Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom).
Art museums have not traditionally been sites for children’s creative experimentation and play but rather understood as places of collection and display. However, the past two decades have seen young audiences become an increasingly important audience for art museums around the world with many institutions developing new spaces and practices towards children. The philosopher and founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy Loris Malaguzzi once stated ‘children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’ If this notion is true, how does the idea of the art museum as a creative laboratory reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions?
The art museum as creative laboratory
An artist has their studio, a cook has their kitchen, a scientist has their laboratory yet there are very few places in their communities where young children can go to creatively explore, experiment and freely play with ideas and materials. A creative laboratory could be anywhere in a neighborhood — a makerspace as part of a community centre, a tinkering studio in a science centre, a fab lab within a children’s museum, a woodwork area in a secondary school or a digital learning space in a library. Many of these ‘laboratory’ spaces and practices have been and are being developed by interdisciplinary teams within cultural institutions, often in partnership with community groups and university research centres. However, art museums can make a very distinctive contribution. Art museums can draw upon the processes of artists and their curatorial practices to establish a uniquely creative social and spatial environment for the co-construction of art and culture between artists, curators, children, and their parents.
The crucial quality of such environments is the presence of what Simon Nicholson once termed ‘loose parts’, these being open-ended materials such as blocks, clay, paint or design software that can be manipulated, adapted and transformed in a large variety of ways. This allows for deep, creative experimentation, questioning, explorative play and discovery-based learning. When such materials are presented in a curated creative environment where meticulous consideration has been given to their selection and presentation, combined with additional equipment and tools to assist experimentation of materials, vast and complex possibilities for exploring artistic phenomena are produced. These environments can also stimulate and support children to develop and express new creative processes and understandings of art and culture. But it is not just a matter of making materials available in a space, these need to be accompanied by artists, educators and curators who are experienced in facilitating young children’s creative play and experimentation. When they engage in careful and systematic observation and critical reflection, they can modify the spatial and social properties of the environment in response to children’s curiosities and discoveries.
The notion of art museums as creative laboratories within their community is built upon the premise that museums are not just for the transmission of culture but additionally a site for the construction of cultural knowledge and shared values. This requires a dialogic and collaborative process between artists, curators, children, their parents and the material environment. The understanding that art museums can also be places for cultural production offers an additional form of audience experience to object-centred and interpretation-based models in the gallery. Of course, transmission-based modes of cultural and artistic production should not be dismissed but rather this needs to be balanced with opportunities for individual and collaborative production of art. Child-centred practice in art museums fundamentally values children as co-creators of art and culture now, as opposed to seeing a value solely investing in the future development of children as adult museum visitors.
My interest in child-centred museum practice
I was first introduced to the interconnected ideas of child-centred practice, creative learning through play, and immersive environment design whilst working as a children’s curator at the Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland, Australia. During this time I worked, as part of a team of highly passionate, intelligent, and creative artists, curators, industrial designers, researchers and creative practitioners, on the development of the children’s program. Collectively we were interested in exploring how the understanding of children as unique, complex, powerful, and creative beings  could intersect with new artistic and curatorial practices to construct immersive creative environments that deeply valued children’s artistry and creativity alongside artists.
Through my work in Australia, I continuously found myself asking: how can we construct a form of art museum practice that aligns with the notion of the ‘creative laboratory’ for children? What does it mean to children to experience these environments? In 2013, the children’s team at the Ipswich Art Gallery started to explore the complex concepts, theories and outcomes of these questions through a formal research project.
I first met Dr. Emily Pringle, the Head of Learning Practice & Research at Tate at a conference in January 2014. We were both very interested in the concept, challenges and possibilities of child-centred practice and its possible intersections with artistic and curatorial practice in art museums. After a series of conversations I made the decision to relocate to England in September 2015 to undertake my PhD under Dr. Pat Thomson at the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The research project is connected to the Tate Learning Research Centre where Dr. Pringle is my co-supervisor.The focus of my PhD is on the construction of child-centred practice in early years (2-4 years) environments in art museums. My research asks:
What are the key conceptual, spatial, and social qualities of these environments?
What does it mean to children to experience them?
How can children’s experiences be used to inform the future construction of environments within the unique practice context?
My goal is to develop a process-led, critical and reflective heuristic thinking tool that can be used to support conversations between artists, curators, children and parents engaged in developing children’s creative environments. The research will draw on early year’s intra-active pedagogical theory  and social constructivism  to generate deeper understandings of children’s experiences with human (peers, parents, artists and educators) and non-human aspects (materials, architectural space and curatorial discourse) of curated immersive environments.
Pedagogical documentation, where young children’s learning and theory building is collected using predominantly visual research collection methods such as photography, film and field notes, will be used to guide practitioner learning and reflection during and after the program is presented . This documentation will seek to make young children’s learning more visible within institutional conversations. The reflection will be used to feed into future curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practice and have the ability to be adapted to the unique gallery contexts in which the practice is occurring.Critical reflection aims to give insights into ‘curation’ of early year’s immersive gallery environment design in regards to the intersection of curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practices. The project thus extends the notion of the art museum as a creative laboratory to the researching, questioning, experimentation and critical reflection of artists and curator’s shared practice.
My inquiry consists of four action research cycles. Each one develops, challenges and reflects on the construction of the reflective heuristic thinking tool. The second phase of the project begins in September this year and the first draft of the critically reflective framework will be presented to the education teams involved in the study late in 2017. After this, I hope to take what we have learnt to the wider art museum community.
By developing an approach that values experiential learning, discovery-based play and critical practitioner reflection, my research will support the construction of more dialogic and collaborative conversations between art museums, artists and the wider community. Through the PhD I will generate new findings on the practices that lead to meaningful experiences for young children in art museums, currently under-researched and under-theorised.
Have you developed children’s creative environments around the ideas of child-centred practice, experimentation, and creative play? How does this reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions within an art museum context?
Please share your comments, experiences, challenges, and reflections.
Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.
James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing an intra-active pedagogy, Oxon: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L 1930. Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero. (2005). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children publications.
Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Manager, Dallas Museum of Art
The creative process is often described as cyclical and sometimes, when I’m in it, it can feel like I am going around in circles, ending up where I started. Hopefully, when I come back around that circular process, my ideas have evolved so though I may be in a familiar place I am truly somewhere new. Perhaps the path of the creative process is then more like a spiral, repetitious yet constantly moving forward. This concept not only illustrates an important artistic process that we want to share with visitors to the Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art, but also it describes the methods we employ as our space evolves. The creative process is an inspirational component of C3 and it is exemplified through the Art Spot, a hands-on art making area.
A Brief History
In 2008, the hands-on art-making area within the C3 exhibition Materials and Meanings was called the Materials Bar. With a total of eighteen standard and tall seats, the space was designed as a communal area for visitors of all ages. The Materials Bar provided a hands-on experience of the creative process engaging visitors with an inspiration wheel, videos that modeled techniques, materials that encouraged play, and a reflective label writing component. The materials provided were similar to or related to works of art on view.
In 2010, C3 presented its second exhibition, Encountering Space, which involved a complete redesign of the entire C3 and transformed the Materials Bar into the Space Bar. Though it remained a hands-on making area, the focus on the new exhibition theme was evident in the inspirational prompts and reflective labels. Prompts challenged visitors to “transform a cube of space” or “build a sculpture with positive and negative space.” The label cards not only encouraged visitors to reflect, they also introduced vocabulary about space through a word bank. Additionally, the seating was expanded to accommodate twenty-six visitors.
In 2012, C3 transitioned away from themed exhibitions and towards a more fluid process of rotating works of art. Along with our process, the physical space changed, reflecting the end of Encountering Space and the beginning of a simplified graphic identity to reflect the DMA brand. With additional seating for a total of forty-four visitors, the area was renamed the Art Spot: Anytime art-making for everyone. Since then, we have experimented with different approaches. For a year we focused on one work of art, Family Portrait 1963 by Martin Delabano. Although we changed the materials and prompt every couple of months, they always related back to the work of art. The following year we explored the broader idea of creativity. We provided unconventional and everyday materials (like red plastic cups, spoons, paperclips, and twist ties) and challenged visitors to make something new and unexpected with them. More recently we have made connections between the Art Spot materials and our wall of visitor-submitted images with themes like Textual Awareness or Flowers.
Commonalities and Spiraling Forward
For me, the creative process can be simplified to four steps: inspiration, exploration, creation, and reflection. With each iteration of the making area in C3, we come full circle. We start with an idea—a theme like materials, space, or creativity— or a work of art. Next, we explore the possibilities of that idea and play with what it might look like. Then, we construct it for visitors to experience, and finally we reflect on the actual visitor experience. Over the years, the various iterations are in many ways similar, but with each new endeavor we learn and revise. In each iteration we were inspired by visitors, and hoped to inspire visitors — as art museum educators, we place an importance on encouraging visitors to connect with works of art. Furthermore, the area has always been about three-dimensional making and the creative process. In our upcoming redesign, we are sticking with these tenants, but are approaching them in different ways.
In the past we strived to inspire participants with the art on view in the Center for Creative Connections, though we found this can be difficult when the works of art are not directly adjacent to the making area. Often visitors come straight to the art-making area without looking at the works of art or, if they spend time looking at works of art, they may not be thinking of those objects when they arrive at the making area. When we installed Family Portrait 1963 directly in the Art Spot, we hoped that visitors would be more prone to draw inspiration from the work. We found that despite its positioning and large size, it quickly gets lost behind a sea of visitors when the Art Spot is full.
In the upcoming redesign, we are installing more works of art in the Art Spot and are strategically placing them near the tables where participants will be creating. Furthermore, the cases housing these works will have prompts directly on the glass to provoke thought and discussion about the materials, design, and process. These kinds of prompts can help visitors get into the making mindset, a way of critically looking at and exploring materials.
Also, our approach to choosing works of art has shifted. In the past we chose works of art that exemplified a concept and might inspire visitors to create. This time we are taking our inspiration from our visitors. Over the past few years we have documented the kinds of creations made at the Art Spot. We know that, regardless of the theme or materials, there are common items that are made: rings, animals, flowers, hats, and woven objects. So, we started with those observations and chose works of art that visitors might more easily relate to and that had some evidence of both the materials and the method of making.
Finally, we will continue to encourage the creation of three-dimensional objects, but rather than having one set of materials, we will offer different materials at different stations that relate to the nearby works of art. This will offer some variety so that visitors have more options.
When the Art Spot reopens in the next week, we will continue to ask for visitor input and revise, because being an experimental space means that we are constantly evolving through the creative process. We will document the creations visitors make; read the reflective statements they write; talk with them about the works of art, the materials, their creations, and their overall experience to get a sense of what aspects of the new design are working and what we may revise.
How Do You Do It? Share Your Thoughts
How would you describe your creative process?
How do your programs, activities, and gallery spaces change and evolve?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, and let’s collectively reflect a bit more on our planning and reflection processes for these types of creative, experimental spaces in museums.
Editor’s Note: Given the meaningful ongoing dialogue about the role(s) of museums in society and our communities, I am thrilled to repost this piece by Jamie Harrison in which she reflects on her visit to the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg — the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration, and future of human rights. From inviting multiple perspectives to embracing complexity, Harrison thinks deeply about core aspects of teaching and student learning through her experience of the exhibits and design of the Museum of Human Rights. I am most excited to share her perspective as a classroom teacher since so many museum educators (paid staff and volunteers alike) are working toward similar goals, allowing for museums to be a place for learners to be challenged; where we can struggle to make meaning, recognize others’ perspectives, participate, and create personal relevance. I encourage readers to click on links to the many teaching strategies that Harrison provides, and explore the resources of Facing History and Ourselves.
* * * * *
Written by Jamie Harrison, high school teacher, Brandon, Manitoba
Museums are invaluable to education. The carefully selected exhibits, information, and artifacts provide tangible and visual evidence for exploration, reflection, and dialogue that support lessons in the classroom. Museums allow students to build upon prior knowledge – to see things differently.
In late October 2014, I had the opportunity to attend an educator’s preview of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At the time of my tour, many of the galleries were still under construction, but what I was able to see led me to think deeply, and at times differently, about how I teach in my own classroom.
Here are 8 lessons I took away from my visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:
1. Take Students on a Journey
As you move through each of the museum’s eight levels, it becomes progressively brighter (a symbolic – and physical – movement from darkness to light). It is thoughtfully and memorably planned to lead visitors in, to build knowledge, and to lead us toward hope. In the classroom, I take students on Facing History’s Scope and Sequence journey, exploring the role of the individual in society, the concept of “we” and “they,” the supporting history of human rights in Canada and throughout the world, the memory of those who were left voiceless, and the choice (and call) to participate in our own communities.
2. Invite Multiple Perspectives
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is highly interactive, with videos, games, and activities meant to encourage participation from all visitors. The space provides multiple perspectives that contribute to our understanding of human rights. Many of the events and issues explored in the museum stem from people, governments, and societies only seeing, or contemplating, a single perspective. As educators, we need to foster safe and respectful classroom environments, ensuring that students have the freedom to both contemplate and express multiple perspectives on a variety of issues. Doing so promotes personal growth and it allows students to see things beyond themselves – teaching strategies like contracting and fishbowl can help students to hear each other.
3. Give Students Opportunities to Struggle with Making Meaning
On the second level, visitors are greeted by a visual and interactive timeline of important moments in human rights history. There is a video screen that runs the entire length of the wall, posing the question: What are human rights? Likewise, much of the art on display on this level – and throughout the museum – is open to interpretation, allowing each viewer to linger over their personal interpretations and meditate on the messages they draw from the pieces that they see. In our classrooms, we can use the working definitions teaching strategy to engage students in their own explorations of key issues. Analyzing visual images gives students a framework to interpret artwork.Giving students the opportunity to make their own meaning in the classroom promotes the intellectual involvement of students and recognizes that words and images can bear multiple, and often deeper, meanings as it is our beliefs, values, history, and understandings that give words and images value.
4. Make Room for Other Ways of Knowing and Learning
The second level of the museum also looks at the Indigenous perspective and Canada’s journey toward recognizing the human rights of all individuals and groups. The Indigenous artwork here reflects groups from each of Canada’s provinces and territories. The space allows room for performance, storytelling, and discussion, and is annexed by a space for ceremony and smudging meant to recognize, and encourage, the values and traditions of our First Nations peoples. If the medium is the message, how are we using different mediums in our classrooms to teach students about the past and about the world in which they live?
5. Students Need to Deal with Complexity Because Life is Complex
The third level of the museum examines the history of protecting human rights in Canada, including a look at the Canadian Bill of Rights. The exhibits on this level demonstrate that not all issues of human rights are easy to decipher – the processes involving human rights can often be lengthy and difficult. As we work to equip students for the complexities of our world, we can bring complex case studiesand resources into the classroom, and we can ask questions that perhaps have no “right” answers.
6. Encourage Personal Connections
At the time of my visit, there was a temporary exhibit entitled “Peace” on the sixth level. Developed by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the exhibit focuses on Canada’s role in peacekeeping and how that role has been challenged and has evolved throughout history. Two reflection walls encourage participation from visitors. Each provides a guiding question and asks visitors to make personal connections to the content. It provides an outlet for students to examine the impact that peacekeeping has on their identities and on the identity of Canada as a whole.
7. Choose to Participate
Level seven focuses on inspiring change – on choosing to participate. This level houses an exhibit looking at change and a communication wall where visitors are encouraged to reflect upon what they imagine the future to look like and how they can help to inspire positive change in that future.
8. Help Students See Beyond the Classroom Walls
The final gallery in the museum leads to the tower of hope – the peak of the museum – meant to symbolize a merging with the sky. The tower’s viewing platform provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Winnipeg: the now and the future. Here you are surrounded by warmth and light – a true journey from the darkness. We need to help our students take and apply their learning beyond the walls of the classroom. They need to carry their knowledge, beliefs, and values with them so that they can apply them throughout their lives.
How do you use field trips and museum visits in your courses? What impact do such visits have on your students?
JAMIE HARRISON is a high school English and Social Studies teacher in Brandon, Manitoba. Having been fortunate enough to have had a teacher who believed strongly in interacting with history – in facing history as a way of learning about ourselves – she strives to carry that same enthusiasm forward in her own teaching. She does this through interdisciplinary learning, hands-on exploration, and educational travel. Jamie is married with two children.
Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso
Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education.
The Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art is unique because we focus on learning by doing. That means we design activities for people of all ages to learn about works of art from the collection by participating in a hands-on way. The activities we create to accompany works of art prompt visitors to engage in ways that are different from the standard didactic approach of a wall label. In C3, we want to provide experiences where visitors can make personal connections by drawing, writing, making, and discussing works of art with each other.
This kind of active engagement carries a certain stigma; many people assume that it’s only for kids, mainly because we are used to seeing activities like these in children’s museums. Part of our design process is to evaluate visitors’ experiences by observation, interviewing and counting. We’ve learned that half of our participants are adults and that there is a reoccurring theme in their comments regarding why they participate. So, why do adults flock to C3 to draw, write, make, and talk about art? Because it connects them to a childlike curiosity and creativity which, as an adult, often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and tasks.
In January 2014, we installed a large table in the middle of the C3 Gallery, that hosts three activities that rotate on a monthly basis. As a part of the evaluation of these activities, we interviewed visitors about their motivations for participating, their past experience with art making, and their view of the value derived from participating in a making activity at the Museum. I was repeatedly intrigued by the responses of the adult participants.
For example, I spoke with a couple participating in a portrait drawing activity which encouraged close looking at the proportions and scale of the human face. The couple, in their mid-thirties, each claimed to have no artistic experience. Through our conversation, they divulged that they both graduated from arts-based college programs. “I went for fashion, like a BFA in Design, and he went for Graphic Design. We don’t really draw in our free-time though, I mean, he does for work,” the woman stated as she looked over at the man who accompanied her. He added, “Yeah, but just on the computer.” Then the woman broke in, “And I do for work, but it’s not the same. Like, I do fashion sketches, not this kind of drawing.” I prodded them a bit to understand what “this kind of drawing,” meant. “Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”
This idea was reinforced by further conversations with other adult participants: drawing, making, and discussing in C3 is fun in a freeing kind of way. I interviewed another thirty-something couple drawing at a light box activity designed to assist in the making of hybrid imagery. The man began with, “I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here.” The woman with him agreed, “Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.” A sixty-something man participating in the portrait drawing activity remarked, “I used to take art classes, but it’s been so long ago… it’s like I forgot that and I saw this and I remembered.” This feeling of nostalgia for something that is no longer a part of someone’s everyday life was also a common response from adults. Many adults responded that they enjoy drawing or making but, “don’t do it enough.”
Aside from drawing-based activities, the Center for Creative Connections also has a drop-in art making area with large communal tables called the Art Spot, which we say is the place for “anytime art-making for everyone.” We invite visitors to explore their creativity by making creations out of unexpected or everyday materials. Every two months we change the materials and provide a prompt to inspire ideas. Each time I’m hesitant and wonder, “What will people make with this?” But, I am always delighted and surprised by the imaginative creations that are made and left behind. Children often come to C3 and head straight for the Art Spot, while adults can be a bit more tentative. However, regardless of age, most visitors stay anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours, with an average of about 20 minutes. Once they gather their materials they become immersed in their creation. For some it is a hands-on problem solving activity while for others it is about manipulating materials. How can you combine these objects (cups, spoons, paperclips, wire, egg cartons, cardboard, etc.) into something unique and surprising? This kind of open-ended activity, reminiscent of childhood playing and pretending, is not often made available to adults. I frequently watch my eight-year-old daughter take something like a toilet paper roll and turn it into a piano for her dollhouse, or repurpose a cardboard box to make an enormous rocket ship. This nostalgia for childhood play was brought perfectly into perspective by a recent Art Spot creation.
At the DMA, learning can take many approaches and forms. We strive to be inclusive so that we can reach visitors with a multitude of interests and experiences and preferences for learning. In the Center for Creative Connections, our mission is to engage visitors of all ages with works of art and the creative process of artists. We hope that by designing participatory ways to learn we will provide fun and playful activities for all of our visitors, regardless of their age.
How Are You Engaging Adults in Unexpected Ways?
As museum education steps further away from a traditional didactic style and more towards an inclusive approach that attempts to reach a multitude of interests and learning styles, the question of how to engage adults is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. What if our adults want a lecture? What if they shy away from participatory activities? Will we isolate a large population of our adult audience by trying a new approach? These are valid questions to consider, and making a change does not imply that you have to make a 180-degree turn, but rather consider offering varying opportunities including these types of child-like playful activities. How are you engaging adults in unexpected ways? What successes and struggles have you come across as you experiment with offering new adult experiences?
Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.
About the Author
JESSICA FUENTES: Center for Creative Connections(C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art. Jessica received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Her thesis was a collaboration with her then six-year-old daughter to explore self-guided family experiences in art museums. Jessica’s daughter remains an important resource in her work developing interactives and activities which provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with works of art through drawing, making, and discussion. Jessica is also an artist and a member of 500X Gallery, one of Texas’ oldest, artist run cooperative galleries. In her down time, she can usually be found with her daughter enjoying an art museum or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Dallas Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Reposted from CODE | WORDS, an experimental publishing project on Medium exploring emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the impact of digital technologies on society. This collection of essays has since been published in book form by Museums Etc.
As the AMC series Mad Men aired its midseason finale back in May 2014, more than two million viewers were graced with an unexpected song and dance performance from senior advertising executive Bert Cooper, played by actor and past Broadway star Robert Morse. In this musical equivalent to hitting the pause button on a much anticipated final season that does not resume until next spring, Morse crooned the lyrical lines first written in 1930: “The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.”
For me, it was certainly one of the most intriguingly beautiful and surprising moments on television in recent years. The song comes during the last two minutes of an episode in which the daily dramas of the show’s characters are laid on top of, and intertwined with, the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point in the episode, everyone gathers around a television, wherever they are, to watch Neil Armstrong take that small step onto the surface of the moon — engaging in one of the most memorable shared human experiences of the 20th century (an estimated 600 million people worldwide were watching the moon landing live on television at that very moment).
Technology, engineering, and new media undeniably acted to create a profound connection. In her Los Angeles Times column about the Mad Men episode, Meredith Blake wrote:
“It was an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection.”
This perspective has particularly resonated with me at a time when I have been grappling with the effects of digital technologies and media on the educational role of museums. Are my own core values of human connection, shared experience, and community co-creation a part of the digital transformation happening in museums? When we’re overly suspect of digital technologies, are we missing out on a greater opportunity to embrace a ‘digital is everywhere’ mentality—a mindset that brings together thinking about digital technologies and the new ways in which humans connect, share, and learn in a digital age?
Yes, and yes.
Well …. how did I get there?
In May 2013, I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (followed by a short thinking piece online) entitled “Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?” that explored my uncertainties about the growing emphasis on technology in museums. Far from being anti-technology, I was, however, exploring some burning questions I, myself, had about the role of digital technology in museum learning and visitor engagement through the polemical dichotomy of ‘plugged in’ versus ‘unplugged.’ Among many questions, I asked:
“As we focus more and more on digital and online experiences, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century? If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experiences in the galleries and across programming?”
After seeing some museums investing more in a single digital project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget, I was genuinely concerned that we might be losing sight of the basic ‘unplugged’ human interactions at the core of learning that allow these institutions and their collections to have public value and mean something to the communities they serve. I even wrote, “when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.”
Yet, I have come to realize that we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today. If the lights go out in the museum and all the WiFi hotspots and screens go dark, we might lose the physical technology infrastructure, but we do not lose the powerful participatory, networked, open source culture that has taken root in our audiences and communities in the 21st century. In this regard, digital technology cannot simply fall away.
In the 2014 Let’s Get Real 2 report developed from the second Culture24 Action Research Project involving 22 arts and cultural organizations, experts from across the field noted that institutions are struggling to embrace the new realities of audience behavior (via the web, mobile devices, social media, etc.). Jane Finnis, Project Lead, remarks in her foreword to the report:
“this challenge is absolutely not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is first and foremost about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.”
For museums in the 21st century, becoming more aware and responsive to these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset.’ This approach envisions a deeper fluency and understanding of web behaviors, mobile behaviors, and social media behaviors across all areas of museum practice, rather than relegated to the IT, online collections, or website functions of a museum. In her core essay from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology (a must read, by the way) entitled “This Belongs to You: On Openness and Sharing at Statens Museum for Kunst,” Curator of Digital Museum Practice Merete Sanderhoff sets out to define “a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure” (23). She continues:
“Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up for us, we must explore and incorporate not just technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.”
So how might we begin to think more like users, and see our audience as users, as well?
Be More Open
With the rise of the Internet, the phrase ‘open source’ began as a way to describe open access to software source code and the collaborative model for how it is developed. Key elements of this development model have been: universal free access and redistribution of the source code, an openness for users to modify and adapt that blueprint in any way desired, and an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.
In museums today, one of the direct effects of this open source movement can be found in the ways through which institutions have released their collection data. As the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museum) initiative coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation asserts:
“The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.”
In 2013, the Rijksmuseum released 150,000 copyright-free, high resolution images of public domain works — one of several art museums that have made collection data and images openly available online. But they have gone beyond simply releasing images and data, and actively encouraged people to share their collection, remix the artworks to create personalized collections, print reproductions (including everything from posters and canvas prints to coffee mugs and bed covers), and allow artists free reign to use these images to create something new. As of October 2014, visitors had created more than 169,000 new virtual exhibitions through the RijksStudio web platform. Ed Rodley’s recent CODE | WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity” lays out an interesting case for museums like the Rijksmuseum being promiscuous with its collection.
Pushing open use of a collection even farther, in January 2014 the Walters Art Museum hosted its second Art Bytes hackathon to bring together technology and creative communities to use the museum’s rather new API to create games, Twitter bots, scavenger hunts, 3D prints, web apps, e-books, digital docents, etc. This competition not only utilized the collection data to inspire community-wide creative rethinking about the Walters, but it led to a whole series of incredible adaptations, recreations, and visitor experiences with the collection at the core.
One of Denmark’s leading IT lawyers, Martin von Haller Grønbæk, writes in his essay “GLAMourous Remix: Openness and Sharing for Cultural Institutions” from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology:
“All cultural institutions should endeavor to be as open as possible in the sense that as many people as possible should have the easiest access possible to the institution’s content. At the same time the institution should seek to ensure that the freely available content is shared, enriched, and processed by users, whether they are citizens, students, scholars, researchers, or commercial ventures.” (142)
If we think of the concept of ‘open’ in the broadest way possible (beyond releasing collection data), it has the potential to challenge museums to let go of some of their control and the limitations that come with this control. Embracing a mindset of openness changes the way we think about museum practice, inspiring a more participatory mentality focused around creating, transforming, and adapting — without the traditional restrictions that have limited forms of public cultural learning.
“With the web has come a new collaborative approach to knowledge generation and sharing, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and an expectation by users that they will be able to contribute and adapt/manipulate content to meet their own needs.” (Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the 21st Century, 6)
A hundred years ago, people relied on museums as a repository for the knowledge and information related to its cultural collections. If you wanted to learn more about the artists, artworks, cultures, and places of its collection, you walked inside a museum’s grand halls of knowledge. Today, that has completely shifted. Visitors can access far more information through their smartphone or mobile device than any museum could ever hold (as of October 2014, 87% of people in the US use the Internet, 67% own smartphones, and they have access to more than 672 billion gigabytes of data from more than 1 billion websites).
During a visit to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I found myself sitting in front of an amazing Franz Kline painting entitled “Turin” in their Abstract Expressionism collection. While the pithy 98-word unattributed ‘voice of god’ label offered a few tidbits (“Kline used commercial house paints,” and that the painting was “named after a city in northern Italy”), I quickly went to my iPhone to search for more—I was hungry for more. From the 350,000 Google search responses, I instantly found videos, photos, Wikipedia entries, curatorial essays, poetry, music, visitor comments, slow looking reflections, and links to dozens of other museums that had works by Kline in their own collections. While I may have been standing in the Nelson Atkins building, I found myself reaching outside of its walls and connecting digitally with a wide distributed network of authorities and communities of knowledge—even sharing my own content to this mix with tweets and Instagram photos. When I sat down with docents in front of this painting for deeper conversations, we opened up further layers of thoughts, insights, and questions that were not part of the authoritative knowledge repository of the museum.
We have rapidly moved out of the era of passive consumption of content selected by a few experts, and museums now have an opportunity to actively reshape their own authority in this new equation. The digital age does not negate the authority of museums and curatorial expertise, but, rather, it puts this authority in public conversation and dialogue with a wider network of knowledges, voices, and experiences. Cultural authority is not something solely established by a didactic label, curatorial essay, or published catalog; it is negotiated through discussion and collective participation, and shared with our community and the users (yes, I said ‘users’ instead of ‘audience’). with which we connect. In his 2009 essay “A Manual for the 21st Century Gatekeeper,” New York-based curator Michael Connor explores the ways in which the internet, social media, and new collaborative ways of working are fundamentally changing the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences. He writes:
“A curator’s authority pales in comparison to the audience’s vast collective stores of knowledge and passion. How can gatekeepers redefine their role in ways that harness the power of the audience without losing the sense of subjectivity and personal risk that lie behind aesthetic decisions?”
As museums work toward sharing authority, they can begin to allow for the voices of specific communities and the public to be heard inside the walls of these institutions—to speak for themselves. In her guest editor preface to the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on this theme of “shared authority,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello includes a powerful quote from historian Karen Halttunen that relates to the role museum staff play as workers in these public institutions:
“We [must] divest ourselves of the special authority sometimes granted to us … [and we must] enter democratic partnerships with other members of our communities.”
For me, the Memory Jar Project a couple years ago at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History really stands out in terms of a museum working to renegotiate traditional, monolithic structures of authority (using a ‘digital mindset’ in an analog way). Part of a larger community-sourced exhibition project called Santa Cruz Collects, visitors were invited to ‘bottle up’ a memory in a jar, label it, and leave it as part of this exhibit to share with others. The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories initiative also continues to strive toward shared authority and multiple voices (see “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectices: Native Voices”). By redefining authority through these processes of co-creating knowledge and meaning with the community, a museum has the potential to be far more than just a place that holds and disseminates knowledge.
At the core of the digital age are new ways of relating to one another, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, learning, collaborating, and connecting. In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman argue that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, 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.
“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.”
Through countless digital projects and social media activities, museums are tapping into global networks and becoming more connected to this growing virtual community (that, in many cases, actually has a strong relationship with a museum’s physical community). As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, stated in a 2014 New York Times piece, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”
Through the Portland Art Museum’s #captureParklandia project, we were able to effectively explore the interconnected network of interest-based social media communities (via Instagram) and the physical communities in Portland itself. The overall reach of this project through Instagram was far larger than the museum’s annual in-person attendance, motivating us to rethink how we define our audiences and the new ways in which we might bring them together through moments of exchange. Rob Stein explores related ideas in his CODE | WORDS essay “Museums… So What?”, writing:
“… the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities?”
The Question Bridge project is a particularly powerful example of using digital technologies in a participatory way to bring people together in dialogue and exchange. Organized by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, this innovative transmedia art project aims to facilitate a question-and-answer dialog between black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and create a platform for representing and redefining black male identity. In addition to its online interactive site, the project has been installed at over 25 museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, and the Missouri History Museum, and includes a multiple-screen video installation as well as a youth development curriculum and specialized community engagement events. The project (about which I encourage you to learn more) is all about dialogue and listening, and it taps into both technology and a digital mindset in order to enhance the connective and collective experience of participants in a digital age.
* * * * *
In her book Museums in the Digital Age, Susana Smith Bautista discusses how notions of place, community, and culture are changing for museums in the digital age. In her conclusion, she writes:
“If museums are to remain relevant, vital, and meaningful, then they must adapt to a changing society, which means not only recognizing and incorporating new digital tools for communication, but more importantly, recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of society as reflected in their communities of physical and virtual visitors.” (225).
As the behaviors of our audiences and communities change, so do the ways in which they learn. A core part of this digital transformation in museums (see “Museums Morph Digitally”) involves expanding our concepts of learning and engagement to be responsive to an Internet culture defined by participation — and not just ‘participation for the sake of participation,’ but as serious involvement in the deep, connected forms of cultural and creative learning that can occur with museums.
Embracing a digital mindset of openness, participation, and connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century—in much the same way that new technologies brought people together for that powerful shared moment 45 years ago to witness Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap.’
After all … the moon belongs to everyone.
* * * * *
On November 12, 2014, the NAEA Museum Education Division hosted a Peer2Peer Hangout that focused on these ideas of ‘digital mindset’ and ‘digital museum practice’ with Ed Rodley, Chelsea Kelly, Michelle Grohe, and Juline Chevalier. It was a lively conversation with lots of good questions from people watching live. View the video archive of this Hangout below:
Editor’s Note: As I near the end of my second year as Director of Education & Public Programs here at the Portland Art Museum, I find myself more interested than ever in how a museum can connect with its community and its place. Even before I arrived, the Museum was already envisioning itself as a platform for community dialogues, conversation, engagement, and critical thinking in relation to its collection and exhibitions (this certainly was something that drew me out here). And in the past couple years, the team here at the Portland Art Museum has continued to work with the Portland community in new and unique ways to be a museum of its place, not just a museum in its place. The following post by Kristin Bayans and Justin Meyer describes our current project entitled #captureParklandia, designed as a way to spark thinking about parks, gardens, and experiences with green spaces in our own community — in conjunction with the stunning exhibition Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden about the art, design, evolution, and experience of Paris’ most famous garden. Through this social media photography project, museum visitors and the public community are encouraged to share their park experiences and memories, but also to discover new park spaces and think about them in a new light through the lens of the Tuileries. With art serving as a catalyst, projects such as #captureParklandia — in addition to our robust series of programming this summer — allow the museum to serve as a platform for public engagement and community dialogue around issues relevant to the life of our city and its region. While there have been recent questions about the validity of a project like this for an art museum, I firmly stand behind the success of this experimental project in social media and place-based digital engagement. Please add your voice below in the Comments section, as it is always important to have an open dialogue about these issues as we face them in the ever-changing landscape of museums in the 21st century.
* * * * *
Written by Kristin Bayans, Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum, and Justin Meyer, Portland Art Museum Education Intern and PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan
#captureParklandia is the Portland Art Museum’s most recent dive into a large-scale social media project. Created in tandem with the special exhibition The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Gardens, Portland Parks and Recreation, and the Portland Parks Foundation, #captureParklandia is both an online and in-gallery experience. #captureParklandia’s pie-in-the-sky goal is to get Portlanders to play with the museum and connect in new ways. Through this playful interaction, Portlanders will begin to think of PAM as their museum, not just a museum.
#captureParklandia Works Like This
Anyone with Instagram can tag their photo of a park in Portland with our hashtag (the project’s name). All of these photos are displayed on both an up-to-date feed, as well as geolocated on a map of Portland via the Museum’s webpage for this project. In the exhibition gallery, particularly captivating hashtagged Instagram photos are displayed digitally in a dynamic web application, Slidely. Twelve unique photos, selected by our partners from the thousands of tagged submissions on Instagram, were printed as one of twelve individual “Portland Park” trading cards (120,000 cards were printed in total). Trading cards have the project’s hashtag, advertise the work of Portland Parks and Recreation, and give visitors to the in-gallery experience something to take with them.
Go Forth and Get’em
Perhaps the most important step to putting this project together was recruiting members of InstaPDX (Portland’s Instagram social club) in-person during one of their pub meet-ups. It was a bit awkward at first; we were essentially speed-dating with members of the group, going from one person to another describing the project and asking for their participation. Within 24 hours of our pub appearance, the project received hundreds of Instagram tags! Shelley Bernstein, Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology at the Brooklyn Museum was 100% correct about the power of seeking out audiences within their own communities, when she stated “… after all, why should we expect them (web based communities) to come to us?” (Bautista 178).
It was clear that by no means were we going to be “besties” with InstaPDX, but at least we might be relegated to “cool relative” status (the one you are jazzed to hang out with once in a while). Sadly, this is one of the plights of being an authoritarian figure institution; (cue dramatic music) the…“Museum.” Firm in our desire to cultivate a relationship of mutual respect, we invited members of the InstaPDX community to the press preview of Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden. In addition, we chose a handful of InstaPDX members’ #captureParklandia images to be printed on our park trading cards, working in conjunction with Portland Parks and Recreation. This infuses our project with more crowd-sourced content, exposes museum visitors to the talent of community photographers, and validates the work of artists outside the museum.
#captureParklandia is part of the Portland Art Museum’s ongoing strategies to engage audiences. Like us, several museums have been experimenting with crowd-sourced tagging and picture sharing platforms since the early 2000s. What is revolutionary about these approaches is that they are powered by the kind of community engagement Shelley Bernstein was talking about: seeking out audiences on their own turf and on their own terms. Institutionally, there is power in demonstrating a different and effective way of communicating with Portlanders, as well as discovering that some Portlanders who don’t traditionally interact with the museum welcome the opportunity. As Ed Rodley, Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, has said — this is an actual way to have a rich varied relationship with people over time.
#captureParklandia draws upon what Susan Smith Bautista describes in her new book Museums in the Digital Age as a place/experience, or a way of seeing the world through interconnected networks of space and time. With projects that expand the traditional experience of a single, in-person visit to a gallery, the Portland Art Museum can become more than a building or a collection of objects. The Portland Art Museum can become a part of someone’s learned experience and their lives.
#captureParklandia is still afoot. We have been gathering social media analytics and in-gallery observations, which have all been pointing to the success of this project via the digital engagement (high levels of participation in the hashtag as well as enormous outreach via social media) as well as the analog ways in which people can interact (with a large mural-sized in-gallery map of 200+ Portland parks, as well as through the trading cards that visitors can take with them). So far it has been AMAZING, but is it still a little too safe? Social media is busy, multifaceted, and opinionated. The Portland Art Museum’s in-gallery presentation is very streamline and curated at a certain level.
“Museums are empowering their visitors with new digital experiments that allow common voices to be heard in the same space as curators.… The empowerment is bracketed within a deeply hierarchical space where the museum retains final authority over curation, installation, didactics, acquisitions of works, and more.” (Bautista 229).
Does this actually matter to our visitors? Is creating a platform enough? Does this keep us at arm’s length from our visitors, continually relegating us to “cool relative” status? Koven Smith of Kinetic Museums gave this some thought. We’d love to hear your thoughts about these issues.
From August to September we are hosting a weekly themed #captureParklandia Instagram contest. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if you are interested in what happens next. The exhibition The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Gardensis on view at the Portland Art Museum through September 21, 2014. If you are not in Portland, check out #captureParklandia online or watch our series of public programs that continue to address the art, history, design, and future thinking around parks, gardens, and green spaces all summer long.
KRISTIN BAYANS: Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum where she produces interpretive media learning experiences — mobile, web, and in-gallery — for the Object Stories project, special exhibitions, and the Museum’s permanent collection; and curates exhibitions for the Object Stories gallery. Most recently, she served as Senior Educator for the Vernier Technology Lab for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and as an Assistant Educator for the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University and an M.A. in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Outside of work she chases her dog Felix around the park, sketches, “sings” karaoke, and plays board games. Kristin’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
JUSTIN MEYER: PhD candidate in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, conducting research on the relationships between art museums, communities, and cities. Justin recently completed a certificate in Museum Studies at the University of Michigan, as well as a Masters Degree in Urban Planning as a Wallenberg Scholar. He also holds degrees in engineering and environmental design from Stanford University and the University of Cambridge, respectively. During the spring and summer 2014, Justin worked as a graduate student intern with the Education department at the Portland Art Museum. In his spare time, he freelances as a professional singer in the Portland area and volunteers at the Oregon Humane Society. Justin’s postings on this site are his own and do not necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Invisible Pedagogies (IP) is a collective that works on the creation of a space in which we can rethink the relationship between art and education. It was born in Madrid in 2009 and was formed by educators from different areas such as high schools, colleges, community contexts, and art centers. It was created of the need we felt to look for new ways of thinking about the theory and practice in art education. We met while taking a doctorate course entitled Didactics of Suspicion, whose professor, Maria Acaso, is now the director of most of our doctorate studies. A strong bond was created between us, and it still helps us to become stronger in our struggle against the establishment. We were born as a “self-doctorate” (self taught) group who deals with theory but because of our methodological nature, yet based upon action-research strategies, we were soon forced into practice.
On the other hand, invisible pedagogies is a concept that already existed before the collective, exploring education beyond the boundaries of the curriculum and considering pedagogical elements that hadn’t been addressed in the learning-teaching experience until now. Invisible pedagogies is the reflection upon the non-explicit micro-discourses that all-together form the macro-discourse that is the pedagogical act. And although they remain on a second level, they are likely to transform the body and soul of the participants involved in it.
In other words, the teaching act is a mediated performance in the same way that a theatrical performance is mediated and its different elements (micro-discourses) will make up a pedagogical narrative. What do our students in class, the participants in a workshop, or museum visitors learn beyond the contents we have prepared for them? An example we always use to explain invisible pedagogies is the door. What is the meaning of closing a door in the classroom? And of leaving it open? Or asking the students which they prefer? In a museum the fact that the entrance doors are automatic or revolving or that one must push them, will send a specifically different message to the visitor and will affect the way he or she interacts with the art inside.
“Invisible pedagogies have many ways of changing people in their participation in the educative act. They help them to learn or not; they get people to become passionate for knowledge or deadly bored, they make them feel fear or pleasure, they invite them to share or to hide” (Acaso, 2012)
Invisible Pedagogies in Museums
We do not limit ourselves to making invisible pedagogies visible, but, once we have detected them, we analyze and transform them by applying them in new contexts and using new educational theories in different projects.
In the case of the three educators in the Invisisble Pedagogies (IP) collective that work in museums and art centers (Eva Morales, David Lanau and myself, Andrea De Pascual), rather than changing doors, we are offering whole new formats that expand the concept of education in museums. Little by little, museums and art centers are changing their attitudes and are opening their minds to new educative proposals which go beyond guided tours, audioguides, or workshops out of the exhibition spaces. However, the real opportunity for us came from Matadero Madrid.
As a contemporary art center, Matadero Madrid does not have an education department as such, but it does have great interest in educative aspects far beyond offering the heritage of the institution as an educational resource available for schools to complete their curriculums, or the simplification of the contents of curatorial work. This institution gave us the possibility to design our educative actions from an approach which Carmen Mörsch calls transformative discourse:
“Practices related to this discourse (transformative) work against the categorical or hierarchical differentiation between curatorial effort and gallery education. In this practice, gallery educators and the public not only work together to uncover institutional mechanisms, but also to improve and expand them” (Mörsch, 2009)
Working for Matadero Madrid helped us to visualize the (post)museum more as “a process or experience not a building to be visited. In it the role of the exhibition is to be focus for a plethora of transient activities” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000). And it helped us see education as “an element of ongoing personal growth, that is not limited to one particular stage of life. Education as play, a way of unravelling the media theatre. Education as an open source operating system that turns us into critical citizens. Education as a game played by all individuals, from all eras. Education as a utopia for a culture-sharing society” (Zemos98, 2012).
These are just a few of our references that helps us to transform directionality, format, and methodology (among other aspects of traditional museum education) when designing our educational actions.
Transforming Invisible Pedagogies
I will present now some of the invisible pedagogies we have detected, analyzed, and transformed during the almost 5 years we have been working together, as well as issues and goals that are part of our methodological frame.
One of the most important discourses we want to change is the power-knowledge barrierbuilt between educators (visible voice of the institution during the praxis of museum education) and participants (individuals that in most cases feel they don’t have anything to say about contemporary art). In order to change this invisible directionality, we think that just sitting in a circle or introducing ourselves at the beginning of an activity (strategies that are already common practice) is not enough. One of our strategies to change that invisible pedagogy is to have always more than one educator per workshop. The idea is not only to decentralize people’s attention, so as not to have a single point of view, but also to show that among the “agents of the institution” there can be disagreements and even discords. It is a scheme to make the one true voice disappear in favor of a multiplicity of voices, all of them being equally valid. We also think that it was fundamental, in order to bring down this wall of conventional teaching, to introduce analytic dialogue (based on the possibility instead of the agreement) and open-ended activities receptive to the unexpected.
Another important invisible discourse we have to dismantle and transform is that Art and Education are two separate things. Art and Education are the two sides of the museum coin and should be approached at the same time. Just as art can be educative, education can be artistic. Why not use performance, installation, minimalism, video, body action. etc. as educative tools? We’re interested in the idea of using contemporary art not only as content of the program but also as a pedagogical format.
I think that nowadays we, museum educators, will in most cases agree that participants in our programs produce knowledge and add meaning to the exhibits but are we really honest? Are we prepared to believe it? What are we really telling our participants? If we want the museum to be a social agent and a place of action and transformation, we need to consider the participants in our actions as learning-communities capable of producing knowledge of the same quality, interest, and authenticity as the knowledge produced by artists and curators. To make this more than a statement, we never use a separate space in the museum (like a workshop reserved for education activities) and we find strategies through which participants and visitors can leave a footprint in the gallery or the museum. We mean to use the galleries, halls, atriums, or even the patios of museums as learning sites. We think of the museum as a learning laboratory in which new layers of knowledge are added to the pre-existing ones by the visualization of the knowledge production of the participants.
Last but not least, we introduce the action-research tool in museum education to change the invisible discourse that exists inside institutions around education departments. Although education departments in museums are now common and have their importance, the untold truth is that they still don’t have the resources or the tools needed to reach the status they deserve within the institution. Research is essential to change this dynamic. First, because the knowledge and research produced in museum education departments should be available to specialists; therefore archives are just as indispensable in education departments as in those of curatorship. Second, because in education there is no way of knowing how to improve the practice if you don’t analyze it.
IP Museum Projects at Matadero Madrid
The first time IP worked with Matadero Madrid we developed a family workshop program that we called En Construcción. Disculpen las molestias (Under construction, sorry for the inconvenience) to activate a gallery dedicated to contemporary art called Abierto X Obras (Open for Repairs). IP transformed the family workshop format into intergenerational workshops, or, as we called them on that occasion, 0-99 workshops (from 0 to 99 years of age). The goal was to create a more inclusive format in which teenagers or babies could participate, or in which family was extended to include roommates, close friends, or even to allow adults (alone or accompanied with or without children) and to have them all participate in active way.
For our second project, we were invited to strengthen and activate the relationships between the audience and the art production that was taking place in El Ranchito— an exhibition that made visible the working processes of artists rather than the finished work. The project was called Espacio Visible (Visible Space), and it was literally a space inside the gallery available to educators and visitors to add meaning to the exhibition through their own contributions.
Our third project called Here, together now: Building art communities in a changing world, was a multi-national collaborative project to rethink how an art exhibition is produced, with and for whom. The three members of IP Museums were artists-educators in residence invited to create a scenario of mediation where the public could relate with what was being done.
In 2013 and 2014, we are developing the project Microondas: Recalentando la educación(Microwave: reheating the education) that consists of a collaborative-research and action group that rethinks current educational methodologies within new activist frameworks and theories. Our last seminar was called “Activist (?) Pedagogies”.
Opening the Conversation
Can you detect other invisible pedagogies in museum education? How would you transform them to change the dynamics of teaching in the museum? By incorporating invisible pedagogies in the practice of museum education, in what ways do you think they could expand the concept of education within the museum? Add your voice to the conversation below, or on Twitter with hashtag #invisiblepedagogies.
About the Author
ANDREA DE PASCUAL: A bilingual (Spanish-English) education specialist, artist, and researcher, Andrea is founding member of the collective Invisible Pedagogies and creator of the project The Rhizomatic Museum. She has worked for the past 8 years in a variety of museums, cultural institutions, and praxis collectives. Her work has focused on how the museum can be activated not only as a site for individualized contemplation, but also as a community-based site where knowledge is shared, and social, political and environmental issues are addressed. Andrea graduated from the Masters Program in Art Education at New York University in 2013 while on a Fulbright Fellowship, in connection with her Doctoral work as a candidate in Art Education in Museums at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Her dissertation is titled “Non Hierarchic Knowledge Production Strategies Within Western Visual Art Museums: The Rhizomatic Museum.” Andrea’s postings on this site are her own.
Last week, ArtMuseumTeaching partnered up with 3 amazing museum educators and the American Folk Art Museum to host the first Museum Teaching Throw Down. The event was a huge success, and I would like to thank the American Folk Art Museum as well as everyone who was able to attend on that cold night in New York. We all wanted to take this opportunity to get our post-throwdown reflections in writing, thinking about the process of exploring, envisioning, and enacting this collective in-gallery experience.
I kicked off the Throw Down by welcoming everyone, and reading a short list of reasons why I, myself, had wanted to do an event like this:
It just plain sounded fun, and a good way to geek out museum-ed style.
A gathering like this might be a different way to connect, reflect, and share, both professionally and personally.
Pushing our teaching practice in public with peers might help make us more responsible to our audience, and in turn, perhaps foster an audience more amenable to the risks we’re willing to take for them.
It has the potential to ask what museum teaching, learning, and participation can be, with the hopes of taking an active role in shaping what will come next.
A Museum Teaching Throw Down gives museum teaching a stage, and says that what we do as educators is valuable — and that we’ll pack a room to witness it. This says something powerful to me about our museum education community.
Before we jumped into the gallery teaching experiences, I also evoked Marc Smith, the Chicago construction worker who in the 1980s started the Poetry Slam movement. He would begin each slam by introducing himself, and he trained the audience to respond by shouting “SO WHAT?!?” For Marc, this gave each slam event a clear sense of humility as well as a way to declare that everyone in the room was just as important for participating. I repeated this “SO WHAT?!?” exercise to kick-off our Museum Throw Down, and I think that question stuck with many of us throughout the night and brings us to reflect on our experiences. What follows are reflections from each of the 3 Throw Down educators (PJ Policarpio, Rachel Ropeik, and Jen Oleniczak) thinking about how the night came together, what the experience was like, and some initial responses to the all-important question: SO WHAT?
When I read about the premise of the show Folk Couture at the American Folk Art Museum, I was immediately excited by the opportunity to teach from objects that I don’t usually get a chance to teach from: couture dresses and folk art. What an exciting personal challenge for me to teach from new objects in a fun, creative, and innovative way. Given the range of options from Folk Couture, I was instantly intrigued by designer Bibhu Mohapatra’s inspiration, a rare 19th century Tattoo Pattern Book. My own fascination with tattoos and tattooing culture inspired my choice of objects for the throw down. This inspired me to dig deep and learn more about the specificity of the visual language within the culture and tradition of sailors/maritime workers. In a way, this rare Tattoo Pattern Book can serve as a visual dictionary. From here, I collected about 15 tattoo designs that carry corresponding meanings within the subculture. I imagined what kind of images I might see if I were to look through the 35 waterproof pages of the book.
My Throw Down experience started with having people pair up and share personal experiences with tattoos or tattooing. After, we looked at the Tattoo Pattern Book and I provided some information about the object. The interactive part from my teaching was an old fashioned matching game. In groups, I asked participants to match tattoo designs with their corresponding meanings. (Example: a sparrow tattoo was for a sailor who logged five thousand miles at sea. At ten thousand miles, a sailor could add a second swallow.)
I wanted the participants to understand the rich and distinct visual language in which the tattoos communicated to those who are/were a part of this culture. Going back to the objects, we related our knowledge to Bibhu Mohapatra’s garment and his narrative & inspiration
I took home so many things from the Museum Teaching Throw Down that I would like to think about in my own teaching practice, primarily how to create engaging activities/experiences that are still centered on art/artifacts. It also reinforced my need for research (how much fun it can be!) and providing accurate information, all essential for meaningful and purposeful museum experiences. I also found out that I like working with adults (very important!).
How can I bring this spirit into my work? That’s the question that’s been rattling around my brain since our throw down. I’ll admit, it took me a few days to come down from the high of such an exciting evening at the museum. I’m still in a bit of #MuseumThrowdownWithdrawal (a hashtag entirely too long for actual Twitter usage). But instead of being sad it’s over, I’ve been thinking about how I can keep the high going.
My own teaching philosophy (growing and changing as it does) is still very much based on the object itself, but I wanted to stretch myself and experiment with a participatory group activity that took the object as a jumping off point, and then morphed into its own entity.
So the object observation started us off:
And then we evolved into walking the catwalk in our original creations (Vine courtesy of Rebecca Mir):
The group’s energy started off impressively focused and then grew into a wonderfully playful, creative, positive atmosphere by the time everyone was strutting their stuff and applauding each newly-created look. It reminded me of the fun people can have in the museum when you don’t stick purely to focusing on the object, when you let the object inspire you to do something several degrees removed.
I know this sounds like basic Museum Education 101 stuff here, and it is. But that room full of museum adventurers of all sorts was having such a good time and thinking so creatively that I’m determined to keep (re)affirming the value of fun in my head as I go forward with my work. What can I do with teachers that takes them beyond museum-based lesson planning? What can I do with students that really captures their imaginations in the galleries?
It’ll be a stretch for some people who may not come in with the same desire to experiment that our intrepid throw down attendees had. It’ll be a push for me to keep thinking about new, creative activities instead of falling back on the tested and true. But that’s what I’m taking away from the inaugural Museum Teaching Throw Down (besides my victory, that is… #NotSoHumbleBrag); push for the unexpected and keep my audience on their toes, and maybe they’ll hit the same magical excitement that filled up the American Folk Art Museum galleries-turned-runway that night.
What risk did I take? That’s a question on my mind since last week’s throwdown. I’m not quiet regarding my feelings about improv and museum education, but it’s been something I’ve been regrettably nervous about since starting The Engaging Educator. Tableaux Vivants aside, I’ve been careful (afraid?) not to introduce too many ‘acting’ exercises into my practice among peers. Give me a group of students and I’ll have them walking through ‘jello’ while they are embodying jealousy. Even in my improv class and professional development sessions, I’ll push comfort levels.
But for the most part, I’ve been hesitant to introduce it to peers unless they signed up fully knowing what may happen. And upon realizing I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching, I decided to make my words happen. If we try not to fail, we never succeed. The likes of theatre, selfies and social media came out.
I approached the Throw Down with the opinion that if I won, I wasn’t making people uncomfortable enough. I want people to feel unnerved, out of their skin and element – like they too were experimenting with me. Even now, a week later, I don’t think I pushed people enough.
So bring on the Gallery Teaching Marathon in San Diego. Theatre and social media are coming out full force. What better place to experiment than with my peers? As for the future of NYC Throwdowns – this WILL happen again. And you better believe I’m going to continue seeing how far I can go – because really, what’s the worst that happens if it fails miserably? Nothing.
* * * * *
SHARE YOUR IDEAS: What are your thoughts about the idea of a Museum Teaching Throw Down? What is the risk? What is the value? SO WHAT? What are some ways that we can use in-gallery practice for professional and personal growth as well as the building of stronger peer communities? Is any of this new, or have museum educators always had some form of a ‘throw down’ to keep things real? Even if you could not attend the first Throw Down, we’d love to hear from you about these issues.
Interested in hosting your own Museum Teaching Throw Down? Go for it! Just please use the hashtag #MuseumThrowDown so we can all connect to the amazing experience and collectively discover new ways to challenge ourselves and our teaching practice. And try to start by having the audience shout back “SO WHAT?!?”
According to Wiktionary, the term “throw down” was popularized in 1990s street culture, derived from the idiom throw down the gauntlet or “to issue a challenge,” also used in the sense of “to make a stand” or “to stand up and contribute something.” The term has been further popularized by the drama-filled televised cook-off competitions of chef Bobby Flay in his Food Network show called Throwdown, which always ends with his open challenge to all viewers: “Are you ready for a Throwdown?”
There have been throw downs in poetry, music, football, breakdancing, cooking, glee clubs, boxing, politics, and street fighting, but there has never been a throw down in museum teaching … until now! This month, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brings together 4 challengers and 1 museum for the first-ever “Museum Teaching THROW DOWN,” aimed at bringing out the best in experience, creativity, risk-taking, and experimentation.
Four fierce educator/competitors will gather at the American Folk Art Museum on February 26th, prepared to “make a stand” and lead a gallery teaching experience of about 15-20 minutes each. Each educator will use the museum’s current special exhibition Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art to activate the audience in new and engaging ways. After each educator has completed their gallery experience, the audience then gets to decide who leaves as the winner of the first-ever Museum Teaching THROW DOWN.
Let’s meet the challengers…
As we start to get psyched-up about the upcoming THROW DOWN, I asked all the competitors to tell me why they are interested in this type of museum teaching challenge. So here is a little bit more about us, and why we’re doing this.
“So often we get caught up in what works — the gallery stops and activities that are tried and true in a given audience. Failure is a scary thing, and experimental implies a chance of failure. Through my work with the Engaging Educator and Museum Hack, I’m all about taking risks that have the capacity to either be massive failures or tremendous successes. If you are constantly trying not to fail, you’ll never succeed. The THROW DOWN for experimental museum teaching offers a platform to take a big risk with colleagues I respect — and to blow it up at the American Folk Art Museum.”
“I’ve been a dancer for most of my life, but a lifetime of ballet and jazz classes do not a B-girl make. No, my forays (and yes, there have been several) into breakdancing haven’t scored me my own dance movie, but they’ve always been a blast. Why? Because they’ve always been about people getting together to throw down some moves and cheer each other on and have a good old-fashioned great time. So let’s do that in a museum. Let’s see some crazy cool art creations and some bad@$$ gallery teaching in action and make the museum the place for that collective sharing and cheering.”
“Breaking isn’t about meticulously planned choreography. It’s about feeling the music and trying things out and hearing the crowd roar when they love what you do. And OK, so maybe the crowd roar in the museum is going to have to be a little quieter, but I’m still ready to throw down some museum ed moves and shake it up and flow with some great colleagues and an eager audience. Bring it on!”
PJ POLICARPIO: Teaching his way across the Big Apple, this master-of-all-trades museum educator and community engager means business. @pjpolicarpio
“I do love a good challenge. I’m really interested in where this “throw down” is headed and would love to participate! An experimental museum teaching throw down is exciting because museum educators by nature are always on our toes. We are constantly challenged by a variety of factors and almost always rely on our myriad teaching tools/strategies combined with experience. This is a perfect challenge! Looking forward to collaborating on this project!”
MIKE MURAWSKI: Last but not least, the blogger who needs to put his money where his mouth is; the “Bobby Flay” of this Throw Down (FYI – Bobby Flay did lose many of his cooking throw downs; those were alway the best episodes, too). @murawski27
“I have been hankering for a first-ever Museum Teaching Throw Down, and am excited to launch this in the city that never sleeps. We all do teaching and touring in our ‘jobs,’ but we don’t get much time to truly play with our craft and experiment in fun and bold ways in a supportive environment outside our own institutions. I look forward to getting together with this terrifyingly fantastic group of New York City museum educators, and pushing ourselves in ways that are a bit outside the box. Let’s do this!”
Drinking About Museums
It doesn’t end there. After the THROW DOWN concludes around 7:30pm (if there is anyone still standing), we plan to head to nearby P.J. Clarke’s (44 West 63rd Street) for a Drinking About Museums hangout, meet-up, and discussion. There, we can celebrate the winner of the first-ever THROW DOWN, and decide whether we ever want to do this again. Even if you can’t make it to the American Folk Art Museum, we’d love to see you for a few drinks and some great conversation.
We hope to see you there at the American Folk Art Museum on February 26th and for the Drinking About Museums that follows! To stay up to date on any further details or event changes, connect with the Google+ Event page (let us know if you’re coming) and the join the ArtMuseumTeaching Google Community.
And, to all you museum educators out there, keep doing what you do. But ask yourself this … Are you ready for a Throw Down?
Teen programs provide a very different kind of opportunity for museums to experiment with interpretation. Because many teens participate in multiple programs for extended lengths of time, they become advocates and resources for our museums and its collections. Teens at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art have been part of two experimental interpretive strategies that go deeper than one-day-only programs, providing not only learning experiences for students involved, but powerful tools and content for their institutions.
From the museum educator’s perspective, we—Chelsea Emelie Kelly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Patty Edmonson at the Cleveland Museum of Art—originally connected because both of our programs create video content featuring teens for our collections. However, we’ve come to see that there are more connections and applications to what we’re doing than simply producing object-focused, teen-made videos. We share our programs and projects below, and we’re now thinking about how we can make use of this content beyond teen audiences. Read on and share your thoughts with us!
The Teen CO∙OP started in 2013, and it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest teen program. We chose ten students from a pool of applicants to participate in a two-week summer session, where we trained them to work with the public and create their own programming. They use these skills during our monthly family days, called Second Sundays. CO∙OP members work in our interactive gallery, Gallery One, answering visitor questions and starting conversations about art and the museum. During these events, they also help with studio projects, pass out the teen guide they made, and create Vine videos. The CMA is working toward a more visible teen presence and authentic teen voices.
Video has been a tool for us to hear these teen voices and get students to think about storytelling in museums. During our summer session we created short films with a local production company, North Water Partners. Each student began by choosing an artwork and we interviewed them about their initial reactions before they knew very much about the piece. After these first interviews they read about their artworks and we talked about historical context. We asked them to complete a series of small tasks: choose three words that describe the artwork; describe this to someone who can’t see; write a tagline for the artwork; tell a story about this artwork; make a Vine about it. These tasks became pieces that they could include in their storyboards. Some also created their own typography or imagery to incorporate into their video.
One of the biggest challenges was balancing fun and appropriateness. I wanted the students to feel comfortable being silly, but there were several moments when we stopped to talk about respecting the art and museum. We also went out on a limb by letting the video content come from their ideas and observations, not solely art historical information. We are not creating mini art historians here. That said, we did have to navigate one interpretation of a portrait with a shadow that looked like a bruise. The student was interested in creating a story of a battered woman, but we stepped in to talk about why this story might not be the best one to imagine, and spent time looking at more portraits and their shadows.
Through these videos, the teens learned to look closer. They seemed excited that their observations were valid and their confidence grew. I also saw their public speaking abilities improve after being behind the camera, which can be tough. One of our big goals was to capture an authentic voice, and we chose not to correct language that museums wouldn’t normally approve, like “I’m finna to the grand ball” (as in fixing to go). I felt that by letting their real voices come through, we let them know that they can be themselves in a museum.
We hope to show these videos on our website, and you can see some of the good and bad Vines under the account, CMA Teen CO-OP. Our plan next summer is to make content that can better fit into our app, ArtLens.
Satellite High School Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning
The Satellite High School Program is an art history focused weekly gallery program at the Milwaukee Art Museum for sixteen arts-interested teens from the Milwaukee area to connect with works of art and each other. As part of the program, teens choose a work of art in the Museum collection to study and interpret, and share their ideas in a final project. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with how they share using video in two very different ways.
In the spring 2013 program, teens had one semester to choose a work, study it, and make a creative response to it, in visual art, writing, music, or media of their choice. I wanted to be sure their work was shared with a wider audience, so I used my own personal DSLR camera to film them with their artwork and creative responses. I had them write their own voiceover explaining their piece, their connection to it, and their response project, making sure that the video was just about one minute long for quick, easy consumption. Here’s just one of their videos, featuring Joel:
That project was successful, but I wanted to turn much more of the creation over to the teens themselves. I knew I had a chance to do just that when we received funding to buy a set of iPads for the Education Department.
This fall, as part of a school year-long program, a new group of teens had a different task: they shared their personal connections to their work of art through a video they created on an iPad. Over the course of the semester, they created video blogs (vlogs) reflecting on their changing thoughts about their work of art. They also received “readers” with basic information on their work of art or artist, and led a group discussion with all the Satellite students about their piece to get others’ opinions and thoughts. At the end of the semester, they created midterm videos piecing together with their reflection vlogs to show their evolution of thought. Here is ZouaPang’s video:
Teens continually asked themselves what they were still wondering about, and much changed over the course of the semester. When asked what she learned after an early session, Alana responded: “I learned how to better analyze paintings.” Her answer to the same question at the last session of the semester was much richer: “I learned a lot more about how to analyze art and research which I think is really cool because now instead of just looking at a piece and saying ‘pretty picture’ I notice more things about the pieces I see.” Alana’s video—and all her research and analysis!—is below.
One-to-one iPads came with their own set of challenges. Instead of solo weekend troubleshooting with DSLRs and iMovie, I found myself with a wonderfully excited group who wanted to use the iPad for much longer than I’d anticipated! In fact, I learned that students about doubled the time I usually allotted to use the iPad comfortably and feel good about their work.
Next semester, the same group of students will continue to explore their artwork and create more formal videos for a wider visitor audience about their work of art. We’re going to kickoff the semester with some visitor studies: teens will go into the galleries and do a card-sort exercise with Museum visitors to discover what people actually want to know about works of art (thanks to Marianna Adams for this activity!). Then we’ll pool our data and discuss how we might format our videos for a larger audience, as well as how the teens think we should share the content.
We’re now in the phase of thinking about what we can do with the content our students have worked so hard to create. We know their voices are important and engaging, and are thinking about how best to share them. Since ArtMuseumTeaching.com is a forum for practice, we would love to open our questions up to all of you. What other purposes might these videos serve? Would they be interesting to other audiences? Where and how should these videos be shared? Please share your thoughts with us, as well as comments or questions, below!
The above phrase is written in bold on the back of a postcard handed out after every tour; Museum Hack believes it, and thinks you should too. The company is not associated with the museum, rather they are a band of renegade lovers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that call themselves Museum Hack.
Museum Hack, at its core, seeks to get people excited about museums. While a simple thought, and common mission for all educators, it’s a complicated formula. I’ve been working as a Hacker for the past few months, leading tours with Creative Director and Chief Hacker Mark Rosen. Small in size but big in energy, Museum Hack tours are two-hour jaunts, breaking the massive museum down into individual experiences with works of art. Working with the mindset that museums should be treated like fine dining – experiences not to overindulge in – Museum Hack encourages visitors to savor the works that resonate and ignore the urge to see it all. Tours incorporate inquiry, storytelling, movement, tour guide swaps, photo challenges, power moves, and a little sass to shake up the traditional museum visit.
Essentially, the company tries to humanize museums and art. The museum is treated like an old friend you can’t wait to see again, as tours highlight the personality of the collection in an attempt to turn even the most skeptical visitor into a Met fan. As one of the largest museums in the world, the Met is daunting to even the most seasoned visitor. With that in mind, Museum Hack decided to hack in an effort to provide the kind of tasting menu that keeps visitors coming back.
Here’s a perfect example: after teaching a group about accession numbers at the beginning of the tour, and how to use them to access the Met’s online collection, I had a group using them to figure out provenance about a work – without my prompting. Before the tour, many if not all of them had no idea what the decimal number on the label was. How empowering is that to a visitor?
How is this different from other tours? Museum Hack supplements the expected lecture-based or dialogue-focused museum tour with the kind of teaching you’d expect on the best high school tour ever given, but on speed. This fearless approach to museum education is a huge part of the success of this barely five-month-old company. Tours are also $39 per person (in keeping with private tour costs in New York City) and group size is kept to a maximum of 9 participants. Thinking less tour and more adventure, Museum Hack aims to provide visitors with an experience worth every penny.
Museum Hack is not affiliated with the Met. The Met is aware of the company, as evidenced in a Wall Street Journal piece and multiple news segments filmed on-site. As a Hacker, there have been a few times I’ve been shushed, but I’ve also been shushed in museums that employ me. A large part of the ‘why’ Museum Hack exists is the passion about the Met – everyone truly believes it is an incredible museum, and wants to share that enthusiasm.
* * * * *
The Why & How of Museum Hack
Written by Mark Rosen
Why We Hack
Museum Hack was founded largely with museum skeptics in mind, those folks who know museums are important but don’t find them all too intellectually sexy. I often drop the line “people have been people since they’ve been people” while on tour to draw attention to how relateable the objects can be once you snap out of the usual museum-going mentality. While with us, we encourage visitors to be their real selves, and empower them to feel like they don’t have to change to fit the space.
We believe museums are SO much more than their highlights. That said, it seems most visitors come to institutions like the Met and end up resorting to a highlights checklist or squeezing it all into one frenzied visit. We believe museums really start to mean something when you’re motivated to hunt for what speaks to you. We’re hoping to inspire people to start to reexamine what it means to be cultured; visiting in a “got the postcard” kind of way is something, but wanting to be active and inquisitive in a visit is our idea of next level.
How We Hack
Hacking, in all of its buzzword glory, can be interpreted in a number of ways. To us, hacking involves studying the elements of a system so well that you can manipulate them to make them into something new. Make that system a “museum experience,” add in some renegade flair, and you have the core of Museum Hack. We’re building the company into a think-tank of sorts, creating space to muck with new ways of getting people to connect with museums.
Our hacking is best split into two categories: content hack and experience hack. We see the content hack as hacking the collection and celebrating its underdogs, those works in corners and thruways that you would never expect to have amazing stories. This is why we call our tours Un-Highlights tours; they’re about the hundreds of thousands of things most people breeze by on their way to the biggies. The experience hack comes in with style and the variety of activities we use to get visitors to engage in unexpected ways. You might be forced to spend seven minutes in art heaven or find yourself striking a pose and talking like a sculpture, you never know.
The common thread of all of our tours is passion. We feel people are most attracted to an infectiously passionate voice, so we encourage our guides to be unapologetically head over heals in love with what makes art and history juicy. Our scrappy team is made up of research-loving interdisciplinary thinkers who are given a toolbox but told to follow their intuition and ultimately give the tour they would give to their friends.
Museum Hack is starting to think of thematic tours (Creepy Baby Jesus, The Metropolitan Museum of Butts, maybe a Ladies Night at the Met tour) and expansion to other museums. As the company continues to evolve, we’re interested in opening the conversation up to challenge our thinking and explore what more folks think of hacking the museum.
On December 17th, Jen Oleniczak and Mike Murawski connected via a Google Hangout on Air to chat more about Museum Hack and answer questions. Thanks to everyone who watched us live and tweeted in your questions. While Jen was lost from the connection for a bit, Mike kept the torch burning and we are able to have a great conversation about what Museum Hack means and what is next. There was also a great Twitter chat happening via the hashtag #museumhack (so check that out if you have a chance). Here were some of the questions we addressed — and you can watch the video below:
How can we hack for positive change in museums?
What does it mean to hack a museum?
Why has the term hack become so trendy in the field?
How is the trend of hacking going to impact the future of the field?
Are museum educators and institutions already doing this? How is Museum Hack different from good museum teaching?
“Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.”—Pablo Helguera
As museums face the current challenges to drive relevance through becoming more active, participatory, responsive, and community-based, projects such as the ones explored in this past week’s posts indicate a potentially transformative role for artists to play. Whether rethinking a museum’s visitor experience, reinventing the public spaces of and around museums, drawing on creative practice to break museums’ ‘old habits,’ or interrogating the internal culture and working of the museum, artists are effectively exploring museum institutions as sites with a distinct “possibility for evolution,” to reconnect with the powerful words from Joseph Beuys that opened this series of posts (and from which the title of my paper came).
This final excerpt from my paper presented as part of the International Museum Forum in South Korea in October 2013 discusses the artist-driven program I am directly involved in here at the Portland Art Museum. In addition, I’m concluding this post with some of the “core, burning questions” that institutions involved in this work are addressing — especially as many of these projects are in a current phase of reflection and rethinking.
Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light
“Art and everyday life share a common and continuous border. They coexist in the same reality, divided and defined by a border that twists, turns, open and closes. The edges of the museum are part of that border, and like the imaginary line between any contested territories, this boundary does not completely reflect the reality on the ground.” —Paul Ramirez Jonas (“An Imaginary Line,” Shine a Light 2013 program)
At the same time that the team at the Walker Art Center was preparing to launch Open Field and Machine Project had recently experimented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which preceded their work at the Hammer Museum), the Education team at the Portland Art Museum began conversations with the faculty in Art & Social Practice at neighboring Portland State University around similar types of experimentations. The immediate outcome of this collaboration was Shine a Light, a new annual one-night event at the Portland Art Museum dedicated to experimentation, play, and participation. Emerging out of a collaboration between the museum and Portland State University’s MFA program in Art & Social Practice, Shine a Light invited the MFA program’s faculty and students to propose a series of projects that would experiment in and with the Museum space — conceiving the museum as a laboratory for ideas and interventions. As Christina Olsen, then Director of Education and Public Programs at the museum, recounts:
“Over lunch one day, I began to talk with Harrell Fletcher and Jen Delos Reyes—co-directors of PSU’s Art & Social Practice program—about the the ‘habits of mind’ that govern both museum visitors and museum staff, and ways we might collaborate to expand such mindsets” (Shine a Light 2010).
Inspired by the Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art one-day event in November 2008 as well as the broader approach and process of social practice art, the team at the Portland Art Museum and PSU launched the first Shine a Light event in September 2009. For six hours, the museum was a space in which sixteen artists enacted projects that offered visitors new, unanticipated, playful and provocative ways to experience the museum. The goals established during this first event—which have remained the core goals for this project up through the most recent Shine a Light event in 2013—included:
Situate art (producing, interpreting, enjoying, puzzling over) as a living activity that everyone can participate in.
Encourage an atmosphere of participation between the museum, its visitors, and artists.
Make the museum a “site” of artistic production and practice.
Inspire inquiry into the connection between art and everyday life.
Artist-led projects that have been part of Shine a Light since 2009 have ranged from live Greco-Roman nude wrestling, a museum cookbook, dead artist seances, and haircuts inspired by artworks in the collection to inviting visitors to have a work of art tattooed onto their body, to sing songs about a work of art, or to display their personal cell phone photos within the museum’s photography collection. Here is a video compilation that features projects from Shine a Light 2013:
Since the project’s launch in 2009, the annual Shine a Light event has brought together more than 9,000 participants to actively engage in a total of 88 artist-driven projects spread across the entire museum campus, successfully cultivating a younger “millennial” audience as well as encouraging existing audiences to rethink what is possible in an art museum. In its four iterations, Shine a Light has built a unique framework to work closely with emerging and professional artists and to provide an ongoing platform for the Museum, artists, and audiences to actively learn and experiment with one another.
In her introduction to the 2013 Shine a Light event program, Associate Director of Education & Public Programs Stephanie Parrish encapsulates much of the museum’s current thinking about this experimental project:
“In its ideal form, a program like Shine a Light is a platform that nudges us to wonder; to consider art museum spaces as flexible sites where one’s identity as an artist, an institution, or a member of the public is increasingly fluid…. We find ourselves in a hybrid zone, somewhere on a continuum where museums not only display but also produce art, where artists shape and are shaped by institutions and are not just pitted against them, and where multiple publics see themselves as participants in and reflected through the art. Shine a Light is a space where we co-produce museum experiences and adjust our perspective of where art, artists, and institutions intersect in our everyday lives.” (Shine a Light 2013 program, 1).
Raising Core Questions
During the 2013 Open Engagement conference — an international gathering of artists, educators, curators, and scholars in the field of social practice and socially-engaged art—one of the panel sessions entitled “Art Museums and Social Practice: Where Are We Now?” brought together nearly a dozen museum professionals and artists engaged in this type of practice within their own institutions. Facilitated by the Shine a Light team at the Portland Art Museum, the thinking around this panel session began months in advance by having museum professionals and artists define the ‘burning questions’ that were core to their own involvement with this practice in museums. After gathering ten pages filled with questions, the group was invited to “crowd-source” the most urgent questions by marking the questions most relevant to their own practice.
At the Open Engagement panel discussion, the top questions were revealed and discussed, and I think perhaps it is an appropriate way to end this paper by simply presenting these and other questions that are now sparking some open thinking in the field across institutions.
Are we doing this work to broaden our audiences or to serve existing audiences?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus a public engagement or education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists? How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
Many of the answers to these and other questions are localized to each project and institution (some have even been addressed above by existing projects), yet certainly some common responses will emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists, as well as museum staff that have been gaining a tremendous level of creative capacity through this type of work. Overall, many of these core questions bring the conversation back to the ability of these socially-engaged, participatory projects to effect change — whether that is shifting the ‘mindset’ for museum visitors as well as the communities that engage with museums, or a more broad social change felt in the community.