Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom).
Art museums have not traditionally been sites for children’s creative experimentation and play but rather understood as places of collection and display. However, the past two decades have seen young audiences become an increasingly important audience for art museums around the world with many institutions developing new spaces and practices towards children. The philosopher and founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy Loris Malaguzzi once stated ‘children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’ If this notion is true, how does the idea of the art museum as a creative laboratory reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions?
The art museum as creative laboratory
An artist has their studio, a cook has their kitchen, a scientist has their laboratory yet there are very few places in their communities where young children can go to creatively explore, experiment and freely play with ideas and materials. A creative laboratory could be anywhere in a neighborhood — a makerspace as part of a community centre, a tinkering studio in a science centre, a fab lab within a children’s museum, a woodwork area in a secondary school or a digital learning space in a library. Many of these ‘laboratory’ spaces and practices have been and are being developed by interdisciplinary teams within cultural institutions, often in partnership with community groups and university research centres. However, art museums can make a very distinctive contribution. Art museums can draw upon the processes of artists and their curatorial practices to establish a uniquely creative social and spatial environment for the co-construction of art and culture between artists, curators, children, and their parents.
The crucial quality of such environments is the presence of what Simon Nicholson once termed ‘loose parts’, these being open-ended materials such as blocks, clay, paint or design software that can be manipulated, adapted and transformed in a large variety of ways. This allows for deep, creative experimentation, questioning, explorative play and discovery-based learning. When such materials are presented in a curated creative environment where meticulous consideration has been given to their selection and presentation, combined with additional equipment and tools to assist experimentation of materials, vast and complex possibilities for exploring artistic phenomena are produced. These environments can also stimulate and support children to develop and express new creative processes and understandings of art and culture. But it is not just a matter of making materials available in a space, these need to be accompanied by artists, educators and curators who are experienced in facilitating young children’s creative play and experimentation. When they engage in careful and systematic observation and critical reflection, they can modify the spatial and social properties of the environment in response to children’s curiosities and discoveries.
The notion of art museums as creative laboratories within their community is built upon the premise that museums are not just for the transmission of culture but additionally a site for the construction of cultural knowledge and shared values. This requires a dialogic and collaborative process between artists, curators, children, their parents and the material environment. The understanding that art museums can also be places for cultural production offers an additional form of audience experience to object-centred and interpretation-based models in the gallery. Of course, transmission-based modes of cultural and artistic production should not be dismissed but rather this needs to be balanced with opportunities for individual and collaborative production of art. Child-centred practice in art museums fundamentally values children as co-creators of art and culture now, as opposed to seeing a value solely investing in the future development of children as adult museum visitors.
My interest in child-centred museum practice
I was first introduced to the interconnected ideas of child-centred practice, creative learning through play, and immersive environment design whilst working as a children’s curator at the Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland, Australia. During this time I worked, as part of a team of highly passionate, intelligent, and creative artists, curators, industrial designers, researchers and creative practitioners, on the development of the children’s program. Collectively we were interested in exploring how the understanding of children as unique, complex, powerful, and creative beings  could intersect with new artistic and curatorial practices to construct immersive creative environments that deeply valued children’s artistry and creativity alongside artists.
Through my work in Australia, I continuously found myself asking: how can we construct a form of art museum practice that aligns with the notion of the ‘creative laboratory’ for children? What does it mean to children to experience these environments? In 2013, the children’s team at the Ipswich Art Gallery started to explore the complex concepts, theories and outcomes of these questions through a formal research project.
I first met Dr. Emily Pringle, the Head of Learning Practice & Research at Tate at a conference in January 2014. We were both very interested in the concept, challenges and possibilities of child-centred practice and its possible intersections with artistic and curatorial practice in art museums. After a series of conversations I made the decision to relocate to England in September 2015 to undertake my PhD under Dr. Pat Thomson at the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The research project is connected to the Tate Learning Research Centre where Dr. Pringle is my co-supervisor.The focus of my PhD is on the construction of child-centred practice in early years (2-4 years) environments in art museums. My research asks:
What are the key conceptual, spatial, and social qualities of these environments?
What does it mean to children to experience them?
How can children’s experiences be used to inform the future construction of environments within the unique practice context?
My goal is to develop a process-led, critical and reflective heuristic thinking tool that can be used to support conversations between artists, curators, children and parents engaged in developing children’s creative environments. The research will draw on early year’s intra-active pedagogical theory  and social constructivism  to generate deeper understandings of children’s experiences with human (peers, parents, artists and educators) and non-human aspects (materials, architectural space and curatorial discourse) of curated immersive environments.
Pedagogical documentation, where young children’s learning and theory building is collected using predominantly visual research collection methods such as photography, film and field notes, will be used to guide practitioner learning and reflection during and after the program is presented . This documentation will seek to make young children’s learning more visible within institutional conversations. The reflection will be used to feed into future curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practice and have the ability to be adapted to the unique gallery contexts in which the practice is occurring.Critical reflection aims to give insights into ‘curation’ of early year’s immersive gallery environment design in regards to the intersection of curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practices. The project thus extends the notion of the art museum as a creative laboratory to the researching, questioning, experimentation and critical reflection of artists and curator’s shared practice.
My inquiry consists of four action research cycles. Each one develops, challenges and reflects on the construction of the reflective heuristic thinking tool. The second phase of the project begins in September this year and the first draft of the critically reflective framework will be presented to the education teams involved in the study late in 2017. After this, I hope to take what we have learnt to the wider art museum community.
By developing an approach that values experiential learning, discovery-based play and critical practitioner reflection, my research will support the construction of more dialogic and collaborative conversations between art museums, artists and the wider community. Through the PhD I will generate new findings on the practices that lead to meaningful experiences for young children in art museums, currently under-researched and under-theorised.
Have you developed children’s creative environments around the ideas of child-centred practice, experimentation, and creative play? How does this reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions within an art museum context?
Please share your comments, experiences, challenges, and reflections.
Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.
James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing an intra-active pedagogy, Oxon: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L 1930. Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero. (2005). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children publications.
Reposted from Design Thinking for Museums, an exceptionally useful resource for professionals and practitioners interested in applying design thinking to museums, cultural heritage institutions, and non-profit organizations. The site offers case studies of design thinking in action, posts by guest authors, interviews with practitioners, and downloadable resource guides.
For a series of printed visitor guides called the “I’m Here” series, Phoenix Art Museum adopted an innovative approach to content development: a design sprint. Educators worked off-site on the “I’m Here” guides in a day-long sprint. The finished guides have been hugely successful, with a large take-up rate, several print runs, and robust social media shares. For this post, I interviewed Christian Adame, Assistant Education Director, about the project.
Q: Tell me how the “I’m Here” gallery guides came about.
A: We had just started a rebrand of the museum’s look and feel, and we wanted to set a new tone. Our goal was to explore ways we could interact with visitors in a more informal way. We were aiming to demystify what it means to go to a museum, so we asked ourselves, “Why do people come to museums? Why are they posting selfies and sharing the experience socially?”
The answer is that they want everyone to know why they are here. And that phrase stuck with us: “I am here.” This really encapsulated our thinking. The why around a museum visit is really meaty.
Q: Why did you chose to run a design sprint?
A: The education director at the time was very interested in iteration and trying new approaches quickly. Museums are glaciers—they move really slowly. Running a sprint was a way to bring more voices to the table, and move quickly through a single project in one day.
We ran the sprint off-site, at my (former) boss’s house. We felt it was critical to get out of the office, away from (office) dynamics. We assembled a group of seven of us in the education division and put everything else aside. The thought was that everyone would be a part of this, and we would finish the first iteration that day.
Q: So you knew you wanted to frame the sprint around this notion of why a visitor is at the museum, but did you have a product in mind going into it?
A: Well, we didn’t have a very robust digital infrastructure here, so we knew we wanted to create something analog, something printed that people could walk away with. We went into the sprint with some criteria for what we wanted to create: it should be informal, and concise, and respond to the notion of “I’m here.”
And when we brainstormed during our sprint, three main ideas came to us. These were:
I’m here …
For the first time
On a date
Being in Phoenix, we get a lot of first-time visitors, mostly tourists and snowbirds, as well as locals who visit a few times a year. And we wanted to give these visitors a starting point. The one “with kids” was targeted at parents, and the last one (“on a date”) was an opportunity to have some fun!
Q: Tell me more about how you structured the sprint.
A: Our former education director facilitated, and I took second lead. We started out by examining at all the research we already had: audience demographics and evaluations. We also looked at the research of John Falk. His work examines what motivates visitors to come to museums, from relaxing and recharging to facilitating others’ visits. This kind of thinking goes beyond demographic information, which only provides a certain baseline amount of knowledge about why people visit.
We then considered this notion of “I’m here” and the idea of visitors wanting others to know why they are here. From there we did a brain dump, with everyone individually writing down ideas of how to address visitors’ motivations for why they come to Phoenix Art Museum We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a visitor, and asked the kinds of questions they would ask, what they might want to know, and so on. We alternated between working individually, then posted our thoughts and ideas all over the walls and shared out as a group. We are a big fan of Post-its. The process of showing everyone’s thought process visually together, then honing down to the best and most meaningful ideas, provided the structure of the sprint.
We cranked through the content in a day, worked with a graphic designer to create (the first prototype), and had about 200 copies made and put it out there. We wanted to see what would happen.
Q: How did you test it?
The education director and I ran the testing. We have free admission on Wednesday evenings, and there is an art walk on the First Friday of every month, so we put the guides out (on Wednesdays and Friday evenings), and talked with visitors.
We played with where to place them so they would get the most visibility, and basically observed. It’s critical as an educator to observe what people do in the museum. It’s safe to say we lurked quite a bit, and as visitors left the museum, we asked if they found the guides useful. We got a lot of positive feedback right away.
Q: What kinds of things did you learn?
A: It was mainly the language and the design that visitors responded to. Visitors noticed the difference in tone from the interpretive content on the walls in the museum. For example, you open the date guide and it says, “Ah, first dates… will there be chemistry?” It spoke to visitors directly, not abstractly.
We also learned that visitors appreciated something they could physically take away for free. We played with placement, and put the guides into different galleries.
We also watched social media so we could quantify if people were posting photos of themselves holding the guides—selfies with the guides, etc.
Q: What are your next steps?
A: We’ve been through three reprints now, and we have another guide in development: “I’m here to disconnect.” This one is about putting your phone away and focusing on two to three works of art.
Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.
Dana has worked with organizations ranging from the Getty to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to rethink the user experience and service design of digital and analog products and programs using design thinking. She is based in Berkeley, CA, and when she’s not working, she’s taking improvisational theater classes at the Berkeley Rep School of Theater.
Reposted from Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a peer-populated platform for art history teachers & home to a collectively authored online repository of art history teaching content including lesson plans, video introductions to museums, book reviews, image clusters, and classroom and museum activities.
It was five years ago, in 2011, that Karen Shelby and I sat across from each other in an office at Baruch College, CUNY, and bemoaned the lack of a peer group where we could share thoughts, ideas, concerns, and peer support around pedagogy in Art History. I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow in my first semester of U.S. classroom teaching, and Karen was a pretty new Assistant Professor who had just won a Whiting Award for her great work as an instructor. We both loved what we did, and from these shared conversations was born Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a genesis I’ve written about plenty before in places like Art21 (here and here).
During those early conversations, I explained to Karen how the place I had come from before my dive back into graduate school–four years as a staff member and educator at the Guggenheim Museum–had been a very different teaching experience. At the museum, we had weekly teaching workshops; we had peer discussions; we traded lesson plans; we helped each other devise tour routes and open ended questions; we talked about data-driven assessment of our work (that was the moment in which a truly awesome educator and colleague, Rebecca Herz, led a team at the museum ina pioneering study of literacy in the arts). We also had mentorship (and I still count Ryan Hill among my very best mentors–and not only because he introduced me to my husband!). In short, we had a rich and vibrant community where teaching was valued by those we worked alongside (though don’t get me started on departmental hierarchies in museums that routinely dismiss the work of Education as secondary to Curatorial…). Karen and I decided we needed this within the academy, and we began to build it by launching AHTR. When we realized it would be greatly enriched by partners who had strengths we didn’t, we were incredibly lucky to welcome Parme Giuntini, Nara Hohensee, Renee McGarry, Ginger Spivey, and Kathy Wentrack, and this is the core team who lead AHTR today, along with advisors and mentors for whom we’re truly thankful.
It was in the spirit of remembering this early history of AHTR that I reached out at the end of the spring semester and asked a few colleagues and friends in museum education to briefly describe what inspires their museum-based teaching. Below, you’ll find their responses. Thanks to everyone who participated!
Your name: Jess Van Nostrand
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):Develop public programming related to the visual arts
What is your resource? Relationships with artists
Why do you love it? Relationships build and develop over time, just like strong public programming; they cannot be rushed or forced. And no one person has all the best ideas, so calling upon inspiring makers and utilizing their skills is the key to innovative and memorable public programs. I like to think that my relationships with artists are the ideal example of a mutually-beneficial arrangement, one in which we both discover new ideas with the help of the other.
Anything else you want to share? I don’t do any museum-based teaching per se and come from a curatorial background, so perhaps this is why my approach to museum education comes from working closely with artists as a first step.
Your name: Miriam Bader What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want toshare): I am the Director of Education at the Tenement Museum in New York City and am fascinated by the nexus of education, technology, and where past meets present.
What is your resource? Visitors
Why do you love it? It’s the visitors that inspire to me to teach. They make every tour at the museum different and bring new perspectives to the material. Without visitors, the museum would just be a dollhouse. With them, it is transformed into an dynamic learning experience where connections are made across time, culture, and geography. Anything else you want to share?Museums are the perfect complement to classroom study. I strive to make it easier for students to visit and take advantage of this amazing resource.
Your name: Sheetal Prajapati
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):In Museums: Assistant Director, Learning and Artists Initiatives @MoMA, which means I collaborate with artists to develop public engagement experiences for museum audiences and run a robust learning programs for adults (50-60 programs/year). Outside of museums: I curate the conversation series a annual conference on social practice called Open Engagement, which took place in Oakland in 2016. I’m also co-authoring a report for the Art + Feminism wikipedi-athon group on recommendations for best practices for inclusion and diversity for their events and resources. I am an artist too.
What is your resource? The resource I am sharing is a chart, Artists Engaging in Social Change (attached here). The link to it online is here and it is included in a longer text here. I found this chart when I was developing the reading list for a class I am currently teaching online called Theory of Engagement and Applied Research at Moore College of Art and Design (Philadelphia). No signficant explanation needed because its a great chart.
Why do you love it? I love it for two reasons. First, its a great chart. Great charts allow you to place existing knowledge within the structure offered and learn or understand something new. In this case, it was really interesting to place my work with artists at the museum within this framework. As a museum collaborating with artists for engagement, I saw some interesting connections between our pedagogical goals at the museum and the potential for impact the museum could actually have, especially when working with artists as instigators or catalysts for new ways of working. The second reason I love this chart is because it places art well outside the walls of institutions and starts to broaden the definition of art as we understand it at places like museums. Like history and science museums who have long championed the value of their objects/work within a contemporary context – both as a narrative to the present and visions of the future – so art museums might want to consider how this kind of approach could provider spaces for alternative or broader dialog around art and artists. This has great implications for our approaches to teaching and interpretation in museums today.
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):I am currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, where I have the privilege of working with an incredible team to build connections with our community in meaningful and relevant ways. This position allows me to work across program areas, think creatively about audience and public engagement, and advance ways to bring community voices into the fabric of our institution and its collections & exhibitions. Outside of the museum, I enjoy being outdoors here in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, hiking or camping with my family as much as possible.
What is your resource? Being involved in teaching for the past 20 years (10 of those years spent in an art museum context), I often find myself going back to certain creative resources to inspire my teaching practice and to spark new and sometimes unexpected ways of looking at, perceiving, and experiencing art. One of these creative inspirations continues to be music. When I am preparing to teach and in the research phase, I almost always take a dive into the music of the time period of the artist and their creative process. It doesn’t always surface in my actual teaching, although I do enjoy bringing music and sound into the galleries when it feels directly relevant to the art and to the goals of my teaching.
Why do you love it? Wynton Marsallis once said that the purpose of jazz is “to help us listen better.” I’ve always applied that to my own teaching practice in art museums, considering the purpose of art as helping us see better and more deeply perceive the world around us. I’m even more curious about whether music can help us see and perceive better – or, at least, in a new and more complex way. Exploring music as a resource for teaching has brought me to connect with the creative processes of diverse musical artists such as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman, and John Cage as well as 1890s French cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert or the deeply moving Spanish flamenco vocals of singer Chinin de Triana. I think, overall, music and acoustic experiences can productively shape a more robust and multisensory encounter with an artwork, deepening our understanding of the creative process and moving us away from studying visual art in isolation from other creative acts. It has also lead to some really fun and unexpected moments in the galleries, as learners explore the layers of a Jackson Pollock painting while listening to the structured spontaneity of Dizzie Gillespie; or as they gaze intensely at Franz Kline’s sweeping black and white forms in his large canvas Bethlehem (1959-60) while hearing Morton Feldman’s 1962 experimental composition entitled “For Franz Kline.”
Anything else you want to share? For museum educators and those teaching art in a classroom setting, I think it’s so important to playfully explore the full cultural context of the art we teach. Not just music, but bringing in other forms like dance and poetry to challenge the disciplinary boundaries that traditionally separate and isolate art forms.
Your name: Sara Bodinson
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):Director of Interpretation, MoMA
What is your resource? I don’t teach per se, but would recommend the following resources (some of which I have worked on and others not):
In addition, the MoMA Learning site looks at MoMA’s collection through the lens of themes. It used to be a site geared towards teachers but we re-tooled it to be for students, teachers, and lifelong learners.
Your name: David A. Bowles
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): I lead K-12 School Programs at the Met.
Why do you love it? There aren’t a lot of online resources devoted to rigorous yet informal perspectives on best practices in museum education. I love this resource because it speaks my language, and offers me opportunities to reflect on my own work every week or so.
Anything else you want to share? I wrote a post for the blog last year on using social media as a tool for reflective practice, and doing so A) pushed me to finally write something about my work and “get it out there,” and B) helped me connect with new colleagues digitally.
Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?
Statistics and Evaluation
As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.
Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts. When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.
A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.
In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space. In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses. We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.
After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage? Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?” What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets? Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses? Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?
When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space. When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer. In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses. The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.” From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems. The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.
This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations. Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:
From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors. First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.
Share your thoughts
What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?
Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
This article is a case study about the impact of “unplugging” as it relates to reflective practice for youth and educators. If you’re interested in exploring reflection more broadly, and you’ll be attending the 2016 National Art Education Association Conference in Chicago next week, please join Mike Murawski and myself for our session “Reflective Practice in Museum Education” on Thursday, March 17 at 12 noon (McCormick Place/Lakeside Center/E271a). We’ll unpack reflective practice for museum educators in an interactive, conversational session—we hope to see you there! If you can’t join us, please comment here, tweet us (@chelseaemelie and @murawski27), or follow #NAEAReflect.
When talking about unplugging, we always think of technology. However, I define unplugging as a way of regaining full control of yourself, physically and mentally, in any circumstances. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
In the summer of 2015, a group of New York City high schoolers and college freshmen, students in the Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps program, gather in the Board of Officers room at the Armory, reclined on lean-back floor seating in front of a grand piano. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air, which turns to quiet excitement when two world-class artists enter the room: performance artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit.
During the next hour, Abramović and Levit give the students a crash course in unplugging and being present, major themes of their upcoming winter production—a hybrid performance/immersive experience to introduce audiences to a new method of engaging with classical music. Over the next few months, inspired by Abramović and Levit, a number of these students will deeply explore the concept of unplugging: what it is, why do it, and the unexpected realizations it can evoke about our own selves.
Although some might stereotype today’s teenagers as one of the most “plugged-in,” smartphone-obsessed generations of all time, our students offered sophisticated, thoughtful reflections about how we can truly connect with each other and better understand ourselves. As one of the educators facilitating this project, I had the unique opportunity to experience this deep dive into unplugging alongside my students. This post explores both the impact of “unplugging” and reflective practice on teens as well as its impact on me as a teacher, and offers ideas about how we might apply the benefits of unplugging to our practice as art educators and museum leaders.
The Project: Goldberg and the Guide to Unplugging
We understand that not many people today know what it is like to be left in silence, stripped from their cellular devices, or even just stare into someone’s eyes… We stepped out of our comfort zone and… left wanting to try it again. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Igor Levit and Marina Abramović’s Goldberg (which ran December 7–19, 2015 at Park Avenue Armory) required patrons to lock up their cell phones, watches, and personal belongings in lockers, then sit in silence in the Armory’s Drill Hall for 30 minutes to “unplug” and mentally prepare themselves to be present to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Levit. Abramović’s method for listening to music was experienced by thousands, including New York City public high school students in a student matinee.
The Youth Corps students were charged with developing ways to help their peers prepare for this uncommon experience. First, Youth Corps researched the artists and concepts behind Goldberg, familiarizing themselves with Bach, Levit, Abramović, performance art, and “slow” movements, from slow art to slow TV. They met with former Armory artist-in-residence Helga Davis, a vocalist and performance artist, who led the students through an activity in which they stared into each other’s eyes, opening themselves to their peers in a new way. They visited current artist-in-residence Imani Uzuri, whose singing and installation inspired by Sister Gertrude Morgan helped Youth Corps center themselves in mind and body.
A printed Guide to Unplugging became one of two facets of the project. As their driving question for the guide, the Youth Corps responded in writing to the question: What is worth unplugging for? They used verbal storytelling and peer editing to brainstorm and solidify their ideas. Their written responses ranged from getting in tune with nature to bike-riding with no destination in mind, from challenging oneself to communicate with family members, to getting lost in artmaking. Others talked of experiencing theater or acting, and some about meditating or being present on their morning commutes. Across the board, students acknowledged the importance in getting out of your comfort zone in order to unplug—and how worth it the challenge of being present is.
For the student matinee, and the second part of their final project, the Youth Corps assisted none other than Marina Abramović herself in creating a short pre-show for 450 students. Although the students had already been introduced to the production through a pre-visit from Armory Teaching Artists, this pre-show experience would ensure that students were present and ready for Goldberg itself. Over two meetings, Youth Corps spoke with Abramović about her method and process, and how Levit and the Goldberg Variations dovetailed with her own art practice. When the Youth Corps asked for any tips she had for experiencing Goldberg, Abramović led the group in an immersive breathing exercise—and it was so powerful that it quickly became clear that the pre-show should include the same. As Lizmarie described:
[Abramović had us start] by lying on the floor with our faces to the ceiling and having our hands to our hearts and stomachs. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean, and found the comparison between the motion of the waves and the beating of my heart. That is when I realized I was in a full state of relaxation. To me, the noises of kids in the hallway outside faded into a nice summer day with seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
And so the Youth Corps stood beside Abramović in front of 450 of their peers and shared their own personal experiences of Goldberg, then modeled the breathing exercise through which Abramović led the entire student audience. When she finished, the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall was completely silent, and remained so during both the soundless preface and throughout Levit’s performance. Later, as students filed out, the Youth Corps gave each student a Guide to Unplugging, to explore how they could continue their experience outside of the Armory.
The Impact of Reflective Practice
We realized that unplugging is about being aware of your surroundings, reflecting on yourself, and being in control of who you are. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Although my co-teacher and I felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of reflective practice, the students still showed growth and articulated takeaways from their reflective experiences this semester.
From a quantitative standpoint, data gleaned from retrospective surveys show clear improvement in students’ skills in reflection: 80% of the students said that they reflected on their creative process and that their reflection influenced future choices more often than before they took part in the program. All of the students improved in developing the ability to communicate their ideas and/or find solutions through the creative process. Additionally, 100% also developed interpersonal skills through collaboration and leadership opportunities—closely aligned to the Youth Corps’ realization that reflecting and unplugging is not always a solitary activity, but often relates to our engagement with those around us.
I also analyzed their written statements in the Guide to surface more specific themes about how the students felt the act of unplugging had affected them.
(Note: Percentages will not add up to 100%, since students’ statements often reflected more than one theme.)
In preparation for one of the sessions I am organizing at this year’s National Art Education Association Convention (see note above), I have been thinking a lot about what reflective practice is. The above impacts of “unplugging” identified by our students, are, I believe, all essential to reflective practice, no matter your age and whether or not you are consciously “unplugging” from daily stresses and technology.
Going outside of our comfort zones and opening our minds to new ideas and beliefs allow us to stay nimble, keep learning, and be empathetic. We must be conscious of how we communicate, and ensure we remain connected to the world—both physically aware of what’s around us and metaphorically, empathetic to others’ lives and backgrounds. Staying focused and aware of our surroundings and interactions allow us to be present in the moment. Overall, these practices help us understand ourselves better—both on a personal level and our relationship with others.
Applying Youth Takeaways to Museum Education Practice and Leadership
When you stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing, you gain a new experience. You are open to things. —Joselin, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
With 40% of the Youth Corps identifying it as an impact of their time spent unplugging, it’s clear that being present is both an essential process in reflective practice and a benefit. In fact, as Terrelle put it, Abramović and Levit’s goal for Goldberg was “to place us outside our comfort zone and challenge us to be present to listen to the music. Marina and Igor wanted us to connect with our mind and body.”
In reflecting about how the semester went overall, my colleague/co-teacher, Pip Gengenbach, and I realized there was so much more we could have pushed the Youth Corps to try in exploring the idea not just of simply “unplugging,” but of truly being present. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and there is always room for improvement, but as I reread and analyzed the students’ writing, I found myself wishing we had facilitated even just one more session to encourage the students not to view being present as an end-game in and of itself, but to keep unpacking why the act is so important.
Even so, we scratched the surface: for example, when writing about paying attention rather than listening to music on her commute, Rachel said, “I realized how much more I was allowing myself to experience.” Leidy found presence in communicating more often with her family: “We express how we feel and look for a solution together.” Destiny models excellent self-care when describing her unplugging mechanism: “I put on a facial mask… close my eyes and center my mind on a blank space… I think of a state of peace and tranquility and allow my body to float.”
These experiences are all ways that we can practice being present in our professional lives. Setting aside a phone and committing not to email during a meeting with staff or colleagues, or during a program; taking time to look for solutions together, in person rather than via email; going for a walk during lunchtime—for that matter, actually taking a lunch; and taking time for self-care outside of work (I for one fully endorse Destiny’s masking regimen) are all small things we can do to be mindful with ourselves and when communicating with others.
Often we feel the need to put up a wall. We don’t want people to see certain parts of us, so we hide. But … when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves and our minds. This is how we begin to surrender to unplugging instead of fighting it. —Sinaia, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
One of the most powerful ways that the Youth Corps—and we as educators—experienced vulnerability was through a two-hour workshop with vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, mentioned above. Davis challenged us all to stare into each other’s eyes, in silence, for many minutes at a time. Cory describes what happened next:
We were then given the choice to come closer, go further away, or turn away from our partners. I personally chose to get closer to my partner because I wanted them to experience an awkward moment and adjust to it. I found myself visualizing my partner’s life line, and found it easy to see their comfort zone through their body language. My partner was fidgeting with their hands at first, but later on they adjusted. I also allowed them to look into my eyes without restrictions. I challenged myself to open up and dared myself not to worry about what they thought. —Cory, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Some members of Youth Corps, like Cory, have performance experience, and are used to participating in exercises similar to this one. They understood the intimate kinds of nonverbal communications that can occur. For others, myself included, the experience felt foreign and intimidating. Isatu wrote:
The purpose was to [try] to interpret who we are… I [was] afraid to reveal my true self to someone that I barely know. I felt like my partner was not looking at me, but looking into me: she seemed… more aware of herself than I was. The jealousy that I felt helped me to unlock myself, I let all the painful moments that I have experienced out through my tears, because whatever she saw in me made me free. Unplugging in this way helped me to feel the support of the people around me. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Isatu beautifully describes how allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person can, in fact, help you both understand yourself better and connect on a deeper level with those around you. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses allows us to better understand our places in the world. Cory summarized her experience similarly: “We must be able to understand ourselves as a person first, in order to comprehend and change the things around us.”
This almost paradoxical statement directly relates to being an educator and leader. It goes back to the old airline oxygen mask adage (help yourself before helping others): know yourself in order to more deeply connect with others. After all, our jobs are not isolated: we have students, colleagues, and/or a field-wide network whom we not only support and encourage, but of whom we can ask support and encouragement. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, we are able to foster empathetic collaboration that can strengthen our ideas and work.
I wholeheartedly endorse participating in something like this professionally, but perhaps more easily implementable and significantly less intimidating would be to try something like the Youth Corps’ mentor triads. During every Youth Corps program session, each education staff member works with a small group of two Youth Corps, where all members (staff included!) set a goal and hold each other accountable to it. Knowing that we were all equally committed and that we had a small group of people, most of whom we didn’t know well before our triads, who would be checking in on us are powerful incentives to keep on track. We meet for coffee or treats off-site, which made the whole experience seem special and important, but not a huge drain on busy schedules. And having a mixed group—one first-time student, one student who had been in the program already, and one adult educator—was an amazing way to stay fresh but also grounded. This would be easily replicable and powerful with groups of staff from different levels, areas, and even departments.
Personally, I don’t like talking in front of crowds so I was really nervous. But Marina got us prepared by doing breathing exercises closely related to the Abramović Method, which helped me be less nervous… She made us feel like everything was fine and there wasn’t anything to worry about. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
How many of us have created activities or goals that we know will challenge our students or visitors, yet perhaps don’t always “walk the talk” ourselves by participating alongside them, or trying something new in our own practice? You’re not alone! As I delved into ongoing reflection with the Youth Corps this semester, I was reminded that it is so important as an educator (and leader) to model taking up challenges, just as we expect our students to do, and to always be learning, never complacent.
Personally, I have been taking this to heart since starting at the Armory this past summer. After many years at art museums, I have been thoroughly enjoying the completely unconventional art we present here, as well as trying my hand at theater education techniques, the field from which several of my coworkers in the Education department come. Since last July, we’ve done role-playing, directed questioning, movement-based activities, “tinkering” with different materials—you name it, we’ve tried it. (And not to worry, we’re all learning from each other: I’ve been vehemently representing the “slow art” guard along the way.)
Although these techniques are certainly not unfamiliar to art museum educators, the fearless, try-anything, “show must go on!” attitude of unabashed risk-taking feels new to me, and is enormously inspiring. My own challenge for 2016 is to continue to reach—testing and stretching my own abilities as a teacher, and pushing our students in the process to do the same with their own goals and experiences in our programs. (And just in case you’re wondering, yes, my co-teacher Pip is part of my “mentor duo” to hold me accountable for this goal.)
Conclusion: Reflection and Self-Identity
I am grateful to Marina. I think what’s cool about her is that she does things that others are afraid to do. She’s taught me to always stand out. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Awareness of self—of our strengths and our weaknesses, of our relation to others and to the world around us—is a key trait of leadership, no matter where in an organization’s hierarchy your job may place you. Understanding our own identity, through reflective practice, allows us to better understand our own work, how we teach, and the place of our institution and programs in our students’ or visitors’ lives.
Youth are in a key phase of their life where they themselves are testing out and defining who they are as people—their interests, beliefs, connections, and communities. But as we all know, it’s not only youth who use museums and cultural institutions as spaces for meaning-making and self-understanding or reflection; visitors of all ages and backgrounds do the same. And it’s important to remember that we ourselves as educators participate in this process as well, every time we reflect on our teaching practice, on our role as leaders in our institutions, or as participants in the world. Being conscious of the reflective process—being present in it, if you will—allows us to be intentional about our teaching practice, improve our connections with our audiences, and ultimately create experiences for all that bring our institutions more deeply into our visitors’ lives.
Header Photo: Lizmarie, high school junior and Phase I Youth Corps, speaks to NYC public school students alongside Marina Abramović and fellow Youth Corps. Photo by Da Ping Luo
Visitors to the Portland Art Museum are beginning to encounter an unmistakable revitalization of Native American art. This fall, the Portland Art Museum announced the opening of its new Center for Contemporary Native Art, a gallery dedicated to presenting the work and perspectives of contemporary Native artists. In 2014, the Museum was awarded a major three-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) focused on creating a “community anchor” space to foster a deeper understanding of Native American art and artists in the contemporary world. Each year, the Center will host two rotating exhibitions and feature a range of related programming.
At the core of the Center’s mission is the commitment to partner with Native artists in co-creating the exhibitions, interpretation, and programming for the space. This approach challenges visitors to think about Native American art and the cultures that inform the work as dynamic and changing, and not as an ethnographic snapshot in time. In this way, we hope that privileging a contemporary view of Native art in the Museum will provide visitors an opportunity to engage with and to relate to the plethora of Native experiences. Front-end evaluation and planning of the Center has involved the Museum’s Portland-based Native Advisory Committee as well as Native artists and others involved in Native American artistic and cultural practices across the region.
The Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art is part of broader institutional efforts which culminate early in 2016 with an innovative special exhibition showcasing contemporary Native photographers in dialogue with photographs from Edward Sheriff Curtis’s renowned body of work The North American Indian. In addition, a new, provocative set of Native artists will be featured in the Center for Contemporary Native Art (see Survivance below), and a spectacular summer exhibition spotlights Native fashion and design.
For Deana Dartt, Ph.D., the Museum’s curator of Native American art since 2012, these exhibitions and initiatives are the result of years of collaborative efforts and a true commitment to Native artists and communities. Working closely with Native advisors, she has brought to the museum an emphasis on Native artists working today to reinvigorate the Museum’s highly acclaimed historic Native American art collection. Her goal is to more meaningfully engage visitors in the issues critical to Native American art practice now, and the unique perspectives that inform that work. Dartt says:
“We want to show the whole spectrum of artists and art practice in Indian Country, from customary or ‘traditional’ to the edgy contemporary, seamlessly woven together in a way that is meaningful to our community as a whole as well as empowering for young Native visitors as they walk through the galleries. I’m always thinking about—and always inspired by—the power of art to heal historic wounds and restore hope.”
Dartt, who grew up in southern California and is a member of the Coastal Band Chumash, earned her Ph.D. in anthropology and museum studies from the University of Oregon and served as curator of Native Culture at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum before joining the Portland Art Museum. She is one of only two Native American art curators in mainstream institutions who are of Native heritage.
In concert with the Museum’s education department, Dartt has connected the collections with Native communities through projects such as the new Center for Contemporary Native Art and Object Storiespartnerships with the Native American Youth Association (NAYA) and Family Center, as well as Yup’ik community members in Bethel Alaska (see previous post “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices”). The Museum has also enhanced online access, making the Native American collection of nearly 3,500 objects the first to be fully digitized through a $150,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
Under Dartt’s guidance, the Native American collection has quadrupled its modern and contemporary holdings since 2012, adding works by exciting contemporary artists such as Wendy Red Star (featured in the Native photography exhibition) and Nicholas Galanin, the Tlingit/Aleut multidisciplinary artist. In 2017, the Museum will mount a major exhibition entitled The Art ofResilience: A Continuum of Tlingit Art, the first large-scale examination of Tlingit art whose forms have long defined the public perception of Northwest Coast Native art. It will include items from the Portland Art Museum’s 1948 acquisition of the Axel Rasmussen collection that inspired the dedication of permanent gallery space at the Museum to showcase Native American art. The exhibition will complement the world-class collection with stunning contemporary works and others to be commissioned specifically for the exhibition. Dartt remarks:
“In developing The Art of Resilience and our contemporary installations, we’re forging strong connections with the Native artists and communities. We’re bridging the past and future of Native American Art at the Museum.”
The Center for Contemporary Native Art’s inaugural exhibition thlatwa-thlatwa: Indigenous Currentsopened in October, featuring the work of contemporary Oregon Native artists Greg Archuleta, Greg Robinson, and Sara Siestreem. These three artists bring forward a strong sense of the continuum of Native cultures and artistic practices in Oregon. Each of these artists is working in traditional as well as “modern” media, but their practice is rooted in their sense of Native identity and values as integral to their roles as Native community members—not solely as individuals with exceptional talents.
The exhibition addresses the issues these artists face in their everyday lives, as Native people challenged to assert their indigeneity in a growing urban metropolis. They all work in their own ways to educate Oregonians about the deep and rich history of this land and its rivers. Their collective goal is to make visual the ancestral memory that fuels the passion for their work—a memory largely invisible to the people who share this home. In partnering with the Portland Art Museum to bring this vision to the public, the shared goal of these three artists is to help visitors more deeply understand the art and experiences of Oregon Native people—past and present—and to more fully appreciate the unique beauty of the cultures so deeply rooted here.
For this project (among others), the Museum’s curatorial and education staff are making a conscious effort to allow the artists’ to engage the public and talk about their own work and artistic practice; rather than adopting the standard practice of Museum curators or educators talking about the artists’ work (whether through interpretive texts, publications, or public programs). The artists have been leading gallery talks in the Center to talk about their work, and the Museum has been using these videos as well as artist interviews (see below) to share this project with a public audience. In keeping with this goal, I am embedding a few of these videos below so that you can learn more about the art and practice of each artist with minimal intervention on the part of the Museum.
In March of 2016, the Center for Contemporary Native Art will present its second exhibition featuring the work of Demian DinéYazhi’ (Diné) and Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena/Jewish). Together, these artists will frame themes of gender, sexuality, and identity through the lens of their respective Indigenous cultural perspectives and traditional practices. Their work in the new Center will demonstrate their commitment to survivance, defined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor as Indigenous self-expression in any medium that tells a story about an active Native presence in the world now.
Survivance is more than mere survival—it is a way of life that nourishes Indigenous ways of knowing. DinéYazhi’ and Spitzer will create a transdisciplinary and multimedia space that reaffirms their dedication to cultural revitalization through language and social engagement—a contemporary and radical act of survivance.
Header Image: Ishmael Hope dances with Clarissa Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” during the Shx’at Kwáan dance performance during the Sealaska Heritage Institute Celebration 2014. Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” was commissioned by the Portland Art Museum, and will be an important work in the Museum’s 2017 exhibition of Tlingit art. Photo from Juneau Empire, http://juneauempire.com/local/2014-06-15/weaving-new-native-narrative-museums
On October 16th, Museum Mashup, Triad Style took place at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Individuals from all over the state came to experiment and meet new friends, all with the idea of experimenting with cultural experiences. As this is at least the 7th experimental museum teaching event like this in the past year or so (they have happened in New York, Brooklyn, San Diego, New Orleans, Cleveland, Denver, and now Winston-Salem), I wanted to share more on how to plan your own Museum Mashup, as well as some reflections from our recent SECCA Mashup.
How We Plan a Museum Mashup
The impetus behind this is simple: empowerment and ownership. People on Twitter (encouragingly using #MuseumEdMashUp tag) reached out to me asking if they could do a Mashup and/or I or someone from my organization could come out and lead one at their museum. People here were asking if they could come since they weren’t an educator and others asked if they could invite non-art educators. My answer is and always will be yes. Yes, invite non-art educators. Yes, come even if you are scared. Yes, do one anywhere and everywhere. Yes.
When I did the first experimental teaching adventure with Mike Murawski and Rachel Ropeik over a year ago, it wasn’t this. It’s evolved into this, because of circumstance, need, new places, new people – and my guess and hope is it will keep evolving, beyond this ‘how-to’ and the Mashups that have happened. The Mashup doesn’t belong to any person or museum – and it doesn’t have to be about good teaching or developing programming or pedagogy. It focuses, in my opinion, on the creation of experiences with objects, people, stories, and surroundings. So folks asking “can we…?” the answer with me will always be “yes!”
Which leads to the thought that this isn’t so much of a ‘How-to’ as a ‘How-we’. And if we keep sharing this ‘How-we’ then we, as a community, can use this experimentation in the best possible way for ourselves.
So without further ado, the How-we:
Found a group of people.
As some of you may know, I just moved from NYC to Winston Salem, NC. I knew a handful of people, museum people mostly, through traveling and my partner. After chatting with Debbie Randolph of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, who was part of the NOLA NAEA Mashup at the Ogden, I emailed a group of people I knew in the Triad museum world and told them about the idea. I asked them to ask people they knew, and we had a group.
Found a place and date.
Lucky for us, Debbie had done the Mashup in NOLA and knew how successful it could be. She offered to host the first at SECCA. As a group, we did a Doodle poll and found a date and time frame that worked for the majority.
Yep, promotions before logistics. Since the basic idea was experimentation, and because I had done a Mashup before, I wrote a quick blurb and put up a Facebook Event. The Engaging Educator wrote a press release and shared it with SECCA’s Marketing Director, who shared it with their press contacts.
Just did it.
Logistics were a big part, and the part that always stresses me out. I broke it down into a few key areas when planning for this Mashup:
The Schedule: Mashups are fast. There was 15 minutes alloted for greetings, groupings and a quick warm-up, about 35-45 minutes for the participants to create a 5-7 minute experience, and then the time for the experiences. That last time frame is flexible, based on the number of participants.
The Works: Since the exhibition at SECCA, Point & Counterpoint has 18 artists on display, it was natural to use them all, since we didn’t know exactly how many people would be attending. Alex Brown from SECCA printed out cards with the artist names, and the groups would randomly choose which artist they would be working with. Some artists had multiple works, but ultimately it was up to the group to decide what they wanted to create.
The Groups: As people walked in, they signed in. Taking the total number and dividing by three people per group, people were assigned into six groups in the good old fashioned method of ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…ok all the 1’s over here, the 2’s over there.’ I ended up doing this in a notebook and just calling out each group, but that elementary school grouping happened in a tiny moleskin.
Facilitation:The facilitator is crucial, but the lack of facilitator voice is even more important – it isn’t their show. Debbie introduced SECCA and the exhibition, and I explained the Mashup goals – random groups would randomly be assigned a work, they would have a finite amount of time to create an experience with the work. This experience would have to be experimental – that is, no VTS, inquiry, traditional teaching styles, and ideally something that could fail. Aside from instructions, the facilitator needs to push the event along, but not comment. While I did lead the group in an improv warmup (everyone felt scared! I feel energies too often in rooms, so I had to fix it!), I timed groups, cut them off when they went over time, and turned the attention over to the next group.
On a personal note, I leave things vague and don’t like to give the group ideas, suggestions, props – I want them to define experience themselves, the interpretation to come organically and the experience to be group driven, not agenda driven. Yes, I would love to see everyone do crazy out there experiences – but risk to me is very different than risk to others.
Lunch:Lunch was provided for the participants. This is optional, clearly, and our next one (YES, we have another planned!) will happen after lunch. I’m a fan of giving people some kind of treat after positive-risk taking.
Reflection:They came, they created, they presented, they ate, and they reflected. Below, you can read the reflections of several participants – I left it optional to submit a written reflection, but post-lunch we chatted about a few key things. I asked the group to think about how they felt before, during and after the Mashup, what successes and failures they saw and had, and what can they do today, tomorrow or eventually with what they saw today. Those questions were also posed to the group for the written response.
Wrapped it up, and said where next…
I’m a big believer of striking while the iron is hot – I immediately emailed the group post-weekend, and asked where the next Mashup would take place. Full disclosure, I asked AT the Mashup, post reflection, because I am still an abrasive New Yorker. Worked well, because the New Winston Museum and North Carolina Museum of Art offered to host the next two. I set a date for the participants and myself regarding reflections. It’s 4:30pm on October 26th, and my self-imposed deadline was October 27th at 5pm. I also started a Facebook group to keep everyone together, post photos, plan the next one – with the simple description of “To plan, execute and reflect on cultural experience experimentation in NC.”
Because that’s exactly what we are doing.
This wasn’t my first Mash Up, but this might have been my favorite one, only because of the domino effect that happened after. People are excited – we had educators, but we also had a curator, a chef, an owner of a new makerspace, artists, retired teachers, a poet – and that energy around connecting with objects and works is incredible. So YES, do these all over…AND share what happened!
Participant Reflections: Museum Mashup, Triad Style, October 16
Before the Mashup at SECCA, I was feeling slightly anxious. I had seen a mash-up in New Orleans, but wasn’t exactly excited about doing it myself. What if I didn’t have any ideas? What if I let my group down? What if I was assigned some artwork that I couldn’t find a connection with? I felt better knowing that I wasn’t going into it alone and that everyone would be encountering their assignment at the same time. Mostly before the mash-up I was feeling reluctant to go and trying to make an attitude adjustment so that even if I didn’t have fun, I wouldn’t bring an attitude that would encumber anyone else from having a great time.
Appropriately, Jen rounded up the group for a collective experience to get us started. This was crucial, as warm ups can be. I knew most of the people there, but there were some I didn’t and it was not a gathering that had existed before. We needed a shared experience before beginning the task. Simply gathering in a circle helped, Zip-Zap-Zop further supported a new dynamic and preparation for us to move forward.
I felt better when assigned my group; I’ve been on a committee with Katherine for the better part of this year and I had met Emily before at other museum educators events. When we received our artwork, I felt a little anxious again: it was a video work. How would we incorporate a piece of art that was so dependent on time? When we went to the video, however, I began to relax again. It was beautiful. My fear of connecting with the work was quickly assuaged and the next challenge was to figure out how to create a corporate experience. I felt blank. What on earth would we do? When Emily suggested sharing our thoughts in flashes while we watched, I again felt better and knew I could trust the process. We were sharing ideas; we had similar observations and some of the same ideas were resonating with us. The film was short and looped through several times as we formulated our own responses and began to brainstorm our approach. I kept finding myself thinking, what do I want people to notice and learn and had to remind myself I wasn’t teaching. Our goal was to create an experience. When watching the film that showed falcons and Arabian desert, I felt compelled to move. And movement became part of the experience.
We worked together to create an experience; while we didn’t require our visitors to look closely at the video or experience it in full, we did use the elements of the video to inform the experience. And, it served as a backdrop, visual and auditory, as we proceeded. I hope that people were able to see it and make connections while participating in the activity we led, even if the connection to the art was necessarily soft.
There was a moment, as we wrapped up our “experience,” when I realized that everyone in the gallery had jumped right in and trusted us all the way through the activity. They trusted us and each other (it might have helped that the room was darkened for video) such that at the end we were all standing as falcons and emitting a piercing cry of a bird of prey into the gallery. I was grateful for their trust in us and I think they were rewarded for it; the positive energy in the room was palpable.
I left the day feeling energized and like I had had a good mental/professional workout.
While in some ways, I feel like I am constantly experimenting in my own teaching in the process of figure out what works, I also experience limitations. Some of these are institutional, some are self-imposed. What I saw from my group’s gallery experience is how movement can be a really important thing to do in an art museum. It helped me respond to the video and it further shifted the energy of the collective group. I can thus push more to incorporate movement in the context of my museum teaching–trying to find ways to do it safely and structure experiences so that it is included.
In terms of structure, I think it was great to have the length of time (5-7 minutes) that we had and the number in each group (3). Also, as one of my colleagues said, it’s so fun to get to work with other people’s art!
The Museum Mashup is a really fun and fresh way to connect with one’s creative side and to collaborate with museum and art professionals. Mediation is the sacred key to what Curators and Educators do–it’s our shared ground. The Mashup brought us together and helped bring about a variety of responses, approaches to mediation, and conversation showing that good things happen when you play.
When I first signed up for the Museum Mash-up I really had no idea what to expect, but I had met Jen a week or two before and I knew that it would be an exciting event. I met some interesting new people, which is rare for me. I know everyone in town! I was surprised by how some of the groups gave me a new and very interesting way to view some of the art installations. I think I made some new friends at the Mash-up, and I plan to take a closer look at the exhibits at SECCA and explore some new perspectives.
It’s not always easy to break away from what “works”, but I believe it is always worthwhile to step back and look at things in new ways and through different perspectives. By encouraging collaboration between educators and non-educators from the Triad, the Museum Ed Mashup at SECCA gave me the opportunity to play with a group of individuals that value experimentation and play as much as I do.
In the field of museum education it is often all too easy to stop experimenting and become complacent when you find something that “works” well enough. This could be a tour program, an art activity, a scripted speech, or a way of looking at or experiencing artwork. While there is nothing inherently wrong with repeating programs or experiences, repetition in isolation and without experimentation can lead to complacency, and ultimately stagnation. This problem is exactly what the Museum Ed Mashup was created to combat. And that is exactly what it did.
By bringing together educators and non-educators together from varied backgrounds it gave everyone the ability to experiment freely and experience the world through different perspectives. This, I think, is the greatest gift the Mashup has to offer. It reminds us that not everyone thinks alike.
The time spent at MuseumEd Mashup, far exceeded my expectations. In a world of meetings, planning, lectures and programming, it was refreshing to step away and look at exhibits in a more provocative way. I was inspired to explore the artist and medium in new and creative ways, with others! Thank you for stepping outside of the box and taking risks with your audience.
Reposted from the Getty Museum’s website and The Getty Iris online magazine. Special thanks to Sarah Cooper and Annelisa Stephan at the Getty, as well as artist Julia Sherman, for allowing me to repost this content about such an inspiring, creative, and experimental project.
Presented by artist and writer Julia Sherman, creator of the popular blog Salad for President, the Getty Salad Garden is conceived as a dynamic platform for conversations, drawing together a wide variety of creative voices. Like the format of her blog, Sherman will invite a range of artists and creative guests to join her in harvesting and making salads, emphasizing that the simple act of cooking together can be the catalyst for fascinating conversations and a fruitful creative exchange. Through sharing their artistic and culinary interests and the surprising ways they intersect, the conversations reveal the potential for a simple salad to invigorate our creative lives. Throughout the fall, the Getty Salad Garden will serve as an unexpected, playful space for investigations into the historical material on display in the galleries, infusing it with contemporary perspectives.
For the project, Sherman collaborated with urban gardeners Farmscape Gardens, and art-historian-turned-landscape-architect David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape. Together they have designed a garden which thoughtfully responds to the Getty Center’s architecture and landscape, and utilizes rare seeds, including 19th-century varietals, that help preserve agricultural and culinary heritage. The garden will be drip-irrigated, using dramatically less water than a lawn requires.
The Getty Salad Garden will support a variety of projects documenting the salads and conversations Sherman has with exciting members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty Salad Garden explores the unique way gardens inherently foster community, and hopes to inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
An Interview with Julia Sherman of Salad for President (from The Getty Iris)
During Julia’s latest salad exploration adventure in Japan, where she sampled dishes with myoga wild ginger flower, ponzu dipped sea grapes, and fried lotus root, Sarah Cooper (Public Programs Specialist, Getty Center) spoke with her about how the Getty Salad Garden came to be and how the simple salad managed to get her vote.
What led you to create Salad for President?
In 2011, I had finished my MFA at Columbia University, and I was forging along, pursuing shows and residencies and paying a fortune for a studio on the fifth floor of a storage facility under the Manhattan Bridge. My space was sandwiched between a CrossFit gym and a 24-hour energy distributor, so you can imagine I was not feeling surrounded by “community.”
My husband started a Tumblr for me called Salad for President, urging me to catalogue my obsessive cooking, gardening, and hosting. These were the creative things I was doing without preoccupation, the equivalent of a sketchbook for most artists. There came a point where I finally admitted that I wasn’t inspired in the studio; I wanted to be in my kitchen or garden, making that which I knew exactly how to share. So I taught myself how to take photos of food, and I started inviting myself over to the homes and studios of all the salad-loving artists I knew. The energy I brought to the project was immediately contagious, and so it became a garden, a book, a cocktail syrup, and a soon a perfume. The open-endedness for me is the best part. Salad is a platform for me.
I read that you think making a salad is similar to making art in that it requires assembling various colors, textures, and sensory elements. Yet salads are not art. Why do you make this connection?
I think you could make an argument that a salad could be art if the maker wanted it to be, but for me, salad as an art object is not really the point. I am more interested in practice and dialogue, an artist’s approach to the entirety of their world, not just their finished works. If I were to call the salad itself a work of art, it would no longer feel like a casual gift, something I can so easily give to others. It’s not meant to be exhibited but consumed, and then reimagined the very next day.
What have been your favorite salad sessions?
Some of the best salad sessions have come from those who don’t identify as cooks. Sina Najafi—editor in chief of Cabinet Magazine—and Nina Katchadourian—one of my favorite artists—used the materials of their salad to make a tribute to Rafael Nadal, their favorite tennis player. They constructed a tiny tennis court out of pine nuts and chives, and we got so deep into the topic that it eventually turned into a potent lesson on role models and the importance of finding inspiration outside your given discipline.
If you had to choose a salad recipe that best reflects your own creative outlook, what would it be?
I always go back to the Greek salad, because I am fascinated by its staying power—I have never met a contemporary twist on a Greek salad that I preferred. In all creative pursuits, it is important to know when not to innovate but to instead appreciate things just the way they are. This is a trait I appreciate most in art—think of Bruce Nauman or the Fluxus artists. Things don’t have to complicated to be good.
What artists have been important for you throughout your career?
I have been very fortunate to have mentors whose work I admire. When I was in college, I identified with the work of Janine Antoni. I had the chance to work with her in grad school and assist her briefly, and she taught me about work-life balance, prioritizing, and taking risks. She has been making sculpture and installation successfully for over 20 years. Later she found her passion in dance and was not afraid to pursue that. That, to me, is what it means to be a great artist.
Same for Jon Kessler and Dike Blair, who have been painfully honest about the peaks and valleys of the art world and their own careers. We are all just trying to figure it out, over and over again, and it is so valuable to hear that from those who are succeeding. The art world is not a cult where you find your place and claim it; rather, we are just a roaming community of restless makers looking for a way to keep pushing ourselves.
Last year you created a salad garden on the roof of MoMA PS1 in New York. Why is it important to you to present Salad for President in the context of a museum?
The art world will always be my home, and I think it is crucial that I root my thinking there. A project like this, as innocuous as it might seem, asks some critical questions of both the visitors and the museum itself, the artists who show their work there, and the people who make the museum happen. How are you supposed to use the space and who does it belong to? How can a museum be an active place of engagement? How can it activate the imagination of the public?
For me, the garden is both familiar and strange—a place that allows for an ease of curiosity, discovery, and dialogue amongst the experienced gardener and the total novice alike. This mirrors the ideal engagement one should have at the museum.
For the Getty Salad Garden, you’ve brought in two collaborators: David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape and Farmscape Gardens. How did you meet these collaborators and bring them into the project?
David Godshall and I are old friends. He approaches everything he does with the utmost intention and respect. I knew that if we were to make a garden at the Getty, it would have to be beautifully designed and sensitive to its surroundings. So David created a really smart Tetris configuration, which was an elegant and cost effective solution to a functional garden. It’s also one that he sees as a midway point between the Getty Center’s architecture and Central Garden.
When I was in Los Angeles about six months ago, Gillian Ferguson, the producer of the radio show Good Food, wrote an article about Salad for President for Los Angeles Magazine in which I alluded to my plans to make my next salad garden in Los Angeles. Lara Hermanson of Farmscape Gardens reached out to me, offering to plant and manage a garden if I were to make it happen.
I consider myself the ultimate amateur gardener, but for a project of this scale, I could never have done it without the expertise of Lara’s staff, Dan Allen and Ariel Chesnutt, who spend all day creating and maintaining public and private vegetable gardens in California.
Why did you want to realize the second iteration of your garden project in Los Angeles?
I moved to Los Angeles with my partner, Adam Katz, in 2007, and he and I started a project space in the front of my studio called Workspace. It really served a need of our community of artists, just finding their way after school, not yet showing their work in commercial galleries. It was there that I found my place as an organizer, a host, a facilitator of artists’ projects. I am grateful to Los Angeles and its artists for their energy at that time.
I later moved back to New York for grad school, but I’ve always maintained a life in L.A. I also learned to garden here, so it seemed only right to make the next salad garden in the place where so many of my fundamental ideas came together.
Bringing people together and sharing their stories seems to be the central impulse of Salad for President. What is it about salads and gardens that make them such great connectors?
I’ve discovered that the intimacy of salad and the garden unlocks a world of people I admire. We are all trying to figure out how we can live our lives better, more honestly, more fully. What better way to spark a conversation about those big ideas than to start with something small?
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This season, Julia Sherman is in residence at the Getty Salad Garden, growing, harvesting, and cooking alongside members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty hopes the simple salad will inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
Starting at 11:00am, we’ll create small teaching groups, get randomized object assignments and prototype short experiences with these objects. After sharing these adventures, we’ll meet for lunch and discuss the morning.
Please invite all experimenters: museum educators, art teachers, science buffs, general educators, as well as any community members interested in playing! The more the merrier, no experience in art necessary, just a can do attitude and willingness to play and experiment.
Not in North Carolina? Jen from The Engaging Educator will be live-tweeting the Mash-Up, and participants are invited to share at #museumedmashup
WHEN: Friday, October 16th – 11am-2pm
11-11:15– Welcome, introduction, assign artworks + groups
Focus for a moment on an object in front of you. How do you understand its shape? How would you represent it by drawing it? Imagine turning or rotating it. What would it look like then? How could you create something with the same shape?
When we look at and create art, we are exercising spatial intelligence to analyze and construct objects and images. Rich experiences with works of art have been shown to significantly enhance student math achievement, as documented by the Framing Student Success program that studied the effects of standards-based instruction that integrated high-quality visual arts, math, and literacy content in three high-poverty New York City Public Schools. These findings support a growing trend in K-12 programs across the country to merge arts instruction with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, pioneered by Rhode Island School of Design’s STEM to STEAM initiative.
How can the excitement around the potential of the arts to contribute to STEM education, along with current research on spatial ability be shared in an art museum setting, so that PreK-12 teachers can bring the ideas into their classrooms? Here we’ll share the activities and discussions that we designed with this aim. The two-hour gallery session was a part of a week-long teacher institute, VAST (Visual Arts and Sources for Teaching) held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this past July. The overall theme for VAST was integrating art across the curriculum. Our session was led by Andrea Kantrowitz, Assistant Professor at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, who co-wrote and implemented the Framing Student Success curriculum; Rebecca Mitchell, former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Lynda O’Leary, Distance Learning Coordinator at PMA.
Through a series of structured activities (individual, small group, and large group) – looking at art, drawing, creating sculptures, discussing, and choreographing a short dance on a work of art (yes, you read that right!), the teachers engaged their spatial thinking skills to think and create in two- and three- and even four- dimensions.
The setting: Temporary exhibition, Minimalism in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and permanent collection galleries
Audience: 80 PreK-12 teachers (in groups of 20 at a time)
After a short introduction to the Framing Student Success study and some research findings about spatial thinking, the teachers began their first activity. With pencils and sketchbooks in hand, the group spent 10-15 minutes drawing Robert Morris’s Untitled (Battered Cubes) from 1970, a piece made up of four large cube-like objects. Andrea explained that there was no “wrong” way to draw the sculptures, and that a variety of approaches would be beneficial to our discussion later. Since there were art teachers and classroom teachers in each group, we didn’t want anyone to feel self-conscious about their drawing ability. Andrea emphasized that it was the thinking and problem solving that was most important, not how “accurate” the drawing looked. The teachers sat wherever they felt comfortable, and drew the sculpture from whatever angle they preferred.
The teachers then watched a minimalist dance performance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs and filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1973, Calico Mingling (available here: http://ubuweb.com/film/mangolte_calico.html) and notated it however they wanted to – through sketches, notes, or some combination of the two. Again, the goal was to observe closely and record these observations with pencil and paper. In the Childs piece, the dancers move around and through a grid pattern on the ground, located at Robert Moses Plaza at Fordham University.
Many ways to solve a problem:
We gathered the teachers back together and placed the drawings of the sculpture on the floor. After a walk around the circle to look at all of them, we discussed the variety of approaches – while some people showed multiple viewpoints in one drawing, others focused on what they could see from their vantage point. Next we looked at everyone’s notes/sketches of the dance, which revealed even more variety. Some people focused on one dancer’s movements, while others watched for overall patterns among all of the dancers. Still others counted steps, traced arcs of the movements, or looked for relationships between the dances and the grid below their feet. All of these approaches yielded successful results, and the variety of solutions enriched the group’s understanding of both the sculpture and dance. We discussed the challenges and strategies to translate three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface, and the added complexity of movement and time.
Building it out again: three dimensions
Now it was time to experiment with creating something three-dimensional from a two-dimensional material: paper. Working with a 1 1/2 inch dot grid on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, a pair of scissors, and small circular stickers, teachers created sculptures. No specific instructions were given except to create something three-dimensional based on the grid. The teachers cut, folded, and taped. Discoveries were made, and sculptures were adjusted. They learned what worked and responded to their new knowledge as they continued to build. As expected, this exercise resulted in a wide range of sculptures – size, shape, and orientation. We displayed the sculptures in the center of the room and discussed the process and results.
Introducing time: the fourth dimension
Happily, there was a Carl Andre sculpture installed in the exhibition, which consisted of 17 copper squares, arranged in a line on the floor. Another grid! This gave us, the facilitators, the idea to culminate this part of the session with physical activity, something we thought would also benefit students when these ideas were translated into a classroom. Andre’s sculptures are meant to be experienced by walking over, around, and on them. Taking inspiration from Childs’s dance, we split the larger group into groups of 4-5 teachers and gave them 10 minutes to create a dance on and around the sculpture. Although coming up with choreography was a new experience to many of the teachers, they embraced the challenge and had fun working together. Again, the final pieces showed great variety:
Some moved in grid-like movements: forward, backward, side-to-side, while others incorporated more organic movements. Some were in unison, others had each dancer moving in a unique way. All utilized the length of the sculpture and responded to its structure.
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On a concluding walk through the galleries, we took note of how artists throughout time and place use the grid to organize space. For example, the use of one-point perspective in a Canaletto painting or the incorporation of multiple perspectives in an 18th century Japanese screen. From grids on floors, to decorations on the ceilings, to paintings, drawings, decorative arts, and sculptures on view, it became clear that grids abound in art and architecture. We began to consider the world around us in new ways and recognize underlying structures that order our built environment.
These exercises drew the teachers out of their comfort zones and encouraged them to engage in creative play – looking, drawing, creating, dancing, and discussing. They considered spatial relationships from several perspectives and through different means. It is our hope that the teachers left the session with practical ideas for the classroom, an enriched understanding of spatial intelligence, and a new appreciation the interconnectedness of art across the disciplines.
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About the Authors
REBECCA MITCHELL is the former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she taught students in the galleries, organized teacher programs, and wrote teacher resources (to view the PMA’s teacher resources, please visit www.philamuseum.org/teacherresources). She has a B.A. in art history from Smith College and an M.A. in art history from the University of Delaware. She currently resides outside of New Haven, CT, where she is spending time with her two young children, but remains active in the art museum education community.
ANDREA KANTROWITZ, EdD, is an artist and researcher, who has lectured and given workshops internationally on art and cognition. As the director of the Thinking through Drawing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, she organized a series of international drawing and cognition research symposia, in collaboration with colleagues from the U.K. She holds a B.A in Art and Cognition from Harvard University and a MFA in Painting from Yale, and an Ed.D from Columbia University in art education and cognitive studies. She teaches foundation drawing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and art education at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She worked for many years as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools and has been involved in multiple local and national arts in education research projects. Her own art work is represented by Kenise Barnes Fine Art.
Written by Mike Deetsch,Director of Education & Engagement, Toledo Museum of Art
In 2010 the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) passed its 2015 Strategic Plan with an emphasis on the Museum’s Purpose: Art Education. One of the primary intentions behind the plan was to create a more relevant and sustainable Museum and at this point we adopted the Strategic Objective of Teaching Visual Literacy. The thought process behind this, brought forward by the Museum’s director Brian Kennedy, was that the Museum would leverage great works of art in the collection to teach people to see better in our 21st century’s image-saturated society. Since this time there have been a variety of visual literacy-specific initiatives developed by the Museum, including The Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, a docent training class highlighting visual perception, and the creation of a Visual Literacy website.
In November 2014 the Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 47th annual conference for the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA). As part of the preparation for this conference, in January 2014 the education department was charged with designing a professional development program that would train all Museum staff and volunteers on the theories and processes around visual literacy. With the conference imminent, we wanted to ensure that any staff or volunteer in the organization would feel comfortable talking about visual literacy with any of our attending guests.
Before my colleagues and I developed the curriculum, we needed to clarify TMA’s approach to teaching visual literacy and its associated concepts. Our goal was to make the content accessible to a wide audience. It might go without stating, but not everyone on our staff has a background in art, art history, or art museums. Keeping in mind that we were going to be training such a diverse audience (i.e. all museum departments as well as docents and other volunteers), our approach couldn’t be intimidating and had to be presented in a fun and engaging way.
We had been incorporating visual literacy concepts into programming in a number of ways since 2010, but those programs largely lived with the education department. To be successful on this project, it was clear that it was essential to engage a variety of staff members outside of education in order for the concepts to “stick” and be embodied throughout the organization. Aided by strong support from the director’s office, we pulled together a cross-departmental team of 14 staff, for three consecutive Tuesdays in February 2014, to brainstorm around visual literacy concepts. This team consisted of staff from curatorial, education, library, marketing, visitor engagement, visitor services, and the director’s office.
Our meetings took place in a white board room (three walls covered in white board paint) where we were able to discuss, brainstorm, and illustrate ideas. While the participants were not always in agreement, we were able to use these meetings (about six hours total) to land on consensus for our key process which include:
an easy to understand definition of visual literacy,
the Elements of Art and Principles of Design as the foundational vocabulary,
the concepts of interpretation distilled into four visual languages.
During these sessions the group realized the value of aligning the TMA’s definition of visual literacy with textual literacy. The comparison to textual literacy is important for two reasons: one, it makes an analogy that people are already familiar with and, two, it gives the Museum the opportunity to shift the discussion from literacy to language. The latter shift was key because focus groups had been telling us that literacy implies there are people who are illiterate, while language implies level of fluency. TMA’s definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, comprehend, and write visual language. Reading visual language is about the process of seeing, comprehending visual language is about the interpretation of seeing, and writing visual language is about the action you take in response to what you have seen.
With the definition, process, and concepts in place my colleague Kate Blake, Manager of Curriculum, and I drafted the curriculum for the professional development. From the outset of writing the curriculum we identified a few musts: the program needed to be multidisciplinary, meaning it wasn’t going to be art history-centric; it needed to be activity-based; and it had to be taught in the galleries.
As museum educators we know the value in using a variety of approaches to gallery learning, including group discussion, small group activities, drawing, and independent exploration. Facilitating activities, opposed to discussion only, would afford us the chance to engage with a variety of learning styles and dabble into a bit of game mechanics. By making the approach activity-based, we were able to engage our staff in the overall experience which proved to be useful in retaining the concepts introduced.
As I mentioned earlier this training was offered to TMA staff and volunteers, in all approximately 300 individuals. In the end we designed a curriculum of 12 contact hours which introduced the concepts surrounding Visual Literacy, spent time on close looking techniques, and gave special emphasis to the four visual languages. Kate and I knew that 12 hours was a significant commitment for people to give over during the work week, so we also developed a variety of workshop formats to adjust to people’s schedules accordingly. Initially each of these sessions was facilitated by full-time TMA education staff but gradually transitioned two of our more experienced docents into facilitators. These docents, who were both former docent board presidents, had been working closely with staff on visual literacy programming since 2010.
One lesson the facilitators quickly discovered during the workshops was the importance of acknowledging expertise, at all levels, throughout the professional development. There were content experts, such as curators, as well as other areas of expertise. For example our security staff, which spends more time in the galleries than anyone else on staff, was actively encouraged to contribute their opinions and perspectives. The guards’ comments were often the most insightful for their interpretations and their observations of visitor interactions with the collection.
Evaluation and Next Steps
As a means of reflection, we developed an evaluation tool that allowed us to make real time adjustments. Specifically we measured the digestibility (of content) and overall enjoyment. To do this, we created a series of online surveys to collect feedback at various touch points during the 12 hour workshop. The curriculum was grouped into six modules and each module had its own evaluation. While the evaluation was not a requirement for participation, we collected over 300 surveys. The general response was positive, with most activities receiving a rating of 5 (out of 6) on a Likert scale. Open-ended questions provided constructive feedback that we were able to act on immediately, such as making a slight adjustment to our definition of visual literacy and dropping activities that did not resonate or were too complicated.
All told between April and October 2014, our team of eight facilitated 28 workshops, totaling 336 hours, for 300 staff and volunteers. The entire experience, from design to facilitation, relied heavily on cross-departmental staff involvement, input, and engagement. As a result we were able to design a clear and concise introductory visual literacy curriculum which we have been able to repurpose for a variety of audiences and in a multitude of formats since getting the staff involved. Our staff and volunteers clearly understand TMA’s Purpose is Art Education and that we will achieve it by Teaching Visual Literacy now.
Having the opportunity to share and rely on expertise throughout the Museum proved invaluable throughout the entire process. How many of you have the opportunity to cross collaborate on projects from start to finish? If so, what does that look like? And do you have the opportunity to prototype new ideas? How can we build that into our practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
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About the Author
MIKE DEETSCH: Emma Leah Bippus Director of Education and Engagement at the Toledo Museum of Art, Deetsch is a key member of the Museum’s executive team, leading educational and programming initiatives across the Museum. He is responsible for curriculum development for all audiences, outreach, exhibition interpretive material and management of the docent program as well as conceptualizing innovative public programming. He oversees a strong, motivated education staff and a highly engaged TMA docent corps responsible for developing visual literacy initiatives and partnering to create opportunities for visual literacy education and awareness. Prior to joining the TMA staff, Deetsch served as a senior museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition and programs director at the Lexington Art League, and the student programs manager at the Kentucky Historical Society. Deetsch received his master’s degree in art education from the Pratt Institute and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Hanover College. He was chosen in 2011 to participate in the Getty Leadership Institute’s “Museum Leaders: the Next Generation.”
Written by Patty Edmonson, Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist, Cleveland Museum of Art; and Hajnal Eppley, Assistant Director, School & Teacher Engagement, Cleveland Museum of Art
Inspired by the Museum Ed Mashup in New Orleans, Cleveland hosted the first Ohio Museum Teaching Mashup at MOCA Cleveland on August 10. Hosts from a cross-museum team (Nicole Ledinek from MOCA, Gina Thomas McGee from Akron Art Museum, and Bethany Corriveau Gotschall, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppley from the Cleveland Museum of Art) planned a day-long event with multiple rounds of gallery experimentation and discussion.
As hosts, we were excited about working together and were energized by the planning process, but we weren’t sure how successful this event would be in terms of attendance. Previous mash-ups and throw-downs in New Orleans, Denver, and New York took place when educators were already close geographically, or gathered for an event. Would people from other cities really want to travel all the way to Cleveland for this mashup?
The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” Forty museum and university educators, classroom teachers, and volunteers from cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Detroit joined together to experiment, share ideas, and play in MOCA Cleveland’s galleries.
Hosts and participants commented that one of the most important components of the event was the opportunity to meet new colleagues and collaborate. While some larger cities host frequent regional museum education or art education professional development, many of us in Midwestern museums have not had these opportunities. Several participants commented that they were unable to attend conferences and, particularly for those in smaller institutions, they sometimes felt a sense of isolation. For many of us, this event was the first opportunity to meet colleagues in the region and lay the groundwork for future collaborations.
Experiments in the Galleries
We divided the day into two experimenting sessions, modeled after the New Orleans experience. After a quick introduction in the morning, randomly-drawn groups of three received an artwork and planned their experience in 45 minutes. “I found that I was easily able to let go of the desire to understand where they [fellow experimenters] came from and what strengths they brought to the table, instead focusing on working together with whoever happened to be in my group to develop an experience. I’ve been thinking about how that kind of experience is particularly useful in understanding how to approach collaborative work, compromise, and flexibility at my home institution,” reflected one of our experimenters.
Each team executed their plan in six minutes, and then we gathered for a quick recap. After the event, we asked teams what it was like to serve as an experimenter. One summed up the role as “part mad scientist, part educator, part visitor, part experiential development nerd.” Another said:
“Experimenters are willing to take risks…regardless of whether their activities are perceived to be successful or not they are willing to go with the flow and let their assigned artworks guide the experience, embracing spontaneity instead of shying away from it.”
Because this was the first regional gallery teaching experiment and we knew we were asking some participants to step out of their comfort zones, we wanted to provide an opportunity for reluctant participants to observe first, and join the experimentation later in the day if they felt inspired. After lunch we repeated the format of the morning with a shorter planning period. Groups devised experiences for us to embody art, create stories, explore process, and look in refreshing ways.
As hosts, we had a number of takeaways. We were truly impressed with the flexibility and creativity of our group. Although I participated as an experimenter in New Orleans, it was equally gratifying to sit back, feel the energy of the moment and watch the magic happen as colleagues worked together! It was especially impressive to see ideas developed between teams of people from different backgrounds—museum educators, classroom teachers, volunteers, and students. Gina reflected:
“I felt really proud to be a part of a special community.”
The format for this event was not brand new. The experiences and discussions we completed together may not all have been radical, trail-blazing gallery experimentation, but this was not the goal. For Midwestern museum and art educators, this event felt like a true beginning to the building of our professional community.