Written by Sara Egan
When we originally scheduled visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the classes at a Boston high school in our School Partnership Program, we didn’t consider the date of the presidential election as a factor. My colleagues and I didn’t purposefully plan for the 10th grade students, too young to vote but old enough to be politically aware, to come to this historic institution in the two days following the surprising result. It wasn’t our intention that the 12th graders would come the following week, having had time to begin to process the world in which we awoke on November 9, 2016. But that’s exactly what happened.
Our partnership with these students and their teachers is based on our commitment to respond to where they are and what they need from us to scaffold their development as critical thinkers and engaged museum-goers. We’ve built relationships and cultivated trust with this school over 5 years, coming to understand what they grapple with individually and as a community. At this school, many of the students are Black, Muslim, and/or their families are immigrants. When they come to the Museum, they bring their whole selves to each discussion. So when we found ourselves on the eve of the election concluding a long, polarizing campaign, we recommitted ourselves to putting the students at the center and modified our plan for their visits.
We designed an experience for students to engage with the Gardner Museum in a variety of ways, understanding that everyone processes turmoil differently. First, we welcomed them back to the Museum and gave them a sense of what to expect from the visit. Then we used our temporary exhibition, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books, as a starting point. One theme of this exhibition is the spread of literacy and access to information during the Renaissance, highlighting how society valued knowledge of history, literature and rhetoric during that time. The students took as much time as they needed to explore the exhibition on their own, looking closely with their friends and finding moments of interest and beauty. As a group we discussed the ideas that they discovered in the objects and in the interpretive materials, huddling together over an illuminated choir book or a scientific rendering of marine creatures. Then we honed in on one artwork, a painting of St. Jerome in which they found further examples of the importance of scholarly work and humanistic ideals. This first half of their visit hewed closely to our initial plan, introducing the students to the exhibition while connecting it to their prior experiences at the Museum.
The major adaption was that the rest of the visit became structured time for the students to reflect, process, and express themselves. Rather than going to another gallery or looking at another artwork, we brought the students to the courtyard in the center of the historic collection. We handed each student a sketchbook and a pencil, invited them to sit on the stone benches facing the courtyard, and introduced a prompt tying together the objects they’d been exploring, the Museum created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the students’ own lives:
Together we’ve been looking at these old books, considering how the artists used text and illustration, and the impact the books had on society. Now you’ll get to design your own book. You can write a story, a poem or a song, draw something you see here or something you imagine, or just take deep breaths and process. If you find it helpful to think of a prompt, you might consider this: When Isabella Stewart Gardner made this museum she said that what the country needed most was art. What do you think our country needs most right now?
It was moving to see how students brought their whole selves to this activity. The 10th grade classes that came on November 8 and 9 spent much of the time asking us and their History teacher questions about the Electoral College, and voicing their fears for what would happen to their families who are undocumented immigrants. Some drew campaign symbols and slogans, some wrote about stamping out hate and encouraging love. The 12th grade students who visited on November 16 and 17 appreciated the escapism offered by the Courtyard. They spoke about the chance to sit quietly in a beautiful space that seems to be a world apart from Boston, a time apart from 2016.
During all of these classes the other museum educators, classroom teachers, and I tried to spend time with each student to answer their questions and reiterate that we would stand with them and their loved ones. Some students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to center themselves and consider their thoughts and feelings in their own way, and a growing awareness that we, the Gardner Museum educators who they’ve come to know since 9th grade, intentionally created that space out of our deep concern and caring for them. By the end of the visit, after about 30 minutes of reflection and processing, the mood had shifted to one of hope and mutual support.
Since the election, many of us have felt the urgency of action. This set of class visits to the Gardner Museum was a small, immediate action, but one that ripples outward. These students and teachers’ ideas about how to relate to a museum (even a seemingly elite, historic one like the Gardner) might be forever transformed by the half hour they spent nurturing themselves and each other. Their mental and emotional states also changed, and we can imagine that impact was felt in all of the other interactions they had that day. As museum educators, we have the ability to create this space for our visitors – we have the flexibility to respond to our visitors and we have the objects and environments that remind them of the beauty of our shared humanity.
I’ll leave you with a poem written in the Gardner’s courtyard by Jayne Irvy Veillard, a 12th grade student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers:
By Jayne Irvy Veillard
Living in a world where there’s no peace
Living in a world where cries are silenced
Living with the pain among us.
What our world needs is
Why can’t we love?
What’s so hard about loving your neighbor as yourself?
Do you not love who YOU are?
Why can’t there be peace?
Why does there have to be war?
What’s so hard about finding peace?
Look into your heart
Is it Black?
The color your heart bleeds
Does it bleed Black?
Black portrayed as ugly and slavery
Black the color of gun shots and cruelty
Black the hatred set up for men
Black, mothers and children crying for help
BLACK! SHOTS FIRED!
Look into your heart
Is it White?
Does it bleed white?
White the color of peace and love
White purity and pure
White privileged and power
JUST SHUT UP!
What’s the difference?
Why separate these two colors?
Grey the color of this lead
Grey the unity of black and white
Grey the sound of ones holding hands
Grey we shall overcome aye?
Grey The Middle Ground
What our word needs is Grey!
No More Struggling
No More Pain
No More Poor
Just more love
One for all
What our world needs is Grey
The happiness of Grey
That’s what our world needs
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About the Author
SARA EGAN is School Partnerships Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sara was recently named the Massachusetts Art Education Association’s 2017 Museum Art Educator of the Year. She teaches preK-12th grade students in the Museum and the classroom using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), trains and coaches teachers in VTS, and conducts research on the impact of the Gardner’s School Partnership Program. Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes program, and is an adjunct professor of art at Simmons College. She has previously worked at the Andy Warhol Museum and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Sara holds a BA from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Header Photo: A 10th grade student from Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Billie Weiss.