Category Archives: OpenThink

Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reimagining Peer Networks in a Digital Age

By Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum; Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University; Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, National Writing Project, University of California Berkeley

“People’s relationships remain strong—but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.” (Lee Rainie & Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System, 2012).

In their recent book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie (director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Internet & American Life Project) and Barry Wellman (Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Director of NetLab) have argued that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.

As Rainey and Wellman remind us (although we need no reminder):

“Daily life is connected life, its rhythms driven by endless  email pings and responses, the chimes and beeps of continually arriving text messages, tweets and retweets, Facebook updates, pictures and videos to post and discuss. Our perpetual connectedness gives us endless opportunities to be part of the give-and-take of networking.”

But how do we—as museum and arts education professionals—maneuver within a technology-mediated world in a way that allows us to cultivate productive, human-centered networks and communities? Museums and schools have been widely engaged in how digital media and technology can connect them with their students and audiences. But what about the potential of these same technologies to build entirely new “communities of practice” among professionals—whether art teachers, university faculty, or museum educators?

These questions are at the core of a series of conversations that we will be facilitating over the next several weeks, centered around a panel discussion that will be part of the National Art Education Association annual conference in Fort Worth at the beginning of March. Through these organic and open conversations, we hope to begin exploring models of human-centered professional exchange and peer networks suited to the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of the 21st century. Drawing on innovative work from the National Writing Project (such as Digital Is), sites of exchange such as this one (ArtMuseumTeaching.com), and connected learning models developed with MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, we’ll be discussing how online networks and communities can harness the power of emerging technologies and social media to share, collaborate, curate, and participate with peers both today and in the future.

One way to more easily digest this sizeable topic is perhaps to take it one bite at a time.  So we’re excited to be facilitating two public “on air” Google Hangouts along with the session at NAEA—one hangout prior to the conference to take that first bite, and one a couple weeks after the conference to extend our thinking and perhaps follow-up on questions raised in the panel.  The online Google Hangout format also allows us to potentially engage a wider range of people than just those attending the NAEA conference, while at the same time practicing one of the most widely used technologies for face-to-face online engagement.

CONVERSATION #1 – Come Chat With Us via Google Hangout

“What Do WGoogleHangoutIcone Want from Online Communities of Practice?”

Open Google Hangout w/ Mike Murawski, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

Thursday, February 28th – 1:00pm Pacific / 4:00pm Eastern

For this preconference conversation on Google Hangout, we thought we might simply ask:  “what do we want from online communities of practice and peer networks?”  What online networks and communities are you involved with? When you consider jumping into a new online community, what do you hope it will achieve?  What types of exchanges and experiences keep us engaged and prevent us from leaving (or ignoring) the online network? During this conversation, we were able to gather your thoughts, questions, and experiences which will inform our discussion at NAEA on March 7th.

View the YouTube recording of the “On Air” Google Hangout here:

Couldn’t join the Google Hangout?  Watch the broadcast above, and please add your thoughts and perspectives to the “Comments” section below, and we’ll utilize this space to keep the conversation going.

CONVERSATION #2 – NAEA Conference Session

NAEA_logo  “Reimagining Professional Exchange & Peer Networks in a Digital Age”

  NAEA Panel Session w/ Mike Murawski, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

  Thursday, March 7th, -12:00-12:50pm, Meeting Room 121C/Center/1st Floor

At this session, we gathered with a great group of peers to share some of our own experiences working as developers, researchers, and participants in online networks and communities of practice, but also spent time opening up the conversation about key issues (many pulled from the preconference Google Hangout).  For example: how do we promote online ‘contributing’ instead of just online ‘visiting’ when it comes to these experiences? What are some ways to build co-learning interactions online?

Couldn’t attend the session?  Please feel free to connect with either of the Google Hangouts, or chime in via the “Comments” section below.

CONVERSATION #3 – Reconnect via Google Hangout

GoogleHangoutIcon“The Digital Follow-Up: How Do We Drag Everyone Back to Their Screens?”

Open Google Hangout w/ Mike Murawski, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

Thursday, March 28th – 1:00pm Pacific / 4:00pm Eastern

One of the most difficult things to motivate busy museum and education professionals to do is to reconnect online after the conference or workshop.  While we all know the values of extending these relationships and opportunities to reconnect, it can be so difficult to make these a reality.  It only seems appropriate to make this one of the topics of our own ‘digital follow-up’ discussion.  How do we manage and nurture online professional networks so that members stay active, build stronger ties, and feel supported?  We also kept this follow-up conversation open to issues and questions that were addressed in the panel session at NAEA.

View the YouTube recording of the “On Air” Google Hangout here:


We look forward to continuing this exciting series of conversations!  If you have any ideas for a future Hangout or online get-together, let me know and we can work to schedule here within the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community.

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

Teens’ Vision for Docent-Led Tours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and now, the rest of the story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the question presents itself: do museums really suck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teen Night at the ICA Boston. Photo by believekevin

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

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

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

A Challenge to Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

OpenThink: Making the Conversation More Inclusive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the question that resonates with me the most…

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

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

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

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