There’s a sentence that’s been haunting me lately: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”(1). It’s a beautiful concept that encompasses the good and the ugly of what museums have been, what they are, and what they could be. It expresses the potential for museums to assert definitions of humanity that are liberatory, healing, and affirmative while leaving room for the essential question “but for who?”
What is our role and responsibility to help people think and feel about what it means to be human in this moment? What does it even mean to be human in this moment? What does it mean to be essential or vulnerable? What does it mean to survive? Who will? I keep thinking about what our actions – as neighbors, colleagues, and culture workers – communicate about what we think it means to be human right now. As to be expected, the impacts of the virus are not being felt equally. Essential workers are still largely low wage workers; access to health care is still restricted and costly; educators are still trying to meet students’ needs with too few resources; the elderly are still disposable; it’s still expensive to be poor. The systems that prop up what “normal” looks like are still pushing folks to the margins.
As the few museum staff left try to creatively adapt to serve the needs of their community, they ultimately express what they think those needs are and what they believe is the museum’s unique position to fill them. What people will be comforted by, what will help them navigate their day, what will help them make sense of their emotions or the news will depend drastically on how the pandemic is affecting their material reality. Content designed for people who are bored is probably not going to resonate (at least not in the same way) with people still riding the bus every day to work or whose loved ones lie in a hospital bed they cannot visit.
Yes, people are looking for history that affirms a sense of self, distractions, or art as a therapeutic process. People are also looking for more mundane balms – to hear someone express a similar feeling, to speak aloud, to know their child is occupied for thirty minutes. People are also in crisis.
Ruminating on life in the pandemic has been a continuous exercise in getting absorbed in and extracting myself from my own isolation, emotions, hardship, and drama. I’ve been generally disappointed with museum leaders (individuals and institutions) who are unable to pull themselves out of their own internal turmoil, who seem unable to instinctually care for others in a time of crisis. You know, the ones who assume their priorities are the top priority, that whatever choices they make will be justified as long as they can save the institution, that if people know just how long and hard these decisions were they will understand them and feel okay. It can feel like asking the world for what in reality is so little – for those who hold the power to consider our experience and let it impact their choices. To take time to listen, or communicate frequently even if incompletely. To put others’ needs before their own or the needs of the institution. As I try to articulate and find examples of the leadership I am looking for within myself, my institution, and my community this is what I’m getting stuck on. Whose humanity is being affirmed through our choices and in the ways we reach out?
EMILY TURNER: Seattle-based museum educator and creative historian who strives to infuse joy and creativity into the museum experience and encourages visitors of all ages to think critically about objects and their stories. Through writing and comix, Emily explores issues of representation and labor in art and history museums. An officer for the Museum Educators of Puget Sound, she is active in her community as a mentor and an advocate for emerging museum professionals.
All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff.
Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions.
And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work — is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities.
Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.
But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time.
I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention.
It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection.
Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.
There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement.
After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.
All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.
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About the Author
JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.
Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.
Written by Justina Barrett, Catherine Ricketts, Greg Stuart, and Alicia Valencia
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art during this moment of unprecedented change in the face of the COVID-19, we’ve been thinking about our past in order to grapple with the anxieties we have about our future, as many of those who are reading this in 2020 are probably doing. It’s in this light that a public program we developed, called The Designer Is In, feels remarkably prescient.
In October of 2019, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened the first stage of the exhibition, Designs for Different Futures, which is a collaboration with our institution, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Walker Art Center. This exhibition explores how contemporary designers imagine, respond to, and ask questions about the future. As we in the Public Programs department were in the planning stages for the exhibition, we were noticing that many of the issues tackled in the exhibition, including climate change, the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence in our lives, and the heightened role of digital surveillance–just to name a few–were making us feel anxious.
In talking with one of the curators of the exhibition, Michelle Millar Fisher, we envisioned that visitors would need a space to process, relax, and decompress after engaging with this content. This led to the creation of the Futures Therapy Lab, a space where on any given day, visitors could make art, peruse a library of books crowdsourced from staff and community members about themes in the exhibition, respond to questions on a share wall, and just generally hang out.
The Futures Therapy Lab was also designed to be an active programming space, with artist talks, drop-in art-making workshops, a program called SciFi Sundays–in which local science fiction authors would read excerpts of their works–and more.
Within the scope of programming we were developing for the Futures Therapy Lab, we felt we needed something more specifically tethered to the world of “therapy,” and in this lab space of experimentation, we wanted to engage visitors on a smaller scale at the level of intimate conversation, and we thought designers could fill this role with our visitors. We were certainly not imagining that they would replicate or replace the role of a trained and licensed therapist, but that if we approached the topic of therapy in a playful way, it could be an opportunity to engage our audiences in the kind of rich conversations we were imagining the exhibition would provoke. We also wanted to go into this project with the idea that a designer may not be interested in solving problems or bringing visitors to a meaningful resolution, but that it was more important to use this opportunity to pose questions and challenge assumptions, much like a good therapist would do.
To meet these goals, we implemented The Designer Is In, bringing designers and visitors together for discussion in the Lab after experiencing the exhibition. The cast of designers who could facilitate a purposeful experience in the Lab was central to the efficacy of this program. The design field is by nature broad, cross-disciplinary, and constantly evolving, and this is especially true in the case of the Designs for Different Futures exhibition which covers an expansive range of themes. Multiple and potentially conflicting ideas may come to mind when imagining the role of a “designer” – how they tackle big questions, work through problems, and test possible solutions. For our purposes, we looked for “designers-in-residence” who could explore these complex impressions together with visitors, and approach speculating about the future in constructive, collaborative ways. We reached out to artists, designers, and practitioners from the Philadelphia area who, not only grapple with similar questions or topics to the ones posed in the exhibition, but also maintain civically minded, people-centered creative practices that depend on the kinds of collaboration and conversations we intended to encourage.
For two hours on Thursdays and Saturdays, a designer-in-residence was available in the lab to speak one-on-one with visitors about the issues and content presented in the show. A total of 10 designers-in-residence participated in the Designer Is In, coming from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, including Maia Chao of Look at Art Get Paid; Paul Farber from Monument Lab; Yadan Luo from OLIN; Raja Schaar from Drexel University; Michelle Johnson from the University of Pennsylvania; Stephanie Carlisle of KieranTimberlake and Uncertain Terrain; Andrew Wit of WITO; Scott Page of Interface Studio; and Alex Gilliam of Tiny WPA. Our intention was not to have a designer-in-residence speak to the specifics of every object in the exhibition. Instead, each individual was to offer their own perspectives regarding designing and planning for the future, based on what they encounter in their own distinctive practices. We asked designers-in-residence to speculate with visitors about the experience of designing for the future in terms of their own disciplines, and provide deeper dives into specific themes when it made sense given their backgrounds.
To structure this experience, and further suggest therapeutic engagement, we designed an “intake form” for visitors to fill out before meeting with our designers-in-residence. The intake form included brief Likert scale questions to gauge a sense of confidence or apprehension in what design can accomplish. Below these initial questions, we included a brief description of the designer-in-residence present in the Lab that day, and a few different topics specific to their practice which could act as starting points for discussion, such as “Public Art and Belonging”, “Walls and Bridges”, and “Youth-Designed and Built Placespaces.” As part of the development process, we knew we needed to have outside collaborators working with us on the intake form and experience of The Designer Is In, so we partnered with Josephine Devanbu from Look At Art Get Paid and Paul Farber from Monument Lab. Devanbu and Farber helped us think through the experience of the interaction between a visitor and a designer-in-residence from start to finish, and with their input we designed an intake form that could provoke questions, start a dialogue, and guide the conversation.
Now that we had built and designed the program, would visitors participate? Certainly, this is a question that precedes every public program, but we were dipping our toes even more into the unknown than usual. Fortunately, from the very beginning, we found that our designers-in-residence were almost continually engaged with visitors during their two hour stints, and visitors were spending as much as a half hour talking with them.
We collected reactions from visitors on the back page of the Intake Form, asking, “What’s one thing you want to take with you from your experience today?” Some expressed their reactions to the exhibition itself, which ranged from “Terrifying,” to “Yolo baby!” Those who felt tense after seeing the exhibition reported that they appreciated the opportunity to talk through that tension. At the end of their Designer Is In sessions, one wrote, “I feel better. Interesting collaborations and innovations. There really is good here!” Others, after seeing the exhibition, expressed a desire for human interaction: “I just want to connect, be in touch;” “Where is the human element amid so much technology?” Designer Is In offered just such an opportunity, and elicited responses like, “A pleasure to discuss this exhibit with a designer. [It made] this exhibition personal.” In addition to the personal nature of the program, visitors appreciated its informative quality: “Important to have experts communicating a well-informed perspective about design rather than reactive or overly optimistic models. Thank you for having experts present to interpret this exhibit,” wrote one visitor.
We concluded each designer’s residency with open-ended follow-up questions. One theme in their feedback was the benefit of this program to the designers’ own practice. The opportunity to speak about their work with a diverse cross-section of visitors sparked new ideas and offered fresh perspectives. For instance, designer-in-residence Raja Schaar reported having spoken to a neuroscientist, an international diplomat for climate change and women’s rights, a banker, a software developer, recent design graduates, kids in STEAM magnet schools, videographers, and dancers. These conversation partners offered her “a totally new perspective” and “a new strong argument point for [her] research.” Often, designers’ work is very specialized, and the Designer Is In program allowed our collaborators to test ideas and to practice discussing their work with the general public, proving mutual benefit.
Now that this program is finished, we’ve been asking ourselves what lessons we’ve learned, and how can these lessons be applicable to the broader museum community, regardless of whether this exhibition travels to your site or you have a dedicated programming space like our Futures Therapy Lab.
Communication is hard. Communication is crucial.
One of the challenges that we faced in developing this program is how to communicate what the program even is to visitors. While the experience of therapy might be one that many of our visitors share, it’s not expected in a museum setting, and it took a lot of explication, both on the part of our Futures Therapy Lab staff–educators who were on the front lines of communicating with the public in the space–and on the part of the designers-in-residence themselves. We could have done more to better communicate the nature of the program at the outset, and even–after some helpful feedback from one designer-in-residence–at the start of the exhibition before visitors even entered the Futures Therapy Lab.
A more positive outcome regarding communication around this program was the internal communication engendered amongst us as staff. Even though the four of us all worked in Public Programs at this time, we all have different programs we are responsible for, and somewhat different audiences. It was a nice opportunity to break down even the small silos that exist among us.
From “we” back to “me”
One of the biggest takeaways from this program, especially given how much our regularly scheduled programming and teaching takes the form of group conversations or even larger format lectures and performances that reach hundreds, is the importance of reaching our visitors one person at a time. Furthermore, by creating a public space for “therapy,” our hope is that this program in some small ways reduces the stigma regarding seeking treatment for mental health.
As we’ve been reflecting on this program through the lens of our own thoughts and anxieties during this period of global pandemic, this type of programming feels more relevant than ever. Live interpretation in special exhibitions in our museum has typically been limited to guided tours with volunteer docents. The Futures Therapy Lab and the Designer Is In more specifically gave us a footprint within the exhibition to populate with educators and collaborators; it opened us up more (in the art museum world) to strategies employed by progressive historic site and history museum practitioners when dealing with difficult content.
The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience trains its members to challenge visitors’ preconceptions, foster dialogue and spark civic action that enables the past to activate the future. Historic sites across the country that are responsibily interpreting the history of slavery and race have turned to live interpreters to do so.
In a post-pandemic America, museums will have to argue for why they matter even more. What if museums just become warehouses of objects with only online programming? These curated spaces of reflection and emotional engagement could be a reason to come into the building. The live, skilled facilitator helping visitors process the content of a gallery may prove to be the best return on investment museums will make.
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About the Authors
JUSTINA BARRETT holds a master’s degree in early American material culture from the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware complements well her interest and love of sharing Philadelphia with visitors. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she works as Site Manager for Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove, two historic homes in Fairmount Park administered by the Museum. She also designs programs and trains guides to share the Museums’ collections with the public. Working with Museum curators, preservation professionals, and other stakeholders, she advocates for preservation and public access to local historic sites.
CATHERINE RICKETTS works on performance programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a special focus on music programming. She is also an essayist and songwriter. Her writing on art, music, grief, and spirituality has been published in The Millions, Image, and Paste. Read and listen at http://www.catherinedanaricketts.com
GREG STUART is Coordinator of Adult Public Programs and Museum Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to joining the PMA, he worked in Public Programs and Education at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University, and as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
ALICIA VALENCIA is a former ArtTable Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art working in Public Programs, and holds an MDes from Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Art, Design, and the Public Domain. She completed her undergraduate education as a Brown|RISD Dual Degree student, earning an Sc.B in Psychology from Brown University and a BFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She has previously worked at the Boston Museum of Science in Early Childhood Interpretation, the Providence Children’s Museum, and the Decorative Arts and Design Department at the RISD Museum.
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Featured Image: Installation view of Another Generosity, a work in which visitors encounter an inflatable pod measuring 15 feet in diameter; first created in 2018 by Finnish architect Eero Lundén and designed in this incarnation in collaboration with Ron Aasholm and Carmen Lee. The pod slowly expands and contracts in the space, responding to changing levels of carbon dioxide as visitors exhale around it, and provoking questions about the ongoing effect of the human footprint on the environment. Photo from philamuseum.org exhibition website.
Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 20, 2020; revised with edits and updated figures, April 30, 2020.
The museum education profession is, for the second time in a decade, taking a serious blow that could have a devastating impact on the future of the profession.
For both educators and museum management, this is a critical moment. Decisions made now will have repercussions beyond the immediate fiscal crisis. I know. I have been in decision making positions and impacted positions before — in 1990, in 2001, in 2009-10, and now this crisis, which dwarfs all the previous situations.
The immediate situation is daunting. Revenues have plummeted. With buildings closed, most education programs cannot take place. There is not enough cash on hand to meet payroll, so a variety of layoffs, furloughs and/or salary reductions are taking place.
An anonymous excel spreadsheet has been circulating that shows numbers of positions affected. There are approximately 3,400 layoffs and 8,500 furloughed positions listed at several hundred institutions across the country as of April 30, 2020. The numbers might be small in comparison to the almost 30 million workers that have applied for unemployment in the overall economy. But what’s notable is how many of these affected positions are educators and other front-line positions. Moreover, this is “the first phase” with more layoffs possible when the current fiscal year ends in a couple of months. And more institutions still have to report in.
The critical question for me, as with prior recessions, is why education staff is, yet again, bearing the brunt of these layoffs? What impact is the loss of many positions going to have on the long-term viability of the profession and the public value of museums?
Even before the virus/lock down situation arose, many young professionals were voicing concern over the lack of paid internships and low starting pay for positions in museum education, relative to the higher costs of living in large cities where many museums are concentrated. Many have noted the increasing numbers of contracted, part-time, or seasonal positions (the gig economy at work). In some of the major institutions in New York City, large numbers of gallery educators are now as-needed employees. Cancellations of programs means the almost immediate cancellation of these work opportunities. Granted, some institutions have agreed to pay workers for scheduled work for the next month or so and there have been pay reductions for full-time staff.
Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.
The net effect is not encouraging for the health of the profession. Right now, it looks unsteady and volatile. People who work on museum programs along with other front-line staff are seeing that their jobs are expendable. The few that remain in positions will feel guilty and will be under added pressure to retain near normal amounts of programming. This will put added stress on their plates and some will leave when alternative opportunities come up.
This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.
Museums that mainly hire people with the means to work in the profession will have difficulty engaging more diverse publics. These publics will prefer to support organizations that are more reflective of their needs, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.
Statements from museums to the press often refer to the need for endowments and collections to be preserved for the future viability of the organization. If fiscal matters are all that matters, then museums begin to resemble banks, who’s job is to preserve the assets of the bank for the benefit of investors. But museums exist to serve the public. They commit themselves to being mission- driven, and those mission statements usually say something about education and public value. Museums should be asking — how are we preserving our educational mission? What critical and essential work can we continue to provide for the public, even while our buildings are closed? Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these. Scientists warn that further pandemics will arise, on top of the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Now is a good time to rethink public services and to prepare for the next crisis.
The big question for museums is– is this a time for retrenchment, pulling up the drawbridge and retreating behind the walls? Or is it time to fulfill the promise of museums as outward-facing, publicly-spirited organizations? How about forming new partnerships, with libraries, with other disciplines like the performing arts, to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities? What about offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities? What about rethinking the role of education, beyond the constant production of events on site, and instead, getting out into the community and other sectors of society, to conduct more research and evaluation, to redesign services around what people really need and want rather than what we as experts, assume the public wants to consume? Now is a good time to articulate and roll out new public benefits and to continue the good work around diversity and inclusion. It’s time to redefine education work as essential, as core to the mission and its fulfillment. Let’s not emphasize self-preservation above all else. Preservation and access are not one before the other, but both/and. Like yin and yang, they are interdependent. Educational work is not a matter of convenience, when times are good. It is unfinished work that continues with each generation. It helps to preserve the institution by building social value across life spans, which translates into support.
About a decade ago, before the last big round of layoffs, I conducted an informal survey of museum education departments, and discovered that such departments averaged around 5-7% of annual operating budgets, including salaries, but not including any one-time project grants. While there are many lucrative grants that directly support education programs, it often comes as a surprise to the public to know that large events raising money for education often end up supporting general operating costs. If education is deemed to be an essential part of the mission, we must be careful not to use education as a convenient flag to wave for supporting what is deemed to be more important, inward facing tasks.
If mission statements articulating the importance of education and public engagement are to be taken seriously, and if museums expect to attract a diverse pool of applicants to fill future public-facing positions, then they need to come up with a more sustainable formula for the steady provision of those services. Just as interest drawn from endowment investments is applied to operating expenses at steady levels over several years so as not to affect the principle, so each museum should commit to never falling below a certain threshold of support for education and public programs. To weather the ups and downs of funding individual programs, it would help to endow more mid-level, full-time positions in education (endowments typically go to curatorial positions, and occasionally to Directors of Education) and to create a small fund to support paid internships to provide pathways for a more equitable and diverse pool of future museum staff. This is too important a task to be left up to individual museum organizations. It should be strengthened at the national level in terms of museum assessment programs and professional standards.
The central importance of education work in cultural organizations needs to be recognized and elevated. Words like this are not enough. There needs to be actionable steps taken. I invite readers to consider additional ways of building and securing a more positive outlook for the museum profession. Right now, and far too often, museum education takes a beating. Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future.
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About the Author
BRIAN HOGARTH is the Director for Museum Education Programs at Bank Street College in New York City. A native of Toronto, Canada, Brian worked in performing arts management before becoming Manager of Public Programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and Head of Interpretation at the Glenbow in Calgary. In the US, he has been Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Education at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was for ten years Director of Education at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He has taught classes in art history and museum education at Johns Hopkins (Online) Museum Studies, Johnson Community College in Overland Park, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Brian holds an MA in East Asian Art History and a BA in Fine Arts/Theatre.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 disproportionatelyaffected 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?
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 email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.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
My career began at the intersection of museums and schools, and it will always be at the heart of why I do what I do. I discovered museum education while working as a program evaluator for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). I was doing that work because of my interest in equitable public education but discovered the wonders of object-based learning while evaluating a partnership between DCPS and the Smithsonian. Through that evaluation, I found connections among my personal and professional experiences and interests that I didn’t even know existed before. That project more than 20 years ago was a critical turning point that changed the course of my career and led me to museum evaluation. To this day, even though my interests in museums has grown beyond object-based learning, and my work ranges from exhibition evaluation to audience research, it is the work focused on museum school programs that lights me up.
The title of this post is a question that slowly came into focus for me in the last couple of weeks and sent me into a premature grieving for something I worry may never be the same again. In the middle of March, we watched museums close and school districts across the country send students home. I was alarmed but assumed, like most of us, the closures would be a relatively temporary situation. Yet as the pandemic has unfolded, it has become more and more clear that things in our country will not go back to the way they were before the virus, certainly not before a vaccine is widely available.
Through word-of-mouth, I’ve heard that school programs and field trips are very likely off the table for the rest of the 2020. And two weeks ago, Hyperallergic published this news—“MOMA Terminates All Museum Educator Contracts.” We learned that the Museum of Modern Art told museum educators in an email “it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.” Their projection of “months, if not years,” triggered a great deal of anxiety in me and among many others on social media.
As upsetting as it was to read those words from MoMA, I think most of us now realize there is not going to be a quick end to this. A recent article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic quoted Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh:
“Everyone wants to know when this will end. That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”
Following from this expert’s words, the question for me isn’t “will museums keep working with schools during this time?” but instead, “how do museums continue working with schools throughout and beyond the pandemic?”
I believe strongly in the power of museum visits for school children, some of whom may never have been to a museum otherwise. There is something magical for students about entering a museum space surrounded by authentic artworks, objects, or artifacts they cannot see anywhere else. But it’s not just me and my bias for these kinds of programs. Over the years, numerous evaluation and research studies have examined the impact of museum programs on school children, and results show again and again that museum programs make a positive difference in the lives of students. Most recently, two large research studies—a national study of single-visit field trips to art museums by the National Art Education Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors in 2018 and study of field trips at Crystal Bridges in 2012—both showed that a visit to an art museum has a measurable effect on students’ creativity, empathy, and to some extent, critical thinking.
But, back to the “how” question. While it is preferable for students to engage with museums in museums, I advocate for museums not to wait the many months or years it may take for things to go back to “normal,” but instead to prioritize finding alternative ways to keep schools engaged with museums during this time.
I know many museum educators are already starting to do this, but I suspect it isn’t easy. While distance learning exists in museum education, it is certainly not the norm and presents a potentially steep learning curve for both museum educators and classroom teachers. Moreover, even when students go back to the classroom, schools may operate differently and be up against new challenges. The answer to this question of “how” may require a re-imagining of the relationship between museums and schools.
I wish I had the answers, but for now, I can only emphasize that, as a researcher and evaluator, I know the data tells us it would be a huge loss not to put resources toward sustaining and building museum-school relationships—first virtually, and eventually back onsite. I’m sure many of you have already started doing that reimagining. I would love to hear about it.
Featured Image: Students in front of Damian Aquiles’ Infinite Time, Infinite Memory, Infinite Destiny, 2003-2005 at the Orlando Museum of Art. Photo by Amanda Krantz, managing director at RK&A.
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About the Author
STEPHANIE DOWNEY: Stephanie brings more than two decades of research and evaluation experience to her position as owner and director of RK&A, a museum consulting firm. She takes pleasure in working closely with museums and other informal learning organizations to help them make a difference in the lives of their audiences. Stephanie has undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology and ultimately is driven by her lifelong interest in how humans behave and make meaning. Prior to joining RK&A in 1999, she conducted educational research and program evaluation in public schools. Stephanie serves as treasurer on the board of the Museum Education Roundtable, frequently presents at professional association conferences like the American Alliance of Museums and the National Art Education Association, and regularly peer reviews manuscripts for the Journal of Museum Education and Curator. When not working, you can find Stephanie in the kitchen trying new recipes, cheering on her children in their various activities, and hiking trails along the Hudson River.
It’s hard to accurately represent the magnitude with which the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting each one of us and disproportionately affecting black, brown, and low-income communities. Not only are we all worrying about staying healthy and protecting our lives, we have the compounding stress of worrying about our livelihoods and careers as unemployment rates soar. In a report released on Thursday, April 2, the Labor Department indicates that “…there are around 8.5 million more people on unemployment benefits today than there were two weeks ago.” The unemployment rate has been estimated to be at around 13 percent, according to further reports. This is likely the worst period in history for all of us.
As a graduate student two months away from earning my master’s in Museum Studies, I find myself circling back to a single, gut-wrenching question: what am I supposed to do now?
It’s also hard to ignore the impact COVID-19 is having – and will continue to have – on museums and cultural organizations across the U.S. I can’t scroll through Twitter or talk to a museum friend without hearing about more layoffs, teams struggling to generate revenue while closed, or people scrambling to generate something, anything to put out into the world. Worst of all, it’s hard to escape the constant anxiety and grief that surrounds the work that we do.
While the U.S. is understandably preoccupied with the worsening health emergency, the last few weeks have underlined the fact that museums and cultural institutions are extremely undervalued in American society (just think about the lack of emergency funding for arts and cultural organizations). Our institutions were not designed to handle a crisis like this – and we haven’t even dealt with the education, job, and economic crises that are yet to come.
One perspective I have noticed is eerily absent from broader discussions about the impact of our current situation is that of the youngest generation of museum professionals. I’d like to create a space where our needs, concerns, and frustrations can be both shared and heard. I guess there’s no better way to do that than to start by sharing my own.
The last few weeks have brought an onslaught of changes for all of us. Like virtually every other student in the country, I have watched my university close its campus and switch to entirely remote learning and work, tried to prepare my individual research for conferences that might not happen, and watched the museum where I work part-time close to the public before laying me and others off.
I am tired. I am frustrated. But mostly I am anxious. Ironically, being a graduate student right now provides a certain amount of comfort; I have work to do, I have a community to lean on, and I have a sense of normalcy others may not have. Unfortunately, being a graduate student right now also emphasizes the uncertainty of the job market. I was in the midst of applying to countless positions before museums started closing and now…everything is on hold until further notice. Knowing that it can take several months to a year post-degree to land a full-time job in a museum, seeing the plight of the field unfold is petrifying. As an educator, watching museums announce sweeping layoffs of education and interpretation staff is especially worrisome. Getting a sustainable job as a museum educator was hard enough before COVID-19; if museums cut their education programs and have no plan for reinstating education staff, the outlook seems bleak.
And I am but one person. There are countless other graduate students and young professionals across the U.S. and around the world in the same position. In speaking with a peer from my graduating cohort, I quickly realized that the feelings of anxiety and fear are widespread among emerging professionals. Olivia Knauss, a second-year Museum Studies student at NYU specializing in development and fundraising, states:
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt ‘on-track.’ I was working two different paid internships at two different NYC-based museums, while also reaching the final stages of my master’s thesis. I made it to the second round of interviews for three different full-time positions. But as in most industries, everything came to a screaming halt. Early on, I was laid off from one of my paid internships, losing valuable income I need to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. All of my interviews have been suspended or postponed indefinitely. I’m back at square one…it’s hard not to feel helpless.”
Museum Studies students and those in related programs are not the only ones hurting right now. The programs themselves are facing mounting uncertainties. Will more students enroll this fall? Will these programs be able to stay open? What will this pandemic change how we pursue and complete graduate work? It’s hard to know what the next few years will look for professional training and graduate education.
This is not to say that there aren’t incredible things happening in museums right now. More institutions are finally realizing how essential true digital engagement can be. The National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City and the Shedd Aquarium are leading the way with joy-inducing internet content. Leaders in the field continue to share advice on how to navigate this experience and biting critiques of inequity in the field.
The only way out of this reality is through it, so we must keep pushing forward. I try to remain hopeful, to stay up-to-date on what is happening in the field, and to have faith that this degree will be worth it in the end.
I try … but what am I supposed to do now?
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About the Author
Zélie Lewis: As an educator specializing in digital learning and engagement, Zélie is set to receive her MA in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2020. Prior to graduate school, Zélie served as a college advisor in a rural high school where she worked to improve student and community access to post-secondary resources. Zélie began her transition to the museum field as an Apprentice Museum Educator at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and joined the Brooklyn Historical Society as the Education Administrative Assistant in 2019. Her research focuses on the role and effectiveness of museum-based distance education in serving rural K-12 educators and speaks more broadly to the role of distance ed in providing more equitable access to museum resources for low-access communities.
When I first started hearing news about the coronavirus in China I didn’t understand the seriousness of this disease and how it would quickly come to change everything about our lives. I had taken vacation time to spend part of Spring Break with my family and when I returned to work on Thursday, March 12 I was surprised to hear that attendance had been low and people were opting to stay home. That evening and the next morning, conversations were brewing at the museum about potentially closing to the public. I attended a series of meetings on Friday, March 13 and felt like I was getting new updates every hour about what this would mean for our institution, staff, and community.
That day felt like a whirlwind, and though I would still go into the office the following Monday to gather files and prepare myself and my team for working from home for the foreseeable future I knew everything had changed. As a photographer, I am always documenting my life and the world around me. Through the images below you can get a glimpse into the world as my family (husband, 13 year old daughter, 2 year old daughter, and various dogs) and I have experienced it the past few weeks. See the caption with each image for additional text.
This new normal for my family has had its ups and downs. Being (mostly) confined to our somewhat small home and trying to focus on work in a shared space with a teenager, a two year old, and my significant other has been difficult. Worrying about when the museum will reopen, when or if schools will be back in session, and if my loved ones or I will get sick has been a slow build-up of anxiety that I have never experienced before. But, I truly enjoy taking a lunch break and eating at the table with my family instead of eating at my desk as I work through lunch. It has been so nice to get outdoors more often whether we are going on walks, working in the garden, or running around the backyard with the dogs.
How have you been managing work, family, friends, your own mental health during this time? What aspects of this new way of living do you plan to hold on to when this is all said and done? What aspects of the old way of living do you look forward to getting back?
About the Author
JESSICA FUENTES: Manager of School and Community Outreach, Amon Carter Museum of American Art. As an art educator with over thirteen years of experience Jessica has taught in both classroom and museum settings. She received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Jessica worked for six years at the Dallas Museum of Art as the Manager of Gallery Interpretation and the Center for Creative Connections prior to joining the Carter in 2018. Though much of her passion and work is focused on her local community, she serves on the Education Planning Committee for the Smithsonian Latino Center and as the Representative-Elect for the Western Region of the Museum Division of the National Art Education Association. In her downtime she can usually be found with her daughters out in nature, enjoying an art museum, or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.
This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.
And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?
We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :
1. It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.
2. Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.
3. Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.
4. To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.
We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.
5. ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.
* * *
This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.
This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.
Society expects nothing less from us.
Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”
About the Author
FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.
I have the profound privilege to experience COVID-19 as a source of stress, not crisis. My family is healthy and able to shelter in place. My organization is well-funded enough to support our staff and continue our work. Like most folks, I feel waves of panic and fear. But my primary emotion is gratitude.
There are many, many people who don’t have my privileges right now. I’m talking daily to people who are losing income and housing and security and health. All this suffering makes me wonder: how can I contribute? What is the best way I can show up for others right now?
I started answering this question with the basics: staying home and practicing physical distancing. Reaching out to loved ones who are struggling. Donating to people and communities in crisis. Ensuring my colleagues have secure jobs and expanded benefits to support their well-being.
That all feels good. But I feel called to do more. And more is presenting itself to me — more opportunities to give, to volunteer, to be of service. So now I have a different problem: how to figure out what to do.
Don’t Let Production be the Enemy of Good
I’m not alone with this problem. In my industry — the nonprofit cultural sector — I see many organizations scrambling to engage right now.
In some cases, rapid response is phenomenal and highly relevant. I’m thrilled that art museums are donating personal protective equipment to healthcare workers. I’m amazed by historic sites that are offering their facilities up for hospital beds and food distribution centers. I’m grateful arts councils are setting up emergency funds for artists. I’m glad nature centers and parks are staying open as places of connection and healing.
These forms of rapid response are timely and meaningful. But I had to hunt for the above examples. Meanwhile, without my asking, my inbox is overflowing with a deluge of virtual museum tours, live-streamed opera performances, and digital educational resources. And it makes me wonder: is this the most meaningful way cultural organizations can contribute — or is it just the fastest way?
I’m not opposed to these offerings. I can see the hope and pleasure small snippets of art, music, history, and nature provide. But why are we doing it? Are we doing it based on some kind of expressed community need? Are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?
You could argue that these organizations are contributing what they do best. But we’re a creative sector, and I think we could get more creative. In the race to deliver, I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.
At first, I too felt pressure to produce and perform. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t using my platform to be of great service right away. But then I realized — I don’t know how to do that yet. There was a real possibility I might burn myself out producing something mediocre instead of figuring out what might be most useful.
So I gave myself permission to slow down. I thought about my organization — OF/BY/FOR ALL — and how we coach cultural organizations to learn from communities and increase their relevance and public value.
Here are the steps I’m taking to find a better answer to the question of how I can contribute.
If you’re like me, holding privilege and wondering how you can be of service (whether as an individual or on behalf of your organization), I offer this process to you.
1. SELECT A COMMUNITY OF FOCUS.
You can’t help everyone. So ask yourself: what community especially matters to you right now? Who do you care about who might be particularly vulnerable or at risk? Maybe it’s elderly people in your neighborhood. Maybe it’s immigrants without a safety net. Maybe it’s nurses. I believe in targeted, community-centric approaches — and that starts with identifying specific communities to support.
2. LISTEN TO THAT COMMUNITY.
If you take a blind guess as to what a particular community might care most about, there’s a good chance you’ll guess wrong. But there’s an easy alternative: listen to them. Find ways to hear and learn directly from individuals and community organizations. You can search for information online. You can follow community leaders and activists on social media. Try to learn as much as possible by observation and listening (as opposed to asking people to give you their time) so you don’t add to burdens that struggling folks are already facing.
3. MAP YOUR SKILLS AND ASSETS.
At the same time as you learn what matters most to the communities you care most about, try to learn more about yourself. What can you uniquely offer? What existing assets and skills do you have that might be relevant? If you’re exploring this as an individual, you might have assets like your time, your bilingualism, or your ability to cook. As an organization, you might have assets like a building, a digital following, or the ear of the mayor.
For me, the most important part of this step is creative dot-connecting. How can you use your creativity to make unexpected connections between what is desired and what you have? These connections don’t have to be huge to be meaningful. For example, my sister (who lives alone) was feeling socially isolated. She mentioned on the phone that she was going to see if she could foster a furry companion. When that didn’t work out, we gave her our dog for a few weeks.
I probably never would have put my dog on a list of assets I have that can help right now. But he is, and he does.
4. CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.
Once you have an idea that matches your assets to your perceived community interests, take a pause. Check in with community representatives before hitting go. You might think something’s a great idea, but value is in the eye of the community.
I didn’t drive up to my sister’s house and drop a 70-pound dog on her porch without asking. I heard her expressed interest. I thought I had a matching asset. And then I checked in to confirm if that was the case. I want to give communities the same respect and forethought I give my sister.
WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE IN PRACTICE
I’m going through this process at different speeds with different communities. Here’s how I’m approaching it with two communities that matter to me right now: homeless people in my county and cultural organizations around the world.
Move Fast When There’s an Obvious Best Way to Contribute
When it comes to homeless people in Santa Cruz County, I’m moving quickly. I’m learning what matters most via communication from organizations I trust. I’m hearing what matters most is funding to fuel critical services during the crisis. I have a corresponding asset to offer — my own cash. So I’m increasing donations to homeless-serving organizations I trust. I’m also encouraging and supporting my husband in more direct service to homeless people (which is part of his daily work). I don’t have to get too creative here to make a difference.
Move Slow When the Path is Not Obvious and Creativity Could Lead to Better Results
When it comes to cultural practitioners around the world, I’m moving slowly. I think I have more potential to contribute something unique here, and I’m not sure what it is. So right now, I’m doing a mix of steps 2 and 3. I’m learning about what matters to this community, and I’m mapping my own skills and assets.
I’m learning what matters most by listening to cultural practitioners in my own professional network — in OF/BY/FOR ALL programs, emails, calls, and tweets. I’m focusing my listening on voices of black, indigenous, disabled, and people of color. I’ve made some small donations (like to the Arts Leaders of Color Emergency Fund). But mostly, for now, I’m listening.
To map my assets, I’m trying to stay curious and creative about what I might uniquely offer. There are others who are better positioned than me to provide cash to cultural organizations— and I’m thrilled several foundations are stepping up to do so. I believe there’s another way for me to support this community. I’ve got some assets at my disposal: a big online network, a history of leading change at an organization in crisis, an amazing team committed to equipping teams for transformation, and time to commit. I’ve got some skills to offer, like writing, dreaming, coaching, tool creation, and framework creation.
I don’t yet know how I can be most useful to cultural organizations. So I’m listening and mapping, mapping and listening. As I listen, I’m jotting down themes and trends. I’m starting to connect the dots with my assets and skills. I’m starting to dream about ways I might be able to uniquely contribute.
I think it will take me 3–4 weeks to come up with viable, concrete ideas grounded in what I’m hearing from the community. At that point, I’ll move into step four, and talk with colleagues and peers to check my assumptions and select a path forward. I believe I’ll come up with an answer that uses my skills in the best possible way to generate the most possible value.
This process is grounded in a fundamental realization (and acceptance) that I don’t have the skills and assets that are most needed right now. I’m not a health care provider, or a farmer, or a social worker. If I worked in health care or social service, right now I’d value expediency and rapid response. But I don’t. So I’m banking on a different skill: creativity.
Don’t burn yourself out before you can do the most good. Give yourself permission to get clear on which communities are most important to you right now. Listen deeply to what matters to them. Think creatively about how you can deploy your skills and assets to support their ability to thrive.
I hope we can use this time to create value in ways that nudge the world to greater interconnectivity, resilience, creativity, and care. If it takes a few weeks to figure out how you might be of best service, that’s ok. Take the time — and then take the action. The world will be better for it.
Featured Image caption: My sister and my dog sharing a moment.
About the Author
Nina Simon: Spacemaker/CEO of OF/BY/FOR ALL. Best-selling author of The Participatory Museum (2010) and The Art of Relevance (2016). http://www.ninaksimon.com
Right now, I realize that we are all affected by the current coronavirus pandemic in wide-ranging yet different ways. From the realities of severe economic downturn and the daily experience of physical distancing to concerns about our own health and the well-being of our families, friends, and loved ones, this is a challenging time for us all — our entire global family. Moments like this change us. And I believe that it is part of our collective human responsibility to reflect on moments like this, to write about our experiences, and to share our stories with each other. Stories that allow us to be vulnerable, open, honest, and more human.
At times in my own life when I feel the most challenged, I reach for the writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. In her transformative book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron explores the human response to moments of intense despair and loss. I grabbed my copy of this book off the shelf last week, and began flipping through the pages, reading bits from each section. One sentence stood out to me more than all the others: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”
Open Call for Writings and Reflections
So here is my invitation and open call. I would love to gather together a series of posts over the next weeks and months from anyone willing to share their own reflections during this time of crisis, this very moment. There are few if any guidelines here, and I’m open to any type of personal writing as well as creative responses that open up new ways for us to share our stories.
Here are some questions that are interesting me, but more importantly I want to know what interests you about what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling during this time.
How have you been affected by the current crisis?
How are you and others taking care of yourselves and each other through these difficult times?
What does strong, compassionate leadership look like for you right now?
How can museums continue the vital, necessary work of dismantling systems of oppression during and after this crisis?
As we move further into this crisis, how can museum leaders (and those who remain working for these institutions) place human care and relationships above all else?
In what ways can museums and cultural organizations serve as places of healing and connection for our communities?
What is something that has gone unspoken or unsaid since the beginning of this pandemic and its impact on museums and cultural institutions?
How to Submit
If you are interested in submitting or have something to submit for publishing online as part of this series, please just send me an email at email@example.com. I only have one requirement for these posts — each submission must have at least one image or photograph (that we can reproduce here on this blog); and I’m happy to help find an image if you don’t have one.
Share this Open Call to anyone in your community who might be interested.
I am continuously grateful for everyone who has come together to support each other during this pandemic. I hope this series of posts, writings, and stories can be a way for us to be listening to each other and find human connection, loving-kindness, and compassion amidst the darkness of these difficult times.