Tag Archives: Hammer Museum

Gallery Teaching Lab: Where Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

Written by Theresa Sotto

What would happen in the galleries if we could only communicate through gestures? How might critics’ reviews about exhibitions be meaningfully incorporated in gallery teaching? How would museumgoers react if asked to draw a work of art as perfectly as possible–the opposite of conventional wisdom in museum education? These are just a few questions that educators from cultural institutions across Southern California have explored in a program developed by and for museum educators.

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Museum educators from three different institutions–Zoe Silverman from the Hammer, Rachel Stark from the Skirball, and William Zaluski from the Getty Center–act out a short skit in a role-playing experiment led by Chelsea Hogan, who then worked at ESMoA. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hogan.

I launched Gallery Teaching Lab (GTLab) at the Hammer Museum in October 2014 with educators from seven Los Angeles museums in an effort to foster innovation in gallery teaching. Now in its third year, the program has doubled in size to include fourteen participating institutions who each take turns hosting a GTLab approximately every six weeks. Twenty-five practitioners between Long Beach and Pasadena have the opportunity to try a new teaching strategy in an ever-changing space and receive constructive feedback from colleagues. Participants can use GTLab as a testing ground for nascent gallery teaching ideas without the pressure of building internal buy-in or fear of an unsuccessful experience with museum visitors. GTLab also offers educators an opportunity to eschew traditional or habitual teaching strategies and set aside their respective institutions’ existing programs or pedagogical philosophies.

Beginnings

The very first GTLab, which was led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was an experiment in facilitating silent conversations in order to create a safe space to explore potentially controversial topics. Veronica was inspired by Child Guidance Toys (1965) by Robert Heinecken, which was on view at the Hammer Museum in the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Object Matter. Created two years after president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Child Guidance Toys poignantly juxtaposes two advertisements of two different products–a toy rifle and a miniature replica of JFK.

Prior to viewing Child Guidance Toys with GTLab participants, Veronica displayed three large sheets of butcher paper, each with a prompt that was relevant to Heinecken’s work: consumerism, gun culture, and the claim that artists make us more aware of social issues. We were asked to silently and anonymously address each of these prompts or someone else’s comments. In a post-GTLab reflection, Veronica wrote that “participants commented on the fact that they enjoyed sharing things that they might not have, had it been a verbal conversation. Others noted that they were able to discuss sensitive topics in a safe environment.”

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A prompt used in a silent conversation led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

After writing and reading comments in response to the prompts in a classroom space, Veronica led us in an inquiry-based discussion of Child Guidance Toys in the exhibition space. In front of the work of art, we wasted no time making connections between the imagery and the serious themes that had already been explored during the silent conversations. The resulting discussion about Heinecken’s work was thought-provoking and multi-layered. But equally thought-provoking–at least for a room full of museum educators–was the conversation about the experiment itself. Educators mused: Did the pre-selected prompts limit conversation about the work of art? Which audiences would this activity be appropriate for? How would the silent conversations differ if they took place in the galleries? Since everyone responding to the prompts were in the same room at the same time, the comments were not completely anonymous. How does semi-anonymity impact one’s ability to freely share one’s thoughts?

Following her GTLab experiment, Veronica incorporated the silent conversation activity in a teacher program–with great success. However, successfully implementing a GTLab experiment with  museum visitors is more of a fortuitous outcome rather than a desired goal.

Experiments in Self-Guided Experiences

For my own first experiment, I was interested in exploring self-guided activities, and not just because I was interested in their format–one that typically doesn’t impart more than basic or cursory information about works of art. In the days leading up to my experiment, other work commitments took priority and I waited until the last minute to consider what I would do. My experiment became an opportunity for me to address two questions. The first: Can a self-guided experience be just as (or more) engaging and foster as much understanding about a work of art as a guided experience? The second question was one that I sometimes face more often than I’d like to admit: Is it possible to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art when you don’t have time to properly research the works of art on view?

I decided to try a semi-self-guided experience with the exhibition Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now because of the wide variety of works, subjects, and artists represented in the galleries. I briefly introduced the exhibition and then distributed prompts in three categories—1) Select, 2) Question, and 3) Translate. Working with partners, participants picked one prompt from each of the categories, one at a time, at random. For the Select cards, participants were prompted to choose a work that they associated with adjectives like secretive, awkward, or friendly. Once a work was selected, partners picked a Question card and discussed answers to prompts such as: “Could this work change someone’s life? If so, how?”; “Why do you think this work was selected for inclusion in this exhibition?”; and “In what ways is this work relevant to people in Los Angeles?” I gave some pairs more than one Question card if they seemed to answer their first question quickly. By the time the pairs completed their Select and Question prompts, they had already discussed their selected work for approximately 20 minutes and were ready to “translate” the artwork. This is where the activity got more experimental. I challenged peers to reflect on what is essential about the work of art and to figure out how those qualities could be translated into another form or genre–such as a Craigslist ad, a restaurant menu, or thirty seconds of sound. Not only was this part of the activity a lot of fun, but it also helped the group come to a nuanced and deep understanding about their selected works while stretching them to think creatively.

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A GTLab experiment informed the goals for this all-ages Discovery Guide.

After the experiment, GTLab participants remarked that they enjoyed completing the activities and they were able to make meaningful connections to their selected works of art. They also raised questions about appropriate audience applications and attendance limitations, and whether front-loading or modeling would be necessary with school groups. All good questions. But despite the overall positive and useful feedback, I never tried the same Select – Question – Translate prompts with actual visitors. For me, that wasn’t the point.

Taking Risks, Breaking Rules

I originally conceived of GTLab to foster innovation in gallery teaching–in my own practice as well as that of my colleagues. In fact, for the first couple of years of the program, I challenged all participants to follow one rule: your experiment should be an activity or strategy that you have not tried before. My experiment pushed me to re-evaluate what I want self-guided activities as a whole to accomplish: to foster personal and meaningful connections to art, to have fun learning with the people you came to the museum with, and to encourage creativity. These are by no means innovative goals. Rather they speak to the heart of what we do as museum educators.

The process of organizing and participating in gallery experiments has made me reflect on Gallery Teaching Lab itself. Innovation isn’t the main goal after all. Gallery Teaching Lab comprises a collective of peers who manage or support educator trainings at their respective institutions. For this professional learning community to be sustainable and useful for all participants, rules and goals should change based on the facilitator, the chosen experiment, and the galleries. What once took place at the Hammer Museum every six weeks on Wednesdays from 12-2PM now occurs at one of fourteen institutions on a day and time that works best for the host institution with goals that make the most sense for the facilitator. As is the case for all good labs, rules are meant to be broken.

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About the Author

THERESA SOTTO is assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, where she oversees educational programming for college, family, and K-12 school groups. Theresa has been working at the crossroads of education and the arts since 2001. Prior to joining the Hammer, she worked at the Getty Museum, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has served as a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Theresa received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is also a published poet.

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Experimenting in Museums: What do you need most today?

Photo: Yang Weidong – http://www.smh.com.au

For the past 4 years, Chinese artist Yang Weidong has posed a deceptively simple question to over 300 Chinese intellectuals: “What do Chinese people need most today?”  These wide-ranging interviews have now become the core of a book by Yang as well as a in-progress documentary film titled “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese, and “Signal” in English.  As for their answers … “Of China’s thinkers,” Yang tells NPR’s Louise Lim,  “more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.”

“Freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and “free space for creative work” are combined with other responses in which people talked about the need for faith or spiritual life.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut succinctly puts it, Yang’s project is about “China’s thirst for freedom.”  His simple question opened up some really powerful conversations with China’s intellectual and creative class about sincere needs and legitimate concerns — conversations that, interestingly enough, have not yet been shut down by the Chinese government (despite repeated searches of Yang’s home and after some of the interview tapes have been confiscated).

Taking the spark of motivation from Yang’s inspiring and ongoing “Need” project, I recently decided to develop an experimental prototype that would explore how museums might interact with this idea of personal/universal needs — real, sincere needs that could build toward new forms of public engagement. For the second year in a row, I am facilitating the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a unique program that brings together a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students to explore and create different types of museum teaching and learning experiences.

On the first day of this summer’s program, I invited each of our 18 interns to take some time and reflect on the big question: “What do you need most today?”  Not thinking about museums or art in anyway, their task was simply to dig into their own, personal needs and decide on one that seemed urgent right now (‘today’).  After everyone had identified their “I need” statement, they wrote their needs on large pieces of posterboard and stood on the front steps of the art museum so I could take each intern’s photo (see the Pinterest board of all the photos).

For me, this was planting the seeds of a 10-week project through which these interns are slowly and intentionally developing their own public engagement projects to be enacted in August. And the next step pushed things in that direction the following week, as each intern was invited to reflect on their need statement and think about how, in some way, museums might fulfill that need — thinking creatively and outside-the-box.  Below are just a few excerpts from those reflections:

An engaged community: “Experiencing art is a tangible way to engage with and learn about others – it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, which builds a community by sharing experiences that can be taken home with you. In this way, the art museum offers a unique setting for community engagement. I believe that viewing art as this kind of open invitation is what inspires visitors to return, and it is the museum’s responsibility to continue this discussion”

A variety of choices: “I believe the museum setting encourages a structured approach to the works contained within them … the standard Look, Read, Look, Move On.  [B]ut without encouraging or allowing new ways to interact with the works, most viewers will stay within the confines of the standard viewing methods.  By encouraging a variety of ways to interact with the works within the museum, it will allow for a visit that breaks from the norm, and encourages the development of new avenues of interest, and make visits a more unique experience.”

Stories: “People love stories — to feel connected to their fellows even across the boundaries of nationality, culture, and language.  We like to know that we are not alone in our desires, our longings, and our needs. [And] an art museum seems to me to be the perfect place to go to find stories.  One could invent a story based on a single painting or sculpture; perhaps all the works in a gallery could be different parts of the story; maybe the different parts of a story are scattered across the museum and the game is to find them all.  Art museums have endless possibilities for finding stories.”

For the past 3 weeks now, we have been extending our conversations about these needs and how they might build toward a public engagement project at the museum.  First, we laid out everyone’s needs and did a short mapping activity — a great way to make our thinking visible and allow us to explore potential connections and relationships among the group’s needs.  Then, from there, everyone got into pairs based on “adjacent” needs on the map, and each pair interviewed each other about their need and how it might translate into a museum-based project.  Most recently, we all connected with experimental museum work at institutions such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Field and the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement programs, paralleling our learning about “public engagement” and social practice with our own developing ideas.

As we enter our 4th week of this summer’s program, I think we’re heading in interesting directions.  This week, we will begin to form more concrete ideas and develop prototypes for projects.  While I know we have lots of questions to ask and issues to navigate, I am excited to have launched into this project over the summer.  The Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program has always been an exceptional time and place for experimentation, especially due to the diverse and energetic group of students who participate each summer.  For me, exploring museum work from the point of view of personal and universal “needs” has the potential to make these projects so much more relevant, sincere, and “real” (however you define that).  And these are all things on the minds of museums — and especially museum educators — as we trudge through the second decade of the 21st century.

Much like artist Yang Weidong’s “Need” project, mindful museums have tremendous potential and power in their engagements with communities and the issues that these communities care about most.  Sometimes simply discovering those needs is an important first step, building up from them to create opportunities for engagement and learning that are more responsive and relevant to the issues facing us ‘today.’  Towards the conclusion of his 2009 book entitled Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes provides us with some provocative thoughts that may connect with why this type of work is valid and valuable:

“All museums have the responsibility and the opportunity to become synthesizers, and foster an understanding of the interconnectedness of the problems we face, both environmental and social. A mindful museum can empower and honour all people in the search for a sustainable and just world — by creating a mission that focuses on the interconnectedness of our world and its challenges, and promotes the integration of disparate perspectives.” (p. 166)

“It has been noted that ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ Will communities continue to care about museums in their current guise? Will museums discover what they care about? Or are museums at risk?” (p. 168)

I will certainly be posting again as the summer’s intern program continues and we get closer to the series of public engagement projects we plan to enact on August 9 and 10.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and perspectives below.  How might you tap into “needs” (external/internal/audience) as a core for experimental program development?  How important is this type of work for museums?  Share your stories and practices here or on Twitter via @murawski27.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

Experimenting in Museums: Taking Risks with How We Work

“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”

-Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report

Experimental work in museums has been a topic of conversation for quite some time, and many museums have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects.  But earlier this spring, many of these explorations and ideas came together in a unique and powerful way in a session at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting entitled “Experimental Museum Projects: Creating a Community of Practice.”  Presented by Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum), this session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees — and the entire museum community — with an Elastic Manifesto for Museums and Artists.

photo by Kristin Mckee

For me, this has sparked some great conversations with colleagues and staff about taking more risks with the work we do, and fueled my own fire to “just make it happen” (to use the words of the Manifesto).  And here’s the really crazy thing … I didn’t even attend the conference!  I had heard about the session prior to AAM, and connected to the Elastic Manifesto and related materials through Maria Mortati’s blog (which includes the Elastic Manifesto, Elastic Manual, and supporting Bibliography with some must reads!).  The presenters also started the Experimental Museum Projects group on Facebook, and their session was tweeted and retweeted to a very widespread audience on Twitter.  So before AAM had even ended, people across the country had already been discussing the ideas surrounding this flexible manifesto and embracing experimental work.

Far beyond the boundaries of the conference, this session is now living its potential to empower these types of experimental projects and to help museums create platforms and spaces for new kinds of creative experiences.  To support the open conversation that has been ongoing since AAM, I wanted to launch a new series of posts called “Experimenting in Museums” on ArtMuseumTeaching.com and include more voices and projects to the mix.

As you read the perspectives posted in this series, you can add your own thoughts to the conversation in 2 ways: (1) add comments to the blog posts, and (2) contact me via Twitter @murawski27 if you are interested in contributing your own post to this series.

EXPERIMENTING IN MUSEUMS SERIES