Tag Archives: discussion

It’s Okay to Turn Our Back on the Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

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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?