Written by Hana Layson (Head of Youth & Educator Programs) with Laura Bartroff (Director of Communications) and reposted from the Portland Art Museum’s News blog.
Last month, over 70 educators from across grade levels and disciplines gathered to experience the Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR) as a space of creativity, learning, and leadership. The event, Finding Place: Art, Power, and Community, is part of an initiative to nurture teacher leaders at the Museum through the 22-member Teacher Advisory Council, year-round professional development programs, and the Summer Teacher Leadership Fellows Program. The initiative receives generous support from the Oregon Community Foundation.
The Finding Place program was planned and facilitated by educators for educators. Twelve members of the Teacher Advisory Council began meeting last October to brainstorm a way to meaningfully celebrate the Council’s fifth anniversary. Through a series of open conversations, the group identified place, belonging, and equity as some of the most vital issues in education and art today. They decided to design an experience that would encourage social and emotional connections as well as intellectual inquiry. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted the experience to be joyful—an opportunity for educators to step away from the tedium of standardized tests and administrative meetings and to reconnect with the joy of learning, creating, and being part of a community.
The day began with a story circles workshop for former and current Teacher Advisory Council members, facilitated by Charlene Martinez, Associate Director of Integrative Learning at Oregon State University and a current Council member. Story circles are a popular educational tool used in community organizing and arts-based social justice efforts. They offer a great way to build empathy and relationships quickly. For this session, participants were asked to respond to the prompt, “Think of a time when you did or did not feel you belonged to this nation.” Council members deepened their friendships with each other and came away with a new pedagogical technique to share with students and colleagues. As Dawn Nelson, a Language Arts teacher at Forest Grove High School, reflected afterwards, “The story circles not only gave me so much inspiration that day, but also when I used them in my classroom, they were so powerful—such a great way for a serious subject to inspire hope, joy, and community.”
Following the morning workshop, Teacher Advisory Council members opened up the program and welcomed all interested educators to the keynote presentation and a series of workshops inspired by the exhibition the map is not the territory. Dr. Natchee Blu Barnd, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies at Oregon State University, engaged participants with interactive activities to better understand decolonization, land and displacement, and how to implement concrete strategies for the classroom. Seven Council members facilitated small-group workshops connecting art and decolonization through a variety of disciplines, including movement and music, medicine and postcolonial literature, ink drawing and chipboard-sculpture-making. During one session, educators explored the exhibition independently, responding to prompts that encouraged reflection and dialogue.
Along with the deep thinking and conversations, educators also played. They filled in bingo cards that asked them to “Take a selfie with someone you just met” and “Discuss what you love most about teaching.” They posed before a gold-sequined curtain at the photo booth. They shared a meal and conversation and laughter.
In building teachers as leaders within the Museum and their own schools, the Teacher Leadership Initiative further supports the Museum’s efforts to integrate the arts into classroom teaching.
“When we began the planning process for this event there was an emphasis on being welcomed and respected as collaborators,” said Lilly Windle, a visual art teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland. “Through a commitment to listening and building on shared ideas, we made progress, learned and built a program that kept the original vision of connection, joy, collaboration, community and power, clear and at the forefront.”
The continuum of empowering educators was evident as the inaugural Teacher Leadership Fellows joined the Teacher Leadership Council, and participated in hands-on, collaborative resource-sharing during the symposium. As 2018 Fellow and H.B. Lee Middle School teacher Franky Stebbins observed, the planning process and final program were “a reminder that the leaders I respect and appreciate the most are those who are DOING—who are willing to lead, but also jump in, be vulnerable, and co-create.”
“For me personally, it felt grounding to experience a high-fidelity educator workshop addressing the many layers of connecting with the land and having Indian Country be visible,” said Carrie Brown, a teacher at the Native Montessori Preschool in Portland Public Schools. “So often, our Native families and students are invisible in university education courses and workshops. Much gratitude to the Portland Art Museum for hosting this workshop and supporting the exhibition the map is not the territory.”
I am so proud and excited that my home institution, the Portland Art Museum, will be hosting this fall’s MuseumNext conference. I have been fortunate enough to attend MuseumNext both times that it has held conferences here in the United States thus far: first in Indianapolis, and mostly recently in New York. This conference, perhaps more than any other, brings together a diversity of thinkers and leaders in the field of museums, attracting speakers and attendees from all around the globe. And with this fall’s theme of REVOLUTION, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be a powerful, transformative event that brings together risk-takers and changemakers from museums as well as the arts & culture sector. I am thoroughly excited to showcase the great work happening right here at the Portland Art Museum, and welcome attendees to gain a richer understanding of the innovative, diverse, and creative things happening here in the incredible city of Portland (far beyond the stereotypes of Portlandia). Hope to see many of you here this fall!
MuseumNext is a global conference on the future of museums. Since 2009 it has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. On October 2-4, 2017, we will be holding our third annual conference in the United States – with three days of presentations, discussion,s and debates at Portland Art Museum.
Every MuseumNext conference has a theme, around which the community comes together to discuss the future of museums. This year the theme for MuseumNext USA will be Revolution. Museums aren’t strangers to revolution, we are constantly responding to and transformed by our changing society, whether that’s due to politics, environment or technology. Our institutions don’t stand still. At the same time, having the mandate to conserve, revolutions are a risk and challenge to many museums.
We are now inviting proposals from our community on the theme of revolution, looking at what that means to individuals and institutions around the world.
Taking a stand – How are museums acting as agents of change within their communities and fighting for social good?
Managing change – How are museums responding to a rapidly changing society or change within their organizations?
Mini Revolutions – What trends are revolutionising the field of museums, from the maker movement to being safe places for refugees?
Collecting Revolutions – Museums collect and tell stories through their collections, but many of today’s most important stories center around civil movements, hashtags and other, uncollectable ideas. How do we document the revolutionary now?
Or – We welcome your own ideas about how revolution relates to museums.
MuseumNext follows a fast-paced format of twenty-minute presentations with the focus very much on practice rather than theory (please note that this is the only format we’ll use at this event and we aren’t seeking longer presentations or workshops at this time).
Proposals for presentations should contain a title, names of presenters, a summary of the themes to be addressed, relevant links as well as a description of the expected learning outcomes.
We offer those speaking at the conference one free ticket per session, and speakers are responsible for their own travel and accommodation.
This week, at the Portland Art Museum’s Members Night, I was asked to work with our Curator of Prints & Drawings and our Conservator to give a series of pecha kucha presentations telling the story about our museum collection coming to life. We all decided to dive into a recent exhibition on the work of Corita Kent entitled Spiritual Pop, which pulled from and enhanced the museum’s holdings of works by this inspiring artist and activist.
Kent, a nun widely known as Sister Corita, was a highly-influential artist, educator, theorist, and activist who gained international fame in the 1960s for her vibrant, revolutionary screenprints. She grew up in Los Angeles and, after high school, joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She began screenprinting in the 1950s and by the 1960s had embraced L.A.’s chaotic cityscape as a source of inspiration, transforming the mundane into inspiring and often subversive messages of hope and social justice. One critic once wrote, “Her mission seems to be to surprise us into awakening to delight.”
Kent used the element of surprise to awaken her audience to issues of social justice, in particular, world hunger. The theme of food and nourishment run throughout much of her work, including her 1965 series “Power Up,” which appropriates the slogan of Richfield Oil gasoline in combination with smaller texts from a sermon on spiritual fulfillment by activist priest Dan Berrigan.
It was Kent’s “Power Up” that really stood out in this exhibition, and reached out to visitors and our community. And for my part of our pecha kucha presentation to Members, I chose to tell the simple yet inspirational story of “Power Up.”
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When we visit an art museum, deep down inside, we’re largely seeking out creativity, beauty, joy, energy, strength, connection, even love. When we stand in front of a work of art, perhaps we’re even looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Corita Kent brought all of that to the museum and our community in powerful ways. Having her work on view here at the museum and seeing its deep transformative effect, I am drawn to reflect on how the power of art does spread out to a community and beyond the walls of a museum.
During the Spiritual Pop exhibition, we had dozens of programs and projects that allowed visitors to connect with her printmaking and activism—from conversations in the gallery, guest lecturers, a POWER UP evening for LGBTQ teens, and regular printmaking workshops and demos. At our Miller Family Free Day program, we invited families and children to make a print that reflected something they love about Portland or their hopes for this city. These prints were compiled into an artist-made book, and a small team of us from the museum hand-delivered it to our newest mayor, Ted Wheeler, just weeks after his inauguration. That book immediately brought him joy, and it still sits in his office as a symbol of the creativity and love of this city.
Corita Kent’s print series “Power Up” itself has been a catalyst for community connections and outreach, providing an uplifting message of social justice for so many across Portland. During the confusing, challenging, and unstable times we have found ourselves in these past several months, this single artwork became (and continues to be) a source of energy, joy, and resiliency for many.
Also during the Corita Kent exhibition, we hosted a series here at the museum called Portland Prints, featuring this city’s energetic, thriving, and innovative printmaking scene. In partnership with the amazing Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), the museum hosted a series of mini-residencies in which artists made new prints inspired by Corita Kent and Andy Warhol, and visitors could get directly engaged with printmaking. Illustrator and educator extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt was one of those artists. She was immediately inspired by Corita Kent’s “Power Up,” and invited designers from around the world to submit their own “power up” drawings and illustrations.
And in they came. Power up! POWER UP! Power UP! power up! As our country neared the end of a contentious and emotional campaign season and then into the election itself, there was a tremendous thirst for “power up.”
Kate brought all these messages together into a single poster print, and here at the museum on the Friday and Saturday following the Election, she printed them.
And then printed more. And then some more. Over a day and a half, she had printed and distributed over 800 Power Up posters. These prints that now hang on office walls, cubicles, school classrooms, and people’s homes across the city (including mine). The ripple effect of Corita Kent’s activist message of love and humanity exists now in the daily lives of so many individuals.
Thanks to Kate, the Power Up message spread further through zine workshops, design events, and even awesome t-shirt designs by Michael Buchino. Just this month, our Education team decided to purchase these Power Up t-shirts as an expression of camaraderie and yet another way of keeping this uplifting energy alive.
Back in January, Kate brought her Power Up poster design to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, nearly 3000 miles away from this museum. The uplifting message of Corita Kent that had inspired our community here was now part of an even larger experience. Hundreds more of these prints were made and distributed there. The reverberations of “Power Up” were felt in our nation’s capital and as part of the millions of people who marched that day in solidarity, including over 100,000 here in Portland. Corita Kent, bless her soul, is undoubtedly looking down upon all of this with a strong sense of joy—seeing her civil rights message from 1965 resonating so strongly and proudly in 2017.
An incredible story sparked from one simple print that hung on the wall in the lower level of an art museum in Portland, Oregon.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)
As the fourth year of ArtMuseumTeaching wraps up, I thought it would be good to post a brief “Year in Review.” Not that we need any more end-of-the-year lists or calls for resolutions, but I think it can be meaningful to take a minute and look back at some of the issues that have been on our minds this past year. I want to thank all of the amazing contributors who have taken the extra time to share their practice with this community!
Since its inaugural year back in 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching has grown from a tiny blog seedling to a robust and active online community now involving more than 60 contributors, publishing 172 posts, and being read by hundreds of thousands of people in as many as 170 countries around the globe. I hope that this online community and forum will continue to grow, include more perspectives, and be a space of exchange where we can connect on issues of teaching, learning, and community engagement that matter most for museums and the people that make up those museums.
Year in Review: 5 Most Popular Posts of 2015
5. “320 Hours: Slow Looking & Visitor Engagement with El Greco” (July 2015): We all talk about the value of slow looking and extended engagement with art – and this great post by Kelsey Ferreira provides such a unique insight into her experiences spending 320 hours with a single El Greco painting at the Portland Art Museum. What questions did visitors ask? What types of experiences sparked further engagement and learning? What surprisingly deep experiences did visitors bring to this stunning painting? A fantastic read for museum educators and art lovers alike!
4. “Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool” (January 2015): David Bowles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared his insights from posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from his gallery experiences on Facebook, and using social media tools such as Facebook to add a reflective element to our practice. This is a great read, especially with David’s five take-aways for museum educators about student learning in the galleries.
3. “We Flipped Our Museum – Here’s What We Learned” (June 2015): Emily Kotecki shared the work at the North Carolina Museum of Art to deepen and activate the museum learning experience through a Flipped Museum pilot program called “Artists in Process.” They developed an online learning platform to support social interaction and choice-based learning, and then worked with sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. Check out their ‘lessons learned,’ and read more in the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.
2. “The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App” (July 2015): Written after my own visit to the Brooklyn Museum this past summer, I briefly explored the what, how, and why of this effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. While I am still attracted to the app’s desire to make personal connections with visitors, I’m a bit concerned with how few visitors use the app considering the staff and resources dedicated to this project. But I absolutely love that the team at the Brooklyn Museum is super transparent about their thinking and planning via their blog (so awesome!).
1. “Questioning the Use of Questions” (January 2015): In the most widely-read post of 2015, museum educator Jackie Delamatre responded to Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee’s challenge to the use of questions in museum teaching. While there is great value in questioning the use of questions, Jackie’s insightful post defends the use of open-ended questions and brings in some of her own personal experiences. And her search for the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon of questions’ is not to be missed!
Enjoy these popular posts from 2015, and see you in 2016 — a year that promises to bring a whole new set of challenges, success stories, and new ways of thinking about both the theory and practice of museum teaching. If you would like to share the projects you’re working on or the issues and challenges you are grappling with, please add your voice to this growing community (and just send me a tweet at @murawski27 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Visitors to the Portland Art Museum are beginning to encounter an unmistakable revitalization of Native American art. This fall, the Portland Art Museum announced the opening of its new Center for Contemporary Native Art, a gallery dedicated to presenting the work and perspectives of contemporary Native artists. In 2014, the Museum was awarded a major three-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) focused on creating a “community anchor” space to foster a deeper understanding of Native American art and artists in the contemporary world. Each year, the Center will host two rotating exhibitions and feature a range of related programming.
At the core of the Center’s mission is the commitment to partner with Native artists in co-creating the exhibitions, interpretation, and programming for the space. This approach challenges visitors to think about Native American art and the cultures that inform the work as dynamic and changing, and not as an ethnographic snapshot in time. In this way, we hope that privileging a contemporary view of Native art in the Museum will provide visitors an opportunity to engage with and to relate to the plethora of Native experiences. Front-end evaluation and planning of the Center has involved the Museum’s Portland-based Native Advisory Committee as well as Native artists and others involved in Native American artistic and cultural practices across the region.
The Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art is part of broader institutional efforts which culminate early in 2016 with an innovative special exhibition showcasing contemporary Native photographers in dialogue with photographs from Edward Sheriff Curtis’s renowned body of work The North American Indian. In addition, a new, provocative set of Native artists will be featured in the Center for Contemporary Native Art (see Survivance below), and a spectacular summer exhibition spotlights Native fashion and design.
For Deana Dartt, Ph.D., the Museum’s curator of Native American art since 2012, these exhibitions and initiatives are the result of years of collaborative efforts and a true commitment to Native artists and communities. Working closely with Native advisors, she has brought to the museum an emphasis on Native artists working today to reinvigorate the Museum’s highly acclaimed historic Native American art collection. Her goal is to more meaningfully engage visitors in the issues critical to Native American art practice now, and the unique perspectives that inform that work. Dartt says:
“We want to show the whole spectrum of artists and art practice in Indian Country, from customary or ‘traditional’ to the edgy contemporary, seamlessly woven together in a way that is meaningful to our community as a whole as well as empowering for young Native visitors as they walk through the galleries. I’m always thinking about—and always inspired by—the power of art to heal historic wounds and restore hope.”
Dartt, who grew up in southern California and is a member of the Coastal Band Chumash, earned her Ph.D. in anthropology and museum studies from the University of Oregon and served as curator of Native Culture at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum before joining the Portland Art Museum. She is one of only two Native American art curators in mainstream institutions who are of Native heritage.
In concert with the Museum’s education department, Dartt has connected the collections with Native communities through projects such as the new Center for Contemporary Native Art and Object Storiespartnerships with the Native American Youth Association (NAYA) and Family Center, as well as Yup’ik community members in Bethel Alaska (see previous post “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices”). The Museum has also enhanced online access, making the Native American collection of nearly 3,500 objects the first to be fully digitized through a $150,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
Under Dartt’s guidance, the Native American collection has quadrupled its modern and contemporary holdings since 2012, adding works by exciting contemporary artists such as Wendy Red Star (featured in the Native photography exhibition) and Nicholas Galanin, the Tlingit/Aleut multidisciplinary artist. In 2017, the Museum will mount a major exhibition entitled The Art ofResilience: A Continuum of Tlingit Art, the first large-scale examination of Tlingit art whose forms have long defined the public perception of Northwest Coast Native art. It will include items from the Portland Art Museum’s 1948 acquisition of the Axel Rasmussen collection that inspired the dedication of permanent gallery space at the Museum to showcase Native American art. The exhibition will complement the world-class collection with stunning contemporary works and others to be commissioned specifically for the exhibition. Dartt remarks:
“In developing The Art of Resilience and our contemporary installations, we’re forging strong connections with the Native artists and communities. We’re bridging the past and future of Native American Art at the Museum.”
The Center for Contemporary Native Art’s inaugural exhibition thlatwa-thlatwa: Indigenous Currentsopened in October, featuring the work of contemporary Oregon Native artists Greg Archuleta, Greg Robinson, and Sara Siestreem. These three artists bring forward a strong sense of the continuum of Native cultures and artistic practices in Oregon. Each of these artists is working in traditional as well as “modern” media, but their practice is rooted in their sense of Native identity and values as integral to their roles as Native community members—not solely as individuals with exceptional talents.
The exhibition addresses the issues these artists face in their everyday lives, as Native people challenged to assert their indigeneity in a growing urban metropolis. They all work in their own ways to educate Oregonians about the deep and rich history of this land and its rivers. Their collective goal is to make visual the ancestral memory that fuels the passion for their work—a memory largely invisible to the people who share this home. In partnering with the Portland Art Museum to bring this vision to the public, the shared goal of these three artists is to help visitors more deeply understand the art and experiences of Oregon Native people—past and present—and to more fully appreciate the unique beauty of the cultures so deeply rooted here.
For this project (among others), the Museum’s curatorial and education staff are making a conscious effort to allow the artists’ to engage the public and talk about their own work and artistic practice; rather than adopting the standard practice of Museum curators or educators talking about the artists’ work (whether through interpretive texts, publications, or public programs). The artists have been leading gallery talks in the Center to talk about their work, and the Museum has been using these videos as well as artist interviews (see below) to share this project with a public audience. In keeping with this goal, I am embedding a few of these videos below so that you can learn more about the art and practice of each artist with minimal intervention on the part of the Museum.
In March of 2016, the Center for Contemporary Native Art will present its second exhibition featuring the work of Demian DinéYazhi’ (Diné) and Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena/Jewish). Together, these artists will frame themes of gender, sexuality, and identity through the lens of their respective Indigenous cultural perspectives and traditional practices. Their work in the new Center will demonstrate their commitment to survivance, defined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor as Indigenous self-expression in any medium that tells a story about an active Native presence in the world now.
Survivance is more than mere survival—it is a way of life that nourishes Indigenous ways of knowing. DinéYazhi’ and Spitzer will create a transdisciplinary and multimedia space that reaffirms their dedication to cultural revitalization through language and social engagement—a contemporary and radical act of survivance.
Header Image: Ishmael Hope dances with Clarissa Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” during the Shx’at Kwáan dance performance during the Sealaska Heritage Institute Celebration 2014. Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” was commissioned by the Portland Art Museum, and will be an important work in the Museum’s 2017 exhibition of Tlingit art. Photo from Juneau Empire, http://juneauempire.com/local/2014-06-15/weaving-new-native-narrative-museums
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.
Reposted from CODE | WORDS, an experimental publishing project on Medium exploring emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the impact of digital technologies on society. This collection of essays has since been published in book form by Museums Etc.
As the AMC series Mad Men aired its midseason finale back in May 2014, more than two million viewers were graced with an unexpected song and dance performance from senior advertising executive Bert Cooper, played by actor and past Broadway star Robert Morse. In this musical equivalent to hitting the pause button on a much anticipated final season that does not resume until next spring, Morse crooned the lyrical lines first written in 1930: “The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.”
For me, it was certainly one of the most intriguingly beautiful and surprising moments on television in recent years. The song comes during the last two minutes of an episode in which the daily dramas of the show’s characters are laid on top of, and intertwined with, the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point in the episode, everyone gathers around a television, wherever they are, to watch Neil Armstrong take that small step onto the surface of the moon — engaging in one of the most memorable shared human experiences of the 20th century (an estimated 600 million people worldwide were watching the moon landing live on television at that very moment).
Technology, engineering, and new media undeniably acted to create a profound connection. In her Los Angeles Times column about the Mad Men episode, Meredith Blake wrote:
“It was an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection.”
This perspective has particularly resonated with me at a time when I have been grappling with the effects of digital technologies and media on the educational role of museums. Are my own core values of human connection, shared experience, and community co-creation a part of the digital transformation happening in museums? When we’re overly suspect of digital technologies, are we missing out on a greater opportunity to embrace a ‘digital is everywhere’ mentality—a mindset that brings together thinking about digital technologies and the new ways in which humans connect, share, and learn in a digital age?
Yes, and yes.
Well …. how did I get there?
In May 2013, I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (followed by a short thinking piece online) entitled “Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?” that explored my uncertainties about the growing emphasis on technology in museums. Far from being anti-technology, I was, however, exploring some burning questions I, myself, had about the role of digital technology in museum learning and visitor engagement through the polemical dichotomy of ‘plugged in’ versus ‘unplugged.’ Among many questions, I asked:
“As we focus more and more on digital and online experiences, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century? If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experiences in the galleries and across programming?”
After seeing some museums investing more in a single digital project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget, I was genuinely concerned that we might be losing sight of the basic ‘unplugged’ human interactions at the core of learning that allow these institutions and their collections to have public value and mean something to the communities they serve. I even wrote, “when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.”
Yet, I have come to realize that we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today. If the lights go out in the museum and all the WiFi hotspots and screens go dark, we might lose the physical technology infrastructure, but we do not lose the powerful participatory, networked, open source culture that has taken root in our audiences and communities in the 21st century. In this regard, digital technology cannot simply fall away.
In the 2014 Let’s Get Real 2 report developed from the second Culture24 Action Research Project involving 22 arts and cultural organizations, experts from across the field noted that institutions are struggling to embrace the new realities of audience behavior (via the web, mobile devices, social media, etc.). Jane Finnis, Project Lead, remarks in her foreword to the report:
“this challenge is absolutely not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is first and foremost about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.”
For museums in the 21st century, becoming more aware and responsive to these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset.’ This approach envisions a deeper fluency and understanding of web behaviors, mobile behaviors, and social media behaviors across all areas of museum practice, rather than relegated to the IT, online collections, or website functions of a museum. In her core essay from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology (a must read, by the way) entitled “This Belongs to You: On Openness and Sharing at Statens Museum for Kunst,” Curator of Digital Museum Practice Merete Sanderhoff sets out to define “a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure” (23). She continues:
“Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up for us, we must explore and incorporate not just technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.”
So how might we begin to think more like users, and see our audience as users, as well?
Be More Open
With the rise of the Internet, the phrase ‘open source’ began as a way to describe open access to software source code and the collaborative model for how it is developed. Key elements of this development model have been: universal free access and redistribution of the source code, an openness for users to modify and adapt that blueprint in any way desired, and an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.
In museums today, one of the direct effects of this open source movement can be found in the ways through which institutions have released their collection data. As the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museum) initiative coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation asserts:
“The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.”
In 2013, the Rijksmuseum released 150,000 copyright-free, high resolution images of public domain works — one of several art museums that have made collection data and images openly available online. But they have gone beyond simply releasing images and data, and actively encouraged people to share their collection, remix the artworks to create personalized collections, print reproductions (including everything from posters and canvas prints to coffee mugs and bed covers), and allow artists free reign to use these images to create something new. As of October 2014, visitors had created more than 169,000 new virtual exhibitions through the RijksStudio web platform. Ed Rodley’s recent CODE | WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity” lays out an interesting case for museums like the Rijksmuseum being promiscuous with its collection.
Pushing open use of a collection even farther, in January 2014 the Walters Art Museum hosted its second Art Bytes hackathon to bring together technology and creative communities to use the museum’s rather new API to create games, Twitter bots, scavenger hunts, 3D prints, web apps, e-books, digital docents, etc. This competition not only utilized the collection data to inspire community-wide creative rethinking about the Walters, but it led to a whole series of incredible adaptations, recreations, and visitor experiences with the collection at the core.
One of Denmark’s leading IT lawyers, Martin von Haller Grønbæk, writes in his essay “GLAMourous Remix: Openness and Sharing for Cultural Institutions” from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology:
“All cultural institutions should endeavor to be as open as possible in the sense that as many people as possible should have the easiest access possible to the institution’s content. At the same time the institution should seek to ensure that the freely available content is shared, enriched, and processed by users, whether they are citizens, students, scholars, researchers, or commercial ventures.” (142)
If we think of the concept of ‘open’ in the broadest way possible (beyond releasing collection data), it has the potential to challenge museums to let go of some of their control and the limitations that come with this control. Embracing a mindset of openness changes the way we think about museum practice, inspiring a more participatory mentality focused around creating, transforming, and adapting — without the traditional restrictions that have limited forms of public cultural learning.
“With the web has come a new collaborative approach to knowledge generation and sharing, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and an expectation by users that they will be able to contribute and adapt/manipulate content to meet their own needs.” (Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the 21st Century, 6)
A hundred years ago, people relied on museums as a repository for the knowledge and information related to its cultural collections. If you wanted to learn more about the artists, artworks, cultures, and places of its collection, you walked inside a museum’s grand halls of knowledge. Today, that has completely shifted. Visitors can access far more information through their smartphone or mobile device than any museum could ever hold (as of October 2014, 87% of people in the US use the Internet, 67% own smartphones, and they have access to more than 672 billion gigabytes of data from more than 1 billion websites).
During a visit to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I found myself sitting in front of an amazing Franz Kline painting entitled “Turin” in their Abstract Expressionism collection. While the pithy 98-word unattributed ‘voice of god’ label offered a few tidbits (“Kline used commercial house paints,” and that the painting was “named after a city in northern Italy”), I quickly went to my iPhone to search for more—I was hungry for more. From the 350,000 Google search responses, I instantly found videos, photos, Wikipedia entries, curatorial essays, poetry, music, visitor comments, slow looking reflections, and links to dozens of other museums that had works by Kline in their own collections. While I may have been standing in the Nelson Atkins building, I found myself reaching outside of its walls and connecting digitally with a wide distributed network of authorities and communities of knowledge—even sharing my own content to this mix with tweets and Instagram photos. When I sat down with docents in front of this painting for deeper conversations, we opened up further layers of thoughts, insights, and questions that were not part of the authoritative knowledge repository of the museum.
We have rapidly moved out of the era of passive consumption of content selected by a few experts, and museums now have an opportunity to actively reshape their own authority in this new equation. The digital age does not negate the authority of museums and curatorial expertise, but, rather, it puts this authority in public conversation and dialogue with a wider network of knowledges, voices, and experiences. Cultural authority is not something solely established by a didactic label, curatorial essay, or published catalog; it is negotiated through discussion and collective participation, and shared with our community and the users (yes, I said ‘users’ instead of ‘audience’). with which we connect. In his 2009 essay “A Manual for the 21st Century Gatekeeper,” New York-based curator Michael Connor explores the ways in which the internet, social media, and new collaborative ways of working are fundamentally changing the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences. He writes:
“A curator’s authority pales in comparison to the audience’s vast collective stores of knowledge and passion. How can gatekeepers redefine their role in ways that harness the power of the audience without losing the sense of subjectivity and personal risk that lie behind aesthetic decisions?”
As museums work toward sharing authority, they can begin to allow for the voices of specific communities and the public to be heard inside the walls of these institutions—to speak for themselves. In her guest editor preface to the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on this theme of “shared authority,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello includes a powerful quote from historian Karen Halttunen that relates to the role museum staff play as workers in these public institutions:
“We [must] divest ourselves of the special authority sometimes granted to us … [and we must] enter democratic partnerships with other members of our communities.”
For me, the Memory Jar Project a couple years ago at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History really stands out in terms of a museum working to renegotiate traditional, monolithic structures of authority (using a ‘digital mindset’ in an analog way). Part of a larger community-sourced exhibition project called Santa Cruz Collects, visitors were invited to ‘bottle up’ a memory in a jar, label it, and leave it as part of this exhibit to share with others. The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories initiative also continues to strive toward shared authority and multiple voices (see “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectices: Native Voices”). By redefining authority through these processes of co-creating knowledge and meaning with the community, a museum has the potential to be far more than just a place that holds and disseminates knowledge.
At the core of the digital age are new ways of relating to one another, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, learning, collaborating, and connecting. In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman argue that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.
“People’s relationships remain strong — but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”
Through countless digital projects and social media activities, museums are tapping into global networks and becoming more connected to this growing virtual community (that, in many cases, actually has a strong relationship with a museum’s physical community). As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, stated in a 2014 New York Times piece, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”
Through the Portland Art Museum’s #captureParklandia project, we were able to effectively explore the interconnected network of interest-based social media communities (via Instagram) and the physical communities in Portland itself. The overall reach of this project through Instagram was far larger than the museum’s annual in-person attendance, motivating us to rethink how we define our audiences and the new ways in which we might bring them together through moments of exchange. Rob Stein explores related ideas in his CODE | WORDS essay “Museums… So What?”, writing:
“… the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities?”
The Question Bridge project is a particularly powerful example of using digital technologies in a participatory way to bring people together in dialogue and exchange. Organized by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, this innovative transmedia art project aims to facilitate a question-and-answer dialog between black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and create a platform for representing and redefining black male identity. In addition to its online interactive site, the project has been installed at over 25 museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, and the Missouri History Museum, and includes a multiple-screen video installation as well as a youth development curriculum and specialized community engagement events. The project (about which I encourage you to learn more) is all about dialogue and listening, and it taps into both technology and a digital mindset in order to enhance the connective and collective experience of participants in a digital age.
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In her book Museums in the Digital Age, Susana Smith Bautista discusses how notions of place, community, and culture are changing for museums in the digital age. In her conclusion, she writes:
“If museums are to remain relevant, vital, and meaningful, then they must adapt to a changing society, which means not only recognizing and incorporating new digital tools for communication, but more importantly, recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of society as reflected in their communities of physical and virtual visitors.” (225).
As the behaviors of our audiences and communities change, so do the ways in which they learn. A core part of this digital transformation in museums (see “Museums Morph Digitally”) involves expanding our concepts of learning and engagement to be responsive to an Internet culture defined by participation — and not just ‘participation for the sake of participation,’ but as serious involvement in the deep, connected forms of cultural and creative learning that can occur with museums.
Embracing a digital mindset of openness, participation, and connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century—in much the same way that new technologies brought people together for that powerful shared moment 45 years ago to witness Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap.’
After all … the moon belongs to everyone.
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On November 12, 2014, the NAEA Museum Education Division hosted a Peer2Peer Hangout that focused on these ideas of ‘digital mindset’ and ‘digital museum practice’ with Ed Rodley, Chelsea Kelly, Michelle Grohe, and Juline Chevalier. It was a lively conversation with lots of good questions from people watching live. View the video archive of this Hangout below:
Editor’s Note: As I near the end of my second year as Director of Education & Public Programs here at the Portland Art Museum, I find myself more interested than ever in how a museum can connect with its community and its place. Even before I arrived, the Museum was already envisioning itself as a platform for community dialogues, conversation, engagement, and critical thinking in relation to its collection and exhibitions (this certainly was something that drew me out here). And in the past couple years, the team here at the Portland Art Museum has continued to work with the Portland community in new and unique ways to be a museum of its place, not just a museum in its place. The following post by Kristin Bayans and Justin Meyer describes our current project entitled #captureParklandia, designed as a way to spark thinking about parks, gardens, and experiences with green spaces in our own community — in conjunction with the stunning exhibition Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden about the art, design, evolution, and experience of Paris’ most famous garden. Through this social media photography project, museum visitors and the public community are encouraged to share their park experiences and memories, but also to discover new park spaces and think about them in a new light through the lens of the Tuileries. With art serving as a catalyst, projects such as #captureParklandia — in addition to our robust series of programming this summer — allow the museum to serve as a platform for public engagement and community dialogue around issues relevant to the life of our city and its region. While there have been recent questions about the validity of a project like this for an art museum, I firmly stand behind the success of this experimental project in social media and place-based digital engagement. Please add your voice below in the Comments section, as it is always important to have an open dialogue about these issues as we face them in the ever-changing landscape of museums in the 21st century.
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Written by Kristin Bayans, Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum, and Justin Meyer, Portland Art Museum Education Intern and PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan
#captureParklandia is the Portland Art Museum’s most recent dive into a large-scale social media project. Created in tandem with the special exhibition The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Gardens, Portland Parks and Recreation, and the Portland Parks Foundation, #captureParklandia is both an online and in-gallery experience. #captureParklandia’s pie-in-the-sky goal is to get Portlanders to play with the museum and connect in new ways. Through this playful interaction, Portlanders will begin to think of PAM as their museum, not just a museum.
#captureParklandia Works Like This
Anyone with Instagram can tag their photo of a park in Portland with our hashtag (the project’s name). All of these photos are displayed on both an up-to-date feed, as well as geolocated on a map of Portland via the Museum’s webpage for this project. In the exhibition gallery, particularly captivating hashtagged Instagram photos are displayed digitally in a dynamic web application, Slidely. Twelve unique photos, selected by our partners from the thousands of tagged submissions on Instagram, were printed as one of twelve individual “Portland Park” trading cards (120,000 cards were printed in total). Trading cards have the project’s hashtag, advertise the work of Portland Parks and Recreation, and give visitors to the in-gallery experience something to take with them.
Go Forth and Get’em
Perhaps the most important step to putting this project together was recruiting members of InstaPDX (Portland’s Instagram social club) in-person during one of their pub meet-ups. It was a bit awkward at first; we were essentially speed-dating with members of the group, going from one person to another describing the project and asking for their participation. Within 24 hours of our pub appearance, the project received hundreds of Instagram tags! Shelley Bernstein, Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology at the Brooklyn Museum was 100% correct about the power of seeking out audiences within their own communities, when she stated “… after all, why should we expect them (web based communities) to come to us?” (Bautista 178).
It was clear that by no means were we going to be “besties” with InstaPDX, but at least we might be relegated to “cool relative” status (the one you are jazzed to hang out with once in a while). Sadly, this is one of the plights of being an authoritarian figure institution; (cue dramatic music) the…“Museum.” Firm in our desire to cultivate a relationship of mutual respect, we invited members of the InstaPDX community to the press preview of Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden. In addition, we chose a handful of InstaPDX members’ #captureParklandia images to be printed on our park trading cards, working in conjunction with Portland Parks and Recreation. This infuses our project with more crowd-sourced content, exposes museum visitors to the talent of community photographers, and validates the work of artists outside the museum.
#captureParklandia is part of the Portland Art Museum’s ongoing strategies to engage audiences. Like us, several museums have been experimenting with crowd-sourced tagging and picture sharing platforms since the early 2000s. What is revolutionary about these approaches is that they are powered by the kind of community engagement Shelley Bernstein was talking about: seeking out audiences on their own turf and on their own terms. Institutionally, there is power in demonstrating a different and effective way of communicating with Portlanders, as well as discovering that some Portlanders who don’t traditionally interact with the museum welcome the opportunity. As Ed Rodley, Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, has said — this is an actual way to have a rich varied relationship with people over time.
#captureParklandia draws upon what Susan Smith Bautista describes in her new book Museums in the Digital Age as a place/experience, or a way of seeing the world through interconnected networks of space and time. With projects that expand the traditional experience of a single, in-person visit to a gallery, the Portland Art Museum can become more than a building or a collection of objects. The Portland Art Museum can become a part of someone’s learned experience and their lives.
#captureParklandia is still afoot. We have been gathering social media analytics and in-gallery observations, which have all been pointing to the success of this project via the digital engagement (high levels of participation in the hashtag as well as enormous outreach via social media) as well as the analog ways in which people can interact (with a large mural-sized in-gallery map of 200+ Portland parks, as well as through the trading cards that visitors can take with them). So far it has been AMAZING, but is it still a little too safe? Social media is busy, multifaceted, and opinionated. The Portland Art Museum’s in-gallery presentation is very streamline and curated at a certain level.
“Museums are empowering their visitors with new digital experiments that allow common voices to be heard in the same space as curators.… The empowerment is bracketed within a deeply hierarchical space where the museum retains final authority over curation, installation, didactics, acquisitions of works, and more.” (Bautista 229).
Does this actually matter to our visitors? Is creating a platform enough? Does this keep us at arm’s length from our visitors, continually relegating us to “cool relative” status? Koven Smith of Kinetic Museums gave this some thought. We’d love to hear your thoughts about these issues.
From August to September we are hosting a weekly themed #captureParklandia Instagram contest. Please email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in what happens next. The exhibition The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Gardensis on view at the Portland Art Museum through September 21, 2014. If you are not in Portland, check out #captureParklandia online or watch our series of public programs that continue to address the art, history, design, and future thinking around parks, gardens, and green spaces all summer long.
KRISTIN BAYANS: Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum where she produces interpretive media learning experiences — mobile, web, and in-gallery — for the Object Stories project, special exhibitions, and the Museum’s permanent collection; and curates exhibitions for the Object Stories gallery. Most recently, she served as Senior Educator for the Vernier Technology Lab for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and as an Assistant Educator for the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University and an M.A. in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Outside of work she chases her dog Felix around the park, sketches, “sings” karaoke, and plays board games. Kristin’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
JUSTIN MEYER: PhD candidate in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, conducting research on the relationships between art museums, communities, and cities. Justin recently completed a certificate in Museum Studies at the University of Michigan, as well as a Masters Degree in Urban Planning as a Wallenberg Scholar. He also holds degrees in engineering and environmental design from Stanford University and the University of Cambridge, respectively. During the spring and summer 2014, Justin worked as a graduate student intern with the Education department at the Portland Art Museum. In his spare time, he freelances as a professional singer in the Portland area and volunteers at the Oregon Humane Society. Justin’s postings on this site are his own and do not necessarily represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
For the past two decades, the overall discourse regarding Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been the subject of rather thorny debate. The often-cited conversation between Philip Yenawine and Danielle Rice at the 1999 National Docent Symposium (published in 2002) productively drew out many of the disagreements about the role of information in museum teaching, especially with beginning viewers and first-time museum visitors. In their recent book Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee frame VTS as a restrictive teaching method, wondering about participants’ experience in the galleries: “Have they not perhaps been cheated out of an authentic encounter with the painting?” These debates continue to today, and, at times, it seems like one needs to draw a line in the sand and decide which side they stand on.
“VTS uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Growth is stimulated by several things: looking at art of increasing complexity, answering developmentally based questions, and participating in peer group discussions carefully facilitated by teachers.” (19)
Even those who do not practice VTS may be familiar with the sequence of open-ended questions that form one of the main aspects of VTS teaching practice:
What’s going on in this picture?
What do you see that makes you say that?
What more can we find?
If you are interested in learning more about VTS, the foundational research behind it, and ongoing research in museums and classrooms today, here are some excellent resources:
My own approach toward VTS has been to set aside any controversy and more fully explore the research as well as the practical implementation of these teaching strategies ‘on the ground’ in museums. Back in 2009, I led a panel at the American Association of Museums conference that called attention to the many questions, challenges, and apprehensions that exist regarding this method. After interviews with more than 30 museum educators from across the country, I was able to gain a more complete and complex view of how VTS (and the research behind it) is being implemented in art museums—including adaptations of the original protocol, metacognitive dimenions as part of the VTS experience, pushing the boundaries of artwork selection, and alternative applications for docent and teacher training. I have even found institutions that use Abigail Housen’s “stages of aesthetic development” (the core foundation of VTS) as part of their curatorial practice, the writing of labels and wall texts, and working with teaching artists to examine ways of creating art that addresses developmental stages of the viewers. In addition to being one of the most commonly used teaching methods in art museums today, it is interesting to see how many other ways that VTS and its research has entered into museum practice.
Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine
While I have never been trained in VTS myself, I have adopted it as part of my own teaching toolbox — often using its open-ended questions as a way to spark looking, talking, and listening with a work of art. I respect the research and practice involved with VTS, which is why I jumped at the chance to partner with the national VTS organization to bring Philip Yenawine here to the Portland Art Museum. Philip has been traveling around the country since his latest book was released last year, and his speaking engagement here at the Portland Art Museum (this Saturday, May 3rd, 2:00pm) will be part of that series of talks.
When we were first offered to host Philip’s talk here in Portland, I invited Philip to also join me for a conversation on stage as part of this Saturday’s program (which he gladly accepted). I wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the applications of VTS with art museum teaching, and discuss some of the ‘burning questions’ that many museum educators have about VTS research and practice.
So, I am using this blog post (and the ArtMuseumTeaching community) to gather some juicy, burning questions that we all might have about VTS in museum teaching. To seed this “open think” process of gathering your questions, I asked Jennifer DePrizio and Michelle Grohe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (a leading museum in VTS research & practice) to send me some of their questions. Here is some of what they sent me:
We know a lot about what VTS looks like (both in terms of facilitation and types of learning to expect) in elementary students, primarily in grades 3-5. What does that learning and teaching look like with older students, particularly high school?
Listening is the cornerstone of paraphrasing and ensuring that students know that you not only listened to their ideas, but they were heard as well. That can be a difficult skill to encourage teachers to develop. Can you really train someone to be a good listener? How can we design effective professional development experiences that help teachers become aware of how they listen, and how to listen better? What activities and practice can we put into place to help our gallery educators hone their listening skills?
Since professional development programs at the Gardner invest a lot of time, over time, with teachers, what does their growth look like in terms of: aesthetic development, comfort with visual art, use of student-centered teaching practices, use of VTS questions with non-visual art, overall attitudes and understandings of teaching and learning and role of visual art in the classroom/school?
What is the long-term effect or stickiness for VTS?
What does the use of VTS look like with non-beginners, or with viewers who are moving from beginner viewers (Housen stages I and II), into different aesthetic stages such as Housen’s stage II/III, II/IV and III? How could we best support their growth while also challenging the students effectively? What would that facilitation look like? How would we know that we were addressing the students’ actual questions, not just sharing information that we think would help them?
How do we responsibly respond to the many misrepresentations of VTS that exist? How do we help colleagues in the field of art museum education understand the nuances that are available within VTS?
ADD YOUR QUESTIONS:
Please help me crowd-source some more ‘burning questions’ about VTS, and use the Comments area below to add your own questions. If you add your thoughts here between now and Saturday, I’ll bring many of these questions to my conversation with Philip Yenawine here at the Portland Art Museum (and I should be able to post the video of this conversation here next week).
Thanks for helping me think about VTS in this open space for exchange, questions, and ideas! And I’m looking forward to my conversation with Philip on Saturday (join us if you’re in Portland — the event is FREE and starts at the Portland Art Museum at 2pm).
Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum;and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum
In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators. Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made. Instead, as Clifford recounts:
“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).
Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.
Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.
Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities. This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.
Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).
“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)
Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories
Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection. For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.
As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.
The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.
Bringing Back the Story
In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.
Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).
In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking. This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.