuck, (age 12) said she liked the “very relaxed pace” of the visit and added “this is a great way to come to the museum together.” A rather quick and focused pace was set by 8-year-old Zuri because she wanted to use the family guide, while her father and brother, Cole, (age 10) were happy to keep up. In another family, Baylor (age 10) had recently discovered audio guides and he immediately plugged into one during the visit. This slowed the pace down considerably. As his mother wrote to me the next day, “Using the audio guide really clicked in for Baylor last summer, and has totally changed our museum experience, allowing us both to have more private and quiet looking times as well as more social looking.”

Kids See the Darndest Things

I am continually fascinated by what draws children’s attention and this week’s visits were no exception. Typically it is not what educators tend to include on tours. For example, Suzie was first taken with the missing head on a statue in the courtyard. Throughout the visit she commented on how many statues were missing heads and arms. This caused us all to heighten our attention to what was missing. When we passed along a hallway to go upstairs she paused at a niche housing several stone and marble heads a long with a sculpture missing all limbs and the head. She said, “Oh, so this must be where they keep the heads” and calmly walked on.

combined headless & heads

Because the Gardner is one of the few museums lit primarily by natural light, and there are many cases with small, fascinating objects and notes, sometimes things can be difficult to see. Even though, there were opportunities in all the groups where they were straining to see something they did not ask to use the flashlights. or magnifying glasses. Sometimes I would shine the light where they were looking and everyone in the group would gather round and spend more time looking and talking. Reports from families a few days after the visit suggested that the flashlights were a big hit, even though they never directly asked for them.

combined magnify flashlight

They “Stumped the Chumps

Children frequently stumped us all with their insightful questions that we couldn’t answer. When that happened, all of us, adults and children, got involved in the conversation, equally contributing bits and pieces of what we knew and speculating on all the possible answers. Yes, I could analyze these interchanges and point to how they are modeling critical thinking, good inquiry, and how children need to see that no one has all the answers, but I’m not. They were just beautiful moments of people coming together and puzzling out something. I want to leave it at that.

What About Content?

It’s challenging for educators to intentionally lighten up on content in any museum experience, even though research continually finds that family motivations for museum visits is NOT to learn new knowledge. Families seek an enjoyable time together that serves as a sort of family glue, creating memories that they continue to share. Certainly parents and children like to learn things but it’s not the focus or reason for their visit.

At the beginning of the visits this week, I let families know that I did not have any plans for them, I just wanted to wander around with them, that I didn’t know the collection but there was a Gardner Museum educator with us in case there was anything they wanted to know.  Having a knowledgeable person with us proved to be a popular feature for families, for when questions came up Julia Brucker and Michelle Grohe were there. I’m grateful for their skilled ability to know just when and how much to engage so that the experience stayed in the family and was not diverted to the educator. That said, the families did not automatically think to ask the educators when a question arose. In most cases, after listening to families wonder out loud about something, I suggested asking the museum educator, which they eagerly did and it enlivened the conversation. I’m not sure why this is the case and together with families enjoying but not asking for the magnifying glass and flashlight, it feels like a pattern might be emerging. I will see if it continues in this week’s visits.

talking with volunter and elbow of hanger-onAt one point a group intercepted a gallery volunteer roaming the gallery for just this purpose. The volunteer noticed that Suzie and Chuck were interested in a silver encased ostrich egg and talked to them about it. This brief interchange warmed my heart as the volunteer was focused totally on the group’s interest and experience. She had no agenda except to facilitate visitors’ interest.

Implications for Practice

Realistically we can’t accompany every family group in this way, but it feels increasingly important that we, as educators, connect with audiences on more than an intellectual level. Finding practical ways to fall in love with the visitors seems key to me. When we connect with visitors on a deeply human level then the way we design experiences will change. When we start to see visitors as thoughtful, insightful friends who are eager to explore what the museum has to offer, we stop seeing them as security risks or potential dollar signs. I invite you to find your own ways to authentically connect with your visitors and share what happened.

Note: All the photos were taken with Blynk a tiny time-lapse camera during the family visits. This little gadget is now my new best data-collecting friend. And the “Stumped the Chumps” reference is a nod to Car Talk.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Evaluation Can Be Fun

ABOUT AUTHOR

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Written by Marianna AdamsAudience Focus, 2014 Educator-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

Amid many possible areas of exploration I considered for my residency at the Gardner Museum, I decided to see if I can bring more mindfulness to my own thinking about families in museums. Through my research and evaluation on families in many types of museums and my experience taking my granddaughters (currently 6 & 7 years old) to museums, I have been struck by what Ellen Langer refers to as “mindless” practice. It’s when we keep doing the same thing over and over without questioning the underlying pedagogy or assumptions. We stop paying attention and go on autopilot. Nothing very interesting can happen in that place.

I know that there are increasing examples of innovative and thoughtful work by museum educators in the area of family programs and I encourage you to share those ideas with us here. Yet over the years of both watching and participating in family museum programs three key questions keep emerging for me.

Where is the family in family programs?

Figure 1: I did this awkward little drawing as a composite memory of many family programs in different museums. While this is from my experience, try a Google image search for "family programs in art museums” and you will find, amidst lots of pictures of kids making art, some images that have this same basic choreography. Yes, the odd tilt of the painting bothers me too.
Figure 1: I did this awkward little drawing as a composite memory of many family programs in different museums. While this is from my experience, try a Google image search for “family programs in art museums” and you will find, amidst lots of pictures of kids making art, some images that have this same basic choreography. Yes, the odd tilt of the painting bothers me too.

First, what is billed as a family program often turns out to be a program for kids but the parents/caregivers have to stay with them. Adults are rarely engaged in a meaningful way and connections within the social group are neither acknowledged nor fostered. For example, when a family program facilitator takes families into a gallery, they often sit the children on the floor and the adults (either because they don’t really know what else to do or because they don’t want to sit on the floor) stand around in a semi-circle behind the kids. For me, this is a clear example of an invisible pedagogy. We are teaching adults that this experience is for kids and adults need not participate. When I talk with family program educators, they usually say they want adults to engage in the program. Sometimes they go so far as to imply that it’s the fault of the parents, as in “They won’t get off their cell phones.” Having been one of those adults at a family program who dearly wanted some sort of diversion and thought often about pulling out my phone, I ask, “What are we offering to the adults that is more interesting than their mobile devices?”

A host of questions emerge for me that I would love some e-conversation about: Why do we repeat this model over and over again? Does our training push us towards a developmental model where we know only how to program towards children or adults, but not both at the same time? Is the skill of encouraging parent child engagement one that is better fostered through other disciplines and thus should we be looking at best practices in other disciplines such as social work or psychology?

Why do we use a school model of discussion and interaction in family programs?

I’ve watched many well-meaning facilitators sit or stand in front of a work of art and make eye contact with the children almost exclusively. Not only does this tell parents to stand back but children quickly figure out that they are supposed to look at the facilitator and most of them conform. Children are asked questions and they raise their hand to answer, just like in school. Families tend to have fluid conversations, a lot of give and take, and while we might remind a child to not interrupt we rarely ask our children to raise their hands when having a conversation around the family dinner table. Why then do we default to the school model in the museum experience?

Even more frustrating is that this school model draws attention away from the objects and instead focuses attention on the educator. I’ve taken time-lapse photos and the average time spent looking at the art when sitting in this configuration is about 2-3 seconds – total, unless of course a child is not paying attention to the facilitator and looks at the art anyway.

How does the experience leverage the uniqueness of the museum?

The most important issue for me is that too many of the activities we offer in family programs don’t maximize the value of what the museum has to offer.

Engaging people of all ages in hands-on activities in the galleries can be a wonderful way to guide them into a deeper appreciation of the artwork. Yet, I’m concerned because too often the activities don’t connect very well with the artwork or the way the artist worked. I keep asking, “Why is this activity happening in the museum?” Most of what I see could be done anywhere and, sometimes, would be more effective without the visual distraction and noise of the gallery. I wonder, do we continue to under-maximize the uniqueness of the museum because we aren’t clear on what that is? Or do we operate on the assumption that families aren’t able to grasp it?

What will be my focus at the Gardner Museum this summer?

Figure 2: Sam Bates a.k.a. Smug, Girl with Magnifying Glass, Glasgow, Scotland.
Figure 2: Sam Bates a.k.a. Smug, Girl with Magnifying Glass, Glasgow, Scotland.

As I continued to think about these issues I realized I was focusing only on how the educators planned and implemented programs. I began to wonder if I, too, have gone on autopilot. I know what kind of family experiences I’d like to see in the museum but, as I frequently warn my colleagues, using ourselves as a representative for the general visitor is not very smart. So, during the month of July I’ve invited families to come to the Gardner and allow me to accompany them.

I won’t have an agenda, lesson plan, protocol, notebook, or audio recorder and I plan to allow both the “educator me” and “evaluator me” to recede to the background. I want to explore facilitating “with” families rather than “for” them. I want to pay more attention to invisible pedagogies – both how the physical space itself instructs and how actions from people (me included) communicate behaviors and attitudes. I will invite the families to begin where they want to. I will have a few things with me, such as a flashlight for dark corners, some sketching materials, and magnifying glasses but I may not ever pull them out. I’m imagining, for instance, that as conversations evolve the need for things like that magnifying glass will naturally arise and I will, much like Mary Poppins, slide it out and hand it to the adults so they can facilitate the experience for their family.

Admittedly I’ve had moments of near panic just thinking about the unstructured quality of this experience. I have no idea what will happen and have to trust that if I stay mindful, sensitive, and observant that I will notice new things and be filled with wonder. I’ve invited local museum educators to come hang out with me. They can’t bring notebooks either and they have to agree to talk with me afterwards and write up a reflection of their experience.

The family visits begin on Wednesday, July 9. Meanwhile, I invite your comments. I hope I’ve raised some hackles one way or the other. If everyone is nodding in gentle agreement then I haven’t pushed enough buttons.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Evaluation Can Be Fun

ABOUT AUTHOR

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.