In support of the most recent exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, Rodin: The Human Experience, Rodin Remix was a hands-on space where visitors could create figures based on Rodin’s process of reusing previously-made sculpted arms, legs, and heads, into new works. It put a modern spin on Rodin’s method of mass production by showcasing 3D printed versions of Rodin’s sculptures.
3D Printing and Rodin?
I came into the Portland Art Museum in October, relatively new to interpretation. My guidelines for the Rodin project were to create an in-gallery multi-sensory experience for all ages that would communicate 3D elements of Rodin’s process. After researching Rodin, his assemblages struck me – it was creative and clever to reuse cast offs, fragments of plaster casts that had already been made, by recombining them into new sculptures.
I wanted to visitors to experience for themselves Rodin’s reuse of plaster casts, but we needed a 3D reusable material that could go in the gallery, not plaster. At first I thought of paper dolls, since they were easily reusable, simple to produce, and people might know how to put paper dolls together. But then at a brainstorming meeting, 3D printing came up – we could produce 3D plastic parts of Rodin’s sculptures with connections for constructing and deconstructing.
We partnered with the Portland 3D Printing Lab, a local Meet-Up group of enthusiasts, to produce 3D prints of Rodins. They were so enthusiastic, and figured out that magnets were the key to make the pieces of 3D printed sculpture easily stick together and break apart. The prints were made from free online STL files under the Creative Commons license, and, later, from scans of the Rodins in the show. We decided to scan some of the Rodins in the show because not every Rodin can be found in STL-file form online. The scanning process was surprisingly simple, and to show the public how it worked, it was filmed in a Facebook Live, the Museum’s first. The files that were used to print can now be found on the exhibition page of the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition website.
3D printing fit with other elements of Rodin’s process as well. Rodin would sculpt a model in clay, then pass it to his assistants. They rendered the work again in marble or bronze, sizing it up or down according to Rodin’s and his patron’s wishes. A 3D scan of an object can be similarly re-sized, to make a print of the desired height.
Rodin’s assistants made hundreds of casts of the same model, all official Rodins, in a sort of artistic mass-production. Smaller bronzes, produced in large quantities, were more affordable. These relatively inexpensive bronzes widened the range of people who could purchase a Rodin, earning the sculptor more money and popularity. Just as Rodin mass-produced bronze casts of the same sculpture in multiple sizes and media, the Portland 3D Printing Lab made many 3D prints of Rodin sculptures, experimenting with size and color.
Visitors were also encouraged to Instagram a photo of their creation in front of a backdrop of Rodin’s studio, which showed the plaster fragments he used. Each Monday during the run of the show I reposted a visitor’s photograph to the @portlandartmuseum Instagram, with the tag #rodinremix. Over 125 people Instagrammed their Rodin Remixes, and the comments we received on our reposts were reflective and positive.
How did it go?
My goal was to make a fun, exciting interpretive space that used 3D prints to communicate to visitors about two parts of Rodin’s process: his assemblages, and his mass-production and use of resizing sculptures. This is my first interpretive space, and my first evaluation, and I am not positive this project fully met all of my learning goals.
Visitors, especially those with children, clearly enjoyed their time in Rodin Remix, laughing, talking, and playing – making the sculptures interact with each other. Docents used the 3D prints for tours for people who are blind or have low vision, and for ArtNow, PAM’s program for people living with dementia and their partners. The ability to touch Rodin’s forms, to understand 3D printing, and to Instagram were all appreciated. And, multiple members of the Portland 3D Printing Lab who had not been to the museum in years, if ever, came, because their work was displayed in the galleries.
A little over half of the 250 people that I observed participated in the hands-on part of the interpretive space, and 145 people stayed in the space for more than 2 minutes. These numbers are skewed somewhat by two school tours I observed, since both of those had a lot of participation.
But my hope that the space would communicate Rodin’s process may not have always worked. When I asked a few visitors what they thought the purpose of the space was, on average, they felt it was to touch, play, and interact. That was part of it, but not the entirety. I did enjoy the couple who said, “He really churned them out” – they clearly understood the mass-production angle. I could have crafted more precise questions for my evaluation, and my evaluation should have been more survey-based than observatory. It is possible more people understood the learning goals than I thought, but I did not capture their responses well.
Attempting to cover two elements of Rodin’s process (mass-production and assemblage) in the same space, using 3D printing to illustrate both, confused people. Similarly, placing the space just outside the exhibition, in a throughway, meant Rodin Remix was not clearly a part of the exhibition. Rodin Remix evolved over time as well, which was both a boon and a complication. We planned for it to be a prototype space that would change, but it also evolved because even simple 3D prints took fifteen to twenty hours to print, and with over 20 prints in the space, the hours added up. The ability to change allowed me to experiment and improve. But Rodin Remix also did not look finished until the last month of the exhibition.
The most exciting part of this project was working with the Portland 3D Printing Lab. They were generous throughout, coming to the museum and bringing others, advertising through their own channels, and on the second to last Friday of the show, bringing a 3D printer to the museum and printing live, in the gallery, which drew a crowd all evening. The success of this partnership may allow for future 3D printing projects at the Portland Art Museum, as well as other evolving interpretive projects, which the education department continues to develop.
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About the Author
JEANIE NOTO is the Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum, where she produces interactives and descriptive information to support the permanent collection and visiting exhibitions. Before coming to Portland, she worked as the Academic Intern at the Norton Simon Museum, and got her M.A. in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Participation in the museum sector has become a buzzword, used at such a high frequency that it can oftentimes be misunderstood amongst museum professionals or, in some cases, so that it becomes meaningless from overuse. When talking about participation, it is essential to discuss the theoretical aspects of what participation is, what it can be and/or what it should be, as well as how these participatory practices are grounded in practice; in other words, what are the theories of participation and how are these theories employed in museum practice?
Nina Simon is our go-to model for what participation in the museum is and/or what it should look like. While her blogs and her writing are a great resource, it is only natural that multiple voices, views, and opinions on this topic exist and — if you will allow me to particularly corny — they should be allowed to participate in the conversation too.
The Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage hosted a conference in March 2017 with just that particular goal in mind: practitioners and researchers from various backgrounds in arts and culture gathered to discuss the multiple meanings and practices of participation within the arts and heritage sector.
In this post, I’ll discuss some of the outcomes and more significant thoughts and discussions that occurred during the conference as well as their relevance to museums and learning in the museum space.
Participation seems like the natural next step in the evolution of museums away from the uni-directional, aristocratic collectors’ cabinets of curiosities of yore, right?
There are many reasons to integrate participation into the institution of the museum — if you are low on funds, volunteers are great; if you are trying to reach a new community, allowing the voices of that community into your institution is the best way to reach them (see again: Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance); if you want your visitors to engage in the museum content in a less uni-directional, top-down manner, participatory practices can be the key. Just from the examples listed above, it becomes obvious that participation can be defined in many different ways: volunteering can be participation, encouraging visitors to create their own meaning and perhaps contribute that to an exhibition can be participation, etc.
Overall, participation involves parties from outside of the museum institution, often in a way that invites them to contribute in a meaningful way — meaning that they contribute in a way that has some kind of effect or impact either on their experience of the museum, on visitors around them, or on the institution as a whole.
How should participation be integrated into museums?
For most of us, we see participation only as a possibility in the outreach, marketing, or education departments. The curators will remain the curators — experts in their fields — but educators are the ones who must create this (illusion of?) participation within the museum space. Although I will admit that this is a great step for many institutions, this is definitely and obviously short of institutional change.
Lena Porsmo Stoveland’s presentation on her experience as a student curator wonderfully reflected the various levels at which participation can take place. She argued in her presentation that the life of the object was a participatory one: a. the object of her discussion was an altarpiece created by several craftsmen, b. the altarpiece was used by church members in Sweden, c. the altarpiece became a museum object, and d. the altarpiece was restored and conserved by a collaboration of Finnish, Sweden, and Norwegian university students.
Building on this in his presentation on “the uncomfortable conversation between artworks and communities,” Dr. Jeroen Boomgaard formulated the identity-forming interaction between artworks and viewers. In other words, communities attribute meaning to artworks (despite the intent of the artist and/or commissioner) which results in an evolving object biography. Rogier Brom later expanded on this with his case study of a clothespin-shaped sculpture located in the courtyard of a school: the sculpture is no longer referred to by its name but by “wasknijper” (clothespin in Dutch); it was once located near the entrance of the school but, after a renovation, it is now located behind the school; and there was once a gardener that hated the sculpture so much that he let the bushes grow wild around so as to consume the entire sculpture, hiding it from view completely.
Sure, the interaction between public artworks and communities differs from that between museum objects and museum visitors, but these interactions have a familiar ring to them: although museum objects remain relatively static in their position within the museum space, the meanings attached to them are still in flux, dependent upon the visitors in the gallery or the way that the exhibitions are arranged at the time. In a participatory museum, the meanings attached to museum objects should always be in flux; rather than the museum telling visitors the significance of the object, visitors should be encouraged to connect with the object on their own terms. As Boomgaard and Brom elaborated, this process is inevitable in the case of public art, because an institution typically does not mediate the interactions between the public and the art.
Participatory practices and learning in museums
Although it was great fun to absorb new information and perspectives about different levels and variations of participation within arts and heritage, this is a museum education/learning blog after all and I am a museum educator and researcher, so I must return to participation and learning.
One of the last panels of the conference focused on participation and learning in arts and culture, of which the three presenters focused on participation and learning in the museum setting: Stefanie Metsemakers presented on the learning experience of adolescent volunteers in art museums, Emilie Sitzia focused on the learning potential of participatory practices through the lens of narrative theory, and I discussed the potential for the integration of play in the museum space to instigate participation and, thus, learning.
By inviting visitors to contribute to the museum in a variety of ways, participation aligns with affect theory as well as Falk and Dierking’s Contextual Model of Learning (as well as narrative, as Sitzia focused on her presentation — but that is a big enough topic for another blog post… or dissertation).
In essence, participatory practices in the museum setting validate visitors’ contributions, feelings, thoughts, reactions, and emotions, which, in turn, confirms the significance of visitors’ affective experiences. For example, by asking visitors questions or by asking them to participate in certain activities that require their input in relation to artworks in the galleries, visitors are notified that their reactions to or experiences of museum objects are valid. The immersive model proposed by Sitzia is parallel to the idea of participation in the museum space, in which visitors are immersed in the museum and immersed in the artworks, whereas the discursive model proposed by Sitzia relies on the traditional top-down model of the museum.
This also links with the Contextual Model of Learning, which posits that the physical, sociocultural, and personal contexts are fundamental to the learning process. Again, by asking participants to contribute, participatory practices draw upon visitors’ backgrounds, earlier experiences, dispositions, opinions, etc. and can also encourage visitors to participate with other visitors in a social manner, which is also a significant element of the learning process.
Through our three presentations, it became clear that learning is an experience in the museum space and encouraging active participation — to various degrees and in different manners — sets the learning process in motion.
The next steps forward
Although many museum researchers, academic, and practitioners would pat themselves on the back for researching participation within the museum space or implementing a participatory program at their institution, the academics and practitioners present at the MACCH conference in March 2017 stumbled upon something: participation is just an extension of that uni-directional model, isn’t it?
When we began to discuss what participation itself actually means, we realized that participation still implies that visitors or stakeholders are invited to partake in something. The fact that the institution has to grant the invitation means that the institution still holds the power; the museum grants an invitation on its own grounds and may still deny access depending on its own boundaries, wishes, desires, or needs.
Despite our attempts to focus more and more on our visitors, many museum practitioners — as well as visitors themselves, for that matter — often view aesthetic and social value as dichotomous, which Professor Gabriella Giannachi refuted outright in her keynote presentation about the epistemology of participation. In other words, increasing the social value or participatory practices within the museum space does not necessitate the diminishment of the aesthetic or artistic value of the museum objects, nor the intellectual value of curators and museums.
Hopefully, by inviting stakeholders and visitors to participate in the first place, this dynamic will begin to change; by inviting visitors on their own terms — not ours.
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About the Author
DANIELLE CARTER is a freelance museum educator and researcher based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She studied Art, Art History, and Museum Studies (2013) at Florida State University before moving to the Netherlands to pursue her Master’s degree in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management, and Education (2015) at Maastricht University. Through her experiences as an arts and museum educator in the United States and abroad, she has become interested in the museum (learning) experience, the narrative of the museum (learning) experience, interactions between visitors and museum objects, the mediatory role of the museum, and play in the museum space. In Amsterdam, she bikes, takes advantage of the sun every time it comes out, and falls in love with every dog that she sees. To find out more about Danielle’s activities, visit her website (tangibleeducation.nl) or send her an email at email@example.com.
Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
How can you be sure the programs you create will resonate with your intended audiences? As youth educators, we turn straight to the source to answer that question: our students. Youth interns push us to think more deeply about our practice and pedagogy, and, in turn, engaging them in program development and implementation immerse our students in the real-world impact of our institutional missions. To this end, in May 2016, Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps joined forces with youth interns from the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History to present a panel session at the annual NYCMER (New York City Museum Educators Roundtable) Conference, encouraging hundreds of attending educators to consider how they, too, might view their own constituents as experts.
Dovetailing with recent posts on Art Museum Teaching proposing that museums commit to being spaces for dialogue and conversation, we share the reflections of Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps members Nancy and Terrelle below to inspire you to explore how you might turn to your own students and visitors to take the first steps towards empathy: listening deeply and with care to what our audiences need and want from our institutions.
We send our greatest thanks to fellow youth panelists Cara and Yvonne from MoMA and Roman and Karina from AMNH, as well as to staff facilitators Calder Zwicky (MoMA) and Barry Joseph (AMNH), for collaborating with us on this session!
Nancy: The conference was a total success. Terrelle and I were excited for the meeting from the very start, and we were ready to introduce the Armory and all it has to offer to us, as well as the Youth Corps program, to the people attending the conference.
Terrelle: Being part of the conference was a really great experience for me. It really gave me more insight about other youth internship programs in NYC, and made me appreciate working at Park Avenue Armory so much more.
Nancy: We were part of a panel called “Ask the Experts: Activating Your Museum through a Younger Lens,”with other youth interns from the American Museum of Natural History and MoMA. We got to chat with them beforehand at a nearby Starbucks and know more about what their programs had to offer. Once we were inside the Morgan Library and Museum, where the conference was taking place, we began introducing ourselves to the educators attending our session, and all our nerves went away.
Terrelle: The first question we were asked was how we want to be identified—as teens or youth or something else? This question is quite tricky since it really depends on the type of programs and the type of people you want to reach. I have seen a majority say they would prefer the term “youth” as it is less patronizing than the word teen. To me, “teen” typically refers to ages 12-15.
Nancy: Also, at our program here at Park Avenue Armory, the age ranges from 13-22+, so “teens” wouldn’t exactly be the way to go. Instead “youth” can mean any age within that spectrum.
Terrelle: Others in our panel found “teen” to be better, and others thought whatever term makes alliteration with your program title, then that’s what you should use. Words like Student and Young Artist were also mentioned, and I liked those as well, because in a sense everyone is a student. Everyone is still learning, especially when it comes to art—there is always something you can improve on.
Speaking of improving, another question asked that stuck out for me was: “How do your programs provide space for failure?” Here at the Armory, we create a final project every semester that is inspired by a production—past projects have been guides to unplugging, an audio walk, and installation art. We typically go through a tinkering phase where we experiment with different materials, different ideas, and produce different outcomes. Our tinkering process is our trial and error phase. Many people know the saying “You learn from your mistakes.” When you fail at something, it’s not that you should give up—it’s for you to analyze what you did wrong and to fix it. Once you learn what you need to do to have your envisioned outcome, then you can adjust.
Nancy: We were also asked whether or not we felt we had a voice within our programs. This was an automatic no brainer for me since that is exactly what the Armory provides, especially with the Advisory Board, which enables us to make vital decisions for events, productions, and our program.
Terrelle: I am one who always vouches for programs to let youth have a voice when it comes to something that they’re involved in. If something is for teens/youth, then they should be able to give you feedback on how you can run it better or improve on certain things. Having end of semester feedback/questionnaires or advisory boards become essential, because this gives your students a chance to voice their ideas and concerns.
Nancy: We also got asked if we felt that the programs we are in represent the diversity of New York City. This made me think of the different schools the Armory partners with, which have ethnicities from all over, and many are international students. The different boroughs that we come from add to the diversity that our program has.
Terrelle: All in all the NYCMER conference has definitely inspired me—to work on my networking skills, one of my many personal goals for this year, and also to become more involved in youth events and teen nights in the city.
Nancy: Representing the Armory was not only fun but interesting. It was great to be able to learn about other programs that aren’t our own and meet other students who work in cultural institutions. We were glad to have been able to provide answers to arts educators!
We invite you to learn more about the Armory Youth Corps here, the MoMA Teens program here, and the American Museum of Natural History teen programs here.
Header Photo: After a successful session, the youth panelists pose in the Morgan Library and Museum. Photo by Barry Joseph.
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
Reposted from Design Thinking for Museums, an exceptionally useful resource for professionals and practitioners interested in applying design thinking to museums, cultural heritage institutions, and non-profit organizations. The site offers case studies of design thinking in action, posts by guest authors, interviews with practitioners, and downloadable resource guides.
For a series of printed visitor guides called the “I’m Here” series, Phoenix Art Museum adopted an innovative approach to content development: a design sprint. Educators worked off-site on the “I’m Here” guides in a day-long sprint. The finished guides have been hugely successful, with a large take-up rate, several print runs, and robust social media shares. For this post, I interviewed Christian Adame, Assistant Education Director, about the project.
Q: Tell me how the “I’m Here” gallery guides came about.
A: We had just started a rebrand of the museum’s look and feel, and we wanted to set a new tone. Our goal was to explore ways we could interact with visitors in a more informal way. We were aiming to demystify what it means to go to a museum, so we asked ourselves, “Why do people come to museums? Why are they posting selfies and sharing the experience socially?”
The answer is that they want everyone to know why they are here. And that phrase stuck with us: “I am here.” This really encapsulated our thinking. The why around a museum visit is really meaty.
Q: Why did you chose to run a design sprint?
A: The education director at the time was very interested in iteration and trying new approaches quickly. Museums are glaciers—they move really slowly. Running a sprint was a way to bring more voices to the table, and move quickly through a single project in one day.
We ran the sprint off-site, at my (former) boss’s house. We felt it was critical to get out of the office, away from (office) dynamics. We assembled a group of seven of us in the education division and put everything else aside. The thought was that everyone would be a part of this, and we would finish the first iteration that day.
Q: So you knew you wanted to frame the sprint around this notion of why a visitor is at the museum, but did you have a product in mind going into it?
A: Well, we didn’t have a very robust digital infrastructure here, so we knew we wanted to create something analog, something printed that people could walk away with. We went into the sprint with some criteria for what we wanted to create: it should be informal, and concise, and respond to the notion of “I’m here.”
And when we brainstormed during our sprint, three main ideas came to us. These were:
I’m here …
For the first time
On a date
Being in Phoenix, we get a lot of first-time visitors, mostly tourists and snowbirds, as well as locals who visit a few times a year. And we wanted to give these visitors a starting point. The one “with kids” was targeted at parents, and the last one (“on a date”) was an opportunity to have some fun!
Q: Tell me more about how you structured the sprint.
A: Our former education director facilitated, and I took second lead. We started out by examining at all the research we already had: audience demographics and evaluations. We also looked at the research of John Falk. His work examines what motivates visitors to come to museums, from relaxing and recharging to facilitating others’ visits. This kind of thinking goes beyond demographic information, which only provides a certain baseline amount of knowledge about why people visit.
We then considered this notion of “I’m here” and the idea of visitors wanting others to know why they are here. From there we did a brain dump, with everyone individually writing down ideas of how to address visitors’ motivations for why they come to Phoenix Art Museum We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a visitor, and asked the kinds of questions they would ask, what they might want to know, and so on. We alternated between working individually, then posted our thoughts and ideas all over the walls and shared out as a group. We are a big fan of Post-its. The process of showing everyone’s thought process visually together, then honing down to the best and most meaningful ideas, provided the structure of the sprint.
We cranked through the content in a day, worked with a graphic designer to create (the first prototype), and had about 200 copies made and put it out there. We wanted to see what would happen.
Q: How did you test it?
The education director and I ran the testing. We have free admission on Wednesday evenings, and there is an art walk on the First Friday of every month, so we put the guides out (on Wednesdays and Friday evenings), and talked with visitors.
We played with where to place them so they would get the most visibility, and basically observed. It’s critical as an educator to observe what people do in the museum. It’s safe to say we lurked quite a bit, and as visitors left the museum, we asked if they found the guides useful. We got a lot of positive feedback right away.
Q: What kinds of things did you learn?
A: It was mainly the language and the design that visitors responded to. Visitors noticed the difference in tone from the interpretive content on the walls in the museum. For example, you open the date guide and it says, “Ah, first dates… will there be chemistry?” It spoke to visitors directly, not abstractly.
We also learned that visitors appreciated something they could physically take away for free. We played with placement, and put the guides into different galleries.
We also watched social media so we could quantify if people were posting photos of themselves holding the guides—selfies with the guides, etc.
Q: What are your next steps?
A: We’ve been through three reprints now, and we have another guide in development: “I’m here to disconnect.” This one is about putting your phone away and focusing on two to three works of art.
Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.
Dana has worked with organizations ranging from the Getty to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to rethink the user experience and service design of digital and analog products and programs using design thinking. She is based in Berkeley, CA, and when she’s not working, she’s taking improvisational theater classes at the Berkeley Rep School of Theater.
Reposted from Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a peer-populated platform for art history teachers & home to a collectively authored online repository of art history teaching content including lesson plans, video introductions to museums, book reviews, image clusters, and classroom and museum activities.
It was five years ago, in 2011, that Karen Shelby and I sat across from each other in an office at Baruch College, CUNY, and bemoaned the lack of a peer group where we could share thoughts, ideas, concerns, and peer support around pedagogy in Art History. I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow in my first semester of U.S. classroom teaching, and Karen was a pretty new Assistant Professor who had just won a Whiting Award for her great work as an instructor. We both loved what we did, and from these shared conversations was born Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a genesis I’ve written about plenty before in places like Art21 (here and here).
During those early conversations, I explained to Karen how the place I had come from before my dive back into graduate school–four years as a staff member and educator at the Guggenheim Museum–had been a very different teaching experience. At the museum, we had weekly teaching workshops; we had peer discussions; we traded lesson plans; we helped each other devise tour routes and open ended questions; we talked about data-driven assessment of our work (that was the moment in which a truly awesome educator and colleague, Rebecca Herz, led a team at the museum ina pioneering study of literacy in the arts). We also had mentorship (and I still count Ryan Hill among my very best mentors–and not only because he introduced me to my husband!). In short, we had a rich and vibrant community where teaching was valued by those we worked alongside (though don’t get me started on departmental hierarchies in museums that routinely dismiss the work of Education as secondary to Curatorial…). Karen and I decided we needed this within the academy, and we began to build it by launching AHTR. When we realized it would be greatly enriched by partners who had strengths we didn’t, we were incredibly lucky to welcome Parme Giuntini, Nara Hohensee, Renee McGarry, Ginger Spivey, and Kathy Wentrack, and this is the core team who lead AHTR today, along with advisors and mentors for whom we’re truly thankful.
It was in the spirit of remembering this early history of AHTR that I reached out at the end of the spring semester and asked a few colleagues and friends in museum education to briefly describe what inspires their museum-based teaching. Below, you’ll find their responses. Thanks to everyone who participated!
Your name: Jess Van Nostrand
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):Develop public programming related to the visual arts
What is your resource? Relationships with artists
Why do you love it? Relationships build and develop over time, just like strong public programming; they cannot be rushed or forced. And no one person has all the best ideas, so calling upon inspiring makers and utilizing their skills is the key to innovative and memorable public programs. I like to think that my relationships with artists are the ideal example of a mutually-beneficial arrangement, one in which we both discover new ideas with the help of the other.
Anything else you want to share? I don’t do any museum-based teaching per se and come from a curatorial background, so perhaps this is why my approach to museum education comes from working closely with artists as a first step.
Your name: Miriam Bader What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want toshare): I am the Director of Education at the Tenement Museum in New York City and am fascinated by the nexus of education, technology, and where past meets present.
What is your resource? Visitors
Why do you love it? It’s the visitors that inspire to me to teach. They make every tour at the museum different and bring new perspectives to the material. Without visitors, the museum would just be a dollhouse. With them, it is transformed into an dynamic learning experience where connections are made across time, culture, and geography. Anything else you want to share?Museums are the perfect complement to classroom study. I strive to make it easier for students to visit and take advantage of this amazing resource.
Your name: Sheetal Prajapati
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):In Museums: Assistant Director, Learning and Artists Initiatives @MoMA, which means I collaborate with artists to develop public engagement experiences for museum audiences and run a robust learning programs for adults (50-60 programs/year). Outside of museums: I curate the conversation series a annual conference on social practice called Open Engagement, which took place in Oakland in 2016. I’m also co-authoring a report for the Art + Feminism wikipedi-athon group on recommendations for best practices for inclusion and diversity for their events and resources. I am an artist too.
What is your resource? The resource I am sharing is a chart, Artists Engaging in Social Change (attached here). The link to it online is here and it is included in a longer text here. I found this chart when I was developing the reading list for a class I am currently teaching online called Theory of Engagement and Applied Research at Moore College of Art and Design (Philadelphia). No signficant explanation needed because its a great chart.
Why do you love it? I love it for two reasons. First, its a great chart. Great charts allow you to place existing knowledge within the structure offered and learn or understand something new. In this case, it was really interesting to place my work with artists at the museum within this framework. As a museum collaborating with artists for engagement, I saw some interesting connections between our pedagogical goals at the museum and the potential for impact the museum could actually have, especially when working with artists as instigators or catalysts for new ways of working. The second reason I love this chart is because it places art well outside the walls of institutions and starts to broaden the definition of art as we understand it at places like museums. Like history and science museums who have long championed the value of their objects/work within a contemporary context – both as a narrative to the present and visions of the future – so art museums might want to consider how this kind of approach could provider spaces for alternative or broader dialog around art and artists. This has great implications for our approaches to teaching and interpretation in museums today.
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):I am currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, where I have the privilege of working with an incredible team to build connections with our community in meaningful and relevant ways. This position allows me to work across program areas, think creatively about audience and public engagement, and advance ways to bring community voices into the fabric of our institution and its collections & exhibitions. Outside of the museum, I enjoy being outdoors here in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, hiking or camping with my family as much as possible.
What is your resource? Being involved in teaching for the past 20 years (10 of those years spent in an art museum context), I often find myself going back to certain creative resources to inspire my teaching practice and to spark new and sometimes unexpected ways of looking at, perceiving, and experiencing art. One of these creative inspirations continues to be music. When I am preparing to teach and in the research phase, I almost always take a dive into the music of the time period of the artist and their creative process. It doesn’t always surface in my actual teaching, although I do enjoy bringing music and sound into the galleries when it feels directly relevant to the art and to the goals of my teaching.
Why do you love it? Wynton Marsallis once said that the purpose of jazz is “to help us listen better.” I’ve always applied that to my own teaching practice in art museums, considering the purpose of art as helping us see better and more deeply perceive the world around us. I’m even more curious about whether music can help us see and perceive better – or, at least, in a new and more complex way. Exploring music as a resource for teaching has brought me to connect with the creative processes of diverse musical artists such as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman, and John Cage as well as 1890s French cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert or the deeply moving Spanish flamenco vocals of singer Chinin de Triana. I think, overall, music and acoustic experiences can productively shape a more robust and multisensory encounter with an artwork, deepening our understanding of the creative process and moving us away from studying visual art in isolation from other creative acts. It has also lead to some really fun and unexpected moments in the galleries, as learners explore the layers of a Jackson Pollock painting while listening to the structured spontaneity of Dizzie Gillespie; or as they gaze intensely at Franz Kline’s sweeping black and white forms in his large canvas Bethlehem (1959-60) while hearing Morton Feldman’s 1962 experimental composition entitled “For Franz Kline.”
Anything else you want to share? For museum educators and those teaching art in a classroom setting, I think it’s so important to playfully explore the full cultural context of the art we teach. Not just music, but bringing in other forms like dance and poetry to challenge the disciplinary boundaries that traditionally separate and isolate art forms.
Your name: Sara Bodinson
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):Director of Interpretation, MoMA
What is your resource? I don’t teach per se, but would recommend the following resources (some of which I have worked on and others not):
In addition, the MoMA Learning site looks at MoMA’s collection through the lens of themes. It used to be a site geared towards teachers but we re-tooled it to be for students, teachers, and lifelong learners.
Your name: David A. Bowles
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): I lead K-12 School Programs at the Met.
Why do you love it? There aren’t a lot of online resources devoted to rigorous yet informal perspectives on best practices in museum education. I love this resource because it speaks my language, and offers me opportunities to reflect on my own work every week or so.
Anything else you want to share? I wrote a post for the blog last year on using social media as a tool for reflective practice, and doing so A) pushed me to finally write something about my work and “get it out there,” and B) helped me connect with new colleagues digitally.
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.
* * * * *
“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.
On October 16th, Museum Mashup, Triad Style took place at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Individuals from all over the state came to experiment and meet new friends, all with the idea of experimenting with cultural experiences. As this is at least the 7th experimental museum teaching event like this in the past year or so (they have happened in New York, Brooklyn, San Diego, New Orleans, Cleveland, Denver, and now Winston-Salem), I wanted to share more on how to plan your own Museum Mashup, as well as some reflections from our recent SECCA Mashup.
How We Plan a Museum Mashup
The impetus behind this is simple: empowerment and ownership. People on Twitter (encouragingly using #MuseumEdMashUp tag) reached out to me asking if they could do a Mashup and/or I or someone from my organization could come out and lead one at their museum. People here were asking if they could come since they weren’t an educator and others asked if they could invite non-art educators. My answer is and always will be yes. Yes, invite non-art educators. Yes, come even if you are scared. Yes, do one anywhere and everywhere. Yes.
When I did the first experimental teaching adventure with Mike Murawski and Rachel Ropeik over a year ago, it wasn’t this. It’s evolved into this, because of circumstance, need, new places, new people – and my guess and hope is it will keep evolving, beyond this ‘how-to’ and the Mashups that have happened. The Mashup doesn’t belong to any person or museum – and it doesn’t have to be about good teaching or developing programming or pedagogy. It focuses, in my opinion, on the creation of experiences with objects, people, stories, and surroundings. So folks asking “can we…?” the answer with me will always be “yes!”
Which leads to the thought that this isn’t so much of a ‘How-to’ as a ‘How-we’. And if we keep sharing this ‘How-we’ then we, as a community, can use this experimentation in the best possible way for ourselves.
So without further ado, the How-we:
Found a group of people.
As some of you may know, I just moved from NYC to Winston Salem, NC. I knew a handful of people, museum people mostly, through traveling and my partner. After chatting with Debbie Randolph of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, who was part of the NOLA NAEA Mashup at the Ogden, I emailed a group of people I knew in the Triad museum world and told them about the idea. I asked them to ask people they knew, and we had a group.
Found a place and date.
Lucky for us, Debbie had done the Mashup in NOLA and knew how successful it could be. She offered to host the first at SECCA. As a group, we did a Doodle poll and found a date and time frame that worked for the majority.
Yep, promotions before logistics. Since the basic idea was experimentation, and because I had done a Mashup before, I wrote a quick blurb and put up a Facebook Event. The Engaging Educator wrote a press release and shared it with SECCA’s Marketing Director, who shared it with their press contacts.
Just did it.
Logistics were a big part, and the part that always stresses me out. I broke it down into a few key areas when planning for this Mashup:
The Schedule: Mashups are fast. There was 15 minutes alloted for greetings, groupings and a quick warm-up, about 35-45 minutes for the participants to create a 5-7 minute experience, and then the time for the experiences. That last time frame is flexible, based on the number of participants.
The Works: Since the exhibition at SECCA, Point & Counterpoint has 18 artists on display, it was natural to use them all, since we didn’t know exactly how many people would be attending. Alex Brown from SECCA printed out cards with the artist names, and the groups would randomly choose which artist they would be working with. Some artists had multiple works, but ultimately it was up to the group to decide what they wanted to create.
The Groups: As people walked in, they signed in. Taking the total number and dividing by three people per group, people were assigned into six groups in the good old fashioned method of ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…ok all the 1’s over here, the 2’s over there.’ I ended up doing this in a notebook and just calling out each group, but that elementary school grouping happened in a tiny moleskin.
Facilitation:The facilitator is crucial, but the lack of facilitator voice is even more important – it isn’t their show. Debbie introduced SECCA and the exhibition, and I explained the Mashup goals – random groups would randomly be assigned a work, they would have a finite amount of time to create an experience with the work. This experience would have to be experimental – that is, no VTS, inquiry, traditional teaching styles, and ideally something that could fail. Aside from instructions, the facilitator needs to push the event along, but not comment. While I did lead the group in an improv warmup (everyone felt scared! I feel energies too often in rooms, so I had to fix it!), I timed groups, cut them off when they went over time, and turned the attention over to the next group.
On a personal note, I leave things vague and don’t like to give the group ideas, suggestions, props – I want them to define experience themselves, the interpretation to come organically and the experience to be group driven, not agenda driven. Yes, I would love to see everyone do crazy out there experiences – but risk to me is very different than risk to others.
Lunch:Lunch was provided for the participants. This is optional, clearly, and our next one (YES, we have another planned!) will happen after lunch. I’m a fan of giving people some kind of treat after positive-risk taking.
Reflection:They came, they created, they presented, they ate, and they reflected. Below, you can read the reflections of several participants – I left it optional to submit a written reflection, but post-lunch we chatted about a few key things. I asked the group to think about how they felt before, during and after the Mashup, what successes and failures they saw and had, and what can they do today, tomorrow or eventually with what they saw today. Those questions were also posed to the group for the written response.
Wrapped it up, and said where next…
I’m a big believer of striking while the iron is hot – I immediately emailed the group post-weekend, and asked where the next Mashup would take place. Full disclosure, I asked AT the Mashup, post reflection, because I am still an abrasive New Yorker. Worked well, because the New Winston Museum and North Carolina Museum of Art offered to host the next two. I set a date for the participants and myself regarding reflections. It’s 4:30pm on October 26th, and my self-imposed deadline was October 27th at 5pm. I also started a Facebook group to keep everyone together, post photos, plan the next one – with the simple description of “To plan, execute and reflect on cultural experience experimentation in NC.”
Because that’s exactly what we are doing.
This wasn’t my first Mash Up, but this might have been my favorite one, only because of the domino effect that happened after. People are excited – we had educators, but we also had a curator, a chef, an owner of a new makerspace, artists, retired teachers, a poet – and that energy around connecting with objects and works is incredible. So YES, do these all over…AND share what happened!
Participant Reflections: Museum Mashup, Triad Style, October 16
Before the Mashup at SECCA, I was feeling slightly anxious. I had seen a mash-up in New Orleans, but wasn’t exactly excited about doing it myself. What if I didn’t have any ideas? What if I let my group down? What if I was assigned some artwork that I couldn’t find a connection with? I felt better knowing that I wasn’t going into it alone and that everyone would be encountering their assignment at the same time. Mostly before the mash-up I was feeling reluctant to go and trying to make an attitude adjustment so that even if I didn’t have fun, I wouldn’t bring an attitude that would encumber anyone else from having a great time.
Appropriately, Jen rounded up the group for a collective experience to get us started. This was crucial, as warm ups can be. I knew most of the people there, but there were some I didn’t and it was not a gathering that had existed before. We needed a shared experience before beginning the task. Simply gathering in a circle helped, Zip-Zap-Zop further supported a new dynamic and preparation for us to move forward.
I felt better when assigned my group; I’ve been on a committee with Katherine for the better part of this year and I had met Emily before at other museum educators events. When we received our artwork, I felt a little anxious again: it was a video work. How would we incorporate a piece of art that was so dependent on time? When we went to the video, however, I began to relax again. It was beautiful. My fear of connecting with the work was quickly assuaged and the next challenge was to figure out how to create a corporate experience. I felt blank. What on earth would we do? When Emily suggested sharing our thoughts in flashes while we watched, I again felt better and knew I could trust the process. We were sharing ideas; we had similar observations and some of the same ideas were resonating with us. The film was short and looped through several times as we formulated our own responses and began to brainstorm our approach. I kept finding myself thinking, what do I want people to notice and learn and had to remind myself I wasn’t teaching. Our goal was to create an experience. When watching the film that showed falcons and Arabian desert, I felt compelled to move. And movement became part of the experience.
We worked together to create an experience; while we didn’t require our visitors to look closely at the video or experience it in full, we did use the elements of the video to inform the experience. And, it served as a backdrop, visual and auditory, as we proceeded. I hope that people were able to see it and make connections while participating in the activity we led, even if the connection to the art was necessarily soft.
There was a moment, as we wrapped up our “experience,” when I realized that everyone in the gallery had jumped right in and trusted us all the way through the activity. They trusted us and each other (it might have helped that the room was darkened for video) such that at the end we were all standing as falcons and emitting a piercing cry of a bird of prey into the gallery. I was grateful for their trust in us and I think they were rewarded for it; the positive energy in the room was palpable.
I left the day feeling energized and like I had had a good mental/professional workout.
While in some ways, I feel like I am constantly experimenting in my own teaching in the process of figure out what works, I also experience limitations. Some of these are institutional, some are self-imposed. What I saw from my group’s gallery experience is how movement can be a really important thing to do in an art museum. It helped me respond to the video and it further shifted the energy of the collective group. I can thus push more to incorporate movement in the context of my museum teaching–trying to find ways to do it safely and structure experiences so that it is included.
In terms of structure, I think it was great to have the length of time (5-7 minutes) that we had and the number in each group (3). Also, as one of my colleagues said, it’s so fun to get to work with other people’s art!
The Museum Mashup is a really fun and fresh way to connect with one’s creative side and to collaborate with museum and art professionals. Mediation is the sacred key to what Curators and Educators do–it’s our shared ground. The Mashup brought us together and helped bring about a variety of responses, approaches to mediation, and conversation showing that good things happen when you play.
When I first signed up for the Museum Mash-up I really had no idea what to expect, but I had met Jen a week or two before and I knew that it would be an exciting event. I met some interesting new people, which is rare for me. I know everyone in town! I was surprised by how some of the groups gave me a new and very interesting way to view some of the art installations. I think I made some new friends at the Mash-up, and I plan to take a closer look at the exhibits at SECCA and explore some new perspectives.
It’s not always easy to break away from what “works”, but I believe it is always worthwhile to step back and look at things in new ways and through different perspectives. By encouraging collaboration between educators and non-educators from the Triad, the Museum Ed Mashup at SECCA gave me the opportunity to play with a group of individuals that value experimentation and play as much as I do.
In the field of museum education it is often all too easy to stop experimenting and become complacent when you find something that “works” well enough. This could be a tour program, an art activity, a scripted speech, or a way of looking at or experiencing artwork. While there is nothing inherently wrong with repeating programs or experiences, repetition in isolation and without experimentation can lead to complacency, and ultimately stagnation. This problem is exactly what the Museum Ed Mashup was created to combat. And that is exactly what it did.
By bringing together educators and non-educators together from varied backgrounds it gave everyone the ability to experiment freely and experience the world through different perspectives. This, I think, is the greatest gift the Mashup has to offer. It reminds us that not everyone thinks alike.
The time spent at MuseumEd Mashup, far exceeded my expectations. In a world of meetings, planning, lectures and programming, it was refreshing to step away and look at exhibits in a more provocative way. I was inspired to explore the artist and medium in new and creative ways, with others! Thank you for stepping outside of the box and taking risks with your audience.
Reposted from the Getty Museum’s website and The Getty Iris online magazine. Special thanks to Sarah Cooper and Annelisa Stephan at the Getty, as well as artist Julia Sherman, for allowing me to repost this content about such an inspiring, creative, and experimental project.
Presented by artist and writer Julia Sherman, creator of the popular blog Salad for President, the Getty Salad Garden is conceived as a dynamic platform for conversations, drawing together a wide variety of creative voices. Like the format of her blog, Sherman will invite a range of artists and creative guests to join her in harvesting and making salads, emphasizing that the simple act of cooking together can be the catalyst for fascinating conversations and a fruitful creative exchange. Through sharing their artistic and culinary interests and the surprising ways they intersect, the conversations reveal the potential for a simple salad to invigorate our creative lives. Throughout the fall, the Getty Salad Garden will serve as an unexpected, playful space for investigations into the historical material on display in the galleries, infusing it with contemporary perspectives.
For the project, Sherman collaborated with urban gardeners Farmscape Gardens, and art-historian-turned-landscape-architect David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape. Together they have designed a garden which thoughtfully responds to the Getty Center’s architecture and landscape, and utilizes rare seeds, including 19th-century varietals, that help preserve agricultural and culinary heritage. The garden will be drip-irrigated, using dramatically less water than a lawn requires.
The Getty Salad Garden will support a variety of projects documenting the salads and conversations Sherman has with exciting members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty Salad Garden explores the unique way gardens inherently foster community, and hopes to inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
An Interview with Julia Sherman of Salad for President (from The Getty Iris)
During Julia’s latest salad exploration adventure in Japan, where she sampled dishes with myoga wild ginger flower, ponzu dipped sea grapes, and fried lotus root, Sarah Cooper (Public Programs Specialist, Getty Center) spoke with her about how the Getty Salad Garden came to be and how the simple salad managed to get her vote.
What led you to create Salad for President?
In 2011, I had finished my MFA at Columbia University, and I was forging along, pursuing shows and residencies and paying a fortune for a studio on the fifth floor of a storage facility under the Manhattan Bridge. My space was sandwiched between a CrossFit gym and a 24-hour energy distributor, so you can imagine I was not feeling surrounded by “community.”
My husband started a Tumblr for me called Salad for President, urging me to catalogue my obsessive cooking, gardening, and hosting. These were the creative things I was doing without preoccupation, the equivalent of a sketchbook for most artists. There came a point where I finally admitted that I wasn’t inspired in the studio; I wanted to be in my kitchen or garden, making that which I knew exactly how to share. So I taught myself how to take photos of food, and I started inviting myself over to the homes and studios of all the salad-loving artists I knew. The energy I brought to the project was immediately contagious, and so it became a garden, a book, a cocktail syrup, and a soon a perfume. The open-endedness for me is the best part. Salad is a platform for me.
I read that you think making a salad is similar to making art in that it requires assembling various colors, textures, and sensory elements. Yet salads are not art. Why do you make this connection?
I think you could make an argument that a salad could be art if the maker wanted it to be, but for me, salad as an art object is not really the point. I am more interested in practice and dialogue, an artist’s approach to the entirety of their world, not just their finished works. If I were to call the salad itself a work of art, it would no longer feel like a casual gift, something I can so easily give to others. It’s not meant to be exhibited but consumed, and then reimagined the very next day.
What have been your favorite salad sessions?
Some of the best salad sessions have come from those who don’t identify as cooks. Sina Najafi—editor in chief of Cabinet Magazine—and Nina Katchadourian—one of my favorite artists—used the materials of their salad to make a tribute to Rafael Nadal, their favorite tennis player. They constructed a tiny tennis court out of pine nuts and chives, and we got so deep into the topic that it eventually turned into a potent lesson on role models and the importance of finding inspiration outside your given discipline.
If you had to choose a salad recipe that best reflects your own creative outlook, what would it be?
I always go back to the Greek salad, because I am fascinated by its staying power—I have never met a contemporary twist on a Greek salad that I preferred. In all creative pursuits, it is important to know when not to innovate but to instead appreciate things just the way they are. This is a trait I appreciate most in art—think of Bruce Nauman or the Fluxus artists. Things don’t have to complicated to be good.
What artists have been important for you throughout your career?
I have been very fortunate to have mentors whose work I admire. When I was in college, I identified with the work of Janine Antoni. I had the chance to work with her in grad school and assist her briefly, and she taught me about work-life balance, prioritizing, and taking risks. She has been making sculpture and installation successfully for over 20 years. Later she found her passion in dance and was not afraid to pursue that. That, to me, is what it means to be a great artist.
Same for Jon Kessler and Dike Blair, who have been painfully honest about the peaks and valleys of the art world and their own careers. We are all just trying to figure it out, over and over again, and it is so valuable to hear that from those who are succeeding. The art world is not a cult where you find your place and claim it; rather, we are just a roaming community of restless makers looking for a way to keep pushing ourselves.
Last year you created a salad garden on the roof of MoMA PS1 in New York. Why is it important to you to present Salad for President in the context of a museum?
The art world will always be my home, and I think it is crucial that I root my thinking there. A project like this, as innocuous as it might seem, asks some critical questions of both the visitors and the museum itself, the artists who show their work there, and the people who make the museum happen. How are you supposed to use the space and who does it belong to? How can a museum be an active place of engagement? How can it activate the imagination of the public?
For me, the garden is both familiar and strange—a place that allows for an ease of curiosity, discovery, and dialogue amongst the experienced gardener and the total novice alike. This mirrors the ideal engagement one should have at the museum.
For the Getty Salad Garden, you’ve brought in two collaborators: David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape and Farmscape Gardens. How did you meet these collaborators and bring them into the project?
David Godshall and I are old friends. He approaches everything he does with the utmost intention and respect. I knew that if we were to make a garden at the Getty, it would have to be beautifully designed and sensitive to its surroundings. So David created a really smart Tetris configuration, which was an elegant and cost effective solution to a functional garden. It’s also one that he sees as a midway point between the Getty Center’s architecture and Central Garden.
When I was in Los Angeles about six months ago, Gillian Ferguson, the producer of the radio show Good Food, wrote an article about Salad for President for Los Angeles Magazine in which I alluded to my plans to make my next salad garden in Los Angeles. Lara Hermanson of Farmscape Gardens reached out to me, offering to plant and manage a garden if I were to make it happen.
I consider myself the ultimate amateur gardener, but for a project of this scale, I could never have done it without the expertise of Lara’s staff, Dan Allen and Ariel Chesnutt, who spend all day creating and maintaining public and private vegetable gardens in California.
Why did you want to realize the second iteration of your garden project in Los Angeles?
I moved to Los Angeles with my partner, Adam Katz, in 2007, and he and I started a project space in the front of my studio called Workspace. It really served a need of our community of artists, just finding their way after school, not yet showing their work in commercial galleries. It was there that I found my place as an organizer, a host, a facilitator of artists’ projects. I am grateful to Los Angeles and its artists for their energy at that time.
I later moved back to New York for grad school, but I’ve always maintained a life in L.A. I also learned to garden here, so it seemed only right to make the next salad garden in the place where so many of my fundamental ideas came together.
Bringing people together and sharing their stories seems to be the central impulse of Salad for President. What is it about salads and gardens that make them such great connectors?
I’ve discovered that the intimacy of salad and the garden unlocks a world of people I admire. We are all trying to figure out how we can live our lives better, more honestly, more fully. What better way to spark a conversation about those big ideas than to start with something small?
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This season, Julia Sherman is in residence at the Getty Salad Garden, growing, harvesting, and cooking alongside members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty hopes the simple salad will inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
Starting at 11:00am, we’ll create small teaching groups, get randomized object assignments and prototype short experiences with these objects. After sharing these adventures, we’ll meet for lunch and discuss the morning.
Please invite all experimenters: museum educators, art teachers, science buffs, general educators, as well as any community members interested in playing! The more the merrier, no experience in art necessary, just a can do attitude and willingness to play and experiment.
Not in North Carolina? Jen from The Engaging Educator will be live-tweeting the Mash-Up, and participants are invited to share at #museumedmashup
WHEN: Friday, October 16th – 11am-2pm
11-11:15– Welcome, introduction, assign artworks + groups
Written by Alyssa Greenberg, doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago; founding member of Museum Workers Speak
Reposted from The Incluseum blog, an online forum advocating that inclusion become an integral priority for all museums and flourish through supportive community relationships.
On September 25-26, I participated in MuseumNext’s first stateside convening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). Since 2009, MuseumNext has organized annual conferences in cities across Europe to highlight current best practices and future directions for the museum field. Starting with Indianapolis this year, MuseumNext will hold conferences annually in the fall in the States and in the spring in Europe. This fall’s topic was “Building Inclusive Museums” (not to be confused with the International Conference on the Inclusive Museum — though it’s great to see the topic gaining increasingly widespread attention).Through two days of jam-packed conference sessions, the themes explored ranged from sharing power and authority with museum audiences to fostering more inclusive hiring and labor practices within institutions. In this blog post, I’ll share two of my greatest takeaways from the conference.
1. Redefining and interrogating inclusion
There were at least as many definitions of inclusion as there were speakers at the podium. Something that came up again and again was the idea of sharing power and responsibility with communities beyond museum walls. For example, Independent Curator and and Public Engagement Consultant Sarah Schultz used the Open Field project, which she founded at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as a case study to explain how inviting “community members” (a phrase that merits further unpacking) into the process of creating public programming is essential to creating an inclusive space.
Similarly, in the realm of exhibition development, Smithsonian Curator Masum Momaya advocated engaging community members “from concept to closing.” Manager of Digital Content/Social Media Lori Byrd-McDevitt shared a case study of a “community blogging” initiative at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.The museum demonstrated “radical trust” by allowing selected bloggers free rein to create content for their website. Byrd-McDevitt anticipated that questions of compensation might arise in the audience, and she was clear that community bloggers received the benefit of blogging experience as well as perks such as meals, goodie bags, access to museum events, and museum membership — but not financial compensation.
Momaya followed up on this topic in the Q&A following Simon’s talk, asking how an activist museum director can address wage disparity and privilege. Though Simon’s talk was called “Fighting for Inclusion,” she responded that the issues of working conditions described by Momaya were “not our fight” — a viewpoint with which I disagree. When museum staff members partner with community members to do museum work, and there’s an imbalance in voice or compensation or decision-making power, that partnership can reinforce rather than challenge social inequalities. If we are to continue promoting inclusion as a value within our field, we will need to put more thought into how to address this tension. How can we persuade museum workers at all levels — including museum leaders — that equitable working conditions are central to inclusion?
2. Who’s (not) in the room
Museum Evangelist Adrianne Russell pointed out that the high registration cost (tickets were in the $400 range) (not to mention travel costs!) kept MuseumNext attendance out of reach of many museum workers. I was fortunate to be able to attend the conference with the help of a senior colleague, who let me ride with her from Chicago and even subsidized my lodging! This amazing, above-and-beyond support for an emerging professional from a leader in the field was instrumental — but not everyone can be so lucky.
I concur with Russell that while the free livestreaming went quite far in making the conference accessible to a wider audience, the impact of having a more diverse community of museum workers in the room would have had a significant impact on the conference discourse, especially if the conference had had a more audience-engaged format. Many people followed the stream and engaged the conference topics over Twitter, but having their voices physically present to ask questions and address the presenters in person would be a huge improvement.
Presenters and participants alike called attention to who was in the room — and who was missing. With a few exceptions, the “sea of white women” (to borrow an apt phrase someone used to describe the museum field at a Museum Workers Speak event in Chicago) was visible both behind the podium and in the audience. This topic deserves further interrogation. In her presentation, Co-Founder of Brown Girls Museum Blog Ravon Ruffin mentioned the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey and argued, “We can’t talk about museums unless we confront our own privilege to collectively be in this room.”
By far, the most radical and provocative presentations were delivered by women of color — specifically, Co-Founder of Museum Hue Monica O. Montgomery, Momaya, and Ruffin. Those are the presentations I encourage you, readers, to watch or rewatch. Throughout the conference, most of the presentations delivered by white women were operating in the “success story” mode pervasive in the museum field, flattering participants’ current understandings of inclusion without pushing further. Why was the critical role of pushing the field to work harder for inclusion seemingly left to women of color alone? And since they did speak up, will we listen?
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.