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Teaching Lab: Towards an Institutional Culture of Learning

Written by Elizabeth Williams, Yale University Art Gallery

What does good museum teaching look like? How do we as educators learn from each other? How do we constantly stay fresh and incorporate new approaches to teaching? What are our shared values for teaching in museums?

These are among the questions that my colleagues and I in education regularly pose, and which led us to launch a project called Teaching Lab almost two years ago. Teaching Lab is not a concept born at Yale; it originated at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1990s as a way for its educators to convene, outside of logistical concerns, to talk about gallery teaching. Many of us work at such a pace that, without a structure like Teaching Lab embedded into our routine, reflection simply would not happen. So when my colleague Jessica Sack introduced this great idea from the Brooklyn Museum, we adapted it to fit our needs at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).

Teaching Lab at YUAG has been a way to reflect, experiment, and collaborate on issues and ideas related to teaching and learning. Monthly sessions seek to explore intersections across traditionally segmented areas of work both in education (e.g. adult, family, academic, K-12, public programs) and Gallery-wide (e.g. curatorial, education, exhibitions, registrar, etc.) The aim is to facilitate dialogue, and perhaps collaborations, related to the project of museum teaching.

Key to our sessions is that each is peer-initiated and led, with the organizer (myself) serving as the moderator. There are no defined outcomes for Teaching Lab, though some sessions have resulted in new projects. By way of example, a few departmental Teaching Labs have included: a session that brought together education teams from the YUAG and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History for a discussion of different approaches to teaching with objects, especially those that can be classified as both art and artifact; a session to consider the Hirshhorn’s signature drop-in teen program, ARTLAB+, as a springboard for conversation related to how educators can, and should, respond to diverse audiences; and a session to consider a new digital app designed for a special exhibition, focusing on the self-guided visitor’s learning experience.

It occurred to us that the conversations we are having relate not just to education but to the entire museum. Everyone at the museum, in effect, teaches in some capacity. What, then, might it mean to broaden the conversation? Will other staff want to participate? How do we make the dialogue both accessible and stimulating, to have the most widespread appeal?

Getting Things Started

We started first by talking with people across the Gallery to gauge interest in the possibility of a staff-wide Teaching Lab. I realized early on that it was difficult to talk about something like this in the abstract, and I was often fielding the question: “So what do you want from me?” I didn’t really know the answer at first. After many departmental conversations about possible topics, effective structures, and anticipated barriers, we distilled the core ingredients from our departmental version of Teaching Lab that we wanted to maintain: that it be peer-driven, that it be conversational, and that it be experimental. We also decided that a natural place to start would be with objects, so we decided that the first staff-wide Teaching Lab would mine the concept of “close looking,” a term often used by colleagues across the museum to describe our teaching practice.

We roughly sketched out what a day-long Teaching Lab could look like: three sessions, starting with looking and learning together, that would eventually zoom out to examine some of the bigger questions related to audience and expertise. We enlisted peers from across the museum to co-lead each session, and these colleagues would ultimately shape the day.

On June 17, the YUAG Education Department presented the first staff-wide Teaching Lab. We invited all staff—from security guards to the Director—and offered three sessions over the course of the day. To our delight, almost 50 people of our staff of roughly 160, including four senior staff members and the Director, attended. We had representation from almost every department in the museum, from the Registrar to Development to Curatorial.

With Close Looking as our frame, our first session was entitled “Close Looking from Multiple Perspectives.” Modeled on our typical three-objects/hour education-guided visit, this session was led by three colleagues from the Education, Curatorial, and Conservation departments. Guided by a single theme, which the three presenters mutually determined, the session was meant to showcase different approaches to teaching with objects. With few parameters, facilitators were asked to teach a single object for 20 minutes and to make sure it was connected to the other objects through the common theme. One group, for example, explored the theme of absence and loss: an educator considered it in a painting by contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, a paintings conservator discussed it in a 12th century Italian panel painting by the Magdalen Master, and a curator talked about it with a 1st century Roman portrait sculpture. A member of the Education staff then moderated a reflective conversation at the end to distill both the participants’ experience as well as the facilitators’.

The second session was entitled “Multiple Frames: The Object in Context” and considered a single object through multiple lenses of analysis and understanding. To contextualize the processes of making and viewing art, participants spent half of the session in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque, exploring how listening to jazz, reading quotations by and about the artist, and physically moving around a canvas on the floor, complicates the experience of viewing and interpreting a work of art. The group then moved to explore Pollock’s materials and methods in a studio session with one of our painting conservators, considering how experimenting with materials and methods might enrich our understanding of the art work.

Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)
Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)

The last session of the day was a roundtable conversation, intended to help us reflect on the experiential components of the morning but also to zoom out to consider the less obvious ways that museums teach, how we understand the role of expertise among our staff and our visitors, and how we can be more responsive to our audiences. These conversations were illuminating, especially when the group was asked to brainstorm ways that teaching and learning happen outside of the guided visit or through interpretive materials. From conversations that security personnel have with visitors to the arrangement of postcards on the wall, the group came up with fresh insights on how the Gallery regularly “teaches” and how every staff member has a stake in our educational mission. This discussion was collegial and fruitful, and as we ended the conversation with time for suggesting future Teaching Lab topics, participants raised many ideas related to better understanding the experience of our visitor and continuing to mine what it means to learn deeply in a museum.  They also evinced a keen and welcome interest in how we can collectively address issues related to inclusion and identity in our work, and plans are now underway to make this the topic of a future staff-wide teaching lab.

Beginning to Build a Culture of Learning

We never could have imagined that the staff would be as receptive to Teaching Lab as they were. Since it required actually doing it to begin to grasp what this could become, the staff took a risk in setting aside almost an entire day to participate. As part of our own reflective process, the Education Department surveyed people anonymously to ask for their feedback. When asked to rate their experience on a scale of 1 to 5 (poor to excellent, respectively), 27.8 % rated the experience a 4 and 72.2% rated it a 5. When asked whether they would participate in future Teaching Labs, 100% responded yes. In the open comments section, participants repeatedly emphasized how meaningful it was to come together as a staff to learn from each other (and to get to know one another); they had expected that Education would be imparting best practices and were surprised that it was co-presented by colleagues from across the museum; and they were surprised by how much fun they had. Our Education staff, for its part, learned a tremendous amount in the process of reaching out to colleagues from across the institution, and we have been pleased about the new relationships that have developed as a result.

I don’t want to overstate the impact of this one staff-wide Teaching Lab; in some ways, we have indeed returned to business as usual. But Teaching Lab at its core is about building a culture of learning, and this was a very positive step in that direction. Whether it be among those who are explicitly educators, or whether it be re-framed more broadly to consider and leverage the entire staff’s contributions to teaching in a museum, it is a powerful tool and structure for learning, for teaching, and for reflecting.

As we turn our attention to the future of Teaching Lab, we can’t help but think—and hope—that this experimental and peer-driven model might lead to new ways of considering the project of teaching in the museum and take our work in interesting and challenging new directions.

Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)
Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)

About the Author

Education DepartmentELIZABETH WILLIAMS is the John Walsh Senior Fellow in Education at the Yale University Art Gallery. Prior to Yale, she was the Director of Engagement and Learning at the Mississippi Museum of Art, where she oversaw the museum’s family, school, and community programs. Elizabeth has held positions at The Phillips Collection, the Harvard Art Museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Americans for the Arts. She holds a Master’s in Education from Harvard University and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Human and Organizational Development from Vanderbilt University

Featured header image: Gallery staff, led by Wurtele Gallery Teacher Tony Coleman, looking at this Equestrian Shrine Figure by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa.

2015 Year in Review

As the fourth year of ArtMuseumTeaching wraps up, I thought it would be good to post a brief “Year in Review.”  Not that we need any more end-of-the-year lists or calls for resolutions, but I think it can be meaningful to take a minute and look back at some of the issues that have been on our minds this past year.  I want to thank all of the amazing contributors who have taken the extra time to share their practice with this community!

Since its inaugural year back in 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching has grown from a tiny blog seedling to a robust and active online community now involving more than 60 contributors, publishing 172 posts, and being read by hundreds of thousands of people in as many as 170 countries around the globe.  I hope that this online community and forum will continue to grow, include more perspectives, and be a space of exchange where we can connect on issues of teaching, learning, and community engagement that matter most for museums and the people that make up those museums.

Year in Review: 5 Most Popular Posts of 2015

elgreco15. “320 Hours: Slow Looking & Visitor Engagement with El Greco” (July 2015): We all talk about the value of slow looking and extended engagement with art – and this great post by Kelsey Ferreira provides such a unique insight into her experiences spending 320 hours with a single El Greco painting at the Portland Art Museum. What questions did visitors ask? What types of experiences sparked further engagement and learning?  What surprisingly deep experiences did visitors bring to this stunning painting?  A fantastic read for museum educators and art lovers alike!

fb-art4. “Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool” (January 2015): David Bowles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared his insights from posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from his gallery experiences on Facebook, and using social media tools such as Facebook to add a reflective element to our practice. This is a great read, especially with David’s five take-aways for museum educators about student learning in the galleries.

Photo23. “We Flipped Our Museum – Here’s What We Learned” (June 2015): Emily Kotecki shared the work at the North Carolina Museum of Art to deepen and activate the museum learning experience through a Flipped Museum pilot program called “Artists in Process.” They developed an online learning platform to support social interaction and choice-based learning, and then worked with sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. Check out their ‘lessons learned,’ and read more in the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

ask_home_new-576x10242. “The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App” (July 2015): Written after my own visit to the Brooklyn Museum this past summer, I briefly explored the what, how, and why of this effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. While I am still attracted to the app’s desire to make personal connections with visitors, I’m a bit concerned with how few visitors use the app considering the staff and resources dedicated to this project.  But I absolutely love that the team at the Brooklyn Museum is super transparent about their thinking and planning via their blog (so awesome!).

jackie-teaching1. “Questioning the Use of Questions” (January 2015): In the most widely-read post of 2015, museum educator Jackie Delamatre responded to Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee’s challenge to the use of questions in museum teaching. While there is great value in questioning the use of questions, Jackie’s insightful post defends the use of open-ended questions and brings in some of her own personal experiences.  And her search for the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon of questions’ is not to be missed!

Enjoy these popular posts from 2015, and see you in 2016 — a year that promises to bring a whole new set of challenges, success stories, and new ways of thinking about both the theory and practice of museum teaching.  If you would like to share the projects you’re working on or the issues and challenges you are grappling with, please add your voice to this growing community (and just send me a tweet at @murawski27 or email me at murawski27@gmail.com).


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

Expectations & Satisfaction in Gallery Experiences

Written by Jenn DePrizio, Director of Visitor Learning, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Since participating in the 2014 Gallery Teaching Marathon held at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the NAEA conference, two questions have been swimming around in my mind:

  • Where do our expectations for behavior in gallery experiences come from?
  • What does satisfaction look and feel like in an art museum experience?

Issues of expectations and satisfaction are part of the work we do each day.  We plan gallery talks, tours, and programs with intention and hope that we meet the needs and expectations of our visitors.  During the Marathon, I participated as both a learner and facilitator in the varied gallery experiences that ranged from using thinking routines to creating poetry to using movement as a way to express personal interpretation of a work of art.  Since that day I have been thinking deeply about expectations and satisfaction from both points of view as learner and teacher.  The reflection that follows begins to dig into the questions posed above.

Where do our expectations for behavior in gallery experiences come from?

Yasumasa Morimura, An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns), Color photograph, 2001 Museum purchase, International and Contemporary Collectors Fund 2002.9. Image from http://carearts.org/
Yasumasa Morimura, An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns), Color photograph, 2001 Museum purchase, International and Contemporary Collectors Fund 2002.9. Image from http://carearts.org/

As a teacher I approach each learning opportunity with my own set of expectations.  For the Marathon, I paired up with my Gardner Museum colleague Michelle Grohe (Director of School and Teacher Programs) to offer an experience we called “VTSing VTS.”  We wanted to move beyond the heated debates that sometimes surrounds Visual Thinking Strategies. We simply wanted to engage in conversation about a work of art with our colleagues using the method, and then talk about what the experience was like — hence our title “VTSing VTS.”  One of the misconceptions about VTS is that it can only be used successfully with young children or those unfamiliar with art, i.e. beginner viewers. So, Michelle and I were curious to see what a VTS discussion would be like with a group of non-beginner viewers, specifically our art museum education colleagues. We wondered, “What would museum educators do with the open-ended question ‘What’s going on in this picture?’” with this work of art: An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns) [2001], by artist Yasumasa Morimura.

We anticipated that some members of our group may have prior knowledge to contribute to the conversation—maybe someone would be familiar with this artist’s work, maybe someone would think it looked like an image by Frida Kahlo they’d seen before, maybe someone would have first-hand knowledge of photographic processes.  We hoped that through our group dialogue we could dispel the myth that these kinds of comments should not be shared.  Often in VTS discussions with non-beginners, participants hold back and do not share background knowledge they may have about the work being discussed. Is this because they think they can’t or shouldn’t? If so, where does that restrictive idea come from? Because we wanted everyone to authentically participate in the discussion, before turning it over to Michelle to lead the VTS discussion, I encouraged everyone to share whatever they wanted to express —observations, questions, prior knowledge, etc. The resulting discussion was one in which many ideas were contributed and numerous questions were posed.

VTSing VTS group shot

What does satisfaction look and feel like in a museum experience?

Prior to the VTS discussion, we wanted to take the pulse of the group in terms of knowledge and experience with VTS, so I asked a simple question about what was on their minds about VTS.  There were many thoughtful responses, but one that stuck with me is “I am wondering if this experience will be satisfying.”  It’s a natural feeling to wonder if what you are about to engage in will be enjoyable and fulfilling.  But in this case I wonder if some of this skepticism may have been based on the fact that the discussion would be entirely generated by the group with no art historical content added by the facilitator.  The content of our 20 minutes together talking about a work of art would come entirely from the participants with the skilled facilitator (Michelle) paraphrasing and linking comments.


VTSing VTS close upSo, I’m curious, do we need art historical information to be satisfied in an art museum experience?  Throughout the Marathon, we had participated in a number of gallery experiences that did not include any art historical information, discussion of artist intention or biography, etc.  In those instances, the facilitator encouraged us to experience the works of art through poetry, movement, creating sound effects, and sometimes even silence.  Is it because VTS is based on words that participants expect the facilitator to contribute certain words, i.e. information?  How much of our criteria for satisfaction is dependent on the type of experience we are having?  If our experience is word-based, do we expect the facilitator to provide art historical content? And if our experience is movement-based or poetry-based, do we have the same expectations?

For me, VTS discussions are always satisfying—even when they are not (more on that in a moment)—for many reasons.  At the Gallery Teaching Marathon, what was most satisfying for me was getting to know my colleagues better.  By listening to the way people talk about a work of art, I caught a glimpse of the way they think.  I learned how comfortable they felt (or did not feel) when offering a divergent opinion.  I discovered that even seasoned museum professionals can feel self-conscious about taking the conversation in a different direction. I was given a privileged peek into who they are.  It’s not every day that we see others in an authentic, vulnerable way like that. The final comment of our VTS discussion offered a different interpretation of the work of art.  As a teacher I appreciated greatly that someone was brave enough to offer an idea so different than the rest of the group.  This is what I cherish about open-ended gallery experiences—the opportunity for every visitor’s voice to be heard and valued equally.

Can we be satisfied by not being satisfied?

All of this thinking about satisfaction has led me to another question: When is not fully being satisfied a good thing? A desire for more from an experience does not have to be a negative thing.  It is the curiosity that is sparked, the debate that is started, the challenge to one’s way of thinking that is necessary for a transformative experience.  It is precisely that hunger for more discussion, deeper understanding, and expanded knowledge that propels our thinking and understanding of art and ourselves.  So, can we be satisfied by not being satisfied?

Weeks after the Gallery Teaching Marathon, I am appreciative for colleagues who were willing to experiment and discuss our teaching practice.  There are many, many ways that we can encourage our visitors to have meaningful experiences with our collections. No one technique can accomplish all that is possible with a work of art.  What happened in the galleries at MCASD during the Marathon reinforced my belief that our teaching practice can and should be diverse and far-reaching.  I hope we can continue to be open-minded and supportive of the work that we each do. For me that would be so satisfying.

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.


Teaching for Independence: Empowering Learning in the Art Museum

Written by Mike Murawski

Prefatory Note: Before ArtMuseumTeaching.com went public, there were several months when it was simply my own personal (private) online space to reflect on my practice as well as larger issues around teaching and learning in museums.  It was (and is) so valuable to write about what we do as educators and museum practitioners, even without publicly sharing that writing.  Since the site went public back in February 2012, these reflections (along with those of nearly 2 dozen other practitioners) have been openly shared via this unique online ‘bazaar’ that spotlights practice — from million-dollar cutting-edge initiatives and multi-year projects to simple, personal reflections and moments to add one more teaching tool to our belts.  And while conferences such as the NAEA, AAM, and Museums & the Web — among others — can surface some truly incredible, thoughtful work happening in museums today (some of which has been highlighted on this site), it is also important to provide a space for reflections and conversation around a more daily teaching practice.  This post is an attempt to maintain those types of reflections on this site, and to encourage others to share their teaching & learning experiences as we continue to build this online community of practice.

A couple weeks ago here at the Portland Art Museum, I had a unique opportunity to work with a group of students visiting from neighboring Portland State University as part of their Freshman Inquiry course entitled “The Work of Art,” led by artist/educator Sarah Wolf Newlands.  This multidisciplinary course examines the ‘work’ that goes into artistic production, but goes way beyond that to explore the role art plays in our lives.  As the course site describes:

“It looks at the work art does in the world — how it shapes, reflects, disguises, complicates, challenges, or brings reality to our assumptions about the world…. What are the artistic levers with which we can move our world forward? What can looking through the lens of ‘art’ at the products from a broad range of disciplines reveal about ourselves, our culture[s] and our society? How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How does art influence cultural change? How can we use the arts to build community?”


One of my own goals when working with groups of college students and adults in the galleries (and in the classroom) is always to break down the often rigid expectations of “what we do” in front of a work of art — moving past the assumptions that we need to behave a certain way or know something specific before we can have an experience with art. I also aim to teach for independence — an approach to our ‘work’ with art that empowers a participatory, learner-centered process of making meaning and attempts to break down the constructed hierarchies between teacher and learner, professor and student, expert and novice, institution and audience.

“The visitor’s response and experience come first, before the museum’s, before the history of art.” —Rika Burnham

For me, at its heart, teaching for independence asks that educators (whether in the museum, K-12 classroom, or university lecture hall) strive to facilitate deep, collective experiences with art that leave participants and learners better equipped to look, explore, question, and engage deeply on their own without always relying on the museum or an ‘expert’ to lead that process.

Opening Up the Learning Experience: An Hour with Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth

As the PSU students gathered in the gallery, we began with a quick discussion of “what does learning look like in an art museum” to establish an atmosphere of thinking and reflection.  Then, we dove head first into a 60-minute co-learning experience with a single work of art — Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth (2006). The experience was intended to be multi-modal, involving various ways of thinking and openly responding to the artwork in front of us– a process similar to other experiences about which I have written.

bradford3Here is a quick outline of our experience with Bradford’s piece  (and I always want to be clear that these tips and strategies are not ones that I necessarily invent, but are inspired by some of the ‘Jedi knights’ of museum education like Rika Burnham, to whom I am greatly indebted. I also do use some of these strategies repeatedly when I am in the galleries, since some are just exceptional ways to open-up an experience of freedom, comfort, creative looking, and excitement):

  1. Looking: We began with 1 minute of quiet looking, then having students share their initial observations with a person sitting next to them.  We followed that with another minute of quiet looking, this time using a paper tube as a telescope to see the artwork differently — followed by more sharing with their neighbors about anything new they noticed.
  2. Question: Students were asked to write down one question or wondering they had for this work of art.
  3. 60-Second Sketch: Everyone spread out across the gallery and then had 60 seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge.  Students were asked to lay all of the sketches in the center of the gallery, walk around and see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interested them (and was not their own).
  4. Sketching with Language: Students had several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by using only language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing. I call this “sketching with language,” something pulled from Jack Kerouac and his creative process.
  5. Reading: In small groups, students shared their writing by reading it aloud– really honoring their writing by reading it directly instead of simply summarizing or paraphrasing it (which is what we too often do).
  6. Conversation Extender: By this point, students have had some serious time to look at Bradford’s work, share and exchange ideas about what they see and what they think about it, and do some sketching and writing to deepen or even shift their interpretations.  To extend their conversations and spark further thought, each group received a small packet of historic photographs from the 1921 Tulsa race riots — an event that historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and an event that has been strongly connected to this work by Bradford.  Each group of students was simply asked to continue their conversation about the Bradford piece, yet to see how this added layer of historic images (powerful in their own right) might build or shift that conversation in any way. In talking about his own work, Bradford once says: “It’s about … tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath.”
  7. Group Discussion: During this entire experience thus far, students have been building personal meaning or sharing their ideas in pairs or small groups. So to wrap up, each group brings their thoughts and insights to the full class as we spend the last 10-15 minutes in an open discussion about the artwork and our experience with it.

Learning to See Learning in the Art Museum

For me, much of the experience with this group of college students was about empowering them to learn to see learning in an art museum (and with a work of art) differently — to begin to see looking and learning with art in a more active, participatory way that also allows for shared authority around knowledge and interpretation.  To help me gain a better understanding of how (or whether) this happens, I invited students participating in the experience described above to send me an email with their reflections after their museum visit. Here are a few great insights from their reflections:

collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford's "Scorched Earth"
collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford’s “Scorched Earth”

“Usually when I go to an art museum, the experience isn’t as fun and exciting. It’s hard for me to look at a work of art and really dissect it…. I probably will never get to just sit down in front of a work of art and analyze it with that many people again, and it was an awesome experience. Thank you for taking the time to teach our class fun tools that we can use in an art museum to really get the most out of our time there.”

“It was really cool to spend a solid hour just looking into what the piece could be about, what it could mean. I’m glad that you opened up the learning experience by allowing us to interpret the painting in our own way, then discuss with one other person, and then discuss in small groups. I think this allowed each student to really get the most out of what other students were understanding and interpreting from the work.”

“This experience was very enlightening because we learned so much from so little. It was profound to get so much out of little more than looking, thinking, and discussing.”

“It’s crazy how observing a piece for just a little longer than a glance can change your perspective of a piece and your understanding of it…. If more people were to do what we did today and take time to observe art, they would see it in totally new ways.”

This type of learner-centered, participatory meaning-making is something I continue to explore in the museum context, but I think it also has significant implications for how we conceive of art history teaching outside of the museum.  What if we allowed for more active, open-ended looking and exploration with art, and hold back some on the passive transfer of information?  What if we used drawing, movement, or creative writing as another way of looking deeply at art?  What if we really focused our teaching more on creating and supporting independent learners who see and think for themselves?


This post has also been published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing Art History Survey teaching materials between teachers and stimulating conversations around pedagogy in the arts. The site was initiated in 2011 by Michelle Jubin and Karen Shelby, products of the CUNY Graduate Teaching Fellows program.

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.