Tag Archives: staff development

Art Therapy at the Manchester Museum

Written by Chloe Sykes

This guest post from Chloe Sykes, Art Therapist Trainee, is reposted with persmission from the Manchester Museum’s hello future blog.

As a trainee art psychotherapist, I was very fortunate to be offered my final placement at Manchester Museum in the UK. As it has come to an end, I have been asked to write a blog post reflecting on my time at the museum. But first, I will briefly explain what an art therapist does.

Art therapy (or art psychotherapy – both are protected and interchangeable titles) is a mental health intervention and has the scope to be utilised in many different ways. Some people engage in art therapy with no previous art making experience but want to explore and connect to their thoughts and feelings in a creative way.

Using art materials during the therapy session can allow someone to find meaningful ways to explore any difficulties and/or develop new self care and resilience tools. It is my role to be alongside them during this journey, ensuring the person feels safe, seen and understood.

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Image 1: Reflective image exploring the role of the art therapist in create a safe space for a client.

Image 1 explores how it is the art therapist’s role to ensure the therapy space feels safe, protected and secure (shown by the blue outer circle). This allows a client to feel like they are somewhere that they can express their thoughts and feelings freely (like the centre of image 1, with the free-flowing colours and textures, feelings and thoughts, remaining held by the blue circle).

During my experiences prior to and throughout my training, I have developed a keen passion for working with different communities. I believe that a person’s mental health and well-being can be influenced by how we engage socially and individually. Unfortunately, mental health is sometimes hard to navigate and can often be daunting to experience alone. Therefore, it is exciting to see and be part of a cultural establishment that is actively making space for mental health and well-being. I truly do believe there is a place for health and well-being to be offered alongside the learning that is already available for communities; these cultural organisations have a great opportunity to bring people together through exploring the arts and our history. It is through this sense of coming together and sharing experiences, when paired up with creativity, that culture can have a powerful positive effect on a person’s well-being.

The Manchester Museum is already known for doing amazing work, engaging in various ways, with many local communities and organisations. This is something that clearly aligns well with my own passions. So, at the very start of the placement, time was spent considering where art therapy could lay within the museum and their already existing outreach partnerships. It seemed natural to introduce an art therapy service that would be offered to the organisation as well as their participants.

The planned art therapy sessions were to be held within the museum; regular sessions making artwork and exploring museum objects, in a way that would relate to how a client was potentially thinking and feeling. However, as the ripple effects of COVID-19 took hold, the shape of the placement at the museum had to adapt to the ‘new normal’. As people and organisations took the necessary time to adapt to the new unknown, it seemed appropriate to adjust where art therapy could lie during these times at the museum. A new direction was taken to offer virtual art therapy sessions to the museum staff and volunteers during the lockdown.

Each week I have been facilitating individual art therapy sessions for staff and volunteers through video conferencing. In spite of meetings being held virtually, they have still been very beneficial in many ways. A simple example of this has been how simply having a weekly time scheduled for meetings has given a much-needed sense of routine during a time when everything else seems so unknown. Also, knowing that there is a protected hour each week to reflect on any difficulties can be very powerful for some, it can feel like a beneficial space to breathe and pause.

As a trainee art therapist, facilitating something as personal and intimate as therapy over video calling needed to be carefully thought about. Because video calling can sometimes feel distant and strange, it was important to make some adaptations in light of this shift onto online delivery. Under normal circumstances, sharing the same space in therapy allows for a sense of safety and trust.

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Image 2: Reflective image of connecting in a therapeutic space virtually.

Image 2 (above) explores the ideas of sharing a space and time whilst being in a different place. Moving online, it was important to still have ways to feel like we were sharing the same safe space, despite being at separate locations, finding a way to feel connected. I introduced the use of lighting a candle at the beginning of each session (seen in the centre of the drawing). This allowed for us both to know that we had entered into the same shared space (connecting our separate spaces together through the candles). Blowing out the candles also brought the session to a close in unity; it also was a reminder of returning back to our own homes and metaphorically stepping out of the shared space.

Grounding exercises were useful for some, as it helped to bring the mind back into the virtual therapy space and similarly, back into their homes at the end of the session. Much like a commute, where we have some space to allow our minds to return to where we were before.

Once we had virtually entered into the shared space, art making through various materials was used as a way to explore any thoughts or feelings for the clients. Sometimes, even online museum collections or galleries were used, with reflective chats about what those images meant for the person. The images (made or found) were reflected on, discussing what feelings, thoughts or sometimes memories were brought forward, or sometimes an imaginative narrative would be given to the piece(s).

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The creativity and presence of a therapist allows for expression of sometimes powerful emotions to be discovered, seen, felt and shared. This can be a very healing process which is what the image 3 above explores. Clients often come to therapy feeling overwhelmed or stuck, seen in the left-hand side of the drawing.  During the course of therapy, these overwhelming feelings and areas where they feel stuck can be explored and begin to be understood, so that the client no longer feels overwhelmed or stuck. Instead, hopefully they will be able to recognise their feelings/thoughts/behaviours and understand what they mean (the right hand side of the drawing).

Another way that art making can help with growth is through the use of experimenting with art materials in a space that feels secure. Playing with art making, making mistakes and finding new ways to use the materials can allow self-esteem to foster. As materials are like symbolic tools to learn how to use what we already have, uniquely for each person whilst being thought of and supported by the therapist.

Over the past few months it has been a privilege to see how creativity has been used to gain a sense of understanding and bring people together despite being in lockdown. The art therapy for the museum staff and volunteers allowed for any mental health and well-being struggles to be taken on a journey of discovery and growth.

Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis

Written by Jason Porter

All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff. 

Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions. 

And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work —  is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities. 

MoPOP PopCon
MoPOP PopCon

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.  

But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time. 

I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention

It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection. 

Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.

There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement. 

After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.   

All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.

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About the Author

JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.

Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.

Code Red for the Museum Education Profession

Written by Brian Hogarth

Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 20, 2020; revised with edits and updated figures, April 30, 2020.

The museum education profession is, for the second time in a decade, taking a serious blow that could have a devastating impact on the future of the profession.

For both educators and museum management, this is a critical moment. Decisions made now will have repercussions beyond the immediate fiscal crisis. I know. I have been in decision making positions and impacted positions before — in 1990, in 2001, in 2009-10, and now this crisis, which dwarfs all the previous situations.

The immediate situation is daunting. Revenues have plummeted. With buildings closed, most education programs cannot take place. There is not enough cash on hand to meet payroll, so a variety of layoffs, furloughs and/or salary reductions are taking place.

An anonymous excel spreadsheet has been circulating that shows numbers of positions affected. There are approximately 3,400 layoffs and 8,500 furloughed positions listed at several hundred institutions across the country as of April 30, 2020. The numbers might be small in comparison to the almost 30 million workers that have applied for unemployment in the overall economy. But what’s notable is how many of these affected positions are educators and other front-line positions. Moreover, this is “the first phase” with more layoffs possible when the current fiscal year ends in a couple of months. And more institutions still have to report in.

The critical question for me, as with prior recessions, is why education staff is, yet again, bearing the brunt of these layoffs? What impact is the loss of many positions going to have on the long-term viability of the profession and the public value of museums?

Even before the virus/lock down situation arose, many young professionals were voicing concern over the lack of paid internships and low starting pay for positions in museum education, relative to the higher costs of living in large cities where many museums are concentrated. Many have noted the increasing numbers of contracted, part-time, or seasonal positions (the gig economy at work). In some of the major institutions in New York City, large numbers of gallery educators are now as-needed employees. Cancellations of programs means the almost immediate cancellation of these work opportunities. Granted, some institutions have agreed to pay workers for scheduled work for the next month or so and there have been pay reductions for full-time staff.

Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.

The net effect is not encouraging for the health of the profession. Right now, it looks unsteady and volatile. People who work on museum programs along with other front-line staff are seeing that their jobs are expendable. The few that remain in positions will feel guilty and will be under added pressure to retain near normal amounts of programming. This will put added stress on their plates and some will leave when alternative opportunities come up.

This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.

Museums that mainly hire people with the means to work in the profession will have difficulty engaging more diverse publics. These publics will prefer to support organizations that are more reflective of their needs, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Statements from museums to the press often refer to the need for endowments and collections to be preserved for the future viability of the organization. If fiscal matters are all that matters, then museums begin to resemble banks, who’s job is to preserve the assets of the bank for the benefit of investors. But museums exist to serve the public. They commit themselves to being mission- driven, and those mission statements usually say something about education and public value. Museums should be asking — how are we preserving our educational mission? What critical and essential work can we continue to provide for the public, even while our buildings are closed? Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these. Scientists warn that further pandemics will arise, on top of the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Now is a good time to rethink public services and to prepare for the next crisis.

The big question for museums is– is this a time for retrenchment, pulling up the drawbridge and retreating behind the walls? Or is it time to fulfill the promise of museums as outward-facing, publicly-spirited organizations? How about forming new partnerships, with libraries, with other disciplines like the performing arts, to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities? What about offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities? What about rethinking the role of education, beyond the constant production of events on site, and instead, getting out into the community and other sectors of society, to conduct more research and evaluation, to redesign services around what people really need and want rather than what we as experts, assume the public wants to consume? Now is a good time to articulate and roll out new public benefits and to continue the good work around diversity and inclusion. It’s time to redefine education work as essential, as core to the mission and its fulfillment. Let’s not emphasize self-preservation above all else. Preservation and access are not one before the other, but both/and. Like yin and yang, they are interdependent. Educational work is not a matter of convenience, when times are good. It is unfinished work that continues with each generation. It helps to preserve the institution by building social value across life spans, which translates into support.

About a decade ago, before the last big round of layoffs, I conducted an informal survey of museum education departments, and discovered that such departments averaged around 5-7% of annual operating budgets, including salaries, but not including any one-time project grants. While there are many lucrative grants that directly support education programs, it often comes as a surprise to the public to know that large events raising money for education often end up supporting general operating costs. If education is deemed to be an essential part of the mission, we must be careful not to use education as a convenient flag to wave for supporting what is deemed to be more important, inward facing tasks.

If mission statements articulating the importance of education and public engagement are to be taken seriously, and if museums expect to attract a diverse pool of applicants to fill future public-facing positions, then they need to come up with a more sustainable formula for the steady provision of those services. Just as interest drawn from endowment investments is applied to operating expenses at steady levels over several years so as not to affect the principle, so each museum should commit to never falling below a certain threshold of support for education and public programs. To weather the ups and downs of funding individual programs, it would help to endow more mid-level, full-time positions in education (endowments typically go to curatorial positions, and occasionally to Directors of Education) and to create a small fund to support paid internships to provide pathways for a more equitable and diverse pool of future museum staff. This is too important a task to be left up to individual museum organizations. It should be strengthened at the national level in terms of museum assessment programs and professional standards.

The central importance of education work in cultural organizations needs to be recognized and elevated. Words like this are not enough. There needs to be actionable steps taken. I invite readers to consider additional ways of building and securing a more positive outlook for the museum profession. Right now, and far too often, museum education takes a beating. Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future.

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About the Author

BRIAN HOGARTH is the Director for Museum Education Programs at Bank Street College in New York City. A native of Toronto, Canada, Brian worked in performing arts management before becoming Manager of Public Programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and Head of Interpretation at the Glenbow in Calgary. In the US, he has been Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Education at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was for ten years Director of Education at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He has taught classes in art history and museum education at Johns Hopkins (Online) Museum Studies, Johnson Community College in Overland Park, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Brian holds an MA in East Asian Art History and a BA in Fine Arts/Theatre.

 

 

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.

Supporting Leaders of Tomorrow in Museum Education Today

Written by Wendy Ng & Rachel Trinkley

When you’re regularly working 10-hour days doing everything from implementing strategic initiatives to signing timesheets, how do you manage to be a leader in those circumstances?  Ask any exempt staff (1) and they’ll no doubt share stories of being overworked, under-resourced, and despite the best of intentions, feeling overwhelmed and less than effective. Given this reality, beyond your personal conviction and will power to do a good job, what makes a great leader?  What supports do leaders today and tomorrow need to be successful?  What strengths and skills can museum educators bring to leadership roles?

These questions guided an interactive session we led at the National Art Education Association Annual Convention in March 2015.  During the session, colleagues shared the qualities they believe make a great leader.  If you think about a great leader from your own life, you’ll probably recognize many of these same qualities including:

  • has vision
  • is innovative
  • is a great listener
  • speaks the truth
  • is courageous
  • accepts and learns from failure
  • is strategic when fighting battles
  • knows when to follow rather than lead
  • models behavior for staff
  • brings others along and empowers others
  • is a chief storyteller

From there, we split into groups and tackled the top three leadership issues we face, as chosen by those assembled:

  1. developing and supporting staff
  2. institutional culture change
  3. making change at your level

Since we believe in the power of collective minds, and know that there are incredibly smart, capable people in our work, we endeavored to develop solutions or, at least, resources and places to begin. Here’s what we learned…

Developing and Supporting Staff

Build time into our practice, as individuals and as teams, for reflection.  Given the theme of the convention, use Design Thinking to test, prototype, and create solutions as staff through an iterative process.  Books recommended were Coaching Skills for Non-Profit Managers and Leaders and Managing to Change the World.

Institutional Culture/Climate Change

Create interdisciplinary teams and use Design Thinking to create solutions.  Change takes time and is an investment – you’ll need to weather storms and stay more than two to three years at an institution.  It takes courage to run with it, create a space that doesn’t exist, and ask forgiveness later, not permission.  Flip authority within by trusting others with the reins.

Making change at your level

Whether you are a volunteer, intern, part-time staff, full-time staff, or a director, hold yourself to high standards while knowing your limitations.  Modeling change versus talking about change is more impactful.  Awareness of change leads to more collaboration, which leads to growing success and less discouragement, which generates more ideas.  The book Tempered Radicals was recommended.

design-thinking
Design thinking, Flickr photo by Cedim News. CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

As we reflected on the outcomes of that session recently, we realized the values, challenges, solutions all still feel relevant to us. When we talked about our current environments and work realities however, some new questions and challenges emerged:

  • has vision – what if others on your team don’t share that vision?
  • is innovative – what if others define innovation differently?
  • is a great listener – what if others aren’t listening to you?
  • speaks the truth – what if others don’t want to hear it?
  • is courageous – what if your courage backfires?
  • accepts and learns from failure – what if failure negatively impacts your job or career? What if others in your institution don’t value failure?
  • is strategic when fighting battles – when does strategy become political and personality-driven?
  • knows when to follow rather than lead – how do you follow when there’s a lack of trust?
  • models behaviour for staff – what if staff are not receptive?  For example, emerging and mid-career professionals tend to prefer flat rather than hierarchical organizational structures compared to more senior professionals.
  • brings others along and empowers others – what if they disappoint?
  • is a chief storyteller – what if it’s a story others aren’t ready to hear? What if your story is competing for airtime, or there’s no one to hear it?

Perhaps these questions, or similar versions, have emerged in your setting as well, whether quietly or loudly. How do leaders tackle these very real, messy issues? What sources of strength, knowledge, or wisdom can we mine to support both ourselves and others?

We invite your thoughts and responses to these and other questions — add to the Comments below, or share your questions via social media.

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Notes

[1] The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act determines many employment standards, including who is or is not “exempt” from overtime pay. Many museum workers are exempt from overtime pay due to their work duties.

About the Authors

WENDY NG: Manager, Learning at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, where she oversees School Visits, Traveling Programs, and the Hands-on Galleries.  Previously, Wendy worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario as Coordinator, Elementary School and Teacher Programs, and other museums in Washington, DC and London, England.  She holds a BFA and BEd from York University, a MAT in Museum Education from George Washington University, and is certified by the Ontario College of Teachers.

RACHEL TRINKLEY: Director of Education for Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington DC, a new children’s museum being developed for the nation’s capital. Prior to joining the museum, she worked at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio), where she managed the docent program and served as Assistant Director of Learning. She holds a BA from Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, and an MA in art history from Ohio State University.

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Header Image: PopTech Flickr photo, “2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, no changes made to photo.

 

Plan, Implement, Evaluate: Leveraging All Staff for Program Development

Written by Mike Deetsch, Director of Education & Engagement, Toledo Museum of Art

Plan

In 2010 the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) passed its 2015 Strategic Plan with an emphasis on the Museum’s Purpose: Art Education. One of the primary intentions behind the plan was to create a more relevant and sustainable Museum and at this point we adopted the Strategic Objective of Teaching Visual Literacy.  The thought process behind this, brought forward by the Museum’s director Brian Kennedy, was that the Museum would leverage great works of art in the collection to teach people to see better in our 21st century’s image-saturated society.  Since this time there have been a variety of visual literacy-specific initiatives developed by the Museum, including The Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, a docent training class highlighting visual perception, and the creation of a Visual Literacy website.

In November 2014 the Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 47th annual conference for the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).  As part of the preparation for this conference, in January 2014 the education department was charged with designing a professional development program that would train all Museum staff and volunteers on the theories and processes around visual literacy. With the conference imminent, we wanted to ensure that any staff or volunteer in the organization would feel comfortable talking about visual literacy with any of our attending guests.

Before my colleagues and I developed the curriculum, we needed to clarify TMA’s approach to teaching visual literacy and its associated concepts. Our goal was to make the content accessible to a wide audience.  It might go without stating, but not everyone on our staff has a background in art, art history, or art museums.  Keeping in mind that we were going to be training such a diverse audience (i.e. all museum departments as well as docents and other volunteers), our approach couldn’t be intimidating and had to be presented in a fun and engaging way.

We had been incorporating visual literacy concepts into programming in a number of ways since 2010, but those programs largely lived with the education department.  To be successful on this project, it was clear that it was essential to engage a variety of staff members outside of education in order for the concepts to “stick” and be embodied throughout the organization.  Aided by strong support from the director’s office, we pulled together a cross-departmental team of 14 staff, for three consecutive Tuesdays in February 2014, to brainstorm around visual literacy concepts.  This team consisted of staff from curatorial, education, library, marketing, visitor engagement, visitor services, and the director’s office.

Visual Literacy Content Meeting 021114

Our meetings took place in a white board room (three walls covered in white board paint) where we were able to discuss, brainstorm, and illustrate ideas.  While the participants were not always in agreement, we were able to use these meetings (about six hours total) to land on consensus for our key process which include:

  1. an easy to understand definition of visual literacy,
  2. the Elements of Art and Principles of Design as the foundational vocabulary,
  3. the Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, and
  4. the concepts of interpretation distilled into four visual languages.

During these sessions the group realized the value of aligning the TMA’s definition of visual literacy with textual literacy.  The comparison to textual literacy is important for two reasons: one, it makes an analogy that people are already familiar with and, two, it gives the Museum the opportunity to shift the discussion from literacy to language.  The latter shift was key because focus groups had been telling us that literacy implies there are people who are illiterate, while language implies level of fluency.  TMA’s definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, comprehend, and write visual language.  Reading visual language is about the process of seeing, comprehending visual language is about the interpretation of seeing, and writing visual language is about the action you take in response to what you have seen.

Implement

With the definition, process, and concepts in place my colleague Kate Blake, Manager of Curriculum, and I drafted the curriculum for the professional development.  From the outset of writing the curriculum we identified a few musts: the program needed to be multidisciplinary, meaning it wasn’t going to be art history-centric; it needed to be activity-based; and it had to be taught in the galleries.

As museum educators we know the value in using a variety of approaches to gallery learning, including group discussion, small group activities, drawing, and independent exploration.  Facilitating activities, opposed to discussion only, would afford us the chance to engage with a variety of learning styles and dabble into a bit of game mechanics.  By making the approach activity-based, we were able to engage our staff in the overall experience which proved to be useful in retaining the concepts  introduced.

Staff participating in Visual Literacy workshop activity.
Staff participating in Visual Literacy workshop activity.

As I mentioned earlier this training was offered to TMA staff and volunteers, in all approximately 300 individuals.  In the end we designed a curriculum of 12 contact hours which introduced the concepts surrounding Visual Literacy, spent time on close looking techniques, and gave special emphasis to the four visual languages.  Kate and I knew that 12 hours was a significant commitment for people to give over during the work week, so we also developed a variety of workshop formats to adjust to people’s schedules accordingly.  Initially each of these sessions was facilitated by full-time TMA education staff but gradually transitioned two of our more experienced docents into facilitators.  These docents, who were both former docent board presidents, had been working closely with staff on visual literacy programming since 2010.

One lesson the facilitators quickly discovered during the workshops was the importance of acknowledging expertise, at all levels, throughout the professional development.  There were content experts, such as curators, as well as other areas of expertise. For example our security staff, which spends more time in the galleries than anyone else on staff, was actively encouraged to contribute their opinions and perspectives.  The guards’ comments were often  the most insightful for their interpretations and their observations of visitor interactions with the collection.

Evaluation and Next Steps

As a means of reflection, we developed an evaluation tool that  allowed us to make real time adjustments. Specifically we measured the digestibility (of content) and overall enjoyment.  To do this, we created a series of online surveys to collect feedback at various touch points during the 12 hour workshop.  The curriculum was grouped into six modules and each module had its own evaluation.  While the evaluation was not a requirement for participation, we collected over 300 surveys.  The general response was positive, with most activities receiving a rating of 5 (out of 6) on a Likert scale. Open-ended questions provided constructive feedback that we were able to act on immediately, such as making a slight adjustment to our definition of visual literacy and dropping activities that did not resonate or were too complicated.

Staff feedback to Visual Literacy workshops.
Staff feedback to Visual Literacy workshops.

All told between April and October 2014, our team of eight facilitated 28 workshops, totaling 336 hours, for 300 staff and volunteers.  The entire experience, from design to facilitation, relied heavily on cross-departmental staff involvement, input, and engagement.  As a result we were able to design a clear and concise introductory visual literacy curriculum which we have been able to repurpose for a variety of audiences and in a multitude of formats since getting the staff involved.  Our staff and volunteers clearly understand TMA’s Purpose is Art Education and that we will achieve it by Teaching Visual Literacy now.

Having the opportunity to share and rely on expertise throughout the Museum proved invaluable throughout the entire process.  How many of you have the opportunity to cross collaborate on projects from start to finish?  If so, what does that look like?  And do you have the opportunity to prototype new ideas?  How can we build that into our practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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About the Author

headshotMIKE DEETSCH: Emma Leah Bippus Director of Education and Engagement at the Toledo Museum of Art, Deetsch is a key member of the Museum’s executive team, leading educational and programming initiatives across the Museum. He is responsible for curriculum development for all audiences, outreach, exhibition interpretive material and management of the docent program as well as conceptualizing innovative public programming.  He oversees a strong, motivated education staff and a highly engaged TMA docent corps responsible for developing visual literacy initiatives and partnering to create opportunities for visual literacy education and awareness.  Prior to joining the TMA staff, Deetsch served as a senior museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition and programs director at the Lexington Art League, and the student programs manager at the Kentucky Historical Society. Deetsch received his master’s degree in art education from the Pratt Institute and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Hanover College. He was chosen in 2011 to participate in the Getty Leadership Institute’s “Museum Leaders: the Next Generation.”

Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice

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

Photo by Jason Brownrigg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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