Tag Archives: conversation

It’s Okay to Turn Our Back on the Art

Written by Holly Gillette as part of the Gallery Teaching Lab series

As an art museum educator, it is imperative to always connect back to the art in our teaching. Or is it?

I follow a dialogical approach when I teach in museum galleries with adult visitors. I always invite participants to look slowly, to savor a long look at one work of art, a luxury we don’t often have in our busy lives. As the conversation among the group grows and might veer off in one direction or another, I try to redirect the conversation back to the art. We are in a museum with a physical work of art, something tangible that we could touch (theoretically, of course!), why would we not keep the conversation about the artwork in front of us? It is an aspect of object-based teaching that has been important to me as a museum educator, but recently I wondered: Is it okay to turn our back on the art to continue the group-led conversation elsewhere?

photo 1
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

As part of the Gallery Teaching Lab developed by Theresa Sotto, assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, I had the opportunity to experiment with colleagues in the Skirball Cultural Center’s galleries in February 2017. I’ve been a participant of the program since its inception, and always looked forward to the vast range of experiences my colleagues brought to the Lab.

For my experiment, I wanted to explore how information plays into interpretation and how we, as educators, need to be mindful of what we bring into the conversation. I am also interested in ways we may discuss current events and hot button issues in respectful and considerate ways when they connect to objects in our galleries. Lichtenstein’s “Gun in America” series, part of The Skirball Cultural Center’s exhibition Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A., seemed a perfect fit to experiment with both of these concepts.

The Skirball Cultural Center juxtaposed two TIME Magazine covers, each published about three weeks apart. The TIME cover on the right portrayed an energetic politician, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, issued on May 24, 1968, the year that he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. The TIME cover on the left was printed on June 21, 1968, two weeks after he was assassinated.

photo 2
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

Our focus for this discussion was the June 21st cover, an illustration TIME magazine commissioned Lichtenstein to create shortly after Bobby Kennedy’s death. The cover reads “The Gun in America” and featured an article titled “Nation: The Gun Under Fire.” After some digging, I was able to get my hands on the article which is both a reaction to Kennedy’s assassination as well as a response to the gun violence that plagued the 1960s. Bobby’s brother, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, just a few months before Bobby’s death. America then, as now, was grappling with similar issues regarding gun control, which I believed to be an important aspect of my experiment. I was especially interested in how the text of the article affected the interpretation of the image on the magazine cover, not only in 1968, but today.

I set up my experiment into three parts that included a free write, small group discussion, and large group discussion. To give you an idea of what I was planning, here’s an abridged version of my teaching plan:

  • Introduction: Before entering the galleries, advise group that this is a safe space and we must respect everyone. Participation is optional, if it gets too much, it’s okay to step away.
  • Free Write – 5 minutes: Take a look at the artworks, get up close, take a few minutes to free write or draw. We will spend 5 minutes silently looking.
  • Discussion – 10 minutes: Group discussion of the artwork. What bubbled up for you? Would anyone like to share?
  • Pair Share – 20 minutes: Divide groups into pairs. Distribute an excerpt from the article to each group. Invite groups to move to another area of the gallery where they can get together to read the excerpt and discuss. Some questions to think about while discussing: How does this piece make you feel? Do you agree or disagree? Why? This was written in 1968, but, are there parallels today?
  • Discussion – 20 minutes: Bring the groups back together. Groups share their conversations, if they desire to do so.  Briefly summarize your excerpt, what thoughts bubbled up for you? What debates did you have in your group, if any?
  • Conclusion – 5 minutes: Thank you to everyone for being vulnerable today.

 Let’s face it, above was my teaching plan. When we entered the gallery, I soon realized that there was particularly loud jazz music playing in the exhibit. Apparently Lichtenstein loved jazz and the music is the soundtrack of Kamasi Washington’s break out jazz album, The Epic. A rookie mistake, because I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the exhibition before I was teaching in it! The music was welcome during silent looking but when we started discussing, it became difficult to hear even in our small group of ten participants. Our initial discussion drew from the physicality of the objects, seeing Lichtenstein’s hand and process. It then led to people sharing their feelings, one participant commented on how she was desensitized by the image of a gun. Another commented that they had recently been in the vicinity of an act of gun violence, and that their feelings now are different than if they had seen this image prior to the incident.

As the discussion grew beyond the formal qualities of the work itself, I used that moment to segue to the second part of the experiment. I divided the group into pairs and gave each pair an excerpt from the 1968 TIME magazine article. Pairs were encouraged to venture into other parts of the gallery or even outside on the courtyard to sit and discuss anything that developed for them when thinking about the artwork and reading the excerpt.

After 20 minutes, I wanted to bring everyone back into the gallery in front of the artworks, but instead, I made the decision to gather everyone outside the galleries where we could gather without the distraction of the music. We sat in a circle, I asked each group to share if they wanted to. Much of the excerpts from the 1968 article were arguments about gun control. Discussion from the group dug deep into this difficult and complex issue. Many participants discussed how they couldn’t fathom someone needing to own a gun, some shared stories about how family members own guns and either agree or disagree with them. Some stories were about growing up in rural communities where hunting was the norm. The person, who mentioned at the beginning of the talk that they were recently near an act of gun violence, felt safe enough to share her story. Parallels were made from 1968 to today, and it was argued that not much has changed.

What I had intended to be a 20 minute group-share turned into a 50 minute discussion. Instead of bringing it back to the work of art, I lost myself in the conversation. Instead of acting as facilitator, I became a participant. When I realized we had gone well beyond our hour together, cutting into our debrief time for the GTLab, I tried to reel the group back in and get feedback on the activity. To my surprise, the group just wanted to continue discussing the topic.

I was so humbled by my colleagues and the conversation we had that day. As we all walked back to our meeting room Rachel Stark, Assistant Director of Education at the Skirball Cultural Center, turned to me and thanked me for allowing us to “turn our back” on the art to have the real nitty gritty conversation. It was at that moment I realized that what I learned from this experiment wasn’t what I initially expected. Yes, I wanted to explore ways of using objects in our collection as entry points to discuss current events and complex issues, but I realized something more important. When it means continuing the conversation and focusing on the needs of the people present, it is okay to turn our back on the art and continue the conversation where the group needs to go, even if that means we aren’t focusing on the artwork anymore.

We all need an outlet in this political climate; if a work of art can jump-start important conversation, amazing! Let the conversation go where it needs to go.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to continue the conversation. Please comment here, or email me at hgillette@lacma.org.

*     *     *

 

About the Author

gillette_photoHOLLY GILLETTE is an art museum educator with an interest in gallery teaching and community building. She is currently an Education Coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she oversees the school and community partnership program Art Programs with the Community: LACMA On-Site. Prior to working at LACMA, she began her career in Museum Education at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, focusing on school, early childhood, and family audiences. Holly holds a MS.Ed. in leadership in museum education from the Bank Street College Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in art history and studio art from University of California, Davis. Holly’s postings are her own and don’t necessarily represent LACMA’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

 

Gallery Teaching Lab: Where Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

Written by Theresa Sotto

What would happen in the galleries if we could only communicate through gestures? How might critics’ reviews about exhibitions be meaningfully incorporated in gallery teaching? How would museumgoers react if asked to draw a work of art as perfectly as possible–the opposite of conventional wisdom in museum education? These are just a few questions that educators from cultural institutions across Southern California have explored in a program developed by and for museum educators.

image1
Museum educators from three different institutions–Zoe Silverman from the Hammer, Rachel Stark from the Skirball, and William Zaluski from the Getty Center–act out a short skit in a role-playing experiment led by Chelsea Hogan, who then worked at ESMoA. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hogan.

I launched Gallery Teaching Lab (GTLab) at the Hammer Museum in October 2014 with educators from seven Los Angeles museums in an effort to foster innovation in gallery teaching. Now in its third year, the program has doubled in size to include fourteen participating institutions who each take turns hosting a GTLab approximately every six weeks. Twenty-five practitioners between Long Beach and Pasadena have the opportunity to try a new teaching strategy in an ever-changing space and receive constructive feedback from colleagues. Participants can use GTLab as a testing ground for nascent gallery teaching ideas without the pressure of building internal buy-in or fear of an unsuccessful experience with museum visitors. GTLab also offers educators an opportunity to eschew traditional or habitual teaching strategies and set aside their respective institutions’ existing programs or pedagogical philosophies.

Beginnings

The very first GTLab, which was led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was an experiment in facilitating silent conversations in order to create a safe space to explore potentially controversial topics. Veronica was inspired by Child Guidance Toys (1965) by Robert Heinecken, which was on view at the Hammer Museum in the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Object Matter. Created two years after president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Child Guidance Toys poignantly juxtaposes two advertisements of two different products–a toy rifle and a miniature replica of JFK.

Prior to viewing Child Guidance Toys with GTLab participants, Veronica displayed three large sheets of butcher paper, each with a prompt that was relevant to Heinecken’s work: consumerism, gun culture, and the claim that artists make us more aware of social issues. We were asked to silently and anonymously address each of these prompts or someone else’s comments. In a post-GTLab reflection, Veronica wrote that “participants commented on the fact that they enjoyed sharing things that they might not have, had it been a verbal conversation. Others noted that they were able to discuss sensitive topics in a safe environment.”

image2
A prompt used in a silent conversation led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

After writing and reading comments in response to the prompts in a classroom space, Veronica led us in an inquiry-based discussion of Child Guidance Toys in the exhibition space. In front of the work of art, we wasted no time making connections between the imagery and the serious themes that had already been explored during the silent conversations. The resulting discussion about Heinecken’s work was thought-provoking and multi-layered. But equally thought-provoking–at least for a room full of museum educators–was the conversation about the experiment itself. Educators mused: Did the pre-selected prompts limit conversation about the work of art? Which audiences would this activity be appropriate for? How would the silent conversations differ if they took place in the galleries? Since everyone responding to the prompts were in the same room at the same time, the comments were not completely anonymous. How does semi-anonymity impact one’s ability to freely share one’s thoughts?

Following her GTLab experiment, Veronica incorporated the silent conversation activity in a teacher program–with great success. However, successfully implementing a GTLab experiment with  museum visitors is more of a fortuitous outcome rather than a desired goal.

Experiments in Self-Guided Experiences

For my own first experiment, I was interested in exploring self-guided activities, and not just because I was interested in their format–one that typically doesn’t impart more than basic or cursory information about works of art. In the days leading up to my experiment, other work commitments took priority and I waited until the last minute to consider what I would do. My experiment became an opportunity for me to address two questions. The first: Can a self-guided experience be just as (or more) engaging and foster as much understanding about a work of art as a guided experience? The second question was one that I sometimes face more often than I’d like to admit: Is it possible to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art when you don’t have time to properly research the works of art on view?

I decided to try a semi-self-guided experience with the exhibition Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now because of the wide variety of works, subjects, and artists represented in the galleries. I briefly introduced the exhibition and then distributed prompts in three categories—1) Select, 2) Question, and 3) Translate. Working with partners, participants picked one prompt from each of the categories, one at a time, at random. For the Select cards, participants were prompted to choose a work that they associated with adjectives like secretive, awkward, or friendly. Once a work was selected, partners picked a Question card and discussed answers to prompts such as: “Could this work change someone’s life? If so, how?”; “Why do you think this work was selected for inclusion in this exhibition?”; and “In what ways is this work relevant to people in Los Angeles?” I gave some pairs more than one Question card if they seemed to answer their first question quickly. By the time the pairs completed their Select and Question prompts, they had already discussed their selected work for approximately 20 minutes and were ready to “translate” the artwork. This is where the activity got more experimental. I challenged peers to reflect on what is essential about the work of art and to figure out how those qualities could be translated into another form or genre–such as a Craigslist ad, a restaurant menu, or thirty seconds of sound. Not only was this part of the activity a lot of fun, but it also helped the group come to a nuanced and deep understanding about their selected works while stretching them to think creatively.

image3
A GTLab experiment informed the goals for this all-ages Discovery Guide.

After the experiment, GTLab participants remarked that they enjoyed completing the activities and they were able to make meaningful connections to their selected works of art. They also raised questions about appropriate audience applications and attendance limitations, and whether front-loading or modeling would be necessary with school groups. All good questions. But despite the overall positive and useful feedback, I never tried the same Select – Question – Translate prompts with actual visitors. For me, that wasn’t the point.

Taking Risks, Breaking Rules

I originally conceived of GTLab to foster innovation in gallery teaching–in my own practice as well as that of my colleagues. In fact, for the first couple of years of the program, I challenged all participants to follow one rule: your experiment should be an activity or strategy that you have not tried before. My experiment pushed me to re-evaluate what I want self-guided activities as a whole to accomplish: to foster personal and meaningful connections to art, to have fun learning with the people you came to the museum with, and to encourage creativity. These are by no means innovative goals. Rather they speak to the heart of what we do as museum educators.

The process of organizing and participating in gallery experiments has made me reflect on Gallery Teaching Lab itself. Innovation isn’t the main goal after all. Gallery Teaching Lab comprises a collective of peers who manage or support educator trainings at their respective institutions. For this professional learning community to be sustainable and useful for all participants, rules and goals should change based on the facilitator, the chosen experiment, and the galleries. What once took place at the Hammer Museum every six weeks on Wednesdays from 12-2PM now occurs at one of fourteen institutions on a day and time that works best for the host institution with goals that make the most sense for the facilitator. As is the case for all good labs, rules are meant to be broken.

*     *     *     *     *

About the Author

THERESA SOTTO is assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, where she oversees educational programming for college, family, and K-12 school groups. Theresa has been working at the crossroads of education and the arts since 2001. Prior to joining the Hammer, she worked at the Getty Museum, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has served as a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Theresa received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is also a published poet.

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.

 

From the Radio to the Museum: Storytelling, Listening, and Radical Empathy

Written by Beth Maloney

What can museums learn from approaches, models, and practices in other fields? How are we continuing to frame and define empathy and relevance in museum programming? Are we doing the research, making the connections, and learning from what else is out there?

*     *     *

I love good storytelling on the radio – whether listening to NPR as a child in the back seat of my Dad’s car, pulling over to a parking lot to catch the end of StoryCorps, or indulging in a podcast while I fold laundry. I love a good story; it’s partly why I love history. Last month, I attended a live event about Out of the Blocks, a documentary series on my local NPR station. The pieces began to fall together for me and I started considering this radio program in relation to dialogue-based museum programming.

Out of the Blocks is a program from WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the simple concept of sharing the stories of people living on one block in Baltimore, radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick create a series of episodes that present captivating narratives of real life. After interviewing everyone on one city block, they edit together interviews into one hour of radio that is lovely to listen to – opening perspective, building empathy and understanding. The show and podcast are well worth checking out; it’s truly amazing to hear interviewees share stories and see how editing, soundscape and production buoy those narratives.

img_7984-edit

However, it was the live event that really got me thinking. On stage, in real time, Baltimoreans whom Henkin and Patrick interviewed spoke about the project. Interviewees shared their first impressions of Henkin and Patrick, talked about being interviewed and, most movingly, what it was like to hear their own stories and voices in the final program on the radio. In front of a sold out auditorium of listeners and fans, many of them shared that it was both frightening and empowering to experience what eventually aired.

In his opening remarks, Henkin described the show as an experiment in radical empathy – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling and that the process of having people intently listen to that story feels good – it makes you feel like you matter. Producing this show is intensive and involves selecting a block to focus on, meeting and building relationships with everyone on that block, conducting hour long interviews with each person, editing all of those interviews into one episode and building the musical backdrop that amplifies and supports those stories. In the end, Henkin shared that he imagined each block as a mosaic of experiences and stories and, indeed, the city of Baltimore as a larger mosaic of those city blocks.

27_1

What’s the museum education connection?

Hearing from speakers at this live event, I was reminded immediately of some of the previous posts on artmuseumteaching.com about conversation and dialogue-based programming and institutional empathy in museums. Dialogue-based programming is not new to museums. Whether we are engaging in gallery and object-based discussion using techniques like VTS and facilitated dialogue or hosting thematically focused programming like Science Museum of Minnesota’s Talking Circles, Missouri History Museum’s Mother to Mother program  or Lower East Side Tenement Museum Kitchen Conversations, dialogue is central to our work. With this in mind, three points struck me immediately in Out of the Blocks:

  1. The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
  2. The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
  3. The relationships built through the process – between the producers, interviewees, neighbors and a broader community of listeners

In late September, I visited two major history museums in town with a friend– the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Maryland Historical Society. In the galleries, there are glimpses of the “Baltimore mosaic” Henkin described, visible in the form of a personal object with a particularly evocative story behind it, a student curated show featuring photographs of the process of historical inquiry and research, or an exhibit designed as an immersive environment – transporting one through theatrical techniques to a different time and place. Yet, there weren’t nearly enough of those provocative and arresting personal stories that tether historical events to the experiences of real people.

When we teach in history museums and exhibitions, we sometimes get caught up in the intoxication of historical documents, artifacts, objects and buildings to the detriment of the emotional, personal, story-driven voice of those who experienced a place or event. Sometimes this may be because it’s hard to find voices, particularly of those not present in the historical record. And there is a sense of the need for “neutrality.” But even if we can’t necessarily “interview” people who are long gone, we as a field benefit from a continuous reminder about the power of visceral, real stories from real people – especially in the face of larger interpretive narratives that address the history of organizations, nations and institutions. There is power in specificity, and scaled, personal and connective stories.

23

Ideas I am walking away with

Here are some reminders and lessons I’m taking away from Out of the Blocks:

  • Relationship building. It takes a long time to create an episode of Out of the Blocks (about 8 weeks). The commitment to interview everyone on one block, each person for an hour, takes time. And there is also time spent hanging out and getting to know the people on that block. This may be part of why interviewees feel comfortable sharing their stories.
  • The power of storytelling and the importance of transparency. The power of storytelling isn’t new. But at the Out of the Blocks live event I was reminded of how powerful it is to know the “backstory.” Hearing directly from both producers and interviewees added depth, nuance and made clear that the project was meaningful to everyone: the producers and the interviewees.
  • The notion of sharing and listening as radical empathy. There is power to both sharing stories and having them heard. As staff at institutions and cultural organizations, we need to remember both pieces – dialogue is both talking and listening.

What if we applied the same intensive techniques Henkin and Patrick use to interpreting our historic buildings, sites and spaces? What if in the same ways they interviewed everyone living on one city block during one moment in time, we “interviewed” everyone who lived in one place through time –the people who occupied the space before a building was built, the people who built the building, the people who worked in the building, renovated, occupied and used a space in different ways through time, and the people who are there now, in the neighborhood.  In this way, we might get closer to addressing the mythology of the “period of interpretation” as Frank Vagnone writes in his blog and the Anarchist’s Guide of Historic House Museums, co-authored with Deborah Ryan.

At one point in during the live event, Henkin shared that he and Patrick have been asked about the agenda for this series. What did they want to get out of this? What were they hoping for? Their response has been that there is no agenda but that if there were one, it would be to just show up and listen. What would it look like if museums just showed up and listened? What kinds of exhibitions, programs, partnerships and relationships might materialize? What can we in museums learn about programming and story from this kind of work? What examples of similar approaches in museums, libraries, at historic sites have you seen? Let’s amplify them.

*     *     *     *     *

About the Author

BETH MALONEY works as an independent consultant, bringing educational expertise to museums and cultural organizations in the form of curriculum and program development, interpretation, visitor experience planning and professional training. In addition to partnering with a wide range of museums and historic sites, she teaches undergraduate courses that explore museum work and learning through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Former Board member and Past President of the Museum Education Roundtable, Beth serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. For more information and to be in touch, please visit www.bethmaloney.com.

Header Image: Photo by Wendel Patrick. Aaron Henkin conducting an interview for “OUT OF THE BLOCKS,” 2012, photo courtesy the artists.

Photos included in this post are by Wendel Patrick, used courtesy of the artist.

Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool

Written by David Bowles, Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cross-posted with Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.

This blog post is about listening and reflection. As a museum educator, my job is to listen. On a good tour, I learn about as much about art from visitors as they learn from me. I also learn something about their lives. But often it seems like these moments evaporate. So for the past two years, I have been posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from my gallery experiences on Facebook.

I limit myself to one moment per tour. I try to stick to the facts, and not interpret the child’s ideas in my own words. I describe the context succinctly, and stick to a few sentences at most. I imagine reflecting on the teaching experience with someone who has never heard of the field of museum education – so no jargon allowed. When it makes sense, I include a visual of the artwork that sparked the teachable moment.

The moments I capture tend to be funny, which is why they make good Facebook posts. But they also highlight important moments of discovery, and often mark pivot points in gallery conversations. I try to focus on what Piaget might have called moments of disequilibrium – those wonderful, maddening moments when you discover for yourself that what you thought was simple, is not.

Here are three such experiences, some thoughts on what I’ve learned about school tours and student visitors along the way, and tips for anyone interested in giving this a try.

1.  Fear of the Unknown

Bowles-FB1

“A 7th grade student on a tour in the Ancient Egypt galleries this morning pointed out that he would rather be chased by mummies than velociraptors.”

I think the young man’s logic was that mummies chasing him through the Museum were likely to shuffle along slowly, while raptors are nimble pack hunters (as anyone who saw the kitchen scene from the original Jurassic Park can attest). He makes a valid point. This comment sparked a stimulating conversation among the class about fear of the unknown. We sat in the dimly lit gallery surrounded by sarcophagi and other tomb equipment unearthed along the Nile, and other classmates chimed in with their honest reactions to the unfamiliarity of the experience. After several other students also expressed fear, one young lady allowed that she “sort of liked being scared.” I asked her if it felt “safe scary” and she nodded. The young man whose comment started the conversation smiled at her and nodded as well.

These students feel slightly scared by the unknown Egyptian galleries filled with mummies and other ancient artifacts. But they are attracted to the unknown. The unknown in a museum setting, like the unknown in movies, is “safe scary.” For them, what is interesting about this space at the Met is not the connections they can make to their school curriculum, or the comparison between the ancient and the contemporary, but the opportunity to exist temporarily and safely in a space outside of the safety and routine of the everyday.

2. Time Travel

Bowles-FB2

“6th grade student, after discussing a sculpture of the historical Buddha: “So, is the Buddha like the Doctor? Doctor Who I mean.” Mind expanded.”

If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, close this browser and go watch some. The Doctor is an extravagant, brilliant, and charismatic alien who explores the universe trying to help the helpless, ease suffering, and generally leave things better than he found them. His ship, the TARDIS, can travel anywhere in space or time. Since he seems to like Great Britain, he comes to Earth a lot. Coincidentally, the show is produced by the BBC, so the Doctor is invariably British, as are his plucky human companions. The Doctor is a troubled hero, whose views on the universe are often transcendent as well as maddening.

On some level, the young lady who asked me if the Buddha was anything like the Doctor understood that the story of the Buddha, like the story of Doctor Who, is about creating an impossible narrative of characters who can save the world. On another hand, she may have been reaching for a way to connect historical information about the Buddha (i.e. he really existed, he was a prince, he traveled throughout India and Nepal, etc.) with the more incredible aspects of his story (i.e. his description of concepts like samsara and nirvana, his awakening or enlightenment, etc.) She seemed interested in the Buddha not as a representative of another culture but as a superhero, an embodiment of the type of figure that could save the world. In short, I think she saw a role model.

3. Love and Marriage

Bowles-FB3

“2nd grade student this morning after hearing that Theseus ditches Ariadne after they escape from the Minotaur: “Well, maybe he was too young for marriage. I mean, you shouldn’t marry someone you just met. You should like, get to know each other first. But it was still mean of him.”

Like the Greek myths that inspired it, this discussion offered an interesting analysis of human behavior. After telling these students the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, I asked students what they thought of the story’s ending. The first flurry of responses focused on abandonment and notions of fairness; everyone agreed that Theseus made a bad choice. Well, nearly everyone. I pushed for dissent, and asked if anyone had another point of view. This young lady had been sitting silently for a while, and when she did speak it was with energy.

On some level she was trying to make Theseus’ decision to abandon Ariadne acceptable. On a deeper level, I wonder if this student, like the young lady who compared the Buddha to the Doctor, was thinking about role models. As you can see in the comments left by my Facebook friends, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ explores these ideas very effectively as well. Whether or not this student had seen the movie (and I suspect she had), it was a powerful reminder to me about making room for respectful dissent when interpreting works of art. Students really absorb the lessons that they learn from movies, so it makes good sense to keep tabs on what those lessons are – and what ambiguities they might offer.

So what patterns have I noticed about kids’ interests at the Met?

The Unknown

Many of these conversations involve discovering new frontiers, and the thrill and fear that accompany real, authentic exploration. As long as the fear of the new doesn’t overwhelm the group, it can be very productive if acknowledged. There’s a lot to be said about the transformative power of discomfort; just ask an oyster.

Role Models

Humans are social animals; we look to others for tips on how to behave. Many students are searching for role models, and some have found them in fictional characters. These young people are looking for ways to connect these characters and their worlds to the real world around them, and they will do so at the first opportunity.

Contemporary Connections

Museum educators often talk about contemporary connections: strategies or concepts that help visitors understand something unfamiliar by tying it to something personally familiar from today. When students initiate their own contemporary connections, they often do so in unpredictable ways that can be surprising, humorous, or subversive. There is something to be said for letting students make their own connections instead of doing it for them. Kids will bring pop culture with them into the museum regardless, so ignoring its power means missing opportunities for authentic discussion.

Keeping up-to-date on popular trends among young learners can really help make genuine connections that make complex ideas accessible. It can also highlight key misunderstandings about objects or the stories objects tell. For example, the idea that you should get to know your future partner well before committing is a very particular approach to marriage, presumably not one endorsed in most ancient societies.

Some Takeaways for Museum Educators

1. Listen. Really Listen.

Focus on what students are really saying when they respond to your questions, not just what you think they mean. This is hard. Use the words they use to define academic terms and abstract concepts. If a student’s comment strikes you as snarky or disruptive, lean in to it. Find out more. Let them know you’re interested in their thinking. Give them space to explain. If they don’t want to explain to you, consider asking them to turn and talk with some of their peers. Listen to what you hear, and think about how it connects to your own ideas about the content or lesson.

2. Let students drive the conversation.

My boss sometimes talks about how effective museum educators need to be a ‘Guide on the Side’ rather than a ‘Sage on the Stage,’ and this is vital to effective gallery teaching. Use a light touch to keep the conversation moving. Stay goal-oriented, but don’t get so attached to your goals that you lose sight of the importance of the process of discovery for your participants.

3. Ask for divergent thinking

Seek out dissenting ideas so that you are encouraging participants to think both deeply and individually. Some works of art open themselves up to a wide range of possible interpretations without ever committing to just one – examples might include many modern and contemporary art objects. Other works of art, like a Gupta period Buddhist sculpture or ancient Roman sarcophagi, have very specific meanings that their makers intended; there are incorrect understandings of some works of art, and that is important for us to acknowledge. Those misunderstandings are often great starting points for real inquiry if you can help students ground their misunderstandings in the visual elements of the artwork! Either way, seeking out divergent thinking empowers students to discover and craft the complexity of interpretation for themselves.

4. Reflective Practice needs others

I think the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after having done it) is an important part of professional practice. Both are hard to do, and both benefit greatly when other people can be sounding boards. I find these status updates help me slow down and think about the choices I’ve made. Better yet, doing so gives me immediate informal feedback.

Give it a try!

About the Author

BowlesDAVID BOWLES: Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  David oversees the strategic planning, staff and volunteer training, program implementation, and evaluation of all aspects of guided K-12 school tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In collaboration with colleagues, he also develops resources for educators, in particular for educators who are bringing students to the Museum on guided or self-guided visits. David also teaches across a range of audience areas, including K-12 educator programs and adult gallery talks. Before this, he worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as Manager of School Programs. He earned his M.S.Ed from Bank Street College and a B.A. with Honours from McGill University. David’s postings on this site are his own and don’t necessarily represent the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources

In light of recent events concerning the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ongoing protests, conversations, debates, arguments, emotional outpourings, and moments for learning that are occurring for all of us, I simply wanted to post some links to resources that might help support teaching and learning during this time of crisis and healing.  Or perhaps to just start — or continue to build — a process of learning and peaceful conversation.  Most of these have been circulating since August, and I have found them extremely useful for my own personal learning as well as broader implications for museum teaching practice.  If any museums, libraries, teachers, or schools are utilizing other resources in terms of addressing these pressing issues with your communities, students, and audiences, please add them in the Comments section below or send them to me directly at murawski27@gmail.com so I can add them here.  This is considered as an organic, growing list of resources sourced by the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community and our readership.

My heart goes out to everyone in my hometown of St. Louis.  Please stay safe.

*     *     *     *     *

Teaching #Ferguson: Current Events in the Classroom Resources.  A Collective Google Doc created & developed by host/facilitator @dankrutka & the participants in #sschat at 7pm EST on August 20, 2014

“Whether you find yourself teaching in a schoolhouse, in your living room with your children, at a community meeting filled with movement members, in a church basement with others who seek racial reconciliation, or in a detention center common room, [these] resources … provide a snapshot of what is being taught, what is being felt, and what is being created each day.” – Marcia Chatelain

“Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus,” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain for Dissent Magazine online, reflecting on the #FergusonSyllabus project after the Grand Jury decision pertaining to Ferguson, Missouri.

“How to talk to students about Ferguson,” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain, PBS.org

“How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson” by Marcia Chatelain, The Atlantic, August 2014

#FergusonSyllabus hashtag on Twitter, developed by Marcia Chatelain as a way for educators to share ideas on how to talk about Ferguson in their classrooms.

“12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson,” by Janee Woods, Quartz

“Do’s and Dont’s for Teaching About Ferguson,” by Jenee Desmond-Harris, The Root

“Helping Students Make Sense Of A Young Black Man’s Death In Missouri,” by Juana Summers, NPR.org

Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy – by Marit Dewhurst, a new book from Harvard Education Press.

“Time and Space to Learn and Reflect,” by David Cohen, written for the blog of the Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), a teacher leadership network for the state of California.

Facing History and Ourselves, “Michael Brown” Resources.

“5 Ways to Teach About Michae Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year,” by Christopher Emdin, Huffingtonpost.com

Thanks to Katie Henry for sending these additional resources from the New York State Afterschool Network:

Thanks to Rachel Ropeik for sharing further resources and links from the Hive NYC Network.

Katherine Brooks wrote a short piece for HuffingtonPost on December 5th that surveyed how artists have been quick to echo the nation’s near constant calls for justice and clarity in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. As she writes, “The landscape of St. Louis might be marred by isolated acts of vandalism and law enforcement crackdowns, but art is still flourishing.”

St. Louis artist Damon Davis installs posters from his Push Forward Project on a boarded up business along West Florissant Street on November 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Image from Zimbio.com. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America
St. Louis artist Damon Davis installs posters from his Push Forward Project on a boarded up business along West Florissant Street on November 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Image from Zimbio.com. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America

Margaret Middleton of the Boston Children’s Museum started the Twitter hashtag #museumsrespondtoFerguson, and also launched a Pinterest board “Museum Response to Ferguson” for people to pin useful resources.  Both are worth checking out.

“#BlackLivesMatter – Teachers and Students,” (VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 10, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison and everyone who participated in these conversations.

“Ferguson – Share what you are learning and teaching,” (VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 7, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison who hosted the conversation with Renee Watson, Christopher Rodgers, Chris Sloan, and Janae Williams to talk about police brutality, the murder of black men, racism, and what we are teaching after Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner… and more.

words-to-action

Ferguson Newsletter and thisisthemovement.org: Stay in the loop — articles, quotes, videos, resources, and ways to get involved are highlighted.  Curated by @deray and @netaaaaaaaaa.

“In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.” –David M. Perry, Dominican University

“#FergusonSyllabus: 10 Clips to Stimulate Classroom Discussion,” from Alisa Gross at the Acclaim Blog, that offers several suggestions for news footage and clips from documentaries to stimulate discussion about social justice, protest, and the roles of news media and perspective.

“Teaching #BlackLivesMatter: Countering the Pedagogies of Anti-Black Racism,” Friday, December 19, The Graduate Center, CUNY.  An event where we can think through how to address racialization and state power as scholar-teachers, working at the level of both immediately executable plans for teaching/research, and longer term strategies for making the academy accountable to racial violence.  The event will begin by breaking into smaller groups and contributing to a collaborative syllabus. Please feel free to add to it beforehand, or if you can’t be at the event, join the Google Doc around 10:00 am next Friday (12/19).

#MuseumsRespondToFerguson – Margaret Middleton of the Boston Children’s Museum began this hashtag now being used to track the way that museums are responding to issues related to Ferguson.  Middleton also created a Pinterest Board “Museum Response to Ferguson” with relevant links and resources.

  • TWITTER CHAT: Dec. 17, 2014, 2-3 PM (EST). Join this live Twitter chat on social justice, advocacy, and the museum field’s responses to the issues of racism, injustice, and police brutality. Follow and join the conversation using the tag#museumsrespondtoferguson.

*     *     *     *     *

Portland protest march in support of Ferguson and justice, November 25, 2014.  Photo by Mike Murawski
Portland protest march in support of Ferguson and justice, November 25, 2014. Photo by Mike Murawski
Featured image from WashingtonPost.com.

Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.”  – Adam Gopnik

Over the past 20 years, research in the fields of museum studies and museum education have firmly established the importance of the social dimension of visitors’ museum experiences and the learning that happens in museums (see this great 2012 post from Regan Forrest’s Interactivate blog).  In addition, a wealth of research from more than 50 years of educational psychology speaks to the social and cooperative aspects of learning in more formal educational settings (see this extremely useful resource packet developed at Stanford on “Learning in a Social Context”).  So whether sitting in a classroom or walking through an art museum, we learn and make meaning through our interactions and conversations with the people around us.

Last week, I was invited to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to give a talk to their volunteer docents on the topic of “dialogic and conversational touring.”  I have always been a strong advocate for conversational pedagogy in museums, practicing this form of teaching myself on a regular basis as well as spending considerable time these past several years thinking about how to bring conversation into the core of docent education and tours.  Thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the docents at the Crocker, I used this as a way to crystallize some of my thinking about the learning power of conversation in museums.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Crocker’s docents and education staff (special thanks to Jill Pease and Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick), and I thought I would share some reflections here on the topic of conversation and museum teaching.

What Does ‘Conversation’ Mean to Me?

When I examine what ‘conversation’ means to me and my own practice of museum teaching, two unsuspecting people come to mind:  critic and curator Michael Brenson and contemporary Anishinabe-Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore.  Back in 1996 at the “Conversations at the Castle” series of discussions between artists, critics, and the public about contemporary art and audiences, Michael Brenson addressed the core democratic notions of conversation.  The following quote from Brenson has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums:

“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”

Rebecca Belmore,
Rebecca Belmore, “Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose” (1992)

Since beginning my museum career in a largely contemporary art museum, I have formed so much of my own teaching practice from ideas of pedagogy and human connection advanced by contemporary artists. While didactic wall texts, curatorial essays, and academic lectures often over-intellectualize and dull the interests that contemporary artists have in education and public engagement, I continue to find that so many artists are constantly thinking about the ways that their work can bring people together to think, talk, exchange ideas, make connections, and have meaningful conversations about issues relevant to our lives.

Rebecca Belmore is one artist whose work has powerfully ignited my own thinking about conversation, about whose voices get to be part of a conversation (or don’t), and about the role that power plays in the conversations we might have in institutions such as museums.  I first encountered her performance and installation work during one of my feminist and gender studies courses in graduate school, specifically her 1992 piece entitled Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose (shown above).

In this work, Belmore arranges a circle of chairs taken from her own kitchen and the living spaces of women closest to her. Viewers are invited to sit down, put on a pair of headphones dangling over each chair back, and listen to the stories of Belmore’s female community talking about their lives as native women in Canada. What strikes me most about this work is how Belmore welcomes participants into a circle of community, a form of talking circle that embraces voices that would likely otherwise go unheard.

Sparked from inspirations such as these as well as years of in-gallery experiences, I’ve developed some overarching frameworks that have helped me think about creating an environment for conversation while teaching in an art museum.  First of all, I continue to find that the structures of engagement, or physical arrangement of people in the space of the gallery, has a strong correlation to the type of conversations that can occur.  In addition to simply how we arrange our groups, there are certain power relationships that we create as we position ourselves as educators and facilitators of meaningful conversations. I’m going to briefly dive into both of these areas, but far more pixels could certainly be spilled about each topic — and I hope maybe we can have some discussion in the Comments section below to pull out more ideas.

Structures of Engagement

In preparing to speak about “conversational touring” at the Crocker Art Museum last week, I spent considerable time thinking about the underlying structures that can establish a conducive environment for meaningful conversations (or that can prevent them from happening).  For me, the physical space we create with our group is always so important, sending an immediate message about the types of interactions we expect to have.  I used the photos below (pulled randomly from Flickr and Google) to illustrate a few examples of how we, as educators, can create better structures of engagement in the galleries.

Staff Tour of Sin and Salvation

Of these four gallery teaching experiences, which do you think might have the best conversations taking place?  Which of these photos looks most like tours that you have experienced, or even that you might lead yourself? (I, myself, have led plenty of tours that looked like the photos on the left)

The two images on the left show a much more traditional and common structure of engagement, with an educator or “tour leader” at the front near the artwork and then the group a bit farther away.  While this is a completely valid and effective way to lead a tour, it just does not lead to lots of conversation.  Any dialogue and exchange happening is between the tour leader and the participants, with very little participant-to-participant communication possible (the core of that social, cooperative dimension of learning).  When the docents at the Crocker were examining these photos with me, they also noticed how much the participants body language seemed to support their mediocre levels of engagement.

By contrast, the two photos on the right show a very different structure of engagement — something that actually looks a lot more like Rebecca Belmore’s circle of chairs.  The educator or tour leader becomes a part of the group, and the structure of the circle creates a more effective space of engagement where focused looking, questioning, and thinking can occur. It creates a better environment for conversation and discussion, as well as greater participation among the group (students and participants are not as detached from the experience — teachers and students all become learners in the gallery experience).  While this subtle difference can seem fairly obvious, I could not even begin to count how many docents or educators I have observed that struggle with making connections with visitors — much of which could be solved with a simple re-arrangement of their group.

Power Relationships

As we make decisions about the physical arrangement of our groups, it is also important to be aware of the power relationships (often unintended) that we set-up between ourselves and our group, and among the group itself.  In a good conversation, as Michael Brenson describes, “ownership is shared.”  We aim to create a safe environment for open exchange and dialogue in which everyone’s voices and ideas are respected.  This type of open conversation can be very difficult to achieve if we set-up a one-sided power dynamic with our group.

In the two photos on the left (below), we see fairly typical docent-led school tours.  By standing and towering over their group, however, the docent or educator has established a traditional teacher-student power relationship that will not lend itself as well to open exploration, creative wondering, and meaningful conversations among the students.  Feel free to try this out — have a conversation with someone in your office with one of you standing and the other person sitting on the floor.  Yep … awkward at best.

power-relationships-images

The two photographs on the right (above) show exchanges in which the educator and students are closer to the same level; no one is towering over the other.  These students likely feel more empowered to look, question, wonder, and discover along with their docent or educator, breaking down the traditional power relationships between ‘teacher’ and ‘student.’  In my own teaching experiences, this almost always rings true — as soon as we all sit on the floor and are at a level playing field, the conversation ignites and we are all more open to sharing our thoughts, insights, and questions.  With adult groups, arranging a semi-circle of gallery stools is an easy way to establish this conducive environment for meaningful conversation.

How do you create meaningful conversations in your museum?

It was so great to have the afternoon last week to work with the Crocker Art Museum docents on these (and other) issues regarding conversational touring.  We had lots of fun modeling the power dynamics of a tour through a quick theatre exercise on stage, and we worked on developing creative, participatory questions to spark meaningful conversations with works of art.  I even had a chance to talk briefly about the role of artwork selection on a conversational tour, as well as something I like to call “researching for stickiness,” or how we can research information about artworks in a way that helps open up pathways to spark dialogue and thinking.  Even with all of this, we were only able to scratch the surface in terms of “dialogic and conversational touring.”

I would love to hear some of your best strategies for igniting meaningful conversation in the galleries:

  • How important is conversation for tours and education experiences at your museum?
  • What is your favorite way to start a tour that will be focused on conversation?
  • How do you set-up that expectation from the beginning?
  • What types of teaching techniques do you find bring out the most interesting discussions (for students or adults)?
  • How do you ensure that the diverse voices of participants and students can be heard?