Tag Archives: personal meaning

It’s Not Always about You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on ArtMuseumTeaching.com during August that focuses on the recent book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014). Find links to additional posts in this series by several of the book’s authors, and please join us for an Online Book Club via Google Hangout on August 20th.

Written by Keonna Hendrick, Brooklyn Museum

Melissa Crum (Mosaic Education Network) and I came together to develop multicultural critical reflective practice (MCRP) as a protocol because we shared the belief that the decisions museum educators make about our teaching practice — such as the artwork to discuss, language we use, expectations we set for learners — are informed by our willingness to move beyond our individual interpretations and values. When we teach, we may create opportunities for our biases to shape and limit learners’ perspectives on artworks, peers, and themselves. MCRP is a theoretical framework and ongoing practice in which educators identify, analyze, and challenge the cultural beliefs, values, and assumptions that color our interactions with artworks and learners. Leading others through MCRP while writing about the practice has challenged me to re-address my biases while reflecting on how my perspectives and values impact our teaching. I have facilitated practical applications of MCRP with many groups; however, my experience training a small group of emerging educators in a mid-sized art museum in this practice greatly impacted my engagement in the process.

Developing Critical Self-Reflection in Educators

Keonna Hendrick challenges learners to think critically about cultural representations in art.  Photo by Jonathan Dorado , Brooklyn Museum
Keonna Hendrick challenges learners to think critically about cultural representations in art. Photo by Jonathan Dorado , Brooklyn Museum

In the first of a two part-session focused on developing critical self-reflection in educators, I asked each educator to write a short autobiography at home, reflecting on a moment of their lives and writing freely for 30 minutes. I met with each of them individually one week later to discuss the process and to consider how their personal narratives might inform their work in museum education. Although they were not asked to share the details of their autobiographies, several chose to tell me about their personal experiences. They explored relationships, events, and expectations that informed the way they saw themselves in the past and present. I knew when I assigned the exercise it might trigger difficult memories, hard feelings, and even trauma that might be challenging for both participants and myself to work through.

As I listened to their stories, I was incredibly aware of the trust they vested in me to receive their personal truths and to guide them as they considered the intersection between their personal and professional lives. They were vulnerable, honest, passionate, and confused. I found it necessary to be present and aware of my own biases and experiences, and to resist responding from the feelings they may evoke. There were some moments when values were expressed that were in direct conflict with my own, and I had to remind myself that no matter how difficult reflections can be to hear, the purpose of exploring MCRP is to identify and address our attitudes (no matter how negative).  It took courage for these educators to share their autobiographies — without any certainty of how I might respond — and to challenge themselves to think critically about their experiences. And it challenged me to listen without judgment and to respond with care while encouraging them to engage in deep reflection. While the educators commented on the success of the workshop, I couldn’t help but feel exhausted, wondering how Melissa and I might assist others in preparing to facilitate such delicate discussions.

Promoting Critical Self-Reflection in Our Practice

Facilitating exercises that promote critical self-reflection is hard work but it’s worth it. Just as museum educators should be aware of information, teaching strategies, and audience, facilitators of MCRP should be comfortable with and actively engaged in this practice. Witnessing the courage of the participants and facilitating MCRP with many participants individuals has urged me to delve deeper in my own critical reflective practice and to ask: Why have I been afraid to acknowledge certain aspects of myself and others? Identifying these fears and their origins helps me understand why my progressing self-awareness may have been stifled at times and charges me to take responsibility for working through those fears towards an improved cultural consciousness.

Creative Commons image from www.worldette.com
Creative Commons image from http://www.worldette.com

Identifying fear is no small feat. Even taking the first steps of facing those fears while admitting to behaviors and attitudes that negatively impact others can be incredibly difficult. When we offer MCRP as a resource to others for improved pedagogy, we become more accountable for our own failings as educators. Learning from my failures in teaching, forgiving myself for poor decisions, and continuing to engage in the work to address the limitations of my actions and knowledge are challenges I have encountered as a practitioner and facilitator of MCRP. Through journaling, reading both scholarly writings and personal narratives, and engaging in a monthly peer group, I have grown to recognize some prejudices that I had not previously explored as a result of ignorance and limited conversation. Although I am not proud of these prejudices, my ability to acknowledge and work to overcome them has enabled me to be more patient with others and myself. It has helped me engage in an ongoing practice of forgiveness for others and myself. Educators may make poor choices from time to time; however, resisting the temptation to rest complacently in those decisions and repeat them with learners and with artworks disrupts educators’ potential to support learners in becoming self-actualized and expanding our cultural perceptions.

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 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

HendrickHeadshotKEONNA HENDRICK: Senior Museum Educator at the Brooklyn Museum, Hendrick oversees the 10-month Museum Education Internship Program, a professional development opportunity for emerging museum educators working with school, youth, family, and adult audiences. She has also worked as a Family Programs Educator at the Museum of Modern Art and served as a board member for New York City Museum Educators Roundtable and Classical Contemporary Ballet Theatre. She holds a B.A. in History and Studio Art from Wake Forest University and a M.A. in Arts Policy and Administration from The Ohio State University. Hendrick is an innovative museum educator and arts administrator who develops practical applications for big picture ideas and issues. She is committed to exploring the transformative nature of art-centered experiences, promoting cultural understanding across communities, and engaging adults, children and adolescents in personally relevant experiences.  Keonna’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Brooklyn Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

“Building Canopies for Multiculturalism: (Re)Turning to the Visitor,” by Joni Boyd Acuff & Laura Evans

“Eggs, Oreos, and Solidarity: MCRP in Our Daily Lives,” by Melissa Crum

“Reflecting on a Hybridized Museum Practice,” by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn

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Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)

On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout.  Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt.  Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!

 

Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet?  No problem.  As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount.  To receive a 25% discount, go towww.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA

Forget About the Price Tag: Engaging with a Masterpiece

Written by Mike Murawski

This past November, the art market grabbed headlines around the globe with the record-breaking auction purchase of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” With nearly 500 news stories (and counting), this trio of canvases has garnered nearly Miley-Cyrus-level media attention — a frenzy obsessed with auction prices and billionaire collectors. When it was announced that this series of canvases was going to be on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of our Masterworks series this winter, I immediately began thinking about how one can get past the media craze and dollar signs in order to dig deeper into the core significance of this ‘masterpiece.’  How might we address the complexities of how visitors would experience a work like this?  What are some ways in which we could bring audiences into a closer connection with this work?  How could I, myself, have an experience with this work in a meaningful and personal way?

Standing in front of this triptych myself for the first time in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum, I was initially overwhelmed and distracted by the news stories that have provided so much baggage for this intriguing portrait.  What was I going to have to do to dig deeper — to start discovering this ‘masterpiece’ for myself? As I stood there, I thought of the words of British philosopher and art historian John Armstrong, who in his 2000 book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art writes:

“If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.”

Perhaps the best way to start tackling this painting was to actually deal with the fraught idea of a ‘masterpiece’ and how that determination effects the experience we can have with art.  For me, this type of exploration is best done with others.  So early in the New Year, I invited our docents to spend some time with me in front of the Francis Bacon triptych to do some close looking, to connect with some of the scholarship on the work, and to start the process of digging deeper into the work’s significance.  With only a few days notice, we had about 60 docents show-up for these open explorations of teaching with and experiencing a modern masterpiece.

Visitors crowd around Picasso's
Visitors crowd around Picasso’s “Desmoiselles D’Avignon” at Museum of Modern Art in New York,

What Exactly Is a ‘Masterpiece’?

Across the country, visitors consistently flock to museums to see noted masterworks (whether through traveling special exhibitions, celebrated groupings of masterpieces, as part of some museums’ collections).  Yet, an artwork’s prestige can create a situation (like the insomniac) in which the pressure to ‘get’ the famous work prevents us from having any type of valuable experience at all.  This situation is more common with modern and contemporary art, which might not always meet the traditional or popular criteria of a masterpiece.  So what do we mean when we say a painting is a masterwork or ‘masterpiece’?

This question is a weighty one and comes with a lot of historical, cultural, and political baggage — yet I began my sessions with our docents by directly addressing this very topic.  Faced with defining the characteristics of a masterpiece while seated in front of the Bacon, our group of docents and I discussed how a masterpiece traditionally has “stood the test of time,” or is a particularly iconic work within a major artist’s career.  In our conversations, we also touched a bit upon the individual experience we have with a masterpiece — something that draws us in and keeps us thinking, questioning, wondering.  In my own experiences visiting museums as well as teaching with art, I do find that certain works of art continuously draw us back in for repeat encounters, offering new challenges and insights each time we sit in front of them.  We questioned the idea of who gets to define a ‘masterpiece,’ proposing that perhaps we as individuals get to make that determination for ourselves.

However, people frequently look to experts or scholars to help us determine which artworks might be considered masterpieces, so I thought I’d bring in a few of their ideas.  Back in 2010, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a series of art scholars and experts about this very question posed by the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz entitled “Masterpieces?”.  Here are a few responses:

“For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance, and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists.” -Stephanie Barron, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And the paintings that move you so much words fail you — those are the masterpieces.” -Michael Kareken, artist

For our engagement with the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum, it was important for our discovery to push past monetary value (which, of course, remains the elephant in the room) in order to see how this painting might appeal to us in a more complex, meaningful,and perhaps elusive way. We began to unknowingly take the advice of a quite terrible but catchy pop song as we proceeded: “forget about the price tag.”

Aaron Doyle and Evan Tewinkel, preparators at the Portland Art Museum, install the Bacon triptych. Jamie Francis/The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com

Engaging with a Masterpiece: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)

Moving past the auction price and the weight of this work being a ‘masterpiece,’ we were now faced with looking at this immense triptych of 6-foot-tall canvases and making some meaning of our own.  But how to do this?  How to begin to dig deeper?  I immediately went back to John Armstrong, and a recent book he co-authored with writer Alain de Botton entitled Art as Therapy.  Probing at the larger purpose and relevance of art (and quite critical of the art market, itself), Armstong and DeBotton offer philosophical strategies for approaching art in a new way, beyond the normal historical or stylistic concerns toward a more personal, human approach:

“Getting something out of art doesn’t just mean learning about it — it also means investigating ourselves. We should be ready to look into ourselves in response to what we see.” (p. 72)

murawski-teaching-with-baconWhile I generally gravitate toward this type of approach, it seemed particularly appropriate as a framework through which to view this visceral and intensely human set of paintings by Bacon.  After briefly talking about Armstong and De Botton’s ideas, the docents and I spent much of our sessions with quiet, guided looking followed by small group conversations to talk about what we were noticing, thinking, and wondering with the Bacon portraits.  I acknowledged that this would only be the beginning of our experience with these paintings, and read a few quotes from Bacon himself to help us peel back more layers of meaning in these portraits.

“In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person.”– Francis Bacon

“When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.” – Francis Bacon

Before we left the Bacon triptych as a group, I invited each docent to return to this painting at another time, sit with the work alone on a quiet afternoon, and spend about 20 or 30 minutes doing some sketches and open reflective writing.  For me, the most powerful prompt for this type of written response has simply been “What is this to me?” — a question directly inspired by John Armstong and one that I have used repeatedly in my own gallery learning as well as teaching with larger groups.  And I feel that if we can begin to answer this question for ourselves, we can also begin to open up a new type of experience for our visitors with great works of art.

The sessions I led with the docents in front of the Bacon triptych were by no means the type of neatly packaged, “transformative” experience we sometimes strive for. I had to remind myself that there was value in simply opening up a process of discovery and not ending in some grand culminating moment of clarity.  After all, this was a complex artwork filled with a shifting sense of energy, fragility, violence, and deep emotion that would reward a more sustained and circuitous path of learning. In her chapter entitled “Intense Looks” in Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham discusses the deep journey of contemplation, research, and gallery teaching that can often lead us, as educators, to our own transformative experiences with art. As she aptly writes:

“As museum educators, we must never forget that in every gallery dialogue we lead we must strive simultaneously to discover both the artworks we look at so intensely and the process itself of discovering artwork…. As teachers, our own difficulties in making sense of art, the experiences of frustration, the long detours and false starts, all chart a terrain whose exploration expands our capacity for empathetic listening and responding, for encouraging intense looking, and for moving dialogue forward.”

It may be these cumulative, layered experiences we have with masterpieces that allow us to change the way we see art as well as ourselves.  But these types of experiences take time and repeat encounters with a work of art — they don’t happen in the seconds or minutes that we typically spend glancing at a painting such as the Bacon triptych, and they also often don’t necessarily happen when we’re leading a guided experience with an artwork. As I concluded my session with our docents in front of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” I encouraged them all to see our collective experience as simply the beginning of a deeper process of looking at this work; a process they would need to culminate on their own, in their own personal way, and in collaboration with future visitors to the museum.

Francis_Bacon-triptych

Letting Go and Opening Up: Teen Voices in Art Museums

By Chelsea Emelie Kelley, Milwaukee Art Museum, and Patty Edmonson, Cleveland Museum of Art

When museums share interpretive control of their collections, amazing things can happen. Many museums are reimagining how visitors can interact with and engage in their collections, through technology, after-hours adult programming, and even hacking (both sanctioned and independent).

Recording video content with teens as part of the Teen CO-OP program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Recording video content with teens as part of the Teen CO-OP program at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Teen programs provide a very different kind of opportunity for museums to experiment with interpretation. Because many teens participate in multiple programs for extended lengths of time, they become advocates and resources for our museums and its collections. Teens at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art have been part of two experimental interpretive strategies that go deeper than one-day-only programs, providing not only learning experiences for students involved, but powerful tools and content for their institutions.

From the museum educator’s perspective, we—Chelsea Emelie Kelly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Patty Edmonson at the Cleveland Museum of Art—originally connected because both of our programs create video content featuring teens for our collections. However, we’ve come to see that there are more connections and applications to what we’re doing than simply producing object-focused, teen-made videos. We share our programs and projects below, and we’re now thinking about how we can make use of this content beyond teen audiences. Read on and share your thoughts with us!

Teen CO∙OP at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Patty Edmonson, Intergenerational Interpretation Specialist

The Teen CO∙OP started in 2013, and it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest teen program. We chose ten students from a pool of applicants to participate in a two-week summer session, where we trained them to work with the public and create their own programming. They use these skills during our monthly family days, called Second Sundays. CO∙OP members work in our interactive gallery, Gallery One, answering visitor questions and starting conversations about art and the museum. During these events, they also help with studio projects, pass out the teen guide they made, and create Vine videos. The CMA is working toward a more visible teen presence and authentic teen voices.

Video has been a tool for us to hear these teen voices and get students to think about storytelling in museums. During our summer session we created short films with a local production company, North Water Partners. Each student began by choosing an artwork and we interviewed them about their initial reactions before they knew very much about the piece. After these first interviews they read about their artworks and we talked about historical context. We asked them to complete a series of small tasks: choose three words that describe the artwork; describe this to someone who can’t see; write a tagline for the artwork; tell a story about this artwork; make a Vine about it. These tasks became pieces that they could include in their storyboards. Some also created their own typography or imagery to incorporate into their video.

One of the biggest challenges was balancing fun and appropriateness. I wanted the students to feel comfortable being silly, but there were several moments when we stopped to talk about respecting the art and museum. We also went out on a limb by letting the video content come from their ideas and observations, not solely art historical information. We are not creating mini art historians here. That said, we did have to navigate one interpretation of a portrait with a shadow that looked like a bruise. The student was interested in creating a story of a battered woman, but we stepped in to talk about why this story might not be the best one to imagine, and spent time looking at more portraits and their shadows.

Through these videos, the teens learned to look closer. They seemed excited that their observations were valid and their confidence grew. I also saw their public speaking abilities improve after being behind the camera, which can be tough. One of our big goals was to capture an authentic voice, and we chose not to correct language that museums wouldn’t normally approve, like “I’m finna to the grand ball” (as in fixing to go). I felt that by letting their real voices come through, we let them know that they can be themselves in a museum.

We hope to show these videos on our website, and you can see some of the good and bad Vines under the account, CMA Teen CO-OP. Our plan next summer is to make content that can better fit into our app, ArtLens.

Satellite High School Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum Satellite Program group, 2013-14
Milwaukee Art Museum Satellite Program group, 2013-14

Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning

The Satellite High School Program is an art history focused weekly gallery program at the Milwaukee Art Museum for sixteen arts-interested teens from the Milwaukee area to connect with works of art and each other. As part of the program, teens choose a work of art in the Museum collection to study and interpret, and share their ideas in a final project. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with how they share using video in two very different ways.

In the spring 2013 program, teens had one semester to choose a work, study it, and make a creative response to it, in visual art, writing, music, or media of their choice. I wanted to be sure their work was shared with a wider audience, so I used my own personal DSLR camera to film them with their artwork and creative responses. I had them write their own voiceover explaining their piece, their connection to it, and their response project, making sure that the video was just about one minute long for quick, easy consumption. Here’s just one of their videos, featuring Joel:

That project was successful, but I wanted to turn much more of the creation over to the teens themselves. I knew I had a chance to do just that when we received funding to buy a set of iPads for the Education Department.

This fall, as part of a school year-long program, a new group of teens had a different task: they shared their personal connections to their work of art through a video they created on an iPad. Over the course of the semester, they created video blogs (vlogs) reflecting on their changing thoughts about their work of art. They also received “readers” with basic information on their work of art or artist, and led a group discussion with all the Satellite students about their piece to get others’ opinions and thoughts. At the end of the semester, they created midterm videos piecing together with their reflection vlogs to show their evolution of thought. Here is ZouaPang’s video:

Teens continually asked themselves what they were still wondering about, and much changed over the course of the semester. When asked what she learned after an early session, Alana responded: “I learned how to better analyze paintings.” Her answer to the same question at the last session of the semester was much richer: “I learned a lot more about how to analyze art and research which I think is really cool because now instead of just looking at a piece and saying ‘pretty picture’ I notice more things about the pieces I see.” Alana’s video—and all her research and analysis!—is below.

One-to-one iPads came with their own set of challenges. Instead of solo weekend troubleshooting with DSLRs and iMovie, I found myself with a wonderfully excited group who wanted to use the iPad for much longer than I’d anticipated! In fact, I learned that students about doubled the time I usually allotted to use the iPad comfortably and feel good about their work.

Next semester, the same group of students will continue to explore their artwork and create more formal videos for a wider visitor audience about their work of art. We’re going to kickoff the semester with some visitor studies: teens will go into the galleries and do a card-sort exercise with Museum visitors to discover what people actually want to know about works of art (thanks to Marianna Adams for this activity!). Then we’ll pool our data and discuss how we might format our videos for a larger audience, as well as how the teens think we should share the content.

Your Thoughts?

We’re now in the phase of thinking about what we can do with the content our students have worked so hard to create. We know their voices are important and engaging, and are thinking about how best to share them. Since ArtMuseumTeaching.com is a forum for practice, we would love to open our questions up to all of you. What other purposes might these videos serve? Would they be interesting to other audiences? Where and how should these videos be shared? Please share your thoughts with us, as well as comments or questions, below!

Real is a Thing That Happens to You: Tracking a Theme Through the AAM Annual Meeting

“Real isn’t how you are made.  It’s a thing that happens to you.”

public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit
public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit

This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting wrapped up in Baltimore last week, but I’m still wrapping my mind around some of the ideas that came up in sessions and lively discussion (in person and via the Twitter hashtag #aam2013).  Although the official theme was “The Power of Story”, I walked away thinking that another fitting tagline could have been the above quote from that classic of children’s literature, The Velveteen Rabbit, shared as wisdom from the Skin Horse to the titular lagomorph.

The idea of realness and how that matters in a museum context was on people’s minds throughout the conference, enough that it had a whole session dedicated to it on the first day.  “Is It Real? Who Cares?” brought together a group of museum professionals to engage the room in debate over some knotty questions.  Before you get excited for a recap of that session, I’ll clarify that I wasn’t there.  But they’ve set up a Tumblr that’ll give you some ideas of what you missed, and the handout includes some of the questions that may affect your thoughts about realness.

They ask some great, substantial doozies:

  • Does authenticity of objects matter more or less to different visitors?

  • Can display context render real objects fake or make fake objects seem real?

  • Is the object rendered more real because it’s rare or one-of-a-kind?

If I were feeling more academically-minded, here’s where I’d drop some quotes from Walter Benjamin’s seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the aura that a real object has due to its very realness, but I’m only feeling academically-minded enough to use the word “seminal” and bring Benjamin up in the first place.  Besides, he wasn’t speaking at AAM, so I’ll move on.

the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.
the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.

I’m sorry I missed “Is It Real? Who Cares?”, especially because it was the beginning of what became a thematic thread I followed throughout the rest of the conference.  In Tuesday morning’s session, “Significant Objects”, Rob Walker talked with the Center for the Future of Museums’ Elizabeth Merritt about his project of the same name, which started out with Rob and Joshua Glenn collecting thrift store tchotchkes, inviting an array of creative writers to contribute fictional short stories about the objects, and then selling the objects+stories on eBay. You can probably guess the punchline.  The $128.74 worth of knick-knacks sold for $3,612.51.

But did that make those knick-knacks more real?  Would purchasers have paid more if the stories had been nonfiction documents of the objects’ histories (the kind of thing we love to include in museum labels), or was there something special about fiction that drove up the value?

As Elizabeth Merritt put it in that room, there are plenty of stories museums choose to tell about their objects that are factual, but not terribly enlivening or enlightening.

It strikes me that this is part of what’s behind projects like Amuseum Guides or MoMA Unadulterated, unofficial audio guides that offer quirky alternative angles on museums instead of straight facts.  Discover forty-six ways you could be killed by the animals and places in the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.  Hear what 3-10 year olds have to say about the art grown-ups like to dismiss with that tired chestnut, “A kid could make that.”

Lively!  Fun!  Encouraging people to see museums in a different way, much like the material shared in the alliteratively alluring AAM session called “Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts.”  Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Edwards (no relation) from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Georgina Bath Goodlander from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum all shared games they’ve developed that ask players to use museum objects to help move through stories.  The objects are central to the game experience (visual clues often help answer questions that lead to the next step), but the games aren’t designed to specifically teach the player about the objects.

There are lots of great examples of this kind of approach that privileges the visitor experience and makes museums fun (*gasp*).  Amuseum Guides and MoMA Unadulterated do it.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery does it, inserting museum visitors into a fictional story that requires looking closely at the museum’s objects and allows some leeway between the fact and fiction of the contextual, historical information about those objects.  Visitor engagement and careful observation are the goals, not formal learning about the art.  A true experience in the museum that doesn’t rely on real facts to make it so.

installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B
installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B

But how does this sort of true–though not altogether real–experience balance out with museums’ responsibility to offer audiences truthful information?  A central question throughout these sessions, but nowhere more relevant than on the last morning at “Talking About Race: ‘Mining the Museum’ After 20 Years”.  Here was a panel of educators, scholars, and curators talking about Fred Wilson’s 1993 exhibition, “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, where he re-curated displays to juxtapose objects like iron shackles with elaborate silver serving ware and highly finished wooden chairs drawn like an audience around a post once used to whip enslaved people.

Wilson himself joined the panel and spoke eloquently about what inspired the exhibition in the first place.  He talked about being mad walking into museums and not seeing racially diverse stories represented.  “It made the museum complicit in the evils of the past,” he said.  The idea of provenance came up and was questioned.  How is provenance determined, after all?  Is it who owned a thing?  Who cleaned a thing?  Certainly in most museums, that first one trumps all.  Ownership tells us one part of an object’s story, but it’s far from the whole story.

And so ended AAM with these unresolved issues floating through my head. What makes an object real?  Who determines that realness?  How important is that realness to a museum visitor?  And, maybe most importantly to those of us in the museum field, how can a museum balance out the nebulous concept of realness with an authentic, true experience.

I started with a quote, so in the name of symmetry I’ll end with one.  It’s from “Peter and Alice”, a new play by John Logan that I caught in London a few months ago, and it hits on that careful balance between real and true.  The play imagines the conversation that might have happened between the people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and near the end there’s a scene where the real Peter (there’s that pesky word again) is remembering when he first saw Peter Pan performed onstage:

I remember the first time I saw the play. I thought it was all real.  […]

After the performance Uncle Jim took us backstage.  It was a mad bustle, even that was thrilling.  I mean, I knew it wasn’t actually real, I knew they were all actors, and we were in a theater…  But I needed to know if this place existed, if it were somehow true, even though it wasn’t real.  So as the party was going on and everyone was celebrating I wandered onto the stage by myself.  Just me…  How large it was…  I saw the painted backdrop of Neverland.  The pirate ship… the wooden moon…  And I closed my eyes and spread my arms…  And it was true.  […]

For a moment…  Then I opened my eyes and heard the party, and Uncle Jim calling me, and my brothers laughing…  And life went on.

I don’t have neat answers for these questions, but AAM certainly got my mental wheels turning.  Do you have answers?  Thoughts?  Examples of how you find this balance of real and true in your own museum work?

Object Stories: Rejecting the Single Story in Museums

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Early in 2012, I came across a particularly inspiring TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” quoted above, warns that if we tell or hear only a single story about a people or culture, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice. As I was listening to Adichie’s transformative words, I immediately thought about museums and the cultural power they have historically possessed to tell a single story—the single story. As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the 21st century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.

Since first listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk almost a year ago, I have experienced an exciting career and life transition as I moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, to become the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. And these issues of power, voice, storytelling, and community engagement are central to one of the Museum’s most widely expanding educational projects, Object Stories. Launched almost 3 years ago, this project begins to address the need for museums to reject the single story, to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries. This post provides a much-needed spotlight on the Object Stories project, and I will definitely follow-up with future posts that reflect on the further challenges and successes of this exciting work.

Explore more than 1000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org
Explore more than 1,000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org

The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project was recently featured by EmcArts and ArtsFwd in their ‘Business Unusual’ Contest, and I’m very proud to say that we won the contest with a broad base of support from across our community (the Mayor of Portland even gave us a shout out, along with dozens of other cultural organizations across Oregon). Originally posted on ArtsFwd.org, the text below was created through a full team effort from the Education Department, including Stephanie Parrish, Amy Gray, Danae Hutson, Jess Park, Betsy Konop, and especially my amazing predecessor Tina Olsen, who passionately led this project from its inception to where it stands today. As a team, we are pushing this project to new areas and breaking down boundaries inside the museum as well as both locally and globally.

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In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience. We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.

Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.

How Object Stories works

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection. On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.

The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.

Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue

This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.” The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback.

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.

A new platform for community collaboration

Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.

Big impact with room for growth

The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.

We’re super excited about where this project has been and where it is going, but I wanted to end with some open questions to invite your thoughts:

  • In what ways does storytelling and personal meaning-making enter the fabric of your institution?
  • What are some challenges to having these types of projects enter the ‘mainstream’ of museum planning around visitor experience and interpretation?
  • How can museums do a better job to design and support opportunities like this for visitor and community voices to enter the galleries?
  • And, finally, a big question that is very much on our minds: what is the next step for projects like this?

Please post your thoughts and questions below, and add to the ongoing conversation. You can also learn more about the thinking behind Object Stories by reading Nina Simon’s interview with Tina Olsen at Museum 2.0.

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

A Manifesto for Schools Visiting Art Museums

An important aspect of our role as art museum educators is to welcome and induct teachers and their students into museum protocols in a way that is warm and inviting. There are so many ‘do’s and don’ts’ about visiting the museum it can make them intimidating places to visit and that’s not the message we want to send before they have even set foot in the place. We know how great they are and for so many reasons.

Photo by Michael Edson

I’ve been trying to think of ways to better support teachers and help them to prepare for their visit so that student gain the maximum value for their efforts in getting there. Teachers are busy and we need to be strategic about the information that we send out and request, so that everyone is prepared for an amazing and wonderful museum experience. The Getty Center has created a short introductory video and lesson plan so students know what to expect, which looks useful. I am mainly concerned that with all of the information we need to communicate. How do we expect teachers to cut through to the most vital material?

I’ve come up with some lists of items I consider to be important and would like to present it in the form of a manifesto.

How can we best prepare teachers and their students for their visit?

By making;

  • program offerings clear and concise
  • booking procedures easy to follow and not too complicated
  • it easy for teachers to let us know what their expectations are, for example; what is the context of the visit such as a broader unit of study, curriculum requirements or a fun end-of-term activity
  • our behavioural expectations explicit

How do we like teachers to be prepared?

We find that teachers can help to create more effective learning experiences at the museum for students when they;

  • have visited the museum independently prior to bringing the students and have seen the content of the exhibition(s)
  • know about the museums facilities, such as where to check-in when the group arrives, the best spots for lunch, and of course the toilets
  • have briefed accompanying teachers and chaperones about museum behaviour protocols and have the capacity to manage their allocated student group
  • understand that artworks are precious and fragile so students must behave in a respectful manner and teachers model these behaviours
  • understand that the museum is a shared space with other visitors and everyone is mindful of this
  • know that we don’t mind if a visit is at the beginning or end of a unit of study.

What are the things that can make a visit go from great to amazing?

When:

  • teachers have prepared students by telling them what they can expect to happen and what is expected of them on the day
  • students know they must leave their bags, drink bottles (and mobile phones) in the bag room
  • teachers supervise their students in small groups in the museum
  • students have empty hands, helping them to listen and focus their attention, to be completely ‘in the moment’ whilst we are in conversation and showing them through the gallery
  • students ask lots of questions about artworks and the museum
  • worksheets are designed so that students are engaging directly with the experience of being in the gallery and not looking for facts they can find on the website (which can be good preparation or a follow-up activity to extend the value of a visit) and these are completed before or after the allocated time with an educator
  • the language used to discuss artworks is not completely new to the students and that even if they don’t know what the words mean, they can become part of their everyday language and expression
  • teachers trust us and our ability to encourage deep, rich, sophisticated conversations about a few artworks that requires moments of silence for time to think and look so students can make considered responses
  • when teachers have activities planned for the time outside their facilitated tour, independent activities might include observational sketching or writing tasks

How about from amazing to incredible?

By providing teachers with;

  • complementary tickets to visit prior to bringing their students
  • well designed booking forms
  • maps specifically designed for visiting school groups
  • an easily accessible bag room or cloaking facilities
  • somewhere dry and sheltered to enjoy a picnic lunch
  • suggested itineraries for how to structure a whole day visit
  • meaningful worksheets to give to their students that focus on self-reflection and observation using open ended questions and enhances the experience of being in an art museum
  • introductory lesson plans to use in class before the schools visit

Thank you for visiting and please come back with your family.

Teachers reasons for visiting art museums are complex and may range between taking students out on a treat, to meeting very specific curriculum goals as prescribed by departments of education. For some students the most that can be gained from an art museum experience is learning how to look at art, and learning that knowing what questions to ask is more important than being told the answers. I want teachers and students to understand that some artists challenge traditional ways of thinking and assumed societal conventions through the language of art and it is not to be dismissed because formal appreciation does not help us to understand it. Given that some research has shown that many children only experience the art museum during a school visit makes this an enormous learning experience and makes a museum visit all the more valuable and we need to go to the extra lengths to ensure these audiences are welcomed.

These lists are by no means conclusive so…

I would like to open up the conversation and really look forward to reading your comments about what should be added or omitted.

How do museum educators prepare visiting teachers and their students?
What is the experience of booking an education tour at your museum like?
Are videos useful to demonstrate what will happen or are there too many variables?

If museum-visiting-teachers are reading this, it would be terrific to get your perspective too.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  As ArtMuseumTeaching.com has been active now for more than 7 months with tens of thousands of readers, I always want to make sure we cover the full range of issues pertinent to our field and areas of practice. One area which has received little attention in the recent discourse (especially in key publications) has been our work as educators with our school communities — especially the nuts and bolts of developing transformative, meaningful experiences with students on tours. And I didn’t even need to make a call for posts, as several contributors recently submitted their own thoughts and reflections on this issue.  So I invite you to read this first post by Christine Healey who provides a working manifesto on school visits that we both hope opens up a dialogue on these matters.  This post followed by an additional reflection from Kate Sutlive who writes about her own practice in preparing for and leading inquiry-based school tours that introduce students to art. Enjoy, and as always, add your thoughts and perspectives to the mix.

Experimenting in Museums: What do you need most today?

Photo: Yang Weidong – http://www.smh.com.au

For the past 4 years, Chinese artist Yang Weidong has posed a deceptively simple question to over 300 Chinese intellectuals: “What do Chinese people need most today?”  These wide-ranging interviews have now become the core of a book by Yang as well as a in-progress documentary film titled “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese, and “Signal” in English.  As for their answers … “Of China’s thinkers,” Yang tells NPR’s Louise Lim,  “more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.”

“Freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and “free space for creative work” are combined with other responses in which people talked about the need for faith or spiritual life.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut succinctly puts it, Yang’s project is about “China’s thirst for freedom.”  His simple question opened up some really powerful conversations with China’s intellectual and creative class about sincere needs and legitimate concerns — conversations that, interestingly enough, have not yet been shut down by the Chinese government (despite repeated searches of Yang’s home and after some of the interview tapes have been confiscated).

Taking the spark of motivation from Yang’s inspiring and ongoing “Need” project, I recently decided to develop an experimental prototype that would explore how museums might interact with this idea of personal/universal needs — real, sincere needs that could build toward new forms of public engagement. For the second year in a row, I am facilitating the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a unique program that brings together a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students to explore and create different types of museum teaching and learning experiences.

On the first day of this summer’s program, I invited each of our 18 interns to take some time and reflect on the big question: “What do you need most today?”  Not thinking about museums or art in anyway, their task was simply to dig into their own, personal needs and decide on one that seemed urgent right now (‘today’).  After everyone had identified their “I need” statement, they wrote their needs on large pieces of posterboard and stood on the front steps of the art museum so I could take each intern’s photo (see the Pinterest board of all the photos).

For me, this was planting the seeds of a 10-week project through which these interns are slowly and intentionally developing their own public engagement projects to be enacted in August. And the next step pushed things in that direction the following week, as each intern was invited to reflect on their need statement and think about how, in some way, museums might fulfill that need — thinking creatively and outside-the-box.  Below are just a few excerpts from those reflections:

An engaged community: “Experiencing art is a tangible way to engage with and learn about others – it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, which builds a community by sharing experiences that can be taken home with you. In this way, the art museum offers a unique setting for community engagement. I believe that viewing art as this kind of open invitation is what inspires visitors to return, and it is the museum’s responsibility to continue this discussion”

A variety of choices: “I believe the museum setting encourages a structured approach to the works contained within them … the standard Look, Read, Look, Move On.  [B]ut without encouraging or allowing new ways to interact with the works, most viewers will stay within the confines of the standard viewing methods.  By encouraging a variety of ways to interact with the works within the museum, it will allow for a visit that breaks from the norm, and encourages the development of new avenues of interest, and make visits a more unique experience.”

Stories: “People love stories — to feel connected to their fellows even across the boundaries of nationality, culture, and language.  We like to know that we are not alone in our desires, our longings, and our needs. [And] an art museum seems to me to be the perfect place to go to find stories.  One could invent a story based on a single painting or sculpture; perhaps all the works in a gallery could be different parts of the story; maybe the different parts of a story are scattered across the museum and the game is to find them all.  Art museums have endless possibilities for finding stories.”

For the past 3 weeks now, we have been extending our conversations about these needs and how they might build toward a public engagement project at the museum.  First, we laid out everyone’s needs and did a short mapping activity — a great way to make our thinking visible and allow us to explore potential connections and relationships among the group’s needs.  Then, from there, everyone got into pairs based on “adjacent” needs on the map, and each pair interviewed each other about their need and how it might translate into a museum-based project.  Most recently, we all connected with experimental museum work at institutions such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Field and the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement programs, paralleling our learning about “public engagement” and social practice with our own developing ideas.

As we enter our 4th week of this summer’s program, I think we’re heading in interesting directions.  This week, we will begin to form more concrete ideas and develop prototypes for projects.  While I know we have lots of questions to ask and issues to navigate, I am excited to have launched into this project over the summer.  The Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program has always been an exceptional time and place for experimentation, especially due to the diverse and energetic group of students who participate each summer.  For me, exploring museum work from the point of view of personal and universal “needs” has the potential to make these projects so much more relevant, sincere, and “real” (however you define that).  And these are all things on the minds of museums — and especially museum educators — as we trudge through the second decade of the 21st century.

Much like artist Yang Weidong’s “Need” project, mindful museums have tremendous potential and power in their engagements with communities and the issues that these communities care about most.  Sometimes simply discovering those needs is an important first step, building up from them to create opportunities for engagement and learning that are more responsive and relevant to the issues facing us ‘today.’  Towards the conclusion of his 2009 book entitled Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes provides us with some provocative thoughts that may connect with why this type of work is valid and valuable:

“All museums have the responsibility and the opportunity to become synthesizers, and foster an understanding of the interconnectedness of the problems we face, both environmental and social. A mindful museum can empower and honour all people in the search for a sustainable and just world — by creating a mission that focuses on the interconnectedness of our world and its challenges, and promotes the integration of disparate perspectives.” (p. 166)

“It has been noted that ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ Will communities continue to care about museums in their current guise? Will museums discover what they care about? Or are museums at risk?” (p. 168)

I will certainly be posting again as the summer’s intern program continues and we get closer to the series of public engagement projects we plan to enact on August 9 and 10.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and perspectives below.  How might you tap into “needs” (external/internal/audience) as a core for experimental program development?  How important is this type of work for museums?  Share your stories and practices here or on Twitter via @murawski27.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

Experimenting in Museums: The Living Room Project

I believe the best rewards in life come from making oneself vulnerable.  To that end, I approach my work each day in way that allows for experimentation free from fear of failure (okay, sometimes I’m slightly afraid, but I don’t let it hinder me) because we learn from both our successes and our failures.  With the opening of a Renzo Piano-designed wing in January 2012, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ushered in the next phase of the museum’s history.  The spectacular architecture and increased focus on contemporary art (the museum’s Artist-in-Residence program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year) has provided increased opportunities for making connection between the historic and the contemporary.

In reflecting on An Elastic Manifesto for Museums, I thought about our Living Room Project.  Domestic in scale and design, the Living Room functions as both visitor orientation space and contemporary art project at the same time. Inspired by the 2000 exhibit The Living Room by artist-in-residence Lee Mingwei, the room is designed to foster visitor learning and interaction in creative ways.  In addition to collection resources and trained volunteers, twice a week visitors encounter a “living sculpture” in the form of a guest host who shares personal objects.

While much of what the Manifesto is about is relevant to this project, I’ve reflected on a few key points.

A different museum experience

By its nature, the Gardner is a different kind of museum.  The arrangement of the collection, housed in an imaginative Italian palazzo with a central lush courtyard, is eclectic and seemingly idiosyncratic in many instances.  And there are no wall labels to identify and explain works.  The installation was a personal endeavor for Isabella Gardner.  However, she is not here to tell us the stories behind her pieces or her personal connections to those objects.

Mingwei’s Living Room Project asks hosts to take on that role by choosing objects of personal significance and engage with visitors in conversation about those objects with the hope that visitors get into the mindset of thinking about and discussing works of art in a way that includes personal meaning and emotions.  This experience is a bit unique and can befuddle visitors, especially the idea that this interaction is a work of art.  Mingwei’s work is something that is “made” not entirely by him (he only comes to the museum periodically); the work of art is the experience of the host and visitor interacting in a unique moment.  In that way, the work of art (like all works of art, I would argue) is different in each encounter and for each visitor.  This is definitely a different kind of museum experience for most visitors.  So far, they have welcomed and embraced this new opportunity.

Your presence is important

Living Room Host Sandy Goldberg. Image courtesy Lisa Abitbol 2012

At its core, the Living Room project is about basic human interaction—one person learning about another person through sharing personal stories.  The rewards of this open ended activity are powerful and what better place to encourage this than in a museum setting.

The rewards for me as a staff member have also been great.  Because we are expanding the museum’s role in the larger Boston community, I have had the chance to meet some amazing people who I may not have met otherwise.  Hosts do not have to be “museum people,” although many curators, educators and staff have participated. We’ve had artists, students, professors, lawyers, ballet dancers, and many more. I have learned something different from each one of them.   This sociability, togetherness and relationship building is the foundation of the Living Room project.  It not only enriches our visitors’ experience, but also feeds the souls of the staff.

Give up control

Living Room Host Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Artist with Lee Mingwei. Image Courtesy Cheryl Richards 2012

Last, but certainly not least, is the idea of letting go and trusting others.  Mingwei’s work, the Living Room project included, explores issues of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness.  Each week, I marvel at the generosity in which each host has shared a bit of himself or herself with our visitors through their stories and objects, often very personal and precious.  For some this might be the scariest part of such a project; I essentially give control over to the hosts and trust it will work out as best it can that day.  That’s a hard thing for most of us to do (me included), but it is essential for a project that is about multiple voices and building community.

The Living Room project is a work of art that belongs to Lee Mingwei, the museum, and every host and visitor that participate.  That is a novel way to consider a work of art, I think.  But that is what makes it powerful, successful and beautiful.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. And to help make this more of a conversation, we encourage you to add your thoughts or questions below.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

‘De/reskilling’ Artistic Practice and Museum Education: College Students as Museum Interpreters

Students interact with Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (to Donna) 2” (1971) at the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Sarah Wolf Newlands.

Karena, a senior at Portland State University, leads us to reflect on a pool of natural light in a gallery at the Portland Art Museum near a Robert Irwin light and space sculpture. The effect is a state of near-meditation.

Another student, Lisa, asks us to consider the different ways in which we value a work by Dan Flavin. We then move to a darkened classroom to collectively make our own version of a Dan Flavin sculpture out of glow sticks. She informs us that she will be auctioning off our completed work, and that the proceeds will be going directly to the electric bill in order to keep the Flavin work running.

The preceding examples are projects developed by students for a class at Portland State University, called “Object Talks: Creating Meaningful Experiences at the Portland Art Museum,” co-taught in the summer of 2011 by artist and professor Sarah Wolf Newlands, Stephanie Parrish, a senior staff member in the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs, and myself. The class was an experiment in opening up the interpretation of the Museum’s collections to college students through experiential, conversation-based interpretation informed not only by best practices in the field of museum education, but also by the work of artists engaged in social practice. We collaborated with artist/educators Jen Delos Reyes and Lexa Walsh from Portland State University’s Social Practice MFA program to introduce students to this form of art-making, which we feel shares many concerns with the work of museum educators. These mutual concerns include the need for outreach to communities not necessarily involved in the art world, movement towards the so-called “educational turn” in museums, a desire for collective involvement and collaboration—and above all, an interest in the shared social space that constitutes an experience with a work of art. This linkage between artist and museum educator is nothing new, and its history is chronicled in this excellent article by Michelle Jubin.

However, the involvement of students in this process, who are not necessarily formally trained as educators or artists, and yet, are performing these roles in public outside of the “laboratory” of the classroom, raises questions for me about where the role of interpretation in a museum lies and who has ownership of this process. The training period for docents at the Portland Art Museum is over a year and an MFA in social practice is typically a two-year endeavor. University Museums often employ college students as docents; however, they typically receive much more training than we were able to offer on this class. Our students had eight weeks to craft and deliver their interpretive experiences. A cynic might suggest that we are devaluing a complex skill that requires more expertise than a summer class can provide. Furthermore, this course is part of the college’s University Studies program, a general education requirement for all students which is very interdisciplinary in nature. Critics of these programs often point to interdisciplinarity as responsible for what they believe as the death of specialization. However, I would like to consider this topic through the lens of the deskilling—and indeed, reskilling—movement that has been a concern for artists since at least Duchamp.

In Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (a review and summary can be found here) John Roberts addresses this very topic and its implications for the art that has followed Duchamp. His discussion of the readymade and its role in deskilling the work of the artist’s hand in favor of reskilling an artist’s work in the realm of immaterial labor is particularly appropriate for socially-engaged artists. However, I would like to consider this same process of deskilling and reskilling in light of our class. When confronted with the open-ended conversational gallery teaching techniques advocated by Rika Burnham, Elliot Kai-Kee, and many of the other museum educators that they read during the term, several students expressed concern in what they felt was a disengagement from the art historical structures that had colored their past experiences with art. Nor did they like the process of moving away from the more lecture-based modes of presentation they were accustomed to from their art history classes to relinquishing some level of control to their audience for the more conversational methods of inquiry that we advocated. Admittedly, these responses surprised us—even though we are used to these tensions between the fields of art history and museum education, we did not expect them from our students.

Though, in the strictest sense, the term “deskilling” refers to the process of eliminating skilled labor in the workforce in favor of time-saving technologies, it has taken on new meaning within arts discourse. It is linked not only to a movement away from artisanal production in the visual arts of the twentieth century, but also significantly, in aesthetic valuation (Roberts 86). In this sense, deskilling acts not only on physical labor, but on intellectual work as well. It also takes on new meaning in social practice as a way of democratizing the artist’s work (Ibid 159).

In asking our students to think of their projects as social practice, were they not engaging with these discourses of deskilling?

Through streamlining the training process and asking students to forgo some of their learning from previous classes, were we not deskilling some of the intellectual labor of museum interpretation?

Conversely, I would also like to argue that these students engaged in a process of reskilling by learning to be more adaptive and improvisatory in their approach to the works in the Museum’s collection. They often sidestepped certain art historical lines of inquiry in favor of interpretations found in other disciplines, as well as understandings from personal life experience. In learning these skills and in rejecting others for the purposes of this class, I should stress it was not our intent to supplant the skills and knowledge these students were learning in other classes, but rather to provide them with alternative tools for interpretation. Nor was it our goal to replace our experienced docent core with students. Instead, we hope that our work with college students opens up the role of interpretation in the Museum to new voices. After all, we can learn a lot ourselves from the openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm found among students at this crucial stage of life.

Add to the Conversation…

I welcome comments from those of you who have also worked with college students as educators in your museum. What worked in your program and what did not? Furthermore, I would love to hear thoughts on the intersection of social practice and museum education, as well as the place of re- and de-skilling in the museum.

Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission

The other evening I had the honor of seeing Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in conversation with Robert V. Taylor, his student and spiritual leader and author,  and the museum director, Michael Govan. The conversation centered on spiritual paths to being more human and connecting with the world and others in meaningful ways that bring about profound world change, like ending apartheid. Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Taylor stressed the importance of listening and making decisions to connect with and include others in human interactions each and everyday. It is the collective power of inclusion and care that can bring about great change in our world. Archbishop Tutu’s profound statement “I need you to make me human, and you need me to make you human,” struck me as he spoke, and has stayed with me. It is in the essence of personal interactions that we become human. As the conversation continued, I wove these two worlds—the art museum and the spiritual—together in my mind.

Photo by Harald Walker

The museum collects and displays exemplary works of art that tell myriad stories of human activity. But they themselves are not human and they do not speak. These objects are endowed with profound significance and import by the humans that discuss, interpret and make meaning around them. The personal interactions we have in the art museum explore and unlock the humanity in works of art; it is via these interactions that museum objects can help us develop empathy and imagination. That is, in our encounter with them and with each other we can become more human.

Recent events, including the J. Paul Getty Trust’s choice to make deep and shocking cuts to their museum education program and specifically to their exemplary teaching program, concerns me greatly. The choices of the Getty Trust are not alone in the increasing devaluing of teaching in our museums and society as a whole.

In his 2004 book of collected essays, Whose Muse?, Jim Cuno, currently Getty Trust CEO, writes:

“I think that by providing and preserving examples of beauty, museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world and urge their visitors to undergo a radical decentering before the work of art…. To experience beauty is … to experience an ‘unselfing,’ and all the energy we formerly put into the service of protecting, guarding, and advancing the self is then free to be in the service of something else.”

I wish to ask Mr. Cuno, exactly how do you think this process happens and how did it happen for you?

I have witnessed these moments when eyes and minds open in art museums. I am a museum educator. I teach. I believe deeply in the power and potential of works art to have profound impact on individuals and the world. But I also believe that this quality is not innate and the process is not always transparent. We learn about art and how to engage with it and the humanity of it. Many of us had families or teachers that took us to museums and talked to us about art and encouraged our curiosity. We can sometimes forget that we were not born interpreting paintings and ancient Greek vessels.

It was delightful to witness Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Taylor on stage as models for a teacher and student relationship. Their exchange demonstrated compassionate listening, deep mutual respect and personal growth. It also revealed the often subtle yet profound way teachers guide and support their students.

I am a former Getty gallery teacher. The professionalism of this position afforded me the ability to think deeply about how visitors to the museum were connecting with and appreciating works of art in the Getty collections and how to guide and support them in this process. It also afforded me a sustained daily practice and commitment to teaching. As a gallery teacher I gained more experience teaching in two or three weeks than most docents would receive in a year. I was also supported in reflecting upon and developing my teaching practice by a devoted cohort of fellow gallery teachers and other professional education staff.

I have devoted my career to facilitating moments of ‘radical decentering’ and being human with works of art because I think these experiences are important. I also believe that this doesn’t happen by accident or coincidence. I believe that the institution and the gallery teacher must value this as a goal and plan this outcome as they would any other aspect of their strategic plan.

I see many museums offering less and less training and support for teaching, caring less and less about the quality of the teaching and interactions people have in museums. When this happens, the breadth and depth of educational programs and access to these programs are compromised. In the Getty’s pre-packaged response that appeared on this blog and others, Jim Cuno claims that “this approach will not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum.” He goes on to state:

“An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multimedia tours, will enable us to meet our goal of 100% guided tours within the constraints of our budget.”

But what will the quality of that experience be? How will a multimedia tour unlock the humanity of works of art for diverse visitors with a variety of learning styles and prior knowledge? When the Getty staff and volunteers are given only a few months to prepare for this ‘approach,’ it is clear that teaching, visitor experience, and the relevance of the Getty collections to all audiences are not central the Getty Trust’s strategic goals.

Maybe we have become victims of our own success. Truly great teaching looks like nothing. It looks effortless and sometimes even magical. But these are teachers who have devoted their lives to being great teachers and are dedicated to their students. Teaching is hard, very hard. And great teachers are amongst our strongest assets. When art museums support their collections through personal human interactions, these moments of humanness and ‘unselfing’ occur. This is when our collections shine and are the most profound. This is when we have real public value.

Don’t our students, visitors, and collections deserve great teachers?

This post is the author’s own and does not necessarily represent the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.