Tag Archives: visitor engagement

The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Written by Susan Spero

“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed.  Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.”  –Paul Klee

I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country.  My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.

Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working.  Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.

The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking.  It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.

I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”.  From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.

Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.

I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.

One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing.  I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.

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

The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.

When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present.  The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey.  Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.

Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.

When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?

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

*     *     *     *     *

ABOUT AUTHOR

SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA.  Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts.  She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.

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

2015 Year in Review

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

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

Year in Review: 5 Most Popular Posts of 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

New Directions – New Connections: Revitalizing a Museum’s Approach to Native American Art

Written by Mike Murawski

Visitors to the Portland Art Museum are beginning to encounter an unmistakable revitalization of Native American art. This fall, the Portland Art Museum announced the opening of its new Center for Contemporary Native Art, a gallery dedicated to presenting the work and perspectives of contemporary Native artists. In 2014, the Museum was awarded a major three-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) focused on creating a “community anchor” space to foster a deeper understanding of Native American art and artists in the contemporary world. Each year, the Center will host two rotating exhibitions and feature a range of related programming.

Picture1
Greg Archuleta, Sara Siestreem, and Greg Robinson in Center for Contemporary Native Art

At the core of the Center’s mission is the commitment to partner with Native artists in co-creating the exhibitions, interpretation, and programming for the space. This approach challenges visitors to think about Native American art and the cultures that inform the work as dynamic and changing, and not as an ethnographic snapshot in time. In this way, we hope that privileging a contemporary view of Native art in the Museum will provide visitors an opportunity to engage with and to relate to the plethora of Native experiences. Front-end evaluation and planning of the Center has involved the Museum’s Portland-based Native Advisory Committee as well as Native artists and others involved in Native American artistic and cultural practices across the region.

The Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art is part of broader institutional efforts which culminate early in 2016 with an innovative special exhibition showcasing contemporary Native photographers in dialogue with photographs from Edward Sheriff Curtis’s renowned body of work The North American Indian.  In addition, a new, provocative set of Native artists will be featured in the Center for Contemporary Native Art (see Survivance below), and a spectacular summer exhibition spotlights Native fashion and design.

For Deana Dartt, Ph.D., the Museum’s curator of Native American art since 2012, these exhibitions and initiatives are the result of years of collaborative efforts and a true commitment to Native artists and communities. Working closely with Native advisors, she has brought to the museum an emphasis on Native artists working today to reinvigorate the Museum’s highly acclaimed historic Native American art collection. Her goal is to more meaningfully engage visitors in the issues critical to Native American art practice now, and the unique perspectives that inform that work. Dartt says:

“We want to show the whole spectrum of artists and art practice in Indian Country, from customary or ‘traditional’ to the edgy contemporary, seamlessly woven together in a way that is meaningful to our community as a whole as well as empowering for young Native visitors as they walk through the galleries. I’m always thinking about—and always inspired by—the power of art to heal historic wounds and restore hope.”

Dartt, who grew up in southern California and is a member of the Coastal Band Chumash, earned her Ph.D. in anthropology and museum studies from the University of Oregon and served as curator of Native Culture at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum before joining the Portland Art Museum. She is one of only two Native American art curators in mainstream institutions who are of Native heritage.

In concert with the Museum’s education department, Dartt has connected the collections with Native communities through projects such as the new Center for Contemporary Native Art and Object Stories partnerships with the Native American Youth Association (NAYA) and Family Center, as well as Yup’ik community members in Bethel Alaska (see previous post “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices”). The Museum has also enhanced online access, making the Native American collection of nearly 3,500 objects the first to be fully digitized through a $150,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

130608-objectstories-26
Yup’ik/Inupiaq artist Drew Michael, whose stories are featured in Museum’s Object Stories project. Photo by Katie Basile.

Under Dartt’s guidance, the Native American collection has quadrupled its modern and contemporary holdings since 2012, adding works by exciting contemporary artists such as Wendy Red Star (featured in the Native photography exhibition) and Nicholas Galanin, the Tlingit/Aleut multidisciplinary artist. In 2017, the Museum will mount a major exhibition entitled The Art of Resilience: A Continuum of Tlingit Art, the first large-scale examination of Tlingit art whose forms have long defined the public perception of Northwest Coast Native art. It will include items from the Portland Art Museum’s 1948 acquisition of the Axel Rasmussen collection that inspired the dedication of permanent gallery space at the Museum to showcase Native American art. The exhibition will complement the world-class collection with stunning contemporary works and others to be commissioned specifically for the exhibition.  Dartt remarks:

“In developing The Art of Resilience and our contemporary installations, we’re forging strong connections with the Native artists and communities.  We’re bridging the past and future of Native American Art at the Museum.”

Indigenous Currents

The Center for Contemporary Native Art’s inaugural exhibition thlatwa-thlatwa: Indigenous Currents opened in October, featuring the work of contemporary Oregon Native artists Greg Archuleta, Greg Robinson, and Sara Siestreem. These three artists bring forward a strong sense of the continuum of Native cultures and artistic practices in Oregon. Each of these artists is working in traditional as well as “modern” media, but their practice is rooted in their sense of Native identity and values as integral to their roles as Native community members—not solely as individuals with exceptional talents.

Picture2
entrance to the new Center of Contemporary Native Art and its inaugural exhibition

The exhibition addresses the issues these artists face in their everyday lives, as Native people challenged to assert their indigeneity in a growing urban metropolis. They all work in their own ways to educate Oregonians about the deep and rich history of this land and its rivers. Their collective goal is to make visual the ancestral memory that fuels the passion for their work—a memory largely invisible to the people who share this home. In partnering with the Portland Art Museum to bring this vision to the public, the shared goal of these three artists is to help visitors more deeply understand the art and experiences of Oregon Native people—past and present—and to more fully appreciate the unique beauty of the cultures so deeply rooted here.

For this project (among others), the Museum’s curatorial and education staff are making a conscious effort to allow the artists’ to engage the public and talk about their own work and artistic practice; rather than adopting the standard practice of Museum curators or educators talking about the artists’ work (whether through interpretive texts, publications, or public programs).  The artists have been leading gallery talks in the Center to talk about their work, and the Museum has been using these videos as well as artist interviews (see below) to share this project with a public audience.  In keeping with this goal, I am embedding a few of these videos below so that you can learn more about the art and practice of each artist with minimal intervention on the part of the Museum.

Survivance

In March of 2016, the Center for Contemporary Native Art will present its second exhibition featuring the work of Demian DinéYazhi’ (Diné) and Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena/Jewish). Together, these artists will frame themes of gender, sexuality, and identity through the lens of their respective Indigenous cultural perspectives and traditional practices. Their work in the new Center will demonstrate their commitment to survivance, defined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor as Indigenous self-expression in any medium that tells a story about an active Native presence in the world now.

Survivance is more than mere survival—it is a way of life that nourishes Indigenous ways of knowing. DinéYazhi’ and Spitzer will create a transdisciplinary and multimedia space that reaffirms their dedication to cultural revitalization through language and social engagement—a contemporary and radical act of survivance.

RISE-Survivance-poster
RISE poster – http://burymyart.tumblr.com

Header Image:  Ishmael Hope dances with Clarissa Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” during the Shx’at Kwáan dance performance during the Sealaska Heritage Institute Celebration 2014. Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” was commissioned by the Portland Art Museum, and will be an important work in the Museum’s 2017 exhibition of Tlingit art. Photo from Juneau Empire, http://juneauempire.com/local/2014-06-15/weaving-new-native-narrative-museums

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

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

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

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

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

What is the ASK app?

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

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

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

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

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

My ASK Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Your ASK Experience?

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

ASK-signage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your beautiful, scary questions?

*     *     *     *     *

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

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

*     *     *     *     *

About the Author

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

*     *     *     *     *

Header Photo by Ann Rowson Love via Twitter @annrowsonlove

The Creative Spiral: Evolving Practice in the DMA’s Art Spot

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Manager, Dallas Museum of Art

The creative process is often described as cyclical and sometimes, when I’m in it, it can feel like I am going around in circles, ending up where I started.  Hopefully, when I come back around that circular process, my ideas have evolved so though I may be in a familiar place I am truly somewhere new.  Perhaps the path of the creative process is then more like a spiral, repetitious yet constantly moving forward.  This concept not only illustrates an important artistic process that we want to share with visitors to the Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art, but also it describes the methods we employ as our space evolves. The creative process is an inspirational component of C3 and it is exemplified through the Art Spot, a hands-on art making area.

A Brief History

In 2008, the hands-on art-making area within the C3 exhibition Materials and Meanings was called the Materials Bar.  With a total of eighteen standard and tall seats, the space was designed as a communal area for visitors of all ages.  The Materials Bar provided a hands-on experience of the creative process engaging visitors with an inspiration wheel, videos that modeled techniques, materials that encouraged play, and a reflective label writing component.  The materials provided were similar to or related to works of art on view.

Materials Bar
Materials Bar

In 2010, C3 presented its second exhibition, Encountering Space, which involved a complete redesign of the entire C3 and transformed the Materials Bar into the Space Bar.  Though it remained a hands-on making area, the focus on the new exhibition theme was evident in the inspirational prompts and reflective labels. Prompts challenged visitors to “transform a cube of space” or “build a sculpture with positive and negative space.” The label cards not only encouraged visitors to reflect, they also introduced vocabulary about space through a word bank.  Additionally, the seating was expanded to accommodate twenty-six visitors.

Space Bar
Space Bar
visitor created label in the Space Bar
visitor created label in the Space Bar

In 2012, C3 transitioned away from themed exhibitions and towards a more fluid process of rotating works of art.  Along with our process, the physical space changed, reflecting the end of Encountering Space and the beginning of a simplified graphic identity to reflect the DMA brand.  With additional seating for a total of forty-four visitors, the area was renamed the Art Spot: Anytime art-making for everyone.  Since then, we have experimented with different approaches.  For a year we focused on one work of art, Family Portrait 1963 by Martin Delabano.  Although we changed the materials and prompt every couple of months, they always related back to the work of art.  The following year we explored the broader idea of creativity.  We provided unconventional and everyday materials (like red plastic cups, spoons, paperclips, and twist ties) and challenged visitors to make something new and unexpected with them.  More recently we have made connections between the Art Spot materials and our wall of visitor-submitted images with themes like Textual Awareness or Flowers.

Commonalities and Spiraling Forward

For me, the creative process can be simplified to four steps: inspiration, exploration, creation, and reflection.  With each iteration of the making area in C3, we come full circle.  We start with an idea—a theme like materials, space, or creativity— or a work of art.  Next, we explore the possibilities of that idea and play with what it might look like.  Then, we construct it for visitors to experience, and finally we reflect on the actual visitor experience.  Over the years, the various iterations are in many ways similar, but with each new endeavor we learn and revise.  In each iteration we were inspired by visitors, and hoped to inspire visitors — as art museum educators, we place an importance on encouraging visitors to connect with works of art.  Furthermore, the area has always been about three-dimensional making and the creative process.  In our upcoming redesign, we are sticking with these tenants, but are approaching them in different ways.

In the past we strived to inspire participants with the art on view in the Center for Creative Connections, though we found this can be difficult when the works of art are not directly adjacent to the making area.  Often visitors come straight to the art-making area without looking at the works of art or, if they spend time looking at works of art, they may not be thinking of those objects when they arrive at the making area. When we installed Family Portrait 1963 directly in the Art Spot, we hoped that visitors would be more prone to draw inspiration from the work.  We found that despite its positioning and large size, it quickly gets lost behind a sea of visitors when the Art Spot is full.

Art Spot with
Art Spot with “Family Portrait 1963” and crowd of visitors

In the upcoming redesign, we are installing more works of art in the Art Spot and are strategically placing them near the tables where participants will be creating.  Furthermore, the cases housing these works will have prompts directly on the glass to provoke thought and discussion about the materials, design, and process.  These kinds of prompts can help visitors get into the making mindset, a way of critically looking at and exploring materials.

Also, our approach to choosing works of art has shifted.  In the past we chose works of art that exemplified a concept and might inspire visitors to create.  This time we are taking our inspiration from our visitors.  Over the past few years we have documented the kinds of creations made at the Art Spot.  We know that, regardless of the theme or materials, there are common items that are made: rings, animals, flowers, hats, and woven objects.  So, we started with those observations and chose works of art that visitors might more easily relate to and that had some evidence of both the materials and the method of making.

visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
LEFT: Pre-Columbian Single-Spout Strap-Handle Vessel from DMA collection.  RIGHT: visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
visitor creation displayed in Art Spot
LEFT:  Bamboo basket from DMA collection.  RIGHT: visitor creation displayed in Art Spot

Finally, we will continue to encourage the creation of three-dimensional objects, but rather than having one set of materials, we will offer different materials at different stations that relate to the nearby works of art.  This will offer some variety so that visitors have more options.

Looking Ahead

When the Art Spot reopens in the next week, we will continue to ask for visitor input and revise, because being an experimental space means that we are constantly evolving through the creative process.  We will document the creations visitors make; read the reflective statements they write; talk with them about the works of art, the materials, their creations, and their overall experience to get a sense of what aspects of the new design are working and what we may revise.

How Do You Do It?  Share Your Thoughts

How would you describe your creative process?

How do your programs, activities, and gallery spaces change and evolve?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, and let’s collectively reflect a bit more on our planning and reflection processes for these types of creative, experimental spaces in museums.

Hands-On Learning: Not Just for Kids

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education. 

The Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art is unique because we focus on learning by doing. That means we design activities for people of all ages to learn about works of art from the collection by participating in a hands-on way. The activities we create to accompany works of art prompt visitors to engage in ways that are different from the standard didactic approach of a wall label. In C3, we want to provide experiences where visitors can make personal connections by drawing, writing, making, and discussing works of art with each other.

This kind of active engagement carries a certain stigma; many people assume that it’s only for kids, mainly because we are used to seeing activities like these in children’s museums. Part of our design process is to evaluate visitors’ experiences by observation, interviewing and counting. We’ve learned that half of our participants are adults and that there is a reoccurring theme in their comments regarding why they participate. So, why do adults flock to C3 to draw, write, make, and talk about art? Because it connects them to a childlike curiosity and creativity which, as an adult, often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and tasks.

jfuentes_image2

In January 2014, we installed a large table in the middle of the C3 Gallery, that hosts three activities that rotate on a monthly basis. As a part of the evaluation of these activities, we interviewed visitors about their motivations for participating, their past experience with art making, and their view of the value derived from participating in a making activity at the Museum. I was repeatedly intrigued by the responses of the adult participants.

For example, I spoke with a couple participating in a portrait drawing activity which encouraged close looking at the proportions and scale of the human face.  The couple, in their mid-thirties, each claimed to have no artistic experience. Through our conversation, they divulged that they both graduated from arts-based college programs. “I went for fashion, like a BFA in Design, and he went for Graphic Design. We don’t really draw in our free-time though, I mean, he does for work,” the woman stated as she looked over at the man who accompanied her. He added, “Yeah, but just on the computer.” Then the woman broke in, “And I do for work, but it’s not the same. Like, I do fashion sketches, not this kind of drawing.” I prodded them a bit to understand what “this kind of drawing,” meant. “Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”

This idea was reinforced by further conversations with other adult participants: drawing, making, and discussing in C3 is fun in a freeing kind of way. I interviewed another thirty-something couple drawing at a light box activity designed to assist in the making of hybrid imagery. The man began with, “I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here.” The woman with him agreed, “Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.” A sixty-something man participating in the portrait drawing activity remarked, “I used to take art classes, but it’s been so long ago… it’s like I forgot that and I saw this and I remembered.” This feeling of nostalgia for something that is no longer a part of someone’s everyday life was also a common response from adults. Many adults responded that they enjoy drawing or making but, “don’t do it enough.”

jfuentes_image3

Aside from drawing-based activities, the Center for Creative Connections also has a drop-in art making area with large communal tables called the Art Spot, which we say is the place for “anytime art-making for everyone.” We invite visitors to explore their creativity by making creations out of unexpected or everyday materials. Every two months we change the materials and provide a prompt to inspire ideas. Each time I’m hesitant and wonder, “What will people make with this?” But, I am always delighted and surprised by the imaginative creations that are made and left behind. Children often come to C3 and head straight for the Art Spot, while adults can be a bit more tentative. However, regardless of age, most visitors stay anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours, with an average of about 20 minutes. Once they gather their materials they become immersed in their creation. For some it is a hands-on problem solving activity while for others it is about manipulating materials. How can you combine these objects (cups, spoons, paperclips, wire, egg cartons, cardboard, etc.) into something unique and surprising? This kind of open-ended activity, reminiscent of childhood playing and pretending, is not often made available to adults. I frequently watch my eight-year-old daughter take something like a toilet paper roll and turn it into a piano for her dollhouse, or repurpose a cardboard box to make an enormous rocket ship. This nostalgia for childhood play was brought perfectly into perspective by a recent Art Spot creation.

jfuentes_image4

 

At the DMA, learning can take many approaches and forms. We strive to be inclusive so that we can reach visitors with a multitude of interests and experiences and preferences for learning. In the Center for Creative Connections, our mission is to engage visitors of all ages with works of art and the creative process of artists. We hope that by designing participatory ways to learn we will provide fun and playful activities for all of our visitors, regardless of their age.

How Are You Engaging Adults in Unexpected Ways?

As museum education steps further away from a traditional didactic style and more towards an inclusive approach that attempts to reach a multitude of interests and learning styles, the question of how to engage adults is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. What if our adults want a lecture? What if they shy away from participatory activities? Will we isolate a large population of our adult audience by trying a new approach? These are valid questions to consider, and making a change does not imply that you have to make a 180-degree turn, but rather consider offering varying opportunities including these types of child-like playful activities. How are you engaging adults in unexpected ways? What successes and struggles have you come across as you experiment with offering new adult experiences?

Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.

About the Author

JfuentesJESSICA FUENTES: Center for Creative Connections(C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art.  Jessica received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas.  Her thesis was a collaboration with her then six-year-old daughter to explore self-guided family experiences in art museums.  Jessica’s daughter remains an important resource in her work developing interactives and activities which provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with works of art through drawing, making, and discussion. Jessica is also an artist and a member of 500X Gallery, one of Texas’ oldest, artist run cooperative galleries.  In her down time, she can usually be found with her daughter enjoying an art museum or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Dallas Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.