When I first started hearing news about the coronavirus in China I didn’t understand the seriousness of this disease and how it would quickly come to change everything about our lives. I had taken vacation time to spend part of Spring Break with my family and when I returned to work on Thursday, March 12 I was surprised to hear that attendance had been low and people were opting to stay home. That evening and the next morning, conversations were brewing at the museum about potentially closing to the public. I attended a series of meetings on Friday, March 13 and felt like I was getting new updates every hour about what this would mean for our institution, staff, and community.
That day felt like a whirlwind, and though I would still go into the office the following Monday to gather files and prepare myself and my team for working from home for the foreseeable future I knew everything had changed. As a photographer, I am always documenting my life and the world around me. Through the images below you can get a glimpse into the world as my family (husband, 13 year old daughter, 2 year old daughter, and various dogs) and I have experienced it the past few weeks. See the caption with each image for additional text.
This new normal for my family has had its ups and downs. Being (mostly) confined to our somewhat small home and trying to focus on work in a shared space with a teenager, a two year old, and my significant other has been difficult. Worrying about when the museum will reopen, when or if schools will be back in session, and if my loved ones or I will get sick has been a slow build-up of anxiety that I have never experienced before. But, I truly enjoy taking a lunch break and eating at the table with my family instead of eating at my desk as I work through lunch. It has been so nice to get outdoors more often whether we are going on walks, working in the garden, or running around the backyard with the dogs.
How have you been managing work, family, friends, your own mental health during this time? What aspects of this new way of living do you plan to hold on to when this is all said and done? What aspects of the old way of living do you look forward to getting back?
About the Author
JESSICA FUENTES: Manager of School and Community Outreach, Amon Carter Museum of American Art. As an art educator with over thirteen years of experience Jessica has taught in both classroom and museum settings. She received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Jessica worked for six years at the Dallas Museum of Art as the Manager of Gallery Interpretation and the Center for Creative Connections prior to joining the Carter in 2018. Though much of her passion and work is focused on her local community, she serves on the Education Planning Committee for the Smithsonian Latino Center and as the Representative-Elect for the Western Region of the Museum Division of the National Art Education Association. In her downtime she can usually be found with her daughters out in nature, 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 Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Reposted from the Museum Education Roundtable blog, a space created to address timely issues that we face in the field of museum work, reflect on member events, and expand upon recent Journal of Museum Education (JME) issues.
Submitted by Michelle Dezember
In a new format aimed at incorporating multiple perspectives on current topics in our field, the Museum Education Roundtable blog introduces “4 x 4” interview, in which they invite four thought leaders to answer four questions related to a chosen theme. This playful approach seeks to navigate pressing topics with the personal touch of a conversation. The first theme features four approaches to “self-care.” Below is the first interview in this series.
Aligning with the transition into the autumn season, Michelle Dezember, Chief Program Officer of the Aspen Art Museum and MER board member, caught up with Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum and Founding Editor at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, to talk about their experiences in nature, its restorative benefits, and what we can learn from reconnecting with the natural world.
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Michelle Dezember: Which came first, your love of museums or your love of nature? How do you see these as related?
Mike Murawski: I grew up in St. Louis with my back yard right up next to Laumeier Sculpture Park, so my play in nature as a child also involved sculptures and art. I don’t remember visiting a museum until eighth grade, and so my first real experience with art was outdoors in more uncontrolled, wild spaces where I could run around, unsupervised and certainly not quiet. Maybe as a result, my work within museums has not always accepted the structures of organizational culture that restrict our experiences with art and make them feel like they have to be quiet, untouchable, or clean instead of messy. I do think that something happened for me at the sculpture park as a child that ties together my love of nature and my love of art. It all goes back to me loving being out in open play.
Michelle: A “wild space” is in direct contrast with the “white cube,” isn’t it? Even though you and I might not change museums architecturally, we can certainly engender a wild space through our teaching and programming. I think that happens when we immerse ourselves into that space with deep curiosity. This makes me think about the idea of “forest bathing,” which you introduced me to. Can you talk about what this is and what impact it has on your life and work?
Mike: Across the long history of the human species, we’ve only been sitting at a desk, in front of a screen, walking on pavement, hearing industrial sounds of machines, or even wearing shoes for a tiny fraction of that time. When was the last time you were somewhere that you couldn’t hear the sounds of the human-made world? I honestly can’t remember, because even when you’re in the middle of a national park you might still hear an airplane fly overhead. We just simply don’t connect with nature in slow and intimate ways any more, but a desire for that connection is ingrained in our DNA. Forest bathing allows us to have experience where we take in nature through our sense, not on a hike or anything, but through a slow, immersive, meditative experiences. There’s a lot of interesting research that has been done in the last several years about the positive impact of being in nature on our health and physical well-being. Forest bathing actually even taps into our spiritual well-being and how we identify our whole self by seeing nature as a core part or our being and origin.
This summer I led a brief forest bathing experience at MuseumCamp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We gathered in a nearby park and shared a series of meditative, yoga-like experiences that allowed us to be present in the moment and connect with the forest through all of our senses. Going on a hike is about ‘getting there’ but forest bathing is about ‘being here’ and taking in the moment, in the place we are in.
It can happen in backyards, parks, gardens, anywhere there is some greenery. At the Sustain retreat you hosted at the Aspen Art Museum, we took our shoes off during one of the sessions, and then we did a walking meditation as part of another experience. We should all do that more often, because there’s something in our DNA that responds positively to opening ourselves up to that kind of connection with nature and the world around us.
Back to your question about what we can learn from this connection to nature that could be applied to our work—I think it all starts with slowing down. Through much of the equity, inclusion, and accessibility work we’re doing at the Portland Art Museum, we frequently talk about how much we could achieve if we slow down and trust the process. What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t prioritize the same pace of deadlines and work flow, and we take the time to be in the moment and have the difficult and important conversations we need to be having (but often take time)?
The other thing that has been important to me is tactile, physical engagement with things. How many times have you gone on a hike and maybe not touched anything? We have an idea that getting dirty is bad, but in Santa Cruz I asked people to take their shoes off in the dirt (totally inspired by our walking meditation in Aspen). I invited people to rub the dirt in their hands, smell it, and let your body reconnect with what surrounds us. So often the white cube doesn’t invite that tactile engagement, but as educators we can open up a whole new range of experiences. We’re inviting a much closer relationship with objects and people when we engage in all of our senses, not just sight.
Michelle: You touched on the spirituality of experiences with nature. It seems that feeling humbled or part of something bigger might happen most easily in immersive experiences that disconnect us from our routine. What can people who don’t have easy access to expansive public lands do?
Mike: Living in the Pacific Northwest, I definitely have the privilege of living close to incredible old growth forests, and it’s part of the culture and identity of this place. It’s certainly not like that everywhere. Yet everyone has some sort of green space nearby. Botanical gardens or nearby parks are amazing places to visit and unplug. Go back to a place to watch how it changes through the seasons. One of the exercises in forest bathing is to think of a memory of a tree from your childhood, maybe one you would climb or build forts around. It shows us that all we need is one tree to form a connection. Visit a tree and make a leaf collection, draw some of the leaves, wonder how long that tree has been there, and think about the story it has to tell. Or, can you take your meetings outdoors for a walk around the block? All of these gestures ground us in the moment and provide us with the sense of connection needed to be present.
Michelle: Which is so important! Right now is autumn, which I love for the reminder to embrace change. What symbolism does autumn have for you?
Mike: Autumn has traditionally been the time of things dying, fading, or leaves falling off the trees. But in Portland, the summer is so dry that everything turns brown. When it starts raining in the fall, life comes back with green moss and mushrooms. Re-growth is the best way to describe it. It’s very restorative and powerful.
We had a bad wildfire last year outside of Portland that burned 50,000 acres, including many popular hiking trails. Just a couple of weeks ago, my partner and I took our first hike through the area since it has started to re-open. To walk through the forest and see the scarring of burn marks on the trees and then bright green ferns and moss growing all around them – that reminded me that nature can come back after terrible devastation with new life.
There’s a resilience that nature can teach us if we are paying attention. There is a gift that comes from dramatic change.
Things will grow back, and often even stronger.
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Michelle Dezember is the Chief Program Officer of the Aspen Art Museum and serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Education Roundtable.
Mike Murawski is the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum and founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com. He earned is MA and PhD in Education from American University, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. He has also served in education departments at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and led workshops, lectures, and trainings at museums across the country. He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action.
Through a recent series of posts, I’ve been exploring the idea of a human-centered museum, why this is a meaningful way to think about the work of museums, and what changes we can make to bring people to the center of these institutions. Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture. It is about putting people, not just visitors or customers, at the center of our organizational thinking. These people include visitors as well as staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions. All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem. I’ve written about how we can rethink internal hierarchies and work toward building a culture of empathy, and now I want to turn to the importance of cultivating personal agency in museums.
As museum professionals and workers, we too often ‘clock in’ to our jobs and check our own personal passions, values, and identities at the door. The personal communities of our lives float away as we embrace the existing institutional culture and branded identities of our museums.
In her 2015 book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Harvard professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses her research into personal power in the workplace. “Some organizations,” she finds, “socialize new employees by focusing on the groups’ identity and needs, failing to acknowledge those of the individuals. Workers may even be discouraged from expressing their true identities” (p. 54). In many cases, these organizational or group cultures are grounded in legacies of oppression and white, male, patriarchal, colonial values, and they frequently conflict with our personal identities. Yet, for museums to become truly human-centered and inclusive, we must work toward valuing and celebrating the unique identities, experiences, values, skills, and passions that individuals bring to the institution.
So what does it look like when we bring our whole selves into our work? This core question was asked by Amber Johnson, Founder of Justice Fleet, in her powerful opening keynote at the 2017 MuseumNext conference in Portland:
How do we bring our whole selves into our work spaces and what does that look like? What does it mean to say ‘This is all of me and I’m going to put all my junk on the table’?
Through her work with Justice Fleet, Johnson is on a mission to start a dialogue about radical inclusion and radical forgiveness, going into neighborhoods to engage their communities in discussions about implicit and explicit bias, social identity, and communicating across difference.
Her 2017 MuseumNext talk entitled ”Revolution Requires Forgiveness” focused in on the importance of bringing our social identities with us to our professional work, and what it means to allow those identities to truly impact our work. For Johnson, radical inclusion is a deeply personal act that “requires bringing the whole self to the table, [and] the dirty, nasty questions that nobody wants to answer, ‘Who am I? What matters to me?’” Beyond this level of deep personal reflection, radical inclusion at the institutional level requires a lot of people within an organization bringing their whole selves to the table. Both radical inclusion and radical forgiveness, as Johnson aptly frames them, are vital to museums becoming more human-centered and ensuring that museums are places that understand, support, and value what every individual brings to this work.
So this begs the question: how can we begin to engage in bringing our whole selves to our work on a daily basis? What are some initial strategies you can adopt right now?
Strategies for Change
In his book Museums and the Paradox of Change (2013), scholar and museum activist Robert Janes strongly advocates for museum organizations to connect with the knowledge, experience, and values of individual museum employees and to cultivate personal agency at all levels and departments of an institution. Janes defines personal agency as “the capacity of individual museum workers (not only leaders and managers) to take action in the world.” He outlines some clear, doable strategies for museum leaders and workers at all levels, and I wanted to simply share several of them here:
Ask yourself, your colleagues, your supervisor, and your leaders “why” you are doing what you are doing? This questioning will help to move the museum beyond the “what” and the “how.”
If there is an intractable issue or situation that is adversely affecting your work, speak out. Advise your manager of the difficulty and ways to address it. Have the courage of your convictions to remedy the situation.
Decision-making should be decentralized throughout the museum to the “lowest level” in the organization where the work can be done well. In short, staff should have as much responsibility as possible for decisions which affect their work.
Any person in the museum, irrespective of level or rank, must be free to go directly to any person in the museum for information or assistance needed to perform his or her job.
When appropriate, share aspects of your non-work life, whether it be involvement in an environmental NGO or work as an artist. These seemingly unrelated skills, knowledge, and experience are essential as a museum broadens its awareness and engages in the interests, issues, and aspirations of its community.
Bringing our whole selves into our museum work is vital to developing human-centered museums, and so is cultivating museums as spaces where we can actually do this. Managers and leaders need to break down the rigid expectations of conforming to a corporate culture or institutional branding, and create environments where employees and colleagues can safely bring their personal and social identities into their professional work. This is tied up with breaking down hierarchies within museums as well as building a culture of empathy. As we make decisions in the museum workplace, we should be asking ourselves: what are we prioritizing over the skills, knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of our co-workers and colleagues? When might we be valuing ‘the museum’ over the people who work within it?
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In her widely-watched 2010 TED talk entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” researcher and author Brené Brown talks about connection as a fundamental human experience. “Connection is why we’re here,” she says. “It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” During a time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy, human connection, and personal empowerment. We just need to truly embrace, value, and celebrate the people that make up museums–staff at all levels, volunteers, visitors, neighbors, community partners, members, donors, and the broader public. These people, more than anything else, give museums their meaning and purpose to become agents of positive change.
Share Your Thoughts
These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.
Are you working to cultivate personal agency in your organization? How do you breing your whole self in your practice? What challenges do you face in this work? This conversation deserves to be more complex, and bring in as many perspectives as possible. Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.
Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!
“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed. Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.” –Paul Klee
I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country. My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.
Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working. Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.
The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking. It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.
I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”. From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.
Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.
I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.
One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing. I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.
The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.
When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present. The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey. Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.
Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.
When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?
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SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA. Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts. She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.