Written by Holly Gillette as part of the Gallery Teaching Lab series
As an art museum educator, it is imperative to always connect back to the art in our teaching. Or is it?
I follow a dialogical approach when I teach in museum galleries with adult visitors. I always invite participants to look slowly, to savor a long look at one work of art, a luxury we don’t often have in our busy lives. As the conversation among the group grows and might veer off in one direction or another, I try to redirect the conversation back to the art. We are in a museum with a physical work of art, something tangible that we could touch (theoretically, of course!), why would we not keep the conversation about the artwork in front of us? It is an aspect of object-based teaching that has been important to me as a museum educator, but recently I wondered: Is it okay to turn our back on the art to continue the group-led conversation elsewhere?
As part of the Gallery Teaching Lab developed by Theresa Sotto, assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, I had the opportunity to experiment with colleagues in the Skirball Cultural Center’s galleries in February 2017. I’ve been a participant of the program since its inception, and always looked forward to the vast range of experiences my colleagues brought to the Lab.
For my experiment, I wanted to explore how information plays into interpretation and how we, as educators, need to be mindful of what we bring into the conversation. I am also interested in ways we may discuss current events and hot button issues in respectful and considerate ways when they connect to objects in our galleries. Lichtenstein’s “Gun in America” series, part of The Skirball Cultural Center’s exhibition Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A., seemed a perfect fit to experiment with both of these concepts.
The Skirball Cultural Center juxtaposed two TIME Magazine covers, each published about three weeks apart. The TIME cover on the right portrayed an energetic politician, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, issued on May 24, 1968, the year that he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. The TIME cover on the left was printed on June 21, 1968, two weeks after he was assassinated.
Our focus for this discussion was the June 21st cover, an illustration TIME magazine commissioned Lichtenstein to create shortly after Bobby Kennedy’s death. The cover reads “The Gun in America” and featured an article titled “Nation: The Gun Under Fire.” After some digging, I was able to get my hands on the article which is both a reaction to Kennedy’s assassination as well as a response to the gun violence that plagued the 1960s. Bobby’s brother, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, just a few months before Bobby’s death. America then, as now, was grappling with similar issues regarding gun control, which I believed to be an important aspect of my experiment. I was especially interested in how the text of the article affected the interpretation of the image on the magazine cover, not only in 1968, but today.
I set up my experiment into three parts that included a free write, small group discussion, and large group discussion. To give you an idea of what I was planning, here’s an abridged version of my teaching plan:
Introduction: Before entering the galleries, advise group that this is a safe space and we must respect everyone. Participation is optional, if it gets too much, it’s okay to step away.
Free Write – 5 minutes: Take a look at the artworks, get up close, take a few minutes to free write or draw. We will spend 5 minutes silently looking.
Discussion – 10 minutes: Group discussion of the artwork. What bubbled up for you? Would anyone like to share?
Pair Share – 20 minutes: Divide groups into pairs. Distribute an excerpt from the article to each group. Invite groups to move to another area of the gallery where they can get together to read the excerpt and discuss. Some questions to think about while discussing: How does this piece make you feel? Do you agree or disagree? Why? This was written in 1968, but, are there parallels today?
Discussion – 20 minutes: Bring the groups back together. Groups share their conversations, if they desire to do so. Briefly summarize your excerpt, what thoughts bubbled up for you? What debates did you have in your group, if any?
Conclusion – 5 minutes: Thank you to everyone for being vulnerable today.
Let’s face it, above was my teaching plan. When we entered the gallery, I soon realized that there was particularly loud jazz music playing in the exhibit. Apparently Lichtenstein loved jazz and the music is the soundtrack of Kamasi Washington’s break out jazz album, The Epic. A rookie mistake, because I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the exhibition before I was teaching in it! The music was welcome during silent looking but when we started discussing, it became difficult to hear even in our small group of ten participants. Our initial discussion drew from the physicality of the objects, seeing Lichtenstein’s hand and process. It then led to people sharing their feelings, one participant commented on how she was desensitized by the image of a gun. Another commented that they had recently been in the vicinity of an act of gun violence, and that their feelings now are different than if they had seen this image prior to the incident.
As the discussion grew beyond the formal qualities of the work itself, I used that moment to segue to the second part of the experiment. I divided the group into pairs and gave each pair an excerpt from the 1968 TIME magazine article. Pairs were encouraged to venture into other parts of the gallery or even outside on the courtyard to sit and discuss anything that developed for them when thinking about the artwork and reading the excerpt.
After 20 minutes, I wanted to bring everyone back into the gallery in front of the artworks, but instead, I made the decision to gather everyone outside the galleries where we could gather without the distraction of the music. We sat in a circle, I asked each group to share if they wanted to. Much of the excerpts from the 1968 article were arguments about gun control. Discussion from the group dug deep into this difficult and complex issue. Many participants discussed how they couldn’t fathom someone needing to own a gun, some shared stories about how family members own guns and either agree or disagree with them. Some stories were about growing up in rural communities where hunting was the norm. The person, who mentioned at the beginning of the talk that they were recently near an act of gun violence, felt safe enough to share her story. Parallels were made from 1968 to today, and it was argued that not much has changed.
What I had intended to be a 20 minute group-share turned into a 50 minute discussion. Instead of bringing it back to the work of art, I lost myself in the conversation. Instead of acting as facilitator, I became a participant. When I realized we had gone well beyond our hour together, cutting into our debrief time for the GTLab, I tried to reel the group back in and get feedback on the activity. To my surprise, the group just wanted to continue discussing the topic.
I was so humbled by my colleagues and the conversation we had that day. As we all walked back to our meeting room Rachel Stark, Assistant Director of Education at the Skirball Cultural Center, turned to me and thanked me for allowing us to “turn our back” on the art to have the real nitty gritty conversation. It was at that moment I realized that what I learned from this experiment wasn’t what I initially expected. Yes, I wanted to explore ways of using objects in our collection as entry points to discuss current events and complex issues, but I realized something more important. When it means continuing the conversation and focusing on the needs of the people present, it is okay to turn our back on the art and continue the conversation where the group needs to go, even if that means we aren’t focusing on the artwork anymore.
We all need an outlet in this political climate; if a work of art can jump-start important conversation, amazing! Let the conversation go where it needs to go.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to continue the conversation. Please comment here, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About the Author
HOLLY GILLETTE is an art museum educator with an interest in gallery teaching and community building. She is currently an Education Coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she oversees the school and community partnership program Art Programs with the Community: LACMA On-Site. Prior to working at LACMA, she began her career in Museum Education at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, focusing on school, early childhood, and family audiences. Holly holds a MS.Ed. in leadership in museum education from the Bank Street College Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in art history and studio art from University of California, Davis. Holly’s postings are her own and don’t necessarily represent LACMA’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Earlier this month, I had the honor of leading a gallery teaching demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of colleagues during the NAEA Pre-Conference for Museum Education. I had answered a call from the Museum Education Division looking for educators to showcase best practices that can be applied to using gallery teaching towards racial equity.
At MASS MoCA, we have been grappling with these questions in our current exhibition, Nick Cave: Until. An immersive, football-field-sized installation, Until was a departure in scale for Cave, who is well known for his human-sized Soundsuits. In aesthetic and in mission, however, Until is very Nick Cave: tchotchkes, sparkles, and wonder are expertly woven together in service of an urgent social mission around violence and racism.
Until is Cave’s response to the highly fraught instances of police violence towards communities of color. The title of the exhibition is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” or, Cave suggests, “guilty until proven innocent,” drawing attention to the different ways the criminal justice system has different standards for different communities. As visitors progress throughout the installation, they are lead through an experience of awe to one of discomfort and vulnerability as the layers around violence and racism reveal themselves.
No easy task for an Education Department. But we knew that Until would provide an unparalleled opportunity to engage new and existing audiences with these questions in ways that could provoke thought, dialogue, and ultimately, action in support of racial justice.
In designing our tours of Until, we relied on our tried-and-true three-pronged pedagogical approach at MASS MoCA: guided conversations, art-making, and mindfulness. That last piece is what I brought to NAEA. In my teaching practice at MASS MoCA, I’ve seen how mindfulness practices heighten students’ observations, building metacognitive skills and increasing focus and awareness. In Until, a walking meditation through Cave’s field of spinners has helped students realize their physical, bodily responses to moving through the space — which has been critical in developing attention to the images of guns and bullets woven throughout the field of spinners as well as to the anxiety, dizziness, and even fear such a space provokes. This is counterintuitive to many visitors, whose first response is typically “oohs” and “ahhs”; that something so beautiful could be so discomfiting is part of Cave’s intention, and mindfulness helps visitors make that connection.
At the Met, however, there was no large field of spinners within which to lead a guided walking meditation. Instead, I led a discussion around John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting, John Brown, inviting my colleagues to explore gut reactions to the figures in the painting: the (anti-)hero abolitionist, John Brown, and an unnamed slave, easy to overlook in the lower left hand side of the painting. After collecting one-word reactions to each of the figures, I led a visual analysis of the image, to encourage the group to explore what visual elements (scale, shading, expression) had contributed to their first reactions. I chose not to disclose who the figures were at the beginning, but introduced John Brown and the anonymous Black man halfway through, to see what impact the identifying information had on our collective analysis.
Finally, I led the group in a mindfulness exercise around “carrots and peas,” adapted from Mindfulness & Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory & Practice (edited by Akihiko Masuda). Though intended for cognitive behavior therapists, the exercise has worked well in arts educative experiences I’ve led at MASS MoCA. As mindfulness practice goes, it’s more metacognitive than meditative, building consciousness of immediate assessments that often go unexamined or unacknowledged.
In essence, “carrots and peas” goes like this:
Tell the group that you will ask a simple question (e.g., “I’m going to the grocery store. What should I buy?”) and providing an answer (“Carrots and peas”).
Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
Then ask them to answer the question one more time with a different answer.
More often than not, participants struggle to provide an answer that was not “carrots and peas.” Sometimes visitors blurt out “carrots and—” before cutting themselves off; most often there is simply a pause as their brains struggle to rewrite the script. After only five repetitions, the pattern is in place; one participant remarked that she “forgot what else you could even buy in a grocery store.” Another example of this thought pattern is to fill in the blank: “You can’t judge a book by: ____.” How hard is it to not think “its cover”?
The goal in using this exercise is to help visitors explore the implications for real-world or arts-based situations in which our actions may be informed by unconscious stereotypes. With the group last week, we followed up this exercise with a great conversation around John Brown and the unnamed Black man in Curry’s painting. We explored how Curry draws our visual attention to Brown first, and how “carrots and peas” can help us to instead learn to look for the other figure who is quite literally marginalized on the canvas, extrapolating into real-world scenarios regarding representation and power.
While no brief museum experience can upend years of cultural socialization, “carrots and peas” can lay a foundation for building a better awareness of one’s implicit biases. Through this call-and-response exercise, participants are shown how easily our minds build simplified patterns of thought — whether innocuous, as in carrots and peas, or harmful, as in stereotypes of Blackness and criminality — and how an awareness of this tendency can lead to a disruption of behavior that is based on unquestioned habits. By acknowledging these habits of thought, participants can identify whether or not these patterns align with their core values and can begin checking implicit biases to ensure they correct behavior that is detrimental to our humanity.
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About the Author
AMANDA TOBIN is the K-12 Education Manager at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she has developed school engagement programs around social justice since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Art History and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also an avid farm share member and crafter, needle felting small succulent plants after having no luck keeping real ones alive. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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 Lillis, J. & Levin, M. (2014). Acceptance and mindfulness for undermining prejudice. In A. Masuda (Ed.), Mindfulness and acceptance in multicultural competency (181-196). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p. 188.
What would happen in the galleries if we could only communicate through gestures? How might critics’ reviews about exhibitions be meaningfully incorporated in gallery teaching? How would museumgoers react if asked to draw a work of art as perfectly as possible–the opposite of conventional wisdom in museum education? These are just a few questions that educators from cultural institutions across Southern California have explored in a program developed by and for museum educators.
I launched Gallery Teaching Lab (GTLab) at the Hammer Museum in October 2014 with educators from seven Los Angeles museums in an effort to foster innovation in gallery teaching. Now in its third year, the program has doubled in size to include fourteen participating institutions who each take turns hosting a GTLab approximately every six weeks. Twenty-five practitioners between Long Beach and Pasadena have the opportunity to try a new teaching strategy in an ever-changing space and receive constructive feedback from colleagues. Participants can use GTLab as a testing ground for nascent gallery teaching ideas without the pressure of building internal buy-in or fear of an unsuccessful experience with museum visitors. GTLab also offers educators an opportunity to eschew traditional or habitual teaching strategies and set aside their respective institutions’ existing programs or pedagogical philosophies.
The very first GTLab, which was led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was an experiment in facilitating silent conversations in order to create a safe space to explore potentially controversial topics. Veronica was inspired by Child Guidance Toys (1965) by Robert Heinecken, which was on view at the Hammer Museum in the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Object Matter. Created two years after president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Child Guidance Toys poignantly juxtaposes two advertisements of two different products–a toy rifle and a miniature replica of JFK.
Prior to viewing Child Guidance Toys with GTLab participants, Veronica displayed three large sheets of butcher paper, each with a prompt that was relevant to Heinecken’s work: consumerism, gun culture, and the claim that artists make us more aware of social issues. We were asked to silently and anonymously address each of these prompts or someone else’s comments. In a post-GTLab reflection, Veronica wrote that “participants commented on the fact that they enjoyed sharing things that they might not have, had it been a verbal conversation. Others noted that they were able to discuss sensitive topics in a safe environment.”
After writing and reading comments in response to the prompts in a classroom space, Veronica led us in an inquiry-based discussion of Child Guidance Toys in the exhibition space. In front of the work of art, we wasted no time making connections between the imagery and the serious themes that had already been explored during the silent conversations. The resulting discussion about Heinecken’s work was thought-provoking and multi-layered. But equally thought-provoking–at least for a room full of museum educators–was the conversation about the experiment itself. Educators mused: Did the pre-selected prompts limit conversation about the work of art? Which audiences would this activity be appropriate for? How would the silent conversations differ if they took place in the galleries? Since everyone responding to the prompts were in the same room at the same time, the comments were not completely anonymous. How does semi-anonymity impact one’s ability to freely share one’s thoughts?
Following her GTLab experiment, Veronica incorporated the silent conversation activity in a teacher program–with great success. However, successfully implementing a GTLab experiment with museum visitors is more of a fortuitous outcome rather than a desired goal.
Experiments in Self-Guided Experiences
For my own first experiment, I was interested in exploring self-guided activities, and not just because I was interested in their format–one that typically doesn’t impart more than basic or cursory information about works of art. In the days leading up to my experiment, other work commitments took priority and I waited until the last minute to consider what I would do. My experiment became an opportunity for me to address two questions. The first: Can a self-guided experience be just as (or more) engaging and foster as much understanding about a work of art as a guided experience? The second question was one that I sometimes face more often than I’d like to admit: Is it possible to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art when you don’t have time to properly research the works of art on view?
I decided to try a semi-self-guided experience with the exhibition Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now because of the wide variety of works, subjects, and artists represented in the galleries. I briefly introduced the exhibition and then distributed prompts in three categories—1) Select, 2) Question, and 3) Translate. Working with partners, participants picked one prompt from each of the categories, one at a time, at random. For the Select cards, participants were prompted to choose a work that they associated with adjectives like secretive, awkward, or friendly. Once a work was selected, partners picked a Question card and discussed answers to prompts such as: “Could this work change someone’s life? If so, how?”; “Why do you think this work was selected for inclusion in this exhibition?”; and “In what ways is this work relevant to people in Los Angeles?” I gave some pairs more than one Question card if they seemed to answer their first question quickly. By the time the pairs completed their Select and Question prompts, they had already discussed their selected work for approximately 20 minutes and were ready to “translate” the artwork. This is where the activity got more experimental. I challenged peers to reflect on what is essential about the work of art and to figure out how those qualities could be translated into another form or genre–such as a Craigslist ad, a restaurant menu, or thirty seconds of sound. Not only was this part of the activity a lot of fun, but it also helped the group come to a nuanced and deep understanding about their selected works while stretching them to think creatively.
After the experiment, GTLab participants remarked that they enjoyed completing the activities and they were able to make meaningful connections to their selected works of art. They also raised questions about appropriate audience applications and attendance limitations, and whether front-loading or modeling would be necessary with school groups. All good questions. But despite the overall positive and useful feedback, I never tried the same Select – Question – Translate prompts with actual visitors. For me, that wasn’t the point.
Taking Risks, Breaking Rules
I originally conceived of GTLab to foster innovation in gallery teaching–in my own practice as well as that of my colleagues. In fact, for the first couple of years of the program, I challenged all participants to follow one rule: your experiment should be an activity or strategy that you have not tried before. My experiment pushed me to re-evaluate what I want self-guided activities as a whole to accomplish: to foster personal and meaningful connections to art, to have fun learning with the people you came to the museum with, and to encourage creativity. These are by no means innovative goals. Rather they speak to the heart of what we do as museum educators.
The process of organizing and participating in gallery experiments has made me reflect on Gallery Teaching Lab itself. Innovation isn’t the main goal after all. Gallery Teaching Lab comprises a collective of peers who manage or support educator trainings at their respective institutions. For this professional learning community to be sustainable and useful for all participants, rules and goals should change based on the facilitator, the chosen experiment, and the galleries. What once took place at the Hammer Museum every six weeks on Wednesdays from 12-2PM now occurs at one of fourteen institutions on a day and time that works best for the host institution with goals that make the most sense for the facilitator. As is the case for all good labs, rules are meant to be broken.
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About the Author
THERESA SOTTO is assistant director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum, where she oversees educational programming for college, family, and K-12 school groups. Theresa has been working at the crossroads of education and the arts since 2001. Prior to joining the Hammer, she worked at the Getty Museum, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has served as a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Theresa received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is also a published poet.
“Art is the highest form of hope.” —Gerhard Richter
Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.
On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People(Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.
The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.
As I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.
Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:
“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)
Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?
To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.
Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.
Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:
“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)
This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.
Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. In 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.
To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.
As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.
Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)
The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.
As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:
“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)
How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?
About the Author
MICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.
Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.
When we originally scheduled visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the classes at a Boston high school in our School Partnership Program, we didn’t consider the date of the presidential election as a factor. My colleagues and I didn’t purposefully plan for the 10th grade students, too young to vote but old enough to be politically aware, to come to this historic institution in the two days following the surprising result. It wasn’t our intention that the 12th graders would come the following week, having had time to begin to process the world in which we awoke on November 9, 2016. But that’s exactly what happened.
Our partnership with these students and their teachers is based on our commitment to respond to where they are and what they need from us to scaffold their development as critical thinkers and engaged museum-goers. We’ve built relationships and cultivated trust with this school over 5 years, coming to understand what they grapple with individually and as a community. At this school, many of the students are Black, Muslim, and/or their families are immigrants. When they come to the Museum, they bring their whole selves to each discussion. So when we found ourselves on the eve of the election concluding a long, polarizing campaign, we recommitted ourselves to putting the students at the center and modified our plan for their visits.
We designed an experience for students to engage with the Gardner Museum in a variety of ways, understanding that everyone processes turmoil differently. First, we welcomed them back to the Museum and gave them a sense of what to expect from the visit. Then we used our temporary exhibition, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books, as a starting point. One theme of this exhibition is the spread of literacy and access to information during the Renaissance, highlighting how society valued knowledge of history, literature and rhetoric during that time. The students took as much time as they needed to explore the exhibition on their own, looking closely with their friends and finding moments of interest and beauty. As a group we discussed the ideas that they discovered in the objects and in the interpretive materials, huddling together over an illuminated choir book or a scientific rendering of marine creatures. Then we honed in on one artwork, a painting of St. Jerome in which they found further examples of the importance of scholarly work and humanistic ideals. This first half of their visit hewed closely to our initial plan, introducing the students to the exhibition while connecting it to their prior experiences at the Museum.
The major adaption was that the rest of the visit became structured time for the students to reflect, process, and express themselves. Rather than going to another gallery or looking at another artwork, we brought the students to the courtyard in the center of the historic collection. We handed each student a sketchbook and a pencil, invited them to sit on the stone benches facing the courtyard, and introduced a prompt tying together the objects they’d been exploring, the Museum created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the students’ own lives:
Together we’ve been looking at these old books, considering how the artists used text and illustration, and the impact the books had on society. Now you’ll get to design your own book. You can write a story, a poem or a song, draw something you see here or something you imagine, or just take deep breaths and process. If you find it helpful to think of a prompt, you might consider this: When Isabella Stewart Gardner made this museum she said that what the country needed most was art. What do you think our country needs most right now?
It was moving to see how students brought their whole selves to this activity. The 10th grade classes that came on November 8 and 9 spent much of the time asking us and their History teacher questions about the Electoral College, and voicing their fears for what would happen to their families who are undocumented immigrants. Some drew campaign symbols and slogans, some wrote about stamping out hate and encouraging love. The 12th grade students who visited on November 16 and 17 appreciated the escapism offered by the Courtyard. They spoke about the chance to sit quietly in a beautiful space that seems to be a world apart from Boston, a time apart from 2016.
During all of these classes the other museum educators, classroom teachers, and I tried to spend time with each student to answer their questions and reiterate that we would stand with them and their loved ones. Some students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to center themselves and consider their thoughts and feelings in their own way, and a growing awareness that we, the Gardner Museum educators who they’ve come to know since 9th grade, intentionally created that space out of our deep concern and caring for them. By the end of the visit, after about 30 minutes of reflection and processing, the mood had shifted to one of hope and mutual support.
Since the election, many of us have felt the urgency of action. This set of class visits to the Gardner Museum was a small, immediate action, but one that ripples outward. These students and teachers’ ideas about how to relate to a museum (even a seemingly elite, historic one like the Gardner) might be forever transformed by the half hour they spent nurturing themselves and each other. Their mental and emotional states also changed, and we can imagine that impact was felt in all of the other interactions they had that day. As museum educators, we have the ability to create this space for our visitors – we have the flexibility to respond to our visitors and we have the objects and environments that remind them of the beauty of our shared humanity.
I’ll leave you with a poem written in the Gardner’s courtyard by Jayne Irvy Veillard, a 12th grade student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers:
GREY By Jayne Irvy Veillard
“Struggle” We’re struggling Living in a world where there’s no peace Living in a world where cries are silenced Living with the pain among us. What our world needs is “Love” Why can’t we love? What’s so hard about loving your neighbor as yourself? Do you not love who YOU are? “Peace” Why can’t there be peace? Why does there have to be war? What’s so hard about finding peace? (Pause) Look into your heart Is it Black? The color your heart bleeds Does it bleed Black? Black portrayed as ugly and slavery Black the color of gun shots and cruelty Black the hatred set up for men Black, mothers and children crying for help BLACK! SHOTS FIRED! Look into your heart Is it White? Does it bleed white? White the color of peace and love White purity and pure White sinless White privileged and power JUST SHUT UP! What’s the difference? Why separate these two colors? Grey the color of this lead Grey the unity of black and white Grey the sound of ones holding hands Grey we shall overcome aye? Grey The Middle Ground What our word needs is Grey! We need The Unity The Power The Love No More Struggling No More Pain No More Poor Just more love All together One for all What our world needs is Grey The happiness of Grey That’s what our world needs
* * * * *
About the Author
SARA EGAN is School Partnerships Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sara was recently named the Massachusetts Art Education Association’s 2017 Museum Art Educator of the Year. She teaches preK-12th grade students in the Museum and the classroom using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), trains and coaches teachers in VTS, and conducts research on the impact of the Gardner’s School Partnership Program. Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes program, and is an adjunct professor of art at Simmons College. She has previously worked at the Andy Warhol Museum and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Sara holds a BA from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Header Photo: A 10th grade student from Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Billie Weiss.
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.
Written by Elizabeth Williams, Yale University Art Gallery
What does good museum teaching look like? How do we as educators learn from each other? How do we constantly stay fresh and incorporate new approaches to teaching? What are our shared values for teaching in museums?
These are among the questions that my colleagues and I in education regularly pose, and which led us to launch a project called Teaching Lab almost two years ago. Teaching Lab is not a concept born at Yale; it originated at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1990s as a way for its educators to convene, outside of logistical concerns, to talk about gallery teaching. Many of us work at such a pace that, without a structure like Teaching Lab embedded into our routine, reflection simply would not happen. So when my colleague Jessica Sack introduced this great idea from the Brooklyn Museum, we adapted it to fit our needs at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).
Teaching Lab at YUAG has been a way to reflect, experiment, and collaborate on issues and ideas related to teaching and learning. Monthly sessions seek to explore intersections across traditionally segmented areas of work both in education (e.g. adult, family, academic, K-12, public programs) and Gallery-wide (e.g. curatorial, education, exhibitions, registrar, etc.) The aim is to facilitate dialogue, and perhaps collaborations, related to the project of museum teaching.
Key to our sessions is that each is peer-initiated and led, with the organizer (myself) serving as the moderator. There are no defined outcomes for Teaching Lab, though some sessions have resulted in new projects. By way of example, a few departmental Teaching Labs have included: a session that brought together education teams from the YUAG and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History for a discussion of different approaches to teaching with objects, especially those that can be classified as both art and artifact; a session to consider the Hirshhorn’s signature drop-in teen program, ARTLAB+, as a springboard for conversation related to how educators can, and should, respond to diverse audiences; and a session to consider a new digital app designed for a special exhibition, focusing on the self-guided visitor’s learning experience.
It occurred to us that the conversations we are having relate not just to education but to the entire museum. Everyone at the museum, in effect, teaches in some capacity. What, then, might it mean to broaden the conversation? Will other staff want to participate? How do we make the dialogue both accessible and stimulating, to have the most widespread appeal?
Getting Things Started
We started first by talking with people across the Gallery to gauge interest in the possibility of a staff-wide Teaching Lab. I realized early on that it was difficult to talk about something like this in the abstract, and I was often fielding the question: “So what do you want from me?” I didn’t really know the answer at first. After many departmental conversations about possible topics, effective structures, and anticipated barriers, we distilled the core ingredients from our departmental version of Teaching Lab that we wanted to maintain: that it be peer-driven, that it be conversational, and that it be experimental. We also decided that a natural place to start would be with objects, so we decided that the first staff-wide Teaching Lab would mine the concept of “close looking,” a term often used by colleagues across the museum to describe our teaching practice.
We roughly sketched out what a day-long Teaching Lab could look like: three sessions, starting with looking and learning together, that would eventually zoom out to examine some of the bigger questions related to audience and expertise. We enlisted peers from across the museum to co-lead each session, and these colleagues would ultimately shape the day.
On June 17, the YUAG Education Department presented the first staff-wide Teaching Lab. We invited all staff—from security guards to the Director—and offered three sessions over the course of the day. To our delight, almost 50 people of our staff of roughly 160, including four senior staff members and the Director, attended. We had representation from almost every department in the museum, from the Registrar to Development to Curatorial.
With Close Looking as our frame, our first session was entitled “Close Looking from Multiple Perspectives.” Modeled on our typical three-objects/hour education-guided visit, this session was led by three colleagues from the Education, Curatorial, and Conservation departments. Guided by a single theme, which the three presenters mutually determined, the session was meant to showcase different approaches to teaching with objects. With few parameters, facilitators were asked to teach a single object for 20 minutes and to make sure it was connected to the other objects through the common theme. One group, for example, explored the theme of absence and loss: an educator considered it in a painting by contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, a paintings conservator discussed it in a 12th century Italian panel painting by the Magdalen Master, and a curator talked about it with a 1st century Roman portrait sculpture. A member of the Education staff then moderated a reflective conversation at the end to distill both the participants’ experience as well as the facilitators’.
The second session was entitled “Multiple Frames: The Object in Context” and considered a single object through multiple lenses of analysis and understanding. To contextualize the processes of making and viewing art, participants spent half of the session in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque, exploring how listening to jazz, reading quotations by and about the artist, and physically moving around a canvas on the floor, complicates the experience of viewing and interpreting a work of art. The group then moved to explore Pollock’s materials and methods in a studio session with one of our painting conservators, considering how experimenting with materials and methods might enrich our understanding of the art work.
The last session of the day was a roundtable conversation, intended to help us reflect on the experiential components of the morning but also to zoom out to consider the less obvious ways that museums teach, how we understand the role of expertise among our staff and our visitors, and how we can be more responsive to our audiences. These conversations were illuminating, especially when the group was asked to brainstorm ways that teaching and learning happen outside of the guided visit or through interpretive materials. From conversations that security personnel have with visitors to the arrangement of postcards on the wall, the group came up with fresh insights on how the Gallery regularly “teaches” and how every staff member has a stake in our educational mission. This discussion was collegial and fruitful, and as we ended the conversation with time for suggesting future Teaching Lab topics, participants raised many ideas related to better understanding the experience of our visitor and continuing to mine what it means to learn deeply in a museum. They also evinced a keen and welcome interest in how we can collectively address issues related to inclusion and identity in our work, and plans are now underway to make this the topic of a future staff-wide teaching lab.
Beginning to Build a Culture of Learning
We never could have imagined that the staff would be as receptive to Teaching Lab as they were. Since it required actually doing it to begin to grasp what this could become, the staff took a risk in setting aside almost an entire day to participate. As part of our own reflective process, the Education Department surveyed people anonymously to ask for their feedback. When asked to rate their experience on a scale of 1 to 5 (poor to excellent, respectively), 27.8 % rated the experience a 4 and 72.2% rated it a 5. When asked whether they would participate in future Teaching Labs, 100% responded yes. In the open comments section, participants repeatedly emphasized how meaningful it was to come together as a staff to learn from each other (and to get to know one another); they had expected that Education would be imparting best practices and were surprised that it was co-presented by colleagues from across the museum; and they were surprised by how much fun they had. Our Education staff, for its part, learned a tremendous amount in the process of reaching out to colleagues from across the institution, and we have been pleased about the new relationships that have developed as a result.
I don’t want to overstate the impact of this one staff-wide Teaching Lab; in some ways, we have indeed returned to business as usual. But Teaching Lab at its core is about building a culture of learning, and this was a very positive step in that direction. Whether it be among those who are explicitly educators, or whether it be re-framed more broadly to consider and leverage the entire staff’s contributions to teaching in a museum, it is a powerful tool and structure for learning, for teaching, and for reflecting.
As we turn our attention to the future of Teaching Lab, we can’t help but think—and hope—that this experimental and peer-driven model might lead to new ways of considering the project of teaching in the museum and take our work in interesting and challenging new directions.
About the Author
ELIZABETH WILLIAMS is the John Walsh Senior Fellow in Education at the Yale University Art Gallery. Prior to Yale, she was the Director of Engagement and Learning at the Mississippi Museum of Art, where she oversaw the museum’s family, school, and community programs. Elizabeth has held positions at The Phillips Collection, the Harvard Art Museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Americans for the Arts. She holds a Master’s in Education from Harvard University and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Human and Organizational Development from Vanderbilt University
Featured header image: Gallery staff, led by Wurtele Gallery Teacher Tony Coleman, looking at this Equestrian Shrine Figure by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)
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 Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
This article is a case study about the impact of “unplugging” as it relates to reflective practice for youth and educators. If you’re interested in exploring reflection more broadly, and you’ll be attending the 2016 National Art Education Association Conference in Chicago next week, please join Mike Murawski and myself for our session “Reflective Practice in Museum Education” on Thursday, March 17 at 12 noon (McCormick Place/Lakeside Center/E271a). We’ll unpack reflective practice for museum educators in an interactive, conversational session—we hope to see you there! If you can’t join us, please comment here, tweet us (@chelseaemelie and @murawski27), or follow #NAEAReflect.
When talking about unplugging, we always think of technology. However, I define unplugging as a way of regaining full control of yourself, physically and mentally, in any circumstances. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
In the summer of 2015, a group of New York City high schoolers and college freshmen, students in the Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps program, gather in the Board of Officers room at the Armory, reclined on lean-back floor seating in front of a grand piano. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air, which turns to quiet excitement when two world-class artists enter the room: performance artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit.
During the next hour, Abramović and Levit give the students a crash course in unplugging and being present, major themes of their upcoming winter production—a hybrid performance/immersive experience to introduce audiences to a new method of engaging with classical music. Over the next few months, inspired by Abramović and Levit, a number of these students will deeply explore the concept of unplugging: what it is, why do it, and the unexpected realizations it can evoke about our own selves.
Although some might stereotype today’s teenagers as one of the most “plugged-in,” smartphone-obsessed generations of all time, our students offered sophisticated, thoughtful reflections about how we can truly connect with each other and better understand ourselves. As one of the educators facilitating this project, I had the unique opportunity to experience this deep dive into unplugging alongside my students. This post explores both the impact of “unplugging” and reflective practice on teens as well as its impact on me as a teacher, and offers ideas about how we might apply the benefits of unplugging to our practice as art educators and museum leaders.
The Project: Goldberg and the Guide to Unplugging
We understand that not many people today know what it is like to be left in silence, stripped from their cellular devices, or even just stare into someone’s eyes… We stepped out of our comfort zone and… left wanting to try it again. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Igor Levit and Marina Abramović’s Goldberg (which ran December 7–19, 2015 at Park Avenue Armory) required patrons to lock up their cell phones, watches, and personal belongings in lockers, then sit in silence in the Armory’s Drill Hall for 30 minutes to “unplug” and mentally prepare themselves to be present to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Levit. Abramović’s method for listening to music was experienced by thousands, including New York City public high school students in a student matinee.
The Youth Corps students were charged with developing ways to help their peers prepare for this uncommon experience. First, Youth Corps researched the artists and concepts behind Goldberg, familiarizing themselves with Bach, Levit, Abramović, performance art, and “slow” movements, from slow art to slow TV. They met with former Armory artist-in-residence Helga Davis, a vocalist and performance artist, who led the students through an activity in which they stared into each other’s eyes, opening themselves to their peers in a new way. They visited current artist-in-residence Imani Uzuri, whose singing and installation inspired by Sister Gertrude Morgan helped Youth Corps center themselves in mind and body.
A printed Guide to Unplugging became one of two facets of the project. As their driving question for the guide, the Youth Corps responded in writing to the question: What is worth unplugging for? They used verbal storytelling and peer editing to brainstorm and solidify their ideas. Their written responses ranged from getting in tune with nature to bike-riding with no destination in mind, from challenging oneself to communicate with family members, to getting lost in artmaking. Others talked of experiencing theater or acting, and some about meditating or being present on their morning commutes. Across the board, students acknowledged the importance in getting out of your comfort zone in order to unplug—and how worth it the challenge of being present is.
For the student matinee, and the second part of their final project, the Youth Corps assisted none other than Marina Abramović herself in creating a short pre-show for 450 students. Although the students had already been introduced to the production through a pre-visit from Armory Teaching Artists, this pre-show experience would ensure that students were present and ready for Goldberg itself. Over two meetings, Youth Corps spoke with Abramović about her method and process, and how Levit and the Goldberg Variations dovetailed with her own art practice. When the Youth Corps asked for any tips she had for experiencing Goldberg, Abramović led the group in an immersive breathing exercise—and it was so powerful that it quickly became clear that the pre-show should include the same. As Lizmarie described:
[Abramović had us start] by lying on the floor with our faces to the ceiling and having our hands to our hearts and stomachs. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean, and found the comparison between the motion of the waves and the beating of my heart. That is when I realized I was in a full state of relaxation. To me, the noises of kids in the hallway outside faded into a nice summer day with seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
And so the Youth Corps stood beside Abramović in front of 450 of their peers and shared their own personal experiences of Goldberg, then modeled the breathing exercise through which Abramović led the entire student audience. When she finished, the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall was completely silent, and remained so during both the soundless preface and throughout Levit’s performance. Later, as students filed out, the Youth Corps gave each student a Guide to Unplugging, to explore how they could continue their experience outside of the Armory.
The Impact of Reflective Practice
We realized that unplugging is about being aware of your surroundings, reflecting on yourself, and being in control of who you are. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Although my co-teacher and I felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of reflective practice, the students still showed growth and articulated takeaways from their reflective experiences this semester.
From a quantitative standpoint, data gleaned from retrospective surveys show clear improvement in students’ skills in reflection: 80% of the students said that they reflected on their creative process and that their reflection influenced future choices more often than before they took part in the program. All of the students improved in developing the ability to communicate their ideas and/or find solutions through the creative process. Additionally, 100% also developed interpersonal skills through collaboration and leadership opportunities—closely aligned to the Youth Corps’ realization that reflecting and unplugging is not always a solitary activity, but often relates to our engagement with those around us.
I also analyzed their written statements in the Guide to surface more specific themes about how the students felt the act of unplugging had affected them.
(Note: Percentages will not add up to 100%, since students’ statements often reflected more than one theme.)
In preparation for one of the sessions I am organizing at this year’s National Art Education Association Convention (see note above), I have been thinking a lot about what reflective practice is. The above impacts of “unplugging” identified by our students, are, I believe, all essential to reflective practice, no matter your age and whether or not you are consciously “unplugging” from daily stresses and technology.
Going outside of our comfort zones and opening our minds to new ideas and beliefs allow us to stay nimble, keep learning, and be empathetic. We must be conscious of how we communicate, and ensure we remain connected to the world—both physically aware of what’s around us and metaphorically, empathetic to others’ lives and backgrounds. Staying focused and aware of our surroundings and interactions allow us to be present in the moment. Overall, these practices help us understand ourselves better—both on a personal level and our relationship with others.
Applying Youth Takeaways to Museum Education Practice and Leadership
When you stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing, you gain a new experience. You are open to things. —Joselin, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
With 40% of the Youth Corps identifying it as an impact of their time spent unplugging, it’s clear that being present is both an essential process in reflective practice and a benefit. In fact, as Terrelle put it, Abramović and Levit’s goal for Goldberg was “to place us outside our comfort zone and challenge us to be present to listen to the music. Marina and Igor wanted us to connect with our mind and body.”
In reflecting about how the semester went overall, my colleague/co-teacher, Pip Gengenbach, and I realized there was so much more we could have pushed the Youth Corps to try in exploring the idea not just of simply “unplugging,” but of truly being present. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and there is always room for improvement, but as I reread and analyzed the students’ writing, I found myself wishing we had facilitated even just one more session to encourage the students not to view being present as an end-game in and of itself, but to keep unpacking why the act is so important.
Even so, we scratched the surface: for example, when writing about paying attention rather than listening to music on her commute, Rachel said, “I realized how much more I was allowing myself to experience.” Leidy found presence in communicating more often with her family: “We express how we feel and look for a solution together.” Destiny models excellent self-care when describing her unplugging mechanism: “I put on a facial mask… close my eyes and center my mind on a blank space… I think of a state of peace and tranquility and allow my body to float.”
These experiences are all ways that we can practice being present in our professional lives. Setting aside a phone and committing not to email during a meeting with staff or colleagues, or during a program; taking time to look for solutions together, in person rather than via email; going for a walk during lunchtime—for that matter, actually taking a lunch; and taking time for self-care outside of work (I for one fully endorse Destiny’s masking regimen) are all small things we can do to be mindful with ourselves and when communicating with others.
Often we feel the need to put up a wall. We don’t want people to see certain parts of us, so we hide. But … when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves and our minds. This is how we begin to surrender to unplugging instead of fighting it. —Sinaia, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
One of the most powerful ways that the Youth Corps—and we as educators—experienced vulnerability was through a two-hour workshop with vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, mentioned above. Davis challenged us all to stare into each other’s eyes, in silence, for many minutes at a time. Cory describes what happened next:
We were then given the choice to come closer, go further away, or turn away from our partners. I personally chose to get closer to my partner because I wanted them to experience an awkward moment and adjust to it. I found myself visualizing my partner’s life line, and found it easy to see their comfort zone through their body language. My partner was fidgeting with their hands at first, but later on they adjusted. I also allowed them to look into my eyes without restrictions. I challenged myself to open up and dared myself not to worry about what they thought. —Cory, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Some members of Youth Corps, like Cory, have performance experience, and are used to participating in exercises similar to this one. They understood the intimate kinds of nonverbal communications that can occur. For others, myself included, the experience felt foreign and intimidating. Isatu wrote:
The purpose was to [try] to interpret who we are… I [was] afraid to reveal my true self to someone that I barely know. I felt like my partner was not looking at me, but looking into me: she seemed… more aware of herself than I was. The jealousy that I felt helped me to unlock myself, I let all the painful moments that I have experienced out through my tears, because whatever she saw in me made me free. Unplugging in this way helped me to feel the support of the people around me. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Isatu beautifully describes how allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person can, in fact, help you both understand yourself better and connect on a deeper level with those around you. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses allows us to better understand our places in the world. Cory summarized her experience similarly: “We must be able to understand ourselves as a person first, in order to comprehend and change the things around us.”
This almost paradoxical statement directly relates to being an educator and leader. It goes back to the old airline oxygen mask adage (help yourself before helping others): know yourself in order to more deeply connect with others. After all, our jobs are not isolated: we have students, colleagues, and/or a field-wide network whom we not only support and encourage, but of whom we can ask support and encouragement. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, we are able to foster empathetic collaboration that can strengthen our ideas and work.
I wholeheartedly endorse participating in something like this professionally, but perhaps more easily implementable and significantly less intimidating would be to try something like the Youth Corps’ mentor triads. During every Youth Corps program session, each education staff member works with a small group of two Youth Corps, where all members (staff included!) set a goal and hold each other accountable to it. Knowing that we were all equally committed and that we had a small group of people, most of whom we didn’t know well before our triads, who would be checking in on us are powerful incentives to keep on track. We meet for coffee or treats off-site, which made the whole experience seem special and important, but not a huge drain on busy schedules. And having a mixed group—one first-time student, one student who had been in the program already, and one adult educator—was an amazing way to stay fresh but also grounded. This would be easily replicable and powerful with groups of staff from different levels, areas, and even departments.
Personally, I don’t like talking in front of crowds so I was really nervous. But Marina got us prepared by doing breathing exercises closely related to the Abramović Method, which helped me be less nervous… She made us feel like everything was fine and there wasn’t anything to worry about. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
How many of us have created activities or goals that we know will challenge our students or visitors, yet perhaps don’t always “walk the talk” ourselves by participating alongside them, or trying something new in our own practice? You’re not alone! As I delved into ongoing reflection with the Youth Corps this semester, I was reminded that it is so important as an educator (and leader) to model taking up challenges, just as we expect our students to do, and to always be learning, never complacent.
Personally, I have been taking this to heart since starting at the Armory this past summer. After many years at art museums, I have been thoroughly enjoying the completely unconventional art we present here, as well as trying my hand at theater education techniques, the field from which several of my coworkers in the Education department come. Since last July, we’ve done role-playing, directed questioning, movement-based activities, “tinkering” with different materials—you name it, we’ve tried it. (And not to worry, we’re all learning from each other: I’ve been vehemently representing the “slow art” guard along the way.)
Although these techniques are certainly not unfamiliar to art museum educators, the fearless, try-anything, “show must go on!” attitude of unabashed risk-taking feels new to me, and is enormously inspiring. My own challenge for 2016 is to continue to reach—testing and stretching my own abilities as a teacher, and pushing our students in the process to do the same with their own goals and experiences in our programs. (And just in case you’re wondering, yes, my co-teacher Pip is part of my “mentor duo” to hold me accountable for this goal.)
Conclusion: Reflection and Self-Identity
I am grateful to Marina. I think what’s cool about her is that she does things that others are afraid to do. She’s taught me to always stand out. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Awareness of self—of our strengths and our weaknesses, of our relation to others and to the world around us—is a key trait of leadership, no matter where in an organization’s hierarchy your job may place you. Understanding our own identity, through reflective practice, allows us to better understand our own work, how we teach, and the place of our institution and programs in our students’ or visitors’ lives.
Youth are in a key phase of their life where they themselves are testing out and defining who they are as people—their interests, beliefs, connections, and communities. But as we all know, it’s not only youth who use museums and cultural institutions as spaces for meaning-making and self-understanding or reflection; visitors of all ages and backgrounds do the same. And it’s important to remember that we ourselves as educators participate in this process as well, every time we reflect on our teaching practice, on our role as leaders in our institutions, or as participants in the world. Being conscious of the reflective process—being present in it, if you will—allows us to be intentional about our teaching practice, improve our connections with our audiences, and ultimately create experiences for all that bring our institutions more deeply into our visitors’ lives.
Header Photo: Lizmarie, high school junior and Phase I Youth Corps, speaks to NYC public school students alongside Marina Abramović and fellow Youth Corps. Photo by Da Ping Luo
“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed. Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.” –Paul Klee
I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country. My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.
Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working. Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.
The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking. It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.
I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”. From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.
Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.
I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.
One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing. I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.
The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.
When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present. The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey. Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.
Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.
When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?
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SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA. Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts. She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.
As the fourth year of ArtMuseumTeaching wraps up, I thought it would be good to post a brief “Year in Review.” Not that we need any more end-of-the-year lists or calls for resolutions, but I think it can be meaningful to take a minute and look back at some of the issues that have been on our minds this past year. I want to thank all of the amazing contributors who have taken the extra time to share their practice with this community!
Since its inaugural year back in 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching has grown from a tiny blog seedling to a robust and active online community now involving more than 60 contributors, publishing 172 posts, and being read by hundreds of thousands of people in as many as 170 countries around the globe. I hope that this online community and forum will continue to grow, include more perspectives, and be a space of exchange where we can connect on issues of teaching, learning, and community engagement that matter most for museums and the people that make up those museums.
Year in Review: 5 Most Popular Posts of 2015
5. “320 Hours: Slow Looking & Visitor Engagement with El Greco” (July 2015): We all talk about the value of slow looking and extended engagement with art – and this great post by Kelsey Ferreira provides such a unique insight into her experiences spending 320 hours with a single El Greco painting at the Portland Art Museum. What questions did visitors ask? What types of experiences sparked further engagement and learning? What surprisingly deep experiences did visitors bring to this stunning painting? A fantastic read for museum educators and art lovers alike!
4. “Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool” (January 2015): David Bowles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared his insights from posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from his gallery experiences on Facebook, and using social media tools such as Facebook to add a reflective element to our practice. This is a great read, especially with David’s five take-aways for museum educators about student learning in the galleries.
3. “We Flipped Our Museum – Here’s What We Learned” (June 2015): Emily Kotecki shared the work at the North Carolina Museum of Art to deepen and activate the museum learning experience through a Flipped Museum pilot program called “Artists in Process.” They developed an online learning platform to support social interaction and choice-based learning, and then worked with sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. Check out their ‘lessons learned,’ and read more in the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.
2. “The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App” (July 2015): Written after my own visit to the Brooklyn Museum this past summer, I briefly explored the what, how, and why of this effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. While I am still attracted to the app’s desire to make personal connections with visitors, I’m a bit concerned with how few visitors use the app considering the staff and resources dedicated to this project. But I absolutely love that the team at the Brooklyn Museum is super transparent about their thinking and planning via their blog (so awesome!).
1. “Questioning the Use of Questions” (January 2015): In the most widely-read post of 2015, museum educator Jackie Delamatre responded to Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee’s challenge to the use of questions in museum teaching. While there is great value in questioning the use of questions, Jackie’s insightful post defends the use of open-ended questions and brings in some of her own personal experiences. And her search for the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon of questions’ is not to be missed!
Enjoy these popular posts from 2015, and see you in 2016 — a year that promises to bring a whole new set of challenges, success stories, and new ways of thinking about both the theory and practice of museum teaching. If you would like to share the projects you’re working on or the issues and challenges you are grappling with, please add your voice to this growing community (and just send me a tweet at @murawski27 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).