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‘This is the time when museums go to work’: MuseumNext Keynote Address

Written by Mike Murawski

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to give the keynote address to begin Day 2 of the MuseumNext conference in New York City. My talk expanded on some of my thinking around the vital importance of empathy, change, and social action in museums, and focused on 5 actions we can take as museum professionals.  I’m pasting the video, SlideShare, and extended notes from my talk below.  I hope this sparks more conversations within and among museums about the role our institutions play in our communities and in relation to issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion.  Please feel free to email me at murawski27@gmail.com with any questions, and add Comments or questions below for a more public exchange around these ideas.  I welcome all perspectives, ideas, and voices in this dialogue about museums.  And special thanks to Jim Richardson and the team at MuseumNext for putting together a powerful conference in New York!

Link to SlideShare PowerPoint slides.

Link to Vimeo video.

NOTE: These views are my own and don’t necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Keynote Address: “Urgency of Empathy and Social Action in Museums”

November 15, 2016, Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, New York, NY

[I began this address by playing an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which I encourage you to listen to by playing the video below. And crank up the volume or pop on some headphones.]

This visceral performance was recorded by Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Arts Society collective.  It is a striking protest piece that responds to instances of police violence against minorities in this country, and honors the lives of those lost in a way that boldly confronts indifference.

Janelle Monae said, “Silence is our enemy, and sound is our weapon.”  In an interview about her recording “Hell You Talmbout,” she said something that really struck me and made me want to bring this in to begin our day here at MuseumNext: “It’s important that we see each other as human beings. We need to take care of each other.”  Her piece stands as a form of art that can connect us all as humans through empathy as well as action.

I want to spend some time talking this morning about the urgency of empathy, social impact, and social action in museums today, focusing on 5 actions—that’s right, I said actions … not ideas, concepts, or principles.  5 actions that we can all get involved in to help museums reach their full potential as meaningful, relevant, human-centered institutions in our communities.

But before I begin, I would like to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral lands this theatre now stands here in Manhattan, on which our museums stand, and on which we live and work every day.

ACTION 1: Be More Local

It’s so important for museums to be a ‘local’ place intertwined and inseparable from the local realities and issues.  We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities.  This idea of community is important to address – we use that word a lot and don’t often think about it. What is community, and what is audience?  What do we mean by these words?  For me, so much of this idea of “community” is grounded in geography.  How do we define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood; and how do we learn about the people in this place, what connects us, and what brings us together into a community

So what can we do to help museums be more local?

First, I think there is a false binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community’ that is troubling.  It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included.  We might be feeding this gap, this divide, by simply not addressing it.  What if “the museum” included the people in our local community (including our staff and volunteers)?  What if, instead of just museums seeing themselves as part of their communities, our communities actually saw themselves as part of our museums?  We fight so hard for outreach, but sometimes we just need inreach—a way for us to open our ears and our hearts and let others get involved in new and different ways.

This may sound radical, but I believe it’s also a fact: our community knows more than we do. There is so much expertise and knowledge outside of our institutions that we tend to reject and ignore, but it’s greater than what we hold on to within our institutions.  We have got to start breaking down those walls, listen more, and rethink the way we value some knowledge and stories over others.  Identify and value the assets of our community — their stories, experiences, creative energies, and knowledges.

One powerful example of this local work is The Laundromat Project.  The Laundromat Project brings socially engaged arts programming to laundromats and other everyday community spaces in order to reach as many of our neighbors as possible.  The LP’s artists and staff work to amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, and enhance the sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow. Their Kelly Street Initiative was launched in 2015 in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing Group, Kelly Street Garden, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, transforming a 2 bedroom-apartment into a thriving creative community hub.  I’m looking forward to heading there with a group of conference participants for MuseumNext’s first ever Museum Social Action Project.

ACTION 2: Recognize and Support the Movement for Black Lives

I believe there is a need for us museums to publicly recognize and engage the brave and transformative work of the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement has forged a new national conversation about the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color in the United States—a conversation grounded in those communities’ own experiences. As stated in their Vision for Black Lives policy statement, the Movement’s vision is to:

“move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”

I know this is something  museums can stand behind unapologetically.  We need to engage with and learn from the Movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating or distorting the work underway. Supporting this work is not putting museums and its employees in a bubble, but rather it powerfully unifies us in support of basic human rights that have been wrongly politicized since the first colonists stepped ashore some 500 years ago.

Some examples of brave, courageous museums that are putting themselves out there to support this work are:

Science Museum of Minnesota: Back in July 2016, they posted a sign at entrance to RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition after tragic killing of Philando Castille in July, joining their community in mourning.  Unfortunately that sign was eventually removed, but I want to acknowledge that courage of those people who sat in a room to make the decision to put that sign up so we can have this conversations about whether museums can do this or not.

New Museum in New York: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, which began back in July 2016 when a group of more than 100 black women artists began meeting at New Museum.  The group took over the Museum for an event in September that included performances, workshops, videos, and a procession. Reflecting on that September event, artist Ariel Jackson recalls: “some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief”

Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture: Among many other ways that this new Smithsonian Museum is collecting, exhibiting, and recognizing the Movement for Black Lives in historic ways, I wanted to draw attention to their acquisition of the Mirror Casket Project into their collection. The Mirror Casket is a sculpture, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance,” with an aim to evoke reflection. This work will be included in future exhibitions at the NMAAHC.

Portland Art Museum: At the Portland Art Museum, we have recently been partnering with members of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the main Black Lives Matter groups working for change across the Portland community.  On August 9, 2016, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, we were the site for a gathering and community social justice art project organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that involved music and dance performances, speakers, and free admission to the Museum and exhibitions.  This was planned, in part, as a result of conversations with our community in conjunction with the opening of two exhibitions which focused on issues of racial violence, police brutality, and social justice activism.  Many of us at the Portland Art Museum wanted to be listening to our community and engaged with our community, so we reached out and had these powerful things happening at the museum. It was a space of creation, a space of community and coming together.

I can’t mention these events without mentioning Teressa Raiford, who is one of the most powerful activists in Portland and probably in many of our communities, who’s putting a lot of this together and who has for the past six days been on the streets in Portland with peaceful protestors standing up for basic human rights. Teressa continues to be an inspiring, driving force behind the ways that the Portland Art Museum is beginning to listen to its community and engage in a new dialogue around race and social justice.

Following up the event in the Portland Art Museum on August 9th, we had a panel discussion entitled “Race in America After Ferguson” where Reverend Tracy Blackman from Florissant, Missouri (one of the pastors that’s been involved in the Ferguson Commission with President Obama and also the Federal Government’s faith-based initiatives work) came and spoke with artist Arvie Smith, Teressa Raiford, and Mykia Hernandez, a young activist in Portland.  With two or three days’ notice we had an incredible crowd from the community come, including docents and staff from the museum who came out to this conversation. It was really important, internally and externally, for the museum to be having these conversations and be seen as a space for these conversations.

In the words of leaders at the Ford Foundation who publicly supported the Movement for Black Lives earlier this summer–and a quote that I think is as timely now as it was back in July:

“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people.”

ACTION 3: Flip the Script

What does it look like to “flip the script” in museums, to work toward de-centering the traditional power structures of our institution?  How can we actually shift away from the old, traditional narratives that got us where we are today, right now, right here?   How can our work as museum professionals shift power?

Letting go of these traditional historic notions of museum authority and power relationships is essential but it’s also very challenging, and I’m going to break the rules of conferences and do something that you’re not supposed to do. I’m going to read a text panel from a museum exhibition, and this is not a text panel that is a typical voice of authority, it is not what I call the ‘voice of god’ text panel for a museum. This text panel was the intro panel to our new Center for Contemporary Native Art during our second exhibition in that space, written by indigenous artists Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer and unedited or unimpeded by curatorial voice or museum voice. I think it says something powerful. So, when visitors waked into the gallery during Demian and Kali’s exhibition, they were immediately confronted by this wall text panel:

“By entering this space you have an ethical responsibility to acknowledge that all Indigenous thought, creativity, fantasy, activism, & existence is grounded in continual acts of Survivance. You have agreed to forfeit your misconceptions of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness of Indigenous traditional practices. You are not stepping into the past or staring into a picture plane void of Indigenous inhabitants. You are not glorifying Western historical inaccuracies or romanticizing the cowboys & Indians narrative. By entering this space you agree to never again place your hand over your mouth in a mock “war cry” or teach your children to be ignorant of the Indigenous peoples whose land you have claimed as your own. From this moment onward you promise to learn the history of the Indigenous ancestral lands that were stolen/continue to be stolen through colonization & genocide. By entering this space you have agreed to become a lifelong agent against humanitarian & environmental injustice.”

It is such a powerful statement. So, flipping the script can mean changing who gets to write these narratives. The Center for Contemporary Native Art at the Portland Art Museum is one of these spaces where we have experimented with decentering traditional museum authority.

The Center for Contemporary Native Art is a space that we have developed dedicated to displaying the work by contemporary indigenous artists at the museum. It’s supported by an IMLS grant currently and it really gets the museum to step out of the way and let Native people tell their stories.  Through exhibitions in this Center, we’ve been really privileging native voice, native language, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous perspectives. It has been one of the most powerful things I’ve been able to work on in my work in museums and I have to give a shout out to Deana Dartt who was recently our curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and whose powerful vision made this possible.

Another example of ‘flipping the script’ is the long-running initiative at the Portland Art Museum called Object Stories, and these images are just some of the examples of the people whose voices have been brought to the center of our museum during this project: from people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, to recent refugees to Portland, and we currently have on view in that gallery a project that highlights the voices of deaf artists and highlights their work in the gallery.

In her article from earlier this year entitled, “We Need a Decolonized, Not a ‘Diverse,’ Education,” scholar Zoe Samudzi writes:

“Until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete, but wholly-privilege the knowledges and perspectives of the colonizers.”

These marginalised voices and stories, often rendered completely invisible, need to be brought to the center.

One final example – this is just something I thought was amazing project that I just read about this past week or so – at the Detroit Institute of Art, they’re working on an exhibit for summer 2017 to highlight and reflect on the 50-year anniversary of the summer of 1967 rebellion. It’s a year-long collaborative project to uncover home movies and perspectives from people living in Detroit in 1967, and the project aims to reflect on one of the most painful times in the history of Detroit and spur thoughts on how that region can continue moving forward. What an incredible way of bringing community voices and stories into such a significant museum project, and privileging those stories and knowledge in the museum.

ACTION 4: Have a Personal Vision for Change

Have a personal vision for change, and work to create a personal vision. I think this is something that’s important.

I hope you’ve had your coffee, because I’m going to have you do something for me before we wrap up here. Put your notebooks and devices down just for a second, take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Now I want you to try and think about: what matters most to you right now? Try to boil it down to a word or a phrase. Now, I want you to shout that out. [audience loudly shouts out words at the same time]

Thank you, and not only is that energy that we need to make change happen in museums, but it also illustrates this need for our own personal vision and purpose to help guide this work. What do you care about? What is your high dream? What is the change you’d like to see? Have a personal vision. Write it down. It doesn’t have to be some sort of perfectly crafted, wordsmithed mission statement. Think about what matters to you, write it down, add it to your desktop background, tape it to your wall, share it on social media, wear it on a tee-shirt. Connect with your core values on a daily basis. Stand behind these values. Share them. Don’t be ashamed of them. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how in the hell are we ever going to get there?

I’m most recently inspired by De Andrea Nichols, an activist, educator and artist in St Louis.  She said in a commencement speech she gave earlier this year at Washington University in St. Louis: “Do what makes you come alive!” Nichols’s “Sticky Note to Self” project is also worth checking out through Tumblr and Instagram.. It is so inspiring to see her inspiration, to see the things that she’s thinking about, done so creatively. She just writes these sticky notes to herself, which is something I’ve been doing more and more.  When you’ve got a moment of inspiration, write it down, stick it somewhere, keep it, reflect back on it on a daily basis so we can keep pushing ahead on this work.

Bring your passion with you to work. I think this is important that we stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion.  One of the things that I’ve been motivated by in my own practice has been this inspiring quote from James Baldwin, which I added to my email signature as a daily, public reminder:

“not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

ACTION 5: Build Communities of Action and Change

I firmly believe museums are people-centred institutions (something I have written about in more detail). Museums are us. If we don’t bring in other people too, our work cannot grow. We need to identify change agents within our institutions. Invite people to meet with you over coffee. Think about the barriers to your work, and consider how those barriers are they people-based.  What people are involved with those barriers? OK, now go have coffee with those people and listen.  Listen to what those people are talking about in terms of why those barriers might exist. It is also important to positively recognise when others take steps in the right direction towards this work.  We need to build supportive, positive, connected communities of change within and among our organizations.

And I think it’s time that, no matter where you are in your organizations (new employee or seasoned veteran); it’s time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as followers and thinking of ourselves as leaders within our institutions. You can grow a community of change in your organisation and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. Remember, museum are made of us people, and our museums are only as empathetic, connected, and engaged as the people who work for them.

An important aspect of building these communities of action is also recognising the new collective platforms and movements that exist now online. If you are on social media, #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondToFerguson are hashtags that are bringing people together to talk about these issues. Also #MuseWomen, #a11y, and the blogs Incluseum, Brown Girls’ Museum blog, Visitors of Color Tumblr site, Queering the Museum Project, Museum of Impact, Museum Hue. And so many more projects that are bringing people together to create these communities of change and communities of action across the field of museums, arts, and culture.

The last slide I want to show is the team of education staff at the Portland Art Museum. We took this photo here last Wednesday morning, which I regretted scheduling that photo the morning after the election here, but we immediately gravitated to this empowering work “Power Up” by artist Corita Kent, who’s been feeding a lot of our souls in Portland with this exhibition on view of her work. I include this photo only to give recognition, honor, and support to this amazing group of educators and to the power that they bring to all of this work at the Portland Art Museum, to our vision for doing good, meaningful, more local work and in building communities of change across our institution. It is not ‘me’; it is a ‘we’ situation, and there is so much power in the people on this team and so many who are not even this photograph.

As we bring on more people to rise to this challenge with us, we can convert ‘aspiring to change’ into ‘real change’. The time has come to move beyond symbolically standing up for social justice. This may often mean breaking the rules but it never involves silence. We need to permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.

CONCLUSION

Let me wrap up with something a bit more personal. One week ago this morning, I was proud to go turn in my ballot alongside my wife, inspired by her power, energy, and resilience.  Just hours later, that night, I found myself in tears, holding my confused 7-year-old son in my arms as I put him to bed.  I know I am not alone when I say I felt numb and almost paralyzed.

I want to close by connecting with the words of writer Toni Morrison, who many of us read during recent days and weeks.  12 years ago, she recounted her own election-induced feelings of depression, paralysis, being unable to write, when an artist friend interrupted her and said, “No, no, no.  This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  That’s our job!”  

So I channel the power of Ms. Morrison at this difficult moment, because This is precisely the time when museums go to work.  That’s our job!

Thank you.

Openly Networked Learning In and Across Art Museums

How can museums begin to more closely connect with in-school and out-of-school digital literacy practices, tapping the tools of the digital age as well as the elements of making, connecting, and experimenting that create powerful possibilities for learning?  Can we, as museum educators, begin to see ourselves as designers, and reposition ourselves as active agents of change in today’s education environment?  In what ways can museums be more involved in re-envisioning what education looks like?

These questions, among others, have been sparked by my involvement over the past few years in the research and practice around a social and participatory model of learning called Connected Learning —  as well as my work with an inspiring group of educators within the National Writing Project.  And while art museums have been only tangentially related to this practice (which I blame more on us museum educators and less on NWP), I was fortunate enough to be invited to submit a case study for the latest ebook entitled Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom (published online in February through the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative).  This volume highlights compelling firsthand counter-narratives from educators engaged in solving an array of challenges in today’s classrooms, drawing together a collaborative network of instructors who have been contributing to the NWP’s web community, “Digital Is.”

I wanted to take the opportunity of this volume’s publication to begin writing more about Connected Learning, sharing its principles and exploring more connections with the practice of teaching and learning in museums.  Below is the text of my case study entitled “Openly Networked Learning in and Across Art Museums,” published first in February 2014 as part of the Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom volume.  This short case study examines the aspects of “openly networked” reflective practice in my work as a museum educator and blogger, pushing forward the concept of museums as spaces where communities of learners can connect, intersect, make, collaborate, and share.  I encourage anyone unfamiliar with Connected Learning to learn more by visiting connectedlearning.tv or downloading the 2013 report Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design — and I plan to write more here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com in the near future.


Openly Networked Learning In and Across Art Museums

What happens when educators converge around shared interests and purposes in the spaces of museums?  How can museums more effectively build diverse networks of educators that support our teaching and learning practice?  Faced with the complex landscape of formal and informal education in the 21st century, museums across the globe have been rethinking their role as actors within their educational community. Not only are museum galleries increasingly becoming open spaces in which communities of learners can connect and intersect, but museum professionals are also developing online spaces of exchange and reflective practice.

As a practicing art museum educator as well as a museum blogger, I find myself constantly in the process of discovering how “openly networked” an art museum can be.

While the growth of online learning communities and Google Hangouts for museums certainly promotes this principle of connected learning, I want to begin by focusing on how museums can support openly networked experiences in the analog, physical space of their galleries.

Museums as physical, analog networks

In November 2011, I was invited to lead an in-gallery workshop for educators at the High Museum of Art as part of a conference hosted by Harvard University’s Project Zero. The experience 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. Instead of an experience guided by information, we began an open, embodied exploration through a series of scaffolded exercises that included slow looking, sharing observations, quick sketches, free writing, and variety of ways to use sound and movement to create responses to the work of art.  Small groups of participants were then invited to pull together sounds, movements, and words to develop creative a public performance in response to the Pollock painting.

teachers explore layers of paint through dynamic movement
teachers explore layers of paint through dynamic movement

One memorable group of three teachers worked together to choreograph a short piece that used their bodies to perform their response to the complex layering of paint and brushstrokes. Freely responding to this single painting through multiple access points as well as public performance, we were able to have a collective learning experience outside of our comfort zone and then immediately “poke at it” and see into the experience as a group. In this case (and many others like it), the art museum becomes a safe, open, and public space in which professional educators from museums, schools, and universities can come together to make learning visible and then reflect upon our practice in a shared space.

Museums as participatory spaces

CoLab community of educators exploring learning at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2012.
community of educators openly exploring learning processes at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2012.

While an art museum gallery can be an amazing place to meet with a class or group of teachers, museums and museum educators must work to actively support openly networked learning experiences. First of all, museums need to see teachers and students as active participants in the learning experience, pushing beyond mere “spectating” or “learning at a glance” toward a more participatory and process-oriented experience.  Part of this involves museums letting go of their ‘authority’ over knowledge and meaning-making, and instead empowering educators to co-create learning experiences with museums — as opposed to passively receiving content from museums, whether that be text panels, audio guides, curators, or museum educators.

Part of achieving this “letting go” is simply valuing teachers’ voices and recognizing teachers as creators of content, knowledge, and meaning in relation to museums. Professional development workshops can be re-envisioned with more of an emphasis on developing communities of practice where we learn from each other no matter what our “home” educational setting might be (school classroom, university, museum, etc.). This sense of creating a community of practice then builds toward a shared, reflective process that leads to professional growth on the side of both teachers and museum educators.

Building online networks of museum educators

The openly networked reflective practice described here does not need to be confined within the walls of a single museum, though.  This is where my experience as a museum blogger has expanded the way that people can connect around issues of museum teaching and learning.  After facilitating the educator workshop at the High Museum of Art back in 2011, I decided to create a multi-author online forum to publicly reflect on my own teaching practice, spotlight the practice of other educators, and provide a space for conversation around larger issues of teaching and learning in museums. Since its launch in February 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching.com has brought together more than 30 authors actively contributing to a growing online community of practice that reaches out to thousands of educators each month.

ArtMuseumTeaching.com Google+ Hangout On Air
ArtMuseumTeaching.com Google+ Hangout

In addition to standard blog-style posts and comments, the site has hosted face-to-face Google+ Hangouts On Air with museum educators and teachers from across the world. The site creates a networked space across museums and teaching contexts, allowing readers and contributors to see into and reflect upon the practice of a wide community of educators.

In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman have argued that large online communities actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making, and personal interaction.

“People’s relationships remain strong—but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”

As ArtMuseumTeaching.com continues to expand as an online space for reflecting on museum practice, I have been exploring how we—as museum and education professionals—maneuver within a technology-mediated world in a way that allows us to cultivate productive, human-centered networks and communities.  Museums and schools have been widely engaged in how digital media and technology can connect them with their students and audiences. But what about the potential of these same technologies to build entirely new “communities of practice” among professionals—whether teachers, university faculty, or museum educators?

I am especially interested in the ways in which an online community like ArtMuseumTeaching.com can, in turn, bring people with shared interests together in physical spaces in new and meaningful ways.  Since 2012, the ArtMuseumTeaching community has hosted several in-person gatherings, including conference sessions, happy hours, and recently the first-ever Museum Teaching Throw Down as well as Gallery Teaching Marathon. As many as one hundred people have come together for these face-to-face social experiences — creating new professional connections and enriching existing collaborations that continue to grow through the online/digital forum.  After all, the relationships we develop online are complex, as a simple Twitter follower or blog reader can quickly become a close colleague, friend, and mentor.  One ArtMuseumTeaching.com Google Hangout in 2013 brought together educators from Australia to New York in real time, and these connections develop new peer networks, partnerships, and professional exchanges that help us all grow personally and professionally.

Through this work that I have been engaged with thus far — both online and in the physical spaces of museum galleries — I feel that the art museum has begun to make a shift in what it has the potential to become: a dynamic cultural landscape where authentic, learner-driven experiences are developed and enacted by teachers and their students. These experiences are opening up museums as places for educators to chart their own path in unpredictable ways, and to invite parallel exploration, risk-taking, and fresh discovery on the part of learners across a variety of contexts.


Originally published in: Garcia, Antero, ed., 2014. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. This report series on connected learning was made possible by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in connection with its grantmaking initiative on Digital Media and Learning. 

Google Hangouts: Live Video Chatting between Museums & Online Communities

By Brinker Ferguson, Digital Media Fellow, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In the past several months, many museums have begun using live video chat as a way to enhance and foster new online discussions and interactions between museum educators and the public. One of the most popular tools has been Google Hangouts which is part of the Google+ social network. It allows for up to 10 users to video chat together and gives them the ability to broadcast the video stream live to a large audience and even record the session for future viewing. The recorded video, which is archived on the museum’s G+ page and YouTube channel, can be shared on various social networks. In addition, the videos collect (limited) analytics information so museums can track the attention it receives. Users who express interest in a museum video session ahead of time can be alerted when it is about to begin via Google+ email messaging.

This use of video chatting has spawned a new online forum that helps to bring together museum curators, directors, historians and educators with different virtual communities for in-depth conversations of art and ideas. Rather then a YouTube video, which disseminates information in a “I talk, you listen” format, video chatting can enable a more flexible and collaborative seminar style discussion. This idea of accessible online videos is very much in keeping with many museums’ mission of providing an open space for dialogue, learning, and exploration for the public, and working toward developing meaningful online communities of practice.

Current Projects

Though relatively new, there have been a large number of museums using Google Hangouts from all over the globe. This past month alone, MoMA debuted its “Art Hang” series, which brings together art educators with other art enthusiasts to discuss topics surrounding art and identity. The Google Art Project began its #ArtTalk hangouts with the National Gallery on March 20th and more recently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The series, which discusses the stories behind famous works of art, will continue to take place each month at different cultural institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

screenshot of Google Hangout of artist Felipe Iskor
screenshot of Google Hangout of artist Felipe Iskor

Hangouts have also been leveraged in several other artistic ways. For example Google Brazil has used hangouts for their street art campaign, where artist Felipe Iskor created a mural live.

Likewise artists have conducted live studio visits, in which they talk with interested online groups about what inspires them, what their next artwork might look like, and get much needed critical feedback from online art communities.

Understanding Its Impact

Of course, use of a new medium brings new challenges. In trying to gauge the success of video chats, museums are learning how to interpret the relatively sparse analytics information provided by Google+ and YouTube. Statistics like “this video was viewed 5000 times” does not paint a full picture of just how beneficial the video was for the museum and its viewers. It is very clear, however, that hangouts have the ability to reach far greater percentage of the global online community and can do so in a more engaging way. And while it can be difficult to measure the success of these videos, museum educators know it is worth their time to continue exploring the limits of new this technology in order to captivate a broader audience and share more of the museum’s passion for art and cultural heritage.

Possible Uses in the Future

Tools associated with video chatting such as live commenting, image sharing, hash tags, and social media sharing have become additional ways of connecting online viewers with the live discussion. Recently, Mike Murawski of the Portland Art Museum brought up another possible use for video chatting. He suggested using Hangouts as a way of connecting living contemporary artists with museum visitors both in the gallery and online. What would it be like then to talk with an artist about his/her work right in front of the artwork in the gallery? Or watch an artist explaining his/her artwork online while you ask questions?

How can we use these new tools to better facilitate learning and interaction onsite and online in the future? Are there other ways that Google Hangouts or other chatting services will connect people, or perhaps help the museum’s visitors feel closer to its collection?

Anybots meets Wall-E and Eve.
Anybots meets Wall-E and Eve.

Taking this question further in a mini-thought experiment, imagine what would happen if the video feed were not fixed to the wall. What would a more intimate conversation with an artist look like? While you ebb and flow around the gallery, could an artist virtually tag along with you?

One company exploring the idea of digital presence is Anybots, a team that has created a roving avatar robot with video screen projecting the face of a remote participant. The robot is controlled remotely and reacts to speech frequencies to directly address and react to questions or comments from multiple people. Right now, the Anybots are in the hypothetical realm (due to the hefty $15,000 price tag).

While video chatting environments will continue to develop (though at the moment we are not yet sure in what form they will appear) the strides taken by #ArtHang, Google Art Projects, and many other institutions and artist communities will continue to push online connection and conversation.

Reimagining Peer Networks in a Digital Age

By Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum; Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University; Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, National Writing Project, University of California Berkeley

“People’s relationships remain strong—but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.” (Lee Rainie & Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System, 2012).

In their recent book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie (director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Internet & American Life Project) and Barry Wellman (Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Director of NetLab) have argued that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.

As Rainey and Wellman remind us (although we need no reminder):

“Daily life is connected life, its rhythms driven by endless  email pings and responses, the chimes and beeps of continually arriving text messages, tweets and retweets, Facebook updates, pictures and videos to post and discuss. Our perpetual connectedness gives us endless opportunities to be part of the give-and-take of networking.”

But how do we—as museum and arts education professionals—maneuver within a technology-mediated world in a way that allows us to cultivate productive, human-centered networks and communities? Museums and schools have been widely engaged in how digital media and technology can connect them with their students and audiences. But what about the potential of these same technologies to build entirely new “communities of practice” among professionals—whether art teachers, university faculty, or museum educators?

These questions are at the core of a series of conversations that we will be facilitating over the next several weeks, centered around a panel discussion that will be part of the National Art Education Association annual conference in Fort Worth at the beginning of March. Through these organic and open conversations, we hope to begin exploring models of human-centered professional exchange and peer networks suited to the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of the 21st century. Drawing on innovative work from the National Writing Project (such as Digital Is), sites of exchange such as this one (ArtMuseumTeaching.com), and connected learning models developed with MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, we’ll be discussing how online networks and communities can harness the power of emerging technologies and social media to share, collaborate, curate, and participate with peers both today and in the future.

One way to more easily digest this sizeable topic is perhaps to take it one bite at a time.  So we’re excited to be facilitating two public “on air” Google Hangouts along with the session at NAEA—one hangout prior to the conference to take that first bite, and one a couple weeks after the conference to extend our thinking and perhaps follow-up on questions raised in the panel.  The online Google Hangout format also allows us to potentially engage a wider range of people than just those attending the NAEA conference, while at the same time practicing one of the most widely used technologies for face-to-face online engagement.

CONVERSATION #1 – Come Chat With Us via Google Hangout

“What Do WGoogleHangoutIcone Want from Online Communities of Practice?”

Open Google Hangout w/ Mike Murawski, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

Thursday, February 28th – 1:00pm Pacific / 4:00pm Eastern

For this preconference conversation on Google Hangout, we thought we might simply ask:  “what do we want from online communities of practice and peer networks?”  What online networks and communities are you involved with? When you consider jumping into a new online community, what do you hope it will achieve?  What types of exchanges and experiences keep us engaged and prevent us from leaving (or ignoring) the online network? During this conversation, we were able to gather your thoughts, questions, and experiences which will inform our discussion at NAEA on March 7th.

View the YouTube recording of the “On Air” Google Hangout here:

Couldn’t join the Google Hangout?  Watch the broadcast above, and please add your thoughts and perspectives to the “Comments” section below, and we’ll utilize this space to keep the conversation going.

CONVERSATION #2 – NAEA Conference Session

NAEA_logo  “Reimagining Professional Exchange & Peer Networks in a Digital Age”

  NAEA Panel Session w/ Mike Murawski, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

  Thursday, March 7th, -12:00-12:50pm, Meeting Room 121C/Center/1st Floor

At this session, we gathered with a great group of peers to share some of our own experiences working as developers, researchers, and participants in online networks and communities of practice, but also spent time opening up the conversation about key issues (many pulled from the preconference Google Hangout).  For example: how do we promote online ‘contributing’ instead of just online ‘visiting’ when it comes to these experiences? What are some ways to build co-learning interactions online?

Couldn’t attend the session?  Please feel free to connect with either of the Google Hangouts, or chime in via the “Comments” section below.

CONVERSATION #3 – Reconnect via Google Hangout

GoogleHangoutIcon“The Digital Follow-Up: How Do We Drag Everyone Back to Their Screens?”

Open Google Hangout w/ Mike Murawski, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

Thursday, March 28th – 1:00pm Pacific / 4:00pm Eastern

One of the most difficult things to motivate busy museum and education professionals to do is to reconnect online after the conference or workshop.  While we all know the values of extending these relationships and opportunities to reconnect, it can be so difficult to make these a reality.  It only seems appropriate to make this one of the topics of our own ‘digital follow-up’ discussion.  How do we manage and nurture online professional networks so that members stay active, build stronger ties, and feel supported?  We also kept this follow-up conversation open to issues and questions that were addressed in the panel session at NAEA.

View the YouTube recording of the “On Air” Google Hangout here:


We look forward to continuing this exciting series of conversations!  If you have any ideas for a future Hangout or online get-together, let me know and we can work to schedule here within the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.