Tag Archives: looking at art

Purposeful Praxis: Reflections on a School Partnership

Written by Sara Egan, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michael Baulier, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers

The School Partnership Program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is like a laboratory for museum education, through which we work for multiple years with a diverse range of students and teachers with a collection of art that never changes. This combination of stable and changing variables has allowed the Gardner Museum to maintain a cycle of theory, practice, research and reflection. The School Partnership Program uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as the primary teaching and assessment method, responding to findings from our 2007 U.S. Department of Education study, Thinking Through Art. We’ve continued to learn and grow since that study, most recently through our work with the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers (EMK), an in-district charter school in Boston. We started partnering with the English Language Arts and History teachers in 2012 and this year added Spanish teachers. While the successes and challenges we encounter working with EMK are specific to our partnership, we hope you will use our example to consider how praxis (the practical application of theory) and research can contribute to your own programs.

Research: Getting to know our audience

Working with the same audience over time is a luxury, but also crucial in our pursuit to consistently tailor our program to the specific needs of our partner students and teachers. Since we work with the students throughout their high school careers, we see the EMK 11th grade students respond to the Museum very differently than they did in 9th grade. We see changes through a variety of data collection methods: surveys, writing samples, long and short interviews, observations, and more. Our program goals include developing visual literacy and critical thinking and communication skills, so we mine the program data to determine how the students are making meaning from works of art and quantify the frequency of critical thinking that they deploy in that quest. The quantitative research tells us where the students are, while the qualitative data helps us to understand the context and explain how, when and why students develop these skills. So, how do we respond when we see that students shift over time from 9th grade comments like,

“Yeah. It’s a nice picture. It’s nice and, I don’t know, it’s colorful”

to interpretations from 11th graders such as,

“This room looks dark and mysterious. Kind of like a church because of all the holy statues and religious references. Maybe it means you can find light even in the darkness?”  

EMK students using VTS to discuss El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
EMK students using VTS to discuss El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Theory: Making sense of the data

The work of constructivist theorists like Piaget, Vygotsky and Duckworth, Abigail Housen’s theory of Aesthetic Development, in addition to our own personal theories of learning and change inform our interpretations of our research. Viewing the raw data through the lens of theory helps our team of educators explain what we see while validating the theories that we are considering. Returning to the EMK example, we know from our research that as these high school students are introduced to the Gardner Museum and begin discussing art using VTS they are primarily concerned with their own observations and prior knowledge. After two years of monthly discussions of art in the classroom and at the museum, they start to wonder about the intent or history of the artist. Housen’s theory tells us that through extensive experience looking at art there will be a development from storytelling to considering new kinds of information such as art history. Piaget’s theory of childhood development contributes to our understanding of why this happens more quickly in high school students than elementary-aged students. We use these frameworks to understand where the EMK 11th grade students are now, and then estimate where they are likely to go next and what kinds of questions they will pose in the months ahead.  The students are capable of abstract reasoning and are interested in the way that an artist’s intentions play out in a work of art. They are also thinking about the VTS process itself and questioning the boundaries of its usefulness with art and across disciplines.

Practice: Putting it all into action

With a solid grounding of data and theory, our next step in August 2014 (Year 3 of partnering with EMK) was to adjust our practice to fit the new reality of these more experienced students’ needs and interests. First we began experimenting with new types of information when the students visited the Museum, for example providing more context about a special exhibition or asking probing questions like, “What do you think might have interested the artist when making this artwork?”  Next, we held intensive professional development for our partner teachers at EMK, collaborating to create “VTS extensions” that use VTS skills to explore new concepts, for example predicting the themes of a new novel or unit of history by examining images.

Collaboration: Insights from Michael Baulier, 9th grade English Teacher

As a STEM school with a strong focus on math and science, EMK relies heavily on relationships with peer institutions to offer opportunities for students to engage in the arts. I embraced VTS because I view this instructional approach as an opportunity to address the dearth of arts education in our school.  What I did not anticipate was the extraordinary impact VTS would have on the daily instruction that occurs in my classroom.

VTS fits seamlessly into my teaching as an instructional strategy that promotes whole-group discussions grounded in visual evidence.  When I ask students the first VTS question, “What’s going on in this image?” I am cuing them to develop claims based on a visual text.  The follow-up question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” requires students to provide visual evidence to support their claims.  In ELA class evidence-based reasoning is at the core of everything we do, whether a student is discussing a visual text during VTS, making an inference while reading a short story, or writing a paragraph to support a thesis statement in an essay.  VTS also aligns nicely with the ELA Common Core Standards’ emphasis on student-centered exploration over teacher-directed instruction, and the development of listening skills and oral proficiency are beneficial to students who are English Language Learners or receiving Special Education.  Instead of frontloading tasks with teacher-generated content knowledge, students engage with texts, take risks, and uncover meaning collaboratively.  Because the subject of VTS is an image, all students have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion in a low stakes environment.  The deliberate focus on active listening and high volume of oral language input for students to process leads over time to increased language output.   I have observed students who are typically reluctant to speak aloud share detailed responses to complex images in the classroom or at the Museum.

In the third year of our partnership with the Gardner Museum we are collaborating more than ever to explore new opportunities for using VTS to enhance teaching and learning in our school.  In November my students visited the Museum to brainstorm ideas for image-based short stories written as part of a VTS extension project.  In April we look forward to hosting our first family event to showcase student work inspired by the Gardner Museum.  The Museum’s eagerness to engage our school community through so many unique learning opportunities makes this partnership especially exciting, because it speaks to the creativity that is so vital to both the arts and education.

Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Photo: Sean Dungan.
Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Photo: Sean Dungan.

Reflection: What did we learn from the cycle of praxis?

The contours of this partnership have changed over time as we listen to our audience through research, interpret what we hear through the lens of theory, and translate our understanding into practice.  Rather than automatically replicating practices that have worked in the past we continually strive to improve and to justify, to ourselves as well as all other stakeholders, the value and relevancy of our program.  At EMK, our partnership is a component of school culture and the value of the arts and critical thinking are infused at every grade.  Teachers and students consider the Gardner Museum as an active part of their campus, visiting independently and attending the Museum’s other programs.  This cycle keeps the work always fresh and exciting, as there is always more to learn from and with our partners.

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About the Authors

Sara Egan and Michael BaulierSARA EGAN: School Partnership Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she connects Boston students and teachers to the Gardner through Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). She teaches preK-12th grade students in the galleries and the classroom, trains and coaches teachers to use VTS, and researches the impact of the School Partnership Program.  Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes. She holds a BA from Vassar College and an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

MICHAEL L. BAULIER: Educator at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, where he teaches English Language Arts to ninth grade students.  Michael is an inclusion teacher who is licensed to teach students receiving Special Education (SPED) support services as well as English Language Learners (ELL).  He earned his National Board Certification for Professional Teaching Standards (NBCT) in 2014.  Michael holds a BA and MAT from Northeastern University and is currently studying at the University of Massachusetts Boston to become a school administrator.

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Header Image: Sara and 9th grade students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books

I have to admit that I am a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to books about how we look at and experience art.  So when I found out about the recently published books by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford as well as Ossian Ward, I was more than just a little curious (I ordered them right away and began to dig in during the winter holidays).

Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, by Ossian Ward (Laurence King Publishing, 2014)


First, let me dive a bit into the pages of Rendez-Vous with Art.  This book reads like an enjoyable travelogue of the great museums of the world, retelling in lush detail a series of art encounters as filtered through the interests, knowledge, passions, and opinions of de Montebello (Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years, 1977-2008).  At café moments and interludes, both authors engage in brief conversations about how we experience art, how we think about it, and how we look at it. The book is, as the authors write, “an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art” (9).  Visiting the Louvre, the Prado, the Palazzo Pitti, the Mauritshuis, the British Museum, the Brancacci Chapel, the Met, and other notable art sites, their conversations focus on their experiences with masterpieces and lesser known works that allow them to escape the crowds of some of the more popular cultural destinations.

I happened to be reading this book during the days leading up to a workshop I was facilitating with our docents at the Portland Art Museum, spending time in the galleries looking at an absolutely electric El Greco painting on loan to our museum from the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I was searching for a new way to frame our extended experience with this masterpiece — a way to prompt our viewing of the painting in a way that could transcend the art historical facts of the painting’s creation and context.  Could a work like this speak to us today about something meaningful?  As a viewer, what does this work mean to me?  De Montebello provided the tee-up:

“A characteristic of great works of art is that they persistently catch our attention and beckon us. It is like a piece of music that we want to listen to ad infinitum or a book that we love re-reading — because one never exhausts what a great work has to give, whether it’s in the detail or the whole…. It has an ability not just to defy time, but also to communicate through time, even to people who do not and cannot know much about the beliefs of the people who made it or the message it was supposed originally to have. Somehow, inexplicably, a great work of art transcends its own age.” (31, 34)

While I may not agree with de Montebello when it comes to how we shape visitor learning experiences and use social media & digital technologies to broaden public engagement (among other things), I did enjoy his grandiose statements about the powerful nature of experiencing art.  The hustle and bustle of a crowded art museum  can certainly be music to a museum educator’s ears, yet I know that many of us, like myself, also seek out the more intimate, quiet, deeply rewarding experience of being the only person standing in front of a masterpiece (how many of us sneak into the galleries when the museum is closed to steal away our own time with art?).  De Montebello muses on the challenge of viewing art amidst the crowds of popular, well-visited institutions … or, as they write, “the hell of looking at art with other people” (128). As Gayford recounts, de Montebello originally wanted the title of the book to be “The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.”

At times, both authors seem rather grumpy about the millions and millions of people who crowd into museums to see masterworks of culture and history, but their questions about how we experience art in these contexts raises interesting issues about marketing, image reproductions, and digital collections.  For example, given the deep crowds of camera-phone-wielding tourists crammed in front of the Mona Lisa on any given day, is it more valuable or meaningful to look at a high quality digital image on my iPad (here in the quiet comfort of my own home or office)?  And how does our repeated exposure to beautiful, massive publicity banners and posters showings close-up details of masterpieces effect our expectations of the actual museum gallery experience with these artworks?

This is what it is like when you're standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.  Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
This is what it is like when you’re standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

How Do We Experience Contemporary Art?

OK, let me shift gears here, from talking about experiences with Egyptian sculpture, Renaissance masterpieces, and nineteenth-century portraiture to experiencing the art of now — contemporary art that can be scattered across a gallery floor, projected on multiple walls, consuming a massive space, requiring us to talk to someone or eat something, confusing, perplexing, and having no apparent start or finish.

“The old rules of not touching a work of art or of reverentially paying homage to each picture in a state of quiet awe are now gone….” (Ward 8)

Carsten Höller "Test Site" installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license
Carsten Höller “Test Site” installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking makes a fresh pairing with Rendez-Vous with Art, focusing on art created since 2000 that frequently expects viewers to perform, interact with, or complete the piece in front of you.  In this highly readable, straightforward book, Ward offers a set of tools that go beyond just looking and might help provide a way to make sense of contemporary art.  While an art critic and art world insider himself, I think he succeeds in his attempts to combat the ubiquitous and opaque ‘art speak’ that so frustratingly surrounds contemporary art.  He writes (and I quite agree):

“Too often, these gatekeepers [curators and critics] stand in the way of the understanding of a work of art by using a morass of theoretical jargon and pseudo-philosophical art-speak. This kind of clever-clever writing about art does very little to bolster or boost an artist’s cause, other than perpetuating more reams of similarly hard-to-fathom ‘discourse.'” (20)

So how does Ward propose we cut through the verbose jargon and allow for better experiences with contemporary art?  His central foundation is to “start from zero” and wipe the slate clean — tabula rasa — using the first word TABULA as a mnemonic device for the approach he proposes.  While I don’t want to give away all the details (after all, you should read the book yourself and explore this approach), here is a very brief summary:

  • Time: Always a good idea to start with a few minutes of calm contemplation, looking, and exploration.  Take stock.
  • Association: What is the personal resonance or ‘hook’ for you?  This can be a visual attraction or a connection with a memory or experience you’ve had.  Make some associations.
  • Background: Use some basic ways to learn a bit more about the backdrop of the piece or the artist — using the title, label, press release, museum brochure or website, etc.
  • Understand: After looking, connecting, and learning a few basic background facts, the piece is more likely to sink in a bit more.  What might be some broader messages at play here?
  • Look again: Simple as it sounds.  After a bit of pondering, go back and look or engage with the work even more. Did you miss a detail?
  • Assessment: After these first four steps, you’re now in a better place to decide whether you think the work is good or not.  But Ward reminds us not to hastily jump to this step (which we all do far too often).

Much about this method of looking at contemporary art or thinking about an encounter makes sense, and reaffirms many existing pedagogies and educational philosophies already informing museum practice.  In addition, throughout his book, Ward provides us with wonderfully pithy ‘Spotlight’ features that lead us through parts of the TABULA approach with individual works of contemporary art — including explorations of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Carsten Holler’s whimsical Tate Modern installation Test Site (2006), Glen Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow (2005), and Roger Hiorns’s amazing and enormous Seizure (2009).  When the TABULA approach seems a bit lacking, at least the discussions of contemporary art are enjoyable and digestible.


Everything Comes Full Circle

The entire experience of reading these two ‘looking at art’ books side by side became eerily connected when I reached the final pages of Ward’s book only to find a Spotlight on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1661) — a painting that de Montebello and Gayford could have easily included in their travels.  Ward comes around full circle to the more traditional ways of looking at art that form the foundation of Rendez-Vous with Art,  writing: “there is no better way to slow down and tabulate one’s appreciation of art than by sitting with one of the Old Masters.”  No matter what approach or strategy you take when it comes to encountering art of any time period or culture, is there anything more essential than spending time to look, perceive, and use our multitude of senses to take it in?

“It’s not rude to stare at art.  Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s the least you can do. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Don’t think, just look, take it all in. Soak up your surroundings, feel the space in front of you, set your mind free, let your internal monologue recede and allow your eyes to settle.  When was it that you last allowed yourself such a moment?” (Ward 148)

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Featured header image: Carsten Höller panorama by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Forget About the Price Tag: Engaging with a Masterpiece

Written by Mike Murawski

This past November, the art market grabbed headlines around the globe with the record-breaking auction purchase of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” With nearly 500 news stories (and counting), this trio of canvases has garnered nearly Miley-Cyrus-level media attention — a frenzy obsessed with auction prices and billionaire collectors. When it was announced that this series of canvases was going to be on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of our Masterworks series this winter, I immediately began thinking about how one can get past the media craze and dollar signs in order to dig deeper into the core significance of this ‘masterpiece.’  How might we address the complexities of how visitors would experience a work like this?  What are some ways in which we could bring audiences into a closer connection with this work?  How could I, myself, have an experience with this work in a meaningful and personal way?

Standing in front of this triptych myself for the first time in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum, I was initially overwhelmed and distracted by the news stories that have provided so much baggage for this intriguing portrait.  What was I going to have to do to dig deeper — to start discovering this ‘masterpiece’ for myself? As I stood there, I thought of the words of British philosopher and art historian John Armstrong, who in his 2000 book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art writes:

“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.”

Perhaps the best way to start tackling this painting was to actually deal with the fraught idea of a ‘masterpiece’ and how that determination effects the experience we can have with art.  For me, this type of exploration is best done with others.  So early in the New Year, I invited our docents to spend some time with me in front of the Francis Bacon triptych to do some close looking, to connect with some of the scholarship on the work, and to start the process of digging deeper into the work’s significance.  With only a few days notice, we had about 60 docents show-up for these open explorations of teaching with and experiencing a modern masterpiece.

Visitors crowd around Picasso's
Visitors crowd around Picasso’s “Desmoiselles D’Avignon” at Museum of Modern Art in New York,

What Exactly Is a ‘Masterpiece’?

Across the country, visitors consistently flock to museums to see noted masterworks (whether through traveling special exhibitions, celebrated groupings of masterpieces, as part of some museums’ collections).  Yet, an artwork’s prestige can create a situation (like the insomniac) in which the pressure to ‘get’ the famous work prevents us from having any type of valuable experience at all.  This situation is more common with modern and contemporary art, which might not always meet the traditional or popular criteria of a masterpiece.  So what do we mean when we say a painting is a masterwork or ‘masterpiece’?

This question is a weighty one and comes with a lot of historical, cultural, and political baggage — yet I began my sessions with our docents by directly addressing this very topic.  Faced with defining the characteristics of a masterpiece while seated in front of the Bacon, our group of docents and I discussed how a masterpiece traditionally has “stood the test of time,” or is a particularly iconic work within a major artist’s career.  In our conversations, we also touched a bit upon the individual experience we have with a masterpiece — something that draws us in and keeps us thinking, questioning, wondering.  In my own experiences visiting museums as well as teaching with art, I do find that certain works of art continuously draw us back in for repeat encounters, offering new challenges and insights each time we sit in front of them.  We questioned the idea of who gets to define a ‘masterpiece,’ proposing that perhaps we as individuals get to make that determination for ourselves.

However, people frequently look to experts or scholars to help us determine which artworks might be considered masterpieces, so I thought I’d bring in a few of their ideas.  Back in 2010, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a series of art scholars and experts about this very question posed by the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz entitled “Masterpieces?”.  Here are a few responses:

“For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance, and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists.” -Stephanie Barron, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And the paintings that move you so much words fail you — those are the masterpieces.” -Michael Kareken, artist

For our engagement with the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum, it was important for our discovery to push past monetary value (which, of course, remains the elephant in the room) in order to see how this painting might appeal to us in a more complex, meaningful,and perhaps elusive way. We began to unknowingly take the advice of a quite terrible but catchy pop song as we proceeded: “forget about the price tag.”

Aaron Doyle and Evan Tewinkel, preparators at the Portland Art Museum, install the Bacon triptych. Jamie Francis/The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com

Engaging with a Masterpiece: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)

Moving past the auction price and the weight of this work being a ‘masterpiece,’ we were now faced with looking at this immense triptych of 6-foot-tall canvases and making some meaning of our own.  But how to do this?  How to begin to dig deeper?  I immediately went back to John Armstrong, and a recent book he co-authored with writer Alain de Botton entitled Art as Therapy.  Probing at the larger purpose and relevance of art (and quite critical of the art market, itself), Armstong and DeBotton offer philosophical strategies for approaching art in a new way, beyond the normal historical or stylistic concerns toward a more personal, human approach:

“Getting something out of art doesn’t just mean learning about it — it also means investigating ourselves. We should be ready to look into ourselves in response to what we see.” (p. 72)

murawski-teaching-with-baconWhile I generally gravitate toward this type of approach, it seemed particularly appropriate as a framework through which to view this visceral and intensely human set of paintings by Bacon.  After briefly talking about Armstong and De Botton’s ideas, the docents and I spent much of our sessions with quiet, guided looking followed by small group conversations to talk about what we were noticing, thinking, and wondering with the Bacon portraits.  I acknowledged that this would only be the beginning of our experience with these paintings, and read a few quotes from Bacon himself to help us peel back more layers of meaning in these portraits.

“In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person.”– Francis Bacon

“When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.” – Francis Bacon

Before we left the Bacon triptych as a group, I invited each docent to return to this painting at another time, sit with the work alone on a quiet afternoon, and spend about 20 or 30 minutes doing some sketches and open reflective writing.  For me, the most powerful prompt for this type of written response has simply been “What is this to me?” — a question directly inspired by John Armstong and one that I have used repeatedly in my own gallery learning as well as teaching with larger groups.  And I feel that if we can begin to answer this question for ourselves, we can also begin to open up a new type of experience for our visitors with great works of art.

The sessions I led with the docents in front of the Bacon triptych were by no means the type of neatly packaged, “transformative” experience we sometimes strive for. I had to remind myself that there was value in simply opening up a process of discovery and not ending in some grand culminating moment of clarity.  After all, this was a complex artwork filled with a shifting sense of energy, fragility, violence, and deep emotion that would reward a more sustained and circuitous path of learning. In her chapter entitled “Intense Looks” in Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham discusses the deep journey of contemplation, research, and gallery teaching that can often lead us, as educators, to our own transformative experiences with art. As she aptly writes:

“As museum educators, we must never forget that in every gallery dialogue we lead we must strive simultaneously to discover both the artworks we look at so intensely and the process itself of discovering artwork…. As teachers, our own difficulties in making sense of art, the experiences of frustration, the long detours and false starts, all chart a terrain whose exploration expands our capacity for empathetic listening and responding, for encouraging intense looking, and for moving dialogue forward.”

It may be these cumulative, layered experiences we have with masterpieces that allow us to change the way we see art as well as ourselves.  But these types of experiences take time and repeat encounters with a work of art — they don’t happen in the seconds or minutes that we typically spend glancing at a painting such as the Bacon triptych, and they also often don’t necessarily happen when we’re leading a guided experience with an artwork. As I concluded my session with our docents in front of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” I encouraged them all to see our collective experience as simply the beginning of a deeper process of looking at this work; a process they would need to culminate on their own, in their own personal way, and in collaboration with future visitors to the museum.


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.