Tag Archives: visitor engagement

Evaluation Can Be Fun

Written by Marianna AdamsAudience Focus, 2014 Educator-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

One of the great luxuries I value about my time here at the Gardner Museum has been the opportunity to have rather leisurely and unstructured conversations with museum educators here and at other museums in the Boston area. I appreciate the value of not always having an agenda and not needing to solve a problem. We bounced ideas off each other and I always came away with a fresh perspective, a deeper conviction in my intuition, and lots of new ideas. Our talks often meander around the relationship between a museum experience or program and how we choose to evaluate it. A few themes have emerged from the conversations so far.

There is Life Beyond the Survey

MA-SURVEYOver the years I have not made a secret of how much I don’t like written questionnaires, paper or online, despite how much I end up using them on evaluation projects. Why? The written survey is the most difficult methodology to do well. It’s the default methodology that most people think of when planning an evaluation and most of them are tedious and poorly focused. It’s a blunt instrument that cannot capture much in the way of subtlety and nuance (and life is so much about nuance). In recent years, with the plethora of online survey programs, we are drowning in surveys so survey-fatigue is a reality. Most surveys are really asking for the visitor to tell us that we did a good job (e.g., How satisfied were you with this experience?) and not enough about how the visitor values or benefits from the experience. Besides, the written questionnaire usually does not reflect the spirit of the experience we’re trying to evaluate, bringing me to my next point.

Match the evaluation method to the experience.

Imagine yourself at a museum’s “evening hours” event. There is a great band, wine, engaging activities going on throughout the galleries, good friends, and a happy crowd of people of all types and ages. The atmosphere is both relaxing and energized at the same time. As you stroll towards the door to leave the museum, someone hands you a piece of paper. It’s a survey asking you to evaluate this time you just had and it smacks you out of the pleasant, liminal state you spent several hours dropping into. That’s an example of how the survey methodology is not well matched to the quality of the experience you just had.

So what methodology might better align with the evening program experience you imagined yourself attending above?

First you start with what you want to know and why.

So often we select the methodology before we figure out what we want to know and why. We decide on surveys or focus groups when those may or may not be the best ways to collect the data. Often we collect more data than we know what to do with. Here’s an example that came up in a recent conversation:

Like many art museums, the Gardner offers several community nights with free admission throughout the year and these events are very well attended. Primarily, the Gardner wants to know if these events are indeed attracting people from communities close to the museum. Yes, we could easily get zip code information via a written questionnaire. The problem is that we tend to throw in a lot of other questions that we don’t really need the answer to. The other area of inquiry the Gardner would like to know about revolves around how visitors connect to the museum. So let’s keep those two data points in mind, residence and connection, as we think about how to get useful information.

Think creatively about ways to get that data and match it to the spirit of the experience.

How could we get zip code data and not make people fill out a survey?

Imagine a big map (maybe near the wine bar because most everyone would go there), with zip code areas and neighborhoods clearly identified. Give people a small colorful adhesive file folder dot and invite them to put it on their zip code. It becomes a fun, social activity and, for some reason, people like to find themselves on a map. It’s simple and inexpensive. At the end you have a picture of the zip code distribution of your audience. You could do this for other evening events and compare the maps.

MA-response wall

What about the ways visitors connect to the museum?

One methodology that I love to experiment with is embedded performance assessment. This means that visitors don’t realize they are providing evaluation data, even when we tell them, because the process is engaging on it’s own. At a workshop for the Gardner Museum education staff this week, artist-in-residence Paul Kaiser inspired us all to explore new ways to engage visitors and possibly end up with some interesting evaluation data.

MA-galleryPaul first introduced us to the concept of collaborative writing, using the example of Japanese renga poetry. He then provided us with a set of words —  rising, distant, enclosed, fold, release — and asked us to take the spirit of renga into the galleries, substituting the verses for objects, spaces, or views based on that set of words. We did it and were struck by how beautifully the experience honored the spirit of what Mrs. Gardner did in the ways she arranged objects to suggest ideas or relationships.

We played with ways to use this activity with visitors, discussing ways to engage families and adult visitors at community nights in something similar. Perhaps if we created a more playful set of words to match the feel of these events, visitors would find it enjoyable. We brainstormed possibly having a place where people could post their responses and read what others thought about. Having these responses could be a rich data source that helps us better understand ways that visitors make connections to the museum. We were jazzed!

What are some unconventional ways that you have collected rich and useful data about the visitor experience?

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

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ABOUT AUTHOR

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

“Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators

As museum educators, we’re always trying to get visitors to slow down, but sometimes we have a more immediate task, convincing them that they are in fact looking at a work of art. Recently three New York City educators got together and talked about the most common “Is this art?” situations we’ve encountered.

Rachel Crumpler on Jackson Pollock: “My four-year-old could do that.”

Observing Jackson Pollock's 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)', Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/
Observing Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/

Before you stop reading, let me acknowledge – yes, I have chosen a cliché. My intention is to use Pollock as a stand-in, a canonical example, of any number of more process-based works. For instance: Kazou Shiraga’s slippery barefoot paintings, Zarina’s meticulous Pin Drawings, Franz Kline’s definitive brushstrokes, or even John Chamberlain’s crunched-up cars. These works often challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what kind of art they will (or should) see hanging on the walls of the museum.

The responses vary, ranging from “My four-year-old could do that” to “It looks like scribble-scrabble, finger painting, a car wreck, a big mess.” Or the hardest response for an educator to field: the uncomfortable polite silence punctuated with a quick roll of the eye or a smirk shared between friends. Once uttered, perhaps coaxed forth, responses invariably question the artist’s skill and the overall value of the artwork. (Confession: I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to get annoyed when a visitor sneers and likens an artist to a four-year-old, insulting some of my favorite children as well as some of my favorite artists.) In fact, these comments are often coming from visitors who feel affronted by the unexpected and are responding defensively.

Many of the initial comments a Pollock (or any process-based work) elicits refer to how the painting was made – and also often indicate a hesitation to accept the work as art. Though stated defensively, these comments are not entirely off base. I think it’s important to first acknowledge and accept the hesitation. That’s something I love about museums. There is always some artwork that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges my own definition of what art can be. In his time, Jackson Pollock was pushing the envelope; with his artwork, he was asking questions about how art should look and how art can be made.

Conversations in museums, thankfully, are not meant to appraise the quality of the artworks viewed, but rather to unpack the inherent ideas. After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand. For Pollock, I would want to return to the implicit observations made in the initial comments and how they relate to the creative process. What about the painting makes it look like scribbling, finger painting, a mess? Where, specifically, in the painting do you see that?

The ensuing conversation will vary, depending on who is taking part and what the original comments were; any number of approaches could move the discussion forward.

I might show some of Pollock’s earlier and more representational work from his years with the Art Students League. Looking at the two works side by side silently states that the abstraction is a choice, not a matter of ability. I might ask the group how the two would be different to make. Or I might share that Pollock lived with his wife Lee Krasner in a farmhouse on Long Island. He would spread his canvases out on the floor of his large studio, and using brushes, sticks and sometimes a turkey baster loaded with house paint, he would begin to squirt, pour and drip onto the floor. I might ask the group to see if they can identify the painting’s starting and ending points. Alternately, I might ask the group to envision a four-year-olds drawing and compare it to the Pollock – how do the two differ, and what do they share in common?

The differences found in the all-over painting style may point to Pollock’s control of the paint and academic knowledge of composition. The similarities, however, might allow for greater understanding of Pollock’s process and more nuanced interpretations of his work. In fact, the response “my four-year-old could do that” may be more insightful than the participant (or educator) realizes.

Four-year-olds, still learning language and ways to interact with other humans, often express themselves physically. Anger is communicated through clenched fists and stomping feet; sadness, through a down-turned glance or the curl of the spine. And sometimes, it just feels good to run. For a four-year-old, movement is a primary means of engaging with the world. Likewise, Pollock chose to engage with the canvas through movement. Rather than communicating through recognizable images, he dripped, dribbled, spilled and splattered the paint in a dizzying dance across his studio floor. The painting we see can be read as the aftermath, a record of the artist’s intuitive physical expression.

Jen Oleniczak on Kiki Smith: “That’s disgusting, how is it art?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describing something as beautiful is as benign as saying your day is ‘fine’ – neither offer information and both are frustrating without more information. The same can be said for calling something disgusting – and much like asking why a day is just ‘fine’ asking why a person thinks something is disgusting often ends up with the retort of “because it just is.”

A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled "Lilith," 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.
A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled “Lilith,” 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.

Aesthetics are subjective, and much art can be overlooked because it is not outwardly ‘beautiful.’ Having the experience of teaching with classic and modern art, I’ve heard the “pfft, that’s disgusting” in front of works not traditionally ‘beautiful’. While it’s fairly easy to call a floral Rococo work ‘beautiful’ and ‘art’ – what about a gritty Kiki Smith?

My goal as an educator is not only to have visitors appreciate craft in a work that isn’t traditionally ‘beautiful,’ but also to understand the art AND beauty is often in the idea, as well as the work. Kiki Smith’s Tale encompasses that very balance. Smith is known for her representations of the body, usually altered in gasp-inducing ways. Tale is a sculpture of a woman crawling on the ground with a long trail of feces (fake) following behind her – admittedly, a bit cringe worthy, even for the savviest of art viewers. and easily something a visitor could dismiss as disgusting. But when examined closer, the work, like all of Smith’s body works, is brilliantly complex.

When in doubt, I bring out the inquiry guns for students and adults alike. Just the title of the work, Tale, provokes the question: why do you think Smith used Tale and not Tail? What could the title imply? A quote from Smith herself opens the conversation further:

The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something – like that you’re dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it’s so apparent in one’s own being. (as cited in NPR “Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile”)

Just those brief questions and an artist quote allow the work to gain a life – and let people stop and think about the ideas behind a work of art. Everyone has personal ‘garbage’ and that new connection between art and life is exposed with Smith’s quote. The work becomes an experience and the idea behind it becomes intriguing, thought-provoking and even beautiful.

Shannon Murphy on Isamu Noguchi’s Akaris: “I got the same thing from Ikea.”

Yes, Ikea sells beautiful paper lanterns, and it’s jarring to see a similar object in a museum. Isamu Noguchi’s version of the paper lantern, the Akari, has been knocked off since he began designing them in the early 1950s. I frequently meet visitors who get snarky upon seeing one during a tour. They are understandably suspicious of my “tour,” especially if it ends at the gift shop where they can purchase an Akari. Yet, this is the very reason why I love the Akaris. You can take a sculpture home. If you don’t actually want one, the concept alone is worth investigating more — high art specifically made to be affordable.

Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

I understand how some of the mystique can be lost when it’s possible to take home the work of art, especially when it comes with an on/off switch. As an educator, I invite visitors first to consider how the Akari is different from the Ikea lamp. If the soft glow of the handmade paper doesn’t capture them, I invite them to look inside and inspect the hand-crafted bamboo armature. Then, I like to share the story of the object to place it in a historical context. Akaris were conceived in 1951 when Noguchi was visiting a small town in Japan called Gifu. The mayor of the town asked Noguchi to re-design the traditional paper lantern. Noguchi went to work and designed hundreds of Akaris in various abstract shapes. The story continues for decades as Noguchi struggled to exhibit Akaris as fine art, while still selling them at a reasonable price. The struggle is often said to have cost him a Grand Prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale where he insisted on exhibiting the Akaris along with his stone and metal sculptures. Much to Noguchi’s dismay, the Akaris were stuck in a realm of applied art.

Sometimes, the artist’s words resonate with visitors. Noguchi said “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.” The Akaris were, “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce.” Saying the word “love,” while looking at a glowing light and knowing there was a history of struggle wins visitors over every time. Money! And then with a wry smile, I remind my group that the Akaris are sold downstairs in the shop. I tell them that it won’t last forever, the paper will one day begin to turn and the bamboo will give. Its authentic beauty does last for many years though, and it could be the last thing you see before you go to bed every night. Try that with Starry Night.

Which objects do you find people asking “Is this art?”  How have you handled it?  We’d love for everyone to share their stories here.

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ABOUT THESE 3 NEW YORK CITY EDUCATORS

rachel-crumplerRACHEL CRUMPLER works as a museum educator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Noguchi Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. She also teaches art classes for Foster Pride, a non-profit organization that provides free classes to children in the New York City foster care system. She holds a MA from Stony Brook University in Art Theory, History and Criticism. Rachel’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

OleniczakJEN OLENICZAK: Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC-based organization that specializes in theatre, improv, and movement workshops and professional developments for educators. With a dual background in art history and theatre, Jen is also a museum educator, trained actor, and improviser. She’s worked as an educator with the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, Noguchi Museum, and New York Transit Museum. Jen keeps herself busy performing with National Comedy Theatre and searching for new delicious food spots. Jen’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or The Frick Collection.

shannon_bwSHANNON MURPHY: Currently teaches at the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She is constantly experimenting with new strategies to engage visitors and students with art. Shannon holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is working on her MA at the City College of New York. In her free time she enjoys yoga, papermaking, and playing soccer with friends. Shannon’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens

By Caroline Goeser

I am part of the team that has led the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One and ArtLens iPad app. These new initiatives – blending art, technology, and interpretation – are garnering interest in the press and among museum colleagues. Many thanks to Mike Murawski for asking me to offer my perspective on the project, understanding that it is newly launched and we are in the process of gathering initial feedback. This project is the focus of a paper session at Museums & the Web 2013 in Portland (link to paper here). Responses so far have been enthusiastic as well as probing and have challenged us to think in new ways about what we’ve created and how we want to move forward. Recurring questions from reporters, colleagues, and visitors can serve as a way of introducing some of our goals and future ideas.

What was your plan behind integrating technology?

A view of Gallery One from the main lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
A view of Gallery One from the main lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Our plan conceives technology as an interpretive tool to drive active experiences with art at CMA. Creating Gallery One and the ArtLens app has been part of our mission to put visitors front and center. We wanted to build a gallery experience at the entrance to the museum that would welcome all visitors, with particular focus on families, college students, and young professionals – audiences that have not always seen CMA as their kind of place. We wanted to offer them new possibilities to experience art in a participatory way through the medium of interpretive technology. We also wanted visitors’ encounters in Gallery One to spark interest in the museum as a whole and to provide tools of understanding and enjoyment that could enhance their experience of art in the galleries.

On January 21, 2013, we opened Gallery One and went live with the ArtLens iPad app. Gallery One is a unique space just off the museum’s main lobby in which 55 top-quality art objects from the permanent collection are arranged in thematic groupings that cross time and cultures. This organization allows visitors to make connections across CMA’s comprehensive collection of world art. For example, sculptures of the human form from ancient Rome, Japan, Africa, and 19th-century France greet visitors as they enter the gallery, prompting them to experience how our bodies have inspired art differently over time. Another installation groups paintings and ceramics from Europe and Asia, asking visitors to engage with roots of our contemporary, global culture. Interactive, multi-touch screens interpret selected art installations, allowing visitors to engage actively with the works on view by virtually creating their own works of art, or by physically striking a pose inspired by a work of art they see. Gallery One also includes Studio Play, a dedicated family space with hands-on art-making activities, as well as interactive technology stations that provide young children and their families with fun ways to have first encounters with art and CMA’s collections.

A detail of the Collection Wall in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
A detail of the Collection Wall in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Within Gallery One, just off our new central atrium, a one-of-a-kind, 40-foot multi-touch Collection Wall displays high-resolution images of almost 4,000 works of art from the permanent collection, most on view in the galleries. Every 40 seconds, the wall changes views, showing groupings of art objects based on themes, allowing visitors to see that the collection is dynamic, depending on how you view it. Visitors can touch and browse objects on the Collection Wall to discover other artworks that are related and to find tours that connect objects throughout the collection.

The Collection Wall functions as a place to organize a visit through the permanent collection galleries by way of a unique connection with the ArtLens iPad app. By docking their iPad (or one available for rent) at the Wall, visitors can save their favorite objects to the app and create a personalized tour through the museum. The app’s way finding system directs them to the objects on their tour or to other objects in the collection. They can also find CMA-created tours to organize their visit according to themes they like. Alternatively, they can browse through the galleries and find works of art that engage them, discovering text and video interpretation within the app, or even scanning two-dimensional objects through image recognition to find quick bites of text or video.

What are your learning goals for visitors?

Our goals for what visitors take away involve experience rather than content. We hope that:

  1. visitors have fun with art
  2. the interactive games and interpretation provide tools for understanding and spark social experiences with art
  3. visitors find transformative moments of discovery about continuing creative traditions that make art relevant for them.

Above all, we want to refrain from providing a single, authoritarian guide but instead to offer a variety of choices for visitor engagement. Rather than designing content to meet our own goals for visitors, we have learned from our audience evaluation and responded to the way many of our visitors browse through our galleries, drawn to particular works of art based on their own visual interests and prior knowledge. We’ve been mindful of Jay Rounds’ prescient advice in Curator (2006):

“Visitors come to museums for their own reasons, and those reasons are not necessarily congruent with the goals of the museum. No doubt their browsing through exhibits is suboptimal when compared against [a] museum’s goal that visitors ‘engage in systematic study or exploration.’ But the same [browsing] behavior may prove to be an intelligent response to the situation when measured against the goals of the visitors themselves.” (p. 134)

Sculpture installation in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
Sculpture installation in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Gallery One and ArtLens were designed to honor browsing behavior. There’s no preferred path through Gallery One; visitors can move from one art installation to another, each with its own story. The Collection Wall asks visitors to browse rather than search: to find artworks they like visually, and to discover connections to related works by theme, medium, or time period. The “Near You Now” section of the ArtLens app follows browsers as they meander through the permanent collection galleries, indicating where they are in the building and the artworks near them. For objects with video interpretation, visitors can find a variety of short segments that they can choose according to their personal preferences rather than a prescribed sequence.

When visitor evaluation begins later this spring, we can find out how these tools are working for our visitors. In the meantime, we’ve been fortunate to have visits from a variety of museum colleagues who have shared initial responses. Following his on-site visit, Peter Samis of SFMoMA wrote to our CMA team:

“The Collection Wall reminds me of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (2008): it makes every artwork equally available, democratizing the collection…, it enables me to create a tour that threads me like a needle through all the various parts of the building. It disappears the architecture, the molecules, and replaces them with a new organizing principle: visual interest.”

Cool! Interpretive technology serves visitors’ visual interests and democratizes the collection. The challenge comes in the connectivity between the Collection Wall and the iPad app. With the ability to save almost any object to their iPad, what will visitors expect when they reach the actual objects in the galleries? Currently only a portion have video and audio interpretation within the app, some draw web texts and label copy from our databases, but others feature only basic “tombstone” information. We’re eager to discover visitors’ expectations, and in the meantime, to develop priorities for creating new interpretive content.

How can visitors contribute their own art interpretation within the iPad app?

ArtLens video and audio content draws on conversations with curators, educators, conservators, and community members. We hope the variety of voices allows visitors to feel part of the conversation and to suggest that there is no single way to interpret or enjoy a work of art. The community voices are particularly important, as they call up continuing traditions that grow from the artworks on view and connect visitors with people in their community – like the Imam of the Cleveland Mosque for whom the Islamic prayer niche in our collection is part of a living tradition, or the Cleveland ballet dancer who brings his creative perspective to Degas’ Frieze of Dancers.

: Object page for CMA’s Prayer Niche (Mihrab) in ArtLens. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
: Object page for CMA’s Prayer Niche (Mihrab) in ArtLens. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

ArtLens also allows visitors to create their own tours – playlists of their favorite objects with their own catchy titles: “Randomness and Variety,” and “Lightning Tour Before Dinner Dash.” They can share favorite objects through Facebook and Twitter. We conceived these as first steps toward more extensive visitor participation. We’ve discussed the potential for gathering visitors’ stories about CMA’s artworks and incorporating them into the app. We’ve also dreamed about the potential to capture visitors’ voices within the app, so that they can contribute their own insights about their favorite works of art from the galleries or from off site.

We encourage you to download ArtLens to your iPad and give us your feedback. Our project is ambitious – an interpretive system that reaches throughout CMA’s permanent collection. I’ve outlined some of our ideas and plans here, but there’s much more to come, so stay tuned!

I want to extend huge thanks to the members of my CMA team in Education and Interpretation responsible for the development of interpretive content in Gallery One: Seema Rao, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppely, and in ArtLens: Jennifer Foley, Lori Wienke, and Bethany Corriveau. They are part of CMA’s Gallery One development team, led by Griffith Mann in Curatorial, Jane Alexander in Information Technology, Jeffrey Strean in Design, and myself. Local Projects of New York is responsible for all media design and collaborated with us on the concept development. Earprint Productions of San Francisco produced the ArtLens app digital content, in collaboration with the CMA interpretation team.

ABOUT AUTHOR

image005CAROLINE GOESER currently serves as the Director of the Department of Education and Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Joining the museum in 2009, she reorganized the Education Department in 2012 to focus on two primary goals: 1) invigorating classroom experiences through object-based educational programs, and 2) creating vital experiences with works of art in the galleries through interpretive text, technology, gallery teaching, and public programming for visitors of all ages. Caroline collaborates with the Chief Curator and Directors of Information Technology and Design to oversee the new Gallery One, an interactive gallery for intergenerational visitors. She has facilitated and enhanced the museum’s collaborative interpretation program, which has garnered national recognition with the recent award of an NEH Challenge Grant. With colleagues at CMA and Case Western Reserve University, she has worked to re-envision the joint CWRU-CMA doctoral program in art history, which recently received a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to focus on object-based study. Caroline’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Cleveland Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?

 

Beyond Just Staring: Personal Discovery as Core to Museum Learning

“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)

A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences.  Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task.  Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:

  • What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
  • What is the importance of any particular work to me?

Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery.  To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).

“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)

Bruce Yonemoto, Untitled (NSEW 8), 2007

After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make.  I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers).  Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.

If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)

No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself.  Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception.  We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say.  “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60).  While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.

Photo by Clint Gardner

While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer.   Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.