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.
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 Storiespartnerships 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.
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 ofResilience: 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.”
The Center for Contemporary Native Art’s inaugural exhibition thlatwa-thlatwa: Indigenous Currentsopened 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.
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.
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.
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
Written by Mike Murawski, Kristin Bayans, and Phillippa Pitts
This essay is part of the new MuseumsEtc book Interpreting the Art Museum, an expansive volume of 19 essays & case studies from experienced museum professionals sharing some of today’s most successful initiatives in art interpretation.
From November 2014 through April 2015, the Portland Art Museum hosted the installation of a complex, unsettling, and physically-immersive multimedia installation piece entitled The Enclave(2013) by Irish contemporary artist and photographer Richard Mosse. Consisting of six monumental double-sided screens installed in a darkened gallery, paired with a powerfully haunting soundscape, The Enclave presented a unique challenge for the Portland Art Museum’s education team as they tackled issues of interpretation, visitor reflection, and public learning.
In The Enclave, Mosse employs discontinued military film stock to document the largely overlooked humanitarian disaster in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in which 5.4 million people have died since 1998. In a kind of advocacy of seeing, The Enclave attempts to cast this forgotten tragedy in a new spectrum of light, to make this forgotten humanitarian disaster visible. Furthermore, Mosse aims to keep the experience as open as possible, allowing viewers to bring personal experiences, memories, stereotypes, and media images to the process of making meaning with this complex work. According to Mosse:
“The work does not prescribe a set of responses, and remains ambiguous in an unsettling and seemingly irresponsible way.”
Given these expectations for ambiguity and complexity, the museum’s education team decided to construct an extended series of meaningful opportunities for visitors and staff alike to respond to and react with the installation. These opportunities encouraged personal reflection and physical engagement within the space of The Enclave and provided open pathways for further learning. Opportunities offered incorporated a range in levels of engagement from which to choose.
This case study explores the strategies used by the museum to connect a variety of visitors with this unsettling work of contemporary art. These strategies include:
an in-gallery interpretation space designed for visitor reflection and response;
printed postcards inviting visitor written responses;
While these interpretive strategies serve as the focus for this case study, the museum also partnered with the locally-based international development non-profit organization, Mercy Corps and the Mercy Corps Action Center, whose staff facilitated workshops for museum staff and docents as well as teachers and students participating in a joint school program between the museum and Mercy Corps.
In addition, the museum hosted an extensive series of public workshops and conversations which specifically encouraged open dialogue and personal reflections paired with viewing The Enclave. Throughout these interpretive strategies, our goals were to allow for open, personal, even emotional responses to the piece; to encourage visitors to physically engage with the space of the piece; and to provide pathways for further learning, especially related to the situation in the DRC.
In-gallery interpretation space
Early in the education team’s thinking about how to facilitate visitor experience with The Enclave, it became clear that visitors walking out of the installation would need a way to work through their reactions and responses. In the absence of a tour or multimedia guide, it would fall on the content of the interpretive space to empower individuals to tackle The Enclave independently. Simply entitled Reflecting on The Enclave, the in-gallery interpretation space helped visitors transition from a state of being acted upon by the exhibition’s visual and auditory forces to having the freedom and quiet to react to what had just transpired. The space did not provide visitors with the museum’s point of view or any curatorial voice. The museum remained silent and instead provided a comfortable space for visitors to have and share their own perspectives.
This small “living room” space included a love seat, cushioned armchairs, and a small end table with a bin of pencils. Housed across from the seating area were five clear acrylic holders, each of which held one deck of interpretive postcards. The front side of each card displayed a still photograph from the exhibition and the backside displayed the interpretive prompts: I saw… I heard… I felt… Five cards were placed in the rack with the photograph facing forward and one card was placed in the rack with the interpretive prompts facing forward. This arrangement indicated to visitors the card’s multi-interpretive purpose. Sitting on a pedestal directly below the cards was a clear acrylic box with a slit in the lid. Cards filled out by visitors could be seen inside the box. The nature and placement of these items invited visitors to look at, pick up, write on, and add a card to those already in the box.
Attached to the side of the box was a sign inviting visitors to See what others have shared via the project’s associated Tumblr site. This information indicated to visitors that they could read others’ responses and that their responses were aggregated into an ongoing community commentary about The Enclave extending beyond the museum.
Knowing from previous experience that cards are popular takeaways for visitors, these postcards aimed to provide visitors with an opportunity to say I saw this or I witnessed that. Therein lay one of the project’s most significant challenges. With six simultaneous screens and a 47-minute runtime, visitors emerged from The Enclave having witnessed entirely different scenarios. Some saw rolling images of stunningly beautiful landscapes. Others witnessed a funeral scene juxtaposed with a dangerous birth. A body abandoned in the grass. A sprawling internal displacement camp. Our challenge was to find the emotional or thematic touch points that could translate this immersive experience into static interpretive cards.
Our interpretive media team segmented the piece into major themes or experiences: war and conflict, the role of the photographer, nature and the sublime, Africa and the other. Cross-referencing this list with the potential photographs approved by the artist’s gallery, we chose six images that we believed could serve as touchpoints for a range of potential experiences: a sublime landscape, a military roadblock, a group of civilians, an individual soldier, a young woman, and a damaged village.
We deliberately selected images that were highly polysemic. For example, the landscape Platon echoed picturesque tropes of art history. It also could speak to environmentalism, highlight the surreal nature of the pink film stock, represent the work’s otherworldliness, or, as we saw in the response cards, embody an idea of hope. By contrast, we did not select a photograph called Madonna and Child, which featured a uniformed soldier holding a baby in the pose of the Virgin and Child. This image, while incisively poignant in highlighting the complexities of villain and victim, left little space in which the visitor could create meaning. By offering the visitor a broad range of photographs, we invited them to self-select the image that matched their experience.
Initially, we had planned to further draw out these themes through a variety of questions printed on the verso of the cards: Who is the victim and who is the villain? What is the man on the right thinking? What about the man on the left? Due to a compressed project timeline, our initial prompts were developed without the benefit of visitor testing. Therefore we used a docent training session as an ad hoc focus group.
After standing in The Enclave ourselves and observing docent educators processing their experience, we redeveloped the prompts entirely into the three, simple, sensory-based statements: I saw… I heard… I felt… These words, which were repeated over and over in the training session, were familiar to us from educational research, particularly Harvard’s Project Zero Thinking Routines, which employed them. They provided enough guidance to bolster processing and reflection, but to still afford room for a variety of responses and types of meaning making. Moreover, by splitting the prompts into bite-sized statements, we also hinted to visitors that it was OK to have a range of responses from simple to complex, and to navigate the space on the reverse of the card in whatever way they chose.
In total we printed 7,000 cards, of which around 4,000 were taken by visitors and around 500 slipped into the box in the gallery. Although each response was unique, the methods by which visitors used the cards could be categorized in three ways:
Lists: Some visitors took the prompt literally, charting what they saw, heard, and felt. They wrote in vertical columns over the words, sometimes even using lines to divide their cards into three spaces. They outlined and circled the light grey text to emphasize it. They drew lines between the printed words and their handwritten texts.
Notes to the museum: Often marked with explicit salutations to the museum or the artist, visitors used these cards to give us feedback in the form of concerns, thank you notes, and a frequent request to turn down the volume (the artist preferred the audio component of the piece to be quite loud, providing a physical experience of sound as well as of the projections).
Journaling: By making the background text light grey, we had successfully signaled to visitors that almost the entire card could be used to write or draw. Many visitors did exactly that, often writing stream of consciousness, free association, or personal reflections. Many show cross-outs and hesitations, reflecting the questioning and thinking that happened in the space. For example, one visitor wrote, “There was something about this. Something I’m not entirely sure what it was. Something about this just made my something click. All I can say is brilliant: I’m leaving with a lot to think about and a really heavy heart. But that’s what art does, right? Makes you think. Amazing.”
In terms of what the visitors wrote, we saw five overall themes emerge from the visitor responses:
Peace on Earth: Visitors who shared prayers, wishes, and hopes for those involved in the conflict. This was, interestingly, often correlated to the image Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. In this case, visitors took the opportunity to speak directly to the woman depicted: “Sorry adout the war” [sic] or “Plz be safe.”
Cynicism and despair: Although there were uplifting moments in The Enclave, the artist did not shy away from depicting violence, destruction, and conflict. This response was almost a direct inverse of those in the first category.
Intellectual connections: These visitors related The Enclave to their prior knowledge of politics, literature, and film, bringing in comparisons to Kubrick, Heart of Darkness, Invisible Children, and others. As we know, adults learn by relating new ideas to their existing matrices of knowledge and experience. In this way, we saw them working through The Enclave, demonstrating learning and engagement as well as an interest in thematically related topics.
Self-absorbed artists: Many visitors attacked the piece, challenging the validity and morality of a white artist receiving accolades and making money by speaking for black communities and “capturing” images of black bodies.
Descriptive processing: Many visitors did not attempt to reach conclusions. They listed what they saw, heard, and felt, sometimes filling the entire card just with descriptive words.
The Tumblr blog site was where all these varied responses came together. It provided a trans-temporal community in which viewers could find echoes of their own experience in the words of others. With over 100 posts shared on the site, it also provided a broader view of the museum audience (and the city of Portland) as a whole responding and reacting to The Enclave. Like the in-gallery interpretive space, the Tumblr site was designed to be as simple as possible both aesthetically and functionally. Visitors scrolled through back-to-back cards: image, comment, image, comment. As an institution, we provided no annotation or categorization. The cards were posted in a random order, free to complement or contradict their neighbors. Even the introductory text was completely neutral:
While The Enclave is on view at the Portland Art Museum, visitors are invited to reflect upon this immersive experience and share their thoughts with the museum. These are some of their thoughts.
Framed in this way, the site offered visitors validation. The museum posted, without comment or hierarchy, every type of response: those who called out Richard Mosse as a “selfabsorbed artist”; those who wrote only one or two words; and those who made spelling or grammatical errors. Viewed together, the stream emphasizes that there is no single interpretation or meaning for this work and that, in the museum’s eyes, no one viewer’s voice is more important or correct than the others’.
This approach carried inherent risks. As a department, we were committed to posting all responses, and yet aware that, given the racially charged nature of the work, we might encounter hate speech or other offensive content. There were cards that we did post that were difficult to endorse, such as one which read:
The people in this area of the continent are guided by superstition fed by rage and terror. No education or very little. No chance, no changes, no hope – only renewed conflict + murder.
Overall, however, we had only one card that we chose not to share because of its references to suicide.
In five months, our Tumblr site received a little over 1,000 page views: 10% of visitors viewed between ten and twenty response cards in a visit; 5% viewed between 30 and 40; 30% returned to the site at least once and 180 began following the museum on Tumblr. Even months after the exhibition has closed, we still gain new followers and see new reposts. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that no one card has emerged as the most shared or iconic image from the project. Although a few Tumblr users reblogged a batch of cards at once, most chose one or two, frequently non-sequential cards, to share with their followers. As virtual visitors, they selected from the diversity of responses offered, to find the few that resonated with them as individuals.
* * * * *
“My intention with this work was to create a dilemma in the viewer’s heart. If some viewers were struck by the beauty of war – and sometimes war is beautiful – then, I hoped, those viewers would then be appalled by their response: by taking aesthetic pleasure from someone’s misery, pain, or death. And in that moment, perhaps they might stand back from themselves in the act of perceiving – take a moment to think.” – Richard Mosse
As contemporary art continues to challenge museum visitors in a variety of ways, it is important for museums to carefully reflect on the ways in which visitors will experience and respond to unsettling, immersive, complex, and socially-relevant works of art. In our experiences with The Enclave, having a set of interpretive strategies that allowed for individualized reflection as well as collective sharing allowed for a more meaningful experience for many visitors. The opportunities for personal reflection and extended learning offered by the museum for The Enclave have helped to anchor the museum as a museum ofits place, not just a museum in its place – and these experiences might provide guidance to other museums as they plan interpretation around similarly complex contemporary art.
KRISTIN BAYANS: Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum, where she works cross-departmentally to create mobile, web, and in-gallery learning experiences for special exhibitions, the museum’s permanent collection, and the Object Stories project. Previously, Kristin served as Senior Educator in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Vernier Technology Lab and as an Assistant Educator for the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute. She holds an MA in Museum Studies from George Washington University and an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
MIKE MURAWSKI: Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum. Murawski 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 head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.
PHILLIPPA PITTS: Associate Educator for Gallery Learning at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, where she oversees interpretive media, adult learning, and participatory gallery spaces. Prior to this position in Maine, Phillippa served as the Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Lecturer and Gallery Instructor at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and built apps and games in museums around the country. Phillippa holds an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from Tufts University.
On October 16th, Museum Mashup, Triad Style took place at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Individuals from all over the state came to experiment and meet new friends, all with the idea of experimenting with cultural experiences. As this is at least the 7th experimental museum teaching event like this in the past year or so (they have happened in New York, Brooklyn, San Diego, New Orleans, Cleveland, Denver, and now Winston-Salem), I wanted to share more on how to plan your own Museum Mashup, as well as some reflections from our recent SECCA Mashup.
How We Plan a Museum Mashup
The impetus behind this is simple: empowerment and ownership. People on Twitter (encouragingly using #MuseumEdMashUp tag) reached out to me asking if they could do a Mashup and/or I or someone from my organization could come out and lead one at their museum. People here were asking if they could come since they weren’t an educator and others asked if they could invite non-art educators. My answer is and always will be yes. Yes, invite non-art educators. Yes, come even if you are scared. Yes, do one anywhere and everywhere. Yes.
When I did the first experimental teaching adventure with Mike Murawski and Rachel Ropeik over a year ago, it wasn’t this. It’s evolved into this, because of circumstance, need, new places, new people – and my guess and hope is it will keep evolving, beyond this ‘how-to’ and the Mashups that have happened. The Mashup doesn’t belong to any person or museum – and it doesn’t have to be about good teaching or developing programming or pedagogy. It focuses, in my opinion, on the creation of experiences with objects, people, stories, and surroundings. So folks asking “can we…?” the answer with me will always be “yes!”
Which leads to the thought that this isn’t so much of a ‘How-to’ as a ‘How-we’. And if we keep sharing this ‘How-we’ then we, as a community, can use this experimentation in the best possible way for ourselves.
So without further ado, the How-we:
Found a group of people.
As some of you may know, I just moved from NYC to Winston Salem, NC. I knew a handful of people, museum people mostly, through traveling and my partner. After chatting with Debbie Randolph of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, who was part of the NOLA NAEA Mashup at the Ogden, I emailed a group of people I knew in the Triad museum world and told them about the idea. I asked them to ask people they knew, and we had a group.
Found a place and date.
Lucky for us, Debbie had done the Mashup in NOLA and knew how successful it could be. She offered to host the first at SECCA. As a group, we did a Doodle poll and found a date and time frame that worked for the majority.
Yep, promotions before logistics. Since the basic idea was experimentation, and because I had done a Mashup before, I wrote a quick blurb and put up a Facebook Event. The Engaging Educator wrote a press release and shared it with SECCA’s Marketing Director, who shared it with their press contacts.
Just did it.
Logistics were a big part, and the part that always stresses me out. I broke it down into a few key areas when planning for this Mashup:
The Schedule: Mashups are fast. There was 15 minutes alloted for greetings, groupings and a quick warm-up, about 35-45 minutes for the participants to create a 5-7 minute experience, and then the time for the experiences. That last time frame is flexible, based on the number of participants.
The Works: Since the exhibition at SECCA, Point & Counterpoint has 18 artists on display, it was natural to use them all, since we didn’t know exactly how many people would be attending. Alex Brown from SECCA printed out cards with the artist names, and the groups would randomly choose which artist they would be working with. Some artists had multiple works, but ultimately it was up to the group to decide what they wanted to create.
The Groups: As people walked in, they signed in. Taking the total number and dividing by three people per group, people were assigned into six groups in the good old fashioned method of ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…ok all the 1’s over here, the 2’s over there.’ I ended up doing this in a notebook and just calling out each group, but that elementary school grouping happened in a tiny moleskin.
Facilitation:The facilitator is crucial, but the lack of facilitator voice is even more important – it isn’t their show. Debbie introduced SECCA and the exhibition, and I explained the Mashup goals – random groups would randomly be assigned a work, they would have a finite amount of time to create an experience with the work. This experience would have to be experimental – that is, no VTS, inquiry, traditional teaching styles, and ideally something that could fail. Aside from instructions, the facilitator needs to push the event along, but not comment. While I did lead the group in an improv warmup (everyone felt scared! I feel energies too often in rooms, so I had to fix it!), I timed groups, cut them off when they went over time, and turned the attention over to the next group.
On a personal note, I leave things vague and don’t like to give the group ideas, suggestions, props – I want them to define experience themselves, the interpretation to come organically and the experience to be group driven, not agenda driven. Yes, I would love to see everyone do crazy out there experiences – but risk to me is very different than risk to others.
Lunch:Lunch was provided for the participants. This is optional, clearly, and our next one (YES, we have another planned!) will happen after lunch. I’m a fan of giving people some kind of treat after positive-risk taking.
Reflection:They came, they created, they presented, they ate, and they reflected. Below, you can read the reflections of several participants – I left it optional to submit a written reflection, but post-lunch we chatted about a few key things. I asked the group to think about how they felt before, during and after the Mashup, what successes and failures they saw and had, and what can they do today, tomorrow or eventually with what they saw today. Those questions were also posed to the group for the written response.
Wrapped it up, and said where next…
I’m a big believer of striking while the iron is hot – I immediately emailed the group post-weekend, and asked where the next Mashup would take place. Full disclosure, I asked AT the Mashup, post reflection, because I am still an abrasive New Yorker. Worked well, because the New Winston Museum and North Carolina Museum of Art offered to host the next two. I set a date for the participants and myself regarding reflections. It’s 4:30pm on October 26th, and my self-imposed deadline was October 27th at 5pm. I also started a Facebook group to keep everyone together, post photos, plan the next one – with the simple description of “To plan, execute and reflect on cultural experience experimentation in NC.”
Because that’s exactly what we are doing.
This wasn’t my first Mash Up, but this might have been my favorite one, only because of the domino effect that happened after. People are excited – we had educators, but we also had a curator, a chef, an owner of a new makerspace, artists, retired teachers, a poet – and that energy around connecting with objects and works is incredible. So YES, do these all over…AND share what happened!
Participant Reflections: Museum Mashup, Triad Style, October 16
Before the Mashup at SECCA, I was feeling slightly anxious. I had seen a mash-up in New Orleans, but wasn’t exactly excited about doing it myself. What if I didn’t have any ideas? What if I let my group down? What if I was assigned some artwork that I couldn’t find a connection with? I felt better knowing that I wasn’t going into it alone and that everyone would be encountering their assignment at the same time. Mostly before the mash-up I was feeling reluctant to go and trying to make an attitude adjustment so that even if I didn’t have fun, I wouldn’t bring an attitude that would encumber anyone else from having a great time.
Appropriately, Jen rounded up the group for a collective experience to get us started. This was crucial, as warm ups can be. I knew most of the people there, but there were some I didn’t and it was not a gathering that had existed before. We needed a shared experience before beginning the task. Simply gathering in a circle helped, Zip-Zap-Zop further supported a new dynamic and preparation for us to move forward.
I felt better when assigned my group; I’ve been on a committee with Katherine for the better part of this year and I had met Emily before at other museum educators events. When we received our artwork, I felt a little anxious again: it was a video work. How would we incorporate a piece of art that was so dependent on time? When we went to the video, however, I began to relax again. It was beautiful. My fear of connecting with the work was quickly assuaged and the next challenge was to figure out how to create a corporate experience. I felt blank. What on earth would we do? When Emily suggested sharing our thoughts in flashes while we watched, I again felt better and knew I could trust the process. We were sharing ideas; we had similar observations and some of the same ideas were resonating with us. The film was short and looped through several times as we formulated our own responses and began to brainstorm our approach. I kept finding myself thinking, what do I want people to notice and learn and had to remind myself I wasn’t teaching. Our goal was to create an experience. When watching the film that showed falcons and Arabian desert, I felt compelled to move. And movement became part of the experience.
We worked together to create an experience; while we didn’t require our visitors to look closely at the video or experience it in full, we did use the elements of the video to inform the experience. And, it served as a backdrop, visual and auditory, as we proceeded. I hope that people were able to see it and make connections while participating in the activity we led, even if the connection to the art was necessarily soft.
There was a moment, as we wrapped up our “experience,” when I realized that everyone in the gallery had jumped right in and trusted us all the way through the activity. They trusted us and each other (it might have helped that the room was darkened for video) such that at the end we were all standing as falcons and emitting a piercing cry of a bird of prey into the gallery. I was grateful for their trust in us and I think they were rewarded for it; the positive energy in the room was palpable.
I left the day feeling energized and like I had had a good mental/professional workout.
While in some ways, I feel like I am constantly experimenting in my own teaching in the process of figure out what works, I also experience limitations. Some of these are institutional, some are self-imposed. What I saw from my group’s gallery experience is how movement can be a really important thing to do in an art museum. It helped me respond to the video and it further shifted the energy of the collective group. I can thus push more to incorporate movement in the context of my museum teaching–trying to find ways to do it safely and structure experiences so that it is included.
In terms of structure, I think it was great to have the length of time (5-7 minutes) that we had and the number in each group (3). Also, as one of my colleagues said, it’s so fun to get to work with other people’s art!
The Museum Mashup is a really fun and fresh way to connect with one’s creative side and to collaborate with museum and art professionals. Mediation is the sacred key to what Curators and Educators do–it’s our shared ground. The Mashup brought us together and helped bring about a variety of responses, approaches to mediation, and conversation showing that good things happen when you play.
When I first signed up for the Museum Mash-up I really had no idea what to expect, but I had met Jen a week or two before and I knew that it would be an exciting event. I met some interesting new people, which is rare for me. I know everyone in town! I was surprised by how some of the groups gave me a new and very interesting way to view some of the art installations. I think I made some new friends at the Mash-up, and I plan to take a closer look at the exhibits at SECCA and explore some new perspectives.
It’s not always easy to break away from what “works”, but I believe it is always worthwhile to step back and look at things in new ways and through different perspectives. By encouraging collaboration between educators and non-educators from the Triad, the Museum Ed Mashup at SECCA gave me the opportunity to play with a group of individuals that value experimentation and play as much as I do.
In the field of museum education it is often all too easy to stop experimenting and become complacent when you find something that “works” well enough. This could be a tour program, an art activity, a scripted speech, or a way of looking at or experiencing artwork. While there is nothing inherently wrong with repeating programs or experiences, repetition in isolation and without experimentation can lead to complacency, and ultimately stagnation. This problem is exactly what the Museum Ed Mashup was created to combat. And that is exactly what it did.
By bringing together educators and non-educators together from varied backgrounds it gave everyone the ability to experiment freely and experience the world through different perspectives. This, I think, is the greatest gift the Mashup has to offer. It reminds us that not everyone thinks alike.
The time spent at MuseumEd Mashup, far exceeded my expectations. In a world of meetings, planning, lectures and programming, it was refreshing to step away and look at exhibits in a more provocative way. I was inspired to explore the artist and medium in new and creative ways, with others! Thank you for stepping outside of the box and taking risks with your audience.
Starting at 11:00am, we’ll create small teaching groups, get randomized object assignments and prototype short experiences with these objects. After sharing these adventures, we’ll meet for lunch and discuss the morning.
Please invite all experimenters: museum educators, art teachers, science buffs, general educators, as well as any community members interested in playing! The more the merrier, no experience in art necessary, just a can do attitude and willingness to play and experiment.
Not in North Carolina? Jen from The Engaging Educator will be live-tweeting the Mash-Up, and participants are invited to share at #museumedmashup
WHEN: Friday, October 16th – 11am-2pm
11-11:15– Welcome, introduction, assign artworks + groups
By the time the painting was on its way back to its home at the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this spring, El Greco’s Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene and I had spent 320 hours and four months together. As an on the-floor-interpretation assistant for the Portland Art Museum’s Education Department, I was in the gallery with the painting four days a week, interacting with visitors, experimenting with interpretive strategies, and reflecting on this 400-year-old painting. This experience gave me room to experiment with visitor engagement on the gallery floor, changed how I approach the act of looking, and influenced my teaching outside the museum.
El Greco’s Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene came to the Portland Art Museum as a part of the Masterworks: Portland Series. Though I had seen previous works in this series as a museum visitor, I wanted to learn more about how the single painting exhibition model fit into PAM’s approach to visitor engagement. I refreshed myself on the mission of the Portland Art Museum, and of the impetus behind the Masterworks series in particular. A critical facet of the Museum’s mission is “to facilitate dialogue with diverse audiences.” What does this mean, I asked myself? And how does this series, which has brought individual works by Raphael, Titian, Thomas Moran, and Francis Bacon to Portland audiences, achieve this goal? I considered my own role as an educator on the floor with a single artwork and how I might facilitate conversation, without imposing on each viewer’s unique experience. One immediate challenge I faced was learning how to open up the quiet, contemplative space of the special exhibition gallery.
The rectangular gallery was hung with velvety grey curtains on all sides, with El Greco’s painting, spotlit, on the middle wall. Didactics and sponsor information hung apart from the painting on the remaining walls. The focus on a single artwork seemed perfectly designed to encourage the kind of slow looking we like to see in a gallery, assuming this close, prolonged looking results in a deeper understanding and a more meaningful experience between viewer and artwork. Here’s what I have in my notes (unedited) from my first day in the gallery with El Greco:
Where are these curtains from?
What do the wall texts say? What questions to they raise/answer?
Why is it so dark in here? And quiet!
While certainly not earth shattering, these initial field notes illustrate a potential tension between the goals exhibition design and those of education. The space was so quiet and almost altar-like that visitors would immediately halt their conversations, or speak in low whispers as soon as they entered. I became fixated on how to overcome the elements of the gallery– the layout, the lighting, and the decor – that seemed the antithesis of my job, which was to enliven the space through conversations about art. I struggled with how to approach visitors who, as soon as they entered the gallery, became hushed, or exited the space quickly, as if intruding. Was it okay to interrupt someone who seemed lost in thought, staring at the painting? Did I dare ask what two giggling teens found so funny about the Holy Family?
The answer was yes; I just had to locate the confidence in myself that approaching a visitor about her experience in the gallery was not an interruption, but an opening to access the work of art. I learned to use the look and feel of the space to introduce conversations with visitors about how museum design impacts how, and what, we see. I also learned that people can and will say no if they don’t want to be interrupted! I was inspired by this post by Rebecca Herz on visitor engagement and developed gallery activities that would guide viewers back to the work.
SERIOUSLY SLOW LOOKING
Whether you’re a museum educator or teach in the classroom (or do both), you’ve probably engaged in some slow looking exercises with a group. In the classroom I regularly require my art history students to study a single artwork for an hour before writing anything down, but I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped and looked for that long. Being in the gallery with the El Greco gave me the chance to challenge myself to the act of looking deeply.
What turned out to be most remarkable about this challenge was that I didn’t have to go at it alone; being on the floor with visitors meant that I could look at the painting over and over again through many different lenses, and with a variety of different viewers and viewpoints. Many people came into the gallery and went straight for the painting, ignoring the wall text and just delving into their own interpretation. For these visitors, I became more of sounding board for their thoughts on El Greco’s unusually long forms, strong contrasts, and dynamic sky. They’d ask me questions about the piece, but were largely content to draw their own conclusions.
Others would soak up all the information they could before turning to the painting. This included wall texts and conversations about the painting, accessible in the gallery through an app called STQRY. My presence in the gallery began to feel more and more organic, and I had repeat visitors who would come back to chat about the piece, or to share thoughts they’d had while contemplating the work on their own, outside of the museum.
The most rewarding part of this experience was my regular and direct contact with museum visitors. These interactions provided the basis for my interpretation of the painting, influenced the design of my in-gallery activities, and offered direct evidence that my work was having a meaningful impact on visitors’ experiences at the Portland Art Museum.
I shared an emotional moment with one man, Ed, a retired graphic designer who had studied painting in New York in the 1950s. He and I talked not only about the remarkable way El Greco composed his image, but also about Ed’s own struggles as a painter, relating them to El Greco’s desire for patronage, for someone to appreciate, understand, and ultimately fund his work. These are things working artists can relate to, Ed told me, when he revealed that he’d given up painting in his 30s in order to earn a living as a designer.
Betty, age 87, approached me in the gallery to share that she had first seen El Greco’s Holy Family in Cleveland when she was 18. She explained to me the impact the work had on her, even after all these years. We bonded over the tired, but so human-looking Mary, and Betty told me that over the course of her life – ending a marriage, raising three kids, struggling and finally succeeding professionally – this painting, particularly Mary, had stayed with her.
I think an interpretive guide with the painting gave people permission to talk about what they were seeing, feeling and experiencing as a result of looking at work of art. I believe these conversations shifted visitors’ expectations of a museum experience, and they certainly changed my approach to looking at and teaching about art.
BACK TO THE SURFACE
Spending so much time with one work forced me to really study and appreciate all the work El Greco was making paint do. In the gallery, I had the opportunity to talk with many people, including painters, sculptors, and writers about what they saw when they looked at the surface of the painting. We’d notice those trademark El Greco highlights, but also bits of underpainting, a rawness that pointed to process; in these discoveries the mechanics of painting became accessible and the 400 year old surface was fresh again.
These interactions inspired me to create more opportunities for creative writing and art-making in my art history classroom. Chatting with a sculptor in the El Greco gallery about form and movement, led me to experiment with an in-class activity where my students recreated 2D works in 3D with found materials. This activity initiated self-directed discussions among small groups of students about form, process and material, and allowed us to return to the work invigorated. Ultimately, I learned that facilitating visitor engagement can be as low tech as having a conversation.
* * * * *
About the Author
KELSEY FERRERIA teaches Art History, Architecture, and Design at Portland Community College. She also works with the Portland Art Museum as an Interpretation Assistant where she’s developed mobile and in-gallery learning experiences for the Museum’s special exhibitions. Both in the classroom and in the gallery, Kelsey loves experimenting with different learning strategies, and aims to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art. She holds a BA in Art History from Willamette University and an MA in Art History from the University of Oregon.
“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?
ASK 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).
I 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!).
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.”
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.
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 bookA 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.
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.
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.
KARLEEN 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
JESSICA 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.
Reposted from CODE | WORDS, an experimental publishing project on Medium exploring emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the impact of digital technologies on society. This collection of essays has since been published in book form by Museums Etc.
As the AMC series Mad Men aired its midseason finale back in May 2014, more than two million viewers were graced with an unexpected song and dance performance from senior advertising executive Bert Cooper, played by actor and past Broadway star Robert Morse. In this musical equivalent to hitting the pause button on a much anticipated final season that does not resume until next spring, Morse crooned the lyrical lines first written in 1930: “The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.”
For me, it was certainly one of the most intriguingly beautiful and surprising moments on television in recent years. The song comes during the last two minutes of an episode in which the daily dramas of the show’s characters are laid on top of, and intertwined with, the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point in the episode, everyone gathers around a television, wherever they are, to watch Neil Armstrong take that small step onto the surface of the moon — engaging in one of the most memorable shared human experiences of the 20th century (an estimated 600 million people worldwide were watching the moon landing live on television at that very moment).
Technology, engineering, and new media undeniably acted to create a profound connection. In her Los Angeles Times column about the Mad Men episode, Meredith Blake wrote:
“It was an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection.”
This perspective has particularly resonated with me at a time when I have been grappling with the effects of digital technologies and media on the educational role of museums. Are my own core values of human connection, shared experience, and community co-creation a part of the digital transformation happening in museums? When we’re overly suspect of digital technologies, are we missing out on a greater opportunity to embrace a ‘digital is everywhere’ mentality—a mindset that brings together thinking about digital technologies and the new ways in which humans connect, share, and learn in a digital age?
Yes, and yes.
Well …. how did I get there?
In May 2013, I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (followed by a short thinking piece online) entitled “Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?” that explored my uncertainties about the growing emphasis on technology in museums. Far from being anti-technology, I was, however, exploring some burning questions I, myself, had about the role of digital technology in museum learning and visitor engagement through the polemical dichotomy of ‘plugged in’ versus ‘unplugged.’ Among many questions, I asked:
“As we focus more and more on digital and online experiences, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century? If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experiences in the galleries and across programming?”
After seeing some museums investing more in a single digital project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget, I was genuinely concerned that we might be losing sight of the basic ‘unplugged’ human interactions at the core of learning that allow these institutions and their collections to have public value and mean something to the communities they serve. I even wrote, “when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.”
Yet, I have come to realize that we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today. If the lights go out in the museum and all the WiFi hotspots and screens go dark, we might lose the physical technology infrastructure, but we do not lose the powerful participatory, networked, open source culture that has taken root in our audiences and communities in the 21st century. In this regard, digital technology cannot simply fall away.
In the 2014 Let’s Get Real 2 report developed from the second Culture24 Action Research Project involving 22 arts and cultural organizations, experts from across the field noted that institutions are struggling to embrace the new realities of audience behavior (via the web, mobile devices, social media, etc.). Jane Finnis, Project Lead, remarks in her foreword to the report:
“this challenge is absolutely not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is first and foremost about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.”
For museums in the 21st century, becoming more aware and responsive to these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset.’ This approach envisions a deeper fluency and understanding of web behaviors, mobile behaviors, and social media behaviors across all areas of museum practice, rather than relegated to the IT, online collections, or website functions of a museum. In her core essay from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology (a must read, by the way) entitled “This Belongs to You: On Openness and Sharing at Statens Museum for Kunst,” Curator of Digital Museum Practice Merete Sanderhoff sets out to define “a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure” (23). She continues:
“Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up for us, we must explore and incorporate not just technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.”
So how might we begin to think more like users, and see our audience as users, as well?
Be More Open
With the rise of the Internet, the phrase ‘open source’ began as a way to describe open access to software source code and the collaborative model for how it is developed. Key elements of this development model have been: universal free access and redistribution of the source code, an openness for users to modify and adapt that blueprint in any way desired, and an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.
In museums today, one of the direct effects of this open source movement can be found in the ways through which institutions have released their collection data. As the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museum) initiative coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation asserts:
“The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.”
In 2013, the Rijksmuseum released 150,000 copyright-free, high resolution images of public domain works — one of several art museums that have made collection data and images openly available online. But they have gone beyond simply releasing images and data, and actively encouraged people to share their collection, remix the artworks to create personalized collections, print reproductions (including everything from posters and canvas prints to coffee mugs and bed covers), and allow artists free reign to use these images to create something new. As of October 2014, visitors had created more than 169,000 new virtual exhibitions through the RijksStudio web platform. Ed Rodley’s recent CODE | WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity” lays out an interesting case for museums like the Rijksmuseum being promiscuous with its collection.
Pushing open use of a collection even farther, in January 2014 the Walters Art Museum hosted its second Art Bytes hackathon to bring together technology and creative communities to use the museum’s rather new API to create games, Twitter bots, scavenger hunts, 3D prints, web apps, e-books, digital docents, etc. This competition not only utilized the collection data to inspire community-wide creative rethinking about the Walters, but it led to a whole series of incredible adaptations, recreations, and visitor experiences with the collection at the core.
One of Denmark’s leading IT lawyers, Martin von Haller Grønbæk, writes in his essay “GLAMourous Remix: Openness and Sharing for Cultural Institutions” from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology:
“All cultural institutions should endeavor to be as open as possible in the sense that as many people as possible should have the easiest access possible to the institution’s content. At the same time the institution should seek to ensure that the freely available content is shared, enriched, and processed by users, whether they are citizens, students, scholars, researchers, or commercial ventures.” (142)
If we think of the concept of ‘open’ in the broadest way possible (beyond releasing collection data), it has the potential to challenge museums to let go of some of their control and the limitations that come with this control. Embracing a mindset of openness changes the way we think about museum practice, inspiring a more participatory mentality focused around creating, transforming, and adapting — without the traditional restrictions that have limited forms of public cultural learning.
“With the web has come a new collaborative approach to knowledge generation and sharing, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and an expectation by users that they will be able to contribute and adapt/manipulate content to meet their own needs.” (Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the 21st Century, 6)
A hundred years ago, people relied on museums as a repository for the knowledge and information related to its cultural collections. If you wanted to learn more about the artists, artworks, cultures, and places of its collection, you walked inside a museum’s grand halls of knowledge. Today, that has completely shifted. Visitors can access far more information through their smartphone or mobile device than any museum could ever hold (as of October 2014, 87% of people in the US use the Internet, 67% own smartphones, and they have access to more than 672 billion gigabytes of data from more than 1 billion websites).
During a visit to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I found myself sitting in front of an amazing Franz Kline painting entitled “Turin” in their Abstract Expressionism collection. While the pithy 98-word unattributed ‘voice of god’ label offered a few tidbits (“Kline used commercial house paints,” and that the painting was “named after a city in northern Italy”), I quickly went to my iPhone to search for more—I was hungry for more. From the 350,000 Google search responses, I instantly found videos, photos, Wikipedia entries, curatorial essays, poetry, music, visitor comments, slow looking reflections, and links to dozens of other museums that had works by Kline in their own collections. While I may have been standing in the Nelson Atkins building, I found myself reaching outside of its walls and connecting digitally with a wide distributed network of authorities and communities of knowledge—even sharing my own content to this mix with tweets and Instagram photos. When I sat down with docents in front of this painting for deeper conversations, we opened up further layers of thoughts, insights, and questions that were not part of the authoritative knowledge repository of the museum.
We have rapidly moved out of the era of passive consumption of content selected by a few experts, and museums now have an opportunity to actively reshape their own authority in this new equation. The digital age does not negate the authority of museums and curatorial expertise, but, rather, it puts this authority in public conversation and dialogue with a wider network of knowledges, voices, and experiences. Cultural authority is not something solely established by a didactic label, curatorial essay, or published catalog; it is negotiated through discussion and collective participation, and shared with our community and the users (yes, I said ‘users’ instead of ‘audience’). with which we connect. In his 2009 essay “A Manual for the 21st Century Gatekeeper,” New York-based curator Michael Connor explores the ways in which the internet, social media, and new collaborative ways of working are fundamentally changing the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences. He writes:
“A curator’s authority pales in comparison to the audience’s vast collective stores of knowledge and passion. How can gatekeepers redefine their role in ways that harness the power of the audience without losing the sense of subjectivity and personal risk that lie behind aesthetic decisions?”
As museums work toward sharing authority, they can begin to allow for the voices of specific communities and the public to be heard inside the walls of these institutions—to speak for themselves. In her guest editor preface to the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on this theme of “shared authority,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello includes a powerful quote from historian Karen Halttunen that relates to the role museum staff play as workers in these public institutions:
“We [must] divest ourselves of the special authority sometimes granted to us … [and we must] enter democratic partnerships with other members of our communities.”
For me, the Memory Jar Project a couple years ago at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History really stands out in terms of a museum working to renegotiate traditional, monolithic structures of authority (using a ‘digital mindset’ in an analog way). Part of a larger community-sourced exhibition project called Santa Cruz Collects, visitors were invited to ‘bottle up’ a memory in a jar, label it, and leave it as part of this exhibit to share with others. The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories initiative also continues to strive toward shared authority and multiple voices (see “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectices: Native Voices”). By redefining authority through these processes of co-creating knowledge and meaning with the community, a museum has the potential to be far more than just a place that holds and disseminates knowledge.
At the core of the digital age are new ways of relating to one another, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, learning, collaborating, and connecting. In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman argue that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.
“People’s relationships remain strong — but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”
Through countless digital projects and social media activities, museums are tapping into global networks and becoming more connected to this growing virtual community (that, in many cases, actually has a strong relationship with a museum’s physical community). As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, stated in a 2014 New York Times piece, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”
Through the Portland Art Museum’s #captureParklandia project, we were able to effectively explore the interconnected network of interest-based social media communities (via Instagram) and the physical communities in Portland itself. The overall reach of this project through Instagram was far larger than the museum’s annual in-person attendance, motivating us to rethink how we define our audiences and the new ways in which we might bring them together through moments of exchange. Rob Stein explores related ideas in his CODE | WORDS essay “Museums… So What?”, writing:
“… the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities?”
The Question Bridge project is a particularly powerful example of using digital technologies in a participatory way to bring people together in dialogue and exchange. Organized by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, this innovative transmedia art project aims to facilitate a question-and-answer dialog between black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and create a platform for representing and redefining black male identity. In addition to its online interactive site, the project has been installed at over 25 museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, and the Missouri History Museum, and includes a multiple-screen video installation as well as a youth development curriculum and specialized community engagement events. The project (about which I encourage you to learn more) is all about dialogue and listening, and it taps into both technology and a digital mindset in order to enhance the connective and collective experience of participants in a digital age.
* * * * *
In her book Museums in the Digital Age, Susana Smith Bautista discusses how notions of place, community, and culture are changing for museums in the digital age. In her conclusion, she writes:
“If museums are to remain relevant, vital, and meaningful, then they must adapt to a changing society, which means not only recognizing and incorporating new digital tools for communication, but more importantly, recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of society as reflected in their communities of physical and virtual visitors.” (225).
As the behaviors of our audiences and communities change, so do the ways in which they learn. A core part of this digital transformation in museums (see “Museums Morph Digitally”) involves expanding our concepts of learning and engagement to be responsive to an Internet culture defined by participation — and not just ‘participation for the sake of participation,’ but as serious involvement in the deep, connected forms of cultural and creative learning that can occur with museums.
Embracing a digital mindset of openness, participation, and 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 much the same way that new technologies brought people together for that powerful shared moment 45 years ago to witness Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap.’
After all … the moon belongs to everyone.
* * * * *
On November 12, 2014, the NAEA Museum Education Division hosted a Peer2Peer Hangout that focused on these ideas of ‘digital mindset’ and ‘digital museum practice’ with Ed Rodley, Chelsea Kelly, Michelle Grohe, and Juline Chevalier. It was a lively conversation with lots of good questions from people watching live. View the video archive of this Hangout below:
When the Clark Art Institute reopened its doors this summer, visitors were greeted by an astounding new building by architect Tadao Ando, expansive views of the rolling hills of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and beautifully redesigned galleries for the museum’s extensive permanent collection. With this renovation and expansion, we faced the challenge of how to encourage visitors to engage with the art in new and inspiring ways. Previously, the museum had been renting audio wands; however, these were limited to a single layer of audio and had no screen option. Thus, a new interactive interpretive system was needed to accommodate deeper layers of exploration and engagement with the collection.
Through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the nostalgic audio wands have been replaced by mini iPads, which we call multimedia guides – although they are so much more than that. The multimedia guide currently has 150 objects from our permanent collection, each with a zoomable image, basic information, label, and audio (along with audio transcript). Many of the objects also give the visitor the option to explore the artwork further with varied layers of content. The multimedia guide is free with museum admission or visitors can also download a streamlined version onto their personal device. The guides also include information about the Institute’s founders, Sterling and Francine Clark, special exhibitions, and a grounds map.
This interpretative project was several years in the making. Over the past two years I have worked closely with Media Manager Laurie Glover and Project Manager Viktorya Vilk to develop a system that embraced the mission of the Clark and its dedication “to advancing and extending the public understanding of art.” Central to our approach was the importance of looking at art — we did not want to detract from the importance of this practice, nor replace it with gazing at a screen. Instead, we found ways that would enhance the looking experience and point out things that visitor could not have learned otherwise. In many ways, we were inspired to the Van Gogh museum’s recent app, Touch Van Gogh, which allows audiences to examine the painterly process up close in ways never before possible.
So, how to accomplish these things?
To tackle this bold mission of active looking and learning, our process included months of brainstorming with the Clark curators and educators to decide which works of art would benefit most from additional content. We asked them what stories they liked to tell about the art, what questions they were most often asked, what special thing no one knew. From these stories, we slowly whittled down our extensive list to 150 objects and designated about half of them for additional content. Each of these objects would have no more than three or four sections of content. The content is layered, so there was an option to go deeper if there is interest but we did not want anyone to feel bogged down by the amount of content. We wanted to maintain choice in the pace the information is provided, the depth of knowledge one might be seeking, as well as a direct search for a particular artwork versus a more casual browsing of the collection.
We endeavored to create content that most enhances the visitors’ understanding of the artwork – when it can make the invisible visible and inspire curiosity for deeper learning. We found conservation stories from X-rays that unearthed hidden secrets. We found collection stories from the diary pages of our founder. We also worked with Tristan Interactive to build a semi-customized content management system and develop three kinds of interactive within the application. These include:
1) Drag and Drop: This interactive works sort of like a puzzle, in which small details from the artwork can be matched to the larger whole to reveal interesting details. This works particularly well for very detailed paintings because it encourages the viewer to look back up at the actual painting to find the detail in front of them.
2) Slider: By sliding your finger along a scrub bar the image changes to tell a story or transform an image. For example, this feature works well with our Domenico Ghirlandaio painting, Portrait of a Lady. The transformation shows the painting pre-conservation, when the painting was altered with the addition of a halo and wheel identify the sitter (mistakenly) as Saint Catherine. One of the things that was most important was developing functionalities that could be adapted in various ways: for example, the slider could move something in space, reveal a hidden layer, or move through a narrative.
3) Hotspots: Pulsing circles appear on different part of the image – when tapped, screen pops up to reveal more information about this part of the work.
After our initial beta-build of the device we invited 80 volunteers and docents to act as a sort of focus group. We handed out the multimedia guides with a survey/set of instructions to help guide each individual through the 20-ish objects we had built into the device. The survey asked each person to the rate the difficulty of these tasks (i.e. “play the audio,” “find the Unpack Me interactive,” etc.). Because our focus group was limited to volunteers and docents, the demographic was mostly 50 years of age or older.
As we expected, there was a lot of initial confusion and outright contempt for the devices; mostly because they were perceived as new and scary. This was not a sample group that felt comfortable with technology or even used an iPhone or iPad on a regular basis. However, the more time we spent explaining their functions, the more they found joy and value in them. The less confusing the process became, the more impressed they were! Given our visitor demographic, it reinforced our commitment that the app be intuitive with lots of onscreen help. We worked with the engineers to create built in “hints” that appear on the tablet screen and encourage/guide the user.
Of course, there will always be visitors who do not want to engage with the tablets when visiting the museum. We worked hard to create something that was user friendly and, hopefully, a seamless transition from the traditional audio wand. We hope that audiences will want to engage with the collection in new and deeper ways through the expanded layers of content. Content that is presented in a variety of ways, with the belief that it will appeal to a variety of users.
As many others in the field have already noted, there is a constant grappling with the pros and cons of bringing technology into the galleries. Although I personally believe in the power of individual, intimate experiences with art, I also strongly value the communal experience that can be cultivated through conversation in front of a work of art. I can see the appeal and value of both experiences and I hope that each visitor is able to travel the path that best accommodates their needs. We chose iPad screens because they are shareable, a single headphone to make the experience less solitary, layers of content to pick and choose from. Interpretation should be available to those that seek it; it should spark curiosity and reveal what makes us love a work of art.
We have recently finished conducting an expansive survey in the Clark galleries, both with visitors who used the multimedia guide, and those who did not, to gauge it’s effectiveness, value, and possible issues that might have arisen with usability. Although we are still waiting for the concrete data, preliminary results indicate that our visitors love the app and love using the iPad minis. They enjoyed using the interactives, sharing tidbits with their family and friends, and listening to the audio components. However, those that did not take the device, often voiced negative comments about it. It seems the negativity is rooted in the unknown – something that is new, possibly complicated, and technological.
As is often the case on ArtMuseumTeaching (and a very valuable case), I’d like to open the floor to all of you. What are your thoughts on the future of technology in museum galleries? What are its positive effects and what are the possible criticisms it faces? Can an iPad screen really enhance a solitary and personal experience with a work of art? Or is that kind of thinking becoming increasingly elitist and limiting to everyday audiences?
About the Author
REBECCA FRIDAY: Rebecca earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and Master’s Degree from Williams College, both in Art History. She spent the last two years working as a Curatorial Assistant at the Clark Art Institute. In addition to her contributions on the multimedia guide project and interpretation of the reinstallation of the permanent collection, she also served as curatorial coordinator for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, Cast for Eternity: Ancient Ritual Bronzes from the Shanghai, and Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution. Prior to her position at the Clark, Rebecca worked at the Williams College Museum of Art as well as several New York City art galleries, including Galerie St. Étienne and Robert Miller Gallery. She is currently looking for her next adventure in museum interpretation. Rebecca tweets at @Fridayfridaygrl. Rebecca’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Clark Art Institute’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
After reading art critic Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post this past weekend, I felt like I was being punked (does that still happen?). Someone is actually telling people how to view art? And chastising them for incorrect behavior like making plans in museum walls? As a museum educator and consultant that teaches other educators how to listen to visitors and interact with art in different ways, imagine my shock at this antiquated judgmental piece. Now, Hyperallergic beat me to a delightfully snarky response, so I present five (snark-light) counterpoints to Kennicott’s ‘how to.’
1. Take the time you have
Museums are exhausting. I’m a museum person and the stimulation tires me out. So take the time you have and spend time with the works that you like. Viewing art should be a fun experience — not a sprint to see every Picasso, Monet, and Degas until your eyes bleed.
Do you have an hour? Great. Take advantage of a pay-what-you-can day and spend some time in one collection. Or even one gallery. Engage with the art in the way you want to engage. That means if you want to take a photo, take it. Take a selfie (if the museum allows it) or photo bomb the work.
If you want to tweet, hashtag #ITweetMuseums and someone might strike up a conversation with you about the artwork. Take the time you have.
And don’t wander around, waiting for something to hit you. Do you wait in a coffee shop for true love to come through the door, walk up and propose? Nope. Art is similar — you won’t get ‘struck’ by something that shakes you to the core by racing around seeing every work you can. Take it easy, date art as slowly as you would date people. True love might be out there.
2. Seek your space
“Museums aren’t for everyone. But they should be for anyone.” – David Carr
Find those dark corners away from Starry Night. Don’t just see the highlights — see the side galleries. Did you know the Met Museum has an incredible visible storage in the American Wing? Or the Guggenheim has a basement with a theatre that often shows video pertaining to the current exhibition? Investigate the map; see what looks interesting to you and head there.
Or stand in front of Starry Night. You shouldn’t avoid a popular work because it is popular — even if you’ve seen it before. Watching people interact with artwork is possibly one of the greatest sociology experiments. I was at LACMA on business and I watched a family staring at a Rothko, trying to make sense of the color fields. The older male said, “It looks like it’s vibrating” while his wife (?) said, “it looks more like it’s swinging.” The key is finding the space that works for you and your art viewing, even if it’s the loudest corner of the museum.
3. Just do you
Some people respond to art with knowledge. Some people respond to art by looking. Some people respond by moving, listening to music, sketching. You know what kind of learner you are. And if you don’t, try things. Pose like the sculpture or move like the shapes. Just stop and look. Wiki the work, read the museum label or online catalogue, listen to the audio guide or sketch a detail. Just do you.
If you decide you are an interpersonal learner and want to interact with others, take a museum tour. Those questions the educator is asking? Chances are they:
want to see where you are at in ‘understanding’ the art,
want to see what you are interested in, or
want to show that everyone can have an opinion about art, and yours matters as much as the curators.
See the common theme? You.
Museum education programs care about the visitor. What is the art if you aren’t there? A historical thing on the wall. As a museum educator, we don’t think learning from authority is oppressive. We DO think that all opinions are equally valid, as long as they are backed up with thought. I’ve had many people tell me contemporary art is crap. “Great,” I respond, “Why do you think that?” Silence. Then, “well I could do it.” My response? “Ok you need art to show skill, let me show you x later, they were classically trained…”
See what happened? It goes back to the YOU. What you think and feel about art IS important, because without, the museum is just a place with a bunch of things on the walls.
4. Remember in your own way
This ties very much into my previous point. Remember what appeals to you. If you’ll remember your experience with the artwork by the date, fantastic. If you aren’t a number person (like me), exactly what will the date do for you? Or the name of the artist?
Take in what affects you. Is it the brush strokes? The color? The connection of the figures? If you are dealing with an artwork you actually like, creating a mental image, sketching, acting out the piece will be fun. So will Instagramming it. Museums do not have to be like school — you don’t have to cram in facts regarding the artists or movements shown in exhibitions. You definitely can, but again, you do you.
5. Ignore everything I said
How to really view art? Ignore everything I just said, except for the title of point three. Just do you. Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to Kennicott — listen to yourself. If you are bored, take a break. If you are interested in a work, investigate further. If you want to move, listen to music, sketch, get a coffee, tweet, laugh, cry — whatever. Interact with art in any way YOU want to.
A few years ago at a conference, David Carr said to a group of museum educators, “Museums aren’t for everyone. But they should be for anyone.” Never had a truer statement been said regarding museum — they should be for anyone, even if you use it as a backdrop for a date, air conditioning on a hot day, a library, a school or a place to center yourself. Without you, museums are giant holding centers for bits of human history.