Marcia Tucker on Museums as ‘Agent Provocateur’

“I see art history, and museums in particular, as a process, an interface, a tool, an ‘agent provocateur’ whose role, rather than being didactic, is to get people to see and think for themselves.”

Marcia Tucker

Marcia Tucker was the founding director of the New Museum in New York and a visionary curator, also working for many years as a free-lance art critic, writer, lecturer, and professor.  Her defiance of conventional practice has always inspired me, even though I only became familiar with her work and writings during the year that she sadly passed away, 2006.  Marcia founded the New Museum when she was 37 after being fired from the Whitney Museum of American Art. According to the New York Times, her motto in founding the museum was, “Act first, think later — that way you have something to think about.”  This quote by her has driven my own personal philosophy of museum teaching — to “get people to see and think for themselves.”

p.s.  the image below from an installation at the Mattress Factory was the best I could come up with for a visual of museums as a real interface and provocateur.  My only visit to that institution a couple years ago was quite a unique experience in seeing, exploring, wondering, and thinking for myself — culminating in my encounter with this permanent installation space by artist Yayoi Kusama.

Photo by Anjan Chatterjee

Image Theatre: Opening a Dialogue through Our Bodies

Photo by Julio Albarran

How can we create more meaningful dialogues among museum learners as well as with works of art?  How might we effectively explore abstract concepts such as power, struggle, class, and interpersonal relationships through objects in our galleries?

The Image Theatre technique, an exercise developed by Brazilian director Augusto Boal (author of Theatre of the Oppressed), can provide a fresh way to activate museum learning for all ages. I was reintroduced to this technique last year, when educators from the Metro Theater Company led a series of teacher workshops at the Saint Louis Art Museum. These workshops all focused on kinesthetic learning and participant-centered drama strategies as ways to make stronger connections with artworks on view in the galleries, but the Image Theatre exercise has stuck with me ever since.  It is such a flexible teaching tool, and great for breaking down the passive museum viewing experience and transforming a quiet museum gallery into an interactive, imaginative space.

While I know that every theatre group has its own way of practicing the Image Theatre technique (and I love keeping these strategies “open source” and adaptable), the steps below were inspired by Metro Theater Company’s approach. Although this strategy can be extended in various ways, the basic exercise outlined below can be completed in about 20 minutes (although a larger, very-engaged group can easily push this activity to 40 minutes).

  1. Form a Circle: Invite your group (whether students or adults) to form a circle in the center of the gallery, standing around the space that will become their “theatre.”
  2. Identify Actors: Ask for 2 volunteers to become actors enter the theatre space in the center.
  3. Construct an Image: Quickly work with these actors to move into a pose that you construct (something as simple as a handshake works well, or you can ask the actors to quickly create a pose). Ask the actors to freeze their pose, creating an image or snapshot.
  4. Describe & Imagine: The group participants standing around the outside of the circle can now take some time to look closely at the image in front of them, and the facilitator invites group members to begin describing what they see — using their imaginations to construct stories, narratives, and relationships based on the visual and physical evidence they have before them (body pose, gestures, facial expression, clothing, etc.).  Begin to delve into questions of power — who has it? who doesn’t? what evidence indicates that?
  5. Thought Bubble: After you “interview” the group’s imagination and develop several stories about the image created by the 2 actors’ bodies, you can also use a paper or cardboard thought bubble to ask participants what they think the characters might be thinking — probing their internal thoughts and emotions.
  6. Shift & Re-Examine: Now, have the actors’ make a simple change to their pose that will flip the dynamic between their characters — sometimes as simple as having one of the actors kneel down, sit, or take a different physical position.  Re-interview the group participants about the new image, and what is different.  Has the power relationship changed?  Why?  What else might be going on here?  You can use the thought bubble again to probe the internal thoughts of the characters.
  7. Reflect: Wrap-up the exercise by inviting the entire group (including the actors) to reflect on what just happened?  What did they notice about this exercise? Emphasize how this exercise may have heightened their observation skills and brought out complexity from a series of simple body poses.
  8. Move to an Artwork: Direct the group to gather in front of a nearby painting or sculpture, bringing their close looking, excitement, and imagination from the theatre exercise to their analysis of the artwork.  Identify the “actors” in the painting, and probe the power relationships and dynamics among those figures or visual elements.  While this can work really well with a painting that includes figures, you can also take the leap to a more abstract work and challenge participants to see colors, visual forms, and brushstrokes as “actors” or characters within the work.  Discuss what the group sees in the work, and you can even pull out the cardboard thought bubble to gather insights into the thoughts or feelings of the characters or elements in the artwork.

Over the past year, I have used this exercise many times in the galleries with groups ranging from elementary school students to museum docents.  Each time, I feel that the experience taps into the social dynamic of museum learning and helps make visitors’ engagement with art (and with themselves) more active and meaningful.  And it’s fun!

Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art

“Listening to works of art and participating in a conversation with them can produce exciting and shifting responses in each of us: poems, stories, self-portraits, essays, and other creative works are generated that ‘talk back’ to the visual stimulus.” (xv)

The power of bringing together visual art and writing is something that all museum educators have likely experienced at one time or another while guiding a tour or workshop in the galleries–whether through a process of recording observations or a deeper engagement through poetry.  Writing has the ability to get students and visitors to truly “enter into” a work of art and open their imagination. While there are many excellent resources on the topic of art and writing that I use regularly (including Kathy Walsh-Piper’s Image to Word, the Weisman Art Museum’s Artful Writing, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new Looking to Write resource), I keep coming back to the Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art, edited by Tanya Foster and Kristin Prevallet.

Written by a range of educators, poets, and artists, the book’s chapters lay out a meaningful series of creative encounters with visual art, both within and outside the museum environment.  The chapters that have most influenced my own teaching practice are those centered around abstract and contemporary art — an area where writing (both reflective and creative) can open new pathways to meaning, especially for viewers who might be uncomfortable with work by artists like Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, etc.

Cy Twombly, Wilder Shores of Love (1985)

My favorite strategy in the book comes from Gary Hawkins, who recounts an experience he leads for students with Cy Twombly’s monumental Catullus at the Menil Collection. First, he situates each student in their own spot in front of the 50-foot-long canvas, mapping out an area of the painting that he designates “yours” — giving the students a real sense of ownership and accountability. Each student observes and writes on their own at first, then assembles their responses into a larger group poem that is performed in front of the painting. For this final collaborative poem, students are asked to choose 2 lines from their writing, and read their favorite line when Gary taps them on the shoulder. As he writes, “the effect of these group poems that build down the face of the painting and rise to fill the room is stunning.” And I can agree, as I’ve adapted this experience for students in front of large works by Anselm Kiefer or Gerhard Richter, and the result is remarkable. This has been the perfect exercise to digest a large, complex, abstract work piece-by-piece in a way that allows students or visitors to own the experience.

Overall, Third Mind offers up these types of experiences with language that we can adapt to our own learning environments.  In her contribution to this volume, poet Anne Waldman provides the necessary linkage between this creative, collaborative act of writing and William Burroughs’ concept of “the third mind,” which inspired the book’s title as well as its conceptual framework:

“Something new, or ‘other,’ emerges from the combination that would not have come about without a solo act.” (131)

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

IMLS Strategic Plan: Creating a Nation of Learners

Link to IMLS Strategic Plan, 2012 – 2016: Creating a Nation of Learners

The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan, which includes some key challenges for museums as we move firmly into the second decade of the 21st century.

Here is my favorite quote from the Center for the Future of Museums post about the new IMLS plan:

On how museums of the future might need to be different in order to meet the needs of their communities

Museums and libraries for many years were seen as repositories for information, for content, for objects, for paintings, and as places to go and experience things in a very non-interactive way. Now we’re in a world where it’s much more about your own experience of the information, the object or the art. I think the staff in museums has to be ready and willing to accept the role of facilitator of the individual or visitor experience. In a way, it’s giving something up—you don’t control the experience anymore. You try to make it useful and helpful but also flexible so that the visitor can really get what they want out of the experience not what you want them to have. It’s being willing to really walk in the visitor’s shoes and create experiences that are meaningful to them and allow them the opportunity to develop their own understanding and their own skills.

Merce Cunningham on Discovering

“One only has to get one’s mind out of the way about deciding that something is good or bad, and rather allow for different kinds of things to take place, so that you are or I am constantly on the point of discovering something I don’t know about, rather than repeating what I do know about.”

– Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham was a pivotal artist and choreographer of the 20th century who redefined modern dance and expanded the frontiers of both the visual and performing arts. In a 1985 interview with Terry Gross, he was asked about how he pushed forward in response to such heavy criticism and mocking during his early groundbreaking performances. The quote above was his powerful response.

Smarthistory: A Multimedia web-book about art & art history

Link to Smarthistory.org

Exploding the concept of the art history survey text, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker developed Smarthistory.org to bring art and art history to life through close looking, collaborative conversation, and multimedia digital learning.  Saying “bye, bye” to the professor standing up at the front of a dark classroom lecturing for hours, this site engages the 21st century learner and opens up the images and stories of art history to anyone with an internet connection or mobile device.

Beth and Steven best describe the power of the Smarthistory.org approach:

“We have found that the unpredictable nature of discussion is far more compelling to students, museum visitors, and other informal learners than a monologue. When students listen to shifts of meaning as we seek to understand each other, we model the experience we want our visitors to have—a willingness to encounter the unfamiliar and transform it in ways that make it meaningful to them.”

Developing Questions for Visitor Participation

Photo by Oberazzi

For the past 2 years or more, I have been working with docents and educators using a strategy I first encountered through Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog a post on “Developing Questions for Visitor Participation.”  This approach to developing questions — for which I give full credit to Nina Simon, the guru she is — has helped shift my own mentality towards the role questions play in museum teaching.  When I first read Simon’s blog post, it was before her book The Participatory Museum was published, so I was citing her blog as the source of this great exercise that has since become the “bread and butter” of developing questions in my own work.

If you take away one thing from her approach to developing questions, it would be this:

“This is the golden rule of developing questions for visitor dialogue: you must be truly interested in their answers. If you don’t care about the answer to the question, why on earth should anyone else?”

Her list of the “right” types of questions can also get educators and docents generating questions that matter, instead of regurgitating questions that we all know the answers to.  Here is Simon’s list of good questions:

  • questions that trigger an immediate response
  • questions that induce grappling
  • questions that motivate authentic expression
  • questions that draw from personal experience
  • questions open to anyone
  • questions that are speculative (“what if?” instead of “what is?”)
  • questions that produce answers that are interesting

We’ve had some incredible sessions with docents and teachers where we will use this approach to brainstorm and test questions in the galleries.  Back in 2009 (the first time I used this strategy with our new docent class), a small group selected to work with the painting Factories at Clichy by Vincent Van Gogh.

Factories at Clichy, 1887

After developing several questions, there was one that bubbled to the surface as particularly engaging and interesting.  The group asked, “What do you think this landscape might look like today?,” and I remember everyone wanting to share their own response, striking up quite a conversation in front of this painting.  The question was simple, triggered immediate responses in everyone, drew from personal experiences, and allowed us all to speculate.  It also made some complex connections with the environmental and urban issues that artists like Van Gogh were actually dealing with back in the period of modernization and rapid urbanization of the areas surrounding Paris.

If you bring Nina Simon’s “golden rule” of developing questions for visitor dialogue into your own work, please share your experiences and “Add to the Conversation” below –>

Connections – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Link to Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Connections.

Last year, in 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched the thematic multimedia series called Connections as a way of connecting visitors (mostly online visitors) to the voices and personal perspectives of their staff — ultimately creating new connections with artworks in the collection.  I immediately began following the series, clicking on the multimedia/audio links each week. The series certainly models a way of connecting artworks across collections and time periods through the personal or intellectual links we can make. Its episodes on themes such as “Fatherhood,” “Texture,” and “Bad Hair” help museum novices (and lifelong visitors) reconnect with the simple, human element that is at the core of our interactions with art.

Photo by Andrew Brannan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

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

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

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

2.   Be a learner yourself.

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

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

3.   Get more involved.

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

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

4.   Embrace freedom and choice.

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

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

5.   Get moving!

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

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

6.   Get writing!

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

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

7.   Think BIG.

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

Warhol image: MOMA

Mask Image: CalState

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