Tag Archives: dialogue

It’s Okay to Turn Our Back on the Art

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

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

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

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

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

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

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

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

 

Carrots and Peas: Disrupting Patterns of Thought through Mindfulness in Gallery Teaching

Written by Amanda Tobin

Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.

At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.

Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.

Nick Cave "Until" Exhibition 
Nick Cave: Until installation shot. Photo credit: MASS MoCA

No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.

In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.

At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.

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John Steuart Curry, “John Brown” (1939)

Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda).[1] Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.

In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:

  1. Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
  2. Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
  3. Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.

More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?

The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.

While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.

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About the Author

AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at atobin@massmoca.org.

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[1] Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.

Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse

Written by Andrew Palamara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

 

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

Written by Beth Maloney

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

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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.

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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.

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What’s the museum education connection?

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

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

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

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

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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.

Engaging Multilingual Students: An Educator’s Guide

Written by PJ Gubatina Policarpio

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.

  1. 1Check-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.

  1. 2Use 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.

  1. 3Give 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.

  1. 4Encourage 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?

  1. 5Affirm 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.

  1. 6Activate 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.

  1. 7Make 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!

  1. 8Reinforce 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”?

  1. 9Engage 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.

  1. 10Have fun!

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.

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Header image: “Queens Museum of Art | The Panorama of the City of New York | tight overview from west of lower Manhattan, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges, etc.” Photo by Chris Devers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

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

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

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

What Does ‘Conversation’ Mean to Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structures of Engagement

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

Staff Tour of Sin and Salvation

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

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

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

Power Relationships

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

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

power-relationships-images

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

How do you create meaningful conversations in your museum?

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

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

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