Tag Archives: Elliott Kai-Kee

The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App

“With a culture of questioning, there is always more possibility.” – Debra France & W. L. Gore

“Without a good question, the answer has no place to go.” – Clayton Christensen

“We live in the world our questions create.” – David Cooperrider

Much ink (and many pixels) has been spilled over thinking about the use of questions in museums.  I, myself, have given considerable thought to not only how we as educators employ questions in our own inquiry-based teaching, but also how we might get museum visitors and learners to ask more questions – to wonder more about the objects, collections, stories, and experiences brought forward by museums.  I owe a great deal to the thinking of other educators and cultural leaders like Rika Burnham, Elliott Kai-Kee, Nina Simon, Philip Yenawine, and many of the folks at Harvard’s Project Zero, to name a few.  In countless docent trainings, teacher workshops, school tours, lifelong learning classes, etc., I’ve worked to help cultivate a culture of questioning in the space of the museum – exploring creative questions, structured questions, participatory questions, visitor-centered questions, and questions that take a critical look at the very institutions of museums themselves. So when I visited the Brooklyn Museum last month, I was intrigued and excited to be able to test out their new ASK app as well as chat with some of the Audience Engagement staff about the intiative.

What is the ASK app?

photoASK is the newest iOS app developed by the Brooklyn Museum to allow visitors to ask questions during their museum visit, and have Audience Engagement staff on the other end answering their questions live via the text-messaging feature of the app.  As visitors ask questions, a member of the Audience Engagement staff not only responds to the question, but they know where the visitor is located based on iBeacons that the museum has installed throughout the galleries.  In addition to texting in a question, visitors can also send a photo along with their question.

As the Audience Engagement staff receive visitor questions, they have access to a growing wiki that contains information about artworks, related artworks, historical information, and other questions that have been asked by visitors.  These staff are constantly building this database of content and context, allowing them to more easily answer subsequent visitor questions. The app works in real-time, but only functions while on site at the Brooklyn Museum (if you want to take any of the experience with you, you need to take screen shots or notes, like I did).

In a recent interview with Nina Simon, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, Shelley Bernstein, spoke more about the new ASK app and experience:

“ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.”

The Brooklyn Museum has been testing the ASK app during the past couple of months (summer 2015), and making changes and prototyping new approaches throughout (which is awesome to see!).

My ASK Experience

As I walked along Prospect Park on my way to the Brooklyn Museum, I began downloading my ASK app (yes, I am a super museum nerd – I’m sure very few visitors have their app ready-to-go when they enter the Brooklyn Museum).  Entering the museum, I was prepped to ask questions.

Rather than try to ‘stump’ the app experience and try to ask a series of outrageous or challenging questions, I wanted to really see when I would have the natural inclination to ask a question.  I even wondered how often I have my own questions while I stroll the galleries of a museum (we think so much about questions as part of the museum experience of others, but perhaps rarely think about our own process of questioning as learners/visitors in the galleries). Not having visited the Brooklyn Museum for quite some time, I immediately found myself wandering around trying to find my way without a map.  So question #1 for me was about way-finding:  “Where can I find a map?” An immediate response via the app had me even more excited about my visit (now with map in hand).

ASK experienceI only ended up asking about 4 additional questions during a 2-3 hour visit, but the exchange with the Audience Engagement team member on the other end was enjoyable and surprisingly engaging.  To give you a sense of how natural and conversational it felt, I am pasting a collage of screenshots from a part of our exchange at the right (click on the small image here to access a larger view of the exchange).  The ‘responder’ texted me about twice as many times as I messaged them, which shows a really nice level of engagement.   The conversation basically occurred in real time, without any awkward silences or wait times.

While I was testing the app, the person on the other end was nameless (but I think they’re now testing it with the person’s name included to add more personal connection, which is a fantastic idea).  Towards the end of my visit, the staff member invited me to stop by the kiosk on my way out and say “hi.”  So I did, and ended up meeting Megan Mastobattista, who has been a part of the Audience Engagement Team since March.  We chatted about the project, and I was able to connect a real person to my digital experience (hooray!).

ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it.  Photo from BKM Tech blog.
ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it. Photo from BKM Tech blog.

Overall, I felt that the ASK app experience really succeeded in one area that I know the Brooklyn Museum’s is aiming for with this project: personal connection.  I was highly skeptical of this app when I arrived (to be honest), since I tend to have reservations about anything that creates a culture in museums of asking questions and getting answers – assuming that there is some correct answer to every question, and preventing visitors from simply wondering about art without someone texting them the answers.  From the outside, the ASK app seemed to be trying to digitally replicate the older and outdated model of docents, who try to “know everything” and answer any questions visitors have about works of art, history, artist bios, etc.  But in experiencing the app myself, I felt connected to the answerer, and I also felt that the goal of the Audience Engagement team was not to specifically answer my questions, but truly to engage in dialogue and prompt more thinking or looking on my part.  I could also bring my own knowledge to the exchange, and it was valued and became a building block for further dialogue.

After my visit, I connected with my colleague Monica Marino, Audience Engagement Lead there at the Brooklyn Museum, to get some of her thoughts on some of my questions and experiences:

“Users are consistently surprised when they realize it’s a real person speaking with them.  It’s interesting, even when they go into the app experience knowing that it is a person responding (and even when they meet us beforehand) they have an “ah-ha” moment after about the 3rd exchange.  That’s a prime moment for us to provoke a more in-depth dialogue about what the visitor is looking at.”

One part of the experience I was pleasantly surprised with was the app’s ability to connect me with the same Audience Engagement staff person each time.  While I understand that this must be more challenging when the museum is more crowded, I asked Monica about their thinking about this aspect:

“From our end (the Team responding) it is nice when we can sustain the conversation with one person, however, it has its logistical challenges – for example if we have multiple people sending us messages, we want to be able to respond to everyone quickly which makes it challenging sometimes to stay with the same person.  In addition, it happens that one of our team members has more of a background on a particular object/collection so it’s best when they’re able to respond to the visitor. Having said all of that we try as much as possible to stay with a visitor as they use it.”

Monica also writes more about the thinking behind the opening prompt and the first response to the visitor in this text messaging environment, and how to best spark the conversation I’ve been talking about.

As the Audience Engagement Team at the Brooklyn Museum continues to test and adapt the ASK experience, you can keep in touch via their BKM Tech blog, which is also a great place to learn more about the evolution of this initiative.  Also check out Nina Simon’s interview with the project’s lead thinker, Shelley Bernstein.

As the team at the Brooklyn Museum collects data on visitor questions and behavior, I’m also very interested to see how it shapes the internal decisions being made about collection installations, exhibitions, interpretive strategies, and gallery design.  To play off of the quote as the start of this post by David Cooperrider, are we heading toward a moment in which visitor questions will be shaping the museums of tomorrow.  Will we ever be living in the museums our questions create?

What’s Your ASK Experience?

I’d love to hear from others who have experienced the ASK app.  What can you share with us about your process of questioning and exchange with the Audience Engagement team?  What do you think about this type of museum experience – should we instead be focusing more on human, face-to-face engagement rather than the digital?  Please share and keep the dialogue going.

ASK-signage

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Questioning the Questioning of Questions

Written by Jackie Delamatre

Recently, the use of questions in art museum teaching has been questioned. In their book, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee wonder “why we ask questions at all.” They have observed too many instances of questions that merely stand in for the delivery of facts, questions that limit viewers’ responses, or questions aimed only at “getting the students to talk.”   They write:

“Even so-called open-ended questions always define a finite horizon of response that limits the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent” (100).

Are they right?

While they have written an eloquent, essential book that I am very grateful for, I do not agree with their premise that because some docents or educators ask terrible questions, questions in general are a flawed pedagogical tool. Every teaching method has unsatisfactory practitioners. That does not mean the teaching method itself is bad. More likely it means that some practitioners are not buying into the philosophical underpinnings of the methods, or, in some cases, that they don’t have enough experience or good mentorship.

I can assure you that many docents or educators could also botch Burnham and Kai-Kee’s described methods. Does that mean their methods are bad? Certainly not. I have been with Burnham for an experience with an artwork, and it was powerful. I don’t disagree that what she does works wonderfully for her audiences. However, I also don’t agree that all audiences can or will look for an hour at a painting without prompting through questioning. I have taught audiences for whom this works just fine, but over ten years of teaching literally thousands of tours at art museums, I believe that museum educators must not do away with open-ended, non-leading questions.

In Defense of Questions

Why not do away with questions?  Because some groups have never been to a museum before, or looked for longer than a few seconds at an artwork. Some groups have rarely been asked their opinion before. Some groups have not experienced learning as interpretative and dialogic instead of didactic. Some groups have had no practice listening to each other. Some groups are scared to death of sounding stupid. Some feel highly uncomfortable in the galleries. “We are the only people who look like us here,” a student once said to me on a tour at the Whitney Museum, and when she broke down in tears, so did others in the group and so did I.  Some groups don’t even want to travel to the area where the museum is. When I taught high school in the South Bronx, my students said they did not want to go on field trips to Manhattan. “Too many white people in Manhattan, Miss,” said one student, and I don’t think he was joking. Some groups are still thinking about the backpack they were forced to check in the lobby. Some are just marveling at the museum – a place entirely new to them. Some are hungry or wondering when they will be allowed to go to the bathroom. Perhaps some students (hard to believe for us art lovers) are simply not interested in art. (I don’t blame them. We all have affinities. I would probably not have been enthusiastic about a school field trip to a car mechanic unless ways to be engaged in the topic were modeled for me.)

For many groups, questions will help them move through fear, discomfort, distraction, or lack of experience or affinity. By asking questions, we model the rules of interpretative play that Burnham and Kai-Kee propose. “Look keenly…share your observations…ask questions… listen to and respect what others say…be patient” (130). We hope that they might internalize these modes of inquiry and use them to think about not just art but the visual culture we live with.

In my experience, questions are critical in modeling how to explore a work of art. When we ask, “What do you notice?” we model for students that their observations are important and meaningful. When we ask, “What more do you notice?” we model that their initial observations are not enough. When we ask, “Where do you see that?” we model that their observations are best grounded in the work. When we ask interpretative questions such as, “What can you guess about this place?” or “How would you describe this person?” we model that their hypotheses are valuable even without a higher degree in art history. When we ask, “What makes you say that?” we remind them to ground their interpretations in observations. When we offer curatorial interpretations or artists’ quotes and ask them what they think of these ideas, we model that the conversation around art in the galleries is still alive and far from complete. When we ask, “Do you agree or disagree?” (with curatorial or artists’ statements or with other students’ thoughts), prompting them to explain their answers, we model that debate and an openness to multiple interpretations are appropriate and they are capable of it. When we ask, “Do you like it? Why or why not?” we model that their opinions matter. When we ask about how art relates to their own lives, we model that what you see in a museum can have an impact beyond its walls. When we ask students to offer up their own questions about the artwork, we model how they can conduct their own conversations with an artwork – on their own or with a group.

Do Burnham and Kai-Kee really think that questions like these “define a finite horizon of response?” For every single one of these questions, I can imagine an unlimited array of responses. These are the kinds of questions that experienced lookers ask themselves about an artwork without prompting. But what of the groups with the aforementioned preoccupations or inexperience?  Our role as educators for every visitor – not just the experienced lookers – is to model these modes of inquiry. I love Burnham and Kai-Kee’s model for dialogical teaching. In their model, imagined as a four-sided diagram, or diamond, participants in a dialogue move between any of four roles:

  • The mover pushes the dialogue forward with statements or questions.
  • The follower supports the dialogue with evidence, encouragement, or just active listening.
  • The bystander stands back, views the dialogue from afar, perhaps metacognitively.
  • The opposer actively disagrees with another’s point of view. (87-89)

Many viewers would not naturally know how or be willing to take on these roles. Questions can help. When we ask questions, we model the role of the mover for students. When later in an experience (or even in the beginning of one), we ask them to raise their own questions about an artwork, we invite them to be movers. When we ask students to think about what others have said and express their agreement or disagreement we are asking them to be both bystanders and, possibly, opposers. We are modeling the role of listening to the whole of the conversation and stepping in when they have a different opinion or even if they want to agree or support as a follower.

Later in their discussion of this dialogical model, Burnham and Kai-Kee describe what I think of as the most exciting kind of question. If you’ll allow me an extended metaphor, the questions I have already described are the meat-and-potato questions – the questions to facilitate a sustained, filling experience with an artwork. But then there is the Boeuf Bourguignon of questions – the one that has been simmering so long it excites the palate upon contact. The educator has reflected on an artwork for days, weeks, even years, and has come back again and again to a question that she cannot answer, that she wants to hear as many thoughts on as possible. It is “a question that is real for [the teacher], a question she wants to share with the students, and whose answer she does not already know” (91).

In Search of the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ of Questions

Recently, I taught a couple sessions for adults at a Robert Motherwell painting at the RISD Museum.

Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).  http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1998_ochre_still_life_with_blue_stripe
Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966). http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1998_ochre_still_life_with_blue_stripe

I had the good fortune of being able to research the painting for months. I read Motherwell’s writings, asked a curator at the museum for background on the work, spoke to a conservator about it, and looked at it carefully for extended periods. I was even able to gather with educator colleagues in front of the painting and discuss it. During this latter session, a question came up that none of us could answer definitively. It stuck with me through all my research. I knew I wanted to share it with the participants in my session.

Motherwell was fascinated by collage. When he discovered it, he said, he took to it like a “duck to water.” He said the experience of making collage was like “making beautiful love for the first time.”   The painting I was planning to discuss, according to one curator, “could be read as a translation to another scale of one of his collages.” My colleagues, after seeing his collages, had been perplexed. The painting was not nearly as good as his collages, they agreed. Their question became: Why even make the painting? Why not stick with collage? Indeed, in Motherwell’s writings he describes getting more pleasure out of making collage: “I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play. Which painting, in general, is not, for me, at least…” (Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio). So the question stuck with me. Why even make paintings? I wanted to ask this question because after all my research and time looking at the artwork, I still found it fascinated me.

After a long, free-wheeling, open-ended discussion of the painting, I proposed the question to my first group.  There was silence. Uh-oh, I thought, maybe this question was only interesting to me. Maybe, like Burnham and Kai-Kee suggest, I had asked a question that limited “the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent.” Maybe I had asked a question unrelated to their experience of or interest in the artwork. But I sat with the silence for a few moments, and people began to speak up.

“Perhaps,” one said, “he wanted to make something bigger than collage would allow.”

“Perhaps,” said another, “he couldn’t make as much money from collages.”

“I think,” said yet another, “he could learn something about his collages by making the paintings.”

“I think he needed them for his legacy – to be considered important.”

We laughed about some of the answers, and there were plenty of perplexed looks as we sat with the question. It was another way into the painting. Yes, it was influenced by my own experiences with and interest in the work, but it was an open-ended, genuine, and satisfyingly riddling question and the range of answers took us places we hadn’t yet been in the conversation.

Sometimes no one answers questions like this, and I think that’s OK, too. These questions are modeling something that all questions should model, and I think these questions throw into sharp relief. They model that we are all learners, and we are learning together. We are asking questions because we are genuinely curious about their answers.

 About the Author

JACKIE DELAMATRE: jackie 3museum educator, currently teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, and the Neuberger Museum of Art. Until this summer, she taught at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim Museum for nearly a decade. She has coordinated research on the effects of looking at art on critical thinking skills, founded programs for teens as well as babies and their caregivers, and written for the Journal of Museum Education as well as several museum and museum education blogs, most recently for Museum Questions.  She holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. from New York University in Fiction. She is at work on a novel. 

OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums

VTS-bostonFor the past two decades, the overall discourse regarding Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been the subject of rather thorny debate.  The often-cited conversation between Philip Yenawine and Danielle Rice at the 1999 National Docent Symposium (published in 2002) productively drew out many of the disagreements about the role of information in museum teaching, especially with beginning viewers and first-time museum visitors.  In their recent book Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee frame VTS as a restrictive teaching method, wondering about participants’ experience in the galleries: “Have they not perhaps been cheated out of an authentic encounter with the painting?”  These debates continue to today, and, at times, it seems like one needs to draw a line in the sand and decide which side they stand on.

So what is VTS?

For those of you unfamiliar with Visual Thinking Strategies, it is an inquiry-based teaching method developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago and used in museums and school classrooms across the country.  Here is how Philip Yenawine describes it in his latest book Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013):

“VTS uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Growth is stimulated by several things: looking at art of increasing complexity, answering developmentally based questions, and participating in peer group discussions carefully facilitated by teachers.” (19)

Even those who do not practice VTS may be familiar with the sequence of open-ended questions that form one of the main aspects of VTS teaching practice:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

If you are interested in learning more about VTS, the foundational research behind it, and ongoing research in museums and classrooms today, here are some excellent resources:

Pushing Beyond the Protocol

My own approach toward VTS has been to set aside any controversy and more fully explore the research as well as the practical implementation of these teaching strategies ‘on the ground’ in museums.  Back in 2009, I led a panel at the American Association of Museums conference that called attention to the many questions, challenges, and apprehensions that exist regarding this method.  After interviews with more than 30 museum educators from across the country, I was able to gain a more complete and complex view of how VTS (and the research behind it) is being implemented in art museums—including adaptations of the original protocol, metacognitive dimenions as part of the VTS experience, pushing the boundaries of artwork selection, and alternative applications for docent and teacher training.  I have even found institutions that use Abigail Housen’s “stages of aesthetic development” (the core foundation of VTS) as part of their curatorial practice, the writing of labels and wall texts, and working with teaching artists to examine ways of creating art that addresses developmental stages of the viewers.  In addition to being one of the most commonly used teaching methods in art museums today, it is interesting to see how many other ways that VTS and its research has entered into museum practice.

Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine

PhilipNeroVTSWhile I have never been trained in VTS myself, I have adopted it as part of my own teaching toolbox — often using its open-ended questions as a way to spark looking, talking, and listening with a work of art.  I respect the research and practice involved with VTS, which is why I jumped at the chance to partner with the national VTS organization to bring Philip Yenawine here to the Portland Art Museum.  Philip has been traveling around the country since his latest book was released last year, and his speaking engagement here at the Portland Art Museum (this Saturday, May 3rd, 2:00pm) will be part of that series of talks.

When we were first offered to host Philip’s talk here in Portland, I invited Philip to also join me for a conversation on stage as part of this Saturday’s program (which he gladly accepted).  I wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the applications of VTS with art museum teaching, and discuss some of the ‘burning questions’ that many museum educators have about VTS research and practice.

So, I am using this blog post (and the ArtMuseumTeaching community) to gather some juicy, burning questions that we all might have about VTS in museum teaching.  To seed this “open think” process of gathering your questions, I asked Jennifer DePrizio and Michelle Grohe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (a leading museum in VTS research & practice) to send me some of their questions.  Here is some of what they sent me:

  • We know a lot about what VTS looks like (both in terms of facilitation and types of learning to expect) in elementary students, primarily in grades 3-5.  What does that learning and teaching look like with older students, particularly high school? 
  • Listening is the cornerstone of paraphrasing and ensuring that students know that you not only listened to their ideas, but they were heard as well.  That can be a difficult skill to encourage teachers to develop. Can you really train someone to be a good listener?  How can we design effective professional development experiences that help teachers become aware of how they listen, and how to listen better? What activities and practice can we put into place to help our gallery educators hone their listening skills?
  • Since professional development programs at the Gardner invest a lot of time, over time, with teachers, what does their growth look like in terms of: aesthetic development, comfort with visual art, use of student-centered teaching practices, use of VTS questions with non-visual art, overall attitudes and understandings of teaching and learning and role of visual art in the classroom/school?  
  • What is the long-term effect or stickiness for VTS?
  • What does the use of VTS look like with non-beginners, or with viewers who are moving from beginner viewers (Housen stages I and II), into different aesthetic stages such as Housen’s stage II/III, II/IV and III?  How could we best support their growth while also challenging the students effectively?  What would that facilitation look like?  How would we know that we were addressing the students’ actual questions, not just sharing information that we think would help them?  
  • How do we responsibly respond to the many misrepresentations of VTS that exist?  How do we help colleagues in the field of art museum education understand the nuances that are available within VTS?

ADD YOUR QUESTIONS:

Please help me crowd-source some more ‘burning questions’ about VTS, and use the Comments area below to add your own questions.  If you add your thoughts here between now and Saturday, I’ll bring many of these questions to my conversation with Philip Yenawine here at the Portland Art Museum (and I should be able to post the video of this conversation here next week).

Thanks for helping me think about VTS in this open space for exchange, questions, and ideas!  And I’m looking forward to my conversation with Philip on Saturday (join us if you’re in Portland — the event is FREE and starts at the Portland Art Museum at 2pm).

#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie

In the Midst of Practice: Reflections on the Gallery Teaching Marathon

By Olga Hubard, Teachers College, Columbia University

Liz Diament leading part of a gallery teaching experience with Ai Weiwei's "Marble Chair."
Liz Diament leading part of a gallery teaching experience with Ai Weiwei’s “Marble Chair.”

We all know that one way we grow as museum education professionals is by sharing our practices and the thinking that surrounds them. In most cases we do this through traditional presentations: our ideas and experiences tidily packaged; challenges and difficulties presented as something that occurred (safely) in the past, and which we now frame as food for productive reflection. The experimentation and messiness that is so often part of our work — at least if we take the risks necessary to keep evolving — do not often occur in front of our colleagues. That is, unless we participate in a Gallery Teaching Marathon like the one that took place in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the NAEA conference this spring.

I left the Gallery Teaching Marathon both inspired and hopeful. One important reason was the very nature of the marathon: a group of seasoned museum educators guiding each other in engagements with works of art. Some, by their own admission, did “something they had never tried before;” others shared approaches that had been tried and tested but with works that were new to them. The fact that these educators felt comfortable enough to make themselves vulnerable in front of their colleagues is indicative of extraordinary trust among this community. As well, it reflects the passion and indomitable spirit of a group of professionals who have helped shape our field from the ground up.

For those of us who have become accustomed to teaching in the galleries, it was a luxury to be on the audience end of things, with the primary responsibility of helping make meaning of a series of compelling artworks. It was also fascinating to witness a range of teaching approaches that overlapped as much as they were different. I know many of us left the marathon with new ideas — particular strategies that we plan to borrow from our peers, and which will likely be incorporated into our practice soon enough.

Participants engaging in movement and pantomime strategies led by Jen Oleniczak.
Participants engaging in movement and pantomime strategies led by Jen Oleniczak.

I am ready, for example, to invite viewers to think more explicitly of the layers of meaning that a work might yield (Niki Ciccotelli Stewart), or to encourage them to enact the movements they might make if they could go inside a picture (Jen Oleniczak). I am also keen to have visitors post written questions on the periphery of a work (Heidi Hinish and Liz Diament), or to ask them to do what a particular work “is asking them to do” (Elliott Kai-Kee). More than anything, I am curious to see what happens as other educators in the group borrow and adapt this or that approach, make it their own, and come up with yet other ideas. It is this sort of cross-fertilization that keeps things moving along.

Another gain for me was renewed empathy with audiences. Throughout the marathon, I was acutely aware of how I responded to the various conditions that shaped our gallery interactions. When did the pace of a conversation leave room for my comments and when did it seem too fast or too distant from my ideas? In the case of non-discursive activities, when did I feel too self-conscious to really be in the experience and when did I feel comfortable “going for it”? How did the educator’s demeanor influence my interaction with the work and with others in the group?

By taking the participant’s seat, I was also able to re-discover something I already knew — or thought I knew. Like all of you, I have known for years that partner talk is a valuable approach in the galleries (of course!). But at MCASD, when a group got too large, or when for whatever reason I did not feel prepared to share my thoughts in a group dialogue, how grateful I was to be able to share what had been in my mind all along with a partner! The next time I facilitate partner- or small-group work I will do so from a renewed level of empathy and awareness. Perhaps like me, some of you also left the marathon with your own “re-learnings,” which can only work to enhance visitors’ experiences in the museum.

Beyond specific strategies and empathy, the gallery teaching marathon animated some larger issues that underlie our work. Two that are particularly alive for me at this point:

  1. If the experiences that took place in MCASD are in any way representative of the field, it would seem that we have come to accept that the meanings that viewers shape through words and rational thought are no more worthy than those they shape through poetic and non-discursive modalities. In an educational milieu that values rational thinking and word-based forms of meaning making above all, this places us at the vanguard–but also in tension with the status quo. Given this, how might we work to deepen and strengthen a commitment to poetic/artistic and multimodal ways of knowing so that museum visitors can continue to benefit from rich, multidimensional experiences with museum objects? How might we articulate the educational worth of diverse modes of meaning making? And how might we avoid dichotomizing rational, word-based approaches vis-à-vis more poetic ones, which might put us at risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water — or from recognizing when the two intersect?
  1. A few times during the marathon, I heard participants note that certain activities had taken them away from, rather than closer to, the works that were the target of our exploration. In the same breadth, these people added something along the lines of, “I’m not sure that it matters, though; the activity was worthwhile anyway.” For us educators, this raises a question of intentionality: When are our activities meant to bring us into deeper interaction with an object? When are they meant to spark off creative activity beyond the work itself? When are they meant to do both–or to do something different altogether? Does it matter and, if so, in what way? (These questions remind me of my colleague Megan Laverty’s provocative idea that perhaps the main purpose of art is to generate more art.)
Elliott Kai-Kee leads group to openly explore the question "what is this particular artwork asking me to do?"
Elliott Kai-Kee leads group to openly explore the question “what is this particular artwork asking me to do?”

With these and other questions in mind, throughout the marathon, part of me kept wishing for more time to debrief and reflect on what we were all experiencing. The rest of me was content with the limited reflection time we had, however — there was something wonderful about spending an entire day in the midst of practice; a day of sharing our work in the making; our practices in all their messiness and all their (realized and yet-to-be realized) potential. Perhaps an idea for another occasion might be to have a one-day gallery teaching marathon followed by a half-day reflection session.

But back to the event at MCASD. Early in this post, I said that the Gallery Teaching Marathon left me hopeful. I meant it. As I think back to our day together, I am hopeful for what is to come for our field, full as it is of courageous and dedicated educators who continue to build from the ground up, and to push us all to think and play and interact in thoughtful, imaginative ways. This is significant work for us as educators, and I trust that in time it will lead to more meaning-full museum experiences for visitors.

UPDATE: Response from Elliott Kai-Kee, J. Paul Getty Museum

Olga Hubard’s reflection on the issue of non-discursive and ‘poetic’ approaches versus word-based and ‘rational’ approaches struck a responsive chord with me. I like the way she cautions us against putting the two in opposition rather than seeing them as ‘intersecting,’ or even better, complementary. Indeed, I think it’s crucially important to figure out ways to work them together. I commonly see docents separate their school-group lessons into ‘activity’ stops and ‘discussion’ stops. How is it that we have defined the two in ways that result in such a dichotomy? They must get this from us somehow. Is it a reflection of an argument pitting engagement against interpretation? Materiality against symbolism? The Gallery Teaching Marathon demonstrated a wonderful variety of approaches to the practice of gallery teaching. Is there a way of thinking about teaching that brings them together in a way that would make them more powerful in combination?”

About the Author:

hubardOLGA HUBARD: Associate professor of art education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Olga is interested in the humanizing power of art and in how educators can help promote meaningful art experiences for learners. She has published extensively about this issue, particularly in the context of museum education. Her scholarship has appeared in journals including Studies in Art EducationCurator: The Museum JournalInternational Journal of Art and Design EducationJournal of Aesthetic EducationJournal of Museum Education, and Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association. Olga’s writing is informed by years of experience as a museum educator and art teacher, and by her ongoing studio art practice. She holds doctoral and master’s degrees in art education from Teachers College, an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and a BA in Art History from the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico). Olga’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Columbia University’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Gallery Teaching Marathon in San Diego

Gallery Teaching Marathon Flyer_2 (1)The ArtMuseumTeaching community has been growing now for more than 2 years, providing an online forum for educators and museum professionals to reflect on practice, teaching, learning, technology, public engagement, diversity, professional development, and a whole host of other issues and topics. During the past year, Google Hangouts have become a new medium to extend these text-based relationships into face-to-face, real-time conversations — bridging enormous distances to bring people together to reflect on the practice of teaching and learning in museums.

Most recently, I have become interested in new ways to bring museum educators together physically in museum contexts, enacting and inquiring into our teaching practices while further building community in an openly-networked fashion.  Our museums’ galleries are increasingly becoming open spaces in which communities of teachers & learners can connect, intersect, and come together to make learning visible and then reflect upon our practice in a shared, public space. Last week, ArtMuseumTeaching partnered with the American Folk Art Museum to host the first-ever Museum Teaching Throw Down — an event that brought together more than 60 museum colleagues and friends from across New York City (and beyond) to actively engage in teaching experiences led by the fabulous trio of Jen Oleniczak, Rachel Ropeik, and PJ Policarpio.  Stay tuned for further post-throwdown reflections and reports from this amazing evening.

marathon-smallExtending this work to bring museum education peers together to reflect on our practice, ArtMuseumTeaching is partnering with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) during the National Art Education Association national conference at the end of this month to host its first Gallery Teaching Marathon.  This event will feature 9 art museum educators leading a series of teaching experiences in the galleries throughout the entire day, actively engaging participants in looking, writing, drawing, questioning, social media, and theatre as well as reflective discussions about teaching and learning in the museum context. Admission if FREE, and all are welcome!

Here are the details, followed by the current schedule of amazing experiences.  Please use this blog post as well as the ArtMuseumTeaching Google Community to stay up-to-date on any schedule changes or announcements.

MCASDmapWhen:  Sunday, March 30th, 11am-5pm – link to Google+ Event Page
Where:  Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Downtown location (1100 Kettner Blvd)

Before planning your day on this Sunday, we encourage you to first check the NAEA conference schedule (which includes dozens of incredible sessions, events, and forums focused on museum education and all areas of art education).  Make note of the conference sessions happening this day, and then squeeze in some time to walk over to the MCASD-Downtown to join us.  The easy walk from the Convention Center to the MCASD-Downtown location is about 10-15 minutes through sunny downtown San Diego.

MARATHON SCHEDULE

11:00-11:40am
Layers of Meaning
Experience led by Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

It’s been said that every work of art tells a different story. But, what if there was more than one story to tell? In this session, we’ll engage with a work of art and investigate it together, layer by layer, to uncover the many meanings within.  Directed looking and facilitated conversation, designed to uncover the context(s) of the work.  In this session, participants will engage in looking, talking, writing and drawing; consider the many contexts of the work, including time, gallery placement, and their own personal interests; search for the artists’ message or intention, building on what the group knows and discovers together; and determine how the artwork is relevant in today’s world, and on a personal level.

11:45am-12:25pm
#DramaticPossibilities
Experience led by Jen Oleniczak, TheEngagingEducator.com

Focusing on movement and theatre-based ways of exploring art, and continuing the conversation beyond the gallery by using social media.

12:30-1:25pm
Teaching with Thinking Routines
Experience by Heidi Hinish and Liz Diament, National Gallery of Art

Slow down, look carefully, and enjoy time spent in conversation around a work of art.  In this session, we will model a teaching strategy called a Thinking Routine to guide the discussion. Thinking Routines were developed by researchers at Harvard University’s Project Zero. The routines are short sets of open-ended questions that are designed to help learners engage with complex ideas and objects, to foster rich engagement, and to build understanding.

1:30-2:20pm
Collaborative Poetry, Meet Interpretive Dance
Experience by Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Let’s see what happens when we use a work of visual art to inspire us to two other creative art forms.  We’ll discuss an artwork together, then let it inspire us with both words and movement.  Adventurous experimenters welcome.  No poetry, dance, or even museum experience required.

2:25-3:15pm
VTS-ing VTS
Experience by Michelle Grohe and Jenn DePrizio, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Whether you love it, loathe it, or don’t yet know about it—VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) is a force within art museum education.  Join us for a open forum to explore the possibilities and limits of this pedagogy.  Ever wondered what VTS looks like with more experienced viewers?  This is your chance to participate in a VTS discussion with colleagues and reflect together on our professional practices.

3:20-4:10pm
What Does This Artwork Want?
Experience by Elliott Kai-Kee, J. Paul Getty Museum

Participants will start with the question, “What is this particular artwork asking me to do?” and as a group perform responses that arise. A brief discussion follows, of how “doing with” relates to “talking about” objects.

4:15-5:00pmCANCELLED (due to illness … we hope Chelsea feels better soon)
Investigating Transformative Experiences with Art
Experience by Chelsea Kelly, Milwaukee Art Museum

What are the connections between individual, art historical, and experiential/group interpretations of works of art? How might we use these experiences to create relevancy for our collections and humanize our institutions? Inspired by the work we do as educators to support, study, and take part in transformative experiences with art (in the spirit of Elkins’ Pictures and Tears, Armstrong & de Botton’s Art as Therapy, and Burnham & Kai-Kee’s Teaching in the Art Museum), join me in a group discussion that will begin with sharing our own personal transformative experiences with art, then branch out to explore the above questions. PLEASE BRING: A story about a transformative experience you have personally had with a work of art, and a picture of that artwork to share (on your tablet or printed out is fine).

ArtMuseumTeaching HAPPY HOUR

check out these amazing drinks at Craft & Commerce, location for this year's Happy Hour

Whether you can attend part of the Gallery Teaching Marathon or not, the ArtMuseumTeaching community invites you to an evening Happy Hour for further networking, community-building, and to learn more about how to get involved.  For this year’s Happy Hour, ArtMuseumTeaching is pairing up with Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC), a nonprofit organization for museum professionals whose work is focused on museum audiences. Here are the details for the Happy Hour:

When: Sunday, March 30th, 5:30-7:00pm – link to the Google+ Event page
Where: Craft & Commerce, 675 W Beech St – http://www.craft-commerce.com/

So if you plan to be in San Diego for the NAEA conference, we hope to see you at the Gallery Teaching Marathon and Happy Hour on Sunday.  Should be lots of fun as we meet new people, connect with old friends, and celebrate the work we do as educators!

Opportunities for Advocacy: Strategic Steps for the Future of Museum Education

Co-authored with Scott Winterrowd, Curator of Education, Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and co-guest editor of the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

What a difference a few months makes!!! In February of this year we sent off the final drafts of essays for the upcoming issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME). The 2012 summer issue, “Professionalizing Practice: A Critical Look at Recent Practice in Museum Education,” looks at the development of the field of museum education since the late 1960s, and poses strategic questions for the future of the profession. This issue contains essays and reflections by Elliott Kai-Kee, Marianna Adams, Jim Angus, Ben Garcia, and Ken Yellis. A few months ago we felt confident about the growth of the field and cautiously optimistic about the path for the future we were proposing.

The impetus for this issue of the Journal of Museum Education was a series of conversations about the history of museum education in the United States, and in particular, how this history seemed little known and even less sited in current practice. While we both explored the history of the profession as a means to inform and give a conceptual framework to our present work, a frustration grew with the realization that the dialogues we were having with colleagues at conferences, seminars, and online seemed redundant. These contemporary conversations seemed unaware of the work that had come before, and thus not profited or advanced as result of it.

We began this project in an effort to spark interest in exploring recent professional history to better inform our present practice. We came to understand that there was dual purpose to this project—to examine the recent past to inform the present, and to assess progress and propose a moment of renewed strategic visioning for the profession.

The recent cuts to education at the J. Paul Getty Museum have certainly raised the level of uncertainty as to the position of education in museums. Our concerns have been bolstered by reports of further cuts to education programs around the country, including key leadership positions. But, in these moments there are also strong and clear voices. The powerful letter written by Robert Sabol, National Art Education Association President, was inspiring and made me proud to be an art museum educator and member of NAEA. However, the power of our collective professional voice is needed in this situation. We need to hear from all museum education advocacy organizations and their members.

The actions and events of the past few months are opportunities for us as museum educators to ask ourselves what we stand for, what we believe in, and what we want the future to be. We believe that this issue of the JME could not have been better timed had we been able to plan it. An examination of our history can reveal how our profession has grown as the result of setbacks, challenges and the work of dedicated, articulate practitioners. It also reveals how our field has developed and deepened the thinking and rigor of our work.

Teacher leading thinking activities in the galleries. Photo by Mike Murawski.

Are we saying the sun is shining; everything is fine, soldier on? Absolutely not! These moments make clear that we must be strong, articulate advocates. While we have spent many years advocating for our collections and our audiences, did we forget to advocate for ourselves? Our strongest advocacy tool is smart and rigorous work. We must examine our practice and demand innovative, and quality thinking and programming. These are opportunities to reach out to our colleagues within our museums and our communities, confident in what are are about and we can do and be.

Ben Garcia’s compelling essay for the JME titled “What We Do Best: Making the Case for the Museum Learning in its Own Right” (available for free download) is premised on the notion that museums are unique environments and we should be focused on doing the work that museums do best. This idea is certainly shared by many others in art museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has premised his thinking on this very notion (See “The object of art museums” and Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust). However, unlike Cuno’s policies, Garcia advocates for a progressive understanding of the unique “learning power” of museums and museum collections. At the core of Garcia’s proposal is our role as museum educators to advocate for museum education.

Colleagues, what is your vision for the future of museum education? How can you be an advocate for this future? While the sky may not be falling, we must always remember that as museum educators we must educate about our work, as well as about our collections.

‘De/reskilling’ Artistic Practice and Museum Education: College Students as Museum Interpreters

Students interact with Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (to Donna) 2” (1971) at the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Sarah Wolf Newlands.

Karena, a senior at Portland State University, leads us to reflect on a pool of natural light in a gallery at the Portland Art Museum near a Robert Irwin light and space sculpture. The effect is a state of near-meditation.

Another student, Lisa, asks us to consider the different ways in which we value a work by Dan Flavin. We then move to a darkened classroom to collectively make our own version of a Dan Flavin sculpture out of glow sticks. She informs us that she will be auctioning off our completed work, and that the proceeds will be going directly to the electric bill in order to keep the Flavin work running.

The preceding examples are projects developed by students for a class at Portland State University, called “Object Talks: Creating Meaningful Experiences at the Portland Art Museum,” co-taught in the summer of 2011 by artist and professor Sarah Wolf Newlands, Stephanie Parrish, a senior staff member in the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs, and myself. The class was an experiment in opening up the interpretation of the Museum’s collections to college students through experiential, conversation-based interpretation informed not only by best practices in the field of museum education, but also by the work of artists engaged in social practice. We collaborated with artist/educators Jen Delos Reyes and Lexa Walsh from Portland State University’s Social Practice MFA program to introduce students to this form of art-making, which we feel shares many concerns with the work of museum educators. These mutual concerns include the need for outreach to communities not necessarily involved in the art world, movement towards the so-called “educational turn” in museums, a desire for collective involvement and collaboration—and above all, an interest in the shared social space that constitutes an experience with a work of art. This linkage between artist and museum educator is nothing new, and its history is chronicled in this excellent article by Michelle Jubin.

However, the involvement of students in this process, who are not necessarily formally trained as educators or artists, and yet, are performing these roles in public outside of the “laboratory” of the classroom, raises questions for me about where the role of interpretation in a museum lies and who has ownership of this process. The training period for docents at the Portland Art Museum is over a year and an MFA in social practice is typically a two-year endeavor. University Museums often employ college students as docents; however, they typically receive much more training than we were able to offer on this class. Our students had eight weeks to craft and deliver their interpretive experiences. A cynic might suggest that we are devaluing a complex skill that requires more expertise than a summer class can provide. Furthermore, this course is part of the college’s University Studies program, a general education requirement for all students which is very interdisciplinary in nature. Critics of these programs often point to interdisciplinarity as responsible for what they believe as the death of specialization. However, I would like to consider this topic through the lens of the deskilling—and indeed, reskilling—movement that has been a concern for artists since at least Duchamp.

In Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (a review and summary can be found here) John Roberts addresses this very topic and its implications for the art that has followed Duchamp. His discussion of the readymade and its role in deskilling the work of the artist’s hand in favor of reskilling an artist’s work in the realm of immaterial labor is particularly appropriate for socially-engaged artists. However, I would like to consider this same process of deskilling and reskilling in light of our class. When confronted with the open-ended conversational gallery teaching techniques advocated by Rika Burnham, Elliot Kai-Kee, and many of the other museum educators that they read during the term, several students expressed concern in what they felt was a disengagement from the art historical structures that had colored their past experiences with art. Nor did they like the process of moving away from the more lecture-based modes of presentation they were accustomed to from their art history classes to relinquishing some level of control to their audience for the more conversational methods of inquiry that we advocated. Admittedly, these responses surprised us—even though we are used to these tensions between the fields of art history and museum education, we did not expect them from our students.

Though, in the strictest sense, the term “deskilling” refers to the process of eliminating skilled labor in the workforce in favor of time-saving technologies, it has taken on new meaning within arts discourse. It is linked not only to a movement away from artisanal production in the visual arts of the twentieth century, but also significantly, in aesthetic valuation (Roberts 86). In this sense, deskilling acts not only on physical labor, but on intellectual work as well. It also takes on new meaning in social practice as a way of democratizing the artist’s work (Ibid 159).

In asking our students to think of their projects as social practice, were they not engaging with these discourses of deskilling?

Through streamlining the training process and asking students to forgo some of their learning from previous classes, were we not deskilling some of the intellectual labor of museum interpretation?

Conversely, I would also like to argue that these students engaged in a process of reskilling by learning to be more adaptive and improvisatory in their approach to the works in the Museum’s collection. They often sidestepped certain art historical lines of inquiry in favor of interpretations found in other disciplines, as well as understandings from personal life experience. In learning these skills and in rejecting others for the purposes of this class, I should stress it was not our intent to supplant the skills and knowledge these students were learning in other classes, but rather to provide them with alternative tools for interpretation. Nor was it our goal to replace our experienced docent core with students. Instead, we hope that our work with college students opens up the role of interpretation in the Museum to new voices. After all, we can learn a lot ourselves from the openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm found among students at this crucial stage of life.

Add to the Conversation…

I welcome comments from those of you who have also worked with college students as educators in your museum. What worked in your program and what did not? Furthermore, I would love to hear thoughts on the intersection of social practice and museum education, as well as the place of re- and de-skilling in the museum.

Responding to the Getty Cuts: “A Significant Step Backward”

Photo by Skeevo

At the beginning of the month, the J. Paul Getty Trust sadly announced that it was cutting 34 jobs in its museum division, with the education department being the hardest hit with the loss of 19 employees (almost 40% of their staff).  According to the Los Angeles Times, the expected annual savings of $4.3 million to be redirected to art acquisitions.  Volunteer docents are expected to replace these professional museum educators in leading tours at the Getty.

“Everything the museum does cascades from its collection. The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else.”James Cuno, Getty president and chief executive

This news has certainly sparked many emotional, passionate conversations among museum educators over the past few weeks, as well as some serious soul-searching about our profession.  For me (and I know for many others), the Getty has stood as a bastion for museum teaching — one of the major institutions dedicating its educational mission and vision to forwarding the work of professional gallery teaching.

The work of Elliott Kai-Kee and the entire incredible teaching staff at the Getty has lifted the field of museum teaching to a new level over the past several years. Even beyond Elliott’s recent seminal book co-authored with Rika Burnham, the Getty educators’ recent session at NAEA prompted a great discussion about the role of visitor questions in museum teaching and learning.  Getty educators have always done a wonderful job of evaluating and assessing the work they do, providing reports online, and disseminating valuable data about learning in museums.  For more than a decade now, the Getty Research Institute has also brought in exceptional scholars-in-residence for their Museum Guest Scholar program, including Brigid Globensky, Rika Burnham, George Hein, Kim Kanatani, Sarah Schultz, Dana Baldwin, Kathleen Walsh-Piper, Ray Williams, and Marla Schoemaker.  This keen emphasis on museum education and teaching has been truly inspiring.

Last week, the National Art Education Association responded to the Getty cuts with a letter from its president, Robert Sabol, submitted to the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times.  I would recommend that everyone read the letter which has been circulating for the past week.  Upon first reading Sabol’s letter myself, I felt proud to be a museum educator and a member of the National Art Education Association.  I wanted to quickly highlight some excerpts from the letter that I found particularly meaningful for our profession as well as museums in general (and I’ll leave any commentary to readers, who can add their thoughts below):

“The recent decision by President and CEO of the Getty Trust James Cuno to eliminate 19 positions in the Museum Education Department represents a significant step backward as well as a lack of understanding of the public value that museum educators provide.”

“Mr. Cuno’s statement, ‘The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else,’ is out of step with how the museum field and external environment are evolving…. many art museums are shifting from being solely ‘about something to being for somebody….”

“While the collection and preservation of works of art are essential, for museums to remain viable in the future they must also demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities, which is precisely what museum educators are trained to do.”

“Works of art will always be central to the missions and purposes of museums, however, their continued relevance to individuals and contemporary society is dependent upon establishing meaningful connections with the people that view them, something that museum educators are uniquely trained to do.”

I commend Robert Sabol, the entire Board of NAEA, and the Museum Education Division (including the passionate and insightful leadership of Anne Manning) for such a meaningful response to the Getty.  You have affirmed the human-centered nature of the work we do as educators, and framed the immense public value inherent in that work.

I hope that this continues to spark productive conversation and dialogue around this moment, and I invite everyone’s thoughts and reflections below.  I also hope to feature additional posts in the weeks ahead that can take a closer look at the implications this decision has on our field, our profession, and our vision moving forward.

——————

UPDATE: Read Briley Rasmussen’s follow-up post: Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission.

This post is the author’s own and doesn’t represent the Saint Louis Art Museum’s or the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Beyond Just Staring: Personal Discovery as Core to Museum Learning

“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)

A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences.  Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task.  Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:

  • What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
  • What is the importance of any particular work to me?

Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery.  To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).

“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)

Bruce Yonemoto, Untitled (NSEW 8), 2007

After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make.  I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers).  Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.

If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)

No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself.  Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception.  We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say.  “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60).  While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.

Photo by Clint Gardner

While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer.   Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.

Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art

“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)

A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences.  Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task.  Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:

  • What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
  • What is the importance of any particular work to me?

Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery.  To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).

“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)

After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make.  I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers).  Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.

If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)

No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself.  Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception.  We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say.  “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60).  While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.

While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer.   Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.

How Can We Get Museum Visitors to ASK More Questions?

While museum educators (myself included) spend a lot of time thinking about the types of questions we ask to visitors and students, I’m not sure we spend enough time considering how to motivate visitors to ask their own questions? We know that getting visitors to ask questions can be an extremely important way to tap into their sense of “wonder” and curiosity, both key elements of a meaningful museum learning experience. So how do we get visitors to ask more questions?

My own thoughts on this topic were sparked by a session at the 2012 National Art Education Association conference held in New York. Entitled “Visitors Ask, We Learn: Visitor Questions that Shape our Teaching” and led by Elliott Kai-Kee and William Zaluski from the Getty, the session explored a project in which Getty Museum gallery teachers collected every single question visitors asked them. There were attempts to categorize the questions and make some sense of them in a more scientific manner, but that never materialized. Instead, the project brought attention (and reflection) to the ways that visitor questions can help drive inquiry in museum learning, and to the teaching philosophies and strategies that create a welcoming environment for different types of visitor questions. As Kai-Kee stated in the closing of their session, “gaining questions is to gain participation.” Which brings us back to the key question:

How do we get visitors to ask more questions?

Photo by Wexner Center
Photo by Wexner Center

1. Model Curiosity

One technique that many educators use (including those at the Getty) is simply modeling the type of curiosity and open discovery that we want in our visitors. Choose an object early in a tour, and demonstrate some of the types of questions we might pose — information-based questions, museum-related questions, personal questions, and questions that allow us to use our imagination. The idea here is that visitors will feel more comfortable if you, as an educator, have opened the door to these types of questions. Being transparent about your motives here can be helpful, so that visitors or students know that you expect them to ask similar questions as the group moves to new objects. Creating a comfortable and inquiring environment for visitors is key to getting them to ask questions that matter to them.

2. Start with Visitor Questions

Elliott Kai-Kee mentioned this during their NAEA session. After introducing an object on a gallery talk or tour, he simply states: “I’d like to start with a question you might have for this object.” Of course, wait time is crucial here … remember to allow for silence if needed, and those first visitor questions will eventually spring up. This strategy truly uses visitor questions to drive the learning experience, and gallery teacher & visitors become fellow inquirers. Object selection can play an important role, too, as there are definitely some artworks that will likely spark more immediate questions in visitors. For example, in my own experiences, a large enigmatic painting by German artist Max Beckmann might draw out more immediate questions and curiosities than a Worcester porcelain coffee cup.

3. Cataloging Our Questions

Sometimes, it can be quite productive (especially for school groups) to allow time for students or visitors to brainstorm a list of questions they might have about an artwork. This can be as simple as each person writing down as many questions as they can about an object. An educator can take this further by inviting participants to pair up, review each others’ questions, and select one or two to share with the larger group. By doing this, you can quickly generate a large number of questions driven by students’ or visitors’ interests — a great place to begin a conversation about an object.

4. Creative Questions

One very effective “thinking routine” developed through Harvard’s Project Zero and the Artful Thinking project is called “Creative Questions.” This routine provides students with a series of question stems, and encourages them to be creative and come up with a list of several questions about an artwork — using the suggested stems only if they need help brainstorming different types of questions. While I tend to avoid using worksheets in the galleries, I often use this with students — and it can generate some interesting and fun questions (I especially like questions that come from the stem “How would it be different if…”). As with many thinking routines from Project Zero, this strategy can expand and deepen students’ thinking in relation to a work of art and encourage their curiosity.

5. Having a Conversation with the Artwork

We may have success in getting visitors to ask questions about the artwork and its information/context (who’s the artist, when did she make it, how was it made, how did the museum acquire it, how much did it cost, etc. etc.), but it is quite rare for students and visitors to be invited to ask questions of the artwork? By this, I mean encouraging visitors to pretend that they are having a conversation with the painting — what would they ask it? Not the artist, but the actual painting itself. Yes, this stretches the imagination (a bit too much for some traditional visitors, truth be told), yet can be such a creative way to further our exploration and inquiry. I constantly ask adults, teachers, and students to do this with artworks in the galleries, and I always find that it taps into a more complex level of engagement. Participants frequently ask quite personal things of the painting — for example, when working with an Anselm Kiefer piece one afternoon, a teacher asked “Are you mad at me?” At the same session, other teachers asked “Why are you so chaotic?”, “Are you still becoming?” and “How did your world begin?”

What are some other ways that you have been able to motivate visitors and students to ask questions? How do we continue to create these learning experiences driven by visitor questions?

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Featured header image: 1/19/11 PAGES Gallery Tour, from Wexner Center for the Arts, Flickr.com, Photo by Jay LaPrete, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0