A Manifesto for Schools Visiting Art Museums

An important aspect of our role as art museum educators is to welcome and induct teachers and their students into museum protocols in a way that is warm and inviting. There are so many ‘do’s and don’ts’ about visiting the museum it can make them intimidating places to visit and that’s not the message we want to send before they have even set foot in the place. We know how great they are and for so many reasons.

Photo by Michael Edson

I’ve been trying to think of ways to better support teachers and help them to prepare for their visit so that student gain the maximum value for their efforts in getting there. Teachers are busy and we need to be strategic about the information that we send out and request, so that everyone is prepared for an amazing and wonderful museum experience. The Getty Center has created a short introductory video and lesson plan so students know what to expect, which looks useful. I am mainly concerned that with all of the information we need to communicate. How do we expect teachers to cut through to the most vital material?

I’ve come up with some lists of items I consider to be important and would like to present it in the form of a manifesto.

How can we best prepare teachers and their students for their visit?

By making;

  • program offerings clear and concise
  • booking procedures easy to follow and not too complicated
  • it easy for teachers to let us know what their expectations are, for example; what is the context of the visit such as a broader unit of study, curriculum requirements or a fun end-of-term activity
  • our behavioural expectations explicit

How do we like teachers to be prepared?

We find that teachers can help to create more effective learning experiences at the museum for students when they;

  • have visited the museum independently prior to bringing the students and have seen the content of the exhibition(s)
  • know about the museums facilities, such as where to check-in when the group arrives, the best spots for lunch, and of course the toilets
  • have briefed accompanying teachers and chaperones about museum behaviour protocols and have the capacity to manage their allocated student group
  • understand that artworks are precious and fragile so students must behave in a respectful manner and teachers model these behaviours
  • understand that the museum is a shared space with other visitors and everyone is mindful of this
  • know that we don’t mind if a visit is at the beginning or end of a unit of study.

What are the things that can make a visit go from great to amazing?

When:

  • teachers have prepared students by telling them what they can expect to happen and what is expected of them on the day
  • students know they must leave their bags, drink bottles (and mobile phones) in the bag room
  • teachers supervise their students in small groups in the museum
  • students have empty hands, helping them to listen and focus their attention, to be completely ‘in the moment’ whilst we are in conversation and showing them through the gallery
  • students ask lots of questions about artworks and the museum
  • worksheets are designed so that students are engaging directly with the experience of being in the gallery and not looking for facts they can find on the website (which can be good preparation or a follow-up activity to extend the value of a visit) and these are completed before or after the allocated time with an educator
  • the language used to discuss artworks is not completely new to the students and that even if they don’t know what the words mean, they can become part of their everyday language and expression
  • teachers trust us and our ability to encourage deep, rich, sophisticated conversations about a few artworks that requires moments of silence for time to think and look so students can make considered responses
  • when teachers have activities planned for the time outside their facilitated tour, independent activities might include observational sketching or writing tasks

How about from amazing to incredible?

By providing teachers with;

  • complementary tickets to visit prior to bringing their students
  • well designed booking forms
  • maps specifically designed for visiting school groups
  • an easily accessible bag room or cloaking facilities
  • somewhere dry and sheltered to enjoy a picnic lunch
  • suggested itineraries for how to structure a whole day visit
  • meaningful worksheets to give to their students that focus on self-reflection and observation using open ended questions and enhances the experience of being in an art museum
  • introductory lesson plans to use in class before the schools visit

Thank you for visiting and please come back with your family.

Teachers reasons for visiting art museums are complex and may range between taking students out on a treat, to meeting very specific curriculum goals as prescribed by departments of education. For some students the most that can be gained from an art museum experience is learning how to look at art, and learning that knowing what questions to ask is more important than being told the answers. I want teachers and students to understand that some artists challenge traditional ways of thinking and assumed societal conventions through the language of art and it is not to be dismissed because formal appreciation does not help us to understand it. Given that some research has shown that many children only experience the art museum during a school visit makes this an enormous learning experience and makes a museum visit all the more valuable and we need to go to the extra lengths to ensure these audiences are welcomed.

These lists are by no means conclusive so…

I would like to open up the conversation and really look forward to reading your comments about what should be added or omitted.

How do museum educators prepare visiting teachers and their students?
What is the experience of booking an education tour at your museum like?
Are videos useful to demonstrate what will happen or are there too many variables?

If museum-visiting-teachers are reading this, it would be terrific to get your perspective too.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  As ArtMuseumTeaching.com has been active now for more than 7 months with tens of thousands of readers, I always want to make sure we cover the full range of issues pertinent to our field and areas of practice. One area which has received little attention in the recent discourse (especially in key publications) has been our work as educators with our school communities — especially the nuts and bolts of developing transformative, meaningful experiences with students on tours. And I didn’t even need to make a call for posts, as several contributors recently submitted their own thoughts and reflections on this issue.  So I invite you to read this first post by Christine Healey who provides a working manifesto on school visits that we both hope opens up a dialogue on these matters.  This post followed by an additional reflection from Kate Sutlive who writes about her own practice in preparing for and leading inquiry-based school tours that introduce students to art. Enjoy, and as always, add your thoughts and perspectives to the mix.

The What and the Where of Art Museum Education

Educational practices in art museums don’t often make the pages of major newspapers, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this article, “From Show and Look to Show and Teach,” in the New York Times a few months ago (see also Lindsay Smilow’s earlier response to this NYT article). After a cursory glance, I assumed it would detail educational activities as part of an ongoing commitment to fostering free-choice or constructivist learning experiences in some of the most well-known museums on the planet.

As I read, two assumptions of the author began to take shape:

  1. “education” in museums is equated primarily with engaging in processes of art making; furthermore, museum guests expect such offerings under the auspices of “participatory events;” and
  2. the locations of education programs provide significant but conflicting messages.
Whitney Studio, designed by LOT-EK. Photo by Inhabitat

On one hand, the writer cites the director of the Whitney asserting that “education is part and parcel of what we do” after explaining that the physical space for educational activities (presumably at other institutions) is often physically isolated. Shortly thereafter, the author lauded the rather unique Whitney Studio, a “pop-up” center for education at the Whitney that is not only isolated, it is separate from the building altogether. It seems metaphorically significant in this instance that this temporary space is made from enormous shipping containers.

These assumptions prompted me to reflect on my own thoughts about what constitutes education in museums, and where that education should occur. As a graduate student in the mid-1990s I was fully ingratiated in the paradigm of Discipline-Based Art Education, in which aesthetics, art history, art production, and art criticism are considered basic subject areas from which to derive content for art education—while art production for me has always been one way to come to a better understanding of art, the conversations that may be engendered in gallery and other spaces have always been far more intriguing and significant in my own educational practices.

I am certainly not the first person to reckon with the importance of art making as part of an overall educational endeavor. My colleague and friend, Professor B. Stephen Carpenter, made an interesting comment during a panel presentation on reconceptualizing curriculum at the 2012 NAEA convention in New York City. He questioned, ever so briefly, whether or not the act of art making is, in fact, the primary goal/foundation of every model of art education, though his question specifically focused on eco-environmental curriculum. At the time, I thought… if it is primary, then where does that leave the myriad other discourses that surround art education and art museum education? What happens when we as professional educators privilege a particular kind of knowing over all other ways of relating to objects in the museum, particularly when few people excel at those skills, especially as they are presented in very short classes?

The article featured other examples of art-making-as-education in spaces outside the museum, such as Open Field, a grassy space next to the Walker Art Center, and several digital spaces, including online art production classes offered by the Museum of Modern Art. Art museum education has long been relegated to basements and other hidden or cordoned-off areas of the museum, and I pause to wonder what messages are being transmitted when learning is offered outside the physical space of the museum.

Does this practice reify the notion that education is a by-product of the more serious business of being in the galleries? Or is it simply a practical response to a space issue for educators who are increasingly offering educational opportunities that are responsive to their particular learning communities, collections, and spaces?

If one considers art making to be an important exercise with which to engage in order to understand art, a separate space is necessary for obvious reasons, as art can be (and should be) messy. If not, then the what and the where of art museum education is an important and evolving conversation.

I invite you to add your own thoughts and perspectives below, so we can continue to engage in productive exchange about these ideas that are core to our profession.

Tools for Understanding Your World: Museums + Beyond

Can you describe the space you are in right now? Have you thought about the temperature, the colors, the lighting, how the furniture is arranged, the sounds you can hear, the textures you feel, the smells that you associate with this space? When any of those elements change, how does that alter the space? How does that change how you interact with this space?

Yayoi Kusama
“Infinity Dots Mirrored Room,” 1996. Mattress Factory. Photo by Jeanne Kliemesch

These questions are the beginning of many conversations and inquiries we explore at the Mattress Factory on a daily basis. The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum with room-size exhibitions. We are committed to supporting artists and their practice. Exhibiting artists are invited to stay in a nearby residence while preparing new work, and the galleries serve both as studio and exhibition space during their stay. The installation art at the Mattress Factory is truly art you can get into. We support artists through the whole process of creation and experimentation, we don’t ask for proposals, and know that the work will transform and often take new shapes throughout their time here.

The experience of visiting the Mattress Factory is very different than a traditional museum environment. There are no guards, much of the art you can touch and explore in a close and more intimate way than is possible in many other museums (you can lay on the floor, reach into, sit on and step inside many of the pieces). This leads to an experience that can be very personal and powerful but also puzzling. The installation is built to be experienced. Sometimes the artwork is not translated easily into a photograph. It can be difficult to describe and to really understand how all the elements fit together – you need to physically be in the room.

With that in mind, we find ourselves asking some questions familiar to us all:

  • How can we create an experience for students that mirrors what happens here?
  • How can we make the museum visit more than just a fun field trip and turn it into a unique and deep learning experience?
  • How do we communicate and share the experience of Installation Art – and all of the rich dialogue that experience sparks – with students that are not able to visit the museum?
  • How do we translate the museum experience to a classroom, a library, a community center?

At the Mattress Factory we decided to do what we do best – and pose these questions as a challenge to a group of artists. We asked them not to make a piece of artwork, but instead to create a tool – one that could be used to inspire the same sort of conversations we have at the museum about space, memory, sound and a plethora of other big ideas. We titled the project The Space I’m In: Tools for Understanding Your Environment.

Interacting with Tametabako and thinking about space.

The Mattress Factory partnered with the Intermediate Unit 1 (a public education service agency dedicated to the counties we were working with) including nine different schools in counties outside of Pittsburgh and students who had little if any exposure to the concepts of contemporary installation art. Art teachers from each of the schools chose a fellow teacher from another discipline to participate in the program. The teams then reviewed the test scores of their schools and chose a subject area where scores were weak. The challenge was to create lesson plans using materials from the museum to improve learning in the targeted area. We provided professional development opportunities and support for teachers as they paired up to create interdisciplinary lessons inspired by the experiences these tools created. We diligently recorded students and teachers experience before and after their experience with The Space I’m In. Student learning in these weak testing areas improved dramatically.

Currently we have a small variety of tools that we offer to schools and teachers as a starting point in their exploration of our environment. One tool is titled Tamatebako designed by artist Yumi Kori. This tool is a large tented cube that you enter through the lower open portion and find various smaller dark tubes, open red environments and even a small opening to the sky. Each of these spaces can provide a different experience, a small dark space that can feel safe or scary, an open space that shifts colors and views. Another tool is a set of Sound Blocks by artist Jeremy Boyle. The Sounds Blocks change pitch when reacting to motion around them, creating an alternative way to explore space through an auditory experience.

Interacting with Tametabako.

We learned that as teachers became familiar with some of these concepts and working with students on these big ideas, they began to not even need these tools. The tools served as an entry point for the students and teachers to create new lessons and work through concepts in a new way. Teachers were often placed outside of their educational comfort zone and challenged to approach a lesson in a new direction. The conversations about space were able to happen in simple and subtle ways and students were challenged to slow down and think more about the environment surrounding them. The project creates connections between our memories, sensory understanding, physical spaces, and engages many different disciplines such as science, technology, math, language and the arts.

The long-term investment of creating relationships and training the teachers became the real key to the success of this project. From the museum end, we had to teach museum educators the language, the ideas, the artists, and the flexibility to translate the museum experience to the world beyond. They became the liaison to working with a teacher in their environment to ensure their comfort with these concepts. We learned that there are so many ways to change, alter, and think about our environment. We learned that we could use these same lessons without the tools.

Working in a museum environment we often take for granted the lingo we use and the knowledge we have acquired. Collaborating with teachers forced us to step back and start at the very beginning. We learned not to assume anything and to work through every step of the process in explaining and teaching the big ideas that go with installation art.

Student and teacher exploring the environment created by The Walls, a tool as part of The Space I’m In project.

OpenThink: Making the Conversation More Inclusive

On this blog, I have been wanting to experiment with a more “open,” participatory format for posts that engage us all in a dialogue with each other — something that steers away from the “I know something I want to share with you” and moves more toward “I wonder about something and I’d love to know what you, my peers, think.” So I’m going to give this a try in a new category that I’m calling OpenThink. I’ll experiment with some other technology-based ways of doing this, but I thought I would start out by just inviting your thoughts in the traditional “comments” field below. I’m keeping it simple this first time, mostly because I am typing this from the beautiful island of Barbados as I attend the Fifth International Conference on the Inclusive Museum.

My questions for us to consider in this OpenThink are focused around my interactions during Day 1 of this fascinating and fruitful conference:

  • How can we make the conversation about museum education more global and inclusive?

  • What are some ways in which we can more effectively connect and share our practice across borders & boundaries?

  • Do we have a professional responsibility to ground our work in a consciousness of the world around us? Why is this important and valuable for the field of museum education?

The conversations I have had thus far at the Inclusive Museum conference have made me immediately wonder about some key fundamental questions that this transformational knowledge community has been asking for several years. I want to pull some of the language they use in their 2012 conference program to help define and clarify what I might mean above by “more global and inclusive,” and to frame some of the key issues this group is grappling with:

“The annual conference continues to ask fundamental questions about the role of museums during rapid change that characterizes societies everywhere in the world. It is envisaged that museums, both as a creature of that change and also as agents of change, are places where museum practitioners, researchers, thinkers, and educators can engage in discussions on the historic character and future shape of museums. The key question of the conference is: How can the institution of the museum become more inclusive?

“No longer the universal individual citizen of our recent modern aspirations, visitors of today are recognizably diverse. The dimensions of this diversity are material (class, locale, family circumstances), corporeal (age, race, sex & sexuality, and physical and mental characteristics), and symbolic (culture, language, gender, family, affinity, and persona). These are the gross demographics, the things that insist on our attention. But if we take the time to look more closely at today’s public, it is qualified by intersections and layers of identity which immediately turn the gross demographics into dangerous oversimplifications. The paradox of today’s public is that, in an era of globalization, actual cultures are diverging: dispositions, sensibilities, values stances, interests, orientations, affinities, and networks.”

And the question that resonates with me the most…

“How do we create a museum where the text is open, where every visitor is allowed the space to create their own meanings, where no visitor is left out?”

Here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, out of the 75 countries accessing the site, only about 20% of the readership comes from outside the United States, and more than one third of those are from Australia, Canada, and the UK. Only 2.5% of those who visit with this site are from nations outside the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. I’d like to open this up more, but I am not exactly sure where to start (although attending the Inclusive Museum conference has been a good beginning, meeting museum peers from across the globe who share a passion for transforming what learning looks like in museums — I hope several of them will be adding their voices to this site in the upcoming months).

So I have posited my wonderings — now I ask you to chime in and add to the conversation below.

(CAVEAT: Given that I am in Barbados, I will do my absolute best to get comments posted promptly — but do bare with me, especially as this Tropical Storm Ernesto makes its way across the island this morning … should be interesting).

Dancing to Jackson Pollock: Exploring Multi-Modal Responses to Art

Originally posted on ArtMuseumTeaching.com on February 5, 2012 – the site’s inaugural post. 

As schools and museums work to meet the demands of the 21st century, there has been a renewed emphasis on developing an interdisciplinary culture of inquiry where teachers and students integrate insights and modes of thinking. Through my own teaching practice, I have frequently explored ways in which interdisciplinary inquiry can occur in the art museum, considering productive ways that we might bring musical, kinesthetic, and linguistic modes of thinking to the act of interpreting and making meaning of a work of visual art.  Responding to a single work of art through a process that involves multiple modes of thinking from across creative art forms, I continue to consider how each strategy makes meaning and asks questions in a different way–ultimately seeing how these approaches can be woven together to build toward more complex cognition as well as a deeper understanding of not just the artwork, but also of ourselves as learners/thinkers.

In November 2011, I led an in-gallery workshop for teachers at the High Museum of Art as part of the Project Zero/CASIE conference. The experiences centered around an extended engagement with  Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A,” 1948, which was on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a special exhibition.

LOOKING: Bringing the group’s attention to Pollock’s painting before us, we spent some time looking and recording our initial observations and wonderings.  Since part of the goal of this workshop was to connect to Project Zero’s work (via Ron Ritchhart) with “making thinking visible,” participants were encouraged to record their thoughts and responses in a journal throughout the entire engagement with this painting.

SKETCHING WITH LINES & LANGUAGE: I framed the next stage of our experience with this painting around the ideas of Jack Kerouac, an experimenter of spontaneous language as well as a contemporary of Jackson Pollock.  In his “Essential of Spontaneous Prose” (1959), Kerouac writes that “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words.”  This near-manifesto of spontaneous written response inspired me to develop some way for participants to be “swimming in a sea of language,” in Kerouac’s words, with the painting by Pollock. This process began with everyone drawing 2 or 3 significant lines that they find in the painting, then completing their “sketches” using only language and words. Following Kerouac’s method, there was no editing — just writing in a constant flow.

MAKING THE PAINT COME ALIVE THROUGH SOUND: Exploring Pollock’s canvas through sound originated in my own heightened interest in Pollock’s own passion and association with jazz music. Lee Krasner once remarked that Pollock thought that jazz “was the only other really creative thing that was happening in this country.” For the next phase of this workshop, we turned the gallery into a ‘sound lounge,’ breaking into small groups and experimenting with the spectrum of sounds we could create with just our bodies and the stuff in our purses, bags, and pockets. Each group was asked to create a sound composition in response to the painting. This ‘found sound’ exercise became a way of pulling out the basic structures of the painting that have a relationship with our sense of perceiving rhythms, tempos, and more improvisational structures embedded in the paint.

We finished this exercise with a quick reflection — what did people notice about this activity, and about the sounds each group performed?  Participants noticed that the sounds created were very rhythmic and controlled, despite the seemingly chaotic and disorderly nature of the painting. Others noted that this exercise allowed them to respond to the painting in ways not possible through words alone — that this acoustic response tapped into a new, almost unconscious element of the artwork as well as the creative process.

performing the sounds of the painting

MINING THE LAYERS OF PAINT THROUGH MOVEMENT: Examining a Jackson Pollock gesture-field painting without kinesthetic thinking would seem inadequate, especially if we think of the famous Hans Namuth films of Jackson Pollock dancing around his canvases, dripping paint across their surfaces. Dance critic Roger Copeland actually called Namuth’s film of Pollock “one of the world’s most significant dance films,” demonstrating that “the fundamental impulse behind abstract expressionism was the desire to transform painting into dancing.”

For this workshop, I decided to model various types of dynamic movement response, inviting volunteers to come to the front and improvise with the painting — then asking each small group to create a dynamic, three-dimensional moving response to the painting (adding words and sounds as needed).  Becoming the layers of paint allowed us to pull them apart, get inside them, and use our bodies to make meaning.

volunteers creating 3 types of dynamic movement

We let the group performances speak for themselves, not overtalking them or reducing these personal and embodied meanings to a set of art historical associations with Pollock and his process — and I will refrain from overtalking them here, as well.  Yet a key goal for this workshop was for teachers to become expressive participants in an artistic experience, pushing beyond mere “spectating” or “learning at a glance” toward something more aligned with enhanced engagement or participatory arts practice in which the creative mind is activated and the focus shifts from the product to the process of creation.

SO WHAT? ENVISIONING INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK IN THE CLASSROOM: With the few minutes we had remaining, I felt compelled to deal with the “so what?”  Why did we just do this?  In what ways might we bring this experience back to our own spaces of learning (museums, classrooms, etc.)? Much of our discussion centered around what interdisciplinary learning looks like: connected, collaborative, free, lots of parts coming together as a whole, and building toward something more meaningful.  The best culminating moment for me was when one teacher said that he felt the whole experience was about “synergy.”

The last few remarks before the workshop ended inspired us to wonder what Jackson Pollock had actually taught us about learning.  Weren’t the layers and topographies of this painting paralleled in our own landscapes of learning, and in this multidimensional and multi-modal experience with this painting.  I think we all left the workshop feeling that Pollock’s “Number 1A” was an essential part of the conversation about learning, and building to learn.

The workshop ended with the words of choreographer Merce Cunningham — click here for the quote.

Getting Uncomfortable in Museums

Guest post by Suse Cairns, doctoral candidate in the PhD Fine Art program at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and blogger at http://museumgeek.wordpress.com.

This post has been a long time coming. When Mike first contacted me about the possibility of doing a guest post for Art Museum Teaching many weeks ago, I was too busy to immediately do so. I thought it was just a lack of time and clear head space. But even after the deadline driven urgency of that time had passed, I still hesitated and put off writing. Why? I was writing amply on other things, so it was no longer time that was the problem, nor general inspiration. So what was it? What was preventing me from starting this project?

It turns out that my problem was one of elasticity, or more accurately, a lack thereof. I was feeling stretched, and my avoidance of writing this post was a tactic to avoid the discomfort that brought.

Photo by Redfishingboat

Let me explain. When I write for my own blog, I have a very definite comfort zone. I have defined the intellectual space, and I know intimately its boundaries.  In fact, its boundaries are my boundaries. I can stretch or push them, I can expand them as far as I am comfortable, and still exist within a very safe space. I recognise the likely readers and know their vocabularies and topical touch points. I know intimately what’s been covered before and what people have responded to, because it has all been within my own domain. The community of readers is my community; the space is my environment. Even when I am exploring ideas that are at times uncomfortable and that push me to consider things that I have not previously, I still retain a certain level of control.

But I don’t have the same sense of easy intimacy with the Art Museum Teaching website or audience. I know less who reads this site, and the sorts of topics and ideas they will respond to. I have not worked as a museum educator myself, and was uncertain what I could contribute that would be of interest to those who are.

So even though I was undertaking an act that I do regularly (writing), I was on edge. Unnerved. Stretched.

Such feelings, then, seem to resonate with two concepts that are at the very focus of the current investigations here on Art Museum Teaching.

The first of those is of art museum education itself.  When students come into a museum, or come into contact with art – sometimes for the first time – they may be out of their own comfort zones. That sensation can be in response to the physical space of the museum, where students might not know the rules or customs of the space; and it can be intellectual, when students have not encountered or don’t know about art and may not understand its language or how the art world is constructed. In many cases, students will feel both these sensations – out of place and uncertain of the context in which they find themselves.

The second way this sense of being stretched beyond comfort resonates is in the professional space of the museum, when ideas like the Elastic Manifesto that push for experimentation require that the museum itself, and its staff, make themselves deliberately uncomfortable.

Innovation and learning both require a certain amount of discomfort. They need a step into unknown territory, which will often be accompanied by a reciprocal jolt of fear. For some people who crave the new and who yearn to explore new spaces, this will be a great sensation. Such natural adventurers will likely thrive from these conditions. But there are many who will find such sensations stressful and do what they can to avoid them.

Henry Kissinger said that “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” It is a useful angle for conceiving of the role of both art museum educators, and advocates for change and experimentation in the museum.

Visitor interacting with Doris Salcedo’s “Shibboleth” at the Tate Modern. Photo by truu.

Getting uncomfortable is important for growth, but mitigating that discomfort to keep it at an acceptable level is also useful. How can we provide scaffolding for that process, so that those who embark on the journey to somewhere new have the tools and permission to explore and accomplish, without fear that making an error will be cataclysmic? How can we make the museum space a safe environment for exploration and unknowning, both for students and staff?

I’d argue that one step in this process is for those who advocate for change in others spend a little time getting uncomfortable themselves, to remember the mildly unpleasant sensations the process can evoke. Stretching yourself, reaching beyond your normal boundaries can remind you that even small moves into unfamiliar territory can be challenging. Even writing this post, beyond my own ‘normal’ space, has required that I extend and stretch myself to find a creative solution. It has been a thoroughly rewarding process, but was neither easy nor fast. It required getting uncomfortable, and living in that state for an extended period of time. Being aware of such things is useful.

What do you think? How can we as museum professionals make sure that the museum is a safe space to get a little uncomfortable? How can we scaffold the process of experimentation, innovation, and learning, to draw out creativity and productivity, whilst mitigating the pain of the unknown?

(And if you don’t normally comment on posts, feel free to use this as an opportunity to get a little uncomfortable and step beyond your own safe space.)

Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.

Resting at MoMA. Photo by Just Karen

How long can you spend in a museum gallery before you need to sit? Do you visit exhibitions with friends or family who take a lot longer to view artwork than you do? (Yes, mom, I love you, but even I, the museum professional, cannot read every word in an exhibition as you can.)

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space?

At the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, we recently explored these questions in a rather thoughtful way. I must give most of the credit to the wonderful team of staff members that did the “heavy lifting” on this project. The manager of special events led the charge, and we were joined by the coordinator of academic programs, the membership manager, and the director of development and external affairs. (One thing I think we do really well at the Nasher is collaborate across departments like this.)

We have this space at the Nasher that we generally call “the computer alcove.” It is a nondescript area where there’s been a long wooden desk with 4 computers, some tables and chairs (furniture that is also used in our cafe) and access to an outdoor terrace. Students and general visitors check their e-mail at the computers, but not much else. Sometimes, during the school year, we see Duke students studying there, but not all that often, and we knew it could be much more than it was.

We wanted to offer our visitors several things in this space:

  • An inviting/welcoming place to sit and relax
  • A place where Duke students can study and work – ideally we’d like to be a destination spot for studying and hanging out
  • A place where staff can have informal meetings
  • A place where people can talk on their cell phones
  • A place where visitors can engage in a hands-on activity and/or explore supplemental reading materials

First, our manager of special events looked at the existing space with a critical eye and asked this question, “What can we do with what we currently have to make this a nice environment?” There were MANY simple things that instantly made the area more inviting. These included:

  • Raising the shades so people could see the terrace outside (and know they could go out there if they wanted)
  • Cleaning the terrace on a more regular basis
  • Moving the artwork on the terrace close to the windows, instead of at the far end of the space
  • Opening the umbrellas on the terrace so the space looked “open” instead of “closed”
  • Arranging the furniture in a more pleasing way – this included thinning out the amount of furniture and spreading it out a bit more

It was amazing to me just how big a difference simply raising the shades made. It’s important to remember that we all become “blind” to our museum environments. The more familiar we are with a space, the harder it is to see how it could be off-putting or unpleasant.

For the last weekend of our special ticketed exhibition “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) we rented some fun furniture as an experiment. We knew there were going to be a lot of people in the museum, and we wanted to see what effect the furniture had. It made a huge difference.

The Nasher Museum’s alcove/lounge with mobile interactive and rented orange furniture.

We had a summer intern track use of the space over four days. She started tracking before the furniture arrived, and once it was installed, the number of people in the space shot up. Around 20% of all visitors to the museum used the “lounge” over the fours days.

To me, that’s a big number. That means one in every five people spent some time there. And, most people spent an average of 15 minutes in the space. Our intern also interviewed people to see what they liked about the space, why they had come over in the first place, and what else we could do to make it more inviting. Many people said they wanted to know exactly what they were allowed to do there. This was especially gratifying to me, since I had suggested we put signs in the lounge that read “Welcome to the Lounge. What can I do here?” and then list all possible activities. Some in the group thought that was too limiting, but it seems like people want explicit information (something that’s not surprising.)

Sadly, we had to return the rental furniture, but we are now on a mission to find some permanent furniture that will be inviting, but also work for special events, be durable and not ridiculously expensive.

I am looking forward to continuing to track the use of the space, and find creative ways to make the museum an inviting location for all our visitors. And I re-ask my starting question to spark some conversation, and to hear more about what spaces you might have or be developing at your museum:

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space? What can they do there?

How Do We Get to Know Our Students?

Photo by Christine Healey

Participatory museum experiences and museum visitor identity seem to be the focus of much attention of late in the museum educator community. It is something I have given a lot of thought to, and I have enjoyed some thought-provoking conversations on Twitter about it. I like to think that students are at the centre of the experiences I create for them at the museum, in the same way that student-centred learning is championed in school-based learning and teaching. But I wonder if student-centred teaching at the museum is something that can actually be claimed as part of our practice.

Placing the students at the centre of a learning experience means knowing who the students are and I wonder how many assumptions can be made about this before they become irrelevant or wrong. In the museum we can’t get to know or form relationships with the students easily. They come to us in batches of around 25 students, ranging from pre-school to high-school levels, staying for a short time, making it practically impossible to know them as individuals, as their school teachers do.

So how do we get to know our students?

I have noticed that I form assumptions about who students are before they arrive on site — that I create a fictitious or generic version of who I think they might be. The information that I base this on is mainly tacit. I know what year level they are and so have an indication of age range, although this may not be a good indicator of maturity. I consider how well prepared the teacher is for the visit and what they hope students get out of the experience. This assists me to understand the students previous learning and the anticipated outcomes of the visit. I know what the curriculum expectations of the visit are, and that these are often the justification for the visit. Experiences with my own and other children I know also informs how I relate to children. For each class or group that visits I test my assumptions to decide on the best level to pitch my discussion with them.

Photo by Christine Healey

My goal is to create an experience that will be meaningful for the students. I want to facilitate the students’ capacity to drive curiosity and find personal meaning, as well as awe and inspiration in the artworks that I choose to show them. I perform in (what I think is) an engaging or entertaining manner to maintain their attention and focus. I make sure I am present in the moment and pay careful attention to what they are interested in. I ask questions and ask for questions. I give and request feedback. I paraphrase to build on what students are noticing and thinking, encouraging others to contribute and find viewpoints of difference or similarity. I tell stories and share what I love about art and artists’ capacity to surprise and delight. I try to let them drive the experience and am willing to be adaptable and flexible to go along with it.

The ‘truth’ is that I don’t know my students. I can’t know them in a once off, one hour visit. But each new experience I have teaching informs the next, and I shape my practice so that I am creating experiences that are driven by the needs of the students generally.

What are some ways you get to know students before they arrive at your museum? As they tour the galleries? After they leave the museum? Before the next school visit?

Experimenting in Museums: What do you need most today?

Photo: Yang Weidong – http://www.smh.com.au

For the past 4 years, Chinese artist Yang Weidong has posed a deceptively simple question to over 300 Chinese intellectuals: “What do Chinese people need most today?”  These wide-ranging interviews have now become the core of a book by Yang as well as a in-progress documentary film titled “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese, and “Signal” in English.  As for their answers … “Of China’s thinkers,” Yang tells NPR’s Louise Lim,  “more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.”

“Freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and “free space for creative work” are combined with other responses in which people talked about the need for faith or spiritual life.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut succinctly puts it, Yang’s project is about “China’s thirst for freedom.”  His simple question opened up some really powerful conversations with China’s intellectual and creative class about sincere needs and legitimate concerns — conversations that, interestingly enough, have not yet been shut down by the Chinese government (despite repeated searches of Yang’s home and after some of the interview tapes have been confiscated).

Taking the spark of motivation from Yang’s inspiring and ongoing “Need” project, I recently decided to develop an experimental prototype that would explore how museums might interact with this idea of personal/universal needs — real, sincere needs that could build toward new forms of public engagement. For the second year in a row, I am facilitating the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a unique program that brings together a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students to explore and create different types of museum teaching and learning experiences.

On the first day of this summer’s program, I invited each of our 18 interns to take some time and reflect on the big question: “What do you need most today?”  Not thinking about museums or art in anyway, their task was simply to dig into their own, personal needs and decide on one that seemed urgent right now (‘today’).  After everyone had identified their “I need” statement, they wrote their needs on large pieces of posterboard and stood on the front steps of the art museum so I could take each intern’s photo (see the Pinterest board of all the photos).

For me, this was planting the seeds of a 10-week project through which these interns are slowly and intentionally developing their own public engagement projects to be enacted in August. And the next step pushed things in that direction the following week, as each intern was invited to reflect on their need statement and think about how, in some way, museums might fulfill that need — thinking creatively and outside-the-box.  Below are just a few excerpts from those reflections:

An engaged community: “Experiencing art is a tangible way to engage with and learn about others – it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, which builds a community by sharing experiences that can be taken home with you. In this way, the art museum offers a unique setting for community engagement. I believe that viewing art as this kind of open invitation is what inspires visitors to return, and it is the museum’s responsibility to continue this discussion”

A variety of choices: “I believe the museum setting encourages a structured approach to the works contained within them … the standard Look, Read, Look, Move On.  [B]ut without encouraging or allowing new ways to interact with the works, most viewers will stay within the confines of the standard viewing methods.  By encouraging a variety of ways to interact with the works within the museum, it will allow for a visit that breaks from the norm, and encourages the development of new avenues of interest, and make visits a more unique experience.”

Stories: “People love stories — to feel connected to their fellows even across the boundaries of nationality, culture, and language.  We like to know that we are not alone in our desires, our longings, and our needs. [And] an art museum seems to me to be the perfect place to go to find stories.  One could invent a story based on a single painting or sculpture; perhaps all the works in a gallery could be different parts of the story; maybe the different parts of a story are scattered across the museum and the game is to find them all.  Art museums have endless possibilities for finding stories.”

For the past 3 weeks now, we have been extending our conversations about these needs and how they might build toward a public engagement project at the museum.  First, we laid out everyone’s needs and did a short mapping activity — a great way to make our thinking visible and allow us to explore potential connections and relationships among the group’s needs.  Then, from there, everyone got into pairs based on “adjacent” needs on the map, and each pair interviewed each other about their need and how it might translate into a museum-based project.  Most recently, we all connected with experimental museum work at institutions such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Field and the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement programs, paralleling our learning about “public engagement” and social practice with our own developing ideas.

As we enter our 4th week of this summer’s program, I think we’re heading in interesting directions.  This week, we will begin to form more concrete ideas and develop prototypes for projects.  While I know we have lots of questions to ask and issues to navigate, I am excited to have launched into this project over the summer.  The Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program has always been an exceptional time and place for experimentation, especially due to the diverse and energetic group of students who participate each summer.  For me, exploring museum work from the point of view of personal and universal “needs” has the potential to make these projects so much more relevant, sincere, and “real” (however you define that).  And these are all things on the minds of museums — and especially museum educators — as we trudge through the second decade of the 21st century.

Much like artist Yang Weidong’s “Need” project, mindful museums have tremendous potential and power in their engagements with communities and the issues that these communities care about most.  Sometimes simply discovering those needs is an important first step, building up from them to create opportunities for engagement and learning that are more responsive and relevant to the issues facing us ‘today.’  Towards the conclusion of his 2009 book entitled Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes provides us with some provocative thoughts that may connect with why this type of work is valid and valuable:

“All museums have the responsibility and the opportunity to become synthesizers, and foster an understanding of the interconnectedness of the problems we face, both environmental and social. A mindful museum can empower and honour all people in the search for a sustainable and just world — by creating a mission that focuses on the interconnectedness of our world and its challenges, and promotes the integration of disparate perspectives.” (p. 166)

“It has been noted that ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ Will communities continue to care about museums in their current guise? Will museums discover what they care about? Or are museums at risk?” (p. 168)

I will certainly be posting again as the summer’s intern program continues and we get closer to the series of public engagement projects we plan to enact on August 9 and 10.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and perspectives below.  How might you tap into “needs” (external/internal/audience) as a core for experimental program development?  How important is this type of work for museums?  Share your stories and practices here or on Twitter via @murawski27.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

Opportunities for Advocacy: Strategic Steps for the Future of Museum Education

Co-authored with Scott Winterrowd, Curator of Education, Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and co-guest editor of the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

What a difference a few months makes!!! In February of this year we sent off the final drafts of essays for the upcoming issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME). The 2012 summer issue, “Professionalizing Practice: A Critical Look at Recent Practice in Museum Education,” looks at the development of the field of museum education since the late 1960s, and poses strategic questions for the future of the profession. This issue contains essays and reflections by Elliott Kai-Kee, Marianna Adams, Jim Angus, Ben Garcia, and Ken Yellis. A few months ago we felt confident about the growth of the field and cautiously optimistic about the path for the future we were proposing.

The impetus for this issue of the Journal of Museum Education was a series of conversations about the history of museum education in the United States, and in particular, how this history seemed little known and even less sited in current practice. While we both explored the history of the profession as a means to inform and give a conceptual framework to our present work, a frustration grew with the realization that the dialogues we were having with colleagues at conferences, seminars, and online seemed redundant. These contemporary conversations seemed unaware of the work that had come before, and thus not profited or advanced as result of it.

We began this project in an effort to spark interest in exploring recent professional history to better inform our present practice. We came to understand that there was dual purpose to this project—to examine the recent past to inform the present, and to assess progress and propose a moment of renewed strategic visioning for the profession.

The recent cuts to education at the J. Paul Getty Museum have certainly raised the level of uncertainty as to the position of education in museums. Our concerns have been bolstered by reports of further cuts to education programs around the country, including key leadership positions. But, in these moments there are also strong and clear voices. The powerful letter written by Robert Sabol, National Art Education Association President, was inspiring and made me proud to be an art museum educator and member of NAEA. However, the power of our collective professional voice is needed in this situation. We need to hear from all museum education advocacy organizations and their members.

The actions and events of the past few months are opportunities for us as museum educators to ask ourselves what we stand for, what we believe in, and what we want the future to be. We believe that this issue of the JME could not have been better timed had we been able to plan it. An examination of our history can reveal how our profession has grown as the result of setbacks, challenges and the work of dedicated, articulate practitioners. It also reveals how our field has developed and deepened the thinking and rigor of our work.

Teacher leading thinking activities in the galleries. Photo by Mike Murawski.

Are we saying the sun is shining; everything is fine, soldier on? Absolutely not! These moments make clear that we must be strong, articulate advocates. While we have spent many years advocating for our collections and our audiences, did we forget to advocate for ourselves? Our strongest advocacy tool is smart and rigorous work. We must examine our practice and demand innovative, and quality thinking and programming. These are opportunities to reach out to our colleagues within our museums and our communities, confident in what are are about and we can do and be.

Ben Garcia’s compelling essay for the JME titled “What We Do Best: Making the Case for the Museum Learning in its Own Right” (available for free download) is premised on the notion that museums are unique environments and we should be focused on doing the work that museums do best. This idea is certainly shared by many others in art museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has premised his thinking on this very notion (See “The object of art museums” and Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust). However, unlike Cuno’s policies, Garcia advocates for a progressive understanding of the unique “learning power” of museums and museum collections. At the core of Garcia’s proposal is our role as museum educators to advocate for museum education.

Colleagues, what is your vision for the future of museum education? How can you be an advocate for this future? While the sky may not be falling, we must always remember that as museum educators we must educate about our work, as well as about our collections.

Experimenting in Museums: Creatively Interpreting Artistic Creations

Torpedo Factory Art Center, photo by bittermelon

A typical art museum exhibit contains pieces of art, each accompanied by a block of explanatory text. Sometimes this text only includes the basic facts of artist, title, country, date, and provenance. Other times, wall text is lengthier, giving detailed information. What materials were used, and how did the artist use them? How long did it take to make the work, and what changes did the artist make over time? Who or what influenced the artist, and what is the artist trying to convey? What, in the artist’s own words, is the piece all about?

We can often learn the answers to these questions by reading the text on the wall, or by taking a guided highlights tour. But what if we could actually see the answers unfold as they happened? What if we could watch artists transform materials, speak about their work, and try one technique and then another?

Wall text and traditional tours are useful for understanding art, but museums need not limit themselves to these two methods of conveying ideas. As a museum educator, I have enjoyed trying a variety of art-centered activities, designed to reach diverse learning styles and allow for a more holistic interpretation of the art. I have also had the opportunity to see creative forms of art interpretation as a museum visitor. I have seen art interpreted through museum theater at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), and through dance at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the Torpedo Factory Art Center, visitors can watch and chat with artists as they work, a chance literally to watch the creative process unfold.

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Works by Maria Sibylla Merian. Photo by Laura DiSciullo.

At NMWA in 2011, actors performed three short one-act plays in the galleries to bring the art of their Trove exhibition to life. One of these Trove Trilogy plays featured an artist interacting with the fictional broom-person she painted. This sketch fascinated me the most, as it showed an artist’s conceptualization of her own creation. Another play portrayed an interaction between photographer and subject, and finally, another play depicted an artist (Maria Sibylla Merian) at different points in her life and in her career of researching and making engravings of rainforest flora and fauna. These plays all served to help visitors understand the art by creatively helping visitors to understand the artists. You can read more of my thoughts on the plays here.

Art is all about unique, creative expression. Art museums can, in the spirit of this creativity, embrace unconventional interpretive experiences, including opportunities for audiences to see art being made and participate in art making. Varied, nontraditional means of interpretation blur the barrier audiences might perceive between themselves and the art, and can change a scornful “I could have made that!” to an inspired “I want to make something!”

The idea of experimentation may be daunting, but the results can be quite enriching. As noted in the Elastic Manual, “It is the closest thing so far to working in line with how artists cre­ate.” The Elastic Manual does not give a specific checklist of what makes a project experimental, let alone give a step-by-step list of how to implement such a project. Instead, it offers guidelines and things to keep in mind when embarking on any of the many kinds of undertakings that are unconventional and experimental. I read the manual as a statement that is deliberately open-ended, with a focus on trying new out new ideas – and letting creativity happen as it will.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. And to help make this more of a conversation, we encourage you to add your thoughts or questions below.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

A Forum for Reflecting on Practice

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