Category Archives: Teaching Tools

Teaching Lab: Towards an Institutional Culture of Learning

Written by Elizabeth Williams, Yale University Art Gallery

What does good museum teaching look like? How do we as educators learn from each other? How do we constantly stay fresh and incorporate new approaches to teaching? What are our shared values for teaching in museums?

These are among the questions that my colleagues and I in education regularly pose, and which led us to launch a project called Teaching Lab almost two years ago. Teaching Lab is not a concept born at Yale; it originated at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1990s as a way for its educators to convene, outside of logistical concerns, to talk about gallery teaching. Many of us work at such a pace that, without a structure like Teaching Lab embedded into our routine, reflection simply would not happen. So when my colleague Jessica Sack introduced this great idea from the Brooklyn Museum, we adapted it to fit our needs at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).

Teaching Lab at YUAG has been a way to reflect, experiment, and collaborate on issues and ideas related to teaching and learning. Monthly sessions seek to explore intersections across traditionally segmented areas of work both in education (e.g. adult, family, academic, K-12, public programs) and Gallery-wide (e.g. curatorial, education, exhibitions, registrar, etc.) The aim is to facilitate dialogue, and perhaps collaborations, related to the project of museum teaching.

Key to our sessions is that each is peer-initiated and led, with the organizer (myself) serving as the moderator. There are no defined outcomes for Teaching Lab, though some sessions have resulted in new projects. By way of example, a few departmental Teaching Labs have included: a session that brought together education teams from the YUAG and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History for a discussion of different approaches to teaching with objects, especially those that can be classified as both art and artifact; a session to consider the Hirshhorn’s signature drop-in teen program, ARTLAB+, as a springboard for conversation related to how educators can, and should, respond to diverse audiences; and a session to consider a new digital app designed for a special exhibition, focusing on the self-guided visitor’s learning experience.

It occurred to us that the conversations we are having relate not just to education but to the entire museum. Everyone at the museum, in effect, teaches in some capacity. What, then, might it mean to broaden the conversation? Will other staff want to participate? How do we make the dialogue both accessible and stimulating, to have the most widespread appeal?

Getting Things Started

We started first by talking with people across the Gallery to gauge interest in the possibility of a staff-wide Teaching Lab. I realized early on that it was difficult to talk about something like this in the abstract, and I was often fielding the question: “So what do you want from me?” I didn’t really know the answer at first. After many departmental conversations about possible topics, effective structures, and anticipated barriers, we distilled the core ingredients from our departmental version of Teaching Lab that we wanted to maintain: that it be peer-driven, that it be conversational, and that it be experimental. We also decided that a natural place to start would be with objects, so we decided that the first staff-wide Teaching Lab would mine the concept of “close looking,” a term often used by colleagues across the museum to describe our teaching practice.

We roughly sketched out what a day-long Teaching Lab could look like: three sessions, starting with looking and learning together, that would eventually zoom out to examine some of the bigger questions related to audience and expertise. We enlisted peers from across the museum to co-lead each session, and these colleagues would ultimately shape the day.

On June 17, the YUAG Education Department presented the first staff-wide Teaching Lab. We invited all staff—from security guards to the Director—and offered three sessions over the course of the day. To our delight, almost 50 people of our staff of roughly 160, including four senior staff members and the Director, attended. We had representation from almost every department in the museum, from the Registrar to Development to Curatorial.

With Close Looking as our frame, our first session was entitled “Close Looking from Multiple Perspectives.” Modeled on our typical three-objects/hour education-guided visit, this session was led by three colleagues from the Education, Curatorial, and Conservation departments. Guided by a single theme, which the three presenters mutually determined, the session was meant to showcase different approaches to teaching with objects. With few parameters, facilitators were asked to teach a single object for 20 minutes and to make sure it was connected to the other objects through the common theme. One group, for example, explored the theme of absence and loss: an educator considered it in a painting by contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, a paintings conservator discussed it in a 12th century Italian panel painting by the Magdalen Master, and a curator talked about it with a 1st century Roman portrait sculpture. A member of the Education staff then moderated a reflective conversation at the end to distill both the participants’ experience as well as the facilitators’.

The second session was entitled “Multiple Frames: The Object in Context” and considered a single object through multiple lenses of analysis and understanding. To contextualize the processes of making and viewing art, participants spent half of the session in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque, exploring how listening to jazz, reading quotations by and about the artist, and physically moving around a canvas on the floor, complicates the experience of viewing and interpreting a work of art. The group then moved to explore Pollock’s materials and methods in a studio session with one of our painting conservators, considering how experimenting with materials and methods might enrich our understanding of the art work.

Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)
Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)

The last session of the day was a roundtable conversation, intended to help us reflect on the experiential components of the morning but also to zoom out to consider the less obvious ways that museums teach, how we understand the role of expertise among our staff and our visitors, and how we can be more responsive to our audiences. These conversations were illuminating, especially when the group was asked to brainstorm ways that teaching and learning happen outside of the guided visit or through interpretive materials. From conversations that security personnel have with visitors to the arrangement of postcards on the wall, the group came up with fresh insights on how the Gallery regularly “teaches” and how every staff member has a stake in our educational mission. This discussion was collegial and fruitful, and as we ended the conversation with time for suggesting future Teaching Lab topics, participants raised many ideas related to better understanding the experience of our visitor and continuing to mine what it means to learn deeply in a museum.  They also evinced a keen and welcome interest in how we can collectively address issues related to inclusion and identity in our work, and plans are now underway to make this the topic of a future staff-wide teaching lab.

Beginning to Build a Culture of Learning

We never could have imagined that the staff would be as receptive to Teaching Lab as they were. Since it required actually doing it to begin to grasp what this could become, the staff took a risk in setting aside almost an entire day to participate. As part of our own reflective process, the Education Department surveyed people anonymously to ask for their feedback. When asked to rate their experience on a scale of 1 to 5 (poor to excellent, respectively), 27.8 % rated the experience a 4 and 72.2% rated it a 5. When asked whether they would participate in future Teaching Labs, 100% responded yes. In the open comments section, participants repeatedly emphasized how meaningful it was to come together as a staff to learn from each other (and to get to know one another); they had expected that Education would be imparting best practices and were surprised that it was co-presented by colleagues from across the museum; and they were surprised by how much fun they had. Our Education staff, for its part, learned a tremendous amount in the process of reaching out to colleagues from across the institution, and we have been pleased about the new relationships that have developed as a result.

I don’t want to overstate the impact of this one staff-wide Teaching Lab; in some ways, we have indeed returned to business as usual. But Teaching Lab at its core is about building a culture of learning, and this was a very positive step in that direction. Whether it be among those who are explicitly educators, or whether it be re-framed more broadly to consider and leverage the entire staff’s contributions to teaching in a museum, it is a powerful tool and structure for learning, for teaching, and for reflecting.

As we turn our attention to the future of Teaching Lab, we can’t help but think—and hope—that this experimental and peer-driven model might lead to new ways of considering the project of teaching in the museum and take our work in interesting and challenging new directions.

Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)
Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)

About the Author

Education DepartmentELIZABETH WILLIAMS is the John Walsh Senior Fellow in Education at the Yale University Art Gallery. Prior to Yale, she was the Director of Engagement and Learning at the Mississippi Museum of Art, where she oversaw the museum’s family, school, and community programs. Elizabeth has held positions at The Phillips Collection, the Harvard Art Museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Americans for the Arts. She holds a Master’s in Education from Harvard University and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Human and Organizational Development from Vanderbilt University

Featured header image: Gallery staff, led by Wurtele Gallery Teacher Tony Coleman, looking at this Equestrian Shrine Figure by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa.

The Power of the Pre Visit

Written by Alex Brown and Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

Through a partnership with The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), The Engaging Educator and ABC of NC, students ranging from 2 to 21 years old with Autism Spectrum Disorder came to SECCA as part of an art program funded by The Arts Council of Winston Salem and Forsyth County. Prior to the museum visit, SECCA and The Engaging Educator visited each class at ABC for a Pre Visit, something new for both the museum and the school. This was also the first time the school had taken a field trip to a contemporary art museum.

While educators can all agree that programs for students on the spectrum are extremely worthwhile, many institutions, educators, and schools have trepidation in approaching these programs – but knowledge provides comfort. While the idea of setting up programming for students on the spectrum is multi-faceted, an under-discussed part of programming is the Pre Visit. Going into the Pre Visit, we prepared a visual agenda, social story, and had a touch collection. Below, find our individual reflections on the importance and outcomes of our short but powerful Pre Visits:

Feels Like the First Time – by Alex Brown

I am accustomed to meeting school groups ‘cold’ when they come in the door. I know where they’re coming from, the size of the group, the age range, and I speak with teachers prior to visits to discuss the scope and expectations, but it is difficult to know the feel of a school group if I haven’t met the students. Starting ‘cold’ and getting to know the students during a program works great most of the time, but it is simply not enough for every group. Students on the autism spectrum often require extra attention and care that can be difficult to provide with a ‘cold’ start. That’s when the value of the Pre Visit became clear.

Typical school programs at SECCA last between an hour and an hour and a half. Since most school programs start without Pre Visits, I spend the first five to fifteen minutes with introductions, discussions around the definitions of contemporary art, and a primer on the exhibition. This not only helps students get comfortable in an unfamiliar space and with potentially unfamiliar ideas, it also creates an opportunity for me to ‘read the room’ so I can find out what the students are interested in and the kind of experiences they are open to. ‘Reading the room’ can be anything from a discussion with the students to paying attention to body language. It becomes easier to read students as a program progresses and as discussions unfold. By the middle of a visit, most students feel comfortable in the space and are open to expressing themselves. This process can be decidedly different with students on the autism spectrum.

The ability to read an audience by paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues is based on an understanding of typical behaviors. I am not an expert on autism, but I do know that people with autism often behave in ways that do not conform to traditional behavioral norms. Their behavior is simply different, and it can’t be read using typical behavior as a baseline. This is what makes it difficult to start ‘cold’ with people with autism. I have led programs for special needs classes, special needs organizations, and group homes, and until recently I had never done Pre Visits. I have always met the group like I would have any other. Where most students that are typically developing are comfortable by the middle of a visit, some individuals with special needs did not feel comfortable until the end, if they got comfortable at all.

Through the pilot program and partnership, we included Pre Visits with every class. We met with each class for about fifteen minutes, and in that time we got to know the students, the students got to know us, and we introduced the students to SECCA, the exhibition, and museum expectations using a social story. The value of a Pre Visit became immediately apparent. In one of the pre-kindergarten classes, some students began to cry and showed signs of anxiety when we waked in the room. By the end of our visit, a student who was in tears when I walked in the room had taken me by the hand to show me around her classroom. Responses varied from student to student, but through the Pre Visits we established a shared foundation of comfort with the students. A foundation that carried over to their SECCA visits, eliminating the need to start ‘cold’ and opening more time to explore, experience, and make art.


It’s Not Just You, It’s Meby Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

I haven’t always been a fan of the Pre Visit. So much of what I believe in with improv-based education is the idea of focusing on the current moment – maintaining a presence in the here and now to honestly react and respond to that here and now. Initially, it seemed a bit contradictory to have a Pre Visit with that mentality. The ‘secret’ I’ve discovered after doing a lot of Pre Visits through multiple organizations, including The Engaging Educator, is: the Pre Visit is as much for me as it is for the students.

As one of the people that initiated this partnership, I was insistent on the aspect of a Pre Visit. Modeling the program after the Guggenheim for All program, I saw a lot of success in getting the students ‘ready’ for their visit to the museum, as well as preparing the teachers with expectations. As an educator that has worked with students on the autism spectrum, as well as an improv advocate, my mentality behind the Pre Visit need was simple: while when you’ve worked with one person with autism, you’ve worked with one person with autism, and people are different every moment, it’s imperative to understand individuals where they feel comfortable and where they don’t. Yes, every child would be different. Yes, we were going to roll with it and be flexible and connect to the moment – but spontaneity? NOPE.

Now is a good moment to dispel a misconception about me as an educator. I plan. A LOT. I over plan. A LOT. The reason I over plan? So I can be flexible within a great big structure I’ve planned for myself, scrap things when necessary, pivot on a dime, and connect to the people in front of me. That’s improv.

Back to the Pre Visit – by going into the students’ classrooms, a space where they understand expectations, rules, and interactions, we could see how they connected with those consistent expectations, rules, and space. We could see that the high school class was VERY responsive to the prompts given to them, that the elementary class moved around a lot and like to hold our hands, and that the kindergarten class loved counting. We noticed the wanderers and the ways the teachers interacted with the students by saying, “follow the leader” to line up and the student’s attention span.

Yes, the students got to know us. Absolutely, they heard the social story, learned the expectations, practiced a ‘museum walk,’ and touched samples that would also be at the museum. We got to tailor and inform where we met the kids because of the Pre Visit. We were able to connect with them at a completely different level and prepare with more than just the teacher information (which is so valuable! Never stop doing this, teachers!)

There is an improv and storytelling principle of “starting in the middle” – essentially you get more accomplished by starting in the center of a conversation versus using time with exposition. The same happens with a Pre Visit – instead of using time to assess the group, you have a baseline. You can begin in the middle, and fine-tune the plan based on the individual moment of that student – the student you already have a relationship with. And how much better is that museum visit when you’ve increased your structure – when you’ve over planned for things, thought of possibilities, different directions, and prepared properly for anything? That’s where my flexibility as an educator comes in. Not from an “anything goes” attitude, but a larger structure to move around in. And a Pre Vist built into a special needs program, specifically one for students on the autism spectrum, makes my structure even larger, and my flexibility even smoother.

Have you had success with a Pre Visit program, or working with students on the autism spectrum? Share your comments, challenges, or best practices.

About the Authors

JEN BROWN (OLENICZAK): Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator, a NYC, LA and Winston Salem based organization that specializes in improv based education and development for the advancement of professional, social and communication skills. Through The Engaging Educator, her pedagogical approach has trained educators, students, professionals and individuals from organizations such as W Magazine, SFMOMA, Viacom, Columbia University, The Field Museum, MOMA, UNICEF, and Saks 5th Avenue. Recently the company opened a non-profit Foundation, offering free and low cost improv workshops to educators, at-risk teens and adults, and individuals on the autism spectrum. She holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.

ALEX BROWN: Programs Coordinator and museum educator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As a member of both the curatorial and education departments at SECCA, Alex designs, develops and leads educational programs, family programs, exhibition and non-exhibition-related programs and film programs. In collaboration with the Curator of Contemporary Art and the Curator of education, he is also responsible for creating SECCA’s interpretive materials. By developing and offering programs that appeal to more than just one audience, Alex strives to make contemporary art approachable and accessible to everyone. He holds a B.A in History, Ancient Civilizations and Classics from the University of Iowa and a M.A in Museum Studies from Western Illinois University.

How To Give a Good Conference Session

Written by Jen Oleniczak

Tis the season for conferences. American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and the National Art Education Association National Convention are just two of the big ones, but smaller or more regional conference hashtags are starting to fill twitter feeds. One tweet on how to have a good session caught my eye a few months ago. We spend SO MUCH time thinking about ‘what’ we are going to say – when is the last time we dedicated time to ‘how’ we say it? In the age of TED Talks, epic presentation skills and storytelling rule. How can we infuse that enthusiasm and energy into our conference talks?

Now, I’m sure there are quite a few people saying:

‘The message is what matters – not how people say it!’

I completely disagree.

Let’s be honest – when have you politely stayed in a session that was all show-and-tell and the presenter was just reading from their script? Or  because you wanted to meet the presenter/knew the presenter/were the presenter/couldn’t get to the door without being noticed? This happens – not all the time, but more often than it should. The worst part about it? It can be fixed, so it should happen so much less.

While The Engaging Educator is known for our improv-based education in museums, we also lead Presentation Skills and Storytelling Classes, as well as conduct Private Coaching. That tweet about how to have a good session stuck with me – I haven’t seen a lot of articles on how to prepare for sessions! Because it is something we work with people on, here’s our speaking tips for conferences.

Before the conference….

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: This is serious. You should be going over your presentation as many times as possible with as many different people as possible. Get feedback. Think about actors and how incredible live theatre is. They practice CONSTANTLY. This isn’t about memorizing things word-for-word; this is getting the flow and knowing your bullet points, your plan and what you want your audience to walk away with.
  2. DO NOT WRITE THINGS WORD FOR WORD: This stands repeating: Do. Not. Write. Things. Word. For. Word. Two things happen when you write word for word – you end up reading your presentation (and at that point, I ask, why didn’t you just write an article or blog post?) or you memorize word for word and then forget a word, which throws everything off. It’s the same idea behind knowing the alphabet – try saying it without singing it and skip the letters D, P, and W. It’s slower because at this point in our lives, the alphabet is memorized by order. When you take out a step in that order, the rest is harder to recall. Same thing with your conference ‘script’.
  3. Think about how to involve your audience: If your audience is made up of superfans, they are there to hear you talk. You could wax poetic about banana bread and they would hang on your every word. Unfortunately, chances are,your audience is not 100% superfan. So how can you keep them interested? Find ways to engage them. Yes – your program/research/thoughts are incredibly interesting. And you should find new and different ways to reach your audience. Have people draw, brainstorm, share, answer questions, create, move – get them involved, and they will remember your session more, versus quietly texting or Facebooking in the back of the room while you talk. Even if it’s giving them 5 minutes to talk to one another about your focus, you’ve broken the monotony of your voice.
  4. Work on your how: The how is just as important as the what. That’s been one of my biggest mottos with EE – how you say things matters A LOT. Your cadence, tone, volume, speed, disfluencies – all of these connect to how you are perceived as a speaker. When you are practicing, use different ways of saying things – do everything with an exclamation point, throw in a bunch of dramatic pauses, over do your gestures, speed up, slow down. Change it up. And while exclamation points may NOT work the whole time, by experimenting you might find times it does work.If you are plagued by disfluencies – essentially anything that breaks up speech – slow down. I notice many adults struggle with what I call ‘grown up’ disfluencies – the extension of words, the insertion of ‘so’ and ‘you know’. Disfluencies exist both because of habit as well as thinking what comes next. Just slow down!

An hour before the conference…

  1. Warm up your voice: Don’t go in cold! If you’ve ever stumbled over words, you should warm up your voice before a presentation. Do a few tongue twisters – say them slowly and over enunciate.
  2. Don’t over practice: If you don’t know it now, you won’t. At this point, you should just be relaxing, doing a quick run through of ideas and enjoying the conference. Check out your room, if possible, and make sure your tech works.
  3. Breathe: Take a few deep breaths. Now take a few more. Even if you aren’t nervous, breathing correctly allows your voice to be rich, deep and resonant versus shrill and pinched. Make sure you are breathing low, meaning your stomach area expands when you take a breath in.

During the conference… 

  1. Breathe!  THIS IS STILL IMPORTANT! If you find yourself getting lost or nervous or going too quickly – take a breath. Now take another! If you look awkward and nervous, your audience focuses on that and then starts feeling awkward and nervous.
  2. Let it go!  This is the time to fail gloriously. Go big or go home. Just do it. Let it go. All the inspirational songs and sayings!All joking aside – there is nothing to do now except rock it out. So do it now, or forever wish you had.


  1. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t:  Think about what was successful and why as well as what didn’t work. Was it you? The audience? The subject? Even if you aren’t making this presentation again, reflection is priceless. 

Any other tips to add? Add them in the comment section below!

Check out for more articles and resources on speaking.

Header image: Audience at MuseumNext Fringe event, Heritage Sells presented 3 keynotes about preserving and presenting heritage outside museum walls and practices. Photo credits: Maarten Jüngen CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, no changes made.

Announcing New Art History Pedagogy & Practice E-Journal

Written by Virginia Spivey, Contributing Editor at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR)

Check out the Art History Pedagogy & Practice e-journal hub at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), and read the linked White Paper. AHTR is a peer-populated platform for art history teaching content including lesson plans, book reviews, image clusters, and classroom and museum activities. 

Slated to launch in Fall 2016, Art History Pedagogy and Practice is a new academic peer-reviewed journal devoted to pedagogical research in art history.  Inspired by discussions at the College Art Association in 2015 and supported by a Digital Projects Award from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, (AHTR) began this initiative in response to the lack of scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) in the discipline.  The idea was to build on the success of the AHTR Weekly as a popular forum where practitioners already share their experiments and ideas about teaching art history in a range of learning environments.

Over the summer, AHTR worked with the research firm of Randi Korn & Associates to conduct a survey that revealed significant interest in this project.  AHTR is excited about the potential of Art History Pedagogy and Practice to build bridges connecting the traditionally siloed community of academic art historians to others involved in SOTL, museum education and art education at the K-16 level, and the digital humanities.  AHTR recently launched an “e-journal hub” where regular updates will be posted about Art History Pedagogy and Practice, along with information and resources about SOTL and best practices in educational research.  As we move forward in this endeavor, we encourage visitors to visit the site to provide feedback and comments about the project.  

Download White Paper on the Need for a Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Art History (PDF)

White Paper Summary

While art historians in higher education devote extensive amounts of time, effort, and energy to the job of teaching, the attitude persists that this role is separate, or even a distraction, from the primary responsibility to contribute as scholars in the field. Maintaining the duality of teaching and scholarly activity devalues the crucial relationship of pedagogical practice to art historical study, and precludes the potential for research in teaching and learning to have significant impact on the discipline itself.  In order to realize this potential, the scholarship of teaching and learning in art history (SOTH-AH) must be acknowledged as a legitimate area of intellectual inquiry by the institutions and communities encompassing academic art history.  A peer-reviewed journal devoted to SOTL-AH would facilitate this process by providing scholars a space to share research on pedagogical topics, and encourage further academic investigation and discourse around teaching and learning in art history.  

This white paper identifies the need for SOTL-AH based on a recent survey of art historians in higher education and a review of current literature addressing pedagogical topics.  It considers the impact  an academic journal devoted to this topic would have on the art history and related fields that include study of visual and material culture.  As a solution to the lack of SOTL-AH, Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) began Art History Pedagogy and Practice (AHPP), a peer-reviewed e-journal, that will advance and disseminate academic research on art history’s pedagogy.  This initiative builds on the community and pedagogical inquiry AHTR has developed since its launch in 2011.  AHPP will be housed on Academic Works, CUNY’s Digital Commons repository as an open-access publication that will impose no subscription or contributor fees.   

Stay Tuned

Check the AHPP e-journal hub for updates about the e-journal and to learn more about ways to become involved with Art History Pedagogy & Practice.

Thinking Space: Connecting Art & Math in the Museum

Written by Rebecca Mitchell and Andrea Kantrowitz

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?

You’ve just utilized spatial intelligence, your capacity to analyze and transform visual and mental imagery in two and three dimensions. This capacity is fundamental to both math and art, and a has been found to be a key indicator in students’ long-term academic and professional success.  A growing body of research in educational psychology and cognitive science is looking at ways to enhance spatial intelligence, such as a recent study which showed that spatial training improves 6-7 year old children’s math calculation.

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.

Our challenge:

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)

Format: 2 hours

Materials: stools, sketchbooks, pencils, grid paper, scissors, circular stickers (we used mailing stickers)

Translating 3-d into 2-d:

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.

teachers drawing Robert Morris’s
teachers drawing Robert Morris’s “Untitled (Battered Cubes)”

The teachers then watched a minimalist dance performance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs and filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1973, Calico Mingling (available here: 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.

teachers looking at the drawings on the floor
teachers looking at the drawings on the floor

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.

teachers' paper sculptures on display
teachers’ paper sculptures on display

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

mitchell2REBECCA 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 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.

kantrowitzANDREA 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. 

Engaging Multilingual Students: An Educator’s Guide

Written by PJ Gubatina Policarpio

As the new school year officially starts here in New York, I am reminded of the thousands of students in the city, who will eventually descend upon our museums, science centers, botanical gardens, libraries, historical societies, and many other informal places of learning. As always, I am inspired by these young learners who bring a richness of experiences, languages, cultural identities, curiosities, and imagination that make our institutions come to life. In my own practice, I often wonder how I can tap into the wealth of characters and personalities each student brings to the table to create a truly engaging and equitable learning environment for all.

As school programs educator at Queens Museum, I was amazed by the diversity of the students that were coming into the museum; reflecting the demographic of the borough (one of the most diverse in the country!). It was more than I had ever experienced working in other museums/cultural institutions in New York. Based on my own observations and conversations with teachers, I realized that in a class of 35 students there might be knowledge of at least 10 languages whether spoken by the students or by their families at home. Census data shows that close to half of Queens residents (47.8%) are born outside of the US and more than 50% speak a language other than English at home.  Some estimate show that there are more than 150 languages spoken in Queens.

In many ways, I saw myself in these students. As an immigrant, I also come from a multilingual and multicultural home. I consider myself part of generation 1.5, coming to America when I was 13 years old. These students inspired me to reflect on how I can further challenge my teaching. How can my own immigrant background inform my teaching? What are some of the effective teaching strategies I’ve learned the field? And how could I combine this sensitivity and the strategies to engage multilingual students and their peers in the group. So for a couple of months last year, I explored and used many different strategies in our Panorama of the City of New York exhibition, the crown jewel of the Queens Museum’s collection and our most requested school groups tour. The result was an “Educators Guide” which I compiled and illustrated by Megan Leppla. The guide was originally presented for school programs at Queens Museum and am sharing here as a resource for other educators.

  1. 1Check-in with the Teacher.

The classroom teacher should know their students best.  Prior to their visit or right before the tour, check in to see what the teacher’s goals are for the museum visit, what curriculum connections the class is making or want to make, and if there are any special needs or considerations. This is a great time for me to ask if there are other languages spoken or used in the classroom. I also let the teachers know that I welcome and encourage moments to translate key words, questions, concepts, and/or ideas to reach the most students.  This is a great way to collaborate and engage the teacher during their visit.

  1. 2Use active cues to get students attention.

Teaching with the Panorama can be challenging because of many factors, including its size, impressive detail, and a moving model airplane touching down and taking off at LaGuardia Airport! So it’s important to use creative and active ways to gather students’ attention. Check with the teacher to see if they already have strategies in place in the classroom. Some of my favorites include:

Clapping: I like rhythmic clapping because it involves both sound and movement. Make sure that this does not distract other groups.

Sign: First, I introduce the sign language for the word “Focus” and then I reinforce this gesture when I need a student’s attention.

  1. 3Give students equitable opportunities to participate.

Allow students to engage with the Panorama in other non-verbal ways or without being the focus of everyone’s attention. I like to have low-stakes, low-pressure activities for all students to participate in. For example, as students walk into the Panorama, I ask them to think of a word that describes how they are feeling. Then, I ask students to write down the word on an index card. To share I ask students to look at each other’s cards. Students can then be grouped into similar words or ideas for further conversation.

  1. 4Encourage partner talk.

Students often have lots of great observations, ideas, or thoughts but may be uncomfortable with sharing in a new space or in large groups. Give students space to express these observations and ideas comfortably with a friend. You can ask open-ended questions such as: How is this borough different or the same from the last borough we looked at?

  1. 5Affirm students’ background such as knowledge of other languages.

When I hear students speak or use languages other than English, it’s an opportunity for me to relate it back to the Panorama.  I ask questions like: What’s another word we use for “bridge”?” In Spanish? Russian? Farsi? Tagalog? And more. I like to ask: What are some of the languages we speak, hear or read in the classroom? At home? In Queens? In NYC? This allows students to share their own knowledge inside the museum.

  1. 6Activate students’ relevant prior experiences.

In Queens, when students point out LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airport, it is a great opportunity to talk about their own experiences of migration, movements, and travel. Here, I start our conversation with: What are airplanes used for? They are used for people to travel and move between two places. Then I follow up with: What are some of the places you or your family members have traveled to? Santo Domingo, Mexico, Pakistan! In this way, students are sharing their personal experiences with movements on their own terms. By reframing this question, students can freely share their own experience without necessarily answering: “Where are you from?” This is a great way for students to learn more and teach each other.

  1. 7Make room for student questions.

As educators, we often get excited about teaching and sharing knowledge and information that we sometimes forget to stop and ask students if they have any questions or need any language clarifications. Once during a visit with a 2nd Grade group, I kept using the word “gallery” to describe the spaces we were moving in until finally one brave student stopped and asked “What does “gallery” mean?” A-ha!

  1. 8Reinforce vocabulary students are learning in the classroom.

Check to see if there are any concepts or vocabulary from the classroom that you can bring into the visit. Teachers often use the Panorama as a way to learn about rural, urban, and suburban communities. I like to emphasize this classroom connection by asking students to define these terms using the Panorama. I ask students questions like: How can we identify the different communities? Where do you see an “urban” community here? What does “rural” look like? What makes this “suburban”?

  1. 9Engage students actively through multi-sensory activities.

See: Try extended looking. I like to challenge students by asking them to look closely at the Panorama for an extended time, about 2-3 minutes without comments, questions or raising their hands.

Sketch: Use a Telescope! Students can observe closely by sketching a detail (building, bridge, statue!) they find most interesting in the Panorama.

Hear: Create a Soundscape! Each student can make a sound or noise that they might hear or imagine in the space. Direct the soundscape symphony with a meter!

Feel: How does it feel? Have students touch and feel building blocks, models, and other touch objects.

Move: Students can pose like their favorite skyscraper in Manhattan or decide like the Statue of Liberty what their pose might be if they were a statue or monument.

  1. 10Have fun!

The museum is a great place for all students to learn, discover, and come together as a community. What makes the Panorama special is that it gives all of us a singular view of our city. We all have a piece of NYC in us, together with 8 million others, that makes it special no matter where we or our families come from.

I welcome fellow educators to share or reflect on their own strategies that allow students fair opportunities to engage and participate during school group visits.

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Header image: “Queens Museum of Art | The Panorama of the City of New York | tight overview from west of lower Manhattan, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges, etc.” Photo by Chris Devers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Purposeful Praxis: Reflections on a School Partnership

Written by Sara Egan, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michael Baulier, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers

The School Partnership Program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is like a laboratory for museum education, through which we work for multiple years with a diverse range of students and teachers with a collection of art that never changes. This combination of stable and changing variables has allowed the Gardner Museum to maintain a cycle of theory, practice, research and reflection. The School Partnership Program uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as the primary teaching and assessment method, responding to findings from our 2007 U.S. Department of Education study, Thinking Through Art. We’ve continued to learn and grow since that study, most recently through our work with the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers (EMK), an in-district charter school in Boston. We started partnering with the English Language Arts and History teachers in 2012 and this year added Spanish teachers. While the successes and challenges we encounter working with EMK are specific to our partnership, we hope you will use our example to consider how praxis (the practical application of theory) and research can contribute to your own programs.

Research: Getting to know our audience

Working with the same audience over time is a luxury, but also crucial in our pursuit to consistently tailor our program to the specific needs of our partner students and teachers. Since we work with the students throughout their high school careers, we see the EMK 11th grade students respond to the Museum very differently than they did in 9th grade. We see changes through a variety of data collection methods: surveys, writing samples, long and short interviews, observations, and more. Our program goals include developing visual literacy and critical thinking and communication skills, so we mine the program data to determine how the students are making meaning from works of art and quantify the frequency of critical thinking that they deploy in that quest. The quantitative research tells us where the students are, while the qualitative data helps us to understand the context and explain how, when and why students develop these skills. So, how do we respond when we see that students shift over time from 9th grade comments like,

“Yeah. It’s a nice picture. It’s nice and, I don’t know, it’s colorful”

to interpretations from 11th graders such as,

“This room looks dark and mysterious. Kind of like a church because of all the holy statues and religious references. Maybe it means you can find light even in the darkness?”  

EMK students using VTS to discuss El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
EMK students using VTS to discuss El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Theory: Making sense of the data

The work of constructivist theorists like Piaget, Vygotsky and Duckworth, Abigail Housen’s theory of Aesthetic Development, in addition to our own personal theories of learning and change inform our interpretations of our research. Viewing the raw data through the lens of theory helps our team of educators explain what we see while validating the theories that we are considering. Returning to the EMK example, we know from our research that as these high school students are introduced to the Gardner Museum and begin discussing art using VTS they are primarily concerned with their own observations and prior knowledge. After two years of monthly discussions of art in the classroom and at the museum, they start to wonder about the intent or history of the artist. Housen’s theory tells us that through extensive experience looking at art there will be a development from storytelling to considering new kinds of information such as art history. Piaget’s theory of childhood development contributes to our understanding of why this happens more quickly in high school students than elementary-aged students. We use these frameworks to understand where the EMK 11th grade students are now, and then estimate where they are likely to go next and what kinds of questions they will pose in the months ahead.  The students are capable of abstract reasoning and are interested in the way that an artist’s intentions play out in a work of art. They are also thinking about the VTS process itself and questioning the boundaries of its usefulness with art and across disciplines.

Practice: Putting it all into action

With a solid grounding of data and theory, our next step in August 2014 (Year 3 of partnering with EMK) was to adjust our practice to fit the new reality of these more experienced students’ needs and interests. First we began experimenting with new types of information when the students visited the Museum, for example providing more context about a special exhibition or asking probing questions like, “What do you think might have interested the artist when making this artwork?”  Next, we held intensive professional development for our partner teachers at EMK, collaborating to create “VTS extensions” that use VTS skills to explore new concepts, for example predicting the themes of a new novel or unit of history by examining images.

Collaboration: Insights from Michael Baulier, 9th grade English Teacher

As a STEM school with a strong focus on math and science, EMK relies heavily on relationships with peer institutions to offer opportunities for students to engage in the arts. I embraced VTS because I view this instructional approach as an opportunity to address the dearth of arts education in our school.  What I did not anticipate was the extraordinary impact VTS would have on the daily instruction that occurs in my classroom.

VTS fits seamlessly into my teaching as an instructional strategy that promotes whole-group discussions grounded in visual evidence.  When I ask students the first VTS question, “What’s going on in this image?” I am cuing them to develop claims based on a visual text.  The follow-up question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” requires students to provide visual evidence to support their claims.  In ELA class evidence-based reasoning is at the core of everything we do, whether a student is discussing a visual text during VTS, making an inference while reading a short story, or writing a paragraph to support a thesis statement in an essay.  VTS also aligns nicely with the ELA Common Core Standards’ emphasis on student-centered exploration over teacher-directed instruction, and the development of listening skills and oral proficiency are beneficial to students who are English Language Learners or receiving Special Education.  Instead of frontloading tasks with teacher-generated content knowledge, students engage with texts, take risks, and uncover meaning collaboratively.  Because the subject of VTS is an image, all students have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion in a low stakes environment.  The deliberate focus on active listening and high volume of oral language input for students to process leads over time to increased language output.   I have observed students who are typically reluctant to speak aloud share detailed responses to complex images in the classroom or at the Museum.

In the third year of our partnership with the Gardner Museum we are collaborating more than ever to explore new opportunities for using VTS to enhance teaching and learning in our school.  In November my students visited the Museum to brainstorm ideas for image-based short stories written as part of a VTS extension project.  In April we look forward to hosting our first family event to showcase student work inspired by the Gardner Museum.  The Museum’s eagerness to engage our school community through so many unique learning opportunities makes this partnership especially exciting, because it speaks to the creativity that is so vital to both the arts and education.

Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Photo: Sean Dungan.
Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Photo: Sean Dungan.

Reflection: What did we learn from the cycle of praxis?

The contours of this partnership have changed over time as we listen to our audience through research, interpret what we hear through the lens of theory, and translate our understanding into practice.  Rather than automatically replicating practices that have worked in the past we continually strive to improve and to justify, to ourselves as well as all other stakeholders, the value and relevancy of our program.  At EMK, our partnership is a component of school culture and the value of the arts and critical thinking are infused at every grade.  Teachers and students consider the Gardner Museum as an active part of their campus, visiting independently and attending the Museum’s other programs.  This cycle keeps the work always fresh and exciting, as there is always more to learn from and with our partners.

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About the Authors

Sara Egan and Michael BaulierSARA EGAN: School Partnership Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she connects Boston students and teachers to the Gardner through Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). She teaches preK-12th grade students in the galleries and the classroom, trains and coaches teachers to use VTS, and researches the impact of the School Partnership Program.  Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes. She holds a BA from Vassar College and an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

MICHAEL L. BAULIER: Educator at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, where he teaches English Language Arts to ninth grade students.  Michael is an inclusion teacher who is licensed to teach students receiving Special Education (SPED) support services as well as English Language Learners (ELL).  He earned his National Board Certification for Professional Teaching Standards (NBCT) in 2014.  Michael holds a BA and MAT from Northeastern University and is currently studying at the University of Massachusetts Boston to become a school administrator.

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Header Image: Sara and 9th grade students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books

I have to admit that I am a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to books about how we look at and experience art.  So when I found out about the recently published books by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford as well as Ossian Ward, I was more than just a little curious (I ordered them right away and began to dig in during the winter holidays).

Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, by Ossian Ward (Laurence King Publishing, 2014)


First, let me dive a bit into the pages of Rendez-Vous with Art.  This book reads like an enjoyable travelogue of the great museums of the world, retelling in lush detail a series of art encounters as filtered through the interests, knowledge, passions, and opinions of de Montebello (Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years, 1977-2008).  At café moments and interludes, both authors engage in brief conversations about how we experience art, how we think about it, and how we look at it. The book is, as the authors write, “an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art” (9).  Visiting the Louvre, the Prado, the Palazzo Pitti, the Mauritshuis, the British Museum, the Brancacci Chapel, the Met, and other notable art sites, their conversations focus on their experiences with masterpieces and lesser known works that allow them to escape the crowds of some of the more popular cultural destinations.

I happened to be reading this book during the days leading up to a workshop I was facilitating with our docents at the Portland Art Museum, spending time in the galleries looking at an absolutely electric El Greco painting on loan to our museum from the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I was searching for a new way to frame our extended experience with this masterpiece — a way to prompt our viewing of the painting in a way that could transcend the art historical facts of the painting’s creation and context.  Could a work like this speak to us today about something meaningful?  As a viewer, what does this work mean to me?  De Montebello provided the tee-up:

“A characteristic of great works of art is that they persistently catch our attention and beckon us. It is like a piece of music that we want to listen to ad infinitum or a book that we love re-reading — because one never exhausts what a great work has to give, whether it’s in the detail or the whole…. It has an ability not just to defy time, but also to communicate through time, even to people who do not and cannot know much about the beliefs of the people who made it or the message it was supposed originally to have. Somehow, inexplicably, a great work of art transcends its own age.” (31, 34)

While I may not agree with de Montebello when it comes to how we shape visitor learning experiences and use social media & digital technologies to broaden public engagement (among other things), I did enjoy his grandiose statements about the powerful nature of experiencing art.  The hustle and bustle of a crowded art museum  can certainly be music to a museum educator’s ears, yet I know that many of us, like myself, also seek out the more intimate, quiet, deeply rewarding experience of being the only person standing in front of a masterpiece (how many of us sneak into the galleries when the museum is closed to steal away our own time with art?).  De Montebello muses on the challenge of viewing art amidst the crowds of popular, well-visited institutions … or, as they write, “the hell of looking at art with other people” (128). As Gayford recounts, de Montebello originally wanted the title of the book to be “The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.”

At times, both authors seem rather grumpy about the millions and millions of people who crowd into museums to see masterworks of culture and history, but their questions about how we experience art in these contexts raises interesting issues about marketing, image reproductions, and digital collections.  For example, given the deep crowds of camera-phone-wielding tourists crammed in front of the Mona Lisa on any given day, is it more valuable or meaningful to look at a high quality digital image on my iPad (here in the quiet comfort of my own home or office)?  And how does our repeated exposure to beautiful, massive publicity banners and posters showings close-up details of masterpieces effect our expectations of the actual museum gallery experience with these artworks?

This is what it is like when you're standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.  Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
This is what it is like when you’re standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

How Do We Experience Contemporary Art?

OK, let me shift gears here, from talking about experiences with Egyptian sculpture, Renaissance masterpieces, and nineteenth-century portraiture to experiencing the art of now — contemporary art that can be scattered across a gallery floor, projected on multiple walls, consuming a massive space, requiring us to talk to someone or eat something, confusing, perplexing, and having no apparent start or finish.

“The old rules of not touching a work of art or of reverentially paying homage to each picture in a state of quiet awe are now gone….” (Ward 8)

Carsten Höller "Test Site" installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license
Carsten Höller “Test Site” installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking makes a fresh pairing with Rendez-Vous with Art, focusing on art created since 2000 that frequently expects viewers to perform, interact with, or complete the piece in front of you.  In this highly readable, straightforward book, Ward offers a set of tools that go beyond just looking and might help provide a way to make sense of contemporary art.  While an art critic and art world insider himself, I think he succeeds in his attempts to combat the ubiquitous and opaque ‘art speak’ that so frustratingly surrounds contemporary art.  He writes (and I quite agree):

“Too often, these gatekeepers [curators and critics] stand in the way of the understanding of a work of art by using a morass of theoretical jargon and pseudo-philosophical art-speak. This kind of clever-clever writing about art does very little to bolster or boost an artist’s cause, other than perpetuating more reams of similarly hard-to-fathom ‘discourse.'” (20)

So how does Ward propose we cut through the verbose jargon and allow for better experiences with contemporary art?  His central foundation is to “start from zero” and wipe the slate clean — tabula rasa — using the first word TABULA as a mnemonic device for the approach he proposes.  While I don’t want to give away all the details (after all, you should read the book yourself and explore this approach), here is a very brief summary:

  • Time: Always a good idea to start with a few minutes of calm contemplation, looking, and exploration.  Take stock.
  • Association: What is the personal resonance or ‘hook’ for you?  This can be a visual attraction or a connection with a memory or experience you’ve had.  Make some associations.
  • Background: Use some basic ways to learn a bit more about the backdrop of the piece or the artist — using the title, label, press release, museum brochure or website, etc.
  • Understand: After looking, connecting, and learning a few basic background facts, the piece is more likely to sink in a bit more.  What might be some broader messages at play here?
  • Look again: Simple as it sounds.  After a bit of pondering, go back and look or engage with the work even more. Did you miss a detail?
  • Assessment: After these first four steps, you’re now in a better place to decide whether you think the work is good or not.  But Ward reminds us not to hastily jump to this step (which we all do far too often).

Much about this method of looking at contemporary art or thinking about an encounter makes sense, and reaffirms many existing pedagogies and educational philosophies already informing museum practice.  In addition, throughout his book, Ward provides us with wonderfully pithy ‘Spotlight’ features that lead us through parts of the TABULA approach with individual works of contemporary art — including explorations of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Carsten Holler’s whimsical Tate Modern installation Test Site (2006), Glen Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow (2005), and Roger Hiorns’s amazing and enormous Seizure (2009).  When the TABULA approach seems a bit lacking, at least the discussions of contemporary art are enjoyable and digestible.


Everything Comes Full Circle

The entire experience of reading these two ‘looking at art’ books side by side became eerily connected when I reached the final pages of Ward’s book only to find a Spotlight on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1661) — a painting that de Montebello and Gayford could have easily included in their travels.  Ward comes around full circle to the more traditional ways of looking at art that form the foundation of Rendez-Vous with Art,  writing: “there is no better way to slow down and tabulate one’s appreciation of art than by sitting with one of the Old Masters.”  No matter what approach or strategy you take when it comes to encountering art of any time period or culture, is there anything more essential than spending time to look, perceive, and use our multitude of senses to take it in?

“It’s not rude to stare at art.  Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s the least you can do. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Don’t think, just look, take it all in. Soak up your surroundings, feel the space in front of you, set your mind free, let your internal monologue recede and allow your eyes to settle.  When was it that you last allowed yourself such a moment?” (Ward 148)

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Featured header image: Carsten Höller panorama by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Questioning the Questioning of Questions

Written by Jackie Delamatre

Recently, the use of questions in art museum teaching has been questioned. In their book, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee wonder “why we ask questions at all.” They have observed too many instances of questions that merely stand in for the delivery of facts, questions that limit viewers’ responses, or questions aimed only at “getting the students to talk.”   They write:

“Even so-called open-ended questions always define a finite horizon of response that limits the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent” (100).

Are they right?

While they have written an eloquent, essential book that I am very grateful for, I do not agree with their premise that because some docents or educators ask terrible questions, questions in general are a flawed pedagogical tool. Every teaching method has unsatisfactory practitioners. That does not mean the teaching method itself is bad. More likely it means that some practitioners are not buying into the philosophical underpinnings of the methods, or, in some cases, that they don’t have enough experience or good mentorship.

I can assure you that many docents or educators could also botch Burnham and Kai-Kee’s described methods. Does that mean their methods are bad? Certainly not. I have been with Burnham for an experience with an artwork, and it was powerful. I don’t disagree that what she does works wonderfully for her audiences. However, I also don’t agree that all audiences can or will look for an hour at a painting without prompting through questioning. I have taught audiences for whom this works just fine, but over ten years of teaching literally thousands of tours at art museums, I believe that museum educators must not do away with open-ended, non-leading questions.

In Defense of Questions

Why not do away with questions?  Because some groups have never been to a museum before, or looked for longer than a few seconds at an artwork. Some groups have rarely been asked their opinion before. Some groups have not experienced learning as interpretative and dialogic instead of didactic. Some groups have had no practice listening to each other. Some groups are scared to death of sounding stupid. Some feel highly uncomfortable in the galleries. “We are the only people who look like us here,” a student once said to me on a tour at the Whitney Museum, and when she broke down in tears, so did others in the group and so did I.  Some groups don’t even want to travel to the area where the museum is. When I taught high school in the South Bronx, my students said they did not want to go on field trips to Manhattan. “Too many white people in Manhattan, Miss,” said one student, and I don’t think he was joking. Some groups are still thinking about the backpack they were forced to check in the lobby. Some are just marveling at the museum – a place entirely new to them. Some are hungry or wondering when they will be allowed to go to the bathroom. Perhaps some students (hard to believe for us art lovers) are simply not interested in art. (I don’t blame them. We all have affinities. I would probably not have been enthusiastic about a school field trip to a car mechanic unless ways to be engaged in the topic were modeled for me.)

For many groups, questions will help them move through fear, discomfort, distraction, or lack of experience or affinity. By asking questions, we model the rules of interpretative play that Burnham and Kai-Kee propose. “Look keenly…share your observations…ask questions… listen to and respect what others say…be patient” (130). We hope that they might internalize these modes of inquiry and use them to think about not just art but the visual culture we live with.

In my experience, questions are critical in modeling how to explore a work of art. When we ask, “What do you notice?” we model for students that their observations are important and meaningful. When we ask, “What more do you notice?” we model that their initial observations are not enough. When we ask, “Where do you see that?” we model that their observations are best grounded in the work. When we ask interpretative questions such as, “What can you guess about this place?” or “How would you describe this person?” we model that their hypotheses are valuable even without a higher degree in art history. When we ask, “What makes you say that?” we remind them to ground their interpretations in observations. When we offer curatorial interpretations or artists’ quotes and ask them what they think of these ideas, we model that the conversation around art in the galleries is still alive and far from complete. When we ask, “Do you agree or disagree?” (with curatorial or artists’ statements or with other students’ thoughts), prompting them to explain their answers, we model that debate and an openness to multiple interpretations are appropriate and they are capable of it. When we ask, “Do you like it? Why or why not?” we model that their opinions matter. When we ask about how art relates to their own lives, we model that what you see in a museum can have an impact beyond its walls. When we ask students to offer up their own questions about the artwork, we model how they can conduct their own conversations with an artwork – on their own or with a group.

Do Burnham and Kai-Kee really think that questions like these “define a finite horizon of response?” For every single one of these questions, I can imagine an unlimited array of responses. These are the kinds of questions that experienced lookers ask themselves about an artwork without prompting. But what of the groups with the aforementioned preoccupations or inexperience?  Our role as educators for every visitor – not just the experienced lookers – is to model these modes of inquiry. I love Burnham and Kai-Kee’s model for dialogical teaching. In their model, imagined as a four-sided diagram, or diamond, participants in a dialogue move between any of four roles:

  • The mover pushes the dialogue forward with statements or questions.
  • The follower supports the dialogue with evidence, encouragement, or just active listening.
  • The bystander stands back, views the dialogue from afar, perhaps metacognitively.
  • The opposer actively disagrees with another’s point of view. (87-89)

Many viewers would not naturally know how or be willing to take on these roles. Questions can help. When we ask questions, we model the role of the mover for students. When later in an experience (or even in the beginning of one), we ask them to raise their own questions about an artwork, we invite them to be movers. When we ask students to think about what others have said and express their agreement or disagreement we are asking them to be both bystanders and, possibly, opposers. We are modeling the role of listening to the whole of the conversation and stepping in when they have a different opinion or even if they want to agree or support as a follower.

Later in their discussion of this dialogical model, Burnham and Kai-Kee describe what I think of as the most exciting kind of question. If you’ll allow me an extended metaphor, the questions I have already described are the meat-and-potato questions – the questions to facilitate a sustained, filling experience with an artwork. But then there is the Boeuf Bourguignon of questions – the one that has been simmering so long it excites the palate upon contact. The educator has reflected on an artwork for days, weeks, even years, and has come back again and again to a question that she cannot answer, that she wants to hear as many thoughts on as possible. It is “a question that is real for [the teacher], a question she wants to share with the students, and whose answer she does not already know” (91).

In Search of the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ of Questions

Recently, I taught a couple sessions for adults at a Robert Motherwell painting at the RISD Museum.

Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).
Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).

I had the good fortune of being able to research the painting for months. I read Motherwell’s writings, asked a curator at the museum for background on the work, spoke to a conservator about it, and looked at it carefully for extended periods. I was even able to gather with educator colleagues in front of the painting and discuss it. During this latter session, a question came up that none of us could answer definitively. It stuck with me through all my research. I knew I wanted to share it with the participants in my session.

Motherwell was fascinated by collage. When he discovered it, he said, he took to it like a “duck to water.” He said the experience of making collage was like “making beautiful love for the first time.”   The painting I was planning to discuss, according to one curator, “could be read as a translation to another scale of one of his collages.” My colleagues, after seeing his collages, had been perplexed. The painting was not nearly as good as his collages, they agreed. Their question became: Why even make the painting? Why not stick with collage? Indeed, in Motherwell’s writings he describes getting more pleasure out of making collage: “I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play. Which painting, in general, is not, for me, at least…” (Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio). So the question stuck with me. Why even make paintings? I wanted to ask this question because after all my research and time looking at the artwork, I still found it fascinated me.

After a long, free-wheeling, open-ended discussion of the painting, I proposed the question to my first group.  There was silence. Uh-oh, I thought, maybe this question was only interesting to me. Maybe, like Burnham and Kai-Kee suggest, I had asked a question that limited “the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent.” Maybe I had asked a question unrelated to their experience of or interest in the artwork. But I sat with the silence for a few moments, and people began to speak up.

“Perhaps,” one said, “he wanted to make something bigger than collage would allow.”

“Perhaps,” said another, “he couldn’t make as much money from collages.”

“I think,” said yet another, “he could learn something about his collages by making the paintings.”

“I think he needed them for his legacy – to be considered important.”

We laughed about some of the answers, and there were plenty of perplexed looks as we sat with the question. It was another way into the painting. Yes, it was influenced by my own experiences with and interest in the work, but it was an open-ended, genuine, and satisfyingly riddling question and the range of answers took us places we hadn’t yet been in the conversation.

Sometimes no one answers questions like this, and I think that’s OK, too. These questions are modeling something that all questions should model, and I think these questions throw into sharp relief. They model that we are all learners, and we are learning together. We are asking questions because we are genuinely curious about their answers.

 About the Author

JACKIE DELAMATRE: jackie 3museum educator, currently teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, and the Neuberger Museum of Art. Until this summer, she taught at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim Museum for nearly a decade. She has coordinated research on the effects of looking at art on critical thinking skills, founded programs for teens as well as babies and their caregivers, and written for the Journal of Museum Education as well as several museum and museum education blogs, most recently for Museum Questions.  She holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. from New York University in Fiction. She is at work on a novel. 

Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool

Written by David Bowles, Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cross-posted with Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.

This blog post is about listening and reflection. As a museum educator, my job is to listen. On a good tour, I learn about as much about art from visitors as they learn from me. I also learn something about their lives. But often it seems like these moments evaporate. So for the past two years, I have been posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from my gallery experiences on Facebook.

I limit myself to one moment per tour. I try to stick to the facts, and not interpret the child’s ideas in my own words. I describe the context succinctly, and stick to a few sentences at most. I imagine reflecting on the teaching experience with someone who has never heard of the field of museum education – so no jargon allowed. When it makes sense, I include a visual of the artwork that sparked the teachable moment.

The moments I capture tend to be funny, which is why they make good Facebook posts. But they also highlight important moments of discovery, and often mark pivot points in gallery conversations. I try to focus on what Piaget might have called moments of disequilibrium – those wonderful, maddening moments when you discover for yourself that what you thought was simple, is not.

Here are three such experiences, some thoughts on what I’ve learned about school tours and student visitors along the way, and tips for anyone interested in giving this a try.

1.  Fear of the Unknown


“A 7th grade student on a tour in the Ancient Egypt galleries this morning pointed out that he would rather be chased by mummies than velociraptors.”

I think the young man’s logic was that mummies chasing him through the Museum were likely to shuffle along slowly, while raptors are nimble pack hunters (as anyone who saw the kitchen scene from the original Jurassic Park can attest). He makes a valid point. This comment sparked a stimulating conversation among the class about fear of the unknown. We sat in the dimly lit gallery surrounded by sarcophagi and other tomb equipment unearthed along the Nile, and other classmates chimed in with their honest reactions to the unfamiliarity of the experience. After several other students also expressed fear, one young lady allowed that she “sort of liked being scared.” I asked her if it felt “safe scary” and she nodded. The young man whose comment started the conversation smiled at her and nodded as well.

These students feel slightly scared by the unknown Egyptian galleries filled with mummies and other ancient artifacts. But they are attracted to the unknown. The unknown in a museum setting, like the unknown in movies, is “safe scary.” For them, what is interesting about this space at the Met is not the connections they can make to their school curriculum, or the comparison between the ancient and the contemporary, but the opportunity to exist temporarily and safely in a space outside of the safety and routine of the everyday.

2. Time Travel


“6th grade student, after discussing a sculpture of the historical Buddha: “So, is the Buddha like the Doctor? Doctor Who I mean.” Mind expanded.”

If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, close this browser and go watch some. The Doctor is an extravagant, brilliant, and charismatic alien who explores the universe trying to help the helpless, ease suffering, and generally leave things better than he found them. His ship, the TARDIS, can travel anywhere in space or time. Since he seems to like Great Britain, he comes to Earth a lot. Coincidentally, the show is produced by the BBC, so the Doctor is invariably British, as are his plucky human companions. The Doctor is a troubled hero, whose views on the universe are often transcendent as well as maddening.

On some level, the young lady who asked me if the Buddha was anything like the Doctor understood that the story of the Buddha, like the story of Doctor Who, is about creating an impossible narrative of characters who can save the world. On another hand, she may have been reaching for a way to connect historical information about the Buddha (i.e. he really existed, he was a prince, he traveled throughout India and Nepal, etc.) with the more incredible aspects of his story (i.e. his description of concepts like samsara and nirvana, his awakening or enlightenment, etc.) She seemed interested in the Buddha not as a representative of another culture but as a superhero, an embodiment of the type of figure that could save the world. In short, I think she saw a role model.

3. Love and Marriage


“2nd grade student this morning after hearing that Theseus ditches Ariadne after they escape from the Minotaur: “Well, maybe he was too young for marriage. I mean, you shouldn’t marry someone you just met. You should like, get to know each other first. But it was still mean of him.”

Like the Greek myths that inspired it, this discussion offered an interesting analysis of human behavior. After telling these students the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, I asked students what they thought of the story’s ending. The first flurry of responses focused on abandonment and notions of fairness; everyone agreed that Theseus made a bad choice. Well, nearly everyone. I pushed for dissent, and asked if anyone had another point of view. This young lady had been sitting silently for a while, and when she did speak it was with energy.

On some level she was trying to make Theseus’ decision to abandon Ariadne acceptable. On a deeper level, I wonder if this student, like the young lady who compared the Buddha to the Doctor, was thinking about role models. As you can see in the comments left by my Facebook friends, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ explores these ideas very effectively as well. Whether or not this student had seen the movie (and I suspect she had), it was a powerful reminder to me about making room for respectful dissent when interpreting works of art. Students really absorb the lessons that they learn from movies, so it makes good sense to keep tabs on what those lessons are – and what ambiguities they might offer.

So what patterns have I noticed about kids’ interests at the Met?

The Unknown

Many of these conversations involve discovering new frontiers, and the thrill and fear that accompany real, authentic exploration. As long as the fear of the new doesn’t overwhelm the group, it can be very productive if acknowledged. There’s a lot to be said about the transformative power of discomfort; just ask an oyster.

Role Models

Humans are social animals; we look to others for tips on how to behave. Many students are searching for role models, and some have found them in fictional characters. These young people are looking for ways to connect these characters and their worlds to the real world around them, and they will do so at the first opportunity.

Contemporary Connections

Museum educators often talk about contemporary connections: strategies or concepts that help visitors understand something unfamiliar by tying it to something personally familiar from today. When students initiate their own contemporary connections, they often do so in unpredictable ways that can be surprising, humorous, or subversive. There is something to be said for letting students make their own connections instead of doing it for them. Kids will bring pop culture with them into the museum regardless, so ignoring its power means missing opportunities for authentic discussion.

Keeping up-to-date on popular trends among young learners can really help make genuine connections that make complex ideas accessible. It can also highlight key misunderstandings about objects or the stories objects tell. For example, the idea that you should get to know your future partner well before committing is a very particular approach to marriage, presumably not one endorsed in most ancient societies.

Some Takeaways for Museum Educators

1. Listen. Really Listen.

Focus on what students are really saying when they respond to your questions, not just what you think they mean. This is hard. Use the words they use to define academic terms and abstract concepts. If a student’s comment strikes you as snarky or disruptive, lean in to it. Find out more. Let them know you’re interested in their thinking. Give them space to explain. If they don’t want to explain to you, consider asking them to turn and talk with some of their peers. Listen to what you hear, and think about how it connects to your own ideas about the content or lesson.

2. Let students drive the conversation.

My boss sometimes talks about how effective museum educators need to be a ‘Guide on the Side’ rather than a ‘Sage on the Stage,’ and this is vital to effective gallery teaching. Use a light touch to keep the conversation moving. Stay goal-oriented, but don’t get so attached to your goals that you lose sight of the importance of the process of discovery for your participants.

3. Ask for divergent thinking

Seek out dissenting ideas so that you are encouraging participants to think both deeply and individually. Some works of art open themselves up to a wide range of possible interpretations without ever committing to just one – examples might include many modern and contemporary art objects. Other works of art, like a Gupta period Buddhist sculpture or ancient Roman sarcophagi, have very specific meanings that their makers intended; there are incorrect understandings of some works of art, and that is important for us to acknowledge. Those misunderstandings are often great starting points for real inquiry if you can help students ground their misunderstandings in the visual elements of the artwork! Either way, seeking out divergent thinking empowers students to discover and craft the complexity of interpretation for themselves.

4. Reflective Practice needs others

I think the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after having done it) is an important part of professional practice. Both are hard to do, and both benefit greatly when other people can be sounding boards. I find these status updates help me slow down and think about the choices I’ve made. Better yet, doing so gives me immediate informal feedback.

Give it a try!

About the Author

BowlesDAVID BOWLES: Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  David oversees the strategic planning, staff and volunteer training, program implementation, and evaluation of all aspects of guided K-12 school tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In collaboration with colleagues, he also develops resources for educators, in particular for educators who are bringing students to the Museum on guided or self-guided visits. David also teaches across a range of audience areas, including K-12 educator programs and adult gallery talks. Before this, he worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as Manager of School Programs. He earned his M.S.Ed from Bank Street College and a B.A. with Honours from McGill University. David’s postings on this site are his own and don’t necessarily represent the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.