Tag Archives: movement

Long Live the Spirit of Play: Tracking a Theme through NAEA 2014

By Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Nothing signifies 'play' like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.
Nothing signifies ‘play’ like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.

What do maker spaces, bodily collisions with strangers, and sculptures made of Turkish delight have in common?  They were all part of sessions at the recent 2014 National Art Education Association Convention in San Diego.  To be more specific, they were all part of sessions that focused on a theme threading through the four days of sun and arts teaching: the spirit of play.

That’s how I’m referring to it, at least.  The same idea was talked about as “being OK with failure”, “going in without predetermined outcomes”, and “iterative approaches”, but it was all shades of the same thing, and it was popping up everywhere.  (Side note: The importance of play in our work lives has been a topic beyond the museum sphere for a while.  Here’s a nice, clear Psychology Today article from 2008 that talks about what play means for our brains.)  People are interested in testing new ideas without knowing how they’ll end up, and I love it.  Like my theme tracking after the last AAM Annual Meeting, I want to follow this one through the NAEA Convention, highlighting some (though by no means all) of the conversations, actions, and tweets that made it one of my top conference takeaways.

Talking about play started out at the Museum Education Division Preconference, which was hosted at Balboa Park, home to some inspirational collaborations between cultural institutions.  Collaboration was the theme of the Preconference, and the very first session of the day, a keynote panel of experienced museum collaboration facilitators, included advice like:


Conference attendees were excited about this theme, too, and talked/tweeted about it throughout the day.

Seema Rao of the Cleveland Museum of Art reminded us about taking chances.

David Bowles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art talked about what motivated him to take part in the Noguchi Museum’s Teacher Think Tank (a program that started with the open-ended goal of getting museum educators and K-12 teachers together to think about museums and schools working together).

On Saturday morning, a session called Museum Maker Spaces: Creating and Play for Adults (not to be confused with “adult play”) took up the playfulness banner.  I’m sorry to have missed that session, but thanks to colleagues like Emily Holtrop (from the Cincinnati Art Museum) and Cate Bayles (from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center), I heard about some of its key themes on Twitter.

No pressure for an end product?  What do we get out of play?  As the larger debate continues about how to make museums relevant, I’m glad these are some of the issues being posed.  I’m a firm believer that the museum can be a space for more than an in-depth, object-centered experience.  As a museum educator, yes, that’s at the heart of what I do in many ways, but is it the only thing I do?  No.  The only—or, dare I say best—thing visitors can experience when they come to a museum?  Heck, no!

Museums can be many things to many people.  For those of us dedicated to making museums meaningful, setting up experiments and pushing the boundaries of what makes a “good museum visit” is a great way to find out what some of those many things might be.

That was exactly the spirit of the Gallery Teaching Marathon, organized by this site’s Mike Murawski and hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Sunday of the NAEA Convention.  As any regular reader of ArtMuseumTeaching.com knows, Mike is a voice for pushing our museum education practice, and he invited us to do just that through in-gallery sessions throughout the day.  In his original email looking for educators interested in leading a session, here’s how he put it:

“I would encourage people to think of this as an opportunity to try something new, take risks, and know that you will be among supportive colleagues, peers, and educators.”

And for those who ventured into one or two or all of the Gallery Teaching Marathon sessions, risks and newness were there for them to find.  Without speaking for my talented fellow educators who offered a wide range of experiences in the galleries that day, I will say the session I facilitated was exciting and invigorating to lead, and I hope fun to take part in.

photoWe used Richard Serra’s site-specific work, Santa Fe Depot to inspire us to write found poems, to focus on the environment around the work (up to and including the tourists dancing on top of Serra’s forged steel blocks, the commuter trains arriving and departing immediately next to us, and the pile of “organic sculpture” a dog had left behind next to the artwork), and finally, to create our own interpretive movements based on the words we’d generated.

Throughout the day, the Marathon sessions were full of eager, interested attendees, gung-ho for all the weirdness that might come their way and then ready to reflect on it. For my part, I found it incredibly liberating to be trying something with no idea how it would go over.  I liked explaining to the experimental adventurers at my session that I’d never done this before and talking about which elements of what we did made them uncomfortable and why.  It felt like an exciting deviation from what I expect from my own teaching, which led directly to me thinking about how to make it less of a deviation.

How can I take that spirit of fun, unexpected experiences in the museum and layer it into my job?  How can I give the teachers I work with—especially now, when so many are stressed over standards and evaluation—the same kind of joyful, playful invigoration that I felt from all these NAEA sessions and colleagues?  How can I spread my own belief that sometimes the most fun you can have in a museum comes from doing something within its walls that you would never have expected to do?

That’s what I’ve come home thinking about, and I’d love to hear if this idea affected any of you, too.  Any anecdotes to share about how the spirit of play has impacted your museum work?  Any advice for spreading the enjoyably surprising?  Any other NAEA sessions you attended that connected to this idea?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

If you want to read more about some of the things I’ve mentioned, check the Twitter hashtags #naea14, #naeamused14 (for museum-related content), and #galleryteachingmarathon.  There’s also my complete Storify account of the Convention, which has plenty more tweeting about the spirit of play, and Olga Hubard’s recent reflection on the Gallery Teaching Marathon itself (touching upon some of these same ideas).

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

By Olga Hubard, Teachers College, Columbia University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

Improv(e) Your Teaching

When I left the improv world after 10 years, I was never going back. I had just gotten a job at my first NYC museum (NY Transit Museum!) and was back in school for art history, ready to put acting far behind me. Time went on and the more I learned about museum education pedagogy, the more my brain connected it to improv. Fast forward a few years, museums, internships, freelance jobs, and tours later – I found myself convinced that good museum teaching went hand in hand with everything I learned as an improviser.

Giant Improv Class by CM
Giant Improv Class by CM

NPR recently aired a story about MBA students taking courses in improvisation. But why improv? For the very same reason every museum educator should be trained in improv: communication. That is not saying we should all be “onstage” when we teach, cracking jokes and making our students laugh. On the contrary, many improv principles are qualities we strive for in our teaching – things that are not taught when we learn a collection or study museum education.

The idea of an educational toolbox is something we hear at every professional development conference and class. What are we really filling it up with? The multi-modal teaching strategies and classroom management skills are essential. But have we been paying enough attention to how we say what we are saying and how to sharpen and enhance our listening skills? Or flex our collaboration muscles? Improv courses do exactly that. It’s like going to the gym for your brain – those revered careful listening, honest responding, fearless and flexible teaching skills are all enhanced by improv ideas.

Yes, And…

One of the first things educators learn about inquiry is the idea of asking open-ended questions that allow for many responses, then scaffolding information on top to deepen the conversation. This idea is echoed in improv. The first ‘rule’ of improv is the phrase ‘yes, and’. A scene partner offers information. You take it, affirm it, and add something to it, and your scene partner repeats. This back and forth is the foundation of improv. Negation ends the scene – and in inquiry, defeats the students. It’s about saying, “Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better” instead of “no, I have a better idea.”

yes-and2The ideas of ‘yes, and’ and inquiry only work when people are listening to one another. If you are not paying close attention to what your scene partner is saying, you may miss the information needed to propel the story. The fact is true with inquiry as well – if you repeat what the student is saying incorrectly or miss their point, you will change the meaning of their observation or interpretation.

During beginning improv classes, instructors lead students in several affirming exercises. It’s all about taking a gift, agreeing, and adding. It is also raising the stakes. By scaffolding more details on to a suggestion, a scene immediately becomes rich and interesting. Sharpening those careful listening skills is essential to any improviser. Responding skills are also put to the test and enhanced through speed games that not only quicken response time, but also better public speaking skills.


Improvisation is a group sport. Teams will practice weekly in order to get to know each other and build trust. Interaction is key to improv – which is why so many companies will hire improvisers to teach team-building. The activities teach individuals how to interact effectively, operate under pressure and, most importantly, trust one another. Also important in improv: the notion that you always want to make your scene partner look better – you will in turn look better as well. We want to affirm our students ideas and teach them to practice critical thinking. Working together builds on the idea of a team: you and your group are living the art in that moment, experiencing it together. These values: trust, interaction, and poise– even when 15 more students than you expected show up for a field trip in a tiny museum – are imperative in good gallery teaching.

Failure is Ok

75% of improv is bad. Real bad. You may see a show after reading this and think “Wow. I do not want to look like that.” But how they look is not the point – improv is all about removing the sense of failure. In order to grow, you have to fail. In some improv classes, when students get that feeling of “I screwed up” they take a ‘failure bow’ – a bow, paired with the declaration “I failed!” The rest of the class will clap and cheer, affirming the chance that was taken. When people are less afraid at failing at improv, it connects to their lives, and we learn to handle setbacks with grace and ease.

As educators, we aim to create celebratory spaces that embrace student work. But how can we create these spaces if we ourselves fear failure?

We improvise every day of our lives. We have no idea what the next word is that might come out of our mouth when talking to a friend or co-worker. These skills taught in improv classes will only make for better educators – ultimately better communicators – all while having fun. If only our theses made us laugh this much. The same week I finished school, I was welcomed back by my old improv troupe – and rarely miss a single rehearsal or show. The difference this time? It’s my professional development for teaching.

Have you ever taken an improv class or used it in your teaching? Or do your peers or colleagues have any experiences with improv as professional development? Share your perspective.


Tableaux Vivant: History and Practice

Students creating a tableau at the Met. Photo by Don Pollard.
Students creating a tableau at the Met. Photo by Don Pollard.

With the growing popularity of kinesthetic teaching strategies, I frequently hear the term ‘tableaux vivant’ thrown around. How does the activity actually work, and where did it come from? A close look at the history of the practice illuminates this powerful tool for education and community building.

Tableaux vivant is often referred to as a playful pastime, but it has also provided a great amount of purpose in the cultural history of the United States. Translated from French, tableaux vivant means ‘living pictures.’ The genre peaked in popularity between 1830 and 1920. During a performance of tableaux vivant, a cast of characters represented scenes from literature, art, history, or everyday life on a stage. After the curtain went up, the models remained silent and frozen for roughly thirty seconds. Particular emphasis was placed on staging, pose, costume, make-up, lighting, and the facial expression of the models. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and often a large wooden frame outlined the perimeter of the stage, so as to reference the frame of a painted canvas.

In Victorian England, people used tableaux vivant as a parlor game to amuse guests and engage them in a deeper appreciation of art. The initial interest in the genre in the United States teetered between the desire for aesthetic entertainment and the desire to catch a glimpse of the female nude. The historian Jack McCullogh researched the popularity of tableaux vivant on the stages of New York City. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, for example, was a famous tableau that fell somewhere between artistry and indecency, so much so that models were occasionally arrested if they revealed too much skin. Even with the controversy, many critics hailed the performances for their skill and value:

It is a pleasure to find that, although many nude pictures are realized, there is not a suspicion of indelicacy about the entire show… These pictures, besides affording pleasure to the public, are calculated to educate the public taste. (as cited in McCullogh, 134)

Actress Hedwig Reicher as "Columbia" with other suffrage pageant participants, 1913. Library of Congress.
Actress Hedwig Reicher as “Columbia” with other suffrage pageant participants, 1913. Library of Congress.

During the later part of the 19th century, tableaux vivant spread throughout the United States via the publication of how-to manuals. The genre was primarily used by youthful Americans as a way to discover their group and individual identities. The historian David Glassberg wrote about how tableaux vivant was used in local pageantry. Small towns and cities would often host parades featuring floats carrying women in tableaux vivant, reenacting pilgrim scenes or allegorical scenes such as “Columbia,” or “the Thirteen Original States.” Monika Elbert focused on how the growing middle class of women used tableaux vivant to alter their personal identities. She explored how women used the genre privately to try on new costumes and characters, some of which were controversial, as a way to merge their public and private self. In both cases, the action of creating tableaux vivant allowed people to explore new phases of their identity.

During the early 20th century, tableaux vivant was used as a form of protest. It was an especially fitting genre for women to use during suffrage protests because it was a familiar form of expression for them. They took on many poses from art including Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc and Raphael’s Madonna to symbolically convey their desire for women’s right vote. Other minority groups used tableaux vivant as a form of protest. In 1913 textile workers from Patterson, New Jersey protested poor working conditions in a pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Also in 1913, W.E.B. DuBois directed The Star of Ethiopia, a pageant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A still and quiet performance might not seem like a choice activity for a protest, but it likely etched a lasting impression in the minds of audiences and performers, an impression that could inspire change. When cinema became popular, the heyday of tableaux vivant ended. In many ways, though, the genre has found its way into modern photography and performance art.

Teaching in the Galleries with Tableaux Vivant

Tableaux vivant is a terrific tool to engage students during a museum tour. I’ve found that the activity not only speaks to kinesthetic learners, but it activates the imaginations of everyone involved. During a recent tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I brought a group of students to Gustav Courbet’s Young Ladies of the Village. I had volunteer students freeze in the scene, and the other students help them find their positions with greater detail. The activity brought exactly what I wanted: more details. We engaged in a lengthier discussion about the peasant girl and her relationship with the well-dressed women.

Here are some of the basics to keep in mind when developing tableaux vivant activities during your museum tour with students:

  1. Identity: In front of a sculpture or painting, invite your students to slowly take on the pose and facial expression of the subject. Have them freeze for a few seconds and guide their awareness to various parts of their body to make adjustments based on what they see. Break from the pose and look back at the painting or sculpture. Discuss how the pose and facial expression reveal clues to the subject’s identity. Try another tableau vivant, but this time, have students change their pose and facial expression. What would they change or do differently?
  2. Character: The addition of props and costumes can instantly help a student take on a character. Split your class up into actors and directors. Have the actors freeze in a scene from a painting or sculpture, while the directors instruct their poses and facial expressions using the work of art as reference. While the actors remain frozen, have the directors discuss new aspects of the work of art that were revealed to them in the process of creating the tableau vivant. Have the actors break their pose and share their new insights about the work of art now that they’ve become the character.
  3. Narrative: Break students up into small groups. Invite each group to create a tableau vivant (perhaps using directors and actors depending on numbers). Then, ask each group to create a before and after tableau vivant scene. Have each group share their three tableau vivant scenes and then discuss which parts of the painting or sculpture influenced their narratives.
  4. Politics: Briefly describe the genre of tableaux vivant to students and explain how a piece of literature was often read to an audience during the performance. Invite students to create a tableau vivant of a painting or sculpture. While students remain frozen, read a text that provides contextual information for the work of art, such as a historic speech or a quote from the artist. Look back at the painting or sculpture and discuss their new insights.
  5. Abstraction: While not a conventional tableau vivant, providing students an opportunity to take on shapes of an abstract painting or sculpture can help them look closer at forms and composition. Twists and turns of the body, or spatial relationships between students can invite new insights into the work of art.

Are you using tableau vivant or related kinesthetic strategies at your museums?  If so, let us know your tips and techniques.  If not, try this out, and let us know how it works. Add to the conversation and share your thoughts below.

Works Cited:

Elbert, Monika, “Striking a Historical Pose: Antebellum Tableaux Vivants, ‘Godey’s’ illustrations, and Margaret Fuller’s heroines,” The New England Quarterly 75 (2002): 235-75.

Glassberg, David, American Historical Pageantry (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 106-56.

McCullough, Jack, Living Pictures on the New York Stage (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981).

Dancing to Jackson Pollock: Exploring Multi-Modal Responses to Art

Originally posted on ArtMuseumTeaching.com on February 5, 2012 – the site’s inaugural post. 

As schools and museums work to meet the demands of the 21st century, there has been a renewed emphasis on developing an interdisciplinary culture of inquiry where teachers and students integrate insights and modes of thinking. Through my own teaching practice, I have frequently explored ways in which interdisciplinary inquiry can occur in the art museum, considering productive ways that we might bring musical, kinesthetic, and linguistic modes of thinking to the act of interpreting and making meaning of a work of visual art.  Responding to a single work of art through a process that involves multiple modes of thinking from across creative art forms, I continue to consider how each strategy makes meaning and asks questions in a different way–ultimately seeing how these approaches can be woven together to build toward more complex cognition as well as a deeper understanding of not just the artwork, but also of ourselves as learners/thinkers.

In November 2011, I led an in-gallery workshop for teachers at the High Museum of Art as part of the Project Zero/CASIE conference. The experiences centered around an extended engagement with  Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A,” 1948, which was on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a special exhibition.

LOOKING: Bringing the group’s attention to Pollock’s painting before us, we spent some time looking and recording our initial observations and wonderings.  Since part of the goal of this workshop was to connect to Project Zero’s work (via Ron Ritchhart) with “making thinking visible,” participants were encouraged to record their thoughts and responses in a journal throughout the entire engagement with this painting.

SKETCHING WITH LINES & LANGUAGE: I framed the next stage of our experience with this painting around the ideas of Jack Kerouac, an experimenter of spontaneous language as well as a contemporary of Jackson Pollock.  In his “Essential of Spontaneous Prose” (1959), Kerouac writes that “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words.”  This near-manifesto of spontaneous written response inspired me to develop some way for participants to be “swimming in a sea of language,” in Kerouac’s words, with the painting by Pollock. This process began with everyone drawing 2 or 3 significant lines that they find in the painting, then completing their “sketches” using only language and words. Following Kerouac’s method, there was no editing — just writing in a constant flow.

MAKING THE PAINT COME ALIVE THROUGH SOUND: Exploring Pollock’s canvas through sound originated in my own heightened interest in Pollock’s own passion and association with jazz music. Lee Krasner once remarked that Pollock thought that jazz “was the only other really creative thing that was happening in this country.” For the next phase of this workshop, we turned the gallery into a ‘sound lounge,’ breaking into small groups and experimenting with the spectrum of sounds we could create with just our bodies and the stuff in our purses, bags, and pockets. Each group was asked to create a sound composition in response to the painting. This ‘found sound’ exercise became a way of pulling out the basic structures of the painting that have a relationship with our sense of perceiving rhythms, tempos, and more improvisational structures embedded in the paint.

We finished this exercise with a quick reflection — what did people notice about this activity, and about the sounds each group performed?  Participants noticed that the sounds created were very rhythmic and controlled, despite the seemingly chaotic and disorderly nature of the painting. Others noted that this exercise allowed them to respond to the painting in ways not possible through words alone — that this acoustic response tapped into a new, almost unconscious element of the artwork as well as the creative process.

performing the sounds of the painting

MINING THE LAYERS OF PAINT THROUGH MOVEMENT: Examining a Jackson Pollock gesture-field painting without kinesthetic thinking would seem inadequate, especially if we think of the famous Hans Namuth films of Jackson Pollock dancing around his canvases, dripping paint across their surfaces. Dance critic Roger Copeland actually called Namuth’s film of Pollock “one of the world’s most significant dance films,” demonstrating that “the fundamental impulse behind abstract expressionism was the desire to transform painting into dancing.”

For this workshop, I decided to model various types of dynamic movement response, inviting volunteers to come to the front and improvise with the painting — then asking each small group to create a dynamic, three-dimensional moving response to the painting (adding words and sounds as needed).  Becoming the layers of paint allowed us to pull them apart, get inside them, and use our bodies to make meaning.

volunteers creating 3 types of dynamic movement

We let the group performances speak for themselves, not overtalking them or reducing these personal and embodied meanings to a set of art historical associations with Pollock and his process — and I will refrain from overtalking them here, as well.  Yet a key goal for this workshop was for teachers to become expressive participants in an artistic experience, pushing beyond mere “spectating” or “learning at a glance” toward something more aligned with enhanced engagement or participatory arts practice in which the creative mind is activated and the focus shifts from the product to the process of creation.

SO WHAT? ENVISIONING INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK IN THE CLASSROOM: With the few minutes we had remaining, I felt compelled to deal with the “so what?”  Why did we just do this?  In what ways might we bring this experience back to our own spaces of learning (museums, classrooms, etc.)? Much of our discussion centered around what interdisciplinary learning looks like: connected, collaborative, free, lots of parts coming together as a whole, and building toward something more meaningful.  The best culminating moment for me was when one teacher said that he felt the whole experience was about “synergy.”

The last few remarks before the workshop ended inspired us to wonder what Jackson Pollock had actually taught us about learning.  Weren’t the layers and topographies of this painting paralleled in our own landscapes of learning, and in this multidimensional and multi-modal experience with this painting.  I think we all left the workshop feeling that Pollock’s “Number 1A” was an essential part of the conversation about learning, and building to learn.

The workshop ended with the words of choreographer Merce Cunningham — click here for the quote.

Not Just for Field Trips Any More: 7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

[First posted at Ecology of Education, September 27, 2011]

When we, as educators, think back to our own school field trips to art museums, we tend to remember being paraded around the galleries, being talked at and given a lot of information, and … well, tuning out.  And let’s face it, this has not changed dramatically for most students today, who may still find themselves tuning out rather than tuning in during their museum visits.

Unfortunately, research has shown that the expectations teachers have for museum field trips come largely from their own (often less-than-stellar) experiences when they were students. Oftentimes, museums then work to offer tours that match these teacher expectations—providing the traditional “see everything” experience with little opportunity for open inquiry or deeper investigation. The resulting cycle does not allow much room for schools or museums to envision new possibilities for the learning that can occur during a visit to an art museum.

“Museums often struggle to understand the needs of schools, and teachers and students similarly struggle to understand the role they play accessing, interacting with, and learning from museums. In some ways, the expectations for learning that teachers bring to the museum may not match the possibilities available for learning at these non-school sites.” (Cordova & Murawski 2009)

While there continues to be what James Kisiel calls an “awkward marriage” between museums and schools, art museums are undoubtedly in a process of transformation in light of the demands and challenges of the 21st century. These institutions are working to become more relevant and to play a more essential role in the lives of students, teachers, and their communities. Striving to ignite learning and creative thinking rather than parading students around the galleries in an attempt to “see everything,” art museums across the country are working to serve as spaces where we can begin to see learning in new ways.

But what can teachers do to help transform what is possible during their art museum visit? How can we, as educators, better harness the powerful types of learning that can occur in the galleries of an art museum?  What follows are some guidelines to help begin thinking beyond the ‘field trip’ and to promote a broader vision of what learning can and ought to look like in an art museum.

7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

1.   Think about the art museum as different from your school classroom.

Museums are, after all, informal learning environments that are quite different from schools.  While teachers and students may sometimes think of museums as more restrictive and more information-centered, museums have spent decades working to ensure that they provide experiences that build on the strengths of more informal, out-of-school learning environments. Research shows that students have more positive experiences in museums when they are treated as something that is distinct from their school classroom experiences and do not involve worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, and basic call-and-response teaching.

Along these lines, teachers can work to challenge museums to “do what they do best” and develop tours or programs that are not solely geared towards school-based content and curriculum standards. Museums are largely underutilized as spaces for connecting students with complex thinking, creativity, and multisensory learning, yet they can actually serve that purpose very well.  With an increasing body of research and practice showing the power of art museums to develop stronger thinking in our students, it only makes sense for schools and museums to make these experiences available.

2.   Be a learner yourself.

While teachers certainly spend a significant amount of time planning their lessons, managing their classrooms, and preparing for field trips, they rarely find time to treat themselves as learners—and being a learner is such a key aspect of being an effective teacher. When it comes to art museums, teachers sometimes only seek out the more conventional types of teacher programs where they will walk away with information about an area of the collection as well as handouts, lesson plans, and materials to use back in the classroom.  But the art museum can be an exceptional place for the personal and professional growth of teachers as learners.

When teachers engage in aesthetic experiences and hands-on activities at their museum as a learner, not just as a teacher, they model an authentic and infectious curiosity that influences how students interact with the art.  Take an art class, a workshop, or attend an evening concert and enjoy your art museum as more than a “field trip” location. When your students are participating in a tour or school program at the museum, participate yourself—take a sketchbook and draw with your students, or get involved in that art-making project that may capture your imagination as much as it does your students.’ As you begin to tap into the creative experiences possible at art museums, you are more likely to involve your students in similar activities during your visits with them.

3.   Get more involved.

Most art museums across the country have some type of teacher advisory board or committee, and they are constantly in search of teachers to help them stay connected to school communities.  Not only can this get a teacher more connected with the museum and their education staff, but there can be some additional benefits such as free memberships, shop discounts, special invitations to workshops or institutes, and free resources and materials.  And if your area art museum does not have a teacher advisory group, suggest working with them to start one and help get them connected with teachers in your area.  Also, get to know the museum education staff who can work with you to develop the best programs for your students, and can advise on how best to utilize the museum and its resources to motivate deeper learning.

Getting involved in these ways can help teachers take a central role in the planning and preparation for a museum visit, ensuring that the experience is a more positive and memorable one for students.

4.   Embrace freedom and choice.

Engage students in learning experiences where they have some element of choice and freedom. Overall, on our visit to the art museum, you might think more about what the students want to discover rather than just about what you want them to see. Free-choice learning can be a powerful way to get students to feel ownership over their museum experience, have a voice, and connect to what they see in more memorable ways. But stay away from scavenger hunts … please! While there are certainly ways to design a more effective scavenger hunt, it is better just to stay away from this format altogether.

Instead, think of a way to provide students with a real problem-solving or small group activity that invites more complex thinking and aspects of creative response that will be more meaningful to them. Try an activity that might motivate a student to select one artwork they are interested in exploring, and invite them to look more closely and connect to that object through their own personal experiences and interests.

5.   Get moving!

While art museums have not traditionally been places where kinesthetic learning has flourished, there has been a resurgence of movement activities occurring in the galleries.  Museum educators at an increasing number of art museums are facilitating movement techniques that can make the museum come alive for students. If you decide to add movement to your museum visit, however, just be sure to provide students with clear rules about what they can and cannot do (and it is always best to work directly with museum staff to facilitate your initial forays into this exciting and effective teaching strategy in the art museum).

As Shelley Weisberg writes in the most recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education: “Movement as an expressive tool offers connectivity for the visitor to museum objects.  Museums are a moving experience.”

6.   Get writing!

Art can inspire students to think creatively, use their imaginations, and generate some pretty fantastic creative writing.  For decades, art museums have served as exceptional places for student writing activities, with school programs at many museums offering such experiences for students across the grade levels. In recent years, several art museums have created new, useful resources for teachers that provide writing prompts and activities to engage students before, during, and after their visits to the art museum—among these being the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Looking to Write, Writing to Look” resource and the Weisman Art Museum’s “Artful Writing” materials.

Educator-led and self-guided visits that focus on creative writing can be extremely rewarding and productive for both teachers and students.  These creative activities also value the students’ response and allow them to express their own voice in a meaningful way.

7.   Think BIG.

When planning your next visit to the local art museum, get excited about the possibilities and think big. Challenge your art museum to collaborate with you to think outside the box, take risks, and co-create a dynamic experience that connects with the powerful learning that can happen in museums. Let’s begin to think beyond the ‘field trip’ and explore the art museum as a creative, innovative space for learning in the 21st century.

Warhol image: MOMA

Mask Image: CalState