Tag Archives: questions

2015 Year in Review

As the fourth year of ArtMuseumTeaching wraps up, I thought it would be good to post a brief “Year in Review.”  Not that we need any more end-of-the-year lists or calls for resolutions, but I think it can be meaningful to take a minute and look back at some of the issues that have been on our minds this past year.  I want to thank all of the amazing contributors who have taken the extra time to share their practice with this community!

Since its inaugural year back in 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching has grown from a tiny blog seedling to a robust and active online community now involving more than 60 contributors, publishing 172 posts, and being read by hundreds of thousands of people in as many as 170 countries around the globe.  I hope that this online community and forum will continue to grow, include more perspectives, and be a space of exchange where we can connect on issues of teaching, learning, and community engagement that matter most for museums and the people that make up those museums.

Year in Review: 5 Most Popular Posts of 2015

elgreco15. “320 Hours: Slow Looking & Visitor Engagement with El Greco” (July 2015): We all talk about the value of slow looking and extended engagement with art – and this great post by Kelsey Ferreira provides such a unique insight into her experiences spending 320 hours with a single El Greco painting at the Portland Art Museum. What questions did visitors ask? What types of experiences sparked further engagement and learning?  What surprisingly deep experiences did visitors bring to this stunning painting?  A fantastic read for museum educators and art lovers alike!

fb-art4. “Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool” (January 2015): David Bowles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared his insights from posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from his gallery experiences on Facebook, and using social media tools such as Facebook to add a reflective element to our practice. This is a great read, especially with David’s five take-aways for museum educators about student learning in the galleries.

Photo23. “We Flipped Our Museum – Here’s What We Learned” (June 2015): Emily Kotecki shared the work at the North Carolina Museum of Art to deepen and activate the museum learning experience through a Flipped Museum pilot program called “Artists in Process.” They developed an online learning platform to support social interaction and choice-based learning, and then worked with sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. Check out their ‘lessons learned,’ and read more in the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

ask_home_new-576x10242. “The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App” (July 2015): Written after my own visit to the Brooklyn Museum this past summer, I briefly explored the what, how, and why of this effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. While I am still attracted to the app’s desire to make personal connections with visitors, I’m a bit concerned with how few visitors use the app considering the staff and resources dedicated to this project.  But I absolutely love that the team at the Brooklyn Museum is super transparent about their thinking and planning via their blog (so awesome!).

jackie-teaching1. “Questioning the Use of Questions” (January 2015): In the most widely-read post of 2015, museum educator Jackie Delamatre responded to Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee’s challenge to the use of questions in museum teaching. While there is great value in questioning the use of questions, Jackie’s insightful post defends the use of open-ended questions and brings in some of her own personal experiences.  And her search for the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon of questions’ is not to be missed!

Enjoy these popular posts from 2015, and see you in 2016 — a year that promises to bring a whole new set of challenges, success stories, and new ways of thinking about both the theory and practice of museum teaching.  If you would like to share the projects you’re working on or the issues and challenges you are grappling with, please add your voice to this growing community (and just send me a tweet at @murawski27 or email me at murawski27@gmail.com).


The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App

“With a culture of questioning, there is always more possibility.” – Debra France & W. L. Gore

“Without a good question, the answer has no place to go.” – Clayton Christensen

“We live in the world our questions create.” – David Cooperrider

Much ink (and many pixels) has been spilled over thinking about the use of questions in museums.  I, myself, have given considerable thought to not only how we as educators employ questions in our own inquiry-based teaching, but also how we might get museum visitors and learners to ask more questions – to wonder more about the objects, collections, stories, and experiences brought forward by museums.  I owe a great deal to the thinking of other educators and cultural leaders like Rika Burnham, Elliott Kai-Kee, Nina Simon, Philip Yenawine, and many of the folks at Harvard’s Project Zero, to name a few.  In countless docent trainings, teacher workshops, school tours, lifelong learning classes, etc., I’ve worked to help cultivate a culture of questioning in the space of the museum – exploring creative questions, structured questions, participatory questions, visitor-centered questions, and questions that take a critical look at the very institutions of museums themselves. So when I visited the Brooklyn Museum last month, I was intrigued and excited to be able to test out their new ASK app as well as chat with some of the Audience Engagement staff about the intiative.

What is the ASK app?

photoASK is the newest iOS app developed by the Brooklyn Museum to allow visitors to ask questions during their museum visit, and have Audience Engagement staff on the other end answering their questions live via the text-messaging feature of the app.  As visitors ask questions, a member of the Audience Engagement staff not only responds to the question, but they know where the visitor is located based on iBeacons that the museum has installed throughout the galleries.  In addition to texting in a question, visitors can also send a photo along with their question.

As the Audience Engagement staff receive visitor questions, they have access to a growing wiki that contains information about artworks, related artworks, historical information, and other questions that have been asked by visitors.  These staff are constantly building this database of content and context, allowing them to more easily answer subsequent visitor questions. The app works in real-time, but only functions while on site at the Brooklyn Museum (if you want to take any of the experience with you, you need to take screen shots or notes, like I did).

In a recent interview with Nina Simon, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, Shelley Bernstein, spoke more about the new ASK app and experience:

“ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.”

The Brooklyn Museum has been testing the ASK app during the past couple of months (summer 2015), and making changes and prototyping new approaches throughout (which is awesome to see!).

My ASK Experience

As I walked along Prospect Park on my way to the Brooklyn Museum, I began downloading my ASK app (yes, I am a super museum nerd – I’m sure very few visitors have their app ready-to-go when they enter the Brooklyn Museum).  Entering the museum, I was prepped to ask questions.

Rather than try to ‘stump’ the app experience and try to ask a series of outrageous or challenging questions, I wanted to really see when I would have the natural inclination to ask a question.  I even wondered how often I have my own questions while I stroll the galleries of a museum (we think so much about questions as part of the museum experience of others, but perhaps rarely think about our own process of questioning as learners/visitors in the galleries). Not having visited the Brooklyn Museum for quite some time, I immediately found myself wandering around trying to find my way without a map.  So question #1 for me was about way-finding:  “Where can I find a map?” An immediate response via the app had me even more excited about my visit (now with map in hand).

ASK experienceI only ended up asking about 4 additional questions during a 2-3 hour visit, but the exchange with the Audience Engagement team member on the other end was enjoyable and surprisingly engaging.  To give you a sense of how natural and conversational it felt, I am pasting a collage of screenshots from a part of our exchange at the right (click on the small image here to access a larger view of the exchange).  The ‘responder’ texted me about twice as many times as I messaged them, which shows a really nice level of engagement.   The conversation basically occurred in real time, without any awkward silences or wait times.

While I was testing the app, the person on the other end was nameless (but I think they’re now testing it with the person’s name included to add more personal connection, which is a fantastic idea).  Towards the end of my visit, the staff member invited me to stop by the kiosk on my way out and say “hi.”  So I did, and ended up meeting Megan Mastobattista, who has been a part of the Audience Engagement Team since March.  We chatted about the project, and I was able to connect a real person to my digital experience (hooray!).

ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it.  Photo from BKM Tech blog.
ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it. Photo from BKM Tech blog.

Overall, I felt that the ASK app experience really succeeded in one area that I know the Brooklyn Museum’s is aiming for with this project: personal connection.  I was highly skeptical of this app when I arrived (to be honest), since I tend to have reservations about anything that creates a culture in museums of asking questions and getting answers – assuming that there is some correct answer to every question, and preventing visitors from simply wondering about art without someone texting them the answers.  From the outside, the ASK app seemed to be trying to digitally replicate the older and outdated model of docents, who try to “know everything” and answer any questions visitors have about works of art, history, artist bios, etc.  But in experiencing the app myself, I felt connected to the answerer, and I also felt that the goal of the Audience Engagement team was not to specifically answer my questions, but truly to engage in dialogue and prompt more thinking or looking on my part.  I could also bring my own knowledge to the exchange, and it was valued and became a building block for further dialogue.

After my visit, I connected with my colleague Monica Marino, Audience Engagement Lead there at the Brooklyn Museum, to get some of her thoughts on some of my questions and experiences:

“Users are consistently surprised when they realize it’s a real person speaking with them.  It’s interesting, even when they go into the app experience knowing that it is a person responding (and even when they meet us beforehand) they have an “ah-ha” moment after about the 3rd exchange.  That’s a prime moment for us to provoke a more in-depth dialogue about what the visitor is looking at.”

One part of the experience I was pleasantly surprised with was the app’s ability to connect me with the same Audience Engagement staff person each time.  While I understand that this must be more challenging when the museum is more crowded, I asked Monica about their thinking about this aspect:

“From our end (the Team responding) it is nice when we can sustain the conversation with one person, however, it has its logistical challenges – for example if we have multiple people sending us messages, we want to be able to respond to everyone quickly which makes it challenging sometimes to stay with the same person.  In addition, it happens that one of our team members has more of a background on a particular object/collection so it’s best when they’re able to respond to the visitor. Having said all of that we try as much as possible to stay with a visitor as they use it.”

Monica also writes more about the thinking behind the opening prompt and the first response to the visitor in this text messaging environment, and how to best spark the conversation I’ve been talking about.

As the Audience Engagement Team at the Brooklyn Museum continues to test and adapt the ASK experience, you can keep in touch via their BKM Tech blog, which is also a great place to learn more about the evolution of this initiative.  Also check out Nina Simon’s interview with the project’s lead thinker, Shelley Bernstein.

As the team at the Brooklyn Museum collects data on visitor questions and behavior, I’m also very interested to see how it shapes the internal decisions being made about collection installations, exhibitions, interpretive strategies, and gallery design.  To play off of the quote as the start of this post by David Cooperrider, are we heading toward a moment in which visitor questions will be shaping the museums of tomorrow.  Will we ever be living in the museums our questions create?

What’s Your ASK Experience?

I’d love to hear from others who have experienced the ASK app.  What can you share with us about your process of questioning and exchange with the Audience Engagement team?  What do you think about this type of museum experience – should we instead be focusing more on human, face-to-face engagement rather than the digital?  Please share and keep the dialogue going.


Asking Beautiful, Scary Questions: Reflections on “Leading the Future of Museum Education”

Written by Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning and Innovation, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Reposted from the Museum Education Roundtable’s JME40 blog. Be sure to check out their posts exploring the evolution of the Journal of Museum Education during its 40 volume run as a reflections of the field at large.

I recently enjoyed traveling to the great city of Denver, Colorado and participating in the Leading the Future of Museum Education: Challenges and Opportunities, a convening of an amazing group of museum leaders from across the country. This event (May 2015), co-hosted by Bank Street College’s Leadership in Museum Education and the Education Professional Network (EdCom) of the American Alliance of Museums, offered a much-needed opportunity for educators in our field to come together and discuss issues, the future, and ask beautiful, scary questions.

In her opening remarks, Sarah Jesse, chair of EdCom and Vice President of Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced the idea of beautiful questions inspired by the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. A beautiful question is:

“an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Such questions seem to be ingrained in our DNA, for in 1987 a group of 25 art museum educators came together in Denver to explore similar issues and reforms, and to develop a collective vision for the future of the field. The Journal of Museum Education (JME) Volume 13, Number 3, Fall 1988, was dedicated to sharing the insights and key issues from the Denver Meeting. Guest edited and authored by the organizers and participants of that meeting, the JME issue reflected the individual thinking generated through their discussions and widened the conversation to engage more educators from across the field. I am proud to say that two representatives from my museum were in attendance in 1987.

Twenty-eight years later in Denver, our brainstorming and discussions focused on many of the same topics: the empowerment of museum educators as leaders; making our work visible; professional development and career tracks; visitor-centeredness; the lack of diversity and inclusion in our field; and leading change.

Photo by Rachel Goldberg ‏@EducatorRachel
Group brainstorming during convening. Photo via Twitter by Rachel Goldberg ‏@EducatorRachel

Much of the program and conversation in Denver focused on change on many different levels—the ever-changing and vast-paced world in which we live, the shifts and much-needed changes in our field and institutions, the rethinking of museum education, and the changes in us as individuals. Both Kaywin Feldman, the Duncan and Nivan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Marsha L. Semmel, principal of Marsha Semmel Consulting, spoke of our VUCA environment and the need for adaptive and strategic leadership. VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity,and ambiguity, and a catchall for our turbulent, dynamic reality. In order to thrive, we must have vision, understanding, clarity, and agility and be willing to experiment and take risks. Laura Roberts from Roberts Consulting points out there is no one way or single path to get us where we want to go and the “best practices” from the past won’t be sufficient.

We must challenge ourselves to find these new paths and ask beautiful, scary questions, which will inspire us to take risks and head into uncertain territory, and possibly fail. Some of the beautiful questions that emerged from our brainstorming and conversations in Denver:

  • How might we encourage greater diversity and inclusion in our field?
  • How might museums become truly visitor-centered institutions?
  • How might we find balance in engaging both our core and new audiences; balance between co-creation and expertise?
  • What if we broke down silos and collaboration was the new norm?
  • How might we rethink our work with the public education sector?
  • How might we harness the power of technology to expand access, improve engagement, and try new approaches to our work?
  • What if excellence isn’t enough?
  • What if educators became more empowered and began breaking the rules?

To begin exploring the strategies and solutions to these beautiful questions, we must become adaptive leaders and both individually and collectively embrace the gradual but meaningful process of change. Marsha Semmel introduced us to John Seely Brown who believes in social, participatory learning and teaches us that museums need to stop protecting our assets—our stocks—of authoritative knowledge and instead nurture our flows—creating new knowledge. We are poised to cultivate these flows.

Photo via Twitter from Wendy Ng ‏@twin_muses
Marsha Semmel presenting. Photo via Twitter from Wendy Ng ‏@twin_muses

Laura Roberts, who was asked to reflect on and summarize the convening stated in her closing remarks, “museum educators routinely use the sort of skills an adaptive leader needs. Moreover, if we are going to shift our museums from a focus on objects to a focus on visitors and community, it is clear we are positioned to lead the way…” She noted these observations about our character:

  • Educators are trained to elicit observations and points of view and to bring people together in dialogue. We are good facilitators. We have those “soft skills” to be boundary spanners.
  • We are clever, creative, and imaginative. We are good problem solvers. We are good listeners.
  • We practice the skills of collaboration and partnering. We are matchmakers and brokers.
  • We often serve as the integrators in the institution, bringing disparate staff together.
  • We are often “empowerers.” Many educators are refreshingly light on ego.

We have these skills, and we also need to become more empowered and better advocates for our values, our expertise, and our audiences. Insights on the 1988 Denver Meeting from Diane Brigham in JME echo this concept, stating that our role is essential in serving the missions of our museums and that:

“when we realize that we offer abilities that no one else in the museum can contribute, we are better able to offer leadership. We empower ourselves when we are clear about what we are and have prepared ourselves to practice our profession with rigor.”

It is essential for us to be more rigorous and confident in articulating our goals and vision, and ask beautiful, scary questions that will serve as catalysts for innovation and change in our field and our communities.

What are your beautiful, scary questions?

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You can check out #leadmuseumed tweets from the convening here: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23leadmuseumed&src=typd

More brainstorming artifacts from convening. Photo via Twitter from Kaywin Feldman ‏@KaywinFeldman
More brainstorming artifacts from convening. Photo via Twitter from Kaywin Feldman ‏@KaywinFeldman
Photo of full group of museum educators and thought leaders convening in Denver for "Leading the Future of Museum Education" (May 2015)
Photo of full group of museum educators and thought leaders convening in Denver for “Leading the Future of Museum Education” (May 2015)

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About the Author

karleengardner-150x150KARLEEN GARDNER is Director of Learning Innovation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She leads initiatives and experiments in interpretation and learning, and works to make the museum accessible and relevant for all audiences. Karleen currently serves on the board of directors of the Museum Education Roundtable, on the editorial team, and as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education.

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Header Photo by Ann Rowson Love via Twitter @annrowsonlove

Questioning the Questioning of Questions

Written by Jackie Delamatre

Recently, the use of questions in art museum teaching has been questioned. In their book, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee wonder “why we ask questions at all.” They have observed too many instances of questions that merely stand in for the delivery of facts, questions that limit viewers’ responses, or questions aimed only at “getting the students to talk.”   They write:

“Even so-called open-ended questions always define a finite horizon of response that limits the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent” (100).

Are they right?

While they have written an eloquent, essential book that I am very grateful for, I do not agree with their premise that because some docents or educators ask terrible questions, questions in general are a flawed pedagogical tool. Every teaching method has unsatisfactory practitioners. That does not mean the teaching method itself is bad. More likely it means that some practitioners are not buying into the philosophical underpinnings of the methods, or, in some cases, that they don’t have enough experience or good mentorship.

I can assure you that many docents or educators could also botch Burnham and Kai-Kee’s described methods. Does that mean their methods are bad? Certainly not. I have been with Burnham for an experience with an artwork, and it was powerful. I don’t disagree that what she does works wonderfully for her audiences. However, I also don’t agree that all audiences can or will look for an hour at a painting without prompting through questioning. I have taught audiences for whom this works just fine, but over ten years of teaching literally thousands of tours at art museums, I believe that museum educators must not do away with open-ended, non-leading questions.

In Defense of Questions

Why not do away with questions?  Because some groups have never been to a museum before, or looked for longer than a few seconds at an artwork. Some groups have rarely been asked their opinion before. Some groups have not experienced learning as interpretative and dialogic instead of didactic. Some groups have had no practice listening to each other. Some groups are scared to death of sounding stupid. Some feel highly uncomfortable in the galleries. “We are the only people who look like us here,” a student once said to me on a tour at the Whitney Museum, and when she broke down in tears, so did others in the group and so did I.  Some groups don’t even want to travel to the area where the museum is. When I taught high school in the South Bronx, my students said they did not want to go on field trips to Manhattan. “Too many white people in Manhattan, Miss,” said one student, and I don’t think he was joking. Some groups are still thinking about the backpack they were forced to check in the lobby. Some are just marveling at the museum – a place entirely new to them. Some are hungry or wondering when they will be allowed to go to the bathroom. Perhaps some students (hard to believe for us art lovers) are simply not interested in art. (I don’t blame them. We all have affinities. I would probably not have been enthusiastic about a school field trip to a car mechanic unless ways to be engaged in the topic were modeled for me.)

For many groups, questions will help them move through fear, discomfort, distraction, or lack of experience or affinity. By asking questions, we model the rules of interpretative play that Burnham and Kai-Kee propose. “Look keenly…share your observations…ask questions… listen to and respect what others say…be patient” (130). We hope that they might internalize these modes of inquiry and use them to think about not just art but the visual culture we live with.

In my experience, questions are critical in modeling how to explore a work of art. When we ask, “What do you notice?” we model for students that their observations are important and meaningful. When we ask, “What more do you notice?” we model that their initial observations are not enough. When we ask, “Where do you see that?” we model that their observations are best grounded in the work. When we ask interpretative questions such as, “What can you guess about this place?” or “How would you describe this person?” we model that their hypotheses are valuable even without a higher degree in art history. When we ask, “What makes you say that?” we remind them to ground their interpretations in observations. When we offer curatorial interpretations or artists’ quotes and ask them what they think of these ideas, we model that the conversation around art in the galleries is still alive and far from complete. When we ask, “Do you agree or disagree?” (with curatorial or artists’ statements or with other students’ thoughts), prompting them to explain their answers, we model that debate and an openness to multiple interpretations are appropriate and they are capable of it. When we ask, “Do you like it? Why or why not?” we model that their opinions matter. When we ask about how art relates to their own lives, we model that what you see in a museum can have an impact beyond its walls. When we ask students to offer up their own questions about the artwork, we model how they can conduct their own conversations with an artwork – on their own or with a group.

Do Burnham and Kai-Kee really think that questions like these “define a finite horizon of response?” For every single one of these questions, I can imagine an unlimited array of responses. These are the kinds of questions that experienced lookers ask themselves about an artwork without prompting. But what of the groups with the aforementioned preoccupations or inexperience?  Our role as educators for every visitor – not just the experienced lookers – is to model these modes of inquiry. I love Burnham and Kai-Kee’s model for dialogical teaching. In their model, imagined as a four-sided diagram, or diamond, participants in a dialogue move between any of four roles:

  • The mover pushes the dialogue forward with statements or questions.
  • The follower supports the dialogue with evidence, encouragement, or just active listening.
  • The bystander stands back, views the dialogue from afar, perhaps metacognitively.
  • The opposer actively disagrees with another’s point of view. (87-89)

Many viewers would not naturally know how or be willing to take on these roles. Questions can help. When we ask questions, we model the role of the mover for students. When later in an experience (or even in the beginning of one), we ask them to raise their own questions about an artwork, we invite them to be movers. When we ask students to think about what others have said and express their agreement or disagreement we are asking them to be both bystanders and, possibly, opposers. We are modeling the role of listening to the whole of the conversation and stepping in when they have a different opinion or even if they want to agree or support as a follower.

Later in their discussion of this dialogical model, Burnham and Kai-Kee describe what I think of as the most exciting kind of question. If you’ll allow me an extended metaphor, the questions I have already described are the meat-and-potato questions – the questions to facilitate a sustained, filling experience with an artwork. But then there is the Boeuf Bourguignon of questions – the one that has been simmering so long it excites the palate upon contact. The educator has reflected on an artwork for days, weeks, even years, and has come back again and again to a question that she cannot answer, that she wants to hear as many thoughts on as possible. It is “a question that is real for [the teacher], a question she wants to share with the students, and whose answer she does not already know” (91).

In Search of the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ of Questions

Recently, I taught a couple sessions for adults at a Robert Motherwell painting at the RISD Museum.

Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).  http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1998_ochre_still_life_with_blue_stripe
Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966). http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1998_ochre_still_life_with_blue_stripe

I had the good fortune of being able to research the painting for months. I read Motherwell’s writings, asked a curator at the museum for background on the work, spoke to a conservator about it, and looked at it carefully for extended periods. I was even able to gather with educator colleagues in front of the painting and discuss it. During this latter session, a question came up that none of us could answer definitively. It stuck with me through all my research. I knew I wanted to share it with the participants in my session.

Motherwell was fascinated by collage. When he discovered it, he said, he took to it like a “duck to water.” He said the experience of making collage was like “making beautiful love for the first time.”   The painting I was planning to discuss, according to one curator, “could be read as a translation to another scale of one of his collages.” My colleagues, after seeing his collages, had been perplexed. The painting was not nearly as good as his collages, they agreed. Their question became: Why even make the painting? Why not stick with collage? Indeed, in Motherwell’s writings he describes getting more pleasure out of making collage: “I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play. Which painting, in general, is not, for me, at least…” (Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio). So the question stuck with me. Why even make paintings? I wanted to ask this question because after all my research and time looking at the artwork, I still found it fascinated me.

After a long, free-wheeling, open-ended discussion of the painting, I proposed the question to my first group.  There was silence. Uh-oh, I thought, maybe this question was only interesting to me. Maybe, like Burnham and Kai-Kee suggest, I had asked a question that limited “the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent.” Maybe I had asked a question unrelated to their experience of or interest in the artwork. But I sat with the silence for a few moments, and people began to speak up.

“Perhaps,” one said, “he wanted to make something bigger than collage would allow.”

“Perhaps,” said another, “he couldn’t make as much money from collages.”

“I think,” said yet another, “he could learn something about his collages by making the paintings.”

“I think he needed them for his legacy – to be considered important.”

We laughed about some of the answers, and there were plenty of perplexed looks as we sat with the question. It was another way into the painting. Yes, it was influenced by my own experiences with and interest in the work, but it was an open-ended, genuine, and satisfyingly riddling question and the range of answers took us places we hadn’t yet been in the conversation.

Sometimes no one answers questions like this, and I think that’s OK, too. These questions are modeling something that all questions should model, and I think these questions throw into sharp relief. They model that we are all learners, and we are learning together. We are asking questions because we are genuinely curious about their answers.

 About the Author

JACKIE DELAMATRE: jackie 3museum educator, currently teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, and the Neuberger Museum of Art. Until this summer, she taught at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim Museum for nearly a decade. She has coordinated research on the effects of looking at art on critical thinking skills, founded programs for teens as well as babies and their caregivers, and written for the Journal of Museum Education as well as several museum and museum education blogs, most recently for Museum Questions.  She holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. from New York University in Fiction. She is at work on a novel. 

OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums

VTS-bostonFor the past two decades, the overall discourse regarding Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been the subject of rather thorny debate.  The often-cited conversation between Philip Yenawine and Danielle Rice at the 1999 National Docent Symposium (published in 2002) productively drew out many of the disagreements about the role of information in museum teaching, especially with beginning viewers and first-time museum visitors.  In their recent book Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee frame VTS as a restrictive teaching method, wondering about participants’ experience in the galleries: “Have they not perhaps been cheated out of an authentic encounter with the painting?”  These debates continue to today, and, at times, it seems like one needs to draw a line in the sand and decide which side they stand on.

So what is VTS?

For those of you unfamiliar with Visual Thinking Strategies, it is an inquiry-based teaching method developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago and used in museums and school classrooms across the country.  Here is how Philip Yenawine describes it in his latest book Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013):

“VTS uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Growth is stimulated by several things: looking at art of increasing complexity, answering developmentally based questions, and participating in peer group discussions carefully facilitated by teachers.” (19)

Even those who do not practice VTS may be familiar with the sequence of open-ended questions that form one of the main aspects of VTS teaching practice:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

If you are interested in learning more about VTS, the foundational research behind it, and ongoing research in museums and classrooms today, here are some excellent resources:

Pushing Beyond the Protocol

My own approach toward VTS has been to set aside any controversy and more fully explore the research as well as the practical implementation of these teaching strategies ‘on the ground’ in museums.  Back in 2009, I led a panel at the American Association of Museums conference that called attention to the many questions, challenges, and apprehensions that exist regarding this method.  After interviews with more than 30 museum educators from across the country, I was able to gain a more complete and complex view of how VTS (and the research behind it) is being implemented in art museums—including adaptations of the original protocol, metacognitive dimenions as part of the VTS experience, pushing the boundaries of artwork selection, and alternative applications for docent and teacher training.  I have even found institutions that use Abigail Housen’s “stages of aesthetic development” (the core foundation of VTS) as part of their curatorial practice, the writing of labels and wall texts, and working with teaching artists to examine ways of creating art that addresses developmental stages of the viewers.  In addition to being one of the most commonly used teaching methods in art museums today, it is interesting to see how many other ways that VTS and its research has entered into museum practice.

Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine

PhilipNeroVTSWhile I have never been trained in VTS myself, I have adopted it as part of my own teaching toolbox — often using its open-ended questions as a way to spark looking, talking, and listening with a work of art.  I respect the research and practice involved with VTS, which is why I jumped at the chance to partner with the national VTS organization to bring Philip Yenawine here to the Portland Art Museum.  Philip has been traveling around the country since his latest book was released last year, and his speaking engagement here at the Portland Art Museum (this Saturday, May 3rd, 2:00pm) will be part of that series of talks.

When we were first offered to host Philip’s talk here in Portland, I invited Philip to also join me for a conversation on stage as part of this Saturday’s program (which he gladly accepted).  I wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the applications of VTS with art museum teaching, and discuss some of the ‘burning questions’ that many museum educators have about VTS research and practice.

So, I am using this blog post (and the ArtMuseumTeaching community) to gather some juicy, burning questions that we all might have about VTS in museum teaching.  To seed this “open think” process of gathering your questions, I asked Jennifer DePrizio and Michelle Grohe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (a leading museum in VTS research & practice) to send me some of their questions.  Here is some of what they sent me:

  • We know a lot about what VTS looks like (both in terms of facilitation and types of learning to expect) in elementary students, primarily in grades 3-5.  What does that learning and teaching look like with older students, particularly high school? 
  • Listening is the cornerstone of paraphrasing and ensuring that students know that you not only listened to their ideas, but they were heard as well.  That can be a difficult skill to encourage teachers to develop. Can you really train someone to be a good listener?  How can we design effective professional development experiences that help teachers become aware of how they listen, and how to listen better? What activities and practice can we put into place to help our gallery educators hone their listening skills?
  • Since professional development programs at the Gardner invest a lot of time, over time, with teachers, what does their growth look like in terms of: aesthetic development, comfort with visual art, use of student-centered teaching practices, use of VTS questions with non-visual art, overall attitudes and understandings of teaching and learning and role of visual art in the classroom/school?  
  • What is the long-term effect or stickiness for VTS?
  • What does the use of VTS look like with non-beginners, or with viewers who are moving from beginner viewers (Housen stages I and II), into different aesthetic stages such as Housen’s stage II/III, II/IV and III?  How could we best support their growth while also challenging the students effectively?  What would that facilitation look like?  How would we know that we were addressing the students’ actual questions, not just sharing information that we think would help them?  
  • How do we responsibly respond to the many misrepresentations of VTS that exist?  How do we help colleagues in the field of art museum education understand the nuances that are available within VTS?


Please help me crowd-source some more ‘burning questions’ about VTS, and use the Comments area below to add your own questions.  If you add your thoughts here between now and Saturday, I’ll bring many of these questions to my conversation with Philip Yenawine here at the Portland Art Museum (and I should be able to post the video of this conversation here next week).

Thanks for helping me think about VTS in this open space for exchange, questions, and ideas!  And I’m looking forward to my conversation with Philip on Saturday (join us if you’re in Portland — the event is FREE and starts at the Portland Art Museum at 2pm).

#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie

Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

“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

Over the past 20 years, research in the fields of museum studies and museum education have firmly established the importance of the social dimension of visitors’ museum experiences and the learning that happens in museums (see this great 2012 post from Regan Forrest’s Interactivate blog).  In addition, a wealth of research from more than 50 years of educational psychology speaks to the social and cooperative aspects of learning in more formal educational settings (see this extremely useful resource packet developed at Stanford on “Learning in a Social Context”).  So whether sitting in a classroom or walking through an art museum, we learn and make meaning through our interactions and conversations with the people around us.

Last week, I was invited to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to give a talk to their volunteer docents on the topic of “dialogic and conversational touring.”  I have always been a strong advocate for conversational pedagogy in museums, practicing this form of teaching myself on a regular basis as well as spending considerable time these past several years thinking about how to bring conversation into the core of docent education and tours.  Thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the docents at the Crocker, I used this as a way to crystallize some of my thinking about the learning power of conversation in museums.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Crocker’s docents and education staff (special thanks to Jill Pease and Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick), and I thought I would share some reflections here on the topic of conversation and museum teaching.

What Does ‘Conversation’ Mean to Me?

When I examine what ‘conversation’ means to me and my own practice of museum teaching, two unsuspecting people come to mind:  critic and curator Michael Brenson and contemporary Anishinabe-Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore.  Back in 1996 at the “Conversations at the Castle” series of discussions between artists, critics, and the public about contemporary art and audiences, Michael Brenson addressed the core democratic notions of conversation.  The following quote from Brenson 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.”

Rebecca Belmore,
Rebecca Belmore, “Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose” (1992)

Since beginning my museum career in a largely contemporary art museum, I have formed so much of my own teaching practice from ideas of pedagogy and human connection advanced by contemporary artists. While didactic wall texts, curatorial essays, and academic lectures often over-intellectualize and dull the interests that contemporary artists have in education and public engagement, I continue to find that so many artists are constantly thinking about the ways that their work can bring people together to think, talk, exchange ideas, make connections, and have meaningful conversations about issues relevant to our lives.

Rebecca Belmore is one artist whose work has powerfully ignited my own thinking about conversation, about whose voices get to be part of a conversation (or don’t), and about the role that power plays in the conversations we might have in institutions such as museums.  I first encountered her performance and installation work during one of my feminist and gender studies courses in graduate school, specifically her 1992 piece entitled Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose (shown above).

In this work, Belmore arranges a circle of chairs taken from her own kitchen and the living spaces of women closest to her. Viewers are invited to sit down, put on a pair of headphones dangling over each chair back, and listen to the stories of Belmore’s female community talking about their lives as native women in Canada. What strikes me most about this work is how Belmore welcomes participants into a circle of community, a form of talking circle that embraces voices that would likely otherwise go unheard.

Sparked from inspirations such as these as well as years of in-gallery experiences, I’ve developed some overarching frameworks that have helped me think about creating an environment for conversation while teaching in an art museum.  First of all, I continue to find that the structures of engagement, or physical arrangement of people in the space of the gallery, has a strong correlation to the type of conversations that can occur.  In addition to simply how we arrange our groups, there are certain power relationships that we create as we position ourselves as educators and facilitators of meaningful conversations. I’m going to briefly dive into both of these areas, but far more pixels could certainly be spilled about each topic — and I hope maybe we can have some discussion in the Comments section below to pull out more ideas.

Structures of Engagement

In preparing to speak about “conversational touring” at the Crocker Art Museum last week, I spent considerable time thinking about the underlying structures that can establish a conducive environment for meaningful conversations (or that can prevent them from happening).  For me, the physical space we create with our group is always so important, sending an immediate message about the types of interactions we expect to have.  I used the photos below (pulled randomly from Flickr and Google) to illustrate a few examples of how we, as educators, can create better structures of engagement in the galleries.

Staff Tour of Sin and Salvation

Of these four gallery teaching experiences, which do you think might have the best conversations taking place?  Which of these photos looks most like tours that you have experienced, or even that you might lead yourself? (I, myself, have led plenty of tours that looked like the photos on the left)

The two images on the left show a much more traditional and common structure of engagement, with an educator or “tour leader” at the front near the artwork and then the group a bit farther away.  While this is a completely valid and effective way to lead a tour, it just does not lead to lots of conversation.  Any dialogue and exchange happening is between the tour leader and the participants, with very little participant-to-participant communication possible (the core of that social, cooperative dimension of learning).  When the docents at the Crocker were examining these photos with me, they also noticed how much the participants body language seemed to support their mediocre levels of engagement.

By contrast, the two photos on the right show a very different structure of engagement — something that actually looks a lot more like Rebecca Belmore’s circle of chairs.  The educator or tour leader becomes a part of the group, and the structure of the circle creates a more effective space of engagement where focused looking, questioning, and thinking can occur. It creates a better environment for conversation and discussion, as well as greater participation among the group (students and participants are not as detached from the experience — teachers and students all become learners in the gallery experience).  While this subtle difference can seem fairly obvious, I could not even begin to count how many docents or educators I have observed that struggle with making connections with visitors — much of which could be solved with a simple re-arrangement of their group.

Power Relationships

As we make decisions about the physical arrangement of our groups, it is also important to be aware of the power relationships (often unintended) that we set-up between ourselves and our group, and among the group itself.  In a good conversation, as Michael Brenson describes, “ownership is shared.”  We aim to create a safe environment for open exchange and dialogue in which everyone’s voices and ideas are respected.  This type of open conversation can be very difficult to achieve if we set-up a one-sided power dynamic with our group.

In the two photos on the left (below), we see fairly typical docent-led school tours.  By standing and towering over their group, however, the docent or educator has established a traditional teacher-student power relationship that will not lend itself as well to open exploration, creative wondering, and meaningful conversations among the students.  Feel free to try this out — have a conversation with someone in your office with one of you standing and the other person sitting on the floor.  Yep … awkward at best.


The two photographs on the right (above) show exchanges in which the educator and students are closer to the same level; no one is towering over the other.  These students likely feel more empowered to look, question, wonder, and discover along with their docent or educator, breaking down the traditional power relationships between ‘teacher’ and ‘student.’  In my own teaching experiences, this almost always rings true — as soon as we all sit on the floor and are at a level playing field, the conversation ignites and we are all more open to sharing our thoughts, insights, and questions.  With adult groups, arranging a semi-circle of gallery stools is an easy way to establish this conducive environment for meaningful conversation.

How do you create meaningful conversations in your museum?

It was so great to have the afternoon last week to work with the Crocker Art Museum docents on these (and other) issues regarding conversational touring.  We had lots of fun modeling the power dynamics of a tour through a quick theatre exercise on stage, and we worked on developing creative, participatory questions to spark meaningful conversations with works of art.  I even had a chance to talk briefly about the role of artwork selection on a conversational tour, as well as something I like to call “researching for stickiness,” or how we can research information about artworks in a way that helps open up pathways to spark dialogue and thinking.  Even with all of this, we were only able to scratch the surface in terms of “dialogic and conversational touring.”

I would love to hear some of your best strategies for igniting meaningful conversation in the galleries:

  • How important is conversation for tours and education experiences at your museum?
  • What is your favorite way to start a tour that will be focused on conversation?
  • How do you set-up that expectation from the beginning?
  • What types of teaching techniques do you find bring out the most interesting discussions (for students or adults)?
  • How do you ensure that the diverse voices of participants and students can be heard?

“Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators

As museum educators, we’re always trying to get visitors to slow down, but sometimes we have a more immediate task, convincing them that they are in fact looking at a work of art. Recently three New York City educators got together and talked about the most common “Is this art?” situations we’ve encountered.

Rachel Crumpler on Jackson Pollock: “My four-year-old could do that.”

Observing Jackson Pollock's 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)', Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/
Observing Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/

Before you stop reading, let me acknowledge – yes, I have chosen a cliché. My intention is to use Pollock as a stand-in, a canonical example, of any number of more process-based works. For instance: Kazou Shiraga’s slippery barefoot paintings, Zarina’s meticulous Pin Drawings, Franz Kline’s definitive brushstrokes, or even John Chamberlain’s crunched-up cars. These works often challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what kind of art they will (or should) see hanging on the walls of the museum.

The responses vary, ranging from “My four-year-old could do that” to “It looks like scribble-scrabble, finger painting, a car wreck, a big mess.” Or the hardest response for an educator to field: the uncomfortable polite silence punctuated with a quick roll of the eye or a smirk shared between friends. Once uttered, perhaps coaxed forth, responses invariably question the artist’s skill and the overall value of the artwork. (Confession: I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to get annoyed when a visitor sneers and likens an artist to a four-year-old, insulting some of my favorite children as well as some of my favorite artists.) In fact, these comments are often coming from visitors who feel affronted by the unexpected and are responding defensively.

Many of the initial comments a Pollock (or any process-based work) elicits refer to how the painting was made – and also often indicate a hesitation to accept the work as art. Though stated defensively, these comments are not entirely off base. I think it’s important to first acknowledge and accept the hesitation. That’s something I love about museums. There is always some artwork that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges my own definition of what art can be. In his time, Jackson Pollock was pushing the envelope; with his artwork, he was asking questions about how art should look and how art can be made.

Conversations in museums, thankfully, are not meant to appraise the quality of the artworks viewed, but rather to unpack the inherent ideas. After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand. For Pollock, I would want to return to the implicit observations made in the initial comments and how they relate to the creative process. What about the painting makes it look like scribbling, finger painting, a mess? Where, specifically, in the painting do you see that?

The ensuing conversation will vary, depending on who is taking part and what the original comments were; any number of approaches could move the discussion forward.

I might show some of Pollock’s earlier and more representational work from his years with the Art Students League. Looking at the two works side by side silently states that the abstraction is a choice, not a matter of ability. I might ask the group how the two would be different to make. Or I might share that Pollock lived with his wife Lee Krasner in a farmhouse on Long Island. He would spread his canvases out on the floor of his large studio, and using brushes, sticks and sometimes a turkey baster loaded with house paint, he would begin to squirt, pour and drip onto the floor. I might ask the group to see if they can identify the painting’s starting and ending points. Alternately, I might ask the group to envision a four-year-olds drawing and compare it to the Pollock – how do the two differ, and what do they share in common?

The differences found in the all-over painting style may point to Pollock’s control of the paint and academic knowledge of composition. The similarities, however, might allow for greater understanding of Pollock’s process and more nuanced interpretations of his work. In fact, the response “my four-year-old could do that” may be more insightful than the participant (or educator) realizes.

Four-year-olds, still learning language and ways to interact with other humans, often express themselves physically. Anger is communicated through clenched fists and stomping feet; sadness, through a down-turned glance or the curl of the spine. And sometimes, it just feels good to run. For a four-year-old, movement is a primary means of engaging with the world. Likewise, Pollock chose to engage with the canvas through movement. Rather than communicating through recognizable images, he dripped, dribbled, spilled and splattered the paint in a dizzying dance across his studio floor. The painting we see can be read as the aftermath, a record of the artist’s intuitive physical expression.

Jen Oleniczak on Kiki Smith: “That’s disgusting, how is it art?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describing something as beautiful is as benign as saying your day is ‘fine’ – neither offer information and both are frustrating without more information. The same can be said for calling something disgusting – and much like asking why a day is just ‘fine’ asking why a person thinks something is disgusting often ends up with the retort of “because it just is.”

A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled "Lilith," 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.
A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled “Lilith,” 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.

Aesthetics are subjective, and much art can be overlooked because it is not outwardly ‘beautiful.’ Having the experience of teaching with classic and modern art, I’ve heard the “pfft, that’s disgusting” in front of works not traditionally ‘beautiful’. While it’s fairly easy to call a floral Rococo work ‘beautiful’ and ‘art’ – what about a gritty Kiki Smith?

My goal as an educator is not only to have visitors appreciate craft in a work that isn’t traditionally ‘beautiful,’ but also to understand the art AND beauty is often in the idea, as well as the work. Kiki Smith’s Tale encompasses that very balance. Smith is known for her representations of the body, usually altered in gasp-inducing ways. Tale is a sculpture of a woman crawling on the ground with a long trail of feces (fake) following behind her – admittedly, a bit cringe worthy, even for the savviest of art viewers. and easily something a visitor could dismiss as disgusting. But when examined closer, the work, like all of Smith’s body works, is brilliantly complex.

When in doubt, I bring out the inquiry guns for students and adults alike. Just the title of the work, Tale, provokes the question: why do you think Smith used Tale and not Tail? What could the title imply? A quote from Smith herself opens the conversation further:

The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something – like that you’re dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it’s so apparent in one’s own being. (as cited in NPR “Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile”)

Just those brief questions and an artist quote allow the work to gain a life – and let people stop and think about the ideas behind a work of art. Everyone has personal ‘garbage’ and that new connection between art and life is exposed with Smith’s quote. The work becomes an experience and the idea behind it becomes intriguing, thought-provoking and even beautiful.

Shannon Murphy on Isamu Noguchi’s Akaris: “I got the same thing from Ikea.”

Yes, Ikea sells beautiful paper lanterns, and it’s jarring to see a similar object in a museum. Isamu Noguchi’s version of the paper lantern, the Akari, has been knocked off since he began designing them in the early 1950s. I frequently meet visitors who get snarky upon seeing one during a tour. They are understandably suspicious of my “tour,” especially if it ends at the gift shop where they can purchase an Akari. Yet, this is the very reason why I love the Akaris. You can take a sculpture home. If you don’t actually want one, the concept alone is worth investigating more — high art specifically made to be affordable.

Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

I understand how some of the mystique can be lost when it’s possible to take home the work of art, especially when it comes with an on/off switch. As an educator, I invite visitors first to consider how the Akari is different from the Ikea lamp. If the soft glow of the handmade paper doesn’t capture them, I invite them to look inside and inspect the hand-crafted bamboo armature. Then, I like to share the story of the object to place it in a historical context. Akaris were conceived in 1951 when Noguchi was visiting a small town in Japan called Gifu. The mayor of the town asked Noguchi to re-design the traditional paper lantern. Noguchi went to work and designed hundreds of Akaris in various abstract shapes. The story continues for decades as Noguchi struggled to exhibit Akaris as fine art, while still selling them at a reasonable price. The struggle is often said to have cost him a Grand Prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale where he insisted on exhibiting the Akaris along with his stone and metal sculptures. Much to Noguchi’s dismay, the Akaris were stuck in a realm of applied art.

Sometimes, the artist’s words resonate with visitors. Noguchi said “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.” The Akaris were, “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce.” Saying the word “love,” while looking at a glowing light and knowing there was a history of struggle wins visitors over every time. Money! And then with a wry smile, I remind my group that the Akaris are sold downstairs in the shop. I tell them that it won’t last forever, the paper will one day begin to turn and the bamboo will give. Its authentic beauty does last for many years though, and it could be the last thing you see before you go to bed every night. Try that with Starry Night.

Which objects do you find people asking “Is this art?”  How have you handled it?  We’d love for everyone to share their stories here.

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rachel-crumplerRACHEL CRUMPLER works as a museum educator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Noguchi Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. She also teaches art classes for Foster Pride, a non-profit organization that provides free classes to children in the New York City foster care system. She holds a MA from Stony Brook University in Art Theory, History and Criticism. Rachel’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

OleniczakJEN OLENICZAK: Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC-based organization that specializes in theatre, improv, and movement workshops and professional developments for educators. With a dual background in art history and theatre, Jen is also a museum educator, trained actor, and improviser. She’s worked as an educator with the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, Noguchi Museum, and New York Transit Museum. Jen keeps herself busy performing with National Comedy Theatre and searching for new delicious food spots. Jen’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or The Frick Collection.

shannon_bwSHANNON MURPHY: Currently teaches at the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She is constantly experimenting with new strategies to engage visitors and students with art. Shannon holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is working on her MA at the City College of New York. In her free time she enjoys yoga, papermaking, and playing soccer with friends. Shannon’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice

As managing museum educators, it’s often difficult to find new ways to help our educators grow. Often we work with seasoned, experienced, and creative educators who are teaching in the schools as well as the museum and planning with teachers every day. How do we, as managers, support them to do their best teaching every day?

Photo by Jason Brownrigg

At The Museum of Modern Art in New York, we welcome 30,000 K-12 students in guided programs every year. With a volume such as this, our eleven educators are teaching multiple lessons a day. Educators have to be flexible, quick on their feet, and communicate really well with the classroom teachers. Often, there is not a lot of time for planning or reflection. So we use our monthly meetings as a chance to plan lessons, brainstorm ideas, and reflect on our teaching.

In an effort to formalize the training and professional development we offer the educators, along with other tactics, we experimented this year with Monthly Challenges. Each month, as a group, we explore one aspect of our teaching or experiment with a new teaching tool. These ideas are shared amongst the educators over the course of the month, through an Educator Network site, which is essentially a WordPress blog. A lead educator is assigned to each challenge and that educator starts off a blog conversation around the topic.

Below are three examples of recent Monthly Challenges and some snippets of educators’ reflections:

1. Movement Challenge: Offering kinesthetic opportunities for students in the galleries

As a final activity, I asked the students to pose like characters in a work they saw on the tour. We had two students do this at once, combining two poses from different paintings to create a new situation. The rest of the group had to write down what action or drama is taking place. In this way they created new stories.

It was fun to create associations through movement rather than language. And I loved that we stood and used our whole bodies (something we so rarely get to do in the galleries!).

Before I even had the chance to introduce the activity they started to respond to it with movement. Therefore, I just went with what was happening naturally with the students. They all did different movements for different parts of the sculpture simultaneously.

One other thing I’ve been trying out since our workshop, is acting out the artistic process itself and/or how the materials move. I’ve had kids in small groups mimic with their bodies how an artist might make an assemblage style sculpture by bringing together, overlapping, and interconnecting different parts of their bodies; I’ve had kids act out drippy paint with their bodies, etc

2. New Works Challenge: Lessons comprised of all new works the educator had never taught with.

Overall, I would say that I think the benefits of new pieces are that they add a freshness to your conversation and an unpredictability that keeps you on your toes. I think the students sense this excitement and openness.

After years of developing new lessons, it is satisfying to have store of activities and strategies to draw from.

There was a moment during the tour when I wanted to change things based on what was happening with the students but realized I couldn’t go to the old stand-bys. I was happy to try out some new objects but will need to use them a few times to figure out their full potential. I think the best tours happen with the objects I am most familiar with but I have also had great moments with new works when I spontaneously select an object because another group is having a conversation in front of one I had planned to use.

If was fun and challenging for me to not be able to quite anticipate where these conversations would go… I agree, in general, with the comments already expressed — that maybe 1 or 2 new objects with an old tried and true piece could work better. There’s good reason why certain works are so well-worn and this challenge reinforced that idea for me.

3. Student Questions Challenge: Creating space in lessons for students’ questions about big ideas or works of art.

The questions that they shared with me were: “What are the artist’s intentions?” and “How do we know if a modern work of art is good or not?” Questions that i think are perfectly suited to the bicycle wheel.

In terms of generating questions – it’s harder than it looks. A genuine question comes out of genuine curiosity and questions often need space to form (and require risk to put forth). I know that I often get many questions during post-visits and I wonder if teachers notice this too – Do students need time to digest and reflect on the experience of the museum?

I definitely believe that entertaining and exploring their questions has to be balanced by my guiding the discussion in certain directions and meeting certain goals… But touching on what R said in her post, I think of the museum as a serious, but informal learning environment; whereas in a classroom, kids are generally supposed to stay on task, I think it’s nice in the museum environment to indulge the students’ curiosities — and basically invite the inevitable tangent/sidebar- type lines of questioning.

It’s important to me to create an environment for our educators where we never stop reflecting.  We continue to consider what we deliver and how we deliver it to students, to serve their needs as best we can. These Monthly Challenges give us chance, as a group, to hone in on one aspect of our teaching. We can dig deeper into the benefits and challenges of how we do what we do, while also brainstorming and sharing with each other. We benefit greatly from each other’s creative ideas, reflections, and approaches. Some challenges were more successful than others, but focusing deeply for a time on one aspect of our teaching, helps us to think differently about that aspect the next time.

What are some ways in which you work at your institution to reflect on teaching practice?  I would love to hear from others who have managed similar types of exchanges among their staff.

Making the Introduction: Museum School Visits

Almost every museum offers some sort of “introduction to art” among its school visits themes and programs. It sounds so simple, right? Tempting to a teacher, maybe – but daunting to an educator. Finding a way for students to gain a sense of art in one hour can seem like an impossible task.

But for many students, this is their introduction to art. It’s easy to forget how many initial impressions museums make every single day within school programs or guided class visits. Other students, after a less-than-positive experience, might benefit from a new re-introduction. Even the most engaged, enthusiastic, museum-loving student is exposed to a new perspective of art. So to meet the needs of students with little to no awareness of what art or museums are (or can be), where do we start?

While the amount of time, thought, and research that goes into an introductory experience naturally varies by educator, very few (if any) are just choosing objects arbitrarily. From the outside, school visits are sometimes seen as the “easy” work. Rika Burnham makes the excellent point that gallery teaching has historically been passed down to those with the least experience, and undervalued by those outside the field. But as any museum educator worth his or her salt knows, many of the theoretical goals and practical issues that must be taken into consideration are matters that, if handled properly, won’t even come to a participant’s attention.

Personally, the first thing I do is decide what exactly this introduction to art should be. To do that, I have to ask myself:

  • What do I want students to know when they leave?

  • How much variety should I try to include (in terms of medium, technique, time period, geographical area, culture, and artist) in order to give a balanced view of the extant range of art collections?

  • Should I help students understand why “traditional” forms of art, like ancient Greek sculpture, are so interesting, or should I show items they might not be expecting, like a mask made of high heeled shoes?

There’s also the ongoing question of how best to balance information and inquiry. As the museum education field moves farther away from a lecture-based model and into a more discussion-based model, I personally find it necessary to clear up the misconception that museum educators simply provide a lot of facts about works within the museum. An inquiry-based experience (which of course means not only asking the group questions to start a conversation, but creating an opportunity for them to ask questions, consider possibilities, and initiate discussion) aligns much more closely with the tenets of the Montessori method that I was taught and trained in. For an introductory experience, I think that the most valuable role of information is to show that it can change perception. I research works thoroughly, but rarely use all of or even most of the information that I find — just the bits that will open up new avenues for discussion.

So along with choosing specific works based on their place in the art historical spectrum, I keep in mind the potential for discussion about important themes:

  • What are artists trying to do?

  • How does art relate to our life, and why is it important?

  • How do artists use visual techniques to communicate with viewers?

Photo by wallyg

For example, there is an incredible statue of Ugolino from Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Met. The expression, the bodies, the execution, and the story behind it all grab the viewer’s attention. Everyone can identify with the feeling of hunger, and can imagine the horror of being locked up and left to starve. But even before we have puzzled out the story, participants are struck by the anguish in his face (it is often described as sad, or angry, or confused) and note the nakedness of the bodies – both of which seem obvious but are keys to the narrative.

As we move on to the curled toes, the son’s imploring gesture, and the shackles, each discovery opens up new possibilities, increases curiosity, and unlocks the potential for deeper levels of understanding. After we piece together the story, we can talk about what the artist might have been trying to accomplish by creating this piece. We talk about what it might can say to us, how its themes relate to our own lives, and how the object could be used. I love to hear where students would put this statue if it belonged to them – one of my favorite responses so far was an immediate “in the CLOSET!!” The certainty with which this opinion was expressed was both amusing and encouraging, and it provided a great opportunity to discuss how the statue was provoking certain emotions in the group.

I feel that an experience is successful if I can enable visitors to understand that looking at a work carefully really will make it open up. I always explain that we see hundreds of images every day, and it’s easy to glance at something and think you’ve seen it. But just taking a few minutes to examine a work more carefully can change your entire perception of it. Questions start to come up, and even if no answers are provided, new information is revealed and new possibilities are explored.

As far as I can tell, visual literacy isn’t given much attention in contexts outside museum education. But being able to objectively consider and question images is hugely important, especially in everyday life. Advertisements alone give us reason to develop the ability to examine an image closely, understand its message, and recognize the tools being being used to communicate that visual message. The art historian Charles Harrison makes an excellent point in the introduction to his book “An Introduction to Art” (yes, I am quoting an introduction to an introduction in my introduction to introductions):

“While it is self-evident that no one can appreciate a poem or novel who cannot understand the language in which it is written, and that no one can read such things for themselves who has not learned to read, we normally assume that someone who manages not to bump into things is fully equipped not only to make discriminations in the ordinary field of vision but also to find their way around visual representations. Yet this is clearly not the case. If it were, the museums of the world would not be as full as I suspect they are of people feeling slightly disappointed that the things they stop to look at mean so little to them – or working to persuade themselves that what they think they ought to be feeling is what they actually are feeling. In his Letter on the Blind, published in 1749, the French critic Denis Diderot wrote ‘It is perhaps necessary that the eye learns to see as the tongue learns to speak.’”

So another hugely important consideration is what objects have a high potential to draw the attention of visitors who may be unfamiliar with art. Though all art has value, of course, some is more challenging for a new museum visitor to engage with. For example, a Native American storage basket, while clearly finely made, might be a bit more difficult to think about and talk about than something like a Japanese handscroll, which is similar to an illustrated book and therefore builds on something that the visitor is already familiar with. One of my favorite works to use as a first stop in introductory tours is a French tapestry depicting the moment Artemis is turned into a stag by Diana. The feeling of understanding and achievement that visitors have when they determine that this is a narrative image allows them to enter into the experience with a sense of confidence. Exploring this large image of figures making dramatic gestures in an unusual setting enables students to begin a discussion that can lead to consideration of important themes like transformation and identity, of topics like the unexpected but important medium of tapestry, of the ability of objects to communicate messages of power and prestige, or of something else entirely – whatever comes up!

Of course, logistical considerations are also essential components of the experience. I have to ask myself:

  • Is this object’s experience going to be engaging enough and valuable enough to make up for any difficulty in getting here?

  • Is the object clearly visible from a child’s height? Is there a glare on its surface if it’s viewed from a seated position?

  • Is the work in a high-traffic area, an echoey space, or a particularly cold room?

Museums are often an unfamiliar environment, and they can be overwhelming. Constantly dodging other visitors, feeling too cold, or hearing construction or cafeteria noises can get distracting enough to make the experience an irritating one rather than a supportive one. In order to focus on the works, visitors have to have their essential needs met, and only then can any real transformative thinking take place.

That doesn’t mean this is easy. It can be very difficult to eliminate works based only on these logistical issues. There is a great painting of Hercules fighting Achelous in the form of a bull that I would love to share with groups – it’s large, it’s dramatic, it’s intriguing, it has a great back story, and it’s a great example of a type of visual storytelling (small depictions of previous and later scenes are included in the background). It would provide the perfect opportunity to talk about power, achievement, heroicism, identity, authority, transformation, representation, narrative, etc.  BUT, sadly, it’s just not workable. It’s on a different floor of the museum than I usually use, and you have to walk through the crowded Great Hall to get there, and we would sit with our backs to the room and the stream of traffic through it, and a large portion of the top half of the painting is obscured by a glare when it’s viewed from the floor. But really, any one of those reasons would be enough to eliminate it from my list. A child rattled by the stress of navigating through a crowd isn’t going to turn his or her full attention to the object when we arrive. A student who can’t see Hercules’ hands won’t be as likely to take an interest in his feat. And in the time it would take just to get there, we could be discussing an additional work of art.

Finally, my last and maybe most important overarching goal is to show students that art is nothing to feel uneasy about or intimidated by. In my opinion, a key objective in teaching should always be to encourage visitor’s responses and validate their opinions. I just want visitors — especially children, and those who haven’t made the decision to come on their own — to see that there is no pressure, that art is just another way to communicate, and that there is always something recognizable and relevant in the work and its response.

So putting all of these things together to create one “introduction” to “art” is a huge challenge as an educator and gallery teacher. I’m fortunate to be in an encyclopedic art museum with an amazing collection, but that also means that my options are essentially endless. Is there anything you think can’t be missed? Anything that really kills an experience for you? Anything else you think should be taken into consideration?  I would love to open up a conversation about how we, as educators, prepare for these introductory museum experiences.

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

How Can We Get Museum Visitors to ASK More Questions?

While museum educators (myself included) spend a lot of time thinking about the types of questions we ask to visitors and students, I’m not sure we spend enough time considering how to motivate visitors to ask their own questions? We know that getting visitors to ask questions can be an extremely important way to tap into their sense of “wonder” and curiosity, both key elements of a meaningful museum learning experience. So how do we get visitors to ask more questions?

My own thoughts on this topic were sparked by a session at the 2012 National Art Education Association conference held in New York. Entitled “Visitors Ask, We Learn: Visitor Questions that Shape our Teaching” and led by Elliott Kai-Kee and William Zaluski from the Getty, the session explored a project in which Getty Museum gallery teachers collected every single question visitors asked them. There were attempts to categorize the questions and make some sense of them in a more scientific manner, but that never materialized. Instead, the project brought attention (and reflection) to the ways that visitor questions can help drive inquiry in museum learning, and to the teaching philosophies and strategies that create a welcoming environment for different types of visitor questions. As Kai-Kee stated in the closing of their session, “gaining questions is to gain participation.” Which brings us back to the key question:

How do we get visitors to ask more questions?

Photo by Wexner Center
Photo by Wexner Center

1. Model Curiosity

One technique that many educators use (including those at the Getty) is simply modeling the type of curiosity and open discovery that we want in our visitors. Choose an object early in a tour, and demonstrate some of the types of questions we might pose — information-based questions, museum-related questions, personal questions, and questions that allow us to use our imagination. The idea here is that visitors will feel more comfortable if you, as an educator, have opened the door to these types of questions. Being transparent about your motives here can be helpful, so that visitors or students know that you expect them to ask similar questions as the group moves to new objects. Creating a comfortable and inquiring environment for visitors is key to getting them to ask questions that matter to them.

2. Start with Visitor Questions

Elliott Kai-Kee mentioned this during their NAEA session. After introducing an object on a gallery talk or tour, he simply states: “I’d like to start with a question you might have for this object.” Of course, wait time is crucial here … remember to allow for silence if needed, and those first visitor questions will eventually spring up. This strategy truly uses visitor questions to drive the learning experience, and gallery teacher & visitors become fellow inquirers. Object selection can play an important role, too, as there are definitely some artworks that will likely spark more immediate questions in visitors. For example, in my own experiences, a large enigmatic painting by German artist Max Beckmann might draw out more immediate questions and curiosities than a Worcester porcelain coffee cup.

3. Cataloging Our Questions

Sometimes, it can be quite productive (especially for school groups) to allow time for students or visitors to brainstorm a list of questions they might have about an artwork. This can be as simple as each person writing down as many questions as they can about an object. An educator can take this further by inviting participants to pair up, review each others’ questions, and select one or two to share with the larger group. By doing this, you can quickly generate a large number of questions driven by students’ or visitors’ interests — a great place to begin a conversation about an object.

4. Creative Questions

One very effective “thinking routine” developed through Harvard’s Project Zero and the Artful Thinking project is called “Creative Questions.” This routine provides students with a series of question stems, and encourages them to be creative and come up with a list of several questions about an artwork — using the suggested stems only if they need help brainstorming different types of questions. While I tend to avoid using worksheets in the galleries, I often use this with students — and it can generate some interesting and fun questions (I especially like questions that come from the stem “How would it be different if…”). As with many thinking routines from Project Zero, this strategy can expand and deepen students’ thinking in relation to a work of art and encourage their curiosity.

5. Having a Conversation with the Artwork

We may have success in getting visitors to ask questions about the artwork and its information/context (who’s the artist, when did she make it, how was it made, how did the museum acquire it, how much did it cost, etc. etc.), but it is quite rare for students and visitors to be invited to ask questions of the artwork? By this, I mean encouraging visitors to pretend that they are having a conversation with the painting — what would they ask it? Not the artist, but the actual painting itself. Yes, this stretches the imagination (a bit too much for some traditional visitors, truth be told), yet can be such a creative way to further our exploration and inquiry. I constantly ask adults, teachers, and students to do this with artworks in the galleries, and I always find that it taps into a more complex level of engagement. Participants frequently ask quite personal things of the painting — for example, when working with an Anselm Kiefer piece one afternoon, a teacher asked “Are you mad at me?” At the same session, other teachers asked “Why are you so chaotic?”, “Are you still becoming?” and “How did your world begin?”

What are some other ways that you have been able to motivate visitors and students to ask questions? How do we continue to create these learning experiences driven by visitor questions?

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Featured header image: 1/19/11 PAGES Gallery Tour, from Wexner Center for the Arts, Flickr.com, Photo by Jay LaPrete, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0