Tag Archives: reflective practice

The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change in Museums

Reposted from Kiwi Loose in Museums, a project diary blog kept by Sarah Campbell as she embarked on her Churchill Fellowship to research the creative process of museum educators and innovative approaches to museum education. 

Written by Sarah Campbell

As a Churchill Fellow, I have a commitment to share my learning with peers. Since my research trip to the US last September, I’ve been looking for ways to do this and have gained a huge amount from contributing to London-based workshops for museum and gallery educators, organised by engage and GEM (Group for Education in Museums). I hosted the GEM workshop at the V&A a couple of weeks ago and was one of three facilitators. Working with GEM convenor, Laura Lewis-Davies, we decided to riff off the current exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? and discuss what kind of revolution we wanted to see in museum learning practice. The exhibition charts five years of radical change in Western society, culture and music, spanning the period 1966-1970.

It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short time frame, and this motivated us to think back on museum practice in 2016 and project to where we wanted to be in 2020. We peppered the whole workshop with ‘revolutionary’ touches: on arrival, participants were asked to fill out a name tag with both their own name and that of a revolutionary hero/heroine; throughout the event, we had large sheets of paper on the wall, surrounded by images of the exhibition, where participants could add post-its that summarised our current position, our ambitions for 2020, and how we’re going to get there; and at the end of the night, we filled out coloured protest banners, recycling an activity that had been devised for the Families programme in response to the exhibition. The name tags proved a popular ice-breaker and I took great pleasure in seeing Geri Halliwell chat with St Augustine. Laura arranged a follow-up Twitter event where we could all share more information on our choices – check out #gemrevhero.


At the workshop, we split the group in three and each moved from one facilitator to the next. Robert Fleming, Temple Study Centre Manager at the National Army Museum, spoke about the transformation of their museum – due for completion Spring 2017 – and their new interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning practice; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Project Co-ordinator at Heritec, shared her work with The Creative Museum project, which is prototyping new forms of collaboration; and I talked about some of my headline learning from the Churchill trip. This meant we each did the same session three times and unfortunately missed out on seeing the others in action, but it was a great chance to get feedback from the participants. In the spirit of revolution and change, I wanted to explore how the Fellowship has challenged some of my fundamental views on museum learning, I’ve been experiencing an interesting tension between the well-established perceived wisdom of standard museum learning practice, and new approaches that are pushing against this and leading to alternatives.

When planning the workshop, I was discussing these tensions with Laura and thinking about how to engage GEM participants with the subject. I compared these opposing forces to a Pushmi-Pullyu, the mythical, two-headed llama-esque companion of Doctor Dolittle, the equally mythical children’s book character who could talk to animals. The image of a Pushmi-Pullyu randomly popped into my head, and it was a bit of a throwaway comment. However, it ended up being a great way to introduce these ideas and became the basis for my session. I wanted people to have their own views first before I introduced my findings, and hoped to elicit a conversation where people could take different positions on the same topic. To do this, I created ‘The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change’, whereby Pushmi and Pullyu each took a different stance (represented by a speech bubble above their heads on a sheet of A3), and participants were asked to place a small playing counter somewhere along the spectrum in between the two to represent their views. From there, we could discuss the different rationales. It was a quick way to launch into meaty topics and everyone gamely played along and had plenty to contribute.There were three ‘Pushmi-Pullyus of Change’ offering the following pairs of opinions:

  • Learning programmes should be inspired by the collections and exhibitions / Learning programmes in museums can be about anything
  • Museums must engage with and present political issues / Museums must take a neutral stance on political issues
  • Our programmes should be educational first, entertaining second / Our programmes should be entertaining first, educational second

My only regret is that my questions weren’t quite fine-tuned enough. With more time and thought, I could have offered more nuanced phrasing and been more specific, especially around the claim that museums should be ‘neutral’ – I’m well aware museums are anything BUT neutral, but the provocation was meant to be about whether we should be hosting and/or debating issues such as Brexit. The third pairing was stolen directly from my conversation with Ethan Angelica at Museum Hack; he puts these statements to museum learning staff and insists they choose which one they support. To replicate this hard-line approach, I created a ‘no man’s land’ in the middle of the spectrum so that people couldn’t perch in the middle. The activity did generate some gentle debate, although I suspect our similarities outweigh our differences in many respects. I particularly liked how people spoke about using entertainment as a form of ‘stealth education’ – sneak in the learning when people are distracted and enjoying themselves.

While it has its faults, I’m quite chuffed with how my Pushmi-Pullyus worked out. They’ve peaked my interest in ‘gamifying’ discussions (it’s a word, I promise, in fact the gamification of learning’ is a whole thing). It’s commonplace to use postcards as a means of prompting conversation, but I like the idea of being able to represent one’s point-of-view visually and symbolically through a quick game before then explaining further. If you would like to share other examples of games that you use as part of discussions, I’d love to hear from you.

I also enjoyed exploring the combination of the metaphorical and the literal. As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a sucker for similes and metaphors. What makes me even happier is when some aspect of the metaphor is taken literally and folded back into the original idea. I could have just asked people their opinions on the questions above, but to put them along the back of a Pushmi-Pullyu takes it to a different headspace. I picked up this trick from the wonderful artist, Sarah Cole. During her residency at Kettle’s Yard a few years ago, she asked the staff where they felt they were ‘walking on eggshells’ and then positioned short trails of broken shell at these locations around the building. The then Director, Michael Harrison, spent a couple of days having to step over one of these trails every time he went into or came out of his office – like all good directors, he took it with good humour and grace.

About the Author

SARAH CAMPBELL is Head of Learning Programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She has worked previously in gallery education roles at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, The New Art Gallery Walsall, and the National Galleries of Scotland. She supports the work of engage, the National Association of Gallery Education, and is currently the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Board for the engage journal. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2016 to visit US museums and research the creative process of museum educators and new approaches to museum learning. Sarah has a long-standing interest in creative learning, and experimental, playful and unexpected approaches to programming for museum audiences.

It’s Okay to Turn Our Back on the Art

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?

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

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.

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Photo by Robert Wedemeyer | Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center

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 hgillette@lacma.org.

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About the Author

gillette_photoHOLLY 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.

 

Carrots and Peas: Disrupting Patterns of Thought through Mindfulness in Gallery Teaching

Written by Amanda Tobin

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.

Nick Cave "Until" Exhibition 
Nick Cave: Until installation shot. Photo credit: MASS MoCA

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.

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John Steuart Curry, “John Brown” (1939)

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).[1] 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:

  1. 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”).
  2. Repeat the question with group providing the answer at least five times.
  3. 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 atobin@massmoca.org.

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[1] 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.

Gallery Teaching Lab: Where Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

Written by Theresa Sotto

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.

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Museum educators from three different institutions–Zoe Silverman from the Hammer, Rachel Stark from the Skirball, and William Zaluski from the Getty Center–act out a short skit in a role-playing experiment led by Chelsea Hogan, who then worked at ESMoA. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hogan.

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.

Beginnings

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.”

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A prompt used in a silent conversation led by Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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.

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A GTLab experiment informed the goals for this all-ages Discovery Guide.

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.

We the People: The Radical Possibilities of Hope for Museum Learning

Written by Michelle Dezember

“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.

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Danh Võ, We The People (Detail), 2011. Courtesy Lawrence and Joan Altma

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.

hopeinthedark_coverAs 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.

1. TIME

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.

2. CONTRADICTION

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. araponraceIn 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.

3. UNKNOWABLE

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-dezemberMICHELLE 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.

Teaching Lab: Towards an Institutional Culture of Learning

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.

Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)
Molleen Theodore, Associate Curator of Programs, leads staff in a listening and looking exercise in front of Jackson Pollock’s Arabesque (number 13a.)

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.

Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)
Staff explore Pollock’s materials in a studio session, led by Assistant Curator of Conservation Cindy Schwarz (not pictured.)

About the Author

Education DepartmentELIZABETH 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.

Visitor Response Cards: What To Do When the Exhibition Is Over

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Dallas Museum of Art

Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?

Statistics and Evaluation

As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.

Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts.  When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.

Starry Crown and responses

A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.

In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space.  In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses.  We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.

YLG Post its

After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage?  Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?”  What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets?  Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses?  Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?

Re-Cycling

When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space.  When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer.  In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses.  The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.”  From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems.  The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.

This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations.  Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:

Kendra categories

From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors.  First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.

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What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?

Unplugging to Plug In: Encouraging Reflective Practice

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.

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The Youth Corps’ Guide to Unplugging. Photo by Da Ping Luo

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.

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Marina Abramović and Igor Levit speak to Youth Corps students in summer 2015. Photo by Da Ping Luo

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.

You can read the full Guide to Unplugging here.

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.

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Youth Corps speak to 450 New York City high school students at the student matinee of Goldberg, alongside Marina Abramović. Photo by Da Ping Luo

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.

ycreflection
(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

Be Present

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.

Be Vulnerable

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

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Youth Corps work with performance artist and vocalist Helga Davis (right) to explore unplugging. Photo by Pip Gengenbach

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.

Challenge Yourself

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.)

The Fall 2015 Youth Corps cohort. Photo by Chelsea Emelie Kelly
The Fall 2015 Youth Corps cohort. Photo by Chelsea Emelie Kelly

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

The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Written by Susan Spero

“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.

Renior-Zucker
Gallery view with Renoir, Phillips Collection. Flickr Photo by Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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?

looking-at-painting2
Flickr Photo by Chris Short, galleries at North Carolina Museum of Art. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

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.

Header image: Flickr photo by John D., “Forest Stream,” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0