Tag Archives: interpretation

Have You Ever Had a Transformative Experience With Art?

Have you ever had a transformative experience with a work of art?

I’m collecting as many stories as possible about the experiences people have had with artworks. Please share your story (anonymously if you like) at this Google Form.

Want to know more about this project?

Photo by Brian Koprowski. Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.
Photo by Brian Koprowski. Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Over the past year, I’ve started to think more and more about what the relationship is between objects, contextual/historical interpretation, and our human experiences with them. This interest began after I myself had a transformative experience with a work of art that greatly changed how I think: Agnes Martin’s Untitled #10 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In a teen program discussion, one of my students helped me see the connections between Martin’s work and meditation practice. As I continued to look at the piece on my own and reflect on our group comments, I began to recognize that being with Martin’s painting was when I started to become more comfortable living in ambiguity — a transformative personal and professional turning point.

More broadly, from my teaching practice, I have noticed that our collective understanding of art objects is greatly enriched when we consider both art historical/contextual information and our own personal reactions and interactions with objects. We bring our own background when we look at and interpret art objects (whether we’re alone or in groups)–and I’m interested in how those experiences help us better understand the objects themselves, as well as how these objects can help us create meaning within our own lives.

Although I could not attend the NAEA Gallery Teaching Marathon this spring, I had hoped to explore the topic of transformative experiences with art objects with the Marathon group. The survey above and this very blog post is my digital attempt at exploring this topic with a wider group. I hope you will share your stories with me, and as I collect them, I hope to better understand and share what it means to bring objects, people, and information together. I’m not yet sure what we’ll find — perhaps there will be patterns, perhaps not — but I am sure that looking at these stories as a whole will get us started on considering these questions.

So, I hope you will join in this experiment with me and share your own story!  Please feel free to share the survey with as many folks as you like — the more stories, backgrounds, and people, the better.

Thank you for contributing!

Meeting the Future Head On: Future Reports, Trends, & Next Practices

“The purpose of strategic foresight is to prime your imagination to envision different futures — some of the many ways that the world could evolve into more than an amped-up version of today.” – Elizabeth Merritt

What does the future hold for museums?  What are museums (or, more accurately, the people working in museums) doing right now that deserves to be shared, examined, and reflected upon?  How can museums think more critically about their role in the transforming landscape of education — now and in the years ahead?  We all have these questions floating through our minds, but may not often have the time and space to chew on them or hear others’ thoughts.  I, myself, have a pile of printed reports, trend watches, and ‘future of museums’ readings sitting on my desk, and every once in a while I glare at it and wish that I could absorb it all in a few minutes like Neo in the film The Matrix.  Without superhuman powers, though, I decided to dive into that pile this week.

In an exceptional Museum-iD post gathering perspectives from global museum innovators in response to the question “What will museums be like in the future?,” Adam Rozan from the Oakland Museum of California remarked:

“… museums will thrive, using challenges as opportunities to test new business and engagement models, and, in doing so, meeting the future head on.”

So it’s in that spirit that I wanted to bring together and share a group of resources from the past 6 months that present and analyze trends, future thinking, and ‘next’ practices in museums and education that help us meet the future head on.  I hope that you find this list useful, and please add additional resources, links, and ideas to the Comments section below — allowing this to become a more organic resource.  Let’s dive in, shall we…

Visitors engaging with a sea of all images that were posted on Flickr during a 24-hour period and dumped into the exhibition space in the "What's Next" exhibition at the Future of the Photography Museum in Amsterdam. Photo by foamamsterdam
Visitors engaging with a sea of all images that were posted on Flickr during a 24-hour period and dumped into the exhibition space in the “What’s Next” exhibition at the Future of the Photography Museum in Amsterdam. Photo by foamamsterdam

Next Practices in Art Museum Education

NextPracticesIntended to take us beyond “best practices,” Next Practices in Art Museum Education is a new compilation of information from the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) member museums and their innovative approaches to engaging the public with the arts through diverse learning opportunities. Next Practices incorporates 100 case studies of the recent and ongoing educational programming that its member museums have designed and implemented.

The resource underscores the many forms art museum education can take, and provides practical and inspiring ideas for future programming at institutions worldwide.  The resource represents a much-needed survey of the exceptional educational practices happening in art museums across the country, and ranges across ages and types of engagement & learning.

NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Museum Edition

HorizonReport2013Released in November 2013, the NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Museum Edition examines key trends and technologies in the museum sector, as well as significant challenges that museums are faced with in adopting these technologies.  The report hones in on six emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment:

  • BYOD (Bring Your Own Device): given the increasing number of people who take their smartphones and other devices with them everywhere they go, the BYOD movement is an effort to move away from a top-down system of providing devices toward a practice that instead provides the networks and frameworks through which museum visitors interact with a range of content on their own devices.
  • Crowdsourcing: A method of gathering ideas, information, or content from a wider public community around a shared goal — capitalizing on the power of collective intelligence and public knowledge, as in the case of Wikipedia. Crowdsourcing strategies are being used by museums to curate exhibitions, gathering metadata around artworks or artifacts, promoting community engagement, and crowdfunding new projects.
  • Electronic publishing: Near and dear to my heart, electronic and digital media are continuing to redefine the publishing avenues of museums, tapping into modern digital workflows and social media activities to develop new forms of content and significantly extend the reach of that content beyond the limits of traditional print.  Beyond making these electronic platforms available to anyone, the report identifies the next phase of electronic publishing as linking these platforms together to produce new types of content.
  • Location-based services: Enabled by WiFi access points, GPS, RFID tags, and crowdsourced positioning technologies, location-based services are now available to deliver up-to-the-moment information that is related to a particular spot — guiding visitors through spaces, directing them to exhibits and objects that match their preferences, and triggering information and content specific to the visitor’s exact location in the museum.
  • Natural user interfaces: While we are already familiar with technologies and devices that respond to the natural movements of gestures of the human body (taps, swipes, arm motions, and natural language), there are prototype technologies being developed that extend these capabilities and combine facial expression and gesture-sensing technology with voice recognition that could allow museum visitors to interact in an increasingly natural fashion.
  • Preservation and conservation technologies: While museums have always addressed issues of preserving and conserving cultural heritage, these practices are being challenged by questions around how to preserve and conserve via digital materials as well as working with digital and time-based media — requiring new approaches and new skills that bring in electronic and multi-disciplinary perspectives to digital preservation efforts.

I was fortunate to be part of the 44-member Advisory Board and the process that helped identify these technology trends currently affecting the practice of museum education, interpretation, and visitor experience, and I look forward to the next annual report in this NMC series.

TrendsWatch 2014

TrendsWatchCenter for the Future of Museum’s annual forecasting report, TrendsWatch 2014, summarizes six emerging trends identified through CFM’s research and the Dispatches from the Future of Museums, CFM’s free e-newsletter. The report explores how each trend is playing out in the world, investigates what this means for society and for museums, shares examples of how museums are engaging with this trend, and suggests how museums might respond.  Here are the six trends/topics that this report identifies:

  • “For Profit for Good: The rise of the social entrepreneurs”
  • “Synesthesia: Multisensory experiences for a multisensory world”
  • “A Geyser of Information: Tapping the big data oil boom”
  • “Privacy in a Watchful World: What have you got to hide?”
  • “What’s Mine Is Yours: The economy of collaborative consumption”
  • “Robots! Are Rosie, Volton, Bender and their kin finally coming into their own?”

The report’s author, Elizabeth Merritt, writes in her introduction:

“As you read about these six trends, think about how they will shape the world, what it would be like to live in the world they may create, and how you and your organization might respond…. Personally I think the most important and challenging question question is raised in ‘For Profit for Good’: How big an impact do museums want to have on the world, and how can we ensure that the good we do is good enough?”

A great read, and certainly a report to look forward to each year from CFM.  And speaking of CFM, here are a few more resources and future thinking items from their realm.

Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem

BuildingFutureComing out of a convening organized in September 2013 by the American Alliance of Museums (AAMC) and The Henry Ford, the “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem” report includes essays by educators, students, researchers and reformers that summarize and explore how leaders from the worlds of education and museums can work together to integrate the nation’s assets into what they call a ‘Vibrant Learning Grid.’  The convening and report asks the big question: How can museums and schools collaborate to create a new future for education?

The report pulls together leading thinkers and related case studies that focus on this and other core, burning questions, addressing a range of issues that include:

  • investing in greater capacities to support and manage partnerships
  • strengthening family engagement and envisioning parents as co-learners
  • building open learning networks across community institutions
  • leveraging digital learning and collaborative technologies

The report ends with a powerful “Call to Action” that came out of the second day of the convening, with some practical suggestions for moving the conversation forward and enacting change. They share several ideas, including increasing awareness, sharing information, disrupting conventional thinking about the educational landscape, and implementing radical experiments that increase the role of museums in an expanded view of education.

Guide to the Future at the 2014 Annual Meeting

CFMFor those of you heading to Seattle this weekend for the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), there are lots of great sessions, panels, and events to attend that bring together leading thinkers to discuss the future of museums as well as existing trends.  The CFM’s Elizabeth Merritt shared her insights recently via the CFM blog, and I encourage you to take a look (even if, like me, you are not attending the AAM conference this year).  You’ll find sessions discussing almost all of the reports I list above.  If I were attending AAM this year, one of my top picks would be “Crowdsourcing to Community Sourcing: Engaging Visitor Input” with Jeff Inscho, Lori Phillips, Daniel Davis, and Petra Pankow.

Share Your Thoughts

What are some of your ideas about the future of museums, and the ‘next’ practices that will help museums thrive?  And what are your thoughts about these types of reports and publications that spotlight ‘innovation’ and ‘future thinking’ — are they limited in their scope, or helpful as we all reflect on our own practice?  What sources do you look toward when thinking about new ideas, experiments, and projects?

Sharing Authority / Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices

Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum; and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum

In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators.  Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made.  Instead, as Clifford recounts:

“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).

Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.

Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.

Object Stories

Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.
Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.

Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection.  By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities.  This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.

Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).

“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)

Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories

Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection.  For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.

As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.

The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.

130608-ObjectStories-26
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael, whose stories are featured as part of this project. Photo by Katie Basile.

Bringing Back the Story

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.

In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.

Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).

In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking.  This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.

Letting Go and Opening Up: Teen Voices in Art Museums

By Chelsea Emelie Kelley, Milwaukee Art Museum, and Patty Edmonson, Cleveland Museum of Art

When museums share interpretive control of their collections, amazing things can happen. Many museums are reimagining how visitors can interact with and engage in their collections, through technology, after-hours adult programming, and even hacking (both sanctioned and independent).

Recording video content with teens as part of the Teen CO-OP program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Recording video content with teens as part of the Teen CO-OP program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Teen programs provide a very different kind of opportunity for museums to experiment with interpretation. Because many teens participate in multiple programs for extended lengths of time, they become advocates and resources for our museums and its collections. Teens at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art have been part of two experimental interpretive strategies that go deeper than one-day-only programs, providing not only learning experiences for students involved, but powerful tools and content for their institutions.

From the museum educator’s perspective, we—Chelsea Emelie Kelly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Patty Edmonson at the Cleveland Museum of Art—originally connected because both of our programs create video content featuring teens for our collections. However, we’ve come to see that there are more connections and applications to what we’re doing than simply producing object-focused, teen-made videos. We share our programs and projects below, and we’re now thinking about how we can make use of this content beyond teen audiences. Read on and share your thoughts with us!

Teen CO∙OP at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Patty Edmonson, Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist

The Teen CO∙OP started in 2013, and it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest teen program. We chose ten students from a pool of applicants to participate in a two-week summer session, where we trained them to work with the public and create their own programming. They use these skills during our monthly family days, called Second Sundays. CO∙OP members work in our interactive gallery, Gallery One, answering visitor questions and starting conversations about art and the museum. During these events, they also help with studio projects, pass out the teen guide they made, and create Vine videos. The CMA is working toward a more visible teen presence and authentic teen voices.

Video has been a tool for us to hear these teen voices and get students to think about storytelling in museums. During our summer session we created short films with a local production company, North Water Partners. Each student began by choosing an artwork and we interviewed them about their initial reactions before they knew very much about the piece. After these first interviews they read about their artworks and we talked about historical context. We asked them to complete a series of small tasks: choose three words that describe the artwork; describe this to someone who can’t see; write a tagline for the artwork; tell a story about this artwork; make a Vine about it. These tasks became pieces that they could include in their storyboards. Some also created their own typography or imagery to incorporate into their video.

One of the biggest challenges was balancing fun and appropriateness. I wanted the students to feel comfortable being silly, but there were several moments when we stopped to talk about respecting the art and museum. We also went out on a limb by letting the video content come from their ideas and observations, not solely art historical information. We are not creating mini art historians here. That said, we did have to navigate one interpretation of a portrait with a shadow that looked like a bruise. The student was interested in creating a story of a battered woman, but we stepped in to talk about why this story might not be the best one to imagine, and spent time looking at more portraits and their shadows.

Through these videos, the teens learned to look closer. They seemed excited that their observations were valid and their confidence grew. I also saw their public speaking abilities improve after being behind the camera, which can be tough. One of our big goals was to capture an authentic voice, and we chose not to correct language that museums wouldn’t normally approve, like “I’m finna to the grand ball” (as in fixing to go). I felt that by letting their real voices come through, we let them know that they can be themselves in a museum.

We hope to show these videos on our website, and you can see some of the good and bad Vines under the account, CMA Teen CO-OP. Our plan next summer is to make content that can better fit into our app, ArtLens.

Satellite High School Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum Satellite Program group, 2013-14
Milwaukee Art Museum Satellite Program group, 2013-14

Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning

The Satellite High School Program is an art history focused weekly gallery program at the Milwaukee Art Museum for sixteen arts-interested teens from the Milwaukee area to connect with works of art and each other. As part of the program, teens choose a work of art in the Museum collection to study and interpret, and share their ideas in a final project. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with how they share using video in two very different ways.

In the spring 2013 program, teens had one semester to choose a work, study it, and make a creative response to it, in visual art, writing, music, or media of their choice. I wanted to be sure their work was shared with a wider audience, so I used my own personal DSLR camera to film them with their artwork and creative responses. I had them write their own voiceover explaining their piece, their connection to it, and their response project, making sure that the video was just about one minute long for quick, easy consumption. Here’s just one of their videos, featuring Joel:

That project was successful, but I wanted to turn much more of the creation over to the teens themselves. I knew I had a chance to do just that when we received funding to buy a set of iPads for the Education Department.

This fall, as part of a school year-long program, a new group of teens had a different task: they shared their personal connections to their work of art through a video they created on an iPad. Over the course of the semester, they created video blogs (vlogs) reflecting on their changing thoughts about their work of art. They also received “readers” with basic information on their work of art or artist, and led a group discussion with all the Satellite students about their piece to get others’ opinions and thoughts. At the end of the semester, they created midterm videos piecing together with their reflection vlogs to show their evolution of thought. Here is ZouaPang’s video:

Teens continually asked themselves what they were still wondering about, and much changed over the course of the semester. When asked what she learned after an early session, Alana responded: “I learned how to better analyze paintings.” Her answer to the same question at the last session of the semester was much richer: “I learned a lot more about how to analyze art and research which I think is really cool because now instead of just looking at a piece and saying ‘pretty picture’ I notice more things about the pieces I see.” Alana’s video—and all her research and analysis!—is below.

One-to-one iPads came with their own set of challenges. Instead of solo weekend troubleshooting with DSLRs and iMovie, I found myself with a wonderfully excited group who wanted to use the iPad for much longer than I’d anticipated! In fact, I learned that students about doubled the time I usually allotted to use the iPad comfortably and feel good about their work.

Next semester, the same group of students will continue to explore their artwork and create more formal videos for a wider visitor audience about their work of art. We’re going to kickoff the semester with some visitor studies: teens will go into the galleries and do a card-sort exercise with Museum visitors to discover what people actually want to know about works of art (thanks to Marianna Adams for this activity!). Then we’ll pool our data and discuss how we might format our videos for a larger audience, as well as how the teens think we should share the content.

Your Thoughts?

We’re now in the phase of thinking about what we can do with the content our students have worked so hard to create. We know their voices are important and engaging, and are thinking about how best to share them. Since ArtMuseumTeaching.com is a forum for practice, we would love to open our questions up to all of you. What other purposes might these videos serve? Would they be interesting to other audiences? Where and how should these videos be shared? Please share your thoughts with us, as well as comments or questions, below!

“Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators

As museum educators, we’re always trying to get visitors to slow down, but sometimes we have a more immediate task, convincing them that they are in fact looking at a work of art. Recently three New York City educators got together and talked about the most common “Is this art?” situations we’ve encountered.

Rachel Crumpler on Jackson Pollock: “My four-year-old could do that.”

Observing Jackson Pollock's 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)', Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/
Observing Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/

Before you stop reading, let me acknowledge – yes, I have chosen a cliché. My intention is to use Pollock as a stand-in, a canonical example, of any number of more process-based works. For instance: Kazou Shiraga’s slippery barefoot paintings, Zarina’s meticulous Pin Drawings, Franz Kline’s definitive brushstrokes, or even John Chamberlain’s crunched-up cars. These works often challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what kind of art they will (or should) see hanging on the walls of the museum.

The responses vary, ranging from “My four-year-old could do that” to “It looks like scribble-scrabble, finger painting, a car wreck, a big mess.” Or the hardest response for an educator to field: the uncomfortable polite silence punctuated with a quick roll of the eye or a smirk shared between friends. Once uttered, perhaps coaxed forth, responses invariably question the artist’s skill and the overall value of the artwork. (Confession: I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to get annoyed when a visitor sneers and likens an artist to a four-year-old, insulting some of my favorite children as well as some of my favorite artists.) In fact, these comments are often coming from visitors who feel affronted by the unexpected and are responding defensively.

Many of the initial comments a Pollock (or any process-based work) elicits refer to how the painting was made – and also often indicate a hesitation to accept the work as art. Though stated defensively, these comments are not entirely off base. I think it’s important to first acknowledge and accept the hesitation. That’s something I love about museums. There is always some artwork that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges my own definition of what art can be. In his time, Jackson Pollock was pushing the envelope; with his artwork, he was asking questions about how art should look and how art can be made.

Conversations in museums, thankfully, are not meant to appraise the quality of the artworks viewed, but rather to unpack the inherent ideas. After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand. For Pollock, I would want to return to the implicit observations made in the initial comments and how they relate to the creative process. What about the painting makes it look like scribbling, finger painting, a mess? Where, specifically, in the painting do you see that?

The ensuing conversation will vary, depending on who is taking part and what the original comments were; any number of approaches could move the discussion forward.

I might show some of Pollock’s earlier and more representational work from his years with the Art Students League. Looking at the two works side by side silently states that the abstraction is a choice, not a matter of ability. I might ask the group how the two would be different to make. Or I might share that Pollock lived with his wife Lee Krasner in a farmhouse on Long Island. He would spread his canvases out on the floor of his large studio, and using brushes, sticks and sometimes a turkey baster loaded with house paint, he would begin to squirt, pour and drip onto the floor. I might ask the group to see if they can identify the painting’s starting and ending points. Alternately, I might ask the group to envision a four-year-olds drawing and compare it to the Pollock – how do the two differ, and what do they share in common?

The differences found in the all-over painting style may point to Pollock’s control of the paint and academic knowledge of composition. The similarities, however, might allow for greater understanding of Pollock’s process and more nuanced interpretations of his work. In fact, the response “my four-year-old could do that” may be more insightful than the participant (or educator) realizes.

Four-year-olds, still learning language and ways to interact with other humans, often express themselves physically. Anger is communicated through clenched fists and stomping feet; sadness, through a down-turned glance or the curl of the spine. And sometimes, it just feels good to run. For a four-year-old, movement is a primary means of engaging with the world. Likewise, Pollock chose to engage with the canvas through movement. Rather than communicating through recognizable images, he dripped, dribbled, spilled and splattered the paint in a dizzying dance across his studio floor. The painting we see can be read as the aftermath, a record of the artist’s intuitive physical expression.

Jen Oleniczak on Kiki Smith: “That’s disgusting, how is it art?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describing something as beautiful is as benign as saying your day is ‘fine’ – neither offer information and both are frustrating without more information. The same can be said for calling something disgusting – and much like asking why a day is just ‘fine’ asking why a person thinks something is disgusting often ends up with the retort of “because it just is.”

A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled "Lilith," 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.
A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled “Lilith,” 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.

Aesthetics are subjective, and much art can be overlooked because it is not outwardly ‘beautiful.’ Having the experience of teaching with classic and modern art, I’ve heard the “pfft, that’s disgusting” in front of works not traditionally ‘beautiful’. While it’s fairly easy to call a floral Rococo work ‘beautiful’ and ‘art’ – what about a gritty Kiki Smith?

My goal as an educator is not only to have visitors appreciate craft in a work that isn’t traditionally ‘beautiful,’ but also to understand the art AND beauty is often in the idea, as well as the work. Kiki Smith’s Tale encompasses that very balance. Smith is known for her representations of the body, usually altered in gasp-inducing ways. Tale is a sculpture of a woman crawling on the ground with a long trail of feces (fake) following behind her – admittedly, a bit cringe worthy, even for the savviest of art viewers. and easily something a visitor could dismiss as disgusting. But when examined closer, the work, like all of Smith’s body works, is brilliantly complex.

When in doubt, I bring out the inquiry guns for students and adults alike. Just the title of the work, Tale, provokes the question: why do you think Smith used Tale and not Tail? What could the title imply? A quote from Smith herself opens the conversation further:

The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something – like that you’re dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it’s so apparent in one’s own being. (as cited in NPR “Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile”)

Just those brief questions and an artist quote allow the work to gain a life – and let people stop and think about the ideas behind a work of art. Everyone has personal ‘garbage’ and that new connection between art and life is exposed with Smith’s quote. The work becomes an experience and the idea behind it becomes intriguing, thought-provoking and even beautiful.

Shannon Murphy on Isamu Noguchi’s Akaris: “I got the same thing from Ikea.”

Yes, Ikea sells beautiful paper lanterns, and it’s jarring to see a similar object in a museum. Isamu Noguchi’s version of the paper lantern, the Akari, has been knocked off since he began designing them in the early 1950s. I frequently meet visitors who get snarky upon seeing one during a tour. They are understandably suspicious of my “tour,” especially if it ends at the gift shop where they can purchase an Akari. Yet, this is the very reason why I love the Akaris. You can take a sculpture home. If you don’t actually want one, the concept alone is worth investigating more — high art specifically made to be affordable.

Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

I understand how some of the mystique can be lost when it’s possible to take home the work of art, especially when it comes with an on/off switch. As an educator, I invite visitors first to consider how the Akari is different from the Ikea lamp. If the soft glow of the handmade paper doesn’t capture them, I invite them to look inside and inspect the hand-crafted bamboo armature. Then, I like to share the story of the object to place it in a historical context. Akaris were conceived in 1951 when Noguchi was visiting a small town in Japan called Gifu. The mayor of the town asked Noguchi to re-design the traditional paper lantern. Noguchi went to work and designed hundreds of Akaris in various abstract shapes. The story continues for decades as Noguchi struggled to exhibit Akaris as fine art, while still selling them at a reasonable price. The struggle is often said to have cost him a Grand Prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale where he insisted on exhibiting the Akaris along with his stone and metal sculptures. Much to Noguchi’s dismay, the Akaris were stuck in a realm of applied art.

Sometimes, the artist’s words resonate with visitors. Noguchi said “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.” The Akaris were, “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce.” Saying the word “love,” while looking at a glowing light and knowing there was a history of struggle wins visitors over every time. Money! And then with a wry smile, I remind my group that the Akaris are sold downstairs in the shop. I tell them that it won’t last forever, the paper will one day begin to turn and the bamboo will give. Its authentic beauty does last for many years though, and it could be the last thing you see before you go to bed every night. Try that with Starry Night.

Which objects do you find people asking “Is this art?”  How have you handled it?  We’d love for everyone to share their stories here.

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ABOUT THESE 3 NEW YORK CITY EDUCATORS

rachel-crumplerRACHEL CRUMPLER works as a museum educator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Noguchi Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. She also teaches art classes for Foster Pride, a non-profit organization that provides free classes to children in the New York City foster care system. She holds a MA from Stony Brook University in Art Theory, History and Criticism. Rachel’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

OleniczakJEN OLENICZAK: Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC-based organization that specializes in theatre, improv, and movement workshops and professional developments for educators. With a dual background in art history and theatre, Jen is also a museum educator, trained actor, and improviser. She’s worked as an educator with the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, Noguchi Museum, and New York Transit Museum. Jen keeps herself busy performing with National Comedy Theatre and searching for new delicious food spots. Jen’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or The Frick Collection.

shannon_bwSHANNON MURPHY: Currently teaches at the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She is constantly experimenting with new strategies to engage visitors and students with art. Shannon holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is working on her MA at the City College of New York. In her free time she enjoys yoga, papermaking, and playing soccer with friends. Shannon’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens

By Caroline Goeser

I am part of the team that has led the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One and ArtLens iPad app. These new initiatives – blending art, technology, and interpretation – are garnering interest in the press and among museum colleagues. Many thanks to Mike Murawski for asking me to offer my perspective on the project, understanding that it is newly launched and we are in the process of gathering initial feedback. This project is the focus of a paper session at Museums & the Web 2013 in Portland (link to paper here). Responses so far have been enthusiastic as well as probing and have challenged us to think in new ways about what we’ve created and how we want to move forward. Recurring questions from reporters, colleagues, and visitors can serve as a way of introducing some of our goals and future ideas.

What was your plan behind integrating technology?

A view of Gallery One from the main lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
A view of Gallery One from the main lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Our plan conceives technology as an interpretive tool to drive active experiences with art at CMA. Creating Gallery One and the ArtLens app has been part of our mission to put visitors front and center. We wanted to build a gallery experience at the entrance to the museum that would welcome all visitors, with particular focus on families, college students, and young professionals – audiences that have not always seen CMA as their kind of place. We wanted to offer them new possibilities to experience art in a participatory way through the medium of interpretive technology. We also wanted visitors’ encounters in Gallery One to spark interest in the museum as a whole and to provide tools of understanding and enjoyment that could enhance their experience of art in the galleries.

On January 21, 2013, we opened Gallery One and went live with the ArtLens iPad app. Gallery One is a unique space just off the museum’s main lobby in which 55 top-quality art objects from the permanent collection are arranged in thematic groupings that cross time and cultures. This organization allows visitors to make connections across CMA’s comprehensive collection of world art. For example, sculptures of the human form from ancient Rome, Japan, Africa, and 19th-century France greet visitors as they enter the gallery, prompting them to experience how our bodies have inspired art differently over time. Another installation groups paintings and ceramics from Europe and Asia, asking visitors to engage with roots of our contemporary, global culture. Interactive, multi-touch screens interpret selected art installations, allowing visitors to engage actively with the works on view by virtually creating their own works of art, or by physically striking a pose inspired by a work of art they see. Gallery One also includes Studio Play, a dedicated family space with hands-on art-making activities, as well as interactive technology stations that provide young children and their families with fun ways to have first encounters with art and CMA’s collections.

A detail of the Collection Wall in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
A detail of the Collection Wall in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Within Gallery One, just off our new central atrium, a one-of-a-kind, 40-foot multi-touch Collection Wall displays high-resolution images of almost 4,000 works of art from the permanent collection, most on view in the galleries. Every 40 seconds, the wall changes views, showing groupings of art objects based on themes, allowing visitors to see that the collection is dynamic, depending on how you view it. Visitors can touch and browse objects on the Collection Wall to discover other artworks that are related and to find tours that connect objects throughout the collection.

The Collection Wall functions as a place to organize a visit through the permanent collection galleries by way of a unique connection with the ArtLens iPad app. By docking their iPad (or one available for rent) at the Wall, visitors can save their favorite objects to the app and create a personalized tour through the museum. The app’s way finding system directs them to the objects on their tour or to other objects in the collection. They can also find CMA-created tours to organize their visit according to themes they like. Alternatively, they can browse through the galleries and find works of art that engage them, discovering text and video interpretation within the app, or even scanning two-dimensional objects through image recognition to find quick bites of text or video.

What are your learning goals for visitors?

Our goals for what visitors take away involve experience rather than content. We hope that:

  1. visitors have fun with art
  2. the interactive games and interpretation provide tools for understanding and spark social experiences with art
  3. visitors find transformative moments of discovery about continuing creative traditions that make art relevant for them.

Above all, we want to refrain from providing a single, authoritarian guide but instead to offer a variety of choices for visitor engagement. Rather than designing content to meet our own goals for visitors, we have learned from our audience evaluation and responded to the way many of our visitors browse through our galleries, drawn to particular works of art based on their own visual interests and prior knowledge. We’ve been mindful of Jay Rounds’ prescient advice in Curator (2006):

“Visitors come to museums for their own reasons, and those reasons are not necessarily congruent with the goals of the museum. No doubt their browsing through exhibits is suboptimal when compared against [a] museum’s goal that visitors ‘engage in systematic study or exploration.’ But the same [browsing] behavior may prove to be an intelligent response to the situation when measured against the goals of the visitors themselves.” (p. 134)

Sculpture installation in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
Sculpture installation in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Gallery One and ArtLens were designed to honor browsing behavior. There’s no preferred path through Gallery One; visitors can move from one art installation to another, each with its own story. The Collection Wall asks visitors to browse rather than search: to find artworks they like visually, and to discover connections to related works by theme, medium, or time period. The “Near You Now” section of the ArtLens app follows browsers as they meander through the permanent collection galleries, indicating where they are in the building and the artworks near them. For objects with video interpretation, visitors can find a variety of short segments that they can choose according to their personal preferences rather than a prescribed sequence.

When visitor evaluation begins later this spring, we can find out how these tools are working for our visitors. In the meantime, we’ve been fortunate to have visits from a variety of museum colleagues who have shared initial responses. Following his on-site visit, Peter Samis of SFMoMA wrote to our CMA team:

“The Collection Wall reminds me of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (2008): it makes every artwork equally available, democratizing the collection…, it enables me to create a tour that threads me like a needle through all the various parts of the building. It disappears the architecture, the molecules, and replaces them with a new organizing principle: visual interest.”

Cool! Interpretive technology serves visitors’ visual interests and democratizes the collection. The challenge comes in the connectivity between the Collection Wall and the iPad app. With the ability to save almost any object to their iPad, what will visitors expect when they reach the actual objects in the galleries? Currently only a portion have video and audio interpretation within the app, some draw web texts and label copy from our databases, but others feature only basic “tombstone” information. We’re eager to discover visitors’ expectations, and in the meantime, to develop priorities for creating new interpretive content.

How can visitors contribute their own art interpretation within the iPad app?

ArtLens video and audio content draws on conversations with curators, educators, conservators, and community members. We hope the variety of voices allows visitors to feel part of the conversation and to suggest that there is no single way to interpret or enjoy a work of art. The community voices are particularly important, as they call up continuing traditions that grow from the artworks on view and connect visitors with people in their community – like the Imam of the Cleveland Mosque for whom the Islamic prayer niche in our collection is part of a living tradition, or the Cleveland ballet dancer who brings his creative perspective to Degas’ Frieze of Dancers.

: Object page for CMA’s Prayer Niche (Mihrab) in ArtLens. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
: Object page for CMA’s Prayer Niche (Mihrab) in ArtLens. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

ArtLens also allows visitors to create their own tours – playlists of their favorite objects with their own catchy titles: “Randomness and Variety,” and “Lightning Tour Before Dinner Dash.” They can share favorite objects through Facebook and Twitter. We conceived these as first steps toward more extensive visitor participation. We’ve discussed the potential for gathering visitors’ stories about CMA’s artworks and incorporating them into the app. We’ve also dreamed about the potential to capture visitors’ voices within the app, so that they can contribute their own insights about their favorite works of art from the galleries or from off site.

We encourage you to download ArtLens to your iPad and give us your feedback. Our project is ambitious – an interpretive system that reaches throughout CMA’s permanent collection. I’ve outlined some of our ideas and plans here, but there’s much more to come, so stay tuned!

I want to extend huge thanks to the members of my CMA team in Education and Interpretation responsible for the development of interpretive content in Gallery One: Seema Rao, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppely, and in ArtLens: Jennifer Foley, Lori Wienke, and Bethany Corriveau. They are part of CMA’s Gallery One development team, led by Griffith Mann in Curatorial, Jane Alexander in Information Technology, Jeffrey Strean in Design, and myself. Local Projects of New York is responsible for all media design and collaborated with us on the concept development. Earprint Productions of San Francisco produced the ArtLens app digital content, in collaboration with the CMA interpretation team.

ABOUT AUTHOR

image005CAROLINE GOESER currently serves as the Director of the Department of Education and Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Joining the museum in 2009, she reorganized the Education Department in 2012 to focus on two primary goals: 1) invigorating classroom experiences through object-based educational programs, and 2) creating vital experiences with works of art in the galleries through interpretive text, technology, gallery teaching, and public programming for visitors of all ages. Caroline collaborates with the Chief Curator and Directors of Information Technology and Design to oversee the new Gallery One, an interactive gallery for intergenerational visitors. She has facilitated and enhanced the museum’s collaborative interpretation program, which has garnered national recognition with the recent award of an NEH Challenge Grant. With colleagues at CMA and Case Western Reserve University, she has worked to re-envision the joint CWRU-CMA doctoral program in art history, which recently received a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to focus on object-based study. Caroline’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Cleveland Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Gravity and Grace: Cross-Departmental Collaboration at the Brooklyn Museum

If I were stitching a sampler about some of my recent museum education work, it might start like this:

A is for Anatsui.  B is for Brooklyn.  C is for collaboration.

Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com
Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com

Where the rest of the alphabet would go, I’m not so sure, but those first three letters reflect my experience working on Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, the retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.  Every show in every museum takes a dedicated team to pull it off, of course, but I’m taking this digital moment to highlight what’s been a particularly wonderful example of cross-departmental cooperation, which isn’t an easy thing, especially in a mid- or large-size institution.  In this case, it led to a variety of ways to engage with the exhibition that ultimately (I hope) makes the show a great experience for our visitors.

We have a downloadable Teaching Resource for teachers who want to bring their students to see the show.  We hosted a conversation between El Anatsui himself, Susan Vogel (filmmaker and author of El Anatsui: Art and Life), and Kevin Dumouchelle (the museum’s Associate Curator for the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands and curator of this show in its Brooklyn presentation):

We have an in-gallery hands-on activity inviting visitors to use paper and twist ties to imitate some of the folds Anatsui and his assistants use to create his massive metal artworks (more on that in a bit).  We have iPad kiosks that solicit visitor responses to the art on display using video questions posed by museum staff.  We have QR Codes to scan for those seeking further context.  And that’s in addition to our array of tours, workshops, and art-making classes designed for families, students, and adults.  So many options for engagement!

So how did all this come about, and what made it so collaborative?

PaperFolding
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

My part in it started when I took on the role of Project Educator for the show.  The Education staff here divvies up a given year’s roster of special exhibitions to assign a Project Educator or two to each show.  These folks represent Education’s voice in interdepartmental meetings and help shape education programming during the show’s run.

From the get-go, Kevin generously shared his knowledge, thoughts, and time with me and Matthew Branch, my fellow Project Educator.  For Kevin, the collaboration inspiration started even earlier in the process: with Anatsui himself.  “The work is so open ended,” Kevin says.  “There was a real possibility for thinking big and thinking of options that we might have been a little bit more cautious about if we had more specific instructions from the artist.”

While some artists provide detailed notes for how their pieces should be installed, Anatsui likes to leave it up to the team at each location.  “That filtered down to every aspect of the show,” Kevin adds.  “Which made it a lot of fun.”  Take a peek at this time-lapse video of the show’s installation. As you can see from the art handlers, designers, and conservators involved, it took a team to get the show up.  Not to mention Robert Nardi in our Technology department, who made this video to share with the internet at large:

Go, team, go!

Adding her enthusiasm and creativity to the mix was Sara Devine, the museum’s Manager of Interpretive Materials, who made sure we had a hands-on activity in an exhibition full of objects that, oh man, do you ever want to touch.  We can’t touch the art, but thanks to Sara’s input, we can do our own tactile experimentation.  Physically embodied engagement?  Check. Multimodal sensory inputs?  Check.  Music to the ears of any art educator.

iPadScreenshot
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

Sara also enlisted representatives from our curatorial and education staff (and, again, Technology’s cooperation) to record several 30-second video clips that ask visitors questions about the exhibition and invite them to enter their responses on iPads throughout the galleries.

All in all, it’s an exhibition that offers visitors a range of ways of interacting, and it could only have been done by creative interdepartmental teamwork. As Sara states:

“I know it sounds pretty obvious, but what allowed this exhibition to be a good example of cross-departmental collaboration was an ongoing and open line of communication, which is surprisingly rare. I think we all very easily get caught up in our own part of the process and forget to reach out, ask for input, and keep others informed. We all made a conscious effort to communicate and I believe that is the biggest reason our collaboration was so successful.”

I couldn’t have said it better.  This opening up of the closed doors–be they metaphorical or literal–between departments is a way many museums approach (or are starting to approach) their work, and it’s an exciting prospect to look forward to.  In Mike Murawski’s recent post about the Museum Education Division sessions at this year’s NAEA Convention, he noted that we’re in “a moment when many major museums are re-imagining (and, in some cases, totally disrupting) the traditional relationships between education and curatorial.”  Sure, it may be testing uncharted waters, but when it works (as it has with Gravity and Grace), it can produce amazing results.

How have you worked to open lines of communications across departments at your institution?  Join the conversation below, and share some of the best collaborations you have been involved with.