There’s a sentence that’s been haunting me lately: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”(1). It’s a beautiful concept that encompasses the good and the ugly of what museums have been, what they are, and what they could be. It expresses the potential for museums to assert definitions of humanity that are liberatory, healing, and affirmative while leaving room for the essential question “but for who?”
What is our role and responsibility to help people think and feel about what it means to be human in this moment? What does it even mean to be human in this moment? What does it mean to be essential or vulnerable? What does it mean to survive? Who will? I keep thinking about what our actions – as neighbors, colleagues, and culture workers – communicate about what we think it means to be human right now. As to be expected, the impacts of the virus are not being felt equally. Essential workers are still largely low wage workers; access to health care is still restricted and costly; educators are still trying to meet students’ needs with too few resources; the elderly are still disposable; it’s still expensive to be poor. The systems that prop up what “normal” looks like are still pushing folks to the margins.
As the few museum staff left try to creatively adapt to serve the needs of their community, they ultimately express what they think those needs are and what they believe is the museum’s unique position to fill them. What people will be comforted by, what will help them navigate their day, what will help them make sense of their emotions or the news will depend drastically on how the pandemic is affecting their material reality. Content designed for people who are bored is probably not going to resonate (at least not in the same way) with people still riding the bus every day to work or whose loved ones lie in a hospital bed they cannot visit.
Yes, people are looking for history that affirms a sense of self, distractions, or art as a therapeutic process. People are also looking for more mundane balms – to hear someone express a similar feeling, to speak aloud, to know their child is occupied for thirty minutes. People are also in crisis.
Ruminating on life in the pandemic has been a continuous exercise in getting absorbed in and extracting myself from my own isolation, emotions, hardship, and drama. I’ve been generally disappointed with museum leaders (individuals and institutions) who are unable to pull themselves out of their own internal turmoil, who seem unable to instinctually care for others in a time of crisis. You know, the ones who assume their priorities are the top priority, that whatever choices they make will be justified as long as they can save the institution, that if people know just how long and hard these decisions were they will understand them and feel okay. It can feel like asking the world for what in reality is so little – for those who hold the power to consider our experience and let it impact their choices. To take time to listen, or communicate frequently even if incompletely. To put others’ needs before their own or the needs of the institution. As I try to articulate and find examples of the leadership I am looking for within myself, my institution, and my community this is what I’m getting stuck on. Whose humanity is being affirmed through our choices and in the ways we reach out?
EMILY TURNER: Seattle-based museum educator and creative historian who strives to infuse joy and creativity into the museum experience and encourages visitors of all ages to think critically about objects and their stories. Through writing and comix, Emily explores issues of representation and labor in art and history museums. An officer for the Museum Educators of Puget Sound, she is active in her community as a mentor and an advocate for emerging museum professionals.
All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff.
Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions.
And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work — is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities.
Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.
But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time.
I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention.
It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection.
Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.
There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement.
After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.
All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.
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About the Author
JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.
Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.
Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 20, 2020; revised with edits and updated figures, April 30, 2020.
The museum education profession is, for the second time in a decade, taking a serious blow that could have a devastating impact on the future of the profession.
For both educators and museum management, this is a critical moment. Decisions made now will have repercussions beyond the immediate fiscal crisis. I know. I have been in decision making positions and impacted positions before — in 1990, in 2001, in 2009-10, and now this crisis, which dwarfs all the previous situations.
The immediate situation is daunting. Revenues have plummeted. With buildings closed, most education programs cannot take place. There is not enough cash on hand to meet payroll, so a variety of layoffs, furloughs and/or salary reductions are taking place.
An anonymous excel spreadsheet has been circulating that shows numbers of positions affected. There are approximately 3,400 layoffs and 8,500 furloughed positions listed at several hundred institutions across the country as of April 30, 2020. The numbers might be small in comparison to the almost 30 million workers that have applied for unemployment in the overall economy. But what’s notable is how many of these affected positions are educators and other front-line positions. Moreover, this is “the first phase” with more layoffs possible when the current fiscal year ends in a couple of months. And more institutions still have to report in.
The critical question for me, as with prior recessions, is why education staff is, yet again, bearing the brunt of these layoffs? What impact is the loss of many positions going to have on the long-term viability of the profession and the public value of museums?
Even before the virus/lock down situation arose, many young professionals were voicing concern over the lack of paid internships and low starting pay for positions in museum education, relative to the higher costs of living in large cities where many museums are concentrated. Many have noted the increasing numbers of contracted, part-time, or seasonal positions (the gig economy at work). In some of the major institutions in New York City, large numbers of gallery educators are now as-needed employees. Cancellations of programs means the almost immediate cancellation of these work opportunities. Granted, some institutions have agreed to pay workers for scheduled work for the next month or so and there have been pay reductions for full-time staff.
Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.
The net effect is not encouraging for the health of the profession. Right now, it looks unsteady and volatile. People who work on museum programs along with other front-line staff are seeing that their jobs are expendable. The few that remain in positions will feel guilty and will be under added pressure to retain near normal amounts of programming. This will put added stress on their plates and some will leave when alternative opportunities come up.
This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.
Museums that mainly hire people with the means to work in the profession will have difficulty engaging more diverse publics. These publics will prefer to support organizations that are more reflective of their needs, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.
Statements from museums to the press often refer to the need for endowments and collections to be preserved for the future viability of the organization. If fiscal matters are all that matters, then museums begin to resemble banks, who’s job is to preserve the assets of the bank for the benefit of investors. But museums exist to serve the public. They commit themselves to being mission- driven, and those mission statements usually say something about education and public value. Museums should be asking — how are we preserving our educational mission? What critical and essential work can we continue to provide for the public, even while our buildings are closed? Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these. Scientists warn that further pandemics will arise, on top of the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Now is a good time to rethink public services and to prepare for the next crisis.
The big question for museums is– is this a time for retrenchment, pulling up the drawbridge and retreating behind the walls? Or is it time to fulfill the promise of museums as outward-facing, publicly-spirited organizations? How about forming new partnerships, with libraries, with other disciplines like the performing arts, to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities? What about offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities? What about rethinking the role of education, beyond the constant production of events on site, and instead, getting out into the community and other sectors of society, to conduct more research and evaluation, to redesign services around what people really need and want rather than what we as experts, assume the public wants to consume? Now is a good time to articulate and roll out new public benefits and to continue the good work around diversity and inclusion. It’s time to redefine education work as essential, as core to the mission and its fulfillment. Let’s not emphasize self-preservation above all else. Preservation and access are not one before the other, but both/and. Like yin and yang, they are interdependent. Educational work is not a matter of convenience, when times are good. It is unfinished work that continues with each generation. It helps to preserve the institution by building social value across life spans, which translates into support.
About a decade ago, before the last big round of layoffs, I conducted an informal survey of museum education departments, and discovered that such departments averaged around 5-7% of annual operating budgets, including salaries, but not including any one-time project grants. While there are many lucrative grants that directly support education programs, it often comes as a surprise to the public to know that large events raising money for education often end up supporting general operating costs. If education is deemed to be an essential part of the mission, we must be careful not to use education as a convenient flag to wave for supporting what is deemed to be more important, inward facing tasks.
If mission statements articulating the importance of education and public engagement are to be taken seriously, and if museums expect to attract a diverse pool of applicants to fill future public-facing positions, then they need to come up with a more sustainable formula for the steady provision of those services. Just as interest drawn from endowment investments is applied to operating expenses at steady levels over several years so as not to affect the principle, so each museum should commit to never falling below a certain threshold of support for education and public programs. To weather the ups and downs of funding individual programs, it would help to endow more mid-level, full-time positions in education (endowments typically go to curatorial positions, and occasionally to Directors of Education) and to create a small fund to support paid internships to provide pathways for a more equitable and diverse pool of future museum staff. This is too important a task to be left up to individual museum organizations. It should be strengthened at the national level in terms of museum assessment programs and professional standards.
The central importance of education work in cultural organizations needs to be recognized and elevated. Words like this are not enough. There needs to be actionable steps taken. I invite readers to consider additional ways of building and securing a more positive outlook for the museum profession. Right now, and far too often, museum education takes a beating. Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future.
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About the Author
BRIAN HOGARTH is the Director for Museum Education Programs at Bank Street College in New York City. A native of Toronto, Canada, Brian worked in performing arts management before becoming Manager of Public Programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and Head of Interpretation at the Glenbow in Calgary. In the US, he has been Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Education at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was for ten years Director of Education at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He has taught classes in art history and museum education at Johns Hopkins (Online) Museum Studies, Johnson Community College in Overland Park, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Brian holds an MA in East Asian Art History and a BA in Fine Arts/Theatre.
By Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara
In an essay reflecting on how his past trauma influenced his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, writer Geoffrey Mak said, “Our lives are not going back to normal, as one way of being has been abruptly and unilaterally aborted, without our consent. Instead, we’re left with the grief for tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars evaporated, and a future of promise that was wiped out for an entire generation.”
Mak speaks to something profound – a collective trauma – that many people are struggling to comprehend, the magnitude of which is still beyond our ability to envision or understand because it is ongoing. In our field, we’re grappling with acknowledging that loss alongside a desire to do what we can to ensure a better future. In light of this, four of us gathered over Zoom to talk about what we are calling trauma-aware art museum education. We wanted to figure out how we, as educators, can be more prepared to encounter trauma when the public returns to museums and how we can cultivate safe experiences for visitors to process the effects of these unprecedented times. We are sharing the transcript of the first convening of our trauma-aware art museum education (T-AAME) group.
Laura: Could everyone go around and introduce themselves and then we can jump into the topic of trauma-aware art museum education? Andrew, could you start us off?
Andrew: I’m Andrew Palamara, the Associate Director of Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). I manage the training, evaluation, and recruitment of docents at the CAM.
Emily: I’m Emily Wiskera, Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art. I oversee educational programming for visitors with disabilities.
Stephen: I’m Stephen Legari, Program Officer for Art Therapy at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). I facilitate museum-based art therapy groups, supervise interns, manage our community art studio, and collaborate on research.
Laura: And, I’m Laura Evans. I’m a professor at the University of North Texas and I run the Art Museum Education Certificate program. I am so happy we could all be together right now, thinking about this important topic. Maybe, before we jump in, we can talk about the terminology. “Trauma” is a pretty heavy term. How are we defining trauma in relation to COVID-19? Can we explain why we are using the words trauma-aware? What does that mean?
Stephen: Trauma is both a heavy term and a prevalent one. Our discussion around what it means to become trauma-aware as museum staff, particularly educators, is to both acknowledge with sincerity and respect that trauma is everywhere. But trauma is also highly subjectively experienced and expressed. Museums, by their nature, are environments where people’s collective and individual narratives are elicited and we cannot ignore, in good conscience, that this includes stories that are traumatic.
Laura: And, a result of this pandemic will inevitably include trauma: major traumas and micro-traumas. As you said, Stephen, we cannot, in good conscience, ignore these experiences of trauma when we return to our museums.
Emily: But, I think we should also keep in mind that not everyone will experience this pandemic as traumatic. For some, school and business closures may have removed them from otherwise toxic or trauma-inducing environments. Others may be experiencing multiple layers of trauma, as we are seeing with the tragic rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases. Experiencing trauma is an almost universal part of the human experience. But as in all situations, context and resources play a role. We should also be aware that in-depth processing of trauma likely won’t be immediate. We begin to work through trauma and start the process of healing when we feel emotionally safe to do so.
Laura: And, we can play a role in creating those safe spaces. But, before we talk about what that might look like, Andrew and Emily, do you want to tell us how and why you started thinking about trauma-aware art museum education and why you think it is important that we explore this right now?
Andrew: In January 2020, the Learning & Interpretation team at the CAM went through a half-day training on trauma-informed practice with Amy Sullivan, a local counselor with a private practice called Rooted Compassion. It revolved around understanding our own personal trauma before we begin to understand it in others. Once the pandemic hit the U.S., something clicked with me: this might be the most urgent time to formalize a trauma-aware approach to what we do at the museum. This is going to take a psychic toll on our personal lives and how we think about going to public spaces going forward. I reached out to Emily to see what she thought about it.
Emily: When Andrew reached out to me, I had been considering how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting our communities and how the unique assets of the museum could be best used in response. Andrew’s thoughts about the public experiencing the pandemic as trauma connected with research that I had just stumbled upon. This early study out of China revealed a significant increase in acute Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms related to the pandemic. It seemed only natural to me that if the public was experiencing a change, that museums needed to adapt their strategies to be relevant and responsive to the experience of the public.
Laura: When Andrew and Emily came to me with this idea, I thought the perfect person to give some perspective was Stephen because of his training and his unique role as an arts therapist at the MMFA. Stephen, how does the MMFA already consider trauma in its programs and in its interactions with visitors?
Stephen: We have a community oriented practice in our education department that goes back more than 20 years. The model of project development was founded on co-creation with community and clinical partners. In this way, becoming informed about the needs of groups who may have been impacted by trauma grew organically. These could be folks living with mental-health problems, people with complex migration histories, people negatively impacted by their experiences as patients and the list goes on. Each collaboration taught us something new. Fast-forward to 2017 and we felt equipped to have a full-time program dedicated to actual therapeutic work.
Laura: Have any of us already had a trauma-aware experience at a museum or know of someone that has? Maybe one that you witnessed? If so, what was that like for you or for them?
Andrew: One of my colleagues, Sara Birkofer, led a discussion with a local art therapist of an exhibition by photographer Sohrab Hura called The Levee, and we explored the intersection of emotion and mental health through Sohrab’s photographs. We started with a quick mindfulness exercise, then talked about how the brain processes trauma. She guided us as we walked through the exhibition, which featured several dozen photographs of Sohrab’s travels through the American South as one artwork. That prompted us to think about how we gravitate toward images that reflect our mental state. It was really profound to hear how other people processed their life experiences through another person’s art, and I was floored by how quickly we established an environment of trust and openness with each other. Coincidentally, right before I attended the program, I had learned that one of my docents had passed away, and this conversation really helped me process that news in a meaningful way.
Emily: For me, a trauma-aware museum experience starts when the lived experience of the visitor takes priority over art history. Educators may drop in bits of historical information, but their primary goal is to encourage participants to build personally meaningful pathways to connect to art, and in turn, themselves. I witnessed this in action as an intern when my former colleague, Danielle Schulz, was guiding a discussion around a Roman sarcophagus. Danielle encouraged group conversation simply by having participants start by describing what they noticed. The conversation developed naturally, leading the group to discuss who would be entombed in a sarcophagus that depicted a battle scene. When Danielle asked, “What emotions does this object evoke for you?,” one participant shared that it reminded her of her daughter who passed away as an infant. The participant expressed that with the death of her daughter, she was mourning all of her daughter’s unrealized potential. She connected this feeling with the grown soldiers on the sarcophagus, wondering if the scene was a reflection of who the entombed person was, or what they might have been.
Laura: I have had communal experiences that are similar to what you two have just described but I’ve also had solitary experiences in art museums that have allowed me to process trauma. I was severely anorexic in high school and, after getting help, went through recovery for many years after. When I was doing my PhD, I focused on Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, THIN, which is about women in treatment for their eating disorders. I first saw the exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art and I walked through the show crying. Even though I wasn’t there with anyone, I saw lots of other girls and women crying, holding hands, patting one another on the back, and it made me feel connected to them in some way. I remember catching eyes with a guard and she gave me a sympathetic, understanding smile that made me feel like it was okay to continue processing in that space. I read through the visitor comment book and it was full of narratives of women who were similarly moved by the art. Even though I thought I had recovered by that point, that experience helped me heal in a way I didn’t know I needed.
Hearing about and talking through these stories was helpful to me in thinking about experiences we’ve already witnessed or participated in that we might consider to be trauma-aware. I know this is a seedling of an idea still, but what do we all think some of the characteristics are of what we are calling “trauma-aware art museum education” from the museum educator’s perspective? What could it look like? Sound like? Feel like?
Andrew: In my review of trauma-informed resources that I’ve come across, two key qualities have emerged: empowerment and connection. In museum education, these are givens. We’ve already embraced teaching practices that empower visitors to have a voice in their interpretation of art and their experience in a museum. With that, we put a great deal of emphasis on social connection, whether it’s active (a dialogue with visitors about art) or passive (watching a performance). But I think there’s a new urgency to these characteristics in a post COVID-19 world. More than ever, we need to make space in our programming to empower the public, as though they are not just recipients of our content, but active participants that find personal meaning in museums and the art inside of it. That goes hand in hand with our need to be socially connected to each other. I think we have tacitly acknowledged that by visiting museums and caring about culture; in other words, we go to museums because we want to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. I think we saw this in the examples we just shared at the CAM, the DMA, and at Smith. Now, I think art museum educators have to make that social connection more direct and active, and we’ll have to be compassionate and creative in how we carry that out in practice.
Having said that, it’s not all about empowerment and connection. We have to consider qualities like building safety and trust with our visitors, resilience, patience, awareness of others in relation to ourselves, and reciprocity among many, many others. Emily, you’ve thought a lot about how the science behind trauma relates to what we do in museum education. Where have you seen connections between trauma and these ideas of empowerment and connection?
Emily: There are a few key attributes of trauma that inform the trauma-aware approach to museum education. First, is that trauma is not stored in the brain in the same way as other memories. Instead of being stored as narratives in our minds, traumatic events are imprinted on the amygdala through the emotional impact and sensory information experienced during the time of trauma- fragments of sound, smell, sights, taste or touch. A trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new emotional and sensory experiences that contradict the experience of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection.
A second important note is that trauma is pre-verbal. Reliving traumatic events often shuts down the speech center of the brain, making it difficult to express the trauma in words. This information has great ramifications to our practice as museum educators. In our programs we have traditionally explored ideas through discussion. If we want to provide visitors with productive ways to express their experience, we need to open our practice to include more visceral, emotional, or sensory-based modes of engagement and response, rather than purely verbal ones. The good news is that a trauma-aware approach to museum education is in line with Universal Design principles of multi-modal engagement and is beneficial for all, not just those who have experienced trauma.
Stephen: It is to ask the question, how can art and art education/the art educator help facilitate experiences of containment, reassurance and safety? Trauma makes a better lens than a label. If we use trauma as a lens to appreciate both the intense difficulties some of our visitors faced and also the brilliance of the resilience to deal with those difficulties, then we can better adapt to them and encounter them with some kind of genuine presence. Seeing people as traumatized is simply pathologizing them and risks contributing to that trauma.
Laura: “A better lens than a label.” That is a good frame. What could trauma-aware art museum education look like from the visitor’s perspective? Sound like? Feel like?
Stephen: I am encouraged by what Ross Laird calls safe-enough museum experiences. If we accept that a great deal of museum content and exchange can be provocative for the visitor, then we have a framework of how to receive and manage those experiences. From the visitor’s perspective, I would encounter staff that are warm and genuine in their welcome. I would feel included even if it’s hard for me, as a visitor, to return that same measure of friendliness. I would be given some fair warning that museum content and activities can be challenging and that I might feel things. I might also be given some information about the limitation of the experience, i.e. that this is not therapy. And finally, I would encounter some flexibility in the pacing of the experience and in the attitudes of the staff who themselves can model calmness even if things get a little emotional.
Laura: Why do we think museums and art museum educators, in particular, are good places and people to do this kind of work?
Emily: The unique assets of the museum make it the perfect place for healing to begin. Since trauma affects the speech center of the brain, our public will likely be seeking out non-verbal modes to explore and express their lived experience. Visual art, a non-verbal mode of communication, is a natural fit. Another unique aspect of the museum is its ability to be a location for social interaction. Museums have moved beyond simply acting as stewards of objects or mausoleums of the past. Our value, as institutions and educators, lies in our ability to bring people together. Using art as a tool to make individual connections and share ideas, the museum provides an environment where we can be vulnerable and build social bonds. Socialization is our most fundamental survival strategy, but it is exactly this which breaks down in most forms of mental suffering and it is what we have lost during these months of pandemic isolation.
Laura: Yes, what makes museums so unique – our objects – also makes them ideal spaces for healing connections. We can all relate to objects; we all have a relationship with objects in our lives; we have all had a profound connection to an object. And, moving around, walking through, wheeling through a museum, coming close to look at a detail in a painting, moving around a sculpture; the physical movement that is required of touring a museum and looking at art can be helpful to process things too. Elliott, Lissa and Lilit do a beautiful job of emphasizing the importance of movement in museum education in their new book.
Andrew: I see this as an extension of the DEAI work that educators in the field have prioritized in recent years. Through scholars like Paulo Friere and bell hooks and resources like the MASS Action project and Museums Are Not Neutral movement started on this site, museum educators have acknowledged the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our society and our cultural institutions. Our work requires more empathy and action on our part to ensure that museums are truly for all of our communities. Today, we still see these inequalities as communities of color are disproportionatelyaffected by the spread and treatment of COVID-19. Just like the Museums Respond to Ferguson movement in 2015, I think this is another moment in time when we can put our social obligations to the public in clearer view.
Laura: For all of us, it’s important to make a distinction between art museum education and art therapy. This trauma-aware approach can be therapeutic but isn’t intended to be therapy, right? In Museum Objects, Health and Healing, Cowan, Laird, and McKeown write about how museum staff can, “Facilitate the therapeutic — but don’t do therapy.” This is a really important distinction that I want to take some pains to highlight. Stephen, can you elucidate some of the differences between art museum education and art therapy in museums? Like, what do you want art museum educators to know about why and how their work is different than your work, for example?
Stephen: My colleague who runs our well-being program and I have had to really tease out what’s the difference between a program that’s well-being focused and a program that is therapeutic, that is a therapy program. As an arts therapist, what I want to help people with the problems that are present for them and use the museum and its resources as a tool to achieve some therapeutic goals. Sometimes that means being really present with the problem and staying with the participants as those layers are being revealed. In art therapy we are taking more risks and letting people know that discomfort and dealing with stuckness will be part of their journey. Whereas what my colleague aims to do is help people arrive and build positive experiences that are strengths-based, resilience-based, and pleasure-based. She and her collaborators meet people in the here and now and offer new experiences that help people leave feeling refreshed by their encounters with art and art-making. I can only imagine what a valuable resource that will be post-COVID; to feel refreshed by art and the people facilitating it.
Andrew: That brings up a question that I’ve had. Do you feel like there’s anything that museums have traditionally done in their educational programs that is not trauma-aware and we could dissuade each other from doing?
Stephen: I would say that any activity that prioritizes the information or the teaching, or even the outcome, over the participant experience is not trauma-aware. The sharing of participant’s material without their consent is not trauma-aware. And perhaps the presumption that our museums are for everybody is not trauma-aware. These are colonial institutions that have historically excluded an awful lot of voices and there is a need to be actively working on that history in the present in real-time.
Laura: I know you have The Art Hive at the MMFA. Can you tell us more about it and why an open studio like the Hive could be important in the wake of COVID-19? Why might this be a good thing for museum educators to implement post-pandemic?
Stephen: An Art Hive, or an open studio, I feel is a really positive, low-cost response to a diversity of needs. We know that giving visitors the opportunity to externalise their experience at the museum in some way is helpful and participatory. There are a range of responses that people have and need from art, some people need really structured experiences because it helps them feel re-contained and some people feel really encroached upon by the limitations of a structured experience. An open studio can accommodate both and really emphasize the autonomy of the visitor to make what they need to or seek the support they need to work through a creative response.
Laura: I love the idea of museums embracing the open studio concept in the wake of the pandemic, where people can use their hands to make what they feel moved to make and where they are tacitly or explicitly socializing with others in the museum. Like you said, Stephen, it is low cost and low risk but, potentially, high reward. Maybe now is a good time to wrap-up and pick this up again at another time?
Stephen: This is such a valuable conversation to be having across museums and across disciplines. I feel there is something tangible that will come of this in terms of our own education towards becoming trauma-aware and hopefully be of use to others.
Laura: I couldn’t agree more. It has been a true pleasure to connect during this time of disconnection and about such important work too. Let’s keep this conversation going. It feels like we are at the precipice of something that we should keep exploring. I hope there are others out there who are interested in thinking about this, talking about this, with us and that they will get in touch. Should we meet back in a few weeks to develop some more practical suggestions for how art museum educators can develop and facilitate trauma-aware programs?
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About the Authors
LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Evans received her Ph.D. in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu
STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate 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 Art 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. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at email@example.com
EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org
Featured Image: Family activities at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Photo by Caroline Hayeur
When I first started hearing news about the coronavirus in China I didn’t understand the seriousness of this disease and how it would quickly come to change everything about our lives. I had taken vacation time to spend part of Spring Break with my family and when I returned to work on Thursday, March 12 I was surprised to hear that attendance had been low and people were opting to stay home. That evening and the next morning, conversations were brewing at the museum about potentially closing to the public. I attended a series of meetings on Friday, March 13 and felt like I was getting new updates every hour about what this would mean for our institution, staff, and community.
That day felt like a whirlwind, and though I would still go into the office the following Monday to gather files and prepare myself and my team for working from home for the foreseeable future I knew everything had changed. As a photographer, I am always documenting my life and the world around me. Through the images below you can get a glimpse into the world as my family (husband, 13 year old daughter, 2 year old daughter, and various dogs) and I have experienced it the past few weeks. See the caption with each image for additional text.
This new normal for my family has had its ups and downs. Being (mostly) confined to our somewhat small home and trying to focus on work in a shared space with a teenager, a two year old, and my significant other has been difficult. Worrying about when the museum will reopen, when or if schools will be back in session, and if my loved ones or I will get sick has been a slow build-up of anxiety that I have never experienced before. But, I truly enjoy taking a lunch break and eating at the table with my family instead of eating at my desk as I work through lunch. It has been so nice to get outdoors more often whether we are going on walks, working in the garden, or running around the backyard with the dogs.
How have you been managing work, family, friends, your own mental health during this time? What aspects of this new way of living do you plan to hold on to when this is all said and done? What aspects of the old way of living do you look forward to getting back?
About the Author
JESSICA FUENTES: Manager of School and Community Outreach, Amon Carter Museum of American Art. As an art educator with over thirteen years of experience Jessica has taught in both classroom and museum settings. She received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Jessica worked for six years at the Dallas Museum of Art as the Manager of Gallery Interpretation and the Center for Creative Connections prior to joining the Carter in 2018. Though much of her passion and work is focused on her local community, she serves on the Education Planning Committee for the Smithsonian Latino Center and as the Representative-Elect for the Western Region of the Museum Division of the National Art Education Association. In her downtime she can usually be found with her daughters out in nature, enjoying an art museum, or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.
This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.
And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?
We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :
1. It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.
2. Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.
3. Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.
4. To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.
We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.
5. ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.
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This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.
This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.
Society expects nothing less from us.
Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”
About the Author
FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.