Tag Archives: Portland Art Museum

Forget About the Price Tag: Engaging with a Masterpiece

Written by Mike Murawski

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

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

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

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

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

What Exactly Is a ‘Masterpiece’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis_Bacon-triptych

Teaching for Independence: Empowering Learning in the Art Museum

Written by Mike Murawski

Prefatory Note: Before ArtMuseumTeaching.com went public, there were several months when it was simply my own personal (private) online space to reflect on my practice as well as larger issues around teaching and learning in museums.  It was (and is) so valuable to write about what we do as educators and museum practitioners, even without publicly sharing that writing.  Since the site went public back in February 2012, these reflections (along with those of nearly 2 dozen other practitioners) have been openly shared via this unique online ‘bazaar’ that spotlights practice — from million-dollar cutting-edge initiatives and multi-year projects to simple, personal reflections and moments to add one more teaching tool to our belts.  And while conferences such as the NAEA, AAM, and Museums & the Web — among others — can surface some truly incredible, thoughtful work happening in museums today (some of which has been highlighted on this site), it is also important to provide a space for reflections and conversation around a more daily teaching practice.  This post is an attempt to maintain those types of reflections on this site, and to encourage others to share their teaching & learning experiences as we continue to build this online community of practice.

A couple weeks ago here at the Portland Art Museum, I had a unique opportunity to work with a group of students visiting from neighboring Portland State University as part of their Freshman Inquiry course entitled “The Work of Art,” led by artist/educator Sarah Wolf Newlands.  This multidisciplinary course examines the ‘work’ that goes into artistic production, but goes way beyond that to explore the role art plays in our lives.  As the course site describes:

“It looks at the work art does in the world — how it shapes, reflects, disguises, complicates, challenges, or brings reality to our assumptions about the world…. What are the artistic levers with which we can move our world forward? What can looking through the lens of ‘art’ at the products from a broad range of disciplines reveal about ourselves, our culture[s] and our society? How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How does art influence cultural change? How can we use the arts to build community?”

bradford1

One of my own goals when working with groups of college students and adults in the galleries (and in the classroom) is always to break down the often rigid expectations of “what we do” in front of a work of art — moving past the assumptions that we need to behave a certain way or know something specific before we can have an experience with art. I also aim to teach for independence — an approach to our ‘work’ with art that empowers a participatory, learner-centered process of making meaning and attempts to break down the constructed hierarchies between teacher and learner, professor and student, expert and novice, institution and audience.

“The visitor’s response and experience come first, before the museum’s, before the history of art.” —Rika Burnham

For me, at its heart, teaching for independence asks that educators (whether in the museum, K-12 classroom, or university lecture hall) strive to facilitate deep, collective experiences with art that leave participants and learners better equipped to look, explore, question, and engage deeply on their own without always relying on the museum or an ‘expert’ to lead that process.

Opening Up the Learning Experience: An Hour with Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth

As the PSU students gathered in the gallery, we began with a quick discussion of “what does learning look like in an art museum” to establish an atmosphere of thinking and reflection.  Then, we dove head first into a 60-minute co-learning experience with a single work of art — Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth (2006). The experience was intended to be multi-modal, involving various ways of thinking and openly responding to the artwork in front of us– a process similar to other experiences about which I have written.

bradford3Here is a quick outline of our experience with Bradford’s piece  (and I always want to be clear that these tips and strategies are not ones that I necessarily invent, but are inspired by some of the ‘Jedi knights’ of museum education like Rika Burnham, to whom I am greatly indebted. I also do use some of these strategies repeatedly when I am in the galleries, since some are just exceptional ways to open-up an experience of freedom, comfort, creative looking, and excitement):

  1. Looking: We began with 1 minute of quiet looking, then having students share their initial observations with a person sitting next to them.  We followed that with another minute of quiet looking, this time using a paper tube as a telescope to see the artwork differently — followed by more sharing with their neighbors about anything new they noticed.
  2. Question: Students were asked to write down one question or wondering they had for this work of art.
  3. 60-Second Sketch: Everyone spread out across the gallery and then had 60 seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge.  Students were asked to lay all of the sketches in the center of the gallery, walk around and see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interested them (and was not their own).
  4. Sketching with Language: Students had several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by using only language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing. I call this “sketching with language,” something pulled from Jack Kerouac and his creative process.
  5. Reading: In small groups, students shared their writing by reading it aloud– really honoring their writing by reading it directly instead of simply summarizing or paraphrasing it (which is what we too often do).
  6. Conversation Extender: By this point, students have had some serious time to look at Bradford’s work, share and exchange ideas about what they see and what they think about it, and do some sketching and writing to deepen or even shift their interpretations.  To extend their conversations and spark further thought, each group received a small packet of historic photographs from the 1921 Tulsa race riots — an event that historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and an event that has been strongly connected to this work by Bradford.  Each group of students was simply asked to continue their conversation about the Bradford piece, yet to see how this added layer of historic images (powerful in their own right) might build or shift that conversation in any way. In talking about his own work, Bradford once says: “It’s about … tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath.”
  7. Group Discussion: During this entire experience thus far, students have been building personal meaning or sharing their ideas in pairs or small groups. So to wrap up, each group brings their thoughts and insights to the full class as we spend the last 10-15 minutes in an open discussion about the artwork and our experience with it.

Learning to See Learning in the Art Museum

For me, much of the experience with this group of college students was about empowering them to learn to see learning in an art museum (and with a work of art) differently — to begin to see looking and learning with art in a more active, participatory way that also allows for shared authority around knowledge and interpretation.  To help me gain a better understanding of how (or whether) this happens, I invited students participating in the experience described above to send me an email with their reflections after their museum visit. Here are a few great insights from their reflections:

collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford's "Scorched Earth"
collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford’s “Scorched Earth”

“Usually when I go to an art museum, the experience isn’t as fun and exciting. It’s hard for me to look at a work of art and really dissect it…. I probably will never get to just sit down in front of a work of art and analyze it with that many people again, and it was an awesome experience. Thank you for taking the time to teach our class fun tools that we can use in an art museum to really get the most out of our time there.”

“It was really cool to spend a solid hour just looking into what the piece could be about, what it could mean. I’m glad that you opened up the learning experience by allowing us to interpret the painting in our own way, then discuss with one other person, and then discuss in small groups. I think this allowed each student to really get the most out of what other students were understanding and interpreting from the work.”

“This experience was very enlightening because we learned so much from so little. It was profound to get so much out of little more than looking, thinking, and discussing.”

“It’s crazy how observing a piece for just a little longer than a glance can change your perspective of a piece and your understanding of it…. If more people were to do what we did today and take time to observe art, they would see it in totally new ways.”

This type of learner-centered, participatory meaning-making is something I continue to explore in the museum context, but I think it also has significant implications for how we conceive of art history teaching outside of the museum.  What if we allowed for more active, open-ended looking and exploration with art, and hold back some on the passive transfer of information?  What if we used drawing, movement, or creative writing as another way of looking deeply at art?  What if we really focused our teaching more on creating and supporting independent learners who see and think for themselves?

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This post has also been published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing Art History Survey teaching materials between teachers and stimulating conversations around pedagogy in the arts. The site was initiated in 2011 by Michelle Jubin and Karen Shelby, products of the CUNY Graduate Teaching Fellows program.

Google Hangouts: Live Video Chatting between Museums & Online Communities

By Brinker Ferguson, Digital Media Fellow, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In the past several months, many museums have begun using live video chat as a way to enhance and foster new online discussions and interactions between museum educators and the public. One of the most popular tools has been Google Hangouts which is part of the Google+ social network. It allows for up to 10 users to video chat together and gives them the ability to broadcast the video stream live to a large audience and even record the session for future viewing. The recorded video, which is archived on the museum’s G+ page and YouTube channel, can be shared on various social networks. In addition, the videos collect (limited) analytics information so museums can track the attention it receives. Users who express interest in a museum video session ahead of time can be alerted when it is about to begin via Google+ email messaging.

This use of video chatting has spawned a new online forum that helps to bring together museum curators, directors, historians and educators with different virtual communities for in-depth conversations of art and ideas. Rather then a YouTube video, which disseminates information in a “I talk, you listen” format, video chatting can enable a more flexible and collaborative seminar style discussion. This idea of accessible online videos is very much in keeping with many museums’ mission of providing an open space for dialogue, learning, and exploration for the public, and working toward developing meaningful online communities of practice.

Current Projects

Though relatively new, there have been a large number of museums using Google Hangouts from all over the globe. This past month alone, MoMA debuted its “Art Hang” series, which brings together art educators with other art enthusiasts to discuss topics surrounding art and identity. The Google Art Project began its #ArtTalk hangouts with the National Gallery on March 20th and more recently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The series, which discusses the stories behind famous works of art, will continue to take place each month at different cultural institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

screenshot of Google Hangout of artist Felipe Iskor
screenshot of Google Hangout of artist Felipe Iskor

Hangouts have also been leveraged in several other artistic ways. For example Google Brazil has used hangouts for their street art campaign, where artist Felipe Iskor created a mural live.

Likewise artists have conducted live studio visits, in which they talk with interested online groups about what inspires them, what their next artwork might look like, and get much needed critical feedback from online art communities.

Understanding Its Impact

Of course, use of a new medium brings new challenges. In trying to gauge the success of video chats, museums are learning how to interpret the relatively sparse analytics information provided by Google+ and YouTube. Statistics like “this video was viewed 5000 times” does not paint a full picture of just how beneficial the video was for the museum and its viewers. It is very clear, however, that hangouts have the ability to reach far greater percentage of the global online community and can do so in a more engaging way. And while it can be difficult to measure the success of these videos, museum educators know it is worth their time to continue exploring the limits of new this technology in order to captivate a broader audience and share more of the museum’s passion for art and cultural heritage.

Possible Uses in the Future

Tools associated with video chatting such as live commenting, image sharing, hash tags, and social media sharing have become additional ways of connecting online viewers with the live discussion. Recently, Mike Murawski of the Portland Art Museum brought up another possible use for video chatting. He suggested using Hangouts as a way of connecting living contemporary artists with museum visitors both in the gallery and online. What would it be like then to talk with an artist about his/her work right in front of the artwork in the gallery? Or watch an artist explaining his/her artwork online while you ask questions?

How can we use these new tools to better facilitate learning and interaction onsite and online in the future? Are there other ways that Google Hangouts or other chatting services will connect people, or perhaps help the museum’s visitors feel closer to its collection?

Anybots meets Wall-E and Eve.
Anybots meets Wall-E and Eve.

Taking this question further in a mini-thought experiment, imagine what would happen if the video feed were not fixed to the wall. What would a more intimate conversation with an artist look like? While you ebb and flow around the gallery, could an artist virtually tag along with you?

One company exploring the idea of digital presence is Anybots, a team that has created a roving avatar robot with video screen projecting the face of a remote participant. The robot is controlled remotely and reacts to speech frequencies to directly address and react to questions or comments from multiple people. Right now, the Anybots are in the hypothetical realm (due to the hefty $15,000 price tag).

While video chatting environments will continue to develop (though at the moment we are not yet sure in what form they will appear) the strides taken by #ArtHang, Google Art Projects, and many other institutions and artist communities will continue to push online connection and conversation.

Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?

 

Drinking about Museums: Portlandia Edition … and MakerBots!

I’m not exactly sure when or where it started, but I give credit to Ed Rodley at the Museum of Science in Boston for introducing me to the concept of the “Drinking about Museums” professional meet-up.  What could be better than meeting up with museum folk, playing around in our galleries & exhibit spaces, sharing ideas, and topping it all off with drinks.  Boston is doing it!  Sydney is doing it!  Denver is doing it!  So it was time to get “Drinking about Museums” started up here in the Northwest — Portlandia style. And since I’m still the new kid in town, this was a great way to get outside the walls of the Portland Art Museum and meet other creative museum people.  So here is my report from the inaugural “Drinking about Museums” in Portland, Oregon:

Drinking about Museums — Portlandia Edition

GroupProduceRowWhen:  January 9, 2013

Where: Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI) and Produce Row

Who: Sparked by my new love for OMSI and their staff, we gathered together interested people from their education and exhibit design departments along with people from our education and digital collections departments at the Portland Art Museum.

The evening began at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI) in their technology lab and maker space — an area of their museum in which they are playing with new forms of creative engagement and participatory design. David Perry, OMSI’s Director of Museum Education, and Kristin Bayans, Senior Educator, both hosted the group along with many other OMSI educators and staff. We all got to know each other through some fun (aka ’embarrassing’) activities, but mostly we played around in the learning lab space and got to chat with each other about what we do.

When you get so many creative, high-energy museum people together in one place, the ideas start flowing … and I feel that we came away from the night with tons of potential for meaningful collaboration.  For me, one of the first experiments that will likely come out of this exchange is a couple MakerBot 3D printing workshops at the Portland Art Museum, allowing education staff from both institutions to play with this technology and its potential applications for an art museum.

MakerBot-RodinMakerBots!

So this brings me to the next topic of my post … MakerBots!  I have been eyeing the MakerBot station at OMSI for months now, chatting with their staff and volunteers about how it is being used, why it is being used, and what are the potential ways it could be used in an art museum context (or even with artists). Kristin Bayans, who manages this innovative lab space at OMSI, has been such an amazing person to brainstorm with, and she was able to download some objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection to print for us yesterday.  Yes, earlier this year, the Met teamed up with MakerBot to make statues, sculptures, and other three dimensional artworks from the museum’s collection available for anyone in the world to access virtually on Thingiverse.com and physically recreate with The Replicator™– MakerBot’s third-generation 3D Printer. As Jackie Terrassa, the Met’s Manager of Gallery and Studio Programs, wrote about this Hackathon event:

“… by partnering with artists and programmers who are already using these accessible technologies as creative tools, we will advance a core component of the Museum’s mission to encourage the study and development of the arts, enhancing the Met’s role as a dynamic site for creativity, inspiration, and exploration by artists and visitors alike.”

I could not agree more, and this has made me so excited to experiment with some workshops here at the Portland Art Museum around these technologies, and ensure that the museum can be a place for open creative exploration.  And, besides, now I have my very own 3D-printed replica of the Met’s sculpture of Marsyas by 17th-century German sculptor Balthasar Permoser … what could be cooler than that!  Obviously, there will be more discussion coming up on this site around 3D printing and museums, especially the impact this type of work might have in the teaching and learning realm of the museum. But I would encourage everyone to learn more about what the Met has been doing, and check out the objects and the 123D Catch scene files you can download to make your own replicas.

OK, so that is a quick report from Portland’s first ever “Drinking About Museums.”  I look forward to opening this up to more and more museums across Portland, and exploring the way we can learn from each other as professional, as creative thinkers, and as people.  Cheers!

"Marsyas" (2013) by MakerBot, and "Marsyas" (1680-85) byBalthasar Permoser
“Marsyas” (2013) by MakerBot, and “Marsyas” (1680-85) by
Balthasar Permoser

Object Stories: Rejecting the Single Story in Museums

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

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

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

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

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

• • • • • •

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

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

How Object Stories works

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

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

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

Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue

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

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

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

A new platform for community collaboration

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

Big impact with room for growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add to the Conversation…

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