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Playing with Authority: Reflecting on Child-Led Gallery Experiences

Written by Alli Rogers Andreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our (abstract) snake, increasingly well-fed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author

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

 

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