Tag Archives: creative practice

The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change in Museums

Reposted from Kiwi Loose in Museums, a project diary blog kept by Sarah Campbell as she embarked on her Churchill Fellowship to research the creative process of museum educators and innovative approaches to museum education. 

Written by Sarah Campbell

As a Churchill Fellow, I have a commitment to share my learning with peers. Since my research trip to the US last September, I’ve been looking for ways to do this and have gained a huge amount from contributing to London-based workshops for museum and gallery educators, organised by engage and GEM (Group for Education in Museums). I hosted the GEM workshop at the V&A a couple of weeks ago and was one of three facilitators. Working with GEM convenor, Laura Lewis-Davies, we decided to riff off the current exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? and discuss what kind of revolution we wanted to see in museum learning practice. The exhibition charts five years of radical change in Western society, culture and music, spanning the period 1966-1970.

It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short time frame, and this motivated us to think back on museum practice in 2016 and project to where we wanted to be in 2020. We peppered the whole workshop with ‘revolutionary’ touches: on arrival, participants were asked to fill out a name tag with both their own name and that of a revolutionary hero/heroine; throughout the event, we had large sheets of paper on the wall, surrounded by images of the exhibition, where participants could add post-its that summarised our current position, our ambitions for 2020, and how we’re going to get there; and at the end of the night, we filled out coloured protest banners, recycling an activity that had been devised for the Families programme in response to the exhibition. The name tags proved a popular ice-breaker and I took great pleasure in seeing Geri Halliwell chat with St Augustine. Laura arranged a follow-up Twitter event where we could all share more information on our choices – check out #gemrevhero.


At the workshop, we split the group in three and each moved from one facilitator to the next. Robert Fleming, Temple Study Centre Manager at the National Army Museum, spoke about the transformation of their museum – due for completion Spring 2017 – and their new interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning practice; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Project Co-ordinator at Heritec, shared her work with The Creative Museum project, which is prototyping new forms of collaboration; and I talked about some of my headline learning from the Churchill trip. This meant we each did the same session three times and unfortunately missed out on seeing the others in action, but it was a great chance to get feedback from the participants. In the spirit of revolution and change, I wanted to explore how the Fellowship has challenged some of my fundamental views on museum learning, I’ve been experiencing an interesting tension between the well-established perceived wisdom of standard museum learning practice, and new approaches that are pushing against this and leading to alternatives.

When planning the workshop, I was discussing these tensions with Laura and thinking about how to engage GEM participants with the subject. I compared these opposing forces to a Pushmi-Pullyu, the mythical, two-headed llama-esque companion of Doctor Dolittle, the equally mythical children’s book character who could talk to animals. The image of a Pushmi-Pullyu randomly popped into my head, and it was a bit of a throwaway comment. However, it ended up being a great way to introduce these ideas and became the basis for my session. I wanted people to have their own views first before I introduced my findings, and hoped to elicit a conversation where people could take different positions on the same topic. To do this, I created ‘The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change’, whereby Pushmi and Pullyu each took a different stance (represented by a speech bubble above their heads on a sheet of A3), and participants were asked to place a small playing counter somewhere along the spectrum in between the two to represent their views. From there, we could discuss the different rationales. It was a quick way to launch into meaty topics and everyone gamely played along and had plenty to contribute.There were three ‘Pushmi-Pullyus of Change’ offering the following pairs of opinions:

  • Learning programmes should be inspired by the collections and exhibitions / Learning programmes in museums can be about anything
  • Museums must engage with and present political issues / Museums must take a neutral stance on political issues
  • Our programmes should be educational first, entertaining second / Our programmes should be entertaining first, educational second

My only regret is that my questions weren’t quite fine-tuned enough. With more time and thought, I could have offered more nuanced phrasing and been more specific, especially around the claim that museums should be ‘neutral’ – I’m well aware museums are anything BUT neutral, but the provocation was meant to be about whether we should be hosting and/or debating issues such as Brexit. The third pairing was stolen directly from my conversation with Ethan Angelica at Museum Hack; he puts these statements to museum learning staff and insists they choose which one they support. To replicate this hard-line approach, I created a ‘no man’s land’ in the middle of the spectrum so that people couldn’t perch in the middle. The activity did generate some gentle debate, although I suspect our similarities outweigh our differences in many respects. I particularly liked how people spoke about using entertainment as a form of ‘stealth education’ – sneak in the learning when people are distracted and enjoying themselves.

While it has its faults, I’m quite chuffed with how my Pushmi-Pullyus worked out. They’ve peaked my interest in ‘gamifying’ discussions (it’s a word, I promise, in fact the gamification of learning’ is a whole thing). It’s commonplace to use postcards as a means of prompting conversation, but I like the idea of being able to represent one’s point-of-view visually and symbolically through a quick game before then explaining further. If you would like to share other examples of games that you use as part of discussions, I’d love to hear from you.

I also enjoyed exploring the combination of the metaphorical and the literal. As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a sucker for similes and metaphors. What makes me even happier is when some aspect of the metaphor is taken literally and folded back into the original idea. I could have just asked people their opinions on the questions above, but to put them along the back of a Pushmi-Pullyu takes it to a different headspace. I picked up this trick from the wonderful artist, Sarah Cole. During her residency at Kettle’s Yard a few years ago, she asked the staff where they felt they were ‘walking on eggshells’ and then positioned short trails of broken shell at these locations around the building. The then Director, Michael Harrison, spent a couple of days having to step over one of these trails every time he went into or came out of his office – like all good directors, he took it with good humour and grace.

About the Author

SARAH CAMPBELL is Head of Learning Programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She has worked previously in gallery education roles at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, The New Art Gallery Walsall, and the National Galleries of Scotland. She supports the work of engage, the National Association of Gallery Education, and is currently the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Board for the engage journal. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2016 to visit US museums and research the creative process of museum educators and new approaches to museum learning. Sarah has a long-standing interest in creative learning, and experimental, playful and unexpected approaches to programming for museum audiences.

The Creative Spiral: Evolving Practice in the DMA’s Art Spot

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Manager, Dallas Museum of Art

The creative process is often described as cyclical and sometimes, when I’m in it, it can feel like I am going around in circles, ending up where I started.  Hopefully, when I come back around that circular process, my ideas have evolved so though I may be in a familiar place I am truly somewhere new.  Perhaps the path of the creative process is then more like a spiral, repetitious yet constantly moving forward.  This concept not only illustrates an important artistic process that we want to share with visitors to the Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art, but also it describes the methods we employ as our space evolves. The creative process is an inspirational component of C3 and it is exemplified through the Art Spot, a hands-on art making area.

A Brief History

In 2008, the hands-on art-making area within the C3 exhibition Materials and Meanings was called the Materials Bar.  With a total of eighteen standard and tall seats, the space was designed as a communal area for visitors of all ages.  The Materials Bar provided a hands-on experience of the creative process engaging visitors with an inspiration wheel, videos that modeled techniques, materials that encouraged play, and a reflective label writing component.  The materials provided were similar to or related to works of art on view.

Materials Bar
Materials Bar

In 2010, C3 presented its second exhibition, Encountering Space, which involved a complete redesign of the entire C3 and transformed the Materials Bar into the Space Bar.  Though it remained a hands-on making area, the focus on the new exhibition theme was evident in the inspirational prompts and reflective labels. Prompts challenged visitors to “transform a cube of space” or “build a sculpture with positive and negative space.” The label cards not only encouraged visitors to reflect, they also introduced vocabulary about space through a word bank.  Additionally, the seating was expanded to accommodate twenty-six visitors.

Space Bar
Space Bar
visitor created label in the Space Bar
visitor created label in the Space Bar

In 2012, C3 transitioned away from themed exhibitions and towards a more fluid process of rotating works of art.  Along with our process, the physical space changed, reflecting the end of Encountering Space and the beginning of a simplified graphic identity to reflect the DMA brand.  With additional seating for a total of forty-four visitors, the area was renamed the Art Spot: Anytime art-making for everyone.  Since then, we have experimented with different approaches.  For a year we focused on one work of art, Family Portrait 1963 by Martin Delabano.  Although we changed the materials and prompt every couple of months, they always related back to the work of art.  The following year we explored the broader idea of creativity.  We provided unconventional and everyday materials (like red plastic cups, spoons, paperclips, and twist ties) and challenged visitors to make something new and unexpected with them.  More recently we have made connections between the Art Spot materials and our wall of visitor-submitted images with themes like Textual Awareness or Flowers.

Commonalities and Spiraling Forward

For me, the creative process can be simplified to four steps: inspiration, exploration, creation, and reflection.  With each iteration of the making area in C3, we come full circle.  We start with an idea—a theme like materials, space, or creativity— or a work of art.  Next, we explore the possibilities of that idea and play with what it might look like.  Then, we construct it for visitors to experience, and finally we reflect on the actual visitor experience.  Over the years, the various iterations are in many ways similar, but with each new endeavor we learn and revise.  In each iteration we were inspired by visitors, and hoped to inspire visitors — as art museum educators, we place an importance on encouraging visitors to connect with works of art.  Furthermore, the area has always been about three-dimensional making and the creative process.  In our upcoming redesign, we are sticking with these tenants, but are approaching them in different ways.

In the past we strived to inspire participants with the art on view in the Center for Creative Connections, though we found this can be difficult when the works of art are not directly adjacent to the making area.  Often visitors come straight to the art-making area without looking at the works of art or, if they spend time looking at works of art, they may not be thinking of those objects when they arrive at the making area. When we installed Family Portrait 1963 directly in the Art Spot, we hoped that visitors would be more prone to draw inspiration from the work.  We found that despite its positioning and large size, it quickly gets lost behind a sea of visitors when the Art Spot is full.

Art Spot with
Art Spot with “Family Portrait 1963” and crowd of visitors

In the upcoming redesign, we are installing more works of art in the Art Spot and are strategically placing them near the tables where participants will be creating.  Furthermore, the cases housing these works will have prompts directly on the glass to provoke thought and discussion about the materials, design, and process.  These kinds of prompts can help visitors get into the making mindset, a way of critically looking at and exploring materials.

Also, our approach to choosing works of art has shifted.  In the past we chose works of art that exemplified a concept and might inspire visitors to create.  This time we are taking our inspiration from our visitors.  Over the past few years we have documented the kinds of creations made at the Art Spot.  We know that, regardless of the theme or materials, there are common items that are made: rings, animals, flowers, hats, and woven objects.  So, we started with those observations and chose works of art that visitors might more easily relate to and that had some evidence of both the materials and the method of making.

visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
LEFT: Pre-Columbian Single-Spout Strap-Handle Vessel from DMA collection.  RIGHT: visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
LEFT:  Bamboo basket from DMA collection.  RIGHT: visitor creation displayed in Art Spot

Finally, we will continue to encourage the creation of three-dimensional objects, but rather than having one set of materials, we will offer different materials at different stations that relate to the nearby works of art.  This will offer some variety so that visitors have more options.

Looking Ahead

When the Art Spot reopens in the next week, we will continue to ask for visitor input and revise, because being an experimental space means that we are constantly evolving through the creative process.  We will document the creations visitors make; read the reflective statements they write; talk with them about the works of art, the materials, their creations, and their overall experience to get a sense of what aspects of the new design are working and what we may revise.

How Do You Do It?  Share Your Thoughts

How would you describe your creative process?

How do your programs, activities, and gallery spaces change and evolve?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, and let’s collectively reflect a bit more on our planning and reflection processes for these types of creative, experimental spaces in museums.