Tag Archives: collaboration

Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse

Written by Andrew Palamara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

 

Teaching Lab: Towards an Institutional Culture of Learning

Written by Elizabeth Williams, Yale University Art Gallery

What does good museum teaching look like? How do we as educators learn from each other? How do we constantly stay fresh and incorporate new approaches to teaching? What are our shared values for teaching in museums?

These are among the questions that my colleagues and I in education regularly pose, and which led us to launch a project called Teaching Lab almost two years ago. Teaching Lab is not a concept born at Yale; it originated at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1990s as a way for its educators to convene, outside of logistical concerns, to talk about gallery teaching. Many of us work at such a pace that, without a structure like Teaching Lab embedded into our routine, reflection simply would not happen. So when my colleague Jessica Sack introduced this great idea from the Brooklyn Museum, we adapted it to fit our needs at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).

Teaching Lab at YUAG has been a way to reflect, experiment, and collaborate on issues and ideas related to teaching and learning. Monthly sessions seek to explore intersections across traditionally segmented areas of work both in education (e.g. adult, family, academic, K-12, public programs) and Gallery-wide (e.g. curatorial, education, exhibitions, registrar, etc.) The aim is to facilitate dialogue, and perhaps collaborations, related to the project of museum teaching.

Key to our sessions is that each is peer-initiated and led, with the organizer (myself) serving as the moderator. There are no defined outcomes for Teaching Lab, though some sessions have resulted in new projects. By way of example, a few departmental Teaching Labs have included: a session that brought together education teams from the YUAG and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History for a discussion of different approaches to teaching with objects, especially those that can be classified as both art and artifact; a session to consider the Hirshhorn’s signature drop-in teen program, ARTLAB+, as a springboard for conversation related to how educators can, and should, respond to diverse audiences; and a session to consider a new digital app designed for a special exhibition, focusing on the self-guided visitor’s learning experience.

It occurred to us that the conversations we are having relate not just to education but to the entire museum. Everyone at the museum, in effect, teaches in some capacity. What, then, might it mean to broaden the conversation? Will other staff want to participate? How do we make the dialogue both accessible and stimulating, to have the most widespread appeal?

Getting Things Started

We started first by talking with people across the Gallery to gauge interest in the possibility of a staff-wide Teaching Lab. I realized early on that it was difficult to talk about something like this in the abstract, and I was often fielding the question: “So what do you want from me?” I didn’t really know the answer at first. After many departmental conversations about possible topics, effective structures, and anticipated barriers, we distilled the core ingredients from our departmental version of Teaching Lab that we wanted to maintain: that it be peer-driven, that it be conversational, and that it be experimental. We also decided that a natural place to start would be with objects, so we decided that the first staff-wide Teaching Lab would mine the concept of “close looking,” a term often used by colleagues across the museum to describe our teaching practice.

We roughly sketched out what a day-long Teaching Lab could look like: three sessions, starting with looking and learning together, that would eventually zoom out to examine some of the bigger questions related to audience and expertise. We enlisted peers from across the museum to co-lead each session, and these colleagues would ultimately shape the day.

On June 17, the YUAG Education Department presented the first staff-wide Teaching Lab. We invited all staff—from security guards to the Director—and offered three sessions over the course of the day. To our delight, almost 50 people of our staff of roughly 160, including four senior staff members and the Director, attended. We had representation from almost every department in the museum, from the Registrar to Development to Curatorial.

With Close Looking as our frame, our first session was entitled “Close Looking from Multiple Perspectives.” Modeled on our typical three-objects/hour education-guided visit, this session was led by three colleagues from the Education, Curatorial, and Conservation departments. Guided by a single theme, which the three presenters mutually determined, the session was meant to showcase different approaches to teaching with objects. With few parameters, facilitators were asked to teach a single object for 20 minutes and to make sure it was connected to the other objects through the common theme. One group, for example, explored the theme of absence and loss: an educator considered it in a painting by contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, a paintings conservator discussed it in a 12th century Italian panel painting by the Magdalen Master, and a curator talked about it with a 1st century Roman portrait sculpture. A member of the Education staff then moderated a reflective conversation at the end to distill both the participants’ experience as well as the facilitators’.

The second session was entitled “Multiple Frames: The Object in Context” and considered a single object through multiple lenses of analysis and understanding. To contextualize the processes of making and viewing art, participants spent half of the session in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque, exploring how listening to jazz, reading quotations by and about the artist, and physically moving around a canvas on the floor, complicates the experience of viewing and interpreting a work of art. The group then moved to explore Pollock’s materials and methods in a studio session with one of our painting conservators, considering how experimenting with materials and methods might enrich our understanding of the art work.

Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)
Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)

The last session of the day was a roundtable conversation, intended to help us reflect on the experiential components of the morning but also to zoom out to consider the less obvious ways that museums teach, how we understand the role of expertise among our staff and our visitors, and how we can be more responsive to our audiences. These conversations were illuminating, especially when the group was asked to brainstorm ways that teaching and learning happen outside of the guided visit or through interpretive materials. From conversations that security personnel have with visitors to the arrangement of postcards on the wall, the group came up with fresh insights on how the Gallery regularly “teaches” and how every staff member has a stake in our educational mission. This discussion was collegial and fruitful, and as we ended the conversation with time for suggesting future Teaching Lab topics, participants raised many ideas related to better understanding the experience of our visitor and continuing to mine what it means to learn deeply in a museum.  They also evinced a keen and welcome interest in how we can collectively address issues related to inclusion and identity in our work, and plans are now underway to make this the topic of a future staff-wide teaching lab.

Beginning to Build a Culture of Learning

We never could have imagined that the staff would be as receptive to Teaching Lab as they were. Since it required actually doing it to begin to grasp what this could become, the staff took a risk in setting aside almost an entire day to participate. As part of our own reflective process, the Education Department surveyed people anonymously to ask for their feedback. When asked to rate their experience on a scale of 1 to 5 (poor to excellent, respectively), 27.8 % rated the experience a 4 and 72.2% rated it a 5. When asked whether they would participate in future Teaching Labs, 100% responded yes. In the open comments section, participants repeatedly emphasized how meaningful it was to come together as a staff to learn from each other (and to get to know one another); they had expected that Education would be imparting best practices and were surprised that it was co-presented by colleagues from across the museum; and they were surprised by how much fun they had. Our Education staff, for its part, learned a tremendous amount in the process of reaching out to colleagues from across the institution, and we have been pleased about the new relationships that have developed as a result.

I don’t want to overstate the impact of this one staff-wide Teaching Lab; in some ways, we have indeed returned to business as usual. But Teaching Lab at its core is about building a culture of learning, and this was a very positive step in that direction. Whether it be among those who are explicitly educators, or whether it be re-framed more broadly to consider and leverage the entire staff’s contributions to teaching in a museum, it is a powerful tool and structure for learning, for teaching, and for reflecting.

As we turn our attention to the future of Teaching Lab, we can’t help but think—and hope—that this experimental and peer-driven model might lead to new ways of considering the project of teaching in the museum and take our work in interesting and challenging new directions.

Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)
Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)

About the Author

Education DepartmentELIZABETH WILLIAMS is the John Walsh Senior Fellow in Education at the Yale University Art Gallery. Prior to Yale, she was the Director of Engagement and Learning at the Mississippi Museum of Art, where she oversaw the museum’s family, school, and community programs. Elizabeth has held positions at The Phillips Collection, the Harvard Art Museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Americans for the Arts. She holds a Master’s in Education from Harvard University and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Human and Organizational Development from Vanderbilt University

Featured header image: Gallery staff, led by Wurtele Gallery Teacher Tony Coleman, looking at this Equestrian Shrine Figure by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa.

Thinking Space: Connecting Art & Math in the Museum

Written by Rebecca Mitchell and Andrea Kantrowitz

Focus for a moment on an object in front of you. How do you understand its shape? How would you represent it by drawing it? Imagine turning or rotating it. What would it look like then? How could you create something with the same shape?

You’ve just utilized spatial intelligence, your capacity to analyze and transform visual and mental imagery in two and three dimensions. This capacity is fundamental to both math and art, and a has been found to be a key indicator in students’ long-term academic and professional success.  A growing body of research in educational psychology and cognitive science is looking at ways to enhance spatial intelligence, such as a recent study which showed that spatial training improves 6-7 year old children’s math calculation.

When we look at and create art, we are exercising spatial intelligence to analyze and construct objects and images.  Rich experiences with works of art have been shown to significantly enhance student math achievement, as documented by the Framing Student Success program that studied the effects of standards-based instruction that integrated high-quality visual arts, math, and literacy content in three high-poverty New York City Public Schools. These findings support a growing trend  in K-12 programs across the country to merge arts instruction with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, pioneered by Rhode Island School of Design’s STEM to STEAM initiative.

Our challenge:

How can the excitement around the potential of the arts to contribute to STEM education, along with current research on spatial ability be shared in an art museum setting, so that PreK-12 teachers can bring the ideas into their classrooms? Here we’ll share the activities and discussions that we designed with this aim. The two-hour gallery session was a part of a week-long teacher institute, VAST (Visual Arts and Sources for Teaching) held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this past July. The overall theme for VAST was integrating art across the curriculum. Our session was led by Andrea Kantrowitz, Assistant Professor at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, who co-wrote and implemented the Framing Student Success curriculum; Rebecca Mitchell, former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Lynda O’Leary, Distance Learning Coordinator at PMA.

Through a series of structured activities (individual, small group, and large group) – looking at art, drawing, creating sculptures, discussing, and choreographing a short dance on a work of art (yes, you read that right!), the teachers engaged their spatial thinking skills to think and create in two- and three- and even four- dimensions.

Logistics:

The setting: Temporary exhibition, Minimalism in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and permanent collection galleries

Audience: 80 PreK-12 teachers (in groups of 20 at a time)

Format: 2 hours

Materials: stools, sketchbooks, pencils, grid paper, scissors, circular stickers (we used mailing stickers)

Translating 3-d into 2-d:

After a short introduction to the Framing Student Success study and some research findings about spatial thinking, the teachers began their first activity. With pencils and sketchbooks in hand, the group spent 10-15 minutes drawing Robert Morris’s Untitled (Battered Cubes) from 1970, a piece made up of four large cube-like objects. Andrea explained that there was no “wrong” way to draw the sculptures, and that a variety of approaches would be beneficial to our discussion later. Since there were art teachers and classroom teachers in each group, we didn’t want anyone to feel self-conscious about their drawing ability. Andrea emphasized that it was the thinking and problem solving that was most important, not how “accurate” the drawing looked. The teachers sat wherever they felt comfortable, and drew the sculpture from whatever angle they preferred.

teachers drawing Robert Morris’s
teachers drawing Robert Morris’s “Untitled (Battered Cubes)”

The teachers then watched a minimalist dance performance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs and filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1973, Calico Mingling (available here: http://ubuweb.com/film/mangolte_calico.html) and notated it however they wanted to – through sketches, notes, or some combination of the two. Again, the goal was to observe closely and record these observations with pencil and paper. In the Childs piece, the dancers move around and through a grid pattern on the ground, located at Robert Moses Plaza at Fordham University.

Many ways to solve a problem:

We gathered the teachers back together and placed the drawings of the sculpture on the floor. After a walk around the circle to look at all of them, we discussed the variety of approaches – while some people showed multiple viewpoints in one drawing, others focused on what they could see from their vantage point. Next we looked at everyone’s notes/sketches of the dance, which revealed even more variety. Some people focused on one dancer’s movements, while others watched for overall patterns among all of the dancers. Still others counted steps, traced arcs of the movements, or looked for relationships between the dances and the grid below their feet. All of these approaches yielded successful results, and the variety of solutions enriched the group’s understanding of both the sculpture and dance. We discussed the challenges and strategies to translate three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface, and the added complexity of movement and time.

teachers looking at the drawings on the floor
teachers looking at the drawings on the floor

Building it out again: three dimensions

Now it was time to experiment with creating something three-dimensional from a two-dimensional material: paper. Working with a 1 1/2 inch dot grid on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, a pair of scissors, and small circular stickers, teachers created sculptures. No specific instructions were given except to create something three-dimensional based on the grid. The teachers cut, folded, and taped. Discoveries were made, and sculptures were adjusted. They learned what worked and responded to their new knowledge as they continued to build. As expected, this exercise resulted in a wide range of sculptures – size, shape, and orientation. We displayed the sculptures in the center of the room and discussed the process and results.

teachers' paper sculptures on display
teachers’ paper sculptures on display

Introducing time: the fourth dimension

Happily, there was a Carl Andre sculpture installed in the exhibition, which consisted of 17 copper squares, arranged in a line on the floor. Another grid! This gave us, the facilitators, the idea to culminate this part of the session with physical activity, something we thought would also benefit students when these ideas were translated into a classroom. Andre’s sculptures are meant to be experienced by walking over, around, and on them. Taking inspiration from Childs’s dance, we split the larger group into groups of 4-5 teachers and gave them 10 minutes to create a dance on and around the sculpture. Although coming up with choreography was a new experience to many of the teachers, they embraced the challenge and had fun working together. Again, the final pieces showed great variety:

Some moved in grid-like movements: forward, backward, side-to-side, while others incorporated more organic movements. Some were in unison, others had each dancer moving in a unique way. All utilized the length of the sculpture and responded to its structure.

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On a concluding walk through the galleries, we took note of how artists throughout time and place use the grid to organize space. For example, the use of one-point perspective in a Canaletto painting or the incorporation of multiple perspectives in an 18th century Japanese screen. From grids on floors, to decorations on the ceilings, to paintings, drawings, decorative arts, and sculptures on view, it became clear that grids abound in art and architecture. We began to consider the world around us in new ways and recognize underlying structures that order our built environment.

These exercises drew the teachers out of their comfort zones and encouraged them to engage in creative play – looking, drawing, creating, dancing, and discussing. They considered spatial relationships from several perspectives and through different means. It is our hope that the teachers left the session with practical ideas for the classroom, an enriched understanding of spatial intelligence, and a new appreciation the interconnectedness of art across the disciplines.

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About the Authors

mitchell2REBECCA MITCHELL is the former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she taught students in the galleries, organized teacher programs, and wrote teacher resources (to view the PMA’s teacher resources, please visit www.philamuseum.org/teacherresources). She has a B.A. in art history from Smith College and an M.A. in art history from the University of Delaware. She currently resides outside of New Haven, CT, where she is spending time with her two young children, but remains active in the art museum education community.

kantrowitzANDREA KANTROWITZ, EdD, is an artist and researcher, who has lectured and given workshops internationally on art and cognition. As the director of the Thinking through Drawing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, she organized a series of international drawing and cognition research symposia, in collaboration with colleagues from the U.K. She holds a B.A in Art and Cognition from Harvard University and a MFA in Painting from Yale, and an Ed.D from Columbia University in art education and cognitive studies.  She teaches foundation drawing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and art education at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She worked for many years as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools and has been involved in multiple local and national arts in education research projects.  Her own art work is represented by Kenise Barnes Fine Art. 

Plan, Implement, Evaluate: Leveraging All Staff for Program Development

Written by Mike Deetsch, Director of Education & Engagement, Toledo Museum of Art

Plan

In 2010 the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) passed its 2015 Strategic Plan with an emphasis on the Museum’s Purpose: Art Education. One of the primary intentions behind the plan was to create a more relevant and sustainable Museum and at this point we adopted the Strategic Objective of Teaching Visual Literacy.  The thought process behind this, brought forward by the Museum’s director Brian Kennedy, was that the Museum would leverage great works of art in the collection to teach people to see better in our 21st century’s image-saturated society.  Since this time there have been a variety of visual literacy-specific initiatives developed by the Museum, including The Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, a docent training class highlighting visual perception, and the creation of a Visual Literacy website.

In November 2014 the Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 47th annual conference for the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).  As part of the preparation for this conference, in January 2014 the education department was charged with designing a professional development program that would train all Museum staff and volunteers on the theories and processes around visual literacy. With the conference imminent, we wanted to ensure that any staff or volunteer in the organization would feel comfortable talking about visual literacy with any of our attending guests.

Before my colleagues and I developed the curriculum, we needed to clarify TMA’s approach to teaching visual literacy and its associated concepts. Our goal was to make the content accessible to a wide audience.  It might go without stating, but not everyone on our staff has a background in art, art history, or art museums.  Keeping in mind that we were going to be training such a diverse audience (i.e. all museum departments as well as docents and other volunteers), our approach couldn’t be intimidating and had to be presented in a fun and engaging way.

We had been incorporating visual literacy concepts into programming in a number of ways since 2010, but those programs largely lived with the education department.  To be successful on this project, it was clear that it was essential to engage a variety of staff members outside of education in order for the concepts to “stick” and be embodied throughout the organization.  Aided by strong support from the director’s office, we pulled together a cross-departmental team of 14 staff, for three consecutive Tuesdays in February 2014, to brainstorm around visual literacy concepts.  This team consisted of staff from curatorial, education, library, marketing, visitor engagement, visitor services, and the director’s office.

Visual Literacy Content Meeting 021114

Our meetings took place in a white board room (three walls covered in white board paint) where we were able to discuss, brainstorm, and illustrate ideas.  While the participants were not always in agreement, we were able to use these meetings (about six hours total) to land on consensus for our key process which include:

  1. an easy to understand definition of visual literacy,
  2. the Elements of Art and Principles of Design as the foundational vocabulary,
  3. the Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, and
  4. the concepts of interpretation distilled into four visual languages.

During these sessions the group realized the value of aligning the TMA’s definition of visual literacy with textual literacy.  The comparison to textual literacy is important for two reasons: one, it makes an analogy that people are already familiar with and, two, it gives the Museum the opportunity to shift the discussion from literacy to language.  The latter shift was key because focus groups had been telling us that literacy implies there are people who are illiterate, while language implies level of fluency.  TMA’s definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, comprehend, and write visual language.  Reading visual language is about the process of seeing, comprehending visual language is about the interpretation of seeing, and writing visual language is about the action you take in response to what you have seen.

Implement

With the definition, process, and concepts in place my colleague Kate Blake, Manager of Curriculum, and I drafted the curriculum for the professional development.  From the outset of writing the curriculum we identified a few musts: the program needed to be multidisciplinary, meaning it wasn’t going to be art history-centric; it needed to be activity-based; and it had to be taught in the galleries.

As museum educators we know the value in using a variety of approaches to gallery learning, including group discussion, small group activities, drawing, and independent exploration.  Facilitating activities, opposed to discussion only, would afford us the chance to engage with a variety of learning styles and dabble into a bit of game mechanics.  By making the approach activity-based, we were able to engage our staff in the overall experience which proved to be useful in retaining the concepts  introduced.

Staff participating in Visual Literacy workshop activity.
Staff participating in Visual Literacy workshop activity.

As I mentioned earlier this training was offered to TMA staff and volunteers, in all approximately 300 individuals.  In the end we designed a curriculum of 12 contact hours which introduced the concepts surrounding Visual Literacy, spent time on close looking techniques, and gave special emphasis to the four visual languages.  Kate and I knew that 12 hours was a significant commitment for people to give over during the work week, so we also developed a variety of workshop formats to adjust to people’s schedules accordingly.  Initially each of these sessions was facilitated by full-time TMA education staff but gradually transitioned two of our more experienced docents into facilitators.  These docents, who were both former docent board presidents, had been working closely with staff on visual literacy programming since 2010.

One lesson the facilitators quickly discovered during the workshops was the importance of acknowledging expertise, at all levels, throughout the professional development.  There were content experts, such as curators, as well as other areas of expertise. For example our security staff, which spends more time in the galleries than anyone else on staff, was actively encouraged to contribute their opinions and perspectives.  The guards’ comments were often  the most insightful for their interpretations and their observations of visitor interactions with the collection.

Evaluation and Next Steps

As a means of reflection, we developed an evaluation tool that  allowed us to make real time adjustments. Specifically we measured the digestibility (of content) and overall enjoyment.  To do this, we created a series of online surveys to collect feedback at various touch points during the 12 hour workshop.  The curriculum was grouped into six modules and each module had its own evaluation.  While the evaluation was not a requirement for participation, we collected over 300 surveys.  The general response was positive, with most activities receiving a rating of 5 (out of 6) on a Likert scale. Open-ended questions provided constructive feedback that we were able to act on immediately, such as making a slight adjustment to our definition of visual literacy and dropping activities that did not resonate or were too complicated.

Staff feedback to Visual Literacy workshops.
Staff feedback to Visual Literacy workshops.

All told between April and October 2014, our team of eight facilitated 28 workshops, totaling 336 hours, for 300 staff and volunteers.  The entire experience, from design to facilitation, relied heavily on cross-departmental staff involvement, input, and engagement.  As a result we were able to design a clear and concise introductory visual literacy curriculum which we have been able to repurpose for a variety of audiences and in a multitude of formats since getting the staff involved.  Our staff and volunteers clearly understand TMA’s Purpose is Art Education and that we will achieve it by Teaching Visual Literacy now.

Having the opportunity to share and rely on expertise throughout the Museum proved invaluable throughout the entire process.  How many of you have the opportunity to cross collaborate on projects from start to finish?  If so, what does that look like?  And do you have the opportunity to prototype new ideas?  How can we build that into our practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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About the Author

headshotMIKE DEETSCH: Emma Leah Bippus Director of Education and Engagement at the Toledo Museum of Art, Deetsch is a key member of the Museum’s executive team, leading educational and programming initiatives across the Museum. He is responsible for curriculum development for all audiences, outreach, exhibition interpretive material and management of the docent program as well as conceptualizing innovative public programming.  He oversees a strong, motivated education staff and a highly engaged TMA docent corps responsible for developing visual literacy initiatives and partnering to create opportunities for visual literacy education and awareness.  Prior to joining the TMA staff, Deetsch served as a senior museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition and programs director at the Lexington Art League, and the student programs manager at the Kentucky Historical Society. Deetsch received his master’s degree in art education from the Pratt Institute and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Hanover College. He was chosen in 2011 to participate in the Getty Leadership Institute’s “Museum Leaders: the Next Generation.”

Building Community: Reflections on the Ohio Museum Teaching Mashup

Written by Patty Edmonson, Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist, Cleveland Museum of Art; and Hajnal Eppley, Assistant Director, School & Teacher Engagement, Cleveland Museum of Art

Inspired by the Museum Ed Mashup in New Orleans, Cleveland hosted the first Ohio Museum Teaching Mashup at MOCA Cleveland on August 10.  Hosts from a cross-museum team (Nicole Ledinek from MOCA, Gina Thomas McGee from Akron Art Museum, and Bethany Corriveau Gotschall, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppley from the Cleveland Museum of Art) planned a day-long event with multiple rounds of gallery experimentation and discussion.

As hosts, we were excited about working together and were energized by the planning process, but we weren’t sure how successful this event would be in terms of attendance. Previous mash-ups and throw-downs in New Orleans, Denver, and New York took place when educators were already close geographically, or gathered for an event. Would people from other cities really want to travel all the way to Cleveland for this mashup?

The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” Forty museum and university educators, classroom teachers, and volunteers from cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Detroit joined together to experiment, share ideas, and play in MOCA Cleveland’s galleries.

Hosts and participants commented that one of the most important components of the event was the opportunity to meet new colleagues and collaborate. While some larger cities host frequent regional museum education or art education professional development, many of us in Midwestern museums have not had these opportunities. Several participants commented that they were unable to attend conferences and, particularly for those in smaller institutions, they sometimes felt a sense of isolation. For many of us, this event was the first opportunity to meet colleagues in the region and lay the groundwork for future collaborations.

Experiments in the Galleries

We divided the day into two experimenting sessions, modeled after the New Orleans experience. After a quick introduction in the morning, randomly-drawn groups of three received an artwork and planned their experience in 45 minutes. “I found that I was easily able to let go of the desire to understand where they [fellow experimenters] came from and what strengths they brought to the table, instead focusing on working together with whoever happened to be in my group to develop an experience. I’ve been thinking about how that kind of experience is particularly useful in understanding how to approach collaborative work, compromise, and flexibility at my home institution,” reflected one of our experimenters.  

Each team executed their plan in six minutes, and then we gathered for a quick recap. After the event, we asked teams what it was like to serve as an experimenter. One summed up the role as “part mad scientist, part educator, part visitor, part experiential development nerd.” Another said:

“Experimenters are willing to take risks…regardless of whether their activities are perceived to be successful or not they are willing to go with the flow and let their assigned artworks guide the experience, embracing spontaneity instead of shying away from it.”

Because this was the first regional gallery teaching experiment and we knew we were asking some participants to step out of their comfort zones, we wanted to provide an opportunity for reluctant participants to observe first, and join the experimentation later in the day if they felt inspired. After lunch we repeated the format of the morning with a shorter planning period. Groups devised experiences for us to embody art, create stories, explore process, and look in refreshing ways.

Instagram photo by @heep -
Instagram photo by @heep – https://instagram.com/p/6NlzbTSOBs/

One gallery experience designed by Maria Iafelice (Toledo), Kate Blake (Toledo), and Joan Kohn (Cleveland) involved the architecture of the MOCA building, designed by Farshid Moussavi. Experimenters asked participants to share words they would use to describe a stairwell and then use their phones take pictures of various perspectives of the stairwell as they climbed.  At the top, participants were asked to pull up one of the photos they took and physically place their phones together where their photos connected. The result was a participant-generated photo collage inspired by the space surrounding us.

heep
Instagram photo by @heep – https://instagram.com/p/6NWewRSOBI/

Take Aways

As hosts, we had a number of takeaways. We were truly impressed with the flexibility and creativity of our group. Although I participated as an experimenter in New Orleans, it was equally gratifying to sit back, feel the energy of the moment and watch the magic happen as colleagues worked together! It was especially impressive to see ideas developed between teams of people from different backgrounds—museum educators, classroom teachers, volunteers, and students. Gina reflected:

“I felt really proud to be a part of a special community.”

The format for this event was not brand new. The experiences and discussions we completed together may not all have been radical, trail-blazing gallery experimentation, but this was not the goal. For Midwestern museum and art educators, this event felt like a true beginning to the building of our professional community.

For more pictures, videos, and posts from the event, visit: https://storify.com/heepp/ohio-museum-ed-mashup

A Museum Educator’s Takeaways from Museums & the Web 2015

As someone whose interests, skills, and even job title (Manager of Digital Learning) sit squarely between two areas of museum work—education and technology—I think pretty much nonstop about the relationship between the two. This year, I had the great fortune to be able to attend the 2015 Museums and the Web conference (MW or #MW2015) in Chicago, IL, and think out loud with hundreds of leaders, practitioners, and students passionate about museum technology.

I am active in the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and usually attend the NAEA convention, but this year I was excited to step away from my home base of museum education and into the world of digital. I was not disappointed: I found my tech nerd people (you should have heard the nostalgic sigh when someone showed a GIF of old-school Hyperlapse in action).

However, this is not a post about digital nerdery, so if you understood not a word of that previous sentence, don’t be scared. From here on out, this is my attempt to bridge the areas of digital and education in museums. Here are some of my key takeaways from the MW2015 Conference.

Museums and the Web does conference swag right. Check out those tote bags. Photo by the author.
Museums and the Web does conference swag right. Check out those tote bags. Photo by the author.

Twitter is a magical thing

One of the best things I ever did for my career was sign up for Twitter, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become more involved in the field. It has helped me make deep and vast connections with colleagues I never would have encountered otherwise, from all over the museum field and into art history, academia, and K-12 learning. I now use Twitter as my primary source for museum, art, and tech news; as a place to share resources; to talk about issues in the field; and to store my thoughts during conferences. At MW2015, I was finally able to meet many of my “Twitter colleagues” in person. As someone who’s more introverted, it made approaching someone I’d never met before much easier when I could lead with “I’ve followed you on Twitter forever!” and pick up a conversation where we left off online. I could see the same being true for a student or emerging professional.

And, not gonna lie, it’s both fun and weird to be recognized from Twitter when you’re at a conference. It’s like your own little celebrity moment when you introduce yourself to someone and they exclaim, “Oh! I follow you on Twitter and was hoping I’d meet you!” (Insert blushing emoji here.)

Museum technologists publish—and therefore legitimize the “musetech” field

Museum technologists publish. This topic has been bubbling up both at this year’s NAEA (read Dana Carlisle Kletchka’s speech here) and among the museum educators present at MW2015.

At Museums and the Web, presenters can host professional forums and workshops, but they can also present papers. For paper presentations, you write and submit a formal paper that goes beyond “show and tell” of a project and focuses on theory and practice. At the conference, you’re bundled into a session with two other author-practitioners who wrote on similar topics, and the three of you share key points. These engaging talks give technologists the opportunity to formally publish in their field, a boon for their institution and impressive internally to senior staff. Wrapping publishing into a conference also opens doors for emerging professionals and students to participate in the organization more deeply.

But more than that, it legitimizes museum technology. Emily Lytle-Painter used that turn of phrase when I mentioned how impressed I was with the publishing arm of the conference, and it was an “a-ha!” moment for me. Publishing in this quantity and with such dedication—plus offering the papers online, for free, for anyone to read—helps the museum field at large see how important tech is, because it connects theory with practice.

Michelle Grohe (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and I are thinking about how to adapt this to the field of museum education, and I am hoping to have some ideas to pilot this summer. So stay tuned, and please feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested in this topic.

The author presents on teen programs at the conference along with Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago), Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), and Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs). Photo by Peter Vega
The author presents on teen programs at the conference along with Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago), Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), and Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs). Photo by Peter Vega

We need to be better at translating and advocating for our work

One of my coworkers told me about a moment in the Linked Open Data session where the speakers were asked to do an “elevator pitch,” as if to their director or board, about the benefits of linked open data. Afterward, the audience was asked to raise their hand if they were convinced. Just one person did–in a room of nearly a hundred.

When my coworker—one of our fantastic IT (information technology) staff—told me this anecdote, we had a great discussion about the topic of translating what we do for non-technical staff. One of my biggest pet peeves about the museum field as a whole is that we use specialized language that visitors don’t understand. On top of that, we often use our own content-area words that our colleagues might not understand—curators use art history terminology, educators use teacher-speak, and digital has a host of terms drawn from tech. It’s so easy to forget that others might not know our vocabulary, and few of us are brave enough to ask our peers what the heck a mandala, parking lot, or API is.

Educators are great at knowing our audience on tours; let’s apply that to our own institutions by explaining what we mean when talking to our colleagues, as well as not being afraid to ask coworkers to define their terms. Another tool is metaphor, which Tracey Berg-Fulton suggested at the conference—she “translates” by using art history examples to explain tech to curators, and puts curator needs into tech speak for IT. When we translate what we mean, we gain powerful allies and advocates.

We grapple with the same issues—so let’s collaborate more!

There were countless themes and issues that surfaced during Museums and the Web. Technologists such as Peter Samis (SFMOMA) are thinking about storytelling in the digital sphere. We’re grappling with focusing on process vs. the object, as evidenced by a talk on museum makerspaces by Desi Gonzalez, which in turn sparked a sideline Twitter debate about visitor motivation. Developing projects that aligned with institutional mission came up again and again—as a guidepost, as a tool for advocacy, as a way to develop buy-in from colleagues. And we’re struggling with how to define impact and evaluate digital projects—how do we avoid “anecdata” (anecdotal non-data) and really dig deep into showing change?

I’m sure that more than one of these topics resonated with you as a museum educator–so it’s no surprise that I think we should collaborate more internally, cross-departmentally. The museum technologists leading the deepest organizational change and the most impactful projects are those who have strong collaborations cross-departmentally. So if you’re not already, reach across the aisle of your museum and foster relationships with your tech folks–then we can innovate together rather than separately!

It doesn’t have to be a huge, scary endeavor: start small. Have coffee with one of your museum’s digital/IT staff to learn a bit more about his or her job, and let them know what you do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—your genuine curiosity will go a long way. Find existing projects that you might be able to support, and share what you’re working on. See if there’s a cross-departmental meeting like a Technology Team you could join, or invite your new IT pal to join in an education meeting.

Digital leaders are often museum change leaders

Finally, one of the biggest threads of the conference was about how change is affecting our institutions (you can track lots of different conversations at #MWChange). You’ll notice that “digital” wasn’t in that sentence, but it seems to me that organizational change is, at many institutions, being spearheaded by digital staff. I think this is because digital projects are often catalysts that force museum staff to rethink business as usual. Keir Winesmith (SFMOMA), Michael Parry (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney), Dafydd James (National Museum Wales, UK), Seb Chan, and Aaron Cope (both from Cooper-Hewitt) all led sessions that focused on or touched on institutional change as a result of digital projects. I highly recommend checking out Keir, Michael, and Dafydd’s excellent slides.

Their stories all rang true with one of my favorite books on change and leadership, Leading Change by John Kotter. Kotter proposes eight stages of organizational change, and asserts that it’s a long-term process that requires deep buy-in from all areas and levels. His theory resonates deeply with the change strategies put forth at MW2015. Both Kotter’s book and the papers written by these presenters (here and here) are well worth a read for those of us thinking about deep change in our institution and in the field at large.

*     *     *     *     *

I’m sure you’ll find that there’s lots of overlap between our work as museum educators and the work of our colleagues in technology. After a week with some wonderful museum technologists at Museums and the Web, I guarantee that there is a lot we can learn from each other to invigorate our practice and better serve our visitors.

PS: I also had the pleasure of presenting at the conference with educators Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago) and Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), organized by Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs)! We talked about digital in teen programs, and you can read more about our session on Barry’s blog.

Featured header image: A shot of the closing reception at the beautiful (and massive) Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo by the author.

Gravity and Grace: Cross-Departmental Collaboration at the Brooklyn Museum

If I were stitching a sampler about some of my recent museum education work, it might start like this:

A is for Anatsui.  B is for Brooklyn.  C is for collaboration.

Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com
Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com

Where the rest of the alphabet would go, I’m not so sure, but those first three letters reflect my experience working on Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, the retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.  Every show in every museum takes a dedicated team to pull it off, of course, but I’m taking this digital moment to highlight what’s been a particularly wonderful example of cross-departmental cooperation, which isn’t an easy thing, especially in a mid- or large-size institution.  In this case, it led to a variety of ways to engage with the exhibition that ultimately (I hope) makes the show a great experience for our visitors.

We have a downloadable Teaching Resource for teachers who want to bring their students to see the show.  We hosted a conversation between El Anatsui himself, Susan Vogel (filmmaker and author of El Anatsui: Art and Life), and Kevin Dumouchelle (the museum’s Associate Curator for the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands and curator of this show in its Brooklyn presentation):

We have an in-gallery hands-on activity inviting visitors to use paper and twist ties to imitate some of the folds Anatsui and his assistants use to create his massive metal artworks (more on that in a bit).  We have iPad kiosks that solicit visitor responses to the art on display using video questions posed by museum staff.  We have QR Codes to scan for those seeking further context.  And that’s in addition to our array of tours, workshops, and art-making classes designed for families, students, and adults.  So many options for engagement!

So how did all this come about, and what made it so collaborative?

PaperFolding
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

My part in it started when I took on the role of Project Educator for the show.  The Education staff here divvies up a given year’s roster of special exhibitions to assign a Project Educator or two to each show.  These folks represent Education’s voice in interdepartmental meetings and help shape education programming during the show’s run.

From the get-go, Kevin generously shared his knowledge, thoughts, and time with me and Matthew Branch, my fellow Project Educator.  For Kevin, the collaboration inspiration started even earlier in the process: with Anatsui himself.  “The work is so open ended,” Kevin says.  “There was a real possibility for thinking big and thinking of options that we might have been a little bit more cautious about if we had more specific instructions from the artist.”

While some artists provide detailed notes for how their pieces should be installed, Anatsui likes to leave it up to the team at each location.  “That filtered down to every aspect of the show,” Kevin adds.  “Which made it a lot of fun.”  Take a peek at this time-lapse video of the show’s installation. As you can see from the art handlers, designers, and conservators involved, it took a team to get the show up.  Not to mention Robert Nardi in our Technology department, who made this video to share with the internet at large:

Go, team, go!

Adding her enthusiasm and creativity to the mix was Sara Devine, the museum’s Manager of Interpretive Materials, who made sure we had a hands-on activity in an exhibition full of objects that, oh man, do you ever want to touch.  We can’t touch the art, but thanks to Sara’s input, we can do our own tactile experimentation.  Physically embodied engagement?  Check. Multimodal sensory inputs?  Check.  Music to the ears of any art educator.

iPadScreenshot
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

Sara also enlisted representatives from our curatorial and education staff (and, again, Technology’s cooperation) to record several 30-second video clips that ask visitors questions about the exhibition and invite them to enter their responses on iPads throughout the galleries.

All in all, it’s an exhibition that offers visitors a range of ways of interacting, and it could only have been done by creative interdepartmental teamwork. As Sara states:

“I know it sounds pretty obvious, but what allowed this exhibition to be a good example of cross-departmental collaboration was an ongoing and open line of communication, which is surprisingly rare. I think we all very easily get caught up in our own part of the process and forget to reach out, ask for input, and keep others informed. We all made a conscious effort to communicate and I believe that is the biggest reason our collaboration was so successful.”

I couldn’t have said it better.  This opening up of the closed doors–be they metaphorical or literal–between departments is a way many museums approach (or are starting to approach) their work, and it’s an exciting prospect to look forward to.  In Mike Murawski’s recent post about the Museum Education Division sessions at this year’s NAEA Convention, he noted that we’re in “a moment when many major museums are re-imagining (and, in some cases, totally disrupting) the traditional relationships between education and curatorial.”  Sure, it may be testing uncharted waters, but when it works (as it has with Gravity and Grace), it can produce amazing results.

How have you worked to open lines of communications across departments at your institution?  Join the conversation below, and share some of the best collaborations you have been involved with.

Improv(e) Your Teaching

When I left the improv world after 10 years, I was never going back. I had just gotten a job at my first NYC museum (NY Transit Museum!) and was back in school for art history, ready to put acting far behind me. Time went on and the more I learned about museum education pedagogy, the more my brain connected it to improv. Fast forward a few years, museums, internships, freelance jobs, and tours later – I found myself convinced that good museum teaching went hand in hand with everything I learned as an improviser.

Giant Improv Class by CM
Giant Improv Class by CM

NPR recently aired a story about MBA students taking courses in improvisation. But why improv? For the very same reason every museum educator should be trained in improv: communication. That is not saying we should all be “onstage” when we teach, cracking jokes and making our students laugh. On the contrary, many improv principles are qualities we strive for in our teaching – things that are not taught when we learn a collection or study museum education.

The idea of an educational toolbox is something we hear at every professional development conference and class. What are we really filling it up with? The multi-modal teaching strategies and classroom management skills are essential. But have we been paying enough attention to how we say what we are saying and how to sharpen and enhance our listening skills? Or flex our collaboration muscles? Improv courses do exactly that. It’s like going to the gym for your brain – those revered careful listening, honest responding, fearless and flexible teaching skills are all enhanced by improv ideas.

Yes, And…

One of the first things educators learn about inquiry is the idea of asking open-ended questions that allow for many responses, then scaffolding information on top to deepen the conversation. This idea is echoed in improv. The first ‘rule’ of improv is the phrase ‘yes, and’. A scene partner offers information. You take it, affirm it, and add something to it, and your scene partner repeats. This back and forth is the foundation of improv. Negation ends the scene – and in inquiry, defeats the students. It’s about saying, “Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better” instead of “no, I have a better idea.”

yes-and2The ideas of ‘yes, and’ and inquiry only work when people are listening to one another. If you are not paying close attention to what your scene partner is saying, you may miss the information needed to propel the story. The fact is true with inquiry as well – if you repeat what the student is saying incorrectly or miss their point, you will change the meaning of their observation or interpretation.

During beginning improv classes, instructors lead students in several affirming exercises. It’s all about taking a gift, agreeing, and adding. It is also raising the stakes. By scaffolding more details on to a suggestion, a scene immediately becomes rich and interesting. Sharpening those careful listening skills is essential to any improviser. Responding skills are also put to the test and enhanced through speed games that not only quicken response time, but also better public speaking skills.

Collaboration

Improvisation is a group sport. Teams will practice weekly in order to get to know each other and build trust. Interaction is key to improv – which is why so many companies will hire improvisers to teach team-building. The activities teach individuals how to interact effectively, operate under pressure and, most importantly, trust one another. Also important in improv: the notion that you always want to make your scene partner look better – you will in turn look better as well. We want to affirm our students ideas and teach them to practice critical thinking. Working together builds on the idea of a team: you and your group are living the art in that moment, experiencing it together. These values: trust, interaction, and poise– even when 15 more students than you expected show up for a field trip in a tiny museum – are imperative in good gallery teaching.

Failure is Ok

75% of improv is bad. Real bad. You may see a show after reading this and think “Wow. I do not want to look like that.” But how they look is not the point – improv is all about removing the sense of failure. In order to grow, you have to fail. In some improv classes, when students get that feeling of “I screwed up” they take a ‘failure bow’ – a bow, paired with the declaration “I failed!” The rest of the class will clap and cheer, affirming the chance that was taken. When people are less afraid at failing at improv, it connects to their lives, and we learn to handle setbacks with grace and ease.

As educators, we aim to create celebratory spaces that embrace student work. But how can we create these spaces if we ourselves fear failure?

We improvise every day of our lives. We have no idea what the next word is that might come out of our mouth when talking to a friend or co-worker. These skills taught in improv classes will only make for better educators – ultimately better communicators – all while having fun. If only our theses made us laugh this much. The same week I finished school, I was welcomed back by my old improv troupe – and rarely miss a single rehearsal or show. The difference this time? It’s my professional development for teaching.

Have you ever taken an improv class or used it in your teaching? Or do your peers or colleagues have any experiences with improv as professional development? Share your perspective.

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