Category Archives: Spotlight on Practice

‘De/reskilling’ Artistic Practice and Museum Education: College Students as Museum Interpreters

Students interact with Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (to Donna) 2” (1971) at the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Sarah Wolf Newlands.

Karena, a senior at Portland State University, leads us to reflect on a pool of natural light in a gallery at the Portland Art Museum near a Robert Irwin light and space sculpture. The effect is a state of near-meditation.

Another student, Lisa, asks us to consider the different ways in which we value a work by Dan Flavin. We then move to a darkened classroom to collectively make our own version of a Dan Flavin sculpture out of glow sticks. She informs us that she will be auctioning off our completed work, and that the proceeds will be going directly to the electric bill in order to keep the Flavin work running.

The preceding examples are projects developed by students for a class at Portland State University, called “Object Talks: Creating Meaningful Experiences at the Portland Art Museum,” co-taught in the summer of 2011 by artist and professor Sarah Wolf Newlands, Stephanie Parrish, a senior staff member in the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs, and myself. The class was an experiment in opening up the interpretation of the Museum’s collections to college students through experiential, conversation-based interpretation informed not only by best practices in the field of museum education, but also by the work of artists engaged in social practice. We collaborated with artist/educators Jen Delos Reyes and Lexa Walsh from Portland State University’s Social Practice MFA program to introduce students to this form of art-making, which we feel shares many concerns with the work of museum educators. These mutual concerns include the need for outreach to communities not necessarily involved in the art world, movement towards the so-called “educational turn” in museums, a desire for collective involvement and collaboration—and above all, an interest in the shared social space that constitutes an experience with a work of art. This linkage between artist and museum educator is nothing new, and its history is chronicled in this excellent article by Michelle Jubin.

However, the involvement of students in this process, who are not necessarily formally trained as educators or artists, and yet, are performing these roles in public outside of the “laboratory” of the classroom, raises questions for me about where the role of interpretation in a museum lies and who has ownership of this process. The training period for docents at the Portland Art Museum is over a year and an MFA in social practice is typically a two-year endeavor. University Museums often employ college students as docents; however, they typically receive much more training than we were able to offer on this class. Our students had eight weeks to craft and deliver their interpretive experiences. A cynic might suggest that we are devaluing a complex skill that requires more expertise than a summer class can provide. Furthermore, this course is part of the college’s University Studies program, a general education requirement for all students which is very interdisciplinary in nature. Critics of these programs often point to interdisciplinarity as responsible for what they believe as the death of specialization. However, I would like to consider this topic through the lens of the deskilling—and indeed, reskilling—movement that has been a concern for artists since at least Duchamp.

In Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (a review and summary can be found here) John Roberts addresses this very topic and its implications for the art that has followed Duchamp. His discussion of the readymade and its role in deskilling the work of the artist’s hand in favor of reskilling an artist’s work in the realm of immaterial labor is particularly appropriate for socially-engaged artists. However, I would like to consider this same process of deskilling and reskilling in light of our class. When confronted with the open-ended conversational gallery teaching techniques advocated by Rika Burnham, Elliot Kai-Kee, and many of the other museum educators that they read during the term, several students expressed concern in what they felt was a disengagement from the art historical structures that had colored their past experiences with art. Nor did they like the process of moving away from the more lecture-based modes of presentation they were accustomed to from their art history classes to relinquishing some level of control to their audience for the more conversational methods of inquiry that we advocated. Admittedly, these responses surprised us—even though we are used to these tensions between the fields of art history and museum education, we did not expect them from our students.

Though, in the strictest sense, the term “deskilling” refers to the process of eliminating skilled labor in the workforce in favor of time-saving technologies, it has taken on new meaning within arts discourse. It is linked not only to a movement away from artisanal production in the visual arts of the twentieth century, but also significantly, in aesthetic valuation (Roberts 86). In this sense, deskilling acts not only on physical labor, but on intellectual work as well. It also takes on new meaning in social practice as a way of democratizing the artist’s work (Ibid 159).

In asking our students to think of their projects as social practice, were they not engaging with these discourses of deskilling?

Through streamlining the training process and asking students to forgo some of their learning from previous classes, were we not deskilling some of the intellectual labor of museum interpretation?

Conversely, I would also like to argue that these students engaged in a process of reskilling by learning to be more adaptive and improvisatory in their approach to the works in the Museum’s collection. They often sidestepped certain art historical lines of inquiry in favor of interpretations found in other disciplines, as well as understandings from personal life experience. In learning these skills and in rejecting others for the purposes of this class, I should stress it was not our intent to supplant the skills and knowledge these students were learning in other classes, but rather to provide them with alternative tools for interpretation. Nor was it our goal to replace our experienced docent core with students. Instead, we hope that our work with college students opens up the role of interpretation in the Museum to new voices. After all, we can learn a lot ourselves from the openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm found among students at this crucial stage of life.

Add to the Conversation…

I welcome comments from those of you who have also worked with college students as educators in your museum. What worked in your program and what did not? Furthermore, I would love to hear thoughts on the intersection of social practice and museum education, as well as the place of re- and de-skilling in the museum.

Studio Practice: Still at the Core of Art Museum Teaching

It seems like most of the articles, books, and blogs I read on teaching in art museums focus primarily on the methods gallery educators employ to facilitate for visitors what John Dewey would say is “AN experience” with a work of art (See “Art as Experience”). But where do all the studio experiences that museum educators provide fit in? What about the various institutions that staff or contract Teaching Artists?  Should we be considering the art making experience in the museum as an integral part of having “AN experience” with a work of art?

A Pre-K class observes the Queens Museum’s collection of Tiffany Glass and created works of art exploring transparency, color mixing, and shape. After making art, students discussed contemporary artists’ work, concerned with similar studio explorations. (Works in the photo by Sharona Eliassaf and Jesse A. Greenberg; Photo by @pemadb)

We all have it in our museum repertoire, and have in some way, shape, or form created artworks with visitors in museums — from a small gallery sketch to a full blown painting workshop. The recent New York Times article “Museums Expand their Educational Offerings” highlights a few museums  that have added certain kinds of courses or workshops to their list. And, historically, museums have been spaces where art is not only looked at, but made. Many art museums began as places where art students studied the ‘originals’ or from casts of Greek and Roman sculpture. Take for example the The School at the Art Institute of Chicago, that has its roots in the 1866 founding of the Chicago Academy of Design, which local artists established in rented rooms in downtown Chicago apartments.  In 1878, the relocated and renamed Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, expanded its mission beyond education and exhibitions to include collecting, and in 1882 the academy was renamed the Art Institute of Chicago. In this case, and in many other cases of the older encyclopedic museums in our country, art making was a large draw for artists who were a regular visitor core for the institution.

A student admires the fruits of his labor

I guess I’ve just been wondering — is studio practice still a central part of the educational experience at an art museum?  And what is the value of adding an artistic, art-making element to these experiences?

I can only speak for myself as a former artist. I say “former”  because I wouldn’t consider myself a practicing artist — although getting myself dressed everyday is my favorite and most active form of art expression.  When I make works of art, either alongside looking at art or before or after an experience in the galleries, I think about those objects in a very different way. I think about how it is made, what materials the artist used, the difficulty creating the forms I see, its relationship to me, the world, my space, and the spaces of the gallery. I am clearly a visual learner, and by making and doing I am able to reflect on the process behind the object, the artist’s choices as well as his or her state of mind.

In the New York Times article (mentioned above), Wendy Woon, Deputy Director of Education at  MoMA, remarks:

“in the 21st century, museums are well-placed as we move from consumption to innovation to stimulate ideas and creativity… In many ways it harks back to the history of MoMA: a place where conversations with artists, architects, designers and the public take place and where art is made.”

Agreed. Museums have changed from places that collect stuff (utterly oversimplified, I know) to places where people go to learn about that stuff and now, back to in this place that exhibits work BECAUSE  of the experiences that are had by visitors — quiet contemplation, sharing and talking, making and doing.

Do you think art making is an important part of an art museum experience? Why or why not?  Keep the conversation going with me on twitter @lsmilow – use #artsed #museumed and #artmuseumteaching or comment here.

Teaching with the iPad: Adding a New Dimension to the Museum Experience

Back in 2011, I attended a fantastic session led by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire at the National Art Education Association conference about how the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was using iPads with their docents — and how they were training the docents to use this newly adopted technology.  I remember sitting in the audience thinking: “A. I will probably never own an iPad myself,” and “B. Our docents will probably never use iPads.”  It turns out I was wrong on both accounts — I got my own iPad 2 within a couple months of attending that session (I think Apple still owes Kris and Sheila their commission), and we now have about half a dozen docents using an iPad on their tours at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a number that I hope grows in the next year.

So what’s the big deal with the iPad?  Does it really add anything to a tour that we couldn’t already do without this device?

A study from the Pew Research Center released earlier this year indicated that 19% of adults in the United States own a tablet computer, and that statistic is rising significantly (probably much higher by the time I write this).  I also read somewhere that Apple has sold approximately 200-220 million iPads worldwide since the product’s first release in 2010.  So I thought it was about time that I more fully utilized this device in my own teaching practice, and then lead a workshop for our docents on the ways in which the iPad (and tablet/mobile technology in general) can add a new dimension to the museum experience for our visitors.

I personally began using my iPad on tours a little less than a year ago.  My first experience was with a group of 2nd grade students from an city public school, and we were scheduled to visit the African art galleries.  It had always been a bit of a challenge to make those galleries come alive, since they were small, dimly lit spaces with the objects up high in big plexiglass cases.  Was there something I could load onto my iPad that would enrich the experience?  I found a video of an African buffalo mask (similar to the one in our collection) being performed in a ceremony in Burkina Faso, so I downloaded that to my device just as I was heading from my office to greet the group.  As I led them into the African gallery with the “Buffalo Mask,” I was nervous that something would go wrong and my iPad experiment would crash and burn.  I popped out the mobile device, clicked play on the video, and quickly noticed that every student in the entire group was silent and paying very close attention to the video.

I had intended on only playing about 20 seconds, but we actually stayed and watched about 3-4 minutes (not recommended, but it worked with this group).  While the video of the African dance ceremony played, I invited the students to discuss everything they noticed in the video: the movements of the dance, the sounds of the drums, and the community gathered in the background. Then our discussion turned back to the “Buffalo Mask” before us in the gallery — a really great exploration that had the students looking more closely and connecting in a more meaningful way.  Their level of interest had skyrocketed.  Was this just because I brought this short video clip into the galleries with me?  Was it this simple to deepen the level of understanding and engagement on my tours?  I remember leaving this tour with a lot of excitement about using the iPad in the galleries, but questions about whether the focus was truly on the objects … or was the focus too much on the technology?

Research and Best Practices

Back when I attended Kris and Sheila’s NAEA session last year, there were not a lot of resources to guide the use of iPads on tours.  I remember contacting Kris after the session, and she sent me some thoughtful tips based on her own experiences with docents.  Since then, though, she, Sheila, and their colleagues have written some useful “best practices” based in their research on using iPads in the galleries.  Here are links to the most useful:

  1. “iPads on Tour,” written by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire for the Museum-Ed Blog.  Nice short overview of key things to keep in mind when enabling docents and educators to use multimedia on the iPad to enhance their tours.  Their best tip (and a “Golden Rule” for me) is Organize Your Stuff.  I have used FileApp Pro, which they recommended, and it seems to serve my needs for bringing video and images together into an easy-to-access folder.  This means I’m not fumbling around to find the content while I’m in the middle of my tour.
  2. “Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: A Case Study,” authored by Ann Isaacson, Sheila McGuire, Kris Wetterlund, and Scott Sayre, now a chapter in the American Association of Museums 2011 book entitled Mobile Apps for Museums.  This more in-depth article discusses a study that the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts conducted on their docents’ use of iPads and visitor response.  They found that “all of the museum visitors were engaged during the iPad portion of the tour” and that “all thought it added to their understanding of the works of art.”  A good tip that you can pull from this article is that, like any gallery prop, the iPad or mobile device should be used judiciously to avoid making it the focal point of the tour.

Other than bringing the iPad on tour or using it as an educator, the device has wide-ranging applications for museum education, learning, and audience engagement (that I’m not going to discuss in detail here).  I would even go as far as to say that each day a museum somewhere probably launches a new iPad app or is offering a program that utilizes the iPad and other tablet devices.  It has truly become the new bandwagon (for good reason, I think).  If you’re interested in some of the uses of iPads through museum apps, Hyperallergic reviewed “3 iPad apps that recreate the museum experience … almost” back in December, and Scott Billings wrote a great piece for MuseumNext a couple years ago about “what can the iPad do for museums?”

Bringing the iPad into the Galleries: A Sample Tour

So why all this thinking about iPads and touring?  Well, I decided it might be good to have a conversation with our docents about the benefits of bringing a iPad with you into the galleries.  Therefore, last week I offered an open workshop for any interested docents — about 15 attended, and about 10 were interested but unable to attend.  My workshop demonstrated a handful of ways that the iPad can enrich the museum experience, focusing mainly on ways in which additional content and context can be introduced to gain a deeper understanding of the objects themselves (again, the focus should always be on the art and objects, not on the technology).

On our workshop tour, we discussed using the iPad in three galleries of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection: African art, Impressionism (mainly Degas’s sculpture), and contemporary art.  I am going to quickly review the use of the iPad in these three areas, and link to some of the multimedia content we viewed in the galleries.

African Art: For our time in the African galleries, I demonstrated two uses of the iPad.  First, I showed how a tour guide could use a map application like National Geographic’s World Atlas to show students the location of Africa on the globe, and then zoom into the regions and countries that might relate to the objects on the tour.  I have had a lot of success with this map app on my tours, and I find it more effective than paper maps or color print-outs.  In addition to the map, I showed the video I mentioned above of the Buffalo Mask dance, which we all agreed would enrich and deepen visitors experience with the mask on view (not just school children, but adults too).  After exploring the map and video, I discussed how important it is to keep your multimedia content to a minimum — in other words, do not have 3 videos to show along with a map for one stop on your tour.  I recommend that docents choose approximately 3-4 multimedia items (photos, maps, videos, etc.) for their entire tour, and spread them out across the tour.  Remember, you don’t want the iPad to become the focus of the tour.

Impressionism/Degas: We moved up to the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism galleries, and I spent some time with the sculptures by Edgar Degas that our museum has on view.  First, I quickly showed a video of Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Horse in Motion’ images from 1878 along with our Degas Galloping Horse of a slightly later date. The museum label even refers to this experiment in capturing motion, and it was powerful to see these images and the Degas side-by-side.  Then we moved to Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years to compare our bronze version (cast after the artist’s death) with hi-res detail images of the original wax and mixed media sculpture that Degas created himself (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington). This sparked an interesting discussion of the appearance of our bronze, the surface textures, and the fabric, and I think we all left wanting to explore our Degas further.

Contemporary Art: Finally, we discussed the various types of content one could bring into the contemporary art galleries. I focused primarily on artistic process, or artists in their studios.  This is something I know visitors enjoy seeing, and I feel it deepens our understanding of the artworks and the artists themselves. I brought in two examples. First, I showed a video of Toots Zynsky, a contemporary glass artist, working in her studio to create, heat, and mold one of her well-known glass forms.  We’ve had curators discuss her process before, but the video really helped the piece come alive in a new way.  And finally, I ended the workshop with a video clip of Gerhard Richter painting with one of his squeegees — a process that visitors are always confused by.  Seeing Richter carefully pull paint across his huge canvases certainly helped me gain a better understanding of these massive paintings.

For me, this was a good place to start with our docents, and it was my goal to keep it simple.  I know that iPads and mobile devices allow for many more types of experiences, including augmented reality (see excellent paper from Cherry Thian from 2012 Museums & the Web) or using real-time video applications (FaceTime, Skype, etc.) to bring artists, curators, or community members into the galleries for Q&A and dialogue.  But for the human-centered experience that is the guided tour, these simple uses of the iPad can truly add a powerful dimension to the learning experience.

What is your best use of the iPad on a tour or teaching experience?  Are there ways we can push the best uses of mobile technology into tour experiences?

Crowdsourcing in the Art Museum

“Crowdsourcing poses a tantalizing question: What if the solutions to our greatest problems weren’t waiting to be conceived, but already existed somewhere, just waiting to be found, in the warp and weave of this vibrant human network?”

-Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

How many times have you been facilitating a learning experience with a group of teachers, docents, or public visitors in the galleries, and the best ideas or questions come from someone in the group?  This is a pretty regular occurrence for me, as visitors and students bring new noticings, insights, and wonderings to the process of experiencing a work of art.  But I wonder how many times we neglect to solicit the ideas, thoughts, and questions of visitors and learners in museums.  Are the “solutions to our greatest problems” simply waiting to be found in the crowds of people that enter our doors every day?  What are some ways we might tap into the “power of the crowd” to drive forward our work as educators?

So what is crowdsourcing anyway?

There are several definitions of “crowdsourcing” out there, but the popularity of the term seems to have originated in an article written by Jeff Howe in Wired Magazine back in 2006 called “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.”  The use of the term — and the concept — has exploded since then, with cultural and corporate phenomenons such as American Idol, Wikipedia, Flickr, Amazon, and even the New York Times using crowdsourcing strategies to create, organize, share, filter, judge, or sell their content and products.  Check out 4 great examples of the most recent social crowdsourcing projects.  At the core of most crowdsourcing is an open call to a diverse, heterogeneous group for their involvement in a task, inviting them to bring their experiences, what they already know (the ‘wisdom of the crowd’), and their likes & dislikes to the process. Customers, consumers, and audiences now become potential partners or creators — part of building something new.  With the internet and social media making it easy to gather a ‘crowd’ of millions online at no cost, the strategy of crowdsourcing has become largely based on technology.

Here is a succinct video from Jeff Howe that helps define crowdsourcing (from his perspective):

Several art museums have utilized various crowdsourcing strategies to allow the public to curate and plan exhibitions.  The most trail-blazing example is probably the Brooklyn Museum’s Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition, which involved an open call for people to submit photographs, an online audience evaluation of those images, and then finally an exhibition in 2008 of the crowd-curated photographs. Nina Simon praised this project on her Museum 2.0 blog as “what museum innovation looks like.”  During the run of the exhibition, she wrote:

“A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.” (Museum 2.0)

Other art museums have also recently engaged in the crowdsourcing craze, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s somewhat controversial “The Art of Video Games,” the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection” and the Walters Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition “Public Property” (a title selected by the public through their crowd-curating process).  So it appears that several museums have taken up the torch to further explore these participatory strategies, and I know there are many I’m not listing here.  Museum visitors are, to use Jeff Howe’s words, beginning to “participate meaningfully in the process” by which their experience is created, and they are in a way becoming the “people formerly known as the audience.”

How can we bring crowdsourcing into museum teaching?

crowdsourcing during a high school tour

As an educator, I have been more interested in the ways that we might bring crowdsourcing beyond curating and into museum teaching and learning experiences in the galleries.  I first got to play with crowdsourcing in the galleries when my work with the CoLab began a few years ago. Working with groups of teachers to envision and prototype transformative learning experiences for the museum and their classrooms, we have used some crowdsourcing strategies to allow the ‘wisdom’ and experiences of the group to bring certain questions and ideas to the surface.  I’ve used this strategy with docents as well as teachers, and it has been a fun and effective teaching tool.  Here is one easy crowdsourcing exercise you can try out (since the groups are small, it’s probably not officially “crowd”-sourcing, but let’s not split hairs):

Generate some data: Engage your participants (students, teachers, visitors) in a brainstorming process focused on a single task. For example, you might ask a group of visitors on a tour to come up with as many questions as they can about a work of art we have been exploring. After each individual generates a list of interesting and creative questions, they get into groups of three to share their questions and decide on the three best questions from their group. Each group writes these questions down on individual slips of paper.

Crowdsource it: Now you have some data to be crowdsourced … let the craziness begin!  Each participant should have a slip of paper in their hand with a question written on it.  The group stands in the middle of the gallery, and they are asked to rapidly exchange their slips of paper (emphasis on rapidly).  After the facilitator says “stop,” people pair-up, read the questions they have, evaluate them, and then each pair works together to assign points to their questions.  We usually ask each pair to assign exactly 7 points to their two questions (meaning that if one question gets a 5, the other gets a 2; or one can get a 7, the other a 0).  We do this rapid exchange and scoring for several rounds, adding some fun twists to the exchange process (participants might be asked to dance as they exchange slips of paper … something to keep it silly is always good).

See what surfaces: After several rounds of scoring, participants add up the total score, and now you can see how the group filters, organizes, and evaluates the data they were provided.  People can stand in a line according to the total score of the question they have, and we begin to see what are the most important ones to bubble to the surface that day.  Present the top three or top five items to the group.

Act on the results: It is important not to stop there.  Do something with the results of this process.  If you uncovered 3 really juicy questions about a work of art, bring those questions to the work and spend some time thinking deeply about how you might respond to them.  During a recent teacher institute at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, we asked a group of educators to crowdsource some prototypes for new ways the museum could engage its community, and we then focused on the top three ideas and envisioned how they might be enacted through a more extensive process.  I always feel like the success of any participatory strategy hinges on whether it goes anywhere or leads to something new.  For public crowd-curating, I think much of the success depends on people having the benefit of seeing their input manifested in the product or exhibition itself.

Have you experimented with any crowdsourcing in the galleries?  What are some things we might learn from crowdsourcing tactics, both in-person and online?  Are there ways we can push these strategies into more public, social learning experiences in the museum (other than exhibition curation & design)?  Stay tuned for updates as I experiment further with crowdsourcing in the art museum.

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

UPDATE: I wanted to add a link to this post through the Center for the Future of Museums in which guest bloggers Wesley Hsu and Vivian Haga tell us about the My Gallery Interactive project:

Integrating Collaboration and Technology to Create a Crowdsourced Experience

Doing, Not Just Viewing: Working Towards a More Participatory Practice

Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project. Photo by Jean-Francois Hauwaert

I fully acknowledge and embrace the exciting shift that has been occurring in art museums, arts organizations, and American culture in general toward a more do-it-yourself, interactive, user-generated, participatory experience. Yet outside of experimental cases and one-time projects, I often struggle to weave this approach into my daily professional practice and hence into the daily experience for museum visitors (which in my case is mostly school children, visiting with their teachers who have set expectations about what they will see and learn).  And I blame forward-thinking educators like Nina Simon (among others) as well as a whole range of contemporary artists for motivating me to want this level of visitor engagement and participation in the first place (thank you Nina et al.).

So how do we “walk the walk” when it comes to truly engaging visitors and students in creative, participatory, learner-centered experiences in the art museum?

For me, it’s always about taking risks and experimenting bit-by-bit, program-by-program, teacher-by-teacher, and even docent-by-docent as we sharpen our focus on creating a “better” experience with art that connects to people and their lives.  And for this post, I want to hone in on one recent docent training class at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a micro-study of an attempt to weave a hint of participatory practice into the fabric of the art museum, and make it more about “doing” and not just about “viewing.” Is this truly participatory engagement?  To what extent is this something museums have always done?  Not sure. I’d actually rather invite your thoughts and comments, since I think it’s best to open up a dialogue and push these ideas forward.  Please offer your challenges and responses below, and give me something to think about as I create new experiences.

As a field, I think we’re definitely in the process of defining what we mean by terms like “active participation” and “participatory engagement.”  In what contexts can these types of experiences occur, at what level of engagement, for what audiences, and when?  I know my example below does not compare to something on the scale of a contemporary art installation that has children placing thousands of stickers on the gallery walls or the careful planning of in-gallery interpretation like this project on view now at the Skirball Cultural Center, but it connects more to my own daily professional practice with school audiences and docents.

Exploring Van Gogh & Color … in a Participatory Way?

Working within a docent curriculum at a large public art museum, there is still a strong focus on art historical information, as you would imagine.  Within docent training programs at art museums across the country, about 40-50% of the content is purely art historical and about 30-40% of docents’ time is spent listening to lectures about that content (that is based on some data that Stephanie Parrish [Portland Art Museum] and I collected last year from about 100 art museums).  So when beginning to prepare my docent class on the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism collection area, there is always an initial tendency to pull together that PowerPoint slideshow or pick up the phone to call the curator.

But not this time.  I wanted to explore at least one strategy that would get us beyond a purely receptive experience with these artworks, and work toward something that the recent Irvine Foundation report might call “inventive engagement” on the spectrum of creative participatory experiences.  I feel strongly about museum experiences tapping into the “creative” side of learning, and one of the CORE elements of museum learning for my department at the Saint Louis Art Museum is “engaging in creative ways.”  For docents, this creative element of learning is generally not studio-based but rather gallery-based.

So here is how we connected with the idea of color in the painting “Factories at Clichy” (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh:

Looking and Learning:  We started out like many of my experiences with docents begins, with a process of looking and conversation (a la Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee’s process of “guided interpretation”). For about 20 minutes, we examined Van Gogh’s painting as a group, interconnecting comments, observations, and thoughts with information about Van Gogh and the social, industrial, urban, and suburban context of Paris brought into the conversation when it would support or respond to someone’s ideas.

Playing with Color: Next, I asked docents to pair-up, and each pair was provided with a hi-resolution detail photograph of the Van Gogh painting in addition to eight small squares of drawing paper and a set of woodless colored pencils or Art Stix.  Their task was to explore their detail, identify four colors, and then try their hand at creating a color study for each.  My overarching goal here was to allow everyone to play with color — what is it like to layer colors, place them next to each other, use pure color, use thick lines, rub the side of the pencil, etc.  There were very few rules placed upon this exercise, which was intended to support free exploration of color and a fresh examination of Van Gogh’s use of color (which is nearly jewel-like in this particularly-stunning painting … yes, I happen to love this work).

Creating a Color Map: After each docent completed their color studies, they were invited into the next gallery to place them on a large blank “canvas” of white posterboard.  At first, my thoughts were that they would place them on the area that corresponded to the location of their detail — but everyone quickly realized that there was more to it than just tossing down your colored squares.  We began to think, “where do my colors belong? next to which other colors?” and a whole new expressive piece began to take shape.  As more and more color studies were added, the decision-making process became more difficult for participants.  Towards the end, a few individuals hovered over the large grid of color, carefully surveying for the exact place where their own new creations belonged.  After the last colored square was added to the whole, we all stood back and noticed that we had created something entirely new:

Reflection/Discussion: We ended with a brief reflection about the process, the final result, and some of the things we may have learned from the experience.  Many noticed the collaborative and collective result that began with an individual exploration of color from Van Gogh’s painting. A few mentioned their own insights about the subjectivity of color — we all had our own unique responses to the colors in the painting, and that became very evident when they were assembled at the end.  A few participants also reflected on their own process of making the color studies, and especially the challenge of placing them among everyone else’s colors at the end.  While we did reference Van Gogh, I felt that our reflection focused much more on our new creation and the related process.  I ended with a thought from artist Olafur Eliasson, someone well-versed in participatory experiences and art.  Here is the exact quote:

“… color doesn’t exist in itself but only when looked at. The unique fact that color only materializes when light bounces off a surface onto our retinas shows us that the analysis of colors is, in fact, about the ability to analyze ourselves.” (Olafur Eliasson, “Some Ideas About Color”)

Is this truly participatory practice?

The central question I am exploring here is whether this “color map” exercise actually gets us past a receptive, interpretative engagement with art and more towards a creative participatory engagement.  The authors of the Irvine Foundation report define the starting point for participatory practice as beginning when audience members become an “expressive participant in the making of the artistic experience.”  So not just activating the creative mind, but also involving creative expression on the part of the participants.  Check.

I also think that a key element of participatory practice to to cede control to the group in a productive way.  While there are activities that can allow participants to create something, I feel that they need the freedom to organize and remake as they go along (this can be a bit scary for us educators).  When the docents were laying down their color studies on the larger white surface, they began to take creative control over the project (some more than others), which was something I distinctly noticed.  As we all know, being creative is not simply following directions or coloring within the lines, but pushing in new directions and unpredictable pathways.  If we had more time in the galleries, I have no doubt we could have remixed and rethought our color map.  After leaving the museum, in fact, several docents did send me their ideas for adapting and expanding the activity in exciting ways for school tours and programs in the future.

To me, engaging in more and more of these participatory experiences is essential to the work that we do.  Some museums are really blazing the trail for us, which is exciting.  In addition to public programming and exhibition design, it’s also important to consider these practices with our work in docent education and professional training as well as our interactions with K-12 school groups (which make up such a large segment of the museum audience, and the most democratic, diverse, and  inclusive picture of museum use that we have, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill states).  Bit-by-bit, docent-by-docent, and teacher-by-teacher, we can continue to work toward museum experiences that engage the collaborative, co-creative, open source mindset that is present in our communities as well as the next generation of visitors.

What participatory experiences have you developed at your museum?  What are some challenges you face in creating these experiences for K-12 audiences as well as general museum visitors?

Rethinking the Way Museums Work with Teachers

Experiences that provide for the professional and personal growth of teachers play an increasingly vital role in museums’ efforts to connect with educational reform. Faced with the complex demands of teaching and learning in the 21st century, museums across the country are rethinking the ways they interact with teachers.  At the recent 2012 National Art Education Association conference in New York, I was fortunate enough to lead a session with William Crow (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Rachel Bernstein (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) that examined how art museums are collaborating with teachers to develop a “co-expertise” approach that allows for co-creating resources, co-delivering programs, and developing dedicated spaces for a shared exchange of ideas.

As we described through our own work, this “co-expertise” model can afford museums a new way to build meaningful exchanges with teachers and to develop new partnerships with teacher professional learning communities. One central question (of many) that guided our thinking was:

  • In what ways might a “co-expertise” approach catalyze a shift in what learning looks like in a museum, and allow for new ways in which teachers and schools access those types of informal learning?

Since teacher voices are essential to this approach, I spent some time interviewing teachers that I work with through the Saint Louis Art Museum and the CoLab.  The teachers I spoke with had all directly experienced various programs shaped by the co-expertise model, from summer institutes to school partnerships (learn more about the CoLab’s recent work by clicking here, here, and here). I asked each teacher what “co-expertise” means to them, in their own words — how would they describe their shared learning experience with the art museum and with other teachers, and what key things make this approach successful to them and their students?  Here is a short video compilation of these teacher voices, gathering insights from teachers across grade levels, subject areas, and even coming from 3 different states:

To me, these teachers’ perspectives (among many others) have been so inspiring, focusing in on some of the essentials of the co-learning experience.  In my own work with teachers and conversations with colleagues (including William Crow and Rachel Bernstein), a few aspects of the “co-expertise” model have bubbled to the surface for me:

  • Letting go. By this, I mean museums letting go of their ‘authority’ over knowledge and meaning-making, and instead empowering teachers to collaborate with museums as we work together to explore ways to learn from collections.  This model of co-creating learning experiences WITH museums — as opposed to passively receiving content FROM the museum authorities, whether that be text panels, audio guides, curators, or even educators — is so central to rethinking the way teachers interact with museums. It may be one of the most daunting aspects, too, since it requires many museums to broaden their approach to learning.
  • Recognizing teachers as experts. Part of achieving this “letting go” is simply valuing teachers’ voices and recognizing teachers as creators of content, knowledge, and meaning in relation to museums. Professional development workshops can be re-envisioned with more of an emphasis on developing communities of practice where we learn from each other no matter what our “home” educational setting might be (school classroom, university, museum, etc.).
  • Shared growth and experimentation. This sense of creating a community of practice then builds toward a shared, reflective process that leads to professional growth on the side of both teachers and museum educators. Through an open process of thinking ‘outside the box’ and taking risks, we can all move forward in our practice as teachers and learners.

Through this work that I have been engaged with thus far, I feel that the art museum has begun to make a shift in what it has the potential to become: a dynamic cultural landscape where authentic, learner-driven experiences are developed and enacted by teachers and their students. These experiences are empowering teachers to chart their own pathways in unpredictable ways and inviting parallel exploration, risk-taking, and fresh discovery on the part of their students.  And isn’t rethinking the way museums work with teachers ultimately about envisioning a new way to engage students in museum learning?

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

Beyond Just Staring: Personal Discovery as Core to Museum Learning

“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)

A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences.  Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task.  Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:

  • What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
  • What is the importance of any particular work to me?

Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery.  To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).

“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)

Bruce Yonemoto, Untitled (NSEW 8), 2007

After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make.  I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers).  Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.

If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)

No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself.  Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception.  We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say.  “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60).  While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.

Photo by Clint Gardner

While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer.   Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.

Reading Murals – Telling Stories

The power of stories—whether telling our own, listening to those of others, or building them from our imagination—has a deep connection to human development and learning. Telling stories allows us to learn about ourselves, but it is also an act of “mutual creation involving interactions and understanding between teller and listener” (1).  For museums, storytelling can tap into personal, cultural, and family-based dimensions of learning that have the potential to create more meaningful experiences.

During a recent advanced institute organized by the CoLab and National Writing Project sites in 3 states (Piasa Bluffs Writing Project at SIUE, South Coast Writing Project at UCSB, and Gateway Writing Project at UMSL), a multiprofessional community of educators experimented with storytelling as a way to engage with a 1932 mural by Mexican artist David Siqueiros—now in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  The hard-hitting subjects depicted in the mural connect with the realities of Mexican politics at the time, with Siqueiros delineating the cause and result of the corruption of the administration of Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles [more information about the mural can be found through the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s online resource].  This quite somber and personal mural by Siqueiros seemed to lend itself to a more personal form of exploration, so we engaged with the piece through a series of strategies that included various forms of storytelling — creating stories with words and sharing stories with our bodies.

After spending time looking at the mural and navigating the architectural space in which it exists, our group of teachers and educators were asked to focus in on details within the piece and create a series of quick sketches.  We then spread our sketches out across the floor for everyone to explore, and individuals were invited to select one sketch (not their own) that they might connect with a meaningful story.  Those sketches then launched each person into writing a story informed by a close study of that drawn response, adding words directly on top of the sketch.  Here are some excerpts from those stories:

P’s Story Sketch

P: “A woman who has seen much – who endured much and who is still open to what life has to offer. She opens her hand, gesturing for those who will give to her, a sensing that life has come today in the form of men with guns. She can hold her own in the face of those things that may seem as if they could cause harm. She holds her knee to her chest and it brings comfort to her. She feels stable and centered while around her she is surrounded by a man who frowns, who has, without emotion of any kind, shot his neighbor as directed. She has witnessed the death of others not once, but many times….”

S: “The sun now shines on part of this street. Most people, most faces are still in shadows. Later today, later this year, later this century, the light will shine on the whole village, allowing the whole world to see what we all wish could have stayed covered up or better yet, could have never happened.”

Story-writing became story-telling as participants verbally shared their own stories with each other in small groups, working together to select one “critical moment” from their stories to explore more deeply.  Each group wrote down their selected “critical moment” on a sheet of paper, and we then moved down to the sidewalk to physicalize these moments through Image Theatre exercises [read more about Image Theatre in the Teaching Tools section].

To launch into this process of bodily learning, I selected a couple of volunteers to model a technique called “body storming”—the physical equivalent to brainstorming. In “body storming,” participants are invited to silently (communicating only with physical gestures or facial expressions) and rapidly create a series of body shapes or group poses in response to a prompt.  For this exercise, I invited each group to body storm the “critical moment” pulled from their stories.  Groups spread out along the sidewalk adjacent to the busy State Street that runs in front of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and they explored their stories through this theatre and movement strategy.  After they body-stormed through their ideas, each group was asked to build a single movement composition to perform for the entire group.

To create a space for the performances, we all formed a circle around our new public “street theatre” venue here in Santa Barbara, interrupting the flow of pedestrians (several whom stopped to peek at what we were up to). Each group shared their group pose or movement, and I jumped in to play the Joker — a concept coming directly from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed that authorizes the Joker and spectators to make changes to the performance.  In this strategy, spectators become “spect-actors,” according to Boal, and they are empowered to transform the performance in a variety of ways.  For these group performances, we invited “spect-actors” to add themselves to the group pose, change something about it, or make new connections beyond the group’s story (to people’s own lived experiences, for example).

After each group shared their performances (and were subject to the wild card actions of the Joker and “spect-actors”), we returned up the steps to the Siqueiros mural for final reflective writing and processing. After engaging our bodies in new ways, this gave participants some time to allow their minds to let the experience soak in and reconnect with the visual images that sparked our creative explorations. The stories we had explored, envisioned, and enacted as a community of learners brought Siqueiros’s images into our own professional and personal lives … and brought our lives into the faces and stories of that powerful mural.

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

Notes:

1. C. Abramson, “Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education,” Education 118 (1998), p. 441.

Not Just for Field Trips Any More: 7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

[First posted at Ecology of Education, September 27, 2011]

When we, as educators, think back to our own school field trips to art museums, we tend to remember being paraded around the galleries, being talked at and given a lot of information, and … well, tuning out.  And let’s face it, this has not changed dramatically for most students today, who may still find themselves tuning out rather than tuning in during their museum visits.

Unfortunately, research has shown that the expectations teachers have for museum field trips come largely from their own (often less-than-stellar) experiences when they were students. Oftentimes, museums then work to offer tours that match these teacher expectations—providing the traditional “see everything” experience with little opportunity for open inquiry or deeper investigation. The resulting cycle does not allow much room for schools or museums to envision new possibilities for the learning that can occur during a visit to an art museum.

“Museums often struggle to understand the needs of schools, and teachers and students similarly struggle to understand the role they play accessing, interacting with, and learning from museums. In some ways, the expectations for learning that teachers bring to the museum may not match the possibilities available for learning at these non-school sites.” (Cordova & Murawski 2009)

While there continues to be what James Kisiel calls an “awkward marriage” between museums and schools, art museums are undoubtedly in a process of transformation in light of the demands and challenges of the 21st century. These institutions are working to become more relevant and to play a more essential role in the lives of students, teachers, and their communities. Striving to ignite learning and creative thinking rather than parading students around the galleries in an attempt to “see everything,” art museums across the country are working to serve as spaces where we can begin to see learning in new ways.

But what can teachers do to help transform what is possible during their art museum visit? How can we, as educators, better harness the powerful types of learning that can occur in the galleries of an art museum?  What follows are some guidelines to help begin thinking beyond the ‘field trip’ and to promote a broader vision of what learning can and ought to look like in an art museum.

7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

1.   Think about the art museum as different from your school classroom.

Museums are, after all, informal learning environments that are quite different from schools.  While teachers and students may sometimes think of museums as more restrictive and more information-centered, museums have spent decades working to ensure that they provide experiences that build on the strengths of more informal, out-of-school learning environments. Research shows that students have more positive experiences in museums when they are treated as something that is distinct from their school classroom experiences and do not involve worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, and basic call-and-response teaching.

Along these lines, teachers can work to challenge museums to “do what they do best” and develop tours or programs that are not solely geared towards school-based content and curriculum standards. Museums are largely underutilized as spaces for connecting students with complex thinking, creativity, and multisensory learning, yet they can actually serve that purpose very well.  With an increasing body of research and practice showing the power of art museums to develop stronger thinking in our students, it only makes sense for schools and museums to make these experiences available.

2.   Be a learner yourself.

While teachers certainly spend a significant amount of time planning their lessons, managing their classrooms, and preparing for field trips, they rarely find time to treat themselves as learners—and being a learner is such a key aspect of being an effective teacher. When it comes to art museums, teachers sometimes only seek out the more conventional types of teacher programs where they will walk away with information about an area of the collection as well as handouts, lesson plans, and materials to use back in the classroom.  But the art museum can be an exceptional place for the personal and professional growth of teachers as learners.

When teachers engage in aesthetic experiences and hands-on activities at their museum as a learner, not just as a teacher, they model an authentic and infectious curiosity that influences how students interact with the art.  Take an art class, a workshop, or attend an evening concert and enjoy your art museum as more than a “field trip” location. When your students are participating in a tour or school program at the museum, participate yourself—take a sketchbook and draw with your students, or get involved in that art-making project that may capture your imagination as much as it does your students.’ As you begin to tap into the creative experiences possible at art museums, you are more likely to involve your students in similar activities during your visits with them.

3.   Get more involved.

Most art museums across the country have some type of teacher advisory board or committee, and they are constantly in search of teachers to help them stay connected to school communities.  Not only can this get a teacher more connected with the museum and their education staff, but there can be some additional benefits such as free memberships, shop discounts, special invitations to workshops or institutes, and free resources and materials.  And if your area art museum does not have a teacher advisory group, suggest working with them to start one and help get them connected with teachers in your area.  Also, get to know the museum education staff who can work with you to develop the best programs for your students, and can advise on how best to utilize the museum and its resources to motivate deeper learning.

Getting involved in these ways can help teachers take a central role in the planning and preparation for a museum visit, ensuring that the experience is a more positive and memorable one for students.

4.   Embrace freedom and choice.

Engage students in learning experiences where they have some element of choice and freedom. Overall, on our visit to the art museum, you might think more about what the students want to discover rather than just about what you want them to see. Free-choice learning can be a powerful way to get students to feel ownership over their museum experience, have a voice, and connect to what they see in more memorable ways. But stay away from scavenger hunts … please! While there are certainly ways to design a more effective scavenger hunt, it is better just to stay away from this format altogether.

Instead, think of a way to provide students with a real problem-solving or small group activity that invites more complex thinking and aspects of creative response that will be more meaningful to them. Try an activity that might motivate a student to select one artwork they are interested in exploring, and invite them to look more closely and connect to that object through their own personal experiences and interests.

5.   Get moving!

While art museums have not traditionally been places where kinesthetic learning has flourished, there has been a resurgence of movement activities occurring in the galleries.  Museum educators at an increasing number of art museums are facilitating movement techniques that can make the museum come alive for students. If you decide to add movement to your museum visit, however, just be sure to provide students with clear rules about what they can and cannot do (and it is always best to work directly with museum staff to facilitate your initial forays into this exciting and effective teaching strategy in the art museum).

As Shelley Weisberg writes in the most recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education: “Movement as an expressive tool offers connectivity for the visitor to museum objects.  Museums are a moving experience.”

6.   Get writing!

Art can inspire students to think creatively, use their imaginations, and generate some pretty fantastic creative writing.  For decades, art museums have served as exceptional places for student writing activities, with school programs at many museums offering such experiences for students across the grade levels. In recent years, several art museums have created new, useful resources for teachers that provide writing prompts and activities to engage students before, during, and after their visits to the art museum—among these being the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Looking to Write, Writing to Look” resource and the Weisman Art Museum’s “Artful Writing” materials.

Educator-led and self-guided visits that focus on creative writing can be extremely rewarding and productive for both teachers and students.  These creative activities also value the students’ response and allow them to express their own voice in a meaningful way.

7.   Think BIG.

When planning your next visit to the local art museum, get excited about the possibilities and think big. Challenge your art museum to collaborate with you to think outside the box, take risks, and co-create a dynamic experience that connects with the powerful learning that can happen in museums. Let’s begin to think beyond the ‘field trip’ and explore the art museum as a creative, innovative space for learning in the 21st century.

Warhol image: MOMA

Mask Image: CalState