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.
What can museums learn from approaches, models, and practices in other fields? How are we continuing to frame and define empathy and relevance in museum programming? Are we doing the research, making the connections, and learning from what else is out there?
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I love good storytelling on the radio – whether listening to NPR as a child in the back seat of my Dad’s car, pulling over to a parking lot to catch the end of StoryCorps, or indulging in a podcast while I fold laundry. I love a good story; it’s partly why I love history. Last month, I attended a live event about Out of the Blocks, a documentary series on my local NPR station. The pieces began to fall together for me and I started considering this radio program in relation to dialogue-based museum programming.
Out of the Blocks is a program from WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the simple concept of sharing the stories of people living on one block in Baltimore, radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick create a series of episodes that present captivating narratives of real life. After interviewing everyone on one city block, they edit together interviews into one hour of radio that is lovely to listen to – opening perspective, building empathy and understanding. The show and podcast are well worth checking out; it’s truly amazing to hear interviewees share stories and see how editing, soundscape and production buoy those narratives.
However, it was the live event that really got me thinking. On stage, in real time, Baltimoreans whom Henkin and Patrick interviewed spoke about the project. Interviewees shared their first impressions of Henkin and Patrick, talked about being interviewed and, most movingly, what it was like to hear their own stories and voices in the final program on the radio. In front of a sold out auditorium of listeners and fans, many of them shared that it was both frightening and empowering to experience what eventually aired.
In his opening remarks, Henkin described the show as an experiment in radical empathy – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling and that the process of having people intently listen to that story feels good – it makes you feel like you matter. Producing this show is intensive and involves selecting a block to focus on, meeting and building relationships with everyone on that block, conducting hour long interviews with each person, editing all of those interviews into one episode and building the musical backdrop that amplifies and supports those stories. In the end, Henkin shared that he imagined each block as a mosaic of experiences and stories and, indeed, the city of Baltimore as a larger mosaic of those city blocks.
The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
The relationships built through the process – between the producers, interviewees, neighbors and a broader community of listeners
In late September, I visited two major history museums in town with a friend– the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Maryland Historical Society. In the galleries, there are glimpses of the “Baltimore mosaic” Henkin described, visible in the form of a personal object with a particularly evocative story behind it, a student curated show featuring photographs of the process of historical inquiry and research, or an exhibit designed as an immersive environment – transporting one through theatrical techniques to a different time and place. Yet, there weren’t nearly enough of those provocative and arresting personal stories that tether historical events to the experiences of real people.
When we teach in history museums and exhibitions, we sometimes get caught up in the intoxication of historical documents, artifacts, objects and buildings to the detriment of the emotional, personal, story-driven voice of those who experienced a place or event. Sometimes this may be because it’s hard to find voices, particularly of those not present in the historical record. And there is a sense of the need for “neutrality.” But even if we can’t necessarily “interview” people who are long gone, we as a field benefit from a continuous reminder about the power of visceral, real stories from real people – especially in the face of larger interpretive narratives that address the history of organizations, nations and institutions. There is power in specificity, and scaled, personal and connective stories.
Ideas I am walking away with
Here are some reminders and lessons I’m taking away from Out of the Blocks:
Relationship building. It takes a long time to create an episode of Out of the Blocks (about 8 weeks). The commitment to interview everyone on one block, each person for an hour, takes time. And there is also time spent hanging out and getting to know the people on that block. This may be part of why interviewees feel comfortable sharing their stories.
The power of storytelling and the importance of transparency. The power of storytelling isn’t new. But at the Out of the Blocks live event I was reminded of how powerful it is to know the “backstory.” Hearing directly from both producers and interviewees added depth, nuance and made clear that the project was meaningful to everyone: the producers and the interviewees.
The notion of sharing and listening as radical empathy. There is power to both sharing stories and having them heard. As staff at institutions and cultural organizations, we need to remember both pieces – dialogue is both talking and listening.
What if we applied the same intensive techniques Henkin and Patrick use to interpreting our historic buildings, sites and spaces? What if in the same ways they interviewed everyone living on one city block during one moment in time, we “interviewed” everyone who lived in one place through time –the people who occupied the space before a building was built, the people who built the building, the people who worked in the building, renovated, occupied and used a space in different ways through time, and the people who are there now, in the neighborhood. In this way, we might get closer to addressing the mythology of the “period of interpretation” as Frank Vagnone writes in his blog and the Anarchist’s Guide of Historic House Museums, co-authored with Deborah Ryan.
At one point in during the live event, Henkin shared that he and Patrick have been asked about the agenda for this series. What did they want to get out of this? What were they hoping for? Their response has been that there is no agenda but that if there were one, it would be to just show up and listen. What would it look like if museums just showed up and listened? What kinds of exhibitions, programs, partnerships and relationships might materialize? What can we in museums learn about programming and story from this kind of work? What examples of similar approaches in museums, libraries, at historic sites have you seen? Let’s amplify them.
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About the Author
BETH MALONEY works as an independent consultant, bringing educational expertise to museums and cultural organizations in the form of curriculum and program development, interpretation, visitor experience planning and professional training. In addition to partnering with a wide range of museums and historic sites, she teaches undergraduate courses that explore museum work and learning through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Former Board member and Past President of the Museum Education Roundtable, Beth serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. For more information and to be in touch, please visit www.bethmaloney.com.
Header Image: Photo by Wendel Patrick. Aaron Henkin conducting an interview for “OUT OF THE BLOCKS,” 2012, photo courtesy the artists.
Photos included in this post are by Wendel Patrick, used courtesy of the artist.
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?
Statistics and Evaluation
As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.
Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts. When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.
A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.
In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space. In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses. We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.
After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage? Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?” What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets? Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses? Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?
When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space. When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer. In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses. The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.” From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems. The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.
This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations. Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:
From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors. First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.
Share your thoughts
What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?
Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
This article is a case study about the impact of “unplugging” as it relates to reflective practice for youth and educators. If you’re interested in exploring reflection more broadly, and you’ll be attending the 2016 National Art Education Association Conference in Chicago next week, please join Mike Murawski and myself for our session “Reflective Practice in Museum Education” on Thursday, March 17 at 12 noon (McCormick Place/Lakeside Center/E271a). We’ll unpack reflective practice for museum educators in an interactive, conversational session—we hope to see you there! If you can’t join us, please comment here, tweet us (@chelseaemelie and @murawski27), or follow #NAEAReflect.
When talking about unplugging, we always think of technology. However, I define unplugging as a way of regaining full control of yourself, physically and mentally, in any circumstances. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
In the summer of 2015, a group of New York City high schoolers and college freshmen, students in the Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps program, gather in the Board of Officers room at the Armory, reclined on lean-back floor seating in front of a grand piano. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air, which turns to quiet excitement when two world-class artists enter the room: performance artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit.
During the next hour, Abramović and Levit give the students a crash course in unplugging and being present, major themes of their upcoming winter production—a hybrid performance/immersive experience to introduce audiences to a new method of engaging with classical music. Over the next few months, inspired by Abramović and Levit, a number of these students will deeply explore the concept of unplugging: what it is, why do it, and the unexpected realizations it can evoke about our own selves.
Although some might stereotype today’s teenagers as one of the most “plugged-in,” smartphone-obsessed generations of all time, our students offered sophisticated, thoughtful reflections about how we can truly connect with each other and better understand ourselves. As one of the educators facilitating this project, I had the unique opportunity to experience this deep dive into unplugging alongside my students. This post explores both the impact of “unplugging” and reflective practice on teens as well as its impact on me as a teacher, and offers ideas about how we might apply the benefits of unplugging to our practice as art educators and museum leaders.
The Project: Goldberg and the Guide to Unplugging
We understand that not many people today know what it is like to be left in silence, stripped from their cellular devices, or even just stare into someone’s eyes… We stepped out of our comfort zone and… left wanting to try it again. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Igor Levit and Marina Abramović’s Goldberg (which ran December 7–19, 2015 at Park Avenue Armory) required patrons to lock up their cell phones, watches, and personal belongings in lockers, then sit in silence in the Armory’s Drill Hall for 30 minutes to “unplug” and mentally prepare themselves to be present to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Levit. Abramović’s method for listening to music was experienced by thousands, including New York City public high school students in a student matinee.
The Youth Corps students were charged with developing ways to help their peers prepare for this uncommon experience. First, Youth Corps researched the artists and concepts behind Goldberg, familiarizing themselves with Bach, Levit, Abramović, performance art, and “slow” movements, from slow art to slow TV. They met with former Armory artist-in-residence Helga Davis, a vocalist and performance artist, who led the students through an activity in which they stared into each other’s eyes, opening themselves to their peers in a new way. They visited current artist-in-residence Imani Uzuri, whose singing and installation inspired by Sister Gertrude Morgan helped Youth Corps center themselves in mind and body.
A printed Guide to Unplugging became one of two facets of the project. As their driving question for the guide, the Youth Corps responded in writing to the question: What is worth unplugging for? They used verbal storytelling and peer editing to brainstorm and solidify their ideas. Their written responses ranged from getting in tune with nature to bike-riding with no destination in mind, from challenging oneself to communicate with family members, to getting lost in artmaking. Others talked of experiencing theater or acting, and some about meditating or being present on their morning commutes. Across the board, students acknowledged the importance in getting out of your comfort zone in order to unplug—and how worth it the challenge of being present is.
For the student matinee, and the second part of their final project, the Youth Corps assisted none other than Marina Abramović herself in creating a short pre-show for 450 students. Although the students had already been introduced to the production through a pre-visit from Armory Teaching Artists, this pre-show experience would ensure that students were present and ready for Goldberg itself. Over two meetings, Youth Corps spoke with Abramović about her method and process, and how Levit and the Goldberg Variations dovetailed with her own art practice. When the Youth Corps asked for any tips she had for experiencing Goldberg, Abramović led the group in an immersive breathing exercise—and it was so powerful that it quickly became clear that the pre-show should include the same. As Lizmarie described:
[Abramović had us start] by lying on the floor with our faces to the ceiling and having our hands to our hearts and stomachs. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean, and found the comparison between the motion of the waves and the beating of my heart. That is when I realized I was in a full state of relaxation. To me, the noises of kids in the hallway outside faded into a nice summer day with seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
And so the Youth Corps stood beside Abramović in front of 450 of their peers and shared their own personal experiences of Goldberg, then modeled the breathing exercise through which Abramović led the entire student audience. When she finished, the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall was completely silent, and remained so during both the soundless preface and throughout Levit’s performance. Later, as students filed out, the Youth Corps gave each student a Guide to Unplugging, to explore how they could continue their experience outside of the Armory.
The Impact of Reflective Practice
We realized that unplugging is about being aware of your surroundings, reflecting on yourself, and being in control of who you are. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Although my co-teacher and I felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of reflective practice, the students still showed growth and articulated takeaways from their reflective experiences this semester.
From a quantitative standpoint, data gleaned from retrospective surveys show clear improvement in students’ skills in reflection: 80% of the students said that they reflected on their creative process and that their reflection influenced future choices more often than before they took part in the program. All of the students improved in developing the ability to communicate their ideas and/or find solutions through the creative process. Additionally, 100% also developed interpersonal skills through collaboration and leadership opportunities—closely aligned to the Youth Corps’ realization that reflecting and unplugging is not always a solitary activity, but often relates to our engagement with those around us.
I also analyzed their written statements in the Guide to surface more specific themes about how the students felt the act of unplugging had affected them.
(Note: Percentages will not add up to 100%, since students’ statements often reflected more than one theme.)
In preparation for one of the sessions I am organizing at this year’s National Art Education Association Convention (see note above), I have been thinking a lot about what reflective practice is. The above impacts of “unplugging” identified by our students, are, I believe, all essential to reflective practice, no matter your age and whether or not you are consciously “unplugging” from daily stresses and technology.
Going outside of our comfort zones and opening our minds to new ideas and beliefs allow us to stay nimble, keep learning, and be empathetic. We must be conscious of how we communicate, and ensure we remain connected to the world—both physically aware of what’s around us and metaphorically, empathetic to others’ lives and backgrounds. Staying focused and aware of our surroundings and interactions allow us to be present in the moment. Overall, these practices help us understand ourselves better—both on a personal level and our relationship with others.
Applying Youth Takeaways to Museum Education Practice and Leadership
When you stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing, you gain a new experience. You are open to things. —Joselin, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
With 40% of the Youth Corps identifying it as an impact of their time spent unplugging, it’s clear that being present is both an essential process in reflective practice and a benefit. In fact, as Terrelle put it, Abramović and Levit’s goal for Goldberg was “to place us outside our comfort zone and challenge us to be present to listen to the music. Marina and Igor wanted us to connect with our mind and body.”
In reflecting about how the semester went overall, my colleague/co-teacher, Pip Gengenbach, and I realized there was so much more we could have pushed the Youth Corps to try in exploring the idea not just of simply “unplugging,” but of truly being present. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and there is always room for improvement, but as I reread and analyzed the students’ writing, I found myself wishing we had facilitated even just one more session to encourage the students not to view being present as an end-game in and of itself, but to keep unpacking why the act is so important.
Even so, we scratched the surface: for example, when writing about paying attention rather than listening to music on her commute, Rachel said, “I realized how much more I was allowing myself to experience.” Leidy found presence in communicating more often with her family: “We express how we feel and look for a solution together.” Destiny models excellent self-care when describing her unplugging mechanism: “I put on a facial mask… close my eyes and center my mind on a blank space… I think of a state of peace and tranquility and allow my body to float.”
These experiences are all ways that we can practice being present in our professional lives. Setting aside a phone and committing not to email during a meeting with staff or colleagues, or during a program; taking time to look for solutions together, in person rather than via email; going for a walk during lunchtime—for that matter, actually taking a lunch; and taking time for self-care outside of work (I for one fully endorse Destiny’s masking regimen) are all small things we can do to be mindful with ourselves and when communicating with others.
Often we feel the need to put up a wall. We don’t want people to see certain parts of us, so we hide. But … when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves and our minds. This is how we begin to surrender to unplugging instead of fighting it. —Sinaia, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
One of the most powerful ways that the Youth Corps—and we as educators—experienced vulnerability was through a two-hour workshop with vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, mentioned above. Davis challenged us all to stare into each other’s eyes, in silence, for many minutes at a time. Cory describes what happened next:
We were then given the choice to come closer, go further away, or turn away from our partners. I personally chose to get closer to my partner because I wanted them to experience an awkward moment and adjust to it. I found myself visualizing my partner’s life line, and found it easy to see their comfort zone through their body language. My partner was fidgeting with their hands at first, but later on they adjusted. I also allowed them to look into my eyes without restrictions. I challenged myself to open up and dared myself not to worry about what they thought. —Cory, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Some members of Youth Corps, like Cory, have performance experience, and are used to participating in exercises similar to this one. They understood the intimate kinds of nonverbal communications that can occur. For others, myself included, the experience felt foreign and intimidating. Isatu wrote:
The purpose was to [try] to interpret who we are… I [was] afraid to reveal my true self to someone that I barely know. I felt like my partner was not looking at me, but looking into me: she seemed… more aware of herself than I was. The jealousy that I felt helped me to unlock myself, I let all the painful moments that I have experienced out through my tears, because whatever she saw in me made me free. Unplugging in this way helped me to feel the support of the people around me. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Isatu beautifully describes how allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person can, in fact, help you both understand yourself better and connect on a deeper level with those around you. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses allows us to better understand our places in the world. Cory summarized her experience similarly: “We must be able to understand ourselves as a person first, in order to comprehend and change the things around us.”
This almost paradoxical statement directly relates to being an educator and leader. It goes back to the old airline oxygen mask adage (help yourself before helping others): know yourself in order to more deeply connect with others. After all, our jobs are not isolated: we have students, colleagues, and/or a field-wide network whom we not only support and encourage, but of whom we can ask support and encouragement. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, we are able to foster empathetic collaboration that can strengthen our ideas and work.
I wholeheartedly endorse participating in something like this professionally, but perhaps more easily implementable and significantly less intimidating would be to try something like the Youth Corps’ mentor triads. During every Youth Corps program session, each education staff member works with a small group of two Youth Corps, where all members (staff included!) set a goal and hold each other accountable to it. Knowing that we were all equally committed and that we had a small group of people, most of whom we didn’t know well before our triads, who would be checking in on us are powerful incentives to keep on track. We meet for coffee or treats off-site, which made the whole experience seem special and important, but not a huge drain on busy schedules. And having a mixed group—one first-time student, one student who had been in the program already, and one adult educator—was an amazing way to stay fresh but also grounded. This would be easily replicable and powerful with groups of staff from different levels, areas, and even departments.
Personally, I don’t like talking in front of crowds so I was really nervous. But Marina got us prepared by doing breathing exercises closely related to the Abramović Method, which helped me be less nervous… She made us feel like everything was fine and there wasn’t anything to worry about. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
How many of us have created activities or goals that we know will challenge our students or visitors, yet perhaps don’t always “walk the talk” ourselves by participating alongside them, or trying something new in our own practice? You’re not alone! As I delved into ongoing reflection with the Youth Corps this semester, I was reminded that it is so important as an educator (and leader) to model taking up challenges, just as we expect our students to do, and to always be learning, never complacent.
Personally, I have been taking this to heart since starting at the Armory this past summer. After many years at art museums, I have been thoroughly enjoying the completely unconventional art we present here, as well as trying my hand at theater education techniques, the field from which several of my coworkers in the Education department come. Since last July, we’ve done role-playing, directed questioning, movement-based activities, “tinkering” with different materials—you name it, we’ve tried it. (And not to worry, we’re all learning from each other: I’ve been vehemently representing the “slow art” guard along the way.)
Although these techniques are certainly not unfamiliar to art museum educators, the fearless, try-anything, “show must go on!” attitude of unabashed risk-taking feels new to me, and is enormously inspiring. My own challenge for 2016 is to continue to reach—testing and stretching my own abilities as a teacher, and pushing our students in the process to do the same with their own goals and experiences in our programs. (And just in case you’re wondering, yes, my co-teacher Pip is part of my “mentor duo” to hold me accountable for this goal.)
Conclusion: Reflection and Self-Identity
I am grateful to Marina. I think what’s cool about her is that she does things that others are afraid to do. She’s taught me to always stand out. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Awareness of self—of our strengths and our weaknesses, of our relation to others and to the world around us—is a key trait of leadership, no matter where in an organization’s hierarchy your job may place you. Understanding our own identity, through reflective practice, allows us to better understand our own work, how we teach, and the place of our institution and programs in our students’ or visitors’ lives.
Youth are in a key phase of their life where they themselves are testing out and defining who they are as people—their interests, beliefs, connections, and communities. But as we all know, it’s not only youth who use museums and cultural institutions as spaces for meaning-making and self-understanding or reflection; visitors of all ages and backgrounds do the same. And it’s important to remember that we ourselves as educators participate in this process as well, every time we reflect on our teaching practice, on our role as leaders in our institutions, or as participants in the world. Being conscious of the reflective process—being present in it, if you will—allows us to be intentional about our teaching practice, improve our connections with our audiences, and ultimately create experiences for all that bring our institutions more deeply into our visitors’ lives.
Header Photo: Lizmarie, high school junior and Phase I Youth Corps, speaks to NYC public school students alongside Marina Abramović and fellow Youth Corps. Photo by Da Ping Luo
“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.
Written by Mike Murawski, Kristin Bayans, and Phillippa Pitts
This essay is part of the new MuseumsEtc book Interpreting the Art Museum, an expansive volume of 19 essays & case studies from experienced museum professionals sharing some of today’s most successful initiatives in art interpretation.
From November 2014 through April 2015, the Portland Art Museum hosted the installation of a complex, unsettling, and physically-immersive multimedia installation piece entitled The Enclave(2013) by Irish contemporary artist and photographer Richard Mosse. Consisting of six monumental double-sided screens installed in a darkened gallery, paired with a powerfully haunting soundscape, The Enclave presented a unique challenge for the Portland Art Museum’s education team as they tackled issues of interpretation, visitor reflection, and public learning.
In The Enclave, Mosse employs discontinued military film stock to document the largely overlooked humanitarian disaster in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in which 5.4 million people have died since 1998. In a kind of advocacy of seeing, The Enclave attempts to cast this forgotten tragedy in a new spectrum of light, to make this forgotten humanitarian disaster visible. Furthermore, Mosse aims to keep the experience as open as possible, allowing viewers to bring personal experiences, memories, stereotypes, and media images to the process of making meaning with this complex work. According to Mosse:
“The work does not prescribe a set of responses, and remains ambiguous in an unsettling and seemingly irresponsible way.”
Given these expectations for ambiguity and complexity, the museum’s education team decided to construct an extended series of meaningful opportunities for visitors and staff alike to respond to and react with the installation. These opportunities encouraged personal reflection and physical engagement within the space of The Enclave and provided open pathways for further learning. Opportunities offered incorporated a range in levels of engagement from which to choose.
This case study explores the strategies used by the museum to connect a variety of visitors with this unsettling work of contemporary art. These strategies include:
an in-gallery interpretation space designed for visitor reflection and response;
printed postcards inviting visitor written responses;
While these interpretive strategies serve as the focus for this case study, the museum also partnered with the locally-based international development non-profit organization, Mercy Corps and the Mercy Corps Action Center, whose staff facilitated workshops for museum staff and docents as well as teachers and students participating in a joint school program between the museum and Mercy Corps.
In addition, the museum hosted an extensive series of public workshops and conversations which specifically encouraged open dialogue and personal reflections paired with viewing The Enclave. Throughout these interpretive strategies, our goals were to allow for open, personal, even emotional responses to the piece; to encourage visitors to physically engage with the space of the piece; and to provide pathways for further learning, especially related to the situation in the DRC.
In-gallery interpretation space
Early in the education team’s thinking about how to facilitate visitor experience with The Enclave, it became clear that visitors walking out of the installation would need a way to work through their reactions and responses. In the absence of a tour or multimedia guide, it would fall on the content of the interpretive space to empower individuals to tackle The Enclave independently. Simply entitled Reflecting on The Enclave, the in-gallery interpretation space helped visitors transition from a state of being acted upon by the exhibition’s visual and auditory forces to having the freedom and quiet to react to what had just transpired. The space did not provide visitors with the museum’s point of view or any curatorial voice. The museum remained silent and instead provided a comfortable space for visitors to have and share their own perspectives.
This small “living room” space included a love seat, cushioned armchairs, and a small end table with a bin of pencils. Housed across from the seating area were five clear acrylic holders, each of which held one deck of interpretive postcards. The front side of each card displayed a still photograph from the exhibition and the backside displayed the interpretive prompts: I saw… I heard… I felt… Five cards were placed in the rack with the photograph facing forward and one card was placed in the rack with the interpretive prompts facing forward. This arrangement indicated to visitors the card’s multi-interpretive purpose. Sitting on a pedestal directly below the cards was a clear acrylic box with a slit in the lid. Cards filled out by visitors could be seen inside the box. The nature and placement of these items invited visitors to look at, pick up, write on, and add a card to those already in the box.
Attached to the side of the box was a sign inviting visitors to See what others have shared via the project’s associated Tumblr site. This information indicated to visitors that they could read others’ responses and that their responses were aggregated into an ongoing community commentary about The Enclave extending beyond the museum.
Knowing from previous experience that cards are popular takeaways for visitors, these postcards aimed to provide visitors with an opportunity to say I saw this or I witnessed that. Therein lay one of the project’s most significant challenges. With six simultaneous screens and a 47-minute runtime, visitors emerged from The Enclave having witnessed entirely different scenarios. Some saw rolling images of stunningly beautiful landscapes. Others witnessed a funeral scene juxtaposed with a dangerous birth. A body abandoned in the grass. A sprawling internal displacement camp. Our challenge was to find the emotional or thematic touch points that could translate this immersive experience into static interpretive cards.
Our interpretive media team segmented the piece into major themes or experiences: war and conflict, the role of the photographer, nature and the sublime, Africa and the other. Cross-referencing this list with the potential photographs approved by the artist’s gallery, we chose six images that we believed could serve as touchpoints for a range of potential experiences: a sublime landscape, a military roadblock, a group of civilians, an individual soldier, a young woman, and a damaged village.
We deliberately selected images that were highly polysemic. For example, the landscape Platon echoed picturesque tropes of art history. It also could speak to environmentalism, highlight the surreal nature of the pink film stock, represent the work’s otherworldliness, or, as we saw in the response cards, embody an idea of hope. By contrast, we did not select a photograph called Madonna and Child, which featured a uniformed soldier holding a baby in the pose of the Virgin and Child. This image, while incisively poignant in highlighting the complexities of villain and victim, left little space in which the visitor could create meaning. By offering the visitor a broad range of photographs, we invited them to self-select the image that matched their experience.
Initially, we had planned to further draw out these themes through a variety of questions printed on the verso of the cards: Who is the victim and who is the villain? What is the man on the right thinking? What about the man on the left? Due to a compressed project timeline, our initial prompts were developed without the benefit of visitor testing. Therefore we used a docent training session as an ad hoc focus group.
After standing in The Enclave ourselves and observing docent educators processing their experience, we redeveloped the prompts entirely into the three, simple, sensory-based statements: I saw… I heard… I felt… These words, which were repeated over and over in the training session, were familiar to us from educational research, particularly Harvard’s Project Zero Thinking Routines, which employed them. They provided enough guidance to bolster processing and reflection, but to still afford room for a variety of responses and types of meaning making. Moreover, by splitting the prompts into bite-sized statements, we also hinted to visitors that it was OK to have a range of responses from simple to complex, and to navigate the space on the reverse of the card in whatever way they chose.
In total we printed 7,000 cards, of which around 4,000 were taken by visitors and around 500 slipped into the box in the gallery. Although each response was unique, the methods by which visitors used the cards could be categorized in three ways:
Lists: Some visitors took the prompt literally, charting what they saw, heard, and felt. They wrote in vertical columns over the words, sometimes even using lines to divide their cards into three spaces. They outlined and circled the light grey text to emphasize it. They drew lines between the printed words and their handwritten texts.
Notes to the museum: Often marked with explicit salutations to the museum or the artist, visitors used these cards to give us feedback in the form of concerns, thank you notes, and a frequent request to turn down the volume (the artist preferred the audio component of the piece to be quite loud, providing a physical experience of sound as well as of the projections).
Journaling: By making the background text light grey, we had successfully signaled to visitors that almost the entire card could be used to write or draw. Many visitors did exactly that, often writing stream of consciousness, free association, or personal reflections. Many show cross-outs and hesitations, reflecting the questioning and thinking that happened in the space. For example, one visitor wrote, “There was something about this. Something I’m not entirely sure what it was. Something about this just made my something click. All I can say is brilliant: I’m leaving with a lot to think about and a really heavy heart. But that’s what art does, right? Makes you think. Amazing.”
In terms of what the visitors wrote, we saw five overall themes emerge from the visitor responses:
Peace on Earth: Visitors who shared prayers, wishes, and hopes for those involved in the conflict. This was, interestingly, often correlated to the image Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. In this case, visitors took the opportunity to speak directly to the woman depicted: “Sorry adout the war” [sic] or “Plz be safe.”
Cynicism and despair: Although there were uplifting moments in The Enclave, the artist did not shy away from depicting violence, destruction, and conflict. This response was almost a direct inverse of those in the first category.
Intellectual connections: These visitors related The Enclave to their prior knowledge of politics, literature, and film, bringing in comparisons to Kubrick, Heart of Darkness, Invisible Children, and others. As we know, adults learn by relating new ideas to their existing matrices of knowledge and experience. In this way, we saw them working through The Enclave, demonstrating learning and engagement as well as an interest in thematically related topics.
Self-absorbed artists: Many visitors attacked the piece, challenging the validity and morality of a white artist receiving accolades and making money by speaking for black communities and “capturing” images of black bodies.
Descriptive processing: Many visitors did not attempt to reach conclusions. They listed what they saw, heard, and felt, sometimes filling the entire card just with descriptive words.
The Tumblr blog site was where all these varied responses came together. It provided a trans-temporal community in which viewers could find echoes of their own experience in the words of others. With over 100 posts shared on the site, it also provided a broader view of the museum audience (and the city of Portland) as a whole responding and reacting to The Enclave. Like the in-gallery interpretive space, the Tumblr site was designed to be as simple as possible both aesthetically and functionally. Visitors scrolled through back-to-back cards: image, comment, image, comment. As an institution, we provided no annotation or categorization. The cards were posted in a random order, free to complement or contradict their neighbors. Even the introductory text was completely neutral:
While The Enclave is on view at the Portland Art Museum, visitors are invited to reflect upon this immersive experience and share their thoughts with the museum. These are some of their thoughts.
Framed in this way, the site offered visitors validation. The museum posted, without comment or hierarchy, every type of response: those who called out Richard Mosse as a “selfabsorbed artist”; those who wrote only one or two words; and those who made spelling or grammatical errors. Viewed together, the stream emphasizes that there is no single interpretation or meaning for this work and that, in the museum’s eyes, no one viewer’s voice is more important or correct than the others’.
This approach carried inherent risks. As a department, we were committed to posting all responses, and yet aware that, given the racially charged nature of the work, we might encounter hate speech or other offensive content. There were cards that we did post that were difficult to endorse, such as one which read:
The people in this area of the continent are guided by superstition fed by rage and terror. No education or very little. No chance, no changes, no hope – only renewed conflict + murder.
Overall, however, we had only one card that we chose not to share because of its references to suicide.
In five months, our Tumblr site received a little over 1,000 page views: 10% of visitors viewed between ten and twenty response cards in a visit; 5% viewed between 30 and 40; 30% returned to the site at least once and 180 began following the museum on Tumblr. Even months after the exhibition has closed, we still gain new followers and see new reposts. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that no one card has emerged as the most shared or iconic image from the project. Although a few Tumblr users reblogged a batch of cards at once, most chose one or two, frequently non-sequential cards, to share with their followers. As virtual visitors, they selected from the diversity of responses offered, to find the few that resonated with them as individuals.
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“My intention with this work was to create a dilemma in the viewer’s heart. If some viewers were struck by the beauty of war – and sometimes war is beautiful – then, I hoped, those viewers would then be appalled by their response: by taking aesthetic pleasure from someone’s misery, pain, or death. And in that moment, perhaps they might stand back from themselves in the act of perceiving – take a moment to think.” – Richard Mosse
As contemporary art continues to challenge museum visitors in a variety of ways, it is important for museums to carefully reflect on the ways in which visitors will experience and respond to unsettling, immersive, complex, and socially-relevant works of art. In our experiences with The Enclave, having a set of interpretive strategies that allowed for individualized reflection as well as collective sharing allowed for a more meaningful experience for many visitors. The opportunities for personal reflection and extended learning offered by the museum for The Enclave have helped to anchor the museum as a museum ofits place, not just a museum in its place – and these experiences might provide guidance to other museums as they plan interpretation around similarly complex contemporary art.
KRISTIN BAYANS: Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum, where she works cross-departmentally to create mobile, web, and in-gallery learning experiences for special exhibitions, the museum’s permanent collection, and the Object Stories project. Previously, Kristin served as Senior Educator in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Vernier Technology Lab and as an Assistant Educator for the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute. She holds an MA in Museum Studies from George Washington University and an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
MIKE MURAWSKI: Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum. Murawski earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.
PHILLIPPA PITTS: Associate Educator for Gallery Learning at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, where she oversees interpretive media, adult learning, and participatory gallery spaces. Prior to this position in Maine, Phillippa served as the Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Lecturer and Gallery Instructor at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and built apps and games in museums around the country. Phillippa holds an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from Tufts University.
By the time the painting was on its way back to its home at the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this spring, El Greco’s Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene and I had spent 320 hours and four months together. As an on the-floor-interpretation assistant for the Portland Art Museum’s Education Department, I was in the gallery with the painting four days a week, interacting with visitors, experimenting with interpretive strategies, and reflecting on this 400-year-old painting. This experience gave me room to experiment with visitor engagement on the gallery floor, changed how I approach the act of looking, and influenced my teaching outside the museum.
El Greco’s Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene came to the Portland Art Museum as a part of the Masterworks: Portland Series. Though I had seen previous works in this series as a museum visitor, I wanted to learn more about how the single painting exhibition model fit into PAM’s approach to visitor engagement. I refreshed myself on the mission of the Portland Art Museum, and of the impetus behind the Masterworks series in particular. A critical facet of the Museum’s mission is “to facilitate dialogue with diverse audiences.” What does this mean, I asked myself? And how does this series, which has brought individual works by Raphael, Titian, Thomas Moran, and Francis Bacon to Portland audiences, achieve this goal? I considered my own role as an educator on the floor with a single artwork and how I might facilitate conversation, without imposing on each viewer’s unique experience. One immediate challenge I faced was learning how to open up the quiet, contemplative space of the special exhibition gallery.
The rectangular gallery was hung with velvety grey curtains on all sides, with El Greco’s painting, spotlit, on the middle wall. Didactics and sponsor information hung apart from the painting on the remaining walls. The focus on a single artwork seemed perfectly designed to encourage the kind of slow looking we like to see in a gallery, assuming this close, prolonged looking results in a deeper understanding and a more meaningful experience between viewer and artwork. Here’s what I have in my notes (unedited) from my first day in the gallery with El Greco:
Where are these curtains from?
What do the wall texts say? What questions to they raise/answer?
Why is it so dark in here? And quiet!
While certainly not earth shattering, these initial field notes illustrate a potential tension between the goals exhibition design and those of education. The space was so quiet and almost altar-like that visitors would immediately halt their conversations, or speak in low whispers as soon as they entered. I became fixated on how to overcome the elements of the gallery– the layout, the lighting, and the decor – that seemed the antithesis of my job, which was to enliven the space through conversations about art. I struggled with how to approach visitors who, as soon as they entered the gallery, became hushed, or exited the space quickly, as if intruding. Was it okay to interrupt someone who seemed lost in thought, staring at the painting? Did I dare ask what two giggling teens found so funny about the Holy Family?
The answer was yes; I just had to locate the confidence in myself that approaching a visitor about her experience in the gallery was not an interruption, but an opening to access the work of art. I learned to use the look and feel of the space to introduce conversations with visitors about how museum design impacts how, and what, we see. I also learned that people can and will say no if they don’t want to be interrupted! I was inspired by this post by Rebecca Herz on visitor engagement and developed gallery activities that would guide viewers back to the work.
SERIOUSLY SLOW LOOKING
Whether you’re a museum educator or teach in the classroom (or do both), you’ve probably engaged in some slow looking exercises with a group. In the classroom I regularly require my art history students to study a single artwork for an hour before writing anything down, but I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped and looked for that long. Being in the gallery with the El Greco gave me the chance to challenge myself to the act of looking deeply.
What turned out to be most remarkable about this challenge was that I didn’t have to go at it alone; being on the floor with visitors meant that I could look at the painting over and over again through many different lenses, and with a variety of different viewers and viewpoints. Many people came into the gallery and went straight for the painting, ignoring the wall text and just delving into their own interpretation. For these visitors, I became more of sounding board for their thoughts on El Greco’s unusually long forms, strong contrasts, and dynamic sky. They’d ask me questions about the piece, but were largely content to draw their own conclusions.
Others would soak up all the information they could before turning to the painting. This included wall texts and conversations about the painting, accessible in the gallery through an app called STQRY. My presence in the gallery began to feel more and more organic, and I had repeat visitors who would come back to chat about the piece, or to share thoughts they’d had while contemplating the work on their own, outside of the museum.
The most rewarding part of this experience was my regular and direct contact with museum visitors. These interactions provided the basis for my interpretation of the painting, influenced the design of my in-gallery activities, and offered direct evidence that my work was having a meaningful impact on visitors’ experiences at the Portland Art Museum.
I shared an emotional moment with one man, Ed, a retired graphic designer who had studied painting in New York in the 1950s. He and I talked not only about the remarkable way El Greco composed his image, but also about Ed’s own struggles as a painter, relating them to El Greco’s desire for patronage, for someone to appreciate, understand, and ultimately fund his work. These are things working artists can relate to, Ed told me, when he revealed that he’d given up painting in his 30s in order to earn a living as a designer.
Betty, age 87, approached me in the gallery to share that she had first seen El Greco’s Holy Family in Cleveland when she was 18. She explained to me the impact the work had on her, even after all these years. We bonded over the tired, but so human-looking Mary, and Betty told me that over the course of her life – ending a marriage, raising three kids, struggling and finally succeeding professionally – this painting, particularly Mary, had stayed with her.
I think an interpretive guide with the painting gave people permission to talk about what they were seeing, feeling and experiencing as a result of looking at work of art. I believe these conversations shifted visitors’ expectations of a museum experience, and they certainly changed my approach to looking at and teaching about art.
BACK TO THE SURFACE
Spending so much time with one work forced me to really study and appreciate all the work El Greco was making paint do. In the gallery, I had the opportunity to talk with many people, including painters, sculptors, and writers about what they saw when they looked at the surface of the painting. We’d notice those trademark El Greco highlights, but also bits of underpainting, a rawness that pointed to process; in these discoveries the mechanics of painting became accessible and the 400 year old surface was fresh again.
These interactions inspired me to create more opportunities for creative writing and art-making in my art history classroom. Chatting with a sculptor in the El Greco gallery about form and movement, led me to experiment with an in-class activity where my students recreated 2D works in 3D with found materials. This activity initiated self-directed discussions among small groups of students about form, process and material, and allowed us to return to the work invigorated. Ultimately, I learned that facilitating visitor engagement can be as low tech as having a conversation.
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About the Author
KELSEY FERRERIA teaches Art History, Architecture, and Design at Portland Community College. She also works with the Portland Art Museum as an Interpretation Assistant where she’s developed mobile and in-gallery learning experiences for the Museum’s special exhibitions. Both in the classroom and in the gallery, Kelsey loves experimenting with different learning strategies, and aims to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art. She holds a BA in Art History from Willamette University and an MA in Art History from the University of Oregon.
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.
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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 Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.
TheMuseum Questionsexploration of school visits to museums has been sorely lacking the context of a literature review, as noted by Christine Castle of Museum Education Monitor. Happily, Dr. Lynda Kelly told me about a report she wrote in 2011, which is excerpted below. The report was commissioned by The Sovereign Hill Museums Association in Australia. Lynda is Head of Learning the Australian National Maritime Museum, and prior to this worked in digital and audience research at the Australian Museum, Sydney. She has written and consulted widely in this field in Australia and for museums internationally. The full report, with a full bibliography included, can be found here. Thanks to Lynda for allowing me to share this much-shortened version. -Rebecca Herz
Student Learning in Museums
It has long been recognised that museums are educational institutions and that their school audiences are critical in both sustaining visitation and, through offering a positive and inspiring experience, can influence lifelong museum visiting habits (Falk and Dierking, 1997). This report outlines the evidence for student learning in museums under the frame of the contextual model of museum learning (Falk and Dierking, 1992, 2000), coupled with review of published studies primarily drawn from the work of DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) and Groundwater-Smith and Kelly (2003-2011). Given the parameters of this review, the focus is on the physical museum space, coupled with the role of the teacher and museum staff. For more information about the impacts of the online and mobile spaces on educational activities see the list of resources at the end of this report.
The Personal Context and Student Learning
Field trips offer deep cognitive learning beyond facts and concepts to include process skills and draw on other places of learning such as museums. Learning on a field trip is a valuable supplement and addition to classroom instruction and a way to prepare students for future learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Students are more likely to remember social and personally relevant aspects of field trips, yet also dislike and keep less favorable memories of these trips that seem overly structured and leave little room for their personal visit agenda (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Based on the elaborateness of children’s descriptions it was concluded that high personal involvement, links with the curriculum and multiple visits to the same institution embraced long-term learning impact (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Wolins et al, 1992).
Affective outcomes, such as increased motivation or interest, sparking curiosity or improved attitudes towards a topic, may be more reasonable given the short-term nature of field trips (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Visits to science centres can positively impact attitudes towards science for students who are already interested in and engaged with science (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).
Students felt that in order to be substantively engaged in cognitive learning they needed to: know how things worked; be able to think through ideas; have opportunities to ask questions; be able to handle, manipulate and closely examine artefacts and exhibits; be able to seek out information from several sources in language that is appropriate to their age and stage of development; and be stimulated through all their senses (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
When looking at emotional learning, students expressed a desire to be emotionally connected, while at the same time not emotionally confronted. The students in this study indicated that they welcomed opportunities to be fully engaged with provocative questions, fascinating and puzzling exhibits and clear, well-structured and accessible information (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
In the majority of cases the aspect of the field trip that was recalled subsequently was the content and/or subject matter presented during the field trip (Falk and Dierking, 1997).
Even after years had elapsed, nearly 100% of the individuals interviewed could relate at least one thing they learned during an early-elementary-school field trip, and most could relate three or more things (Falk and Dierking, 1997). Students retained information about sharks from an exhibition in a marine park in Italy up to three months after a visit (Miglietta et al, 2008). Sixteen months after visiting a science centre in Israel students recalled facts and details of their visit such as exhibitions, activities and guides’ input (Bamberger and Tal, 2008).
The Social Context and Student Learning
Students are more likely to remember social aspects of their visit. The social interaction occurring on a field trip is an important part of the experience and supporting students’ in sharing their experiences enhances learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
Students like learning with their friends. While they recognised that a visit to the Museum was primarily designed by their teachers to assist in their learning, they also wanted it to be a satisfying social occasion when they could learn with and from their peers (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
Visits are highly social experiences for students. A study of sixth graders stated that they had more control over their own learning when interacting with their peers rather than adults who tended towards control (Birney, 1988).
A study of student talk found that school visits to museums assisted in building relationships between students through cooperative interactions and discourse (DeWitt and Hohenstein, 2010).
The Physical Context and Student Learning
Students wanted to feel safe and comfortable and to move around readily unimpeded by a number of prohibitive signs. They also wanted areas to be well-lit and inviting and find physical spaces scaled to their ages and needs (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
The novelty of the setting may distract from students’ conceptual learning if novelty is strong (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
The degree of structure of a field trip is the subject of much disagreement in the literature – how much should the experience be mediated and teacher/educator-led, and how much should be student-led, based on free-choice learning? DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) identified several issues around structured visits:
To maximise cognitive and affective outcomes field trips need to provide moderate amount of structure while still allowing for free exploration.
Well-designed worksheets can be effective in promoting discovery-based enquiry if exposing students to a wide range of relevant information.
Well-designed worksheets may tap into already available interpretive material thus extending the richness of information.
The use of pre and post visit activities can enhance the cognitive and affective learning outcomes.
In a museum setting structure experiences, such as guided tours, specific detailed tasks can increase cognitive learning but may dampen enthusiasm.
Structure, including worksheets, may limit the ability for students to explore and engage with the unique aspects of the museum setting.
Based on a rage of studies, McManus (1985) recommended that worksheets should be designed to encourage observation, allow time for observation, focus on objects not labels, be unambiguous about where to find information and encourage talk.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
Teachers value museums as sources of rich learning and social experiences (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Falk and Dierking, 1997; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009). Teachers’ agendas for the trip will influence their subsequent classroom practice (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Research reveals that teachers have complex and comprehensive reasons for field trips, valuing these as learning and educational opportunities and as chances for social and affective learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
Teacher motivations for school trips include connecting with classroom curricula, providing a general learning experience, enhancing student motivation, exposure to new experiences, change in setting or routine and student enjoyment (Kisiel, 2005).
Students with teachers who were both enthusiastic about science and engaged in extensive follow-up activities expressed more positive attitudes towards science after their museum visit than students in other classes (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).
DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that field trips are enhanced when the teacher:
Becomes familiar with the setting before the trip.
Orients students to the setting and agenda and clarifies learning goals.
Plans pre-visit activities aligned with curriculum goals.
Plans and conducts post-visit activities to reinforce the trip and enables students to reflect on their experiences.
THE ROLE OF THE MUSEUM AND MUSEUM EDUCATORS
Limited research has been undertaken into the role of museum educators in school visits and researchers are only beginning to examine the role of the museum in the student visit (Griffin, 2004). However, of the literature consulted it is clear that collaboration between teachers and museum educators and other staff in program development brings positive results in terms of enhanced outcomes of student visits and in strengthening relationships.
DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that teachers’ goals may not be the same as those of museum educators which, in turn, can cause confusion and impediments to learning. Teachers also may have multiple goals for the visit, whereas museums may be too focussed on the logistical aspects of the visit, such as wayfinding, parental consent, safety forms, transportation, financial transactions and orientation (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).
When programs are developed in alignment with school curricular and teacher goals rather than the museum’s objectives, integration of the visit into classroom practice is more likely (Xanthoudaki, 1998).
Successful museum-school collaborations are often characterised by the museum reaching out to teachers and developing material in conjunction with them (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009).
Australian Museum staff who had participated in the 2009 Teachers’ College found this had a positive impact upon all participants, and that teachers had a great deal to offer in the way of advice. Staff felt that they had benefitted in terms of getting close to their audience; learning about how the Museum could better engage teachers and students; networking and connections made to enable further discussion and consultation to take place; and stimulating new ideas for programs (Kelly and Fitzgerald, 2011).
Featured image by Universal Pops at Flickr.com. Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.
One of our goals was to allow the artist to select a writer who they felt would expand the experience of their art through the written word. It has been a thrilling collaborative process. As one of few online museums and as the only artist endowed foundation to represent a Mexican American artist, innovation is part of Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s DNA.
When I began a conversation with San Francisco-based artist Lorraine Garcia-Nakata and Cornell University Associate Professor Ella Diaz the exhibition took on a new dimension. In this partnership, the Museo would not only host an online exhibition and essay, but also extend the experience to Professor Diaz’s undergraduate students. Her students would examine the art through the “testimonio” framework which was the focus of the class. It was an innovative and forward thinking idea. And we welcomed it wholeheartedly.
Because Eduardo Carrillo was an influential artist and Professor of Art at University of California Santa Cruz for 25 years until his death at age 60 in 1997, Museo has felt that part of our mission is to encourage scholarship in the next generation by giving those students an opportunity to have their work published. Because the essays were so thoughtful and well written under Professor Diaz’s guidance, Museo did publish them online and they remain in Museo’s “On View” archives with the exhibition Navigating by Hand: The Art of Lorraine Garcia-Nakata.
Future exhibitions include the work of artist Jose Lozano with an essay by Professor Dianna Santillano and The Duron Family collection with Professor KarenMary Davalos. We are looking ahead to furthering this experiment that Professor Diaz instigated.
Written by Ella Diaz, Cornell University
Lorraine García-Nakata: Navigating By Hand, an online exhibition of historically important Chicana artist Lorraine García-Nakata, was launched at the Museo Eduardo Carrillo in November 2013. This retrospective sampling of work, spanning several decades, was seeded by a separate exhibit I curated for the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, that included her work. Over conversation, Lorraine and I found easy nexus regarding artistic practice as social change, public pedagogy, and Chicana aestheticism, evolving from 1960/1970s civil rights philosophies informing both professional and personal choices––values often absent in art institutions that default to viewing art minus the broader human context.
When Lorraine asked me to write a curatorial statement for her solo exhibit, I agreed. The web-based format offered room for in-depth survey of her work that would identify and interpret its complexity and related cultural grounding. Being an artist, writer, and a museum professional, Lorraine shared that curatorial statements about artists of color often play it safe, hovering obvious descriptions of art, a historical idea, or repeating culturally flat references. Having read my published article, “Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Autobiography, Performing Testimonio: New Directions in Latina/o and Chicana/o Visual Aesthetic” (published 2011 in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social), Lorraine appreciated my view of Latina/o and Chicana/o visual and performance artists who push autobiographical literary boundaries and testimonio by telling their stories as collective experience, bearing witness to sociopolitical and historical events in non-written forms.
Testimonio literature is integral to Latin American and Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/a literary canon, offering an individual’s story reflecting a whole community, urgent human circumstance, and significance/meaning of daily life. Having scheduled a 2013 fall course at Cornell University on testimonio, along with my conversations with Lorraine, I designed curriculum engaging literary testimonio and alternative visual and performing art forms that would test boundaries of this literary genre.
From I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984), a canonical testimonio, to Latina Feminist Group’s formative anthology, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001), this course included testimonio as educational praxis, an important component of Chicano/a Studies pedagogy. Incorporating Lorraine’s body of work, the course linked to the Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s online exhibition launched in November 2013. After a semester of critical inquiry of the testimonio genre and visual analysis of 1960s and 1970s civil rights murals, students were adept in this literary form. With close review of Lorraine’s visual art and selected writings, students began writing (see Museo’s website archive) revealing how García-Nakata visualizes her story as a comprehensive experience, testifying to the power of everyday life. Students conveyed, in clear resonant voices, how Lorraine speaks to viewers through her life events, childhood innocence, hopes, vulnerability, desires in later years, and raising of children.
Working with an artist and a museum, I designed a dynamic, interdisciplinary pedagogy for students regarding genres of Latina/Chicana prose. Students considered ways we tell our stories beyond printed autobiography. Through interpretation of works by Lorraine Garcia-Nakata as narrative, they made insightful commentary that she digested and the public witnessed.
Written by Lorraine García-Nakata, Artist
When young, I took myself through a disciplined process resulting in a clear understanding that my life required the creative process. From that point, it was never a question, rather a quest informing my life as an artist, parent, art/cultural specialist, and as a museum professional who introduced to the field progressive best practices linked to redefinitions of community, further evolution of curatorial and public programs, development of partnerships of mutual benefit and related reciprocity, and use of accurate terminology.
As Latino contemporary artistic work has become part of the broader aesthetic, I’ve expected research, interpretation, and related writing (from within and outside our culture) to delve the complexity of Latino cultures: Chicano(a), Uruguayan, Indigenous, Caribbean, Afro Cuban, Afro North American, other cultures of Latin America, and the growing population of mixed race contemporary youth that embrace all parts of their identity. I’ve also expected exhibitions to expand beyond, and not regularly default to, group or cultural holiday exhibits. When Cornell Professor Ella Diaz approached me about an exhibit focused on figurative art by women of color, I agreed to lend my work. As a next generation, first voice (from within the culture) scholar/curator, Ella was not afraid to critique periods of our contemporary Latino history (that later evolved), such as the gender-biased framework of early phases of the Chicano movement or initial perceptions/invisibility of our LGBT Latino population. Ella also possessed a capacity to witness, interpret, and scribe the nuance of my artistic work, which is not overt or linked to the “expected” Latino iconography or color palette.
When approached by the Museo Eduardo Carrillo regarding a solo online exhibition, I agreed only if Professor Diaz could write the curatorial statement. It also seemed important for the Museum Director, Betsy Andersen, and Ella to meet. An interpretive component was developed by Ella, which included a Cornell graduate seminar focused on my work. I was delighted that students would research my work in depth and produce individual writings. I was excited to read them. For an artist, museum exhibitions are important as well as research of one’s work by a key academic institution. Cornell student writings were published on the Museo’s website, adding another important educational/interpretive element. We all worked hard to mount this exhibit, and it was clearly of mutual benefit to the Museo, myself as artist, Professor Diaz as curator, and participating Cornell students. The online exhibition provided a multi-level experience for the viewing public and offered a forum for publishing research by our next generation scholars.
While I am active in the local/national community, my artistic work is not obvious or overt in its protest or politic, but it does testify. It also challenges assumptions about how we live, how we intend our action. Being an artist, writer, and musician can be solitary and hard work. It’s a responsibility. Yet, I have long since committed my life to this practice and it will continue to be how I navigate my life.
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Click the link below to read the essays written by nine undergraduate students at Cornell University who enrolled in Professor Ella Diaz’s fall 2013 course “Telling to Live: Critical Examinations of Testimonio.”
BETSY ANDERSEN: Founding Director of Museo Eduardo Carrillo, created to extend the artist’s work and compassionate legacy into the world. Andersen received her Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Santa Cruz. Since that time she has enjoyed being the host of a radio interview show devoted to the visual arts and has explored producing documentaries on regional artists.
ELLA MARIA DIAZ: earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, teaching several courses at William and Mary and developing the College’s first Chicana Literature course in spring 2005. Her research pertains to the interdependence of Chicano/a and U.S. Latino/a literary and visual cultures. Her dissertation, “Flying Under the Radar with The Royal Chicano Air Force: The Ongoing Politics of Space and Ethnic Identity” explores these intersections and, for this project, she received The College of William and Mary’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2010. She was a Lecturer in The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute between 2006—2012. Her current book project explores the historical consciousness of a Chicano/a arts collective that produced major and canonical works of poetry, art, and literature. Diaz has published through Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, U.C. Santa Barbara’s ImaginArte, and in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social.
LORRAINE GARCÍA-NAKATA: Since 1973, Lorraine García-Nakata has been a “pilot” with the world-renowned Sacramento Chicano artist collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF). One of six original primary muralists, Lorraine was the only female artist asked to join her fellow pilots José Montoya, Esteban Villa, Juanishi Orosco, Stan Padilla, and Juan Cervantes in painting the renowned and historic South Side Mural located in Sacramento, California. Ms. García-Nakata is a recognized visual artist and has exhibited extensively since 1970 on a local, regional, national and international level. Adept in a range of visual arts medium, she is noted for her large-scale works in drawing and painting. Lorraine is also recognized for her command of mixed media, printmaking, installation work, ceramics, and sculpture.