Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.
Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.
I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.
I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.
Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:
You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?
After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.
There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).
My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.
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About the Author
ANDREW 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.
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?
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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.
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.
The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
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.
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.
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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.
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that 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.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“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, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
As the new school year officially starts here in New York, I am reminded of the thousands of students in the city, who will eventually descend upon our museums, science centers, botanical gardens, libraries, historical societies, and many other informal places of learning. As always, I am inspired by these young learners who bring a richness of experiences, languages, cultural identities, curiosities, and imagination that make our institutions come to life. In my own practice, I often wonder how I can tap into the wealth of characters and personalities each student brings to the table to create a truly engaging and equitable learning environment for all.
As school programs educator at Queens Museum, I was amazed by the diversity of the students that were coming into the museum; reflecting the demographic of the borough (one of the most diverse in the country!). It was more than I had ever experienced working in other museums/cultural institutions in New York. Based on my own observations and conversations with teachers, I realized that in a class of 35 students there might be knowledge of at least 10 languages whether spoken by the students or by their families at home. Census data shows that close to half of Queens residents (47.8%) are born outside of the US and more than 50% speak a language other than English at home. Some estimate show that there are more than 150 languages spoken in Queens.
In many ways, I saw myself in these students. As an immigrant, I also come from a multilingual and multicultural home. I consider myself part of generation 1.5, coming to America when I was 13 years old. These students inspired me to reflect on how I can further challenge my teaching. How can my own immigrant background inform my teaching? What are some of the effective teaching strategies I’ve learned the field? And how could I combine this sensitivity and the strategies to engage multilingual students and their peers in the group. So for a couple of months last year, I explored and used many different strategies in our Panorama of the City of New York exhibition, the crown jewel of the Queens Museum’s collection and our most requested school groups tour. The result was an “Educators Guide” which I compiled and illustrated by Megan Leppla. The guide was originally presented for school programs at Queens Museum and am sharing here as a resource for other educators.
Check-in with the Teacher.
The classroom teacher should know their students best. Prior to their visit or right before the tour, check in to see what the teacher’s goals are for the museum visit, what curriculum connections the class is making or want to make, and if there are any special needs or considerations. This is a great time for me to ask if there are other languages spoken or used in the classroom. I also let the teachers know that I welcome and encourage moments to translate key words, questions, concepts, and/or ideas to reach the most students. This is a great way to collaborate and engage the teacher during their visit.
Use active cues to get students attention.
Teaching with the Panorama can be challenging because of many factors, including its size, impressive detail, and a moving model airplane touching down and taking off at LaGuardia Airport! So it’s important to use creative and active ways to gather students’ attention. Check with the teacher to see if they already have strategies in place in the classroom. Some of my favorites include:
Clapping: I like rhythmic clapping because it involves both sound and movement. Make sure that this does not distract other groups.
Sign: First, I introduce the sign language for the word “Focus” and then I reinforce this gesture when I need a student’s attention.
Give students equitable opportunities to participate.
Allow students to engage with the Panorama in other non-verbal ways or without being the focus of everyone’s attention. I like to have low-stakes, low-pressure activities for all students to participate in. For example, as students walk into the Panorama, I ask them to think of a word that describes how they are feeling. Then, I ask students to write down the word on an index card. To share I ask students to look at each other’s cards. Students can then be grouped into similar words or ideas for further conversation.
Encourage partner talk.
Students often have lots of great observations, ideas, or thoughts but may be uncomfortable with sharing in a new space or in large groups. Give students space to express these observations and ideas comfortably with a friend. You can ask open-ended questions such as: How is this borough different or the same from the last borough we looked at?
Affirm students’ background such as knowledge of other languages.
When I hear students speak or use languages other than English, it’s an opportunity for me to relate it back to the Panorama. I ask questions like: “What’s another word we use for “bridge”?” In Spanish? Russian? Farsi? Tagalog? And more. I like to ask: What are some of the languages we speak, hear or read in the classroom? At home? In Queens? In NYC? This allows students to share their own knowledge inside the museum.
Activate students’ relevant prior experiences.
In Queens, when students point out LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airport, it is a great opportunity to talk about their own experiences of migration, movements, and travel. Here, I start our conversation with: What are airplanes used for? They are used for people to travel and move between two places. Then I follow up with: What are some of the places you or your family members have traveled to? Santo Domingo, Mexico, Pakistan! In this way, students are sharing their personal experiences with movements on their own terms. By reframing this question, students can freely share their own experience without necessarily answering: “Where are you from?” This is a great way for students to learn more and teach each other.
Make room for student questions.
As educators, we often get excited about teaching and sharing knowledge and information that we sometimes forget to stop and ask students if they have any questions or need any language clarifications. Once during a visit with a 2nd Grade group, I kept using the word “gallery” to describe the spaces we were moving in until finally one brave student stopped and asked “What does “gallery” mean?” A-ha!
Reinforce vocabulary students are learning in the classroom.
Check to see if there are any concepts or vocabulary from the classroom that you can bring into the visit. Teachers often use the Panorama as a way to learn about rural, urban, and suburban communities. I like to emphasize this classroom connection by asking students to define these terms using the Panorama. I ask students questions like: How can we identify the different communities? Where do you see an “urban” community here? What does “rural” look like? What makes this “suburban”?
Engage students actively through multi-sensory activities.
See: Try extended looking. I like to challenge students by asking them to look closely at the Panorama for an extended time, about 2-3 minutes without comments, questions or raising their hands.
Sketch: Use a Telescope! Students can observe closely by sketching a detail (building, bridge, statue!) they find most interesting in the Panorama.
Hear: Create a Soundscape! Each student can make a sound or noise that they might hear or imagine in the space. Direct the soundscape symphony with a meter!
Feel: How does it feel? Have students touch and feel building blocks, models, and other touch objects.
Move: Students can pose like their favorite skyscraper in Manhattan or decide like the Statue of Liberty what their pose might be if they were a statue or monument.
The museum is a great place for all students to learn, discover, and come together as a community. What makes the Panorama special is that it gives all of us a singular view of our city. We all have a piece of NYC in us, together with 8 million others, that makes it special no matter where we or our families come from.
I welcome fellow educators to share or reflect on their own strategies that allow students fair opportunities to engage and participate during school group visits.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?