Category Archives: Teaching Tools

Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: A Conversation

By Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara

In an essay reflecting on how his past trauma influenced his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, writer Geoffrey Mak said, “Our lives are not going back to normal, as one way of being has been abruptly and unilaterally aborted, without our consent. Instead, we’re left with the grief for tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars evaporated, and a future of promise that was wiped out for an entire generation.”

Mak speaks to something profound – a collective trauma – that many people are struggling to comprehend, the magnitude of which is still beyond our ability to envision or understand because it is ongoing. In our field, we’re grappling with acknowledging that loss alongside a desire to do what we can to ensure a better future. In light of this, four of us gathered over Zoom to talk about what we are calling trauma-aware art museum education.  We wanted to figure out how we, as educators, can be more prepared to encounter trauma when the public returns to museums and how we can cultivate safe experiences for visitors to process the effects of these unprecedented times. We are sharing the transcript of the first convening of our trauma-aware art museum education (T-AAME) group.

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Talking about trauma-aware art museum education via Zoom. From upper left, clockwise: Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara.

Laura: Could everyone go around and introduce themselves and then we can jump into the topic of trauma-aware art museum education?  Andrew, could you start us off?

Andrew: I’m Andrew Palamara, the Associate Director of Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). I manage the training, evaluation, and recruitment of docents at the CAM.

Emily: I’m Emily Wiskera, Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art. I oversee educational programming for visitors with disabilities.

Stephen: I’m Stephen Legari, Program Officer for Art Therapy at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). I facilitate museum-based art therapy groups, supervise interns, manage our community art studio, and collaborate on research.

Laura: And, I’m Laura Evans. I’m a professor at the University of North Texas and I run the Art Museum Education Certificate program. I am so happy we could all be together right now, thinking about this important topic. Maybe, before we jump in, we can talk about the terminology. “Trauma” is a pretty heavy term. How are we defining trauma in relation to COVID-19?  Can we explain why we are using the words trauma-aware?  What does that mean?

Stephen: Trauma is both a heavy term and a prevalent one. Our discussion around what it means to become trauma-aware as museum staff, particularly educators, is to both acknowledge with sincerity and respect that trauma is everywhere. But trauma is also highly subjectively experienced and expressed. Museums, by their nature, are environments where people’s collective and individual narratives are elicited and we cannot ignore, in good conscience, that this includes stories that are traumatic.

Laura: And, a result of this pandemic will inevitably include trauma: major traumas and micro-traumas. As you said, Stephen, we cannot, in good conscience, ignore these experiences of trauma when we return to our museums.

Emily: But, I think we should also keep in mind that not everyone will experience this pandemic as traumatic. For some, school and business closures may have removed them from otherwise toxic or trauma-inducing environments. Others may be experiencing multiple layers of trauma, as we are seeing with the tragic rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases. Experiencing trauma is an almost universal part of the human experience. But as in all situations, context and resources play a role. We should also be aware that in-depth processing of trauma likely won’t be immediate. We begin to work through trauma and start the process of healing when we feel emotionally safe to do so.

Laura: And, we can play a role in creating those safe spaces. But, before we talk about what that might look like, Andrew and Emily, do you want to tell us how and why you started thinking about trauma-aware art museum education and why you think it is important that we explore this right now?

Andrew: In January 2020, the Learning & Interpretation team at the CAM went through a half-day training on trauma-informed practice with Amy Sullivan, a local counselor with a private practice called Rooted Compassion. It revolved around understanding our own personal trauma before we begin to understand it in others. Once the pandemic hit the U.S., something clicked with me: this might be the most urgent time to formalize a trauma-aware approach to what we do at the museum. This is going to take a psychic toll on our personal lives and how we think about going to public spaces going forward. I reached out to Emily to see what she thought about it.

Emily: When Andrew reached out to me, I had been considering how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting our communities and how the unique assets of the museum could be best used in response. Andrew’s thoughts about the public experiencing the pandemic as trauma connected with research that I had just stumbled upon. This early study out of China revealed a significant increase in acute Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms related to the pandemic. It seemed only natural to me that if the public was experiencing a change, that museums needed to adapt their strategies to be relevant and responsive to the experience of the public.

Laura: When Andrew and Emily came to me with this idea, I thought the perfect person to give some perspective was Stephen because of his training and his unique role as an arts therapist at the MMFA. Stephen, how does the MMFA already consider trauma in its programs and in its interactions with visitors?

Stephen: We have a community oriented practice in our education department  that goes back more than 20 years. The model of project development was founded on co-creation with community and clinical partners. In this way, becoming informed about the needs of groups who may have been impacted by trauma grew organically. These could be folks living with mental-health problems, people with complex migration histories, people negatively impacted by their experiences as patients and the list goes on. Each collaboration taught us something new. Fast-forward to 2017 and we felt equipped to have a full-time program dedicated to actual therapeutic work.

Laura: Have any of us already had a trauma-aware experience at a museum or know of someone that has?  Maybe one that you witnessed?  If so, what was that like for you or for them?

Andrew: One of my colleagues, Sara Birkofer, led a discussion with a local art therapist of an exhibition by photographer Sohrab Hura called The Levee, and we explored the intersection of emotion and mental health through Sohrab’s photographs. We started with a quick mindfulness exercise, then talked about how the brain processes trauma. She guided us as we walked through the exhibition, which featured several dozen photographs of Sohrab’s travels through the American South as one artwork. That prompted us to think about how we gravitate toward images that reflect our mental state. It was really profound to hear how other people processed their life experiences through another person’s art, and I was floored by how quickly we established an environment of trust and openness with each other. Coincidentally, right before I attended the program, I had learned that one of my docents had passed away, and this conversation really helped me process that news in a meaningful way.

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A roman sarcophagus depicting a battle scene. Soldiers and horses clamor over each other around the marble sides of the sarcophagus. Dallas Museum of Art.

Emily: For me, a trauma-aware museum experience starts when the lived experience of the visitor takes priority over art history. Educators may drop in bits of historical information, but their primary goal is to encourage participants to build personally meaningful pathways to connect to art, and in turn, themselves. I witnessed this in action as an intern when my former colleague, Danielle Schulz, was guiding a discussion around a Roman sarcophagus. Danielle encouraged group conversation simply by having participants start by describing what they noticed. The conversation developed naturally, leading the group to discuss who would be entombed in a sarcophagus that depicted a battle scene. When Danielle asked, “What emotions does this object evoke for you?,” one participant shared that it reminded her of her daughter who passed away as an infant. The participant expressed that with the death of her daughter, she was mourning all of her daughter’s unrealized potential. She connected this feeling with the grown soldiers on the sarcophagus, wondering if the scene was a reflection of who the entombed person was, or what they might have been.

Laura: I have had communal experiences that are similar to what you two have just described but I’ve also had solitary experiences in art museums that have allowed me to process trauma. I was severely anorexic in high school and, after getting help, went through recovery for many years after. When I was doing my PhD, I focused on Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, THIN, which is about women in treatment for their eating disorders. I first saw the exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art and I walked through the show crying. Even though I wasn’t there with anyone, I saw lots of other girls and women crying, holding hands, patting one another on the back, and it made me feel connected to them in some way. I remember catching eyes with a guard and she gave me a sympathetic, understanding smile that made me feel like it was okay to continue processing in that space. I read through the visitor comment book and it was full of narratives of women who were similarly moved by the art. Even though I thought I had recovered by that point, that experience helped me heal in a way I didn’t know I needed.

Hearing about and talking through these stories was helpful to me in thinking about experiences we’ve already witnessed or participated in that we might consider to be trauma-aware.  I know this is a seedling of an idea still, but what do we all think some of the characteristics are of what we are calling “trauma-aware art museum education” from the museum educator’s perspective?  What could it look like?  Sound like?  Feel like?

Andrew: In my review of trauma-informed resources that I’ve come across, two key qualities have emerged: empowerment and connection. In museum education, these are givens. We’ve already embraced teaching practices that empower visitors to have a voice in their interpretation of art and their experience in a museum. With that, we put a great deal of emphasis on social connection, whether it’s active (a dialogue with visitors about art) or passive (watching a performance). But I think there’s a new urgency to these characteristics in a post COVID-19 world. More than ever, we need to make space in our programming to empower the public, as though they are not just recipients of our content, but active participants that find personal meaning in museums and the art inside of it. That goes hand in hand with our need to be socially connected to each other. I think we have tacitly acknowledged that by visiting museums and caring about culture; in other words, we go to museums because we want to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. I think we saw this in the examples we just shared at the CAM, the DMA, and at Smith. Now, I think art museum educators have to make that social connection more direct and active, and we’ll have to be compassionate and creative in how we carry that out in practice.

Having said that, it’s not all about empowerment and connection. We have to consider qualities like building safety and trust with our visitors, resilience, patience, awareness of others in relation to ourselves, and reciprocity among many, many others. Emily, you’ve thought a lot about how the science behind trauma relates to what we do in museum education. Where have you seen connections between trauma and these ideas of empowerment and connection?

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A diagram on the brain, with the caption “Brain Structures Involved in Dealing with Fear and Stress”. Prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and amygdala are labeled. image credit: NIH Medical Arts.

Emily: There are a few key attributes of trauma that inform the trauma-aware approach to museum education. First, is that trauma is not stored in the brain in the same way as other memories. Instead of being stored as narratives in our minds, traumatic events are imprinted on the amygdala through the emotional impact and sensory information experienced during the time of trauma- fragments of sound, smell, sights, taste or touch. A trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new emotional and sensory experiences that contradict the experience of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection.

A second important note is that trauma is pre-verbal. Reliving traumatic events often shuts down the speech center of the brain, making it difficult to express the trauma in words. This information has great ramifications to our practice as museum educators. In our programs we have traditionally explored ideas through discussion. If we want to provide visitors with productive ways to express their experience, we need to open our practice to include more visceral, emotional, or sensory-based modes of engagement and response, rather than purely verbal ones. The good news is that a trauma-aware approach to museum education is in line with Universal Design principles of multi-modal engagement and is beneficial for all, not just those who have experienced trauma.

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Left: A group of five adults use their bodies to  interpret the lines of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 29.  Right: Within a group of seated participants, a woman puts her nose up to a clear plastic scent jar which is held by the program facilitator. Dallas Museum of Art.

Stephen: It is to ask the question, how can art and art education/the art educator help facilitate experiences of containment, reassurance and safety? Trauma makes a better lens than a label. If we use trauma as a lens to appreciate both the intense difficulties some of  our visitors faced and also the brilliance of the resilience to deal with those difficulties, then we can better adapt to them and encounter  them with some kind of genuine presence. Seeing people as traumatized is simply pathologizing them and risks contributing to that trauma.

Laura: “A better lens than a label.” That is a good frame. What could trauma-aware art museum education look like from the visitor’s perspective?  Sound like?  Feel like?

Stephen: I am encouraged by what Ross Laird calls safe-enough museum experiences. If we accept that a great deal of museum content and exchange can be provocative for the visitor, then we have a framework of how to receive and manage those experiences. From the visitor’s perspective, I would encounter staff that are warm and genuine in their welcome. I would feel included even if it’s hard for me, as a visitor, to return that same measure of friendliness. I would be given some fair warning that museum content and activities can be challenging and that I might feel things. I might also be given some information about the limitation of the experience, i.e. that this is not therapy. And finally, I would encounter some flexibility in the pacing of the experience and in the attitudes of the staff who themselves can model calmness even if things get a little emotional.

Laura: Why do we think museums and art museum educators, in particular, are good places and people to do this kind of work?

Emily: The unique assets of the museum make it the perfect place for healing to begin. Since trauma affects the speech center of the brain, our public will likely be seeking out non-verbal modes to explore and express their lived experience. Visual art, a non-verbal mode of communication, is a natural fit. Another unique aspect of the museum is its ability to be a location for social interaction. Museums have moved beyond simply acting as stewards of objects or mausoleums of the past. Our value, as institutions and educators, lies in our ability to bring people together. Using art as a tool to make individual connections and share ideas, the museum provides an environment where we can be vulnerable and build social bonds. Socialization is our most fundamental survival strategy, but it is exactly this which breaks down in most forms of mental suffering and it is what we have lost during these months of pandemic isolation.

Laura: Yes, what makes museums so unique – our objects – also makes them ideal spaces for healing connections. We can all relate to objects; we all have a relationship with objects in our lives; we have all had a profound connection to an object. And, moving around, walking through, wheeling through a museum, coming close to look at a detail in a painting, moving around a sculpture; the physical movement that is required of touring a museum and looking at art can be helpful to process things too.  Elliott, Lissa and Lilit do a beautiful job of emphasizing the importance of movement in museum education in their new book.

Andrew: I see this as an extension of the DEAI work that educators in the field have prioritized in recent years. Through scholars like Paulo Friere and bell hooks and resources like the MASS Action project and Museums Are Not Neutral movement started on this site, museum educators have acknowledged the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our society and our cultural institutions. Our work requires more empathy and action on our part to ensure that museums are truly for all of our communities. Today, we still see these inequalities as communities of color are disproportionately affected by the spread and treatment of COVID-19. Just like the Museums Respond to Ferguson movement in 2015, I think this is another moment in time when we can put our social obligations to the public in clearer view.

Laura: For all of us, it’s important to make a distinction between art museum education and art therapy. This trauma-aware approach can be therapeutic but isn’t intended to be therapy, right? In Museum Objects, Health and Healing, Cowan, Laird, and McKeown write about how museum staff can, “Facilitate the therapeutic — but don’t do therapy.”  This is a really important distinction that I want to take some pains to highlight. Stephen, can you elucidate some of the differences between art museum education and art therapy in museums?  Like, what do you want art museum educators to know about why and how their work is different than your work, for example?

Stephen: My colleague who runs our well-being program and I have had to really tease out what’s the difference between a program that’s well-being focused and a program that is therapeutic, that is a therapy program. As an arts therapist, what I want to help people with the problems that are present for them and use the museum and its resources as a tool to achieve some therapeutic goals. Sometimes that means being really present with the problem and staying with the participants as those layers are being revealed.  In art therapy we are taking more risks and letting people know that discomfort and dealing with stuckness will be part of their journey. Whereas what my colleague aims to do is help people arrive and build positive experiences that are strengths-based, resilience-based, and pleasure-based. She and her collaborators meet people in the here and now and offer new experiences that help people leave feeling refreshed by their encounters with art and art-making. I can only imagine what a valuable resource that will be post-COVID; to feel refreshed by art and the people facilitating it.

Andrew: That brings up a question that I’ve had. Do you feel like there’s anything that museums have traditionally done in their educational programs that is not trauma-aware and we could dissuade each other from doing?

Stephen: I would say that any activity that prioritizes the information or the teaching, or even the outcome, over the participant experience is not trauma-aware. The sharing of participant’s material without their consent is not trauma-aware. And perhaps the presumption that our museums are for everybody is not trauma-aware. These are colonial institutions that have historically excluded an awful lot of voices and there is a  need to be actively working on that history in the present in real-time.

Laura: I know you have The Art Hive at the MMFA. Can you tell us more about it and why an open studio like the Hive could be important in the wake of COVID-19?  Why might this be a good thing for museum educators to implement post-pandemic?

ArtHive
Looking through a set of honeycomb shaped shelves, for a view of the Hive art studio. The room contains tables and chairs and the back wall is storage for a variety of art supplies. Photo by Christine Guest, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

Stephen: An Art Hive, or an open studio, I feel is a really positive, low-cost response to a diversity of needs. We know that giving visitors the opportunity to externalise their experience at the museum in some way is helpful and participatory. There are a range of responses that people have and need from art, some people need really structured experiences because it helps them feel re-contained and some people feel really encroached upon by the limitations of a structured experience. An open studio can accommodate both and really emphasize the autonomy of the visitor to make what they need to or seek the support they need to work through a creative response.

Laura: I love the idea of museums embracing the open studio concept in the wake of the pandemic, where people can use their hands to make what they feel moved to make and where they are tacitly or explicitly socializing with others in the museum. Like you said, Stephen, it is low cost and low risk but, potentially, high reward. Maybe now is a good time to wrap-up and pick this up again at another time?

Stephen: This is such a valuable conversation to be having across museums and across disciplines. I feel there is something tangible that will come of this in terms of our own education towards becoming trauma-aware and hopefully be of use to others.

Laura: I couldn’t agree more. It has been a true pleasure to connect during this time of disconnection and about such important work too. Let’s keep this conversation going. It feels like we are at the precipice of something that we should keep exploring. I hope there are others out there who are interested in thinking about this, talking about this, with us and that they will get in touch. Should we meet back in a few weeks to develop some more practical suggestions for how art museum educators can develop and facilitate trauma-aware programs?

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About the Authors

LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.  Evans received her Ph.D. in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu

STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at slegari@mbamtl.org

ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at andrew.palamara@cincyart.org

EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org

Featured Image: Family activities at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Photo by Caroline Hayeur

Playing Authentically: Reflecting on Child-Led Gallery Experiences

Written by Allison Rogers Andreen

In my first blog post in 2018, Playing with Authority: Reflecting on Child-Led Gallery Experiences, I enjoyed exploring the concept of control as it applies to working with early learners in the museum. I asserted that, when trusted to bear the burden of control for themselves, and empowered to do so, children are fully capable of leading their own learning opportunities. In this post, I’m interested in delving more deeply into the idea of authentic learning. That is, learning driven by respecting young learners for who they are and what they can contribute. 

Lilting echoes of giggles and flip-flops slapping the travertine floors floating around me like butterflies. I question my decision to give free reign to these families in the largest gallery in the museum. It’s too late to make changes, but it makes me nervous that I can’t see and gather everyone easily. I do a few laps around the gallery, and everything seems to be alright. The more controlling part of me would prefer an easy line of sight for each participant, a connection reminding them that I’m “in charge,” whatever that means. 

I pull a large canvas bag from under the bench. It’s lumpy, full of irregular things. Something rattles, something clinks. I retrieve each object from the bag, laying them out on the bench in a neat grid. I spent the entire weekend prior to this moment considering these objects, searching through museum storage cabinets and perusing my shelves and drawers at home, looking for the perfect articles. Compelling, but everyday. Sturdy. Tactile. A teacup, a rain stick, a tartan scarf, a wooden boat, a blue dinosaur, a crocheted cactus, a tree disc, a sand dollar, a floral bonnet, a magnifying glass, an empty notebook, an embroidered dish towel.

“Alright, my friends! Come gather ‘round!” I whisper/yell into each gallery space. As usual, some families are ready while others are still deeply entrenched in their first activity. I whisper, “whenever you’re ready!” to those families, assuring them that it’s alright to continue exploring where they are. After a quick pull from The Wiggle Jar and five rounds of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” at increasingly quick intervals, we’re ready. Breathless from wiggly exertions, I try to explain the next activity before the children can grasp their objects of interest. It feels like I’m standing at the start of a race, participants pawing at the ground, angling for a better position. 

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The Wiggle Jar and some selected prompts.

I ask each family to choose one of the objects, then take it back out into the galleries and find an artwork that fits with it. It can fit for any reason (color, content, smell, etc.). There are no correct or incorrect answers. The only rule: when they find an artwork, they must connect their new object to it in some way. There’s a mad rush for the dinosaur and the boat, and I calmly remind a couple of crestfallen four-year-olds and a sullen adult that they can do this several times with several different objects. “Come back in a few minutes!” I suggest. 

We disperse. I pick up an object as well. I get a laugh or two as I meander through the galleries wearing a bright floral bonnet, searching for a sunny painting. I circulate among the families, listening to stories, making jokes, asking questions. An adult worries they’ve misheard the instructions. A 6-year-old can’t decide which artwork to choose and plops down between the two. 

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Looking for a sunny sky and a tall tale.

A little boy with brown curls draws maps in the notebook, dotted paths connecting artworks. I welcome his interpretation of the game, taking joy in his deliberate marks and thoughtful travels. The sky-blue dinosaur goes on many journeys, resting camouflaged up in the sky above Venice, preying on sheep at the edge of a forest, and hitching a ride on a storm-worn sailboat. We share our stories with one another, marveling about all the different ways we’ve used our toys. We decide to try tying our stories together. It’s disjointed, but it works!

After the program ends, I locate an errant teacup sitting quietly at the feet of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait, filled with tiny scraps of crumpled paper. Reflecting on the day’s outcomes, I remember several discussions and trainings from my years at the museum. In a group of docents or other adults discussing methods for engaging early learners in the galleries, the same questions always emerge:

How do I communicate on their level?

What if they don’t understand the terms I use?

How do I make the subject relevant to their interest and ability to comprehend?

All of this is fine and good, but when do we tell them the REAL information?

How do I communicate with THEM? How do I share MY information with THEM? Sure, playing games is fun, but when do we teach them the real actual facts? The perspective of these questions interests me, because they immediately pose an us/them dichotomy between the teacher and the child. The questions imply that there’s a specific, correct chunk of information for each artwork. That people surely can’t leave without knowing this and such fact. But there’s no pause to question what the children and adults in their group might bring to the discussion, and whether the group will value the facts we have to give. These questions fail to ask what is, arguably, the bigger question: 

How can we, as facilitators, enable a flow of information between, around, and through one another? And by the way, since when is fun not serious?

We should interrogate the idea of “dumbing down” what one might believe are the important facts about an artwork, and instead assume competence with every learner. It isn’t productive to presume that children aren’t capable of exploring complex topics. It is even less productive to suppose that children will always be interested in the same information or the same engagement strategies we have used in the past. 

Instead, it’s our job to facilitate that complexity, to find multiple entry points to the discussion, and to implement methods of approach that respond to the developmental needs of each child. We do not give up after one try. There is no one complete museum visit, and our visitors will never be done learning and exploring, so why feel stressed about the nature of the knowledge they take away?

In fact, constructing opportunities for dialogue and play early on and then pivoting to say, “alright, now that all that silliness is over, here’s what’s REALLY going on,” totally negates the knowledge stitched together in the early parts of the conversation. Humor, play, and fun are serious work, particularly for young children. As a method for working out ideas, practicing empathy, and growing comfortable with new skills, play is vital. When we set up a division between “real” learning and “just playing,” we’re disrespecting the very acts by which children learn. What outcomes are we trying to achieve when we do this? 

Every contribution is a piece of knowledge. Every piece of knowledge is important. On my checklist of learning, there is no hierarchy of fact, other than what best serves the learner in front of me. And so, in conceptualizing lessons for my early learners, I add another question to the mix: 

What environment do my families and I need in order to learn authentically? 

In my experience, we need the following things:

  • Novelty 
  • Flexibility
  • Understanding

We need novelty to keep us guessing, flexibility to allow for new explorations and insights, and understanding so that we can better communicate our ideas with one another. Everything else, all the materials and instructions and scaffolding, is icing. 

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Found objects, puzzles, and provocations for play.

By using our found objects as an open-ended platform, families looked, noticed, learned, and shared with one another in their own ways. There were very few rules and even fewer actual constraints for the families to follow, out of which blossomed opportunities for authentic, personal, learning. Learning about self, boundaries, communication, laughter, surprises, comfort, confusion, and, sure, throw in some early literacy and visual analysis skills while you’re at it. 

In this environment, we all get to explore and share something new. We all get to be teachers and learners at one time. We can trust our youngest learners to take on the complex reins of facilitation when we provide them with the tools to figure it out. Choose a toy, find an artwork, tell a story.

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About the Author

Alli RogersALLI ROGERS ANDREEN: Community Engagement Coordinator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She develops and collaborates on a variety of programs, and works primarily with multi-generational groups, teens, and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She thoroughly enjoys collecting resources, capturing strange smells, making sound suits, and crowing like a rooster in the galleries. She received her MA in Museum Education with a Certificate in Art Museum Education from the University of North Texas and her B.F.A. in Studio Art from Texas State University.

Finding Place: Art, Power, and Community through the Portland Art Museum’s Teacher Leadership Initiative

Written by Hana Layson (Head of Youth & Educator Programs) with Laura Bartroff (Director of Communications) and reposted from the Portland Art Museum’s News blog.

Last month, over 70 educators from across grade levels and disciplines gathered to experience the Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR) as a space of creativity, learning, and leadership. The event, Finding Place: Art, Power, and Community, is part of an initiative to nurture teacher leaders at the Museum through the 22-member Teacher Advisory Council, year-round professional development programs, and the Summer Teacher Leadership Fellows Program. The initiative receives generous support from the Oregon Community Foundation.

The Finding Place program was planned and facilitated by educators for educators. Twelve members of the Teacher Advisory Council began meeting last October to brainstorm a way to meaningfully celebrate the Council’s fifth anniversary. Through a series of open conversations, the group identified place, belonging, and equity as some of the most vital issues in education and art today. They decided to design an experience that would encourage social and emotional connections as well as intellectual inquiry. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted the experience to be joyful—an opportunity for educators to step away from the tedium of standardized tests and administrative meetings and to reconnect with the joy of learning, creating, and being part of a community.

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The day began with a story circles workshop for former and current Teacher Advisory Council members, facilitated by Charlene Martinez, Associate Director of Integrative Learning at Oregon State University and a current Council member. Story circles are a popular educational tool used in community organizing and arts-based social justice efforts. They offer a great way to build empathy and relationships quickly. For this session, participants were asked to respond to the prompt, “Think of a time when you did or did not feel you belonged to this nation.” Council members deepened their friendships with each other and came away with a new pedagogical technique to share with students and colleagues. As Dawn Nelson, a Language Arts teacher at Forest Grove High School, reflected afterwards, “The story circles not only gave me so much inspiration that day, but also when I used them in my classroom, they were so powerful—such a great way for a serious subject to inspire hope, joy, and community.”

Following the morning workshop, Teacher Advisory Council members opened up the program and welcomed all interested educators to the keynote presentation and a series of workshops inspired by the exhibition the map is not the territory. Dr. Natchee Blu Barnd, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies at Oregon State University, engaged participants with interactive activities to better understand decolonization, land and displacement, and how to implement concrete strategies for the classroom. Seven Council members facilitated small-group workshops connecting art and decolonization through a variety of disciplines, including movement and music, medicine and postcolonial literature, ink drawing and chipboard-sculpture-making. During one session, educators explored the exhibition independently, responding to prompts that encouraged reflection and dialogue.

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Along with the deep thinking and conversations, educators also played. They filled in bingo cards that asked them to “Take a selfie with someone you just met” and “Discuss what you love most about teaching.” They posed before a gold-sequined curtain at the photo booth. They shared a meal and conversation and laughter.

In building teachers as leaders within the Museum and their own schools, the Teacher Leadership Initiative further supports the Museum’s efforts to integrate the arts into classroom teaching.

“When we began the planning process for this event there was an emphasis on being welcomed and respected as collaborators,” said Lilly Windle, a visual art teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland. “Through a commitment to listening and building on shared ideas, we made progress, learned and built a program that kept the original vision of connection, joy, collaboration, community and power, clear and at the forefront.”

The continuum of empowering educators was evident as the inaugural Teacher Leadership Fellows joined the Teacher Leadership Council, and participated in hands-on, collaborative resource-sharing during the symposium. As 2018 Fellow and H.B. Lee Middle School teacher Franky Stebbins observed, the planning process and final program were “a reminder that the leaders I respect and appreciate the most are those who are DOING—who are willing to lead, but also jump in, be vulnerable, and co-create.”

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“For me personally, it felt grounding to experience a high-fidelity educator workshop addressing the many layers of connecting with the land and having Indian Country be visible,” said Carrie Brown, a teacher at the Native Montessori Preschool in Portland Public Schools. “So often, our Native families and students are invisible in university education courses and workshops. Much gratitude to the Portland Art Museum for hosting this workshop and supporting the exhibition the map is not the territory.”

Playing with Authority: Reflecting on Child-Led Gallery Experiences

Written by Alli Rogers Andreen

My skin is clammy, sweating as I powerwalk back to the studios, cursing my inability to have everything set out and finished prior to the morning of a program, any program. Why is that so difficult for me? I am mildly out of breath as I reach the check-in table, alphabetized nametags placed in a precise grid pattern, waiting for their owners. I reach down and turn one nametag a millimeter clockwise, perfecting its position. I ignore the part of me that asks why I bothered, considering what’s about to come flying down the hallway. I tell that more reasonable self to zip it, that I am a Well-Put-Together Museum-Education-Goddess and that everything must be perfect for my preschoolers. If I say it enough, maybe someday it will be true.

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There’s always time for a pre-program selfie, right?

The Museum, normally quiet and still, echoes with the cacophonous chaos of 5-year-old sandals slapping on the white oak floors. Children break into sprints, running ahead of their out-of-breath, resigned adults, grabbing their nametags and transitioning into Studio A in a whirl of crumpled stickers and juice boxes. “We’ll get started in a few minutes!” I sing into the room. I receive a polite nod from one adult and complete disregard from the pack of feral children systematically dismantling the carefully staged playing area. A woman with shoulder-length grey hair checks her phone. A man in his work clothes crouches near a boy in blue shorts, sorting through felt shapes to stick to the tactile wall.

To pass the time, I rehearse The Plan in my head: Greet the people, go over Museum Manners, follow-the-leader, story time, gallery activities, done. At 5-past the start time, I walk into Studio A and calmly request that my friends “help their toys find their homes” and meet me at the big felt tree. We’re ready to begin. Children bounce up and down in front of me, ringlets and ribbons flying. A little boy rolls an orange matchbox car back and forth on his arm. A girl holds a plastic dinosaur limply by its head.

I take the opportunity to give a little bit of context. “Adult friends!” I say, “please prepare yourselves to do just as much adventuring as your child companions. We’re going to be doing lots of teamwork today!” I’m met with a mix of reactions, ranging from puzzled to thrilled. “Alright, friends! Please raise your hand if you remembered to bring your adult with you today.” A smattering of giggles as small hands raise. “Wonderful! Please find your adult and grab onto them tight. Don’t let them escape!” It amuses me how many children and adults are tickled by the idea that it’s the adults we have to watch out for. Little do they know how true that often is.

We follow-the-leader through the hallways, children latched onto their adults to prevent a getaway. We are soldiers marching, birds flying from branch to branch, elephants swinging their long trunks, and sideways-scuttling crabs. At the gallery entrance, I give everyone the traditional 10+ seconds of unfettered wiggling (followed by bonus seconds for my more wiggly friends). I take note of the fact that most of the adults choose not to wiggle along and I wonder how I look to them, flailing my arms and doing the can-can. I experience a brief moment of self-consciousness before continuing.

Into the gallery we flood, using our walking feet and holding onto our adults, walking as slow as turtles so that we can look at all the sculptures before finding a cozy place to settle down with a book. We play the traditional dance of sitting close enough, but not too close, finding windows, sitting comfortably, giving one another space, and my solemn promise to show the pictures to every child always (acknowledging that we may have to be a little patient). I have their attention.

I read a book featuring a rhythmic romp through the belly of a greedy snake with a tricky little boy and his whirly toy. We laugh, we wiggle, we make gulping and burping noises. An adult with short hair flinches as our inside voices start to become our outside voices. For dramatic effect, I clutch the book to my chest, close my eyes, have everyone take three big deep breaths with me, and then read the next page in a whisper. I lean in close, widen my eyes, annunciate clearly, wink at the shy little girl with blonde hair as she clutches her adult, and flip to the next page. BLARG! The climax of the book, which I will not spoil here, unfolds and we all shriek with gallery-safe giggles. Most of the adults, including the gallery attendant, even giggle.

As we reflect on the book, I notice adults start to disengage from the conversation. I increase my eye contact with them. This helps, and adults and children both share their thoughts about what was funny, what was scary, what they would’ve done differently, and what their “tummy ache faces” look like. Much to the amusement (and horror) of many of the adults, the children deviate into a fascinating tangent. Each child excitedly talks about all the different occasions on which they have vomited throughout their lives, which they are all-too-proud to share. This is one of those wonderful, un-planned opportunities to validate and share the quiet dramas of childhood and life in general. What a wonderful thing to be able to relate to those life experiences in an art museum!

It’s time to put everyone to work. I have gallery activities planned, though I use the term “plan” loosely. What I have are bundles of materials and some simple prompt cards, to be deployed as seen fit. I have no interest in forcing these families to do anything, so it’s good to avoid situations in which they feel railroaded into their experiences. We proceed with a warm-up game I call “Feed the Snake.” This activity is slightly more closed-ended, in order to ease my new friends into the rest of the activities. I have each family choose a card that guides them to an artwork and asks them two questions: What noise does your artwork make? What movement does your artwork make (what does it like to do)?

Three adults look mildly befuddled, as if they’re waiting for me to give them further direction. I simply say, “Find the artwork on your card, or a different one you like better, answer the questions as a family, and then come back to see me!” I take note as the shy little girl, who hasn’t said a word to me yet, grabs her adult by the hand and charges off with her most forceful walking feet to find her object, a golden statue from Nepal called Standing Buddha Shakyamuni. She immediately poses with her left hand up and her right hand down, palm facing outward, hips gently swayed to the right, just like the sculpture. They’re doing just fine, I think.

While each family is off discussing, I unfurl a long felt snake. I choose a card and do the exercise. I circulate among the families, asking what they notice about their sculptures, getting the feel for how comfortable (or uncomfortable) everyone is, and then call everyone back to meet me at the snake. We take turns acting out everyone’s noises and actions, feeding our sculptures to the very hungry snake in turn. The group takes particular pleasure in making it rain just like the Rain God Vessel, starting crouched on the ground, pulling the rain from the soil, standing up, raising our hands unfurled, and then Ch! Ch! Ch! tossing the imaginary rain back to the earth.

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Our (abstract) snake, increasingly well-fed.

Now the group has an understanding of the format of the rest of these activities: I provide some materials and prompts, but each individual family is left to make their own connections, come up with their own knowledge, and then share with or challenge other families at the end. The families decide to make some smell-o-vision bags and some tactile bags, each choosing a set of clues related to a favorite artwork. Reluctant or apprehensive adults took cues from their invariably assertive children (and vice versa), and throughout the program, the grownups start to look less befuddled. I continue to float, but my presence is largely symbolic at this point.

The preschoolers do not at any point rise up to form an anarchic government, nor do they swing from sculptures like monkeys or run foot races through the galleries. Adults and children take turns being in charge, choosing objects, and asking questions. Their clues are personal, abstract, funny, and insightful. As the program ends, we gather and reflect on the fact that we’ve met new people, seen new things, talked about something, laughed about something, and tried something new.

A coworker walks by after the families depart for lunch, commenting on my “ability to control those kids” in the gallery, as if I’d been in there cracking a behavioral whip of some kind. I laugh under my breath. Control is a funny concept. Especially interesting is the idea that people should be allowed in museum spaces only if they are “under control.” Meaning visitors, especially children, should remain quiet, together, not touching anything, quiet, and quiet.

Art museums are already highly controlled environments, largely by necessity. Installation, temperature and climate control, tickets, open hours, and restricted areas complement the oft-ingrained societal pressure that creates “appropriate” museum behaviors: be silent, be unobtrusive. We perceive a group of people to be “under control” if they meet those criteria, and imply that a good museum visitor will calmly hold their hands behind their back and stoically look at the art. There will be reverence instead if silliness, compliance instead of questions. I don’t think we can expect to have genuine interactions with our visitors, especially children, if we are constantly trying to control their behaviors.

I don’t think museum staff or docents automatically deserve to be in control of any group, though we are often seen as a de facto authority because we’re the ones with the badges and lanyards. This is an awesome responsibility, particularly when working with children. Treating children with dignity and expecting them to pull their own weight in the learning process keeps their minds and bodies too busy to do the boogie-ing that puts artwork in danger. A facilitator shares authority by encouraging and trusting everyone to take responsibility for our own bodies, behaviors, and learning. Preparing a flexible scaffolding of opportunities for children and families to choose their learning path sets the stage for reciprocated respect. An engaged group does not need a puppet master or authoritarian leader. An engaged group will lead itself.

 

About the Author

Alli RogersALLI ROGERS ANDREEN: Community Engagement Coordinator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She develops and collaborates on a variety of programs, and works primarily with multi-generational groups, teens, and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She thoroughly enjoys collecting resources, capturing strange smells, making sound suits, and crowing like a rooster in the galleries. She received her MA in Museum Education with a Certificate in Art Museum Education from the University of North Texas and her B.F.A. in Studio Art from Texas State University.

 

It’s Okay to Turn Our Back on the Art

Written by Holly Gillette as part of the Gallery Teaching Lab series

As an art museum educator, it is imperative to always connect back to the art in our teaching. Or is it?

I follow a dialogical approach when I teach in museum galleries with adult visitors. I always invite participants to look slowly, to savor a long look at one work of art, a luxury we don’t often have in our busy lives. As the conversation among the group grows and might veer off in one direction or another, I try to redirect the conversation back to the art. We are in a museum with a physical work of art, something tangible that we could touch (theoretically, of course!), why would we not keep the conversation about the artwork in front of us? It is an aspect of object-based teaching that has been important to me as a museum educator, but recently I wondered: Is it okay to turn our back on the art to continue the group-led conversation elsewhere?

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

As part of the Gallery Teaching Lab developed by Theresa Sotto, assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, I had the opportunity to experiment with colleagues in the Skirball Cultural Center’s galleries in February 2017. I’ve been a participant of the program since its inception, and always looked forward to the vast range of experiences my colleagues brought to the Lab.

For my experiment, I wanted to explore how information plays into interpretation and how we, as educators, need to be mindful of what we bring into the conversation. I am also interested in ways we may discuss current events and hot button issues in respectful and considerate ways when they connect to objects in our galleries. Lichtenstein’s “Gun in America” series, part of The Skirball Cultural Center’s exhibition Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A., seemed a perfect fit to experiment with both of these concepts.

The Skirball Cultural Center juxtaposed two TIME Magazine covers, each published about three weeks apart. The TIME cover on the right portrayed an energetic politician, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, issued on May 24, 1968, the year that he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. The TIME cover on the left was printed on June 21, 1968, two weeks after he was assassinated.

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

Our focus for this discussion was the June 21st cover, an illustration TIME magazine commissioned Lichtenstein to create shortly after Bobby Kennedy’s death. The cover reads “The Gun in America” and featured an article titled “Nation: The Gun Under Fire.” After some digging, I was able to get my hands on the article which is both a reaction to Kennedy’s assassination as well as a response to the gun violence that plagued the 1960s. Bobby’s brother, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, just a few months before Bobby’s death. America then, as now, was grappling with similar issues regarding gun control, which I believed to be an important aspect of my experiment. I was especially interested in how the text of the article affected the interpretation of the image on the magazine cover, not only in 1968, but today.

I set up my experiment into three parts that included a free write, small group discussion, and large group discussion. To give you an idea of what I was planning, here’s an abridged version of my teaching plan:

  • Introduction: Before entering the galleries, advise group that this is a safe space and we must respect everyone. Participation is optional, if it gets too much, it’s okay to step away.
  • Free Write – 5 minutes: Take a look at the artworks, get up close, take a few minutes to free write or draw. We will spend 5 minutes silently looking.
  • Discussion – 10 minutes: Group discussion of the artwork. What bubbled up for you? Would anyone like to share?
  • Pair Share – 20 minutes: Divide groups into pairs. Distribute an excerpt from the article to each group. Invite groups to move to another area of the gallery where they can get together to read the excerpt and discuss. Some questions to think about while discussing: How does this piece make you feel? Do you agree or disagree? Why? This was written in 1968, but, are there parallels today?
  • Discussion – 20 minutes: Bring the groups back together. Groups share their conversations, if they desire to do so.  Briefly summarize your excerpt, what thoughts bubbled up for you? What debates did you have in your group, if any?
  • Conclusion – 5 minutes: Thank you to everyone for being vulnerable today.

 Let’s face it, above was my teaching plan. When we entered the gallery, I soon realized that there was particularly loud jazz music playing in the exhibit. Apparently Lichtenstein loved jazz and the music is the soundtrack of Kamasi Washington’s break out jazz album, The Epic. A rookie mistake, because I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the exhibition before I was teaching in it! The music was welcome during silent looking but when we started discussing, it became difficult to hear even in our small group of ten participants. Our initial discussion drew from the physicality of the objects, seeing Lichtenstein’s hand and process. It then led to people sharing their feelings, one participant commented on how she was desensitized by the image of a gun. Another commented that they had recently been in the vicinity of an act of gun violence, and that their feelings now are different than if they had seen this image prior to the incident.

As the discussion grew beyond the formal qualities of the work itself, I used that moment to segue to the second part of the experiment. I divided the group into pairs and gave each pair an excerpt from the 1968 TIME magazine article. Pairs were encouraged to venture into other parts of the gallery or even outside on the courtyard to sit and discuss anything that developed for them when thinking about the artwork and reading the excerpt.

After 20 minutes, I wanted to bring everyone back into the gallery in front of the artworks, but instead, I made the decision to gather everyone outside the galleries where we could gather without the distraction of the music. We sat in a circle, I asked each group to share if they wanted to. Much of the excerpts from the 1968 article were arguments about gun control. Discussion from the group dug deep into this difficult and complex issue. Many participants discussed how they couldn’t fathom someone needing to own a gun, some shared stories about how family members own guns and either agree or disagree with them. Some stories were about growing up in rural communities where hunting was the norm. The person, who mentioned at the beginning of the talk that they were recently near an act of gun violence, felt safe enough to share her story. Parallels were made from 1968 to today, and it was argued that not much has changed.

What I had intended to be a 20 minute group-share turned into a 50 minute discussion. Instead of bringing it back to the work of art, I lost myself in the conversation. Instead of acting as facilitator, I became a participant. When I realized we had gone well beyond our hour together, cutting into our debrief time for the GTLab, I tried to reel the group back in and get feedback on the activity. To my surprise, the group just wanted to continue discussing the topic.

I was so humbled by my colleagues and the conversation we had that day. As we all walked back to our meeting room Rachel Stark, Assistant Director of Education at the Skirball Cultural Center, turned to me and thanked me for allowing us to “turn our back” on the art to have the real nitty gritty conversation. It was at that moment I realized that what I learned from this experiment wasn’t what I initially expected. Yes, I wanted to explore ways of using objects in our collection as entry points to discuss current events and complex issues, but I realized something more important. When it means continuing the conversation and focusing on the needs of the people present, it is okay to turn our back on the art and continue the conversation where the group needs to go, even if that means we aren’t focusing on the artwork anymore.

We all need an outlet in this political climate; if a work of art can jump-start important conversation, amazing! Let the conversation go where it needs to go.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to continue the conversation. Please comment here, or email me at hgillette@lacma.org.

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About the Author

gillette_photoHOLLY GILLETTE is an art museum educator with an interest in gallery teaching and community building. She is currently an Education Coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she oversees the school and community partnership program Art Programs with the Community: LACMA On-Site. Prior to working at LACMA, she began her career in Museum Education at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, focusing on school, early childhood, and family audiences. Holly holds a MS.Ed. in leadership in museum education from the Bank Street College Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in art history and studio art from University of California, Davis. Holly’s postings are her own and don’t necessarily represent LACMA’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

 

Carrots and Peas: Disrupting Patterns of Thought through Mindfulness in Gallery Teaching

Written by Amanda Tobin

Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.

At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.

Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.

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Nick Cave: Until installation shot. Photo credit: MASS MoCA

No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.

In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.

At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.

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John Steuart Curry, “John Brown” (1939)

Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda).[1] Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.

In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:

  1. Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
  2. Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
  3. Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.

More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?

The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.

While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.

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About the Author

AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at atobin@massmoca.org.

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[1] Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.

Reflecting on a Thinking, Feeling, Doing, Sharing Encounter with Art

EDITOR’S NOTE: After I read the inspiring post (shared below) by the amazing Susan Harris MacKay, who serves as Director of Teaching and Learning at our own Portland Children’s Museum, I immediately wanted to share it with the ArtMuseumTeaching community.  In it, Susan reflects on a recent field trip to the Portland Art Museum with students from the Opal School, a public charter elementary school embedded within the Portland Children’s Museum. Her reflections hit so many meaningful aspects of museum learning for me—engaging in multi-modal responses with art; co-creating meaning with students; and ensuring that we have high expectations for the types of in-depth student thinking and engagement that are possible in a museum, especially through a self-directed tour.  Finally, Susan and the students from Opal School celebrated the museum as a place of human connection, a place of sharing and love, and a place of understanding.  Enjoy!  – Mike Murawski, ArtMuseumTeaching.com

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Written by Susan Harris MacKay

Reposted from the blog of the Opal School, a beginning school (for children age 3-5) and public elementary charter school (K-5) in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at opalschool.org.

Because it’s Opal School 4th grade, we knew we would deeply explore the complexities of perspective this year. Because it was a presidential election year, we knew we would be thinking together about the issues and the process. Because 4th and 5th graders have a right to know their state’s history, we knew we would focus on stories of Oregon. And because immigration was such a focal point of political rhetoric, we knew we would be working together to understand the immigration and migration stories in our own families, asking what it means to be an Oregonian. These preconceived intentions prepare our minds to be favored by chance. It never fails.

By chance the Portland Art Museum opened a new exhibition, “Constructing Identity” from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art. They had handed us a resource that could not have been more relevant to our work. We accepted the open invitation to go explore.

As I was planning our trip, my mind was prepared with the anticipation of this excursion, and so when I stumbled on the metaphor of “windows and mirrors” one night while reading the Teaching Tolerance website, I knew it would help us approach the artwork we would see. And as I opened the New York Times on my computer one evening this same week, a new video series called “Hyphen-Nation” was there on the front page. I didn’t realize I’d been looking for that, either, but there it was. It is arguable, I guess, that we are more prepared when we rely less on planning and more on paying attention. I can go on. I introduced the concept of windows and mirrors to the group and 11-year-old Alijah said, “Oh, I think someone has a TED talk about that.” I went searching for that and found it was author Grace Lin. Her 12-minute talk was precisely related to what we were talking about. So we watched it. And by chance, I was exploring Powell’s Books one morning just because the rest of our city happened to be shut down with ice, and I discovered the 2017 Caldecott Honor book, They All Saw a Cat. So we read it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This process is, I think, really a matter of, or maybe a result of, staying awake. But also, it’s a matter of understanding that if the classroom is to be in the world and the world is to be in the classroom, it’s our job to pull the two together. It’s our job to help the children see that the things they are concerned with are part of the world outside the classroom. The things they think about and care about that live within our predetermined frame of intent are alive in the concerns of all humanity — now, and in all that came before us. (And if they aren’t, well, perhaps it’s time to consider reframing our intentions.)

It takes time to develop understanding, so we spent time in the week before our visit to the art museum involved in a common Opal School practice aimed at uncovering and co-creating meaning. We “cracked open” the word “identity” and looked inside. As my colleague Tara wrote in a recent post, “We believe there’s a world within a word, and we invite the children to find themselves within these word-worlds… The process of cracking open words and the outcome, a growing web of shared language, strengthens the children’s sense of agency and belonging. It demonstrates how teachers are not transmitters of information and children are not consumers of it. At an early age, these children know they are culture makers.” Taking a peek into the world that lives inside the word “identity” primed the children to situate the title of the exhibit within the meaning they negotiated for themselves, in reference to one another. When you own the language, you own the culture. We don’t need to tell children what words mean nearly as often as we need to ask them what meaning they are making of words. When we do that, the children participate in culture making, and, through a process of reflection, they can become aware that they are.

IMG_8525-255x302Because the children expect to find a place for themselves in the things we do in school, I knew I could expect authentic attempts at making meaning of the art in the “Constructing Identity” exhibition, and so I needed to focus on setting them up to be able to share the meanings they were making. My goal was to support the children to see each piece in the collection as a kind of long-distance offer of connection from one artist to another. I didn’t need to tell them how to connect with the art, how to find meaning in it — I just needed to ask them to, and I needed to give them some tools to do so.

I assigned them each a partner with whom to find eleven different pieces within the exhibition. This was a game they enjoyed as though it were a scavenger hunt of some kind, made even more enjoyable by the fact that they could tell I’d paired them each with a very good friend — something they know I don’t always do. Also importantly, I told them that they did not have to find all eleven. I had chosen that many to try and accommodate the varied temperaments of the pairs. Some would find two or three and dive deeply into those, and some would be more determined to find them all. Either was okay. Either met my intentions to have these artists connect with one another. The final condition that seemed to make the experience successful was that they were independent. As long as they were visible within the gallery to the adults they were with — they were on their own to work. And so they got to it.

Once they found a piece, they were expected to use their sketchbooks to capture the art in pencil and annotate their drawing. They were asked:

  • What might the artist be trying to say about their own identity?
  • What about the art expresses identity?
  • Where are the windows? Where are the mirrors?
  • What is abstract? What is real? What is true?

Here are some representative samples of what was collected:

Sketches

These twenty-six 9, 10 and 11 year-olds had about two hours in the museum’s galleries that day. I wish that anyone who ever doubted that children were capable of being self-directed, engaged, quiet, and focused in an art museum had been able to observe them for a time. The only slight commotion happened when we had to drag them away.

In an interview included in the exhibit catalogue, Bill Hutson, one of the artists whose work is included in the collection, said,

“I don’t think of what they think. You know what matters to me is that they think. I want them to look at the art and feel something. What bothers me is for people to look at the paintings and feel nothing.”

How often do we remember to ask children to feel? How frequently, in our planning, do we consider the emotions that are likely to be stirred by the things we ask them to think about? How likely are we to make predictions based on what students might feel because we acknowledge that there is no meaning without feeling? Feelings make us think. And thinking makes us feel. We know it is impossible not to feel. So we can be sure that the things children are feeling most are the things they are thinking most about and learning most about. How do we ensure they are learning the things we really want them to learn? What do we really want them to learn?

By creating conditions that allow thinking, feeling, doing, and sharing to show up simultaneously, we create conditions for young human beings to do what they arrived prepared and wanting to do: to use strategies of play to make meaning of their experience in order to find a place for themselves in the world.

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Consider, for a moment, what can happen when adults forget how to connect thinking and feeling — what can happen when we look at the expression of other human beings, the offer of connection, the hope for understanding — and feel nothing. The ability to dehumanize others is the result. But when we learn to see that our own identities are constructed in relationship to others, it begins to matter how others feel about what they think — and about what you think. And we begin to trust that when things don’t feel good, we just have to think harder. And we have the confidence that we can, because we don’t have to do it alone.

In “The Age of Rudeness“, Rachel Cusk writes,

“’Make her stop!’ my daughters used to beg me when they were younger and one was doing something the other didn’t like. In other words: Restore to me the primacy of my version; rid me of this challenge to the experience of being me. One might say that what they wanted was justice, impartiality — but impartiality, I usually discovered, was not easy to attain. There were always two sides to their stories, and I lacked the ability to turn them into one. I have prided myself on my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done. But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make it stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.”

Our classrooms can be the places where we learn to endure the impulse to use the power we have to make our discomforts with life’s uncertainties stop — and instead make a practice of understanding. The Constructing Identity exhibition was full of opportunity to do just that. When asked, “Why does the expressive force of abstraction belong to culture and identity?” Bill Hutson replied,

“Because you can make choices that are specific choices… in many ways you can state who you are. You can state who you are even though it’s not a representation of something. You can do this with light, rhythm and color.”

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An encounter with abstract art can become an invitation to stretch our tolerance for the ambiguity we need if we are to find bearable a world that is always subject to change. By inviting us to find our own connection, to make our own sense of things, it pulls us in. We find our own thoughts reflected inside the mirror the artist made for themselves. We find the world inside that piece that is common to us. Like cracking open a word to find what lives inside and to create shared culture, the abstraction invites us simply to bring what we know, and encourages us to share. This sense of belonging is the primary feeling we humans seek, so learning how to think our way there may be the most important thing we do in school. If we’re to fix this mess we’re in, real understanding must become our primary goal, and we must learn to recognize what it is. Because understanding is love.

Encounters with the arts aren’t the only way to create lasting habits of understanding, but their reflective and connective qualities make them one of the best. That is only if we give the young humans in our care chances to connect and reflect. And then do it again. And again. And as we listen to them, be the person they can rely on to bring the world to them, just when they need it most.

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About the Author

5776e121a2938-bpfullSUSAN HARRIS MACKAY is Director of Teaching and Learning at Portland Children’s Museum. In that role, she gives leadership to Opal School and the Museum Center for Learning, and works directly with children in the classroom. Opal School serves children ages 3-11 using inquiry-based approaches through the arts and sciences with a mission to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, curiosity and the wonder of learning thrive. Along with her colleagues, Susan shares these fresh ideas through a professional development program for educators world-wide. Recent work includes chapters in Fostering Empathy Through Museums, and In the Spirit of the Studio, 2nd Edition, and a TEDx talk called, “School is For Learning to Live”. Connect with Susan and Opal School at opalschool.org.

Gallery Teaching Lab: Where Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

Written by Theresa Sotto

What would happen in the galleries if we could only communicate through gestures? How might critics’ reviews about exhibitions be meaningfully incorporated in gallery teaching? How would museumgoers react if asked to draw a work of art as perfectly as possible–the opposite of conventional wisdom in museum education? These are just a few questions that educators from cultural institutions across Southern California have explored in a program developed by and for museum educators.

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Museum educators from three different institutions–Zoe Silverman from the Hammer, Rachel Stark from the Skirball, and William Zaluski from the Getty Center–act out a short skit in a role-playing experiment led by Chelsea Hogan, who then worked at ESMoA. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hogan.

I launched Gallery Teaching Lab (GTLab) at the Hammer Museum in October 2014 with educators from seven Los Angeles museums in an effort to foster innovation in gallery teaching. Now in its third year, the program has doubled in size to include fourteen participating institutions who each take turns hosting a GTLab approximately every six weeks. Twenty-five practitioners between Long Beach and Pasadena have the opportunity to try a new teaching strategy in an ever-changing space and receive constructive feedback from colleagues. Participants can use GTLab as a testing ground for nascent gallery teaching ideas without the pressure of building internal buy-in or fear of an unsuccessful experience with museum visitors. GTLab also offers educators an opportunity to eschew traditional or habitual teaching strategies and set aside their respective institutions’ existing programs or pedagogical philosophies.

Beginnings

The very first GTLab, which was led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was an experiment in facilitating silent conversations in order to create a safe space to explore potentially controversial topics. Veronica was inspired by Child Guidance Toys (1965) by Robert Heinecken, which was on view at the Hammer Museum in the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Object Matter. Created two years after president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Child Guidance Toys poignantly juxtaposes two advertisements of two different products–a toy rifle and a miniature replica of JFK.

Prior to viewing Child Guidance Toys with GTLab participants, Veronica displayed three large sheets of butcher paper, each with a prompt that was relevant to Heinecken’s work: consumerism, gun culture, and the claim that artists make us more aware of social issues. We were asked to silently and anonymously address each of these prompts or someone else’s comments. In a post-GTLab reflection, Veronica wrote that “participants commented on the fact that they enjoyed sharing things that they might not have, had it been a verbal conversation. Others noted that they were able to discuss sensitive topics in a safe environment.”

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A prompt used in a silent conversation led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

After writing and reading comments in response to the prompts in a classroom space, Veronica led us in an inquiry-based discussion of Child Guidance Toys in the exhibition space. In front of the work of art, we wasted no time making connections between the imagery and the serious themes that had already been explored during the silent conversations. The resulting discussion about Heinecken’s work was thought-provoking and multi-layered. But equally thought-provoking–at least for a room full of museum educators–was the conversation about the experiment itself. Educators mused: Did the pre-selected prompts limit conversation about the work of art? Which audiences would this activity be appropriate for? How would the silent conversations differ if they took place in the galleries? Since everyone responding to the prompts were in the same room at the same time, the comments were not completely anonymous. How does semi-anonymity impact one’s ability to freely share one’s thoughts?

Following her GTLab experiment, Veronica incorporated the silent conversation activity in a teacher program–with great success. However, successfully implementing a GTLab experiment with  museum visitors is more of a fortuitous outcome rather than a desired goal.

Experiments in Self-Guided Experiences

For my own first experiment, I was interested in exploring self-guided activities, and not just because I was interested in their format–one that typically doesn’t impart more than basic or cursory information about works of art. In the days leading up to my experiment, other work commitments took priority and I waited until the last minute to consider what I would do. My experiment became an opportunity for me to address two questions. The first: Can a self-guided experience be just as (or more) engaging and foster as much understanding about a work of art as a guided experience? The second question was one that I sometimes face more often than I’d like to admit: Is it possible to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art when you don’t have time to properly research the works of art on view?

I decided to try a semi-self-guided experience with the exhibition Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now because of the wide variety of works, subjects, and artists represented in the galleries. I briefly introduced the exhibition and then distributed prompts in three categories—1) Select, 2) Question, and 3) Translate. Working with partners, participants picked one prompt from each of the categories, one at a time, at random. For the Select cards, participants were prompted to choose a work that they associated with adjectives like secretive, awkward, or friendly. Once a work was selected, partners picked a Question card and discussed answers to prompts such as: “Could this work change someone’s life? If so, how?”; “Why do you think this work was selected for inclusion in this exhibition?”; and “In what ways is this work relevant to people in Los Angeles?” I gave some pairs more than one Question card if they seemed to answer their first question quickly. By the time the pairs completed their Select and Question prompts, they had already discussed their selected work for approximately 20 minutes and were ready to “translate” the artwork. This is where the activity got more experimental. I challenged peers to reflect on what is essential about the work of art and to figure out how those qualities could be translated into another form or genre–such as a Craigslist ad, a restaurant menu, or thirty seconds of sound. Not only was this part of the activity a lot of fun, but it also helped the group come to a nuanced and deep understanding about their selected works while stretching them to think creatively.

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A GTLab experiment informed the goals for this all-ages Discovery Guide.

After the experiment, GTLab participants remarked that they enjoyed completing the activities and they were able to make meaningful connections to their selected works of art. They also raised questions about appropriate audience applications and attendance limitations, and whether front-loading or modeling would be necessary with school groups. All good questions. But despite the overall positive and useful feedback, I never tried the same Select – Question – Translate prompts with actual visitors. For me, that wasn’t the point.

Taking Risks, Breaking Rules

I originally conceived of GTLab to foster innovation in gallery teaching–in my own practice as well as that of my colleagues. In fact, for the first couple of years of the program, I challenged all participants to follow one rule: your experiment should be an activity or strategy that you have not tried before. My experiment pushed me to re-evaluate what I want self-guided activities as a whole to accomplish: to foster personal and meaningful connections to art, to have fun learning with the people you came to the museum with, and to encourage creativity. These are by no means innovative goals. Rather they speak to the heart of what we do as museum educators.

The process of organizing and participating in gallery experiments has made me reflect on Gallery Teaching Lab itself. Innovation isn’t the main goal after all. Gallery Teaching Lab comprises a collective of peers who manage or support educator trainings at their respective institutions. For this professional learning community to be sustainable and useful for all participants, rules and goals should change based on the facilitator, the chosen experiment, and the galleries. What once took place at the Hammer Museum every six weeks on Wednesdays from 12-2PM now occurs at one of fourteen institutions on a day and time that works best for the host institution with goals that make the most sense for the facilitator. As is the case for all good labs, rules are meant to be broken.

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About the Author

THERESA SOTTO is assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, where she oversees educational programming for college, family, and K-12 school groups. Theresa has been working at the crossroads of education and the arts since 2001. Prior to joining the Hammer, she worked at the Getty Museum, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has served as a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Theresa received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is also a published poet.

Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse

Written by Andrew Palamara

Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.

Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.

I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.

I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.

Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:

  •     You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
  •     After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
  •     On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?

After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.

There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a  conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).

My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.

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About the Author

andrew-palamaraANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team.

 

The Sun Will Still Rise Tomorrow: Responding to the Election

Written by Sara Egan

When we originally scheduled visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the classes at a Boston high school in our School Partnership Program, we didn’t consider the date of the presidential election as a factor. My colleagues and I didn’t purposefully plan for the 10th grade students, too young to vote but old enough to be politically aware, to come to this historic institution in the two days following the surprising result. It wasn’t our intention that the 12th graders would come the following week, having had time to begin to process the world in which we awoke on November 9, 2016. But that’s exactly what happened.

Our partnership with these students and their teachers is based on our commitment to respond to where they are and what they need from us to scaffold their development as critical thinkers and engaged museum-goers. We’ve built relationships and cultivated trust with this school over 5 years, coming to understand what they grapple with individually and as a community. At this school, many of the students are Black, Muslim, and/or their families are immigrants. When they come to the Museum, they bring their whole selves to each discussion. So when we found ourselves on the eve of the election concluding a long, polarizing campaign, we recommitted ourselves to putting the students at the center and modified our plan for their visits.

We designed an experience for students to engage with the Gardner Museum in a variety of ways, understanding that everyone processes turmoil differently. First, we welcomed them back to the Museum and gave them a sense of what to expect from the visit. Then we used our temporary exhibition, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books, as a starting point. One theme of this exhibition is the spread of literacy and access to information during the Renaissance, highlighting how society valued knowledge of history, literature and rhetoric during that time. The students took as much time as they needed to explore the exhibition on their own, looking closely with their friends and finding moments of interest and beauty. As a group we discussed the ideas that they discovered in the objects and in the interpretive materials, huddling together over an illuminated choir book or a scientific rendering of marine creatures. Then we honed in on one artwork, a painting of St. Jerome in which they found further examples of the importance of scholarly work and humanistic ideals. This first half of their visit hewed closely to our initial plan, introducing the students to the exhibition while connecting it to their prior experiences at the Museum.

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12th grade students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers write or sketch around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Sara Egan

The major adaption was that the rest of the visit became structured time for the students to reflect, process, and express themselves. Rather than going to another gallery or looking at another artwork, we brought the students to the courtyard in the center of the historic collection. We handed each student a sketchbook and a pencil, invited them to sit on the stone benches facing the courtyard, and introduced a prompt tying together the objects they’d been exploring, the Museum created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the students’ own lives:

Together we’ve been looking at these old books, considering how the artists used text and illustration, and the impact the books had on society. Now you’ll get to design your own book. You can write a story, a poem or a song, draw something you see here or something you imagine, or just take deep breaths and process. If you find it helpful to think of a prompt, you might consider this: When Isabella Stewart Gardner made this museum she said that what the country needed most was art. What do you think our country needs most right now?

It was moving to see how students brought their whole selves to this activity. The 10th grade classes that came on November 8 and 9 spent much of the time asking us and their History teacher questions about the Electoral College, and voicing their fears for what would happen to their families who are undocumented immigrants. Some drew campaign symbols and slogans, some wrote about stamping out hate and encouraging love. The 12th grade students who visited on November 16 and 17 appreciated the escapism offered by the Courtyard. They spoke about the chance to sit quietly in a beautiful space that seems to be a world apart from Boston, a time apart from 2016.

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The sun will still rise tomorrow. Ariana Pina, 10th grade, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Sara Egan.

During all of these classes the other museum educators, classroom teachers, and I tried to spend time with each student to answer their questions and reiterate that we would stand with them and their loved ones. Some students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to center themselves and consider their thoughts and feelings in their own way, and a growing awareness that we, the Gardner Museum educators who they’ve come to know since 9th grade, intentionally created that space out of our deep concern and caring for them. By the end of the visit, after about 30 minutes of reflection and processing, the mood had shifted to one of hope and mutual support.

Since the election, many of us have felt the urgency of action. This set of class visits to the Gardner Museum was a small, immediate action, but one that ripples outward. These students and teachers’ ideas about how to relate to a museum (even a seemingly elite, historic one like the Gardner) might be forever transformed by the half hour they spent nurturing themselves and each other. Their mental and emotional states also changed, and we can imagine that impact was felt in all of the other interactions they had that day. As museum educators, we have the ability to create this space for our visitors – we have the flexibility to respond to our visitors and we have the objects and environments that remind them of the beauty of our shared humanity.

I’ll leave you with a poem written in the Gardner’s courtyard by Jayne Irvy Veillard, a 12th grade student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers:

GREY
By Jayne Irvy Veillard

“Struggle”
We’re struggling
Living in a world where there’s no peace
Living in a world where cries are silenced
Living with the pain among us.
What our world needs is
“Love”
Why can’t we love?
What’s so hard about loving your neighbor as yourself?
Do you not love who YOU are?
“Peace”
Why can’t there be peace?
Why does there have to be war?
What’s so hard about finding peace?
(Pause)
Look into your heart
Is it Black?
The color your heart bleeds
Does it bleed Black?
Black portrayed as ugly and slavery
Black the color of gun shots and cruelty
Black the hatred set up for men
Black, mothers and children crying for help
BLACK! SHOTS FIRED!
Look into your heart
Is it White?
Does it bleed white?
White the color of peace and love
White purity and pure
White sinless
White privileged and power
JUST SHUT UP!
What’s the difference?
Why separate these two colors?
Grey the color of this lead
Grey the unity of black and white
Grey the sound of ones holding hands
Grey we shall overcome aye?
Grey The Middle Ground
What our word needs is Grey!
We need
The Unity
The Power
The Love
No More Struggling
No More Pain
No More Poor
Just more love
All together
One for all
What our world needs is Grey
The happiness of Grey
That’s what our world needs

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About the Author

egan_sara_head_shotSARA EGAN is School Partnerships Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sara was recently  named the Massachusetts Art Education Association’s 2017 Museum Art Educator of the Year.  She teaches preK-12th grade students in the Museum and the classroom using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), trains and coaches teachers in VTS, and conducts research on the impact of the Gardner’s School Partnership Program.  Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes program, and is an adjunct professor of art at Simmons College. She has previously worked at the Andy Warhol Museum and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Sara holds a BA from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Header Photo: A 10th grade student from Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Billie Weiss.

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.