Tag Archives: visitor engagement

Inviting Intimate Conversations on Our Fears and Anxieties about the Future

Written by Justina Barrett, Catherine Ricketts, Greg Stuart, and Alicia Valencia

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art during this moment of unprecedented change in the face of the COVID-19, we’ve been thinking about our past in order to grapple with the anxieties we have about our future, as many of those who are reading this in 2020 are probably doing. It’s in this light that a public program we developed, called The Designer Is In, feels remarkably prescient.

In October of 2019, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened the first stage of the exhibition, Designs for Different Futures, which is a collaboration with our institution, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Walker Art Center. This exhibition explores how contemporary designers imagine, respond to, and ask questions about the future. As we in the Public Programs department were in the planning stages for the exhibition, we were noticing that many of the issues tackled in the exhibition, including climate change, the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence in our lives, and the heightened role of digital surveillance–just to name a few–were making us feel anxious.

In talking with one of the curators of the exhibition, Michelle Millar Fisher, we envisioned that visitors would need a space to process, relax, and decompress after engaging with this content. This led to the creation of the Futures Therapy Lab, a space where on any given day, visitors could make art, peruse a library of books crowdsourced from staff and community members about themes in the exhibition, respond to questions on a share wall, and just generally hang out.

The Futures Therapy Lab was also designed to be an active programming space, with artist talks, drop-in art-making workshops, a program called SciFi Sundays–in which local science fiction authors would read excerpts of their works–and more.

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Visitors interact with the Futures Therapy Lab’s offerings.

Within the scope of programming we were developing for the Futures Therapy Lab, we felt we needed something more specifically tethered to the world of “therapy,” and in this lab space of experimentation, we wanted to engage visitors on a smaller scale at the level of intimate conversation, and we thought designers could fill this role with our visitors. We were certainly not imagining that they would replicate or replace the role of a trained and licensed therapist, but that if we approached the topic of therapy in a playful way, it could be an opportunity to engage our audiences in the kind of rich conversations we were imagining the exhibition would provoke. We also wanted to go into this project with the idea that a designer may not be interested in solving problems or bringing visitors to a meaningful resolution, but that it was more important to use this opportunity to pose questions and challenge assumptions, much like a good therapist would do.

To meet these goals, we implemented The Designer Is In, bringing designers and visitors together for discussion in the Lab after experiencing the exhibition. The cast of designers who could facilitate a purposeful experience in the Lab was central to the efficacy of this program. The design field is by nature broad, cross-disciplinary, and constantly evolving, and this is especially true in the case of the Designs for Different Futures exhibition which covers an expansive range of themes. Multiple and potentially conflicting ideas may come to mind when imagining the role of a “designer” – how they tackle big questions, work through problems, and test possible solutions. For our purposes, we looked for “designers-in-residence” who could explore these complex impressions together with visitors, and approach speculating about the future in constructive, collaborative ways. We reached out to artists, designers, and practitioners from the Philadelphia area who, not only grapple with similar questions or topics to the ones posed in the exhibition, but also maintain civically minded, people-centered creative practices that depend on the kinds of collaboration and conversations we intended to encourage.

For two hours on Thursdays and Saturdays, a designer-in-residence was available in the lab to speak one-on-one with visitors about the issues and content presented in the show. A total of 10 designers-in-residence participated in the Designer Is In, coming from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, including Maia Chao of Look at Art Get Paid; Paul Farber from Monument Lab; Yadan Luo from OLIN; Raja Schaar from Drexel University; Michelle Johnson from the University of Pennsylvania; Stephanie Carlisle of KieranTimberlake and Uncertain Terrain; Andrew Wit of WITO; Scott Page of Interface Studio; and Alex Gilliam of Tiny WPA. Our intention was not to have a designer-in-residence speak to the specifics of every object in the exhibition. Instead, each individual was to offer their own perspectives regarding designing and planning for the future, based on what they encounter in their own distinctive practices. We asked designers-in-residence to speculate with visitors about the experience of designing for the future in terms of their own disciplines, and provide deeper dives into specific themes when it made sense given their backgrounds.

To structure this experience, and further suggest therapeutic engagement, we designed an “intake form” for visitors to fill out before meeting with our designers-in-residence. The intake form included brief Likert scale questions to gauge a sense of confidence or apprehension in what design can accomplish. Below these initial questions, we included a brief description of the designer-in-residence present in the Lab that day, and a few different topics specific to their practice which could act as starting points for discussion, such as “Public Art and Belonging”, “Walls and Bridges”, and “Youth-Designed and Built Placespaces.” As part of the development process, we knew we needed to have outside collaborators working with us on the intake form and experience of The Designer Is In, so we partnered with Josephine Devanbu from Look At Art Get Paid and Paul Farber from Monument Lab. Devanbu and Farber helped us think through the experience of the interaction between a visitor and a designer-in-residence from start to finish, and with their input we designed an intake form that could provoke questions, start a dialogue, and guide the conversation.

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The designer is in fact “in,” and ready for visitors. Photo by Raja Schaar.

Now that we had built and designed the program, would visitors participate? Certainly, this is a question that precedes every public program, but we were dipping our toes even more into the unknown than usual. Fortunately, from the very beginning, we found that our designers-in-residence were almost continually engaged with visitors during their two hour stints, and visitors were spending as much as a half hour talking with them.

We collected reactions from visitors on the back page of the Intake Form, asking, “What’s one thing you want to take with you from your experience today?” Some expressed their reactions to the exhibition itself, which ranged from “Terrifying,” to “Yolo baby!” Those who felt tense after seeing the exhibition reported that they appreciated the opportunity to talk through that tension. At the end of their Designer Is In sessions, one wrote, “I feel better. Interesting collaborations and innovations. There really is good here!” Others, after seeing the exhibition, expressed a desire for human interaction: “I just want to connect, be in touch;” “Where is the human element amid so much technology?” Designer Is In offered just such an opportunity, and elicited responses like, “A pleasure to discuss this exhibit with a designer. [It made] this exhibition personal.” In addition to the personal nature of the program, visitors appreciated its informative quality: “Important to have experts communicating a well-informed perspective about design rather than reactive or overly optimistic models. Thank you for having experts present to interpret this exhibit,” wrote one visitor.

We concluded each designer’s residency with open-ended follow-up questions. One theme in their feedback was the benefit of this program to the designers’ own practice. The opportunity to speak about their work with a diverse cross-section of visitors sparked new ideas and offered fresh perspectives. For instance, designer-in-residence Raja Schaar reported having spoken to a neuroscientist, an international diplomat for climate change and women’s rights, a banker, a software developer, recent design graduates, kids in STEAM magnet schools, videographers, and dancers. These conversation partners offered her “a totally new perspective” and “a new strong argument point for [her] research.” Often, designers’ work is very specialized, and the Designer Is In program allowed our collaborators to test ideas and to practice discussing their work with the general public, proving mutual benefit.

Now that this program is finished, we’ve been asking ourselves what lessons we’ve learned, and how can these lessons be applicable to the broader museum community, regardless of whether this exhibition travels to your site or you have a dedicated programming space like our Futures Therapy Lab.

Communication is hard. Communication is crucial.

One of the challenges that we faced in developing this program is how to communicate what the program even is to visitors. While the experience of therapy might be one that many of our visitors share, it’s not expected in a museum setting, and it took a lot of explication, both on the part of our Futures Therapy Lab staff–educators who were on the front lines of communicating with the public in the space–and on the part of the designers-in-residence themselves. We could have done more to better communicate the nature of the program at the outset, and even–after some helpful feedback from one designer-in-residence–at the start of the exhibition before visitors even entered the Futures Therapy Lab.

A more positive outcome regarding communication around this program was the internal communication engendered amongst us as staff. Even though the four of us all worked in Public Programs at this time, we all have different programs we are responsible for, and somewhat different audiences. It was a nice opportunity to break down even the small silos that exist among us.

From “we” back to “me”

One of the biggest takeaways from this program, especially given how much our regularly scheduled programming and teaching takes the form of group conversations or even larger format lectures and performances that reach hundreds, is the importance of reaching our visitors one person at a time. Furthermore, by creating a public space for “therapy,” our hope is that this program in some small ways reduces the stigma regarding seeking treatment for mental health.

As we’ve been reflecting on this program through the lens of our own thoughts and anxieties during this period of global pandemic, this type of programming feels more relevant than ever. Live interpretation in special exhibitions in our museum has typically been limited to guided tours with volunteer docents. The Futures Therapy Lab and the Designer Is In more specifically gave us a footprint within the exhibition to populate with educators and collaborators; it opened us up more (in the art museum world) to strategies employed by progressive historic site and history museum practitioners when dealing with difficult content.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience trains its members to challenge visitors’ preconceptions, foster dialogue and spark civic action that enables the past to activate the future. Historic sites across the country that are responsibily interpreting the history of slavery and race have turned to live interpreters to do so.

In a post-pandemic America, museums will have to argue for why they matter even more. What if museums just become warehouses of objects with only online programming? These curated spaces of reflection and emotional engagement could be a reason to come into the building. The live, skilled facilitator helping visitors process the content of a gallery may prove to be the best return on investment museums will make.

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Illustration from Futures Therapy Lab staff member, Samuel Solomon, reflecting on The Designer Is In.

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About the Authors

JUSTINA BARRETT holds a master’s degree in early American material culture from the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware complements well her interest and love of sharing Philadelphia with visitors. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she works as Site Manager for Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove, two historic homes in Fairmount Park administered by the Museum. She also designs programs and trains guides to share the Museums’ collections with the public. Working with Museum curators, preservation professionals, and other stakeholders, she advocates for preservation and public access to local historic sites.

CATHERINE RICKETTS works on performance programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a special focus on music programming. She is also an essayist and songwriter. Her writing on art, music, grief, and spirituality has been published in The Millions, Image, and Paste. Read and listen at http://www.catherinedanaricketts.com

GREG STUART is Coordinator of Adult Public Programs and Museum Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to joining the PMA, he worked in Public Programs and Education at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University, and as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

ALICIA VALENCIA is a former ArtTable Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art working in Public Programs, and holds an MDes from Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Art, Design, and the Public Domain. She completed her undergraduate education as a Brown|RISD Dual Degree student, earning an Sc.B in Psychology from Brown University and a BFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She has previously worked at the Boston Museum of Science in Early Childhood Interpretation, the Providence Children’s Museum, and the Decorative Arts and Design Department at the RISD Museum.

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Featured Image: Installation view of Another Generosity, a work in which visitors encounter an inflatable pod measuring 15 feet in diameter; first created in 2018 by Finnish architect Eero Lundén and designed in this incarnation in collaboration with Ron Aasholm and Carmen Lee. The pod slowly expands and contracts in the space, responding to changing levels of carbon dioxide as visitors exhale around it, and provoking questions about the ongoing effect of the human footprint on the environment.  Photo from philamuseum.org exhibition website.

Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: A Conversation

By Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara

In an essay reflecting on how his past trauma influenced his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, writer Geoffrey Mak said, “Our lives are not going back to normal, as one way of being has been abruptly and unilaterally aborted, without our consent. Instead, we’re left with the grief for tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars evaporated, and a future of promise that was wiped out for an entire generation.”

Mak speaks to something profound – a collective trauma – that many people are struggling to comprehend, the magnitude of which is still beyond our ability to envision or understand because it is ongoing. In our field, we’re grappling with acknowledging that loss alongside a desire to do what we can to ensure a better future. In light of this, four of us gathered over Zoom to talk about what we are calling trauma-aware art museum education.  We wanted to figure out how we, as educators, can be more prepared to encounter trauma when the public returns to museums and how we can cultivate safe experiences for visitors to process the effects of these unprecedented times. We are sharing the transcript of the first convening of our trauma-aware art museum education (T-AAME) group.

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Talking about trauma-aware art museum education via Zoom. From upper left, clockwise: Emily Wiskera, Laura Evans, Stephen Legari, Andrew Palamara.

Laura: Could everyone go around and introduce themselves and then we can jump into the topic of trauma-aware art museum education?  Andrew, could you start us off?

Andrew: I’m Andrew Palamara, the Associate Director of Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). I manage the training, evaluation, and recruitment of docents at the CAM.

Emily: I’m Emily Wiskera, Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art. I oversee educational programming for visitors with disabilities.

Stephen: I’m Stephen Legari, Program Officer for Art Therapy at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). I facilitate museum-based art therapy groups, supervise interns, manage our community art studio, and collaborate on research.

Laura: And, I’m Laura Evans. I’m a professor at the University of North Texas and I run the Art Museum Education Certificate program. I am so happy we could all be together right now, thinking about this important topic. Maybe, before we jump in, we can talk about the terminology. “Trauma” is a pretty heavy term. How are we defining trauma in relation to COVID-19?  Can we explain why we are using the words trauma-aware?  What does that mean?

Stephen: Trauma is both a heavy term and a prevalent one. Our discussion around what it means to become trauma-aware as museum staff, particularly educators, is to both acknowledge with sincerity and respect that trauma is everywhere. But trauma is also highly subjectively experienced and expressed. Museums, by their nature, are environments where people’s collective and individual narratives are elicited and we cannot ignore, in good conscience, that this includes stories that are traumatic.

Laura: And, a result of this pandemic will inevitably include trauma: major traumas and micro-traumas. As you said, Stephen, we cannot, in good conscience, ignore these experiences of trauma when we return to our museums.

Emily: But, I think we should also keep in mind that not everyone will experience this pandemic as traumatic. For some, school and business closures may have removed them from otherwise toxic or trauma-inducing environments. Others may be experiencing multiple layers of trauma, as we are seeing with the tragic rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases. Experiencing trauma is an almost universal part of the human experience. But as in all situations, context and resources play a role. We should also be aware that in-depth processing of trauma likely won’t be immediate. We begin to work through trauma and start the process of healing when we feel emotionally safe to do so.

Laura: And, we can play a role in creating those safe spaces. But, before we talk about what that might look like, Andrew and Emily, do you want to tell us how and why you started thinking about trauma-aware art museum education and why you think it is important that we explore this right now?

Andrew: In January 2020, the Learning & Interpretation team at the CAM went through a half-day training on trauma-informed practice with Amy Sullivan, a local counselor with a private practice called Rooted Compassion. It revolved around understanding our own personal trauma before we begin to understand it in others. Once the pandemic hit the U.S., something clicked with me: this might be the most urgent time to formalize a trauma-aware approach to what we do at the museum. This is going to take a psychic toll on our personal lives and how we think about going to public spaces going forward. I reached out to Emily to see what she thought about it.

Emily: When Andrew reached out to me, I had been considering how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting our communities and how the unique assets of the museum could be best used in response. Andrew’s thoughts about the public experiencing the pandemic as trauma connected with research that I had just stumbled upon. This early study out of China revealed a significant increase in acute Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms related to the pandemic. It seemed only natural to me that if the public was experiencing a change, that museums needed to adapt their strategies to be relevant and responsive to the experience of the public.

Laura: When Andrew and Emily came to me with this idea, I thought the perfect person to give some perspective was Stephen because of his training and his unique role as an arts therapist at the MMFA. Stephen, how does the MMFA already consider trauma in its programs and in its interactions with visitors?

Stephen: We have a community oriented practice in our education department  that goes back more than 20 years. The model of project development was founded on co-creation with community and clinical partners. In this way, becoming informed about the needs of groups who may have been impacted by trauma grew organically. These could be folks living with mental-health problems, people with complex migration histories, people negatively impacted by their experiences as patients and the list goes on. Each collaboration taught us something new. Fast-forward to 2017 and we felt equipped to have a full-time program dedicated to actual therapeutic work.

Laura: Have any of us already had a trauma-aware experience at a museum or know of someone that has?  Maybe one that you witnessed?  If so, what was that like for you or for them?

Andrew: One of my colleagues, Sara Birkofer, led a discussion with a local art therapist of an exhibition by photographer Sohrab Hura called The Levee, and we explored the intersection of emotion and mental health through Sohrab’s photographs. We started with a quick mindfulness exercise, then talked about how the brain processes trauma. She guided us as we walked through the exhibition, which featured several dozen photographs of Sohrab’s travels through the American South as one artwork. That prompted us to think about how we gravitate toward images that reflect our mental state. It was really profound to hear how other people processed their life experiences through another person’s art, and I was floored by how quickly we established an environment of trust and openness with each other. Coincidentally, right before I attended the program, I had learned that one of my docents had passed away, and this conversation really helped me process that news in a meaningful way.

sarcophagus
A roman sarcophagus depicting a battle scene. Soldiers and horses clamor over each other around the marble sides of the sarcophagus. Dallas Museum of Art.

Emily: For me, a trauma-aware museum experience starts when the lived experience of the visitor takes priority over art history. Educators may drop in bits of historical information, but their primary goal is to encourage participants to build personally meaningful pathways to connect to art, and in turn, themselves. I witnessed this in action as an intern when my former colleague, Danielle Schulz, was guiding a discussion around a Roman sarcophagus. Danielle encouraged group conversation simply by having participants start by describing what they noticed. The conversation developed naturally, leading the group to discuss who would be entombed in a sarcophagus that depicted a battle scene. When Danielle asked, “What emotions does this object evoke for you?,” one participant shared that it reminded her of her daughter who passed away as an infant. The participant expressed that with the death of her daughter, she was mourning all of her daughter’s unrealized potential. She connected this feeling with the grown soldiers on the sarcophagus, wondering if the scene was a reflection of who the entombed person was, or what they might have been.

Laura: I have had communal experiences that are similar to what you two have just described but I’ve also had solitary experiences in art museums that have allowed me to process trauma. I was severely anorexic in high school and, after getting help, went through recovery for many years after. When I was doing my PhD, I focused on Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, THIN, which is about women in treatment for their eating disorders. I first saw the exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art and I walked through the show crying. Even though I wasn’t there with anyone, I saw lots of other girls and women crying, holding hands, patting one another on the back, and it made me feel connected to them in some way. I remember catching eyes with a guard and she gave me a sympathetic, understanding smile that made me feel like it was okay to continue processing in that space. I read through the visitor comment book and it was full of narratives of women who were similarly moved by the art. Even though I thought I had recovered by that point, that experience helped me heal in a way I didn’t know I needed.

Hearing about and talking through these stories was helpful to me in thinking about experiences we’ve already witnessed or participated in that we might consider to be trauma-aware.  I know this is a seedling of an idea still, but what do we all think some of the characteristics are of what we are calling “trauma-aware art museum education” from the museum educator’s perspective?  What could it look like?  Sound like?  Feel like?

Andrew: In my review of trauma-informed resources that I’ve come across, two key qualities have emerged: empowerment and connection. In museum education, these are givens. We’ve already embraced teaching practices that empower visitors to have a voice in their interpretation of art and their experience in a museum. With that, we put a great deal of emphasis on social connection, whether it’s active (a dialogue with visitors about art) or passive (watching a performance). But I think there’s a new urgency to these characteristics in a post COVID-19 world. More than ever, we need to make space in our programming to empower the public, as though they are not just recipients of our content, but active participants that find personal meaning in museums and the art inside of it. That goes hand in hand with our need to be socially connected to each other. I think we have tacitly acknowledged that by visiting museums and caring about culture; in other words, we go to museums because we want to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. I think we saw this in the examples we just shared at the CAM, the DMA, and at Smith. Now, I think art museum educators have to make that social connection more direct and active, and we’ll have to be compassionate and creative in how we carry that out in practice.

Having said that, it’s not all about empowerment and connection. We have to consider qualities like building safety and trust with our visitors, resilience, patience, awareness of others in relation to ourselves, and reciprocity among many, many others. Emily, you’ve thought a lot about how the science behind trauma relates to what we do in museum education. Where have you seen connections between trauma and these ideas of empowerment and connection?

Brain
A diagram on the brain, with the caption “Brain Structures Involved in Dealing with Fear and Stress”. Prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and amygdala are labeled. image credit: NIH Medical Arts.

Emily: There are a few key attributes of trauma that inform the trauma-aware approach to museum education. First, is that trauma is not stored in the brain in the same way as other memories. Instead of being stored as narratives in our minds, traumatic events are imprinted on the amygdala through the emotional impact and sensory information experienced during the time of trauma- fragments of sound, smell, sights, taste or touch. A trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new emotional and sensory experiences that contradict the experience of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection.

A second important note is that trauma is pre-verbal. Reliving traumatic events often shuts down the speech center of the brain, making it difficult to express the trauma in words. This information has great ramifications to our practice as museum educators. In our programs we have traditionally explored ideas through discussion. If we want to provide visitors with productive ways to express their experience, we need to open our practice to include more visceral, emotional, or sensory-based modes of engagement and response, rather than purely verbal ones. The good news is that a trauma-aware approach to museum education is in line with Universal Design principles of multi-modal engagement and is beneficial for all, not just those who have experienced trauma.

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Left: A group of five adults use their bodies to  interpret the lines of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 29.  Right: Within a group of seated participants, a woman puts her nose up to a clear plastic scent jar which is held by the program facilitator. Dallas Museum of Art.

Stephen: It is to ask the question, how can art and art education/the art educator help facilitate experiences of containment, reassurance and safety? Trauma makes a better lens than a label. If we use trauma as a lens to appreciate both the intense difficulties some of  our visitors faced and also the brilliance of the resilience to deal with those difficulties, then we can better adapt to them and encounter  them with some kind of genuine presence. Seeing people as traumatized is simply pathologizing them and risks contributing to that trauma.

Laura: “A better lens than a label.” That is a good frame. What could trauma-aware art museum education look like from the visitor’s perspective?  Sound like?  Feel like?

Stephen: I am encouraged by what Ross Laird calls safe-enough museum experiences. If we accept that a great deal of museum content and exchange can be provocative for the visitor, then we have a framework of how to receive and manage those experiences. From the visitor’s perspective, I would encounter staff that are warm and genuine in their welcome. I would feel included even if it’s hard for me, as a visitor, to return that same measure of friendliness. I would be given some fair warning that museum content and activities can be challenging and that I might feel things. I might also be given some information about the limitation of the experience, i.e. that this is not therapy. And finally, I would encounter some flexibility in the pacing of the experience and in the attitudes of the staff who themselves can model calmness even if things get a little emotional.

Laura: Why do we think museums and art museum educators, in particular, are good places and people to do this kind of work?

Emily: The unique assets of the museum make it the perfect place for healing to begin. Since trauma affects the speech center of the brain, our public will likely be seeking out non-verbal modes to explore and express their lived experience. Visual art, a non-verbal mode of communication, is a natural fit. Another unique aspect of the museum is its ability to be a location for social interaction. Museums have moved beyond simply acting as stewards of objects or mausoleums of the past. Our value, as institutions and educators, lies in our ability to bring people together. Using art as a tool to make individual connections and share ideas, the museum provides an environment where we can be vulnerable and build social bonds. Socialization is our most fundamental survival strategy, but it is exactly this which breaks down in most forms of mental suffering and it is what we have lost during these months of pandemic isolation.

Laura: Yes, what makes museums so unique – our objects – also makes them ideal spaces for healing connections. We can all relate to objects; we all have a relationship with objects in our lives; we have all had a profound connection to an object. And, moving around, walking through, wheeling through a museum, coming close to look at a detail in a painting, moving around a sculpture; the physical movement that is required of touring a museum and looking at art can be helpful to process things too.  Elliott, Lissa and Lilit do a beautiful job of emphasizing the importance of movement in museum education in their new book.

Andrew: I see this as an extension of the DEAI work that educators in the field have prioritized in recent years. Through scholars like Paulo Friere and bell hooks and resources like the MASS Action project and Museums Are Not Neutral movement started on this site, museum educators have acknowledged the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our society and our cultural institutions. Our work requires more empathy and action on our part to ensure that museums are truly for all of our communities. Today, we still see these inequalities as communities of color are disproportionately affected by the spread and treatment of COVID-19. Just like the Museums Respond to Ferguson movement in 2015, I think this is another moment in time when we can put our social obligations to the public in clearer view.

Laura: For all of us, it’s important to make a distinction between art museum education and art therapy. This trauma-aware approach can be therapeutic but isn’t intended to be therapy, right? In Museum Objects, Health and Healing, Cowan, Laird, and McKeown write about how museum staff can, “Facilitate the therapeutic — but don’t do therapy.”  This is a really important distinction that I want to take some pains to highlight. Stephen, can you elucidate some of the differences between art museum education and art therapy in museums?  Like, what do you want art museum educators to know about why and how their work is different than your work, for example?

Stephen: My colleague who runs our well-being program and I have had to really tease out what’s the difference between a program that’s well-being focused and a program that is therapeutic, that is a therapy program. As an arts therapist, what I want to help people with the problems that are present for them and use the museum and its resources as a tool to achieve some therapeutic goals. Sometimes that means being really present with the problem and staying with the participants as those layers are being revealed.  In art therapy we are taking more risks and letting people know that discomfort and dealing with stuckness will be part of their journey. Whereas what my colleague aims to do is help people arrive and build positive experiences that are strengths-based, resilience-based, and pleasure-based. She and her collaborators meet people in the here and now and offer new experiences that help people leave feeling refreshed by their encounters with art and art-making. I can only imagine what a valuable resource that will be post-COVID; to feel refreshed by art and the people facilitating it.

Andrew: That brings up a question that I’ve had. Do you feel like there’s anything that museums have traditionally done in their educational programs that is not trauma-aware and we could dissuade each other from doing?

Stephen: I would say that any activity that prioritizes the information or the teaching, or even the outcome, over the participant experience is not trauma-aware. The sharing of participant’s material without their consent is not trauma-aware. And perhaps the presumption that our museums are for everybody is not trauma-aware. These are colonial institutions that have historically excluded an awful lot of voices and there is a  need to be actively working on that history in the present in real-time.

Laura: I know you have The Art Hive at the MMFA. Can you tell us more about it and why an open studio like the Hive could be important in the wake of COVID-19?  Why might this be a good thing for museum educators to implement post-pandemic?

ArtHive
Looking through a set of honeycomb shaped shelves, for a view of the Hive art studio. The room contains tables and chairs and the back wall is storage for a variety of art supplies. Photo by Christine Guest, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

Stephen: An Art Hive, or an open studio, I feel is a really positive, low-cost response to a diversity of needs. We know that giving visitors the opportunity to externalise their experience at the museum in some way is helpful and participatory. There are a range of responses that people have and need from art, some people need really structured experiences because it helps them feel re-contained and some people feel really encroached upon by the limitations of a structured experience. An open studio can accommodate both and really emphasize the autonomy of the visitor to make what they need to or seek the support they need to work through a creative response.

Laura: I love the idea of museums embracing the open studio concept in the wake of the pandemic, where people can use their hands to make what they feel moved to make and where they are tacitly or explicitly socializing with others in the museum. Like you said, Stephen, it is low cost and low risk but, potentially, high reward. Maybe now is a good time to wrap-up and pick this up again at another time?

Stephen: This is such a valuable conversation to be having across museums and across disciplines. I feel there is something tangible that will come of this in terms of our own education towards becoming trauma-aware and hopefully be of use to others.

Laura: I couldn’t agree more. It has been a true pleasure to connect during this time of disconnection and about such important work too. Let’s keep this conversation going. It feels like we are at the precipice of something that we should keep exploring. I hope there are others out there who are interested in thinking about this, talking about this, with us and that they will get in touch. Should we meet back in a few weeks to develop some more practical suggestions for how art museum educators can develop and facilitate trauma-aware programs?

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About the Authors

LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.  Evans received her Ph.D. in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu

STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at slegari@mbamtl.org

ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at andrew.palamara@cincyart.org

EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org

Featured Image: Family activities at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Photo by Caroline Hayeur

It’s Time to Listen: This Guggenheim Project Showed the Importance of Lending an Ear

This article originally appeared on guggenheim.org/blogs, and is used with permission.

Written by Rachel S. Ropeik

Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.

This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”

As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.

We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?

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Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.

All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/230294905

With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:

“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”

“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”

“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”

I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”

At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation.

Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.

© 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Header Image: Rachel Ropeik listens to visitors as part of the “Call to Action” at the Guggenheim. Photo: Jon Rubin © Jon Rubin

About the Author

RachelRopeikRACHEL ROPEIK: Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  Previously, she served as a museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; a Smarthistory contributor; and cultural docent for Context Travel. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and her current professional interests are in the places where accessibility, technology, and multi-modal learning intersect with art museums.  She can also perform a passable jazz dance routine and tell you a dissertation’s worth about 19th century European menswear.

Towards a More Human-Centered Museum: Part 1, Rethinking Hierarchies

Written by Mike Murawski

As common sense and straightforward as it sounds to think about museums as people- and human-centered institutions—a concept you’ve heard me write about quite a bit—this idea has faced a legacy of rather fierce opposition grounded in outdated traditions and histories. How many museums have mission statements that prioritize the colonizing actions of “collecting” and “preserving” objects, rather than fore-fronting the people-centered work of building community, growing empathy and understanding, celebrating human creativity, and cultivating engaged citizenship?  How often do museum leaders and boards make decisions that value objects and collections over staff, volunteers, and museum visitors?  What if museum leaders and professionals considered human relationships and human impact, first and foremost, when making decisions about exhibitions, interpretation, programs, facilities, policies, and practices?  Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to do just that, advancing empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture.  And this is not just putting visitors at the center of our thinking, but all of the people that make up a museum’s community—visitors, staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions.  All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem.

Embracing a mindset of openness, participation, and social connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century.  In their 2011 book Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant discuss their ideas for developing a more human organization in a world affected by social media and the Internet.

“We need organizations that are more human.  We need to re-create our organizations so that the power and energy of being human in our work life can be leveraged. This has the power not only to transform our individual experiences in the work world, but also to access untapped potential in our organizations” (p. 4).

Jasper Visser writes about museums and these aspects of a social business, quoting the Social Business Forum in defining a social business as “an organization that has put in place the strategies, technologies, and processes to systematically engage all the individuals in its ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize the co-created value.” The model of a social business, therefore, focuses on building relationships and connections among its entire community, or ecosystem of people.  For museums, this goes beyond just being visitor-centered and means thinking about staff and volunteers as well as neighbors and the broader public.  As Visser states:

“museums and most other cultural institutions are inherently social organizations to begin with. They have always thrived on intimate relations with all individuals involved in the joint creation of value.”

Insert cliche image of people working together (couldn’t resist, sorry)…

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This concept of a social museum relies on each and every stakeholder working together toward change, value, and impact (which is why using the stock image above actually makes sense to use in representing museums). The key elements of a social organization—embracing networks of people, considering social relationships inside and outside the organization, and enhancing collaboration in a way that crosses traditional boundaries—are all core to developing a human-centered mindset in museums.

Strategies for Change

So how can those of us working in museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset?  In order to become social organizations that achieve positive impact in their communities, museums need to be rethinking their internal organization structures.  Most museums rely on deeply ingrained, top-down structures that rely on territorial thinking, defined protocols, and traditional reporting structures based on academic degrees, power, silos, division, and oppression.  In these traditional hierarchies, communication flows from the top to the bottom which means that “innovation stagnates, engagement suffers, and collaboration is virtually non-existent” (Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types of Organizational Structures: Part 1, The Hierarchy,” Forbes, July 6, 2015).

Furthermore, as stated in the nationwide report Ready to Lead: Next Generation of Leaders Speak Out (2008), organizations that maintain traditional hierarchies “risk perpetuating power structures that alienate emerging leadership talent in their organizations” (p. 25).  The sluggish bureaucracy of this embedded management structure prevents a museum from being responsive to its staff and its broader community.  In other words, traditional top-down museums are just not very human-centered.  They tend to be leader-centered or focused on a few powerful individuals at the top.  So how can this be changed?  What steps can museum professionals take to think about and enact alternative structures?

To be more people-centered, museum leaders and staff can work toward more participatory, democratic, and flatter models for organizational structure.  In their recent book Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum (2017), Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson discuss this transformation taking place in museums taking a more visitor-centered approach: “new ways of working ultimately shift traditional structures and may end up equalizing roles or flattening hierarchies” (p. 6). Efforts to decentralize decision-making and promote broader collaboration lead to museums that are more innovative, more responsive to change, and more likely to have a shared central purpose across its staff, volunteers, visitors, and community stakeholders—its human ecosystem.  When we rethink and replace the outdated hierarchies, there is clearly a greater potential for a broader base of individuals to feel personal ownership over the meaningful work of museums in their communities.

In 2011, the Oakland Museum of California (OCMA) made major changes to their structure that resulted in a new cross-disciplinary and cross-functional model focused on visitor experience and community engagement.  Referred to within OCMA as “the flower,” this new organizational structure has attempted to rid the museum of some of the barriers formed by outdated ways of operating.  In 2016, their updated organizational chart had “visitor experience & public participation” at its very center, and only text references to the CEO and executive team floating around the outside.  What started as a “rake” of institutional silos, according to Executive Director Lori Fogarty, became a “flower” of cross-functional teams emphasizing transparency, input, and communication. The more decentralized flower structure has positioned this civic-minded institution to better serve and engage its community.  Here is Fogarty speaking at an ArtsFwd event in 2014:

But What Can I Do?

Aside from reinventing your entire museum’s organizational structure (which is awesome, but quite challenging and rare), there are smaller action steps that anyone can take within their own institution.

One way to make these types of changes happen is to work toward flattening communication and expanding participation in decision-making.  Seek ideas and input from staff and colleagues on a regular basis, and you don’t have to be a manager to do this.  For example, instead of using meetings to passively report out information about upcoming projects or policies, use these times to also discuss critical issues and gather input.  Even a large staff meeting can be a platform for two-way communication.  In addition, empower staff at all levels to participate in setting goals for their departments and for the museum.  This can happen at any level of an organization, and sometimes making changes at the smaller ‘grass roots’ level of an organization can eventually lead to significant changes at the top.  And involving more staff input in goal setting may take a greater investment in time across an organization, it will lead to broader feelings of ownership once those goals are being implemented and achieved on the floor with visitors.  Involving staff at all levels of an organization in goal-setting and decision-making can also work toward cultivating leadership at all levels.  Human-centered museums are institutions that recognize leaders across all levels and departments, not just at the top.

Finally, one important strategy for embracing a human-centered mindset in museums involves replacing outdated “org charts” with new ways of visualizing connections.  Everyone reading this is probably familiar with the org charts that have each position in a box, and lines connect everyone based on management and reporting.  Who manages who?  Who evaluates who? Who has power over who?  These charts fan out from the Director or CEO box at the top, ending at the bottom with lots of little boxes filled with part-time staff, security guards, volunteer docents, etc.  Not only are these charts confusing (and oftentimes quite ugly), but they emphasize oppressive power relationships and do not accurately represent the way a museum works and how staff interact with each other.

Your museum or organization might have something that looks a bit like this:

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We need to replace these old org charts with new maps that emphasize human connection and collaboration.  And you don’t need to be the human resources director or CEO to give this a try.  Take a piece of paper, draw a circle to represent yourself, and then begin adding in other staff, volunteers, or partners based on your working relationships with them.  Who do you collaborate with on a regular basis?  What working group meetings or committee meetings do you attend?  What are some of the social connections you have within your organization (yes, these count, too)?  Soon, you begin creating an organic map of your organization based on human relationships and connection.  Maybe something a bit more like this:

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Not only is this a great way to visualize and map your existing connections with others, but you can also use this as a way to identify individuals or departments in your organization that you are currently not connected with.  What are some ways you might begin to develop new connections to those people?  What impact might building new connections have on your work, their work, and the museum’s work in the broader community?

Share Your Thoughts

These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.

Are you working toward rethinking hierarchies and outdated structures in your organization?  Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.

Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!

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Check out additional posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency as well as embracing a culture of empathy.

About the Author

IMG_3329MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. Mike has been invited to lead workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse

Written by Andrew Palamara

Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.

Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.

I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.

I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.

Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:

  •     You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
  •     After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
  •     On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?

After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.

There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a  conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).

My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.

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About the Author

andrew-palamaraANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team.

 

The Urgency of Empathy & Social Impact in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”

This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity.  This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.

I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.

The words at the beginning of this post come from Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It and founder of the Empathy Library. Krznaric is among a growing chorus of voices who see an urgent need for empathy and human understanding in an era too often marked by violence, hatred, resentment, self-interest, and toxic political and social debates. In his TEDx Talk “How to Start an Empathy Revolution,” he defines empathy:

“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”

In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of  the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.  

Photo of stories written by visitors participating in the "A Mile in My Shoes" exhibit
Stories written by visitors participating in the “A Mile in My Shoes” exhibit, Empathy Museum. Photo from http://thecuriouslives.com/

Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states.  So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?

Museums Are Us, Not It

I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums.  When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do.  So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc.  I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums.  In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:

“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”

This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum.  So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.

The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice

Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities.  Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.

For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic.  The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences.  The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”

Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland.  A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community.  The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.

The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that  immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).

Photo of Object Stories gallery during exhibition "Person, Place, Thing: Objects and the Making of a New Life."
Photo of Object Stories gallery during exhibition “Person, Place, Thing: Objects and the Making of a New Life.” Photo by Cody Maxwell.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.

In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions.  Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:

“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)

The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area.  The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.

Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through  artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project.  The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.

The Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art and N'MPower worked with Youth Media Project mentors to record digital oral histories of the radio show Audio Revolution!
The Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art and N’MPower worked with Youth Media Project mentors to record digital oral histories of the radio show Audio Revolution! Photo from http://www.sitesofconscience.org/

Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy

The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new.  Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support.  Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible.  And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation.  There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”

We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities.  More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.

So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.

Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums

How do we start an empathy revolution in museums?  How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?

In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises.  I  think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:

  • Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
  • Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
  • Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
  • Active public participation changes museums for the better.
  • Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
  • Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
  • Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
  • Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
  • Museums are not neutral spaces.
  • Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.

These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action.  The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:

  1. Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
  2. Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
  3. Research what other museums are doing.
  4. Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
  5. Work with your partners as equals.
  6. Allocate resources.
  7. Innovate and be willing to take risks.
  8. Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
  9. Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
  10. Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.

Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums.  Take these principles and action steps seriously.  Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community.  See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.

“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)

Let’s be a part of making this happen!

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About the Author

IMG_3329MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. Mike has been invited to lead workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San DiegoLos Angeles County Museum of ArtNational Gallery of ArtNelson Atkins Museum of ArtPhiladelphia Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Designing an Inclusive Audio Guide, Part 1

Written by Desi Gonzalez, The Andy Warhol Museum

Reposted from The Warhol: Blog, the institution’s online presence for stories about the museum and its exhibitions, programs, education programs, and other news.  Check it out, and learn more about the exciting work happening at The Warhol!

This is the first post in a series on the development process of The Warhol’s new audio guide. 

In 1964, Andy Warhol moved to a new studio in a large New York City loft and covered its walls with silver paint and aluminum foil. Dubbed the Silver Factory, this space became known as a gathering place for artists, friends, and celebrities.

The “open-door policy” of the Factory is something that we’re inspired by at The Warhol as we endeavor to create a communal and inclusive environment within the walls of our museum. One way we’re becoming a more inclusive place is through our commitment to making the museum friendly to visitors of all abilities. Later this summer, we’ll be soft-launching a new audio guide that takes an inclusive design approach. According to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, this is a philosophy that designs with all users in mind from the outset:

“The inclusive design approach will ensure the museum experience is not only accessible for all ages and abilities, but is enriching and satisfying for all. It is not a design style, but an orientation to design.”

Through a series of posts on The Warhol Blog (cross-posted here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com), we’ll dive into the process behind our new audio app, which soft-launches later this summer in a limited release and will be available to all museum visitors this fall.

The story starts in the summer of 2014, when my predecessors in charge of digital engagement partnered with the education department to develop experiences for visitors who are blind or have low vision. One component of the project was an audio guide in conjunction with the exhibition Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede. We used low-energy Bluetooth beacons to push content out to visitors based on where they are located in the museum—no need to read numbers on a wall label and type them into a device! Instead, the iOS application notifies you when there is relevant audio nearby.

In conjunction with the app, we also partnered with David White of Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to produce tactile representations of artwork in The Warhol’s collection. Tactile reproductions reimagine the contours and colors of an artwork as different relief layers, allowing visitors to use touch to gain an understanding of what a work looks like. Together, the audio guide app and the tactile reproductions allow visitors with visual impairments to delve into Warhol’s life and practice through senses beyond sight.

Working with our partners at Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to create the Andy Warhol artwork tactile reproductions. This one is a representation of Marilyn Monroe.
Working with our partners at Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to create the Andy Warhol artwork tactile reproductions. This one is a representation of Marilyn Monroe.

We learned a lot from these prototypes, but they were just the start. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve been hard at work to turn these prototypes into a reality. From the beginning of the process, we’ve kept four things in mind:

1. Put users first

We are committed to building an audio guide experience not just for community members with visual impairments, but with them as well. In our design process, we’ve worked closely with consultants with varying degrees of blindness. We talked to our partners even before we drew a single wireframe, exploring what makes a great museum experience and how they use technology. We also bring in our consultants to test prototypes at different stages of the process, allowing the findings from these sessions to guide the next step.

2. Don’t just build for accessibility

We strongly believe that if we design with different abilities in mind, we can craft a better experience for everyone. Even though we’re designing first for visitors with visual impairments, the audio guide will be available to all. Our consultants told us that they like to come to museums with friends and family, so whatever we design should be built for a social experience. Additionally, we currently don’t have an audio guide—and our front desk staff tells us this is one of the most common requests they get.

3. Reimagine the audio guide

Since we started from scratch with this audio guide, this was a great opportunity to depart from the usual way of doing things. We’re not the only ones rethinking the traditional audio guide: The newly-opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles is taking a cue from the irreverent and conversational tone of podcasts in their audio app; the British Museum has experimented with tours with longer audio files organized around themes rather than objects; and SFMOMA has designed a fully-immersive audio experience. In future blog posts, we’ll describe how we’re taking a different approach, splitting up audio content into smaller, modular stops and allow visitors to dive deeper if they’d like to learn more.

Testing the audio guide with our community partners.
Testing the audio guide with our community partners.

4. Start small, dream big

Everything I’ve described above is a tall order! From the outset of the project, we decided getting it right was more than ticking off all the checkboxes. For version one of the app, we have focused on only one floor of the building—floor 7, which displays works and artifacts from Warhol’s birth through to the early 1960s—but we’ve made it as complete an experience as possible. After launching and refining version one of the app, we want to expand to other floors of the museum.

Reviewing an exhibition floor plan with our community partners.
Reviewing an exhibition floor plan with our community partners.

Over the course of this blog series, we’ll be delving into everything from the user research we’ve done in conjunction with our blind and low-vision partners, to the process of imagining a new kind of audio experience, to the technical trials and tribulations of wrangling beacons and building our app from scratch. We’re glad you’ve joined us!

Accessibility initiatives at The Warhol are generously supported by Allegheny Regional Asset District, The Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, and the FISA Foundation in honor of Dr. Mary Margaret Kimmel.

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Header Image: The Andy Warhol Museum by Scoobyfoo, Flickr.com, minor cropping to fit header size. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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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Share your thoughts

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