Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.
This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”
As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.
We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?
Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.
All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.
With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:
“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”
“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”
“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”
I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”
At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation.
Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.
RACHEL ROPEIK: Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Previously, she served as a museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; a Smarthistory contributor; and cultural docent for Context Travel. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and her current professional interests are in the places where accessibility, technology, and multi-modal learning intersect with art museums. She can also perform a passable jazz dance routine and tell you a dissertation’s worth about 19th century European menswear.
“Art is the highest form of hope.” —Gerhard Richter
Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.
On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People(Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.
The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.
As I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.
Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:
“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)
Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?
To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.
Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.
Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:
“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)
This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.
Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. In 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.
To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.
As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.
Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)
The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.
As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:
“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)
How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?
About the Author
MICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.
Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.
Written by Sarah Watkins, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Reposted with permission from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights blog, the institution’s online presence for stories about the museum and its exhibitions, programs, education programs, and other news. Check it out, and learn more about the exciting work happening at the CMHR. Original post by Sarah Watkins, September 3, 2016.
I have always believed that museums are powerful places. Visiting a well-done exhibit can help us to grow by opening our minds and hearts to ideas that we may never have even considered. For me, the travelling exhibition Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artistsis a perfect example of this.
On display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights until September 18th, Sight Unseen showcased the photography of acclaimed international artists, all of whom have varying levels of vision loss. I was fortunate enough to work with some of these artists to create a lecture series called Shooting Blind, which explored the idea of taking photos without the use of sight. Now that I can reflect on this experience, I have come to realize that this exhibition and these artists have helped me to discover a new perspective on photography and ability.
What is really interesting about Sight Unseen is that the art seems familiar but foreign at the same time. In today’s world, everyone takes photos – at home with family, out with friends, on our cellphones and tablets and with our digital cameras. The act of taking photographs has become commonplace, and for this reason we can all connect with this exhibition. The artists in this show, however, aren’t just taking photos or documenting a moment in time; they are communicating a message. They think very deeply and consciously about what they are going to photograph.
I used to take thousands of photos with my digital camera in an attempt to capture the exact thing that I was seeing with my eyes. Now, because of this exhibition, I have a different perspective. I take fewer photos, but I think more deeply about each one. I look beyond what is in front of me and consider why I am taking the photo. Am I trying to capture an image of the bridge, or the way that the evening light creates patterns out of shadows that reflect the shape of their source? Is it the fog on the water that is most interesting, or the stillness that it communicates the minute before I jump in the lake for a morning swim?
After visiting Sight Unseen, I see the photographs in a new way. When I look at the photo created by Evgen Bavčar that shows an outstretched hand touching the face of a stone statue, I no longer see just the objects. Rather, I see the careful exploration and discovery of something unknown. I can’t help but think of the artist, exploring the world in ways that I could never imagine, through the sense of touch. Similarly, I used to think of the amazing light paintings created by Pete Eckert as abstract art. His photographs created in a completely dark room with flashlights and other light sources seemed random. Now, the swirling colours and rays of light make me think of energy. Each model is represented differently, the colours and patterns as unique as the person they are highlighting. To me, this sense of energy was something previously imperceptible until Pete showed it to me through his work.
This change in perspective has me questioning what it means to be “able” to do something. If photography isn’t about sight, then maybe dancing isn’t always about what we do with our legs, and speaking isn’t always about sounds coming out of our mouths. This is the lesson that I have learned from Sight Unseen. There is more about us that is the same than different, so no matter what our differences are, we all deserve to have our humanity, dignity and rights respected in the same way.
*Sarah Watkins is a Interpretive Program Developer for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Header Image: Gerardo Nigenda, Entre lo invisible y lo tangible, llegando a la homeostasis emocional (Reaching Emotional Equilibrium Between the Invisible and the Tangible).
What is the social and emotional responsibility of museums, especially as many public institutions strive to be a vital part of their local communities?
How can our collections and exhibitions help visitors critically and thoughtfully engage with present-day realities?
How do museums decide which political or social issues to engage with, and which ones to be silent about?
If these issues don’t directly relate to something in our galleries, can museums still be a site for people to gather and grapple with these difficult topics?
And finally—perhaps the biggest and most provocative question—can museums be neutral in all of this? What is the value, if any, of remaining silent?
These questions—and many more—are being asked this summer at the museum I work for, the Portland Art Museum, which recently opened two exhibitions that relate directly to the politically charged realities of our time: an immersive multimedia project by artist Josh Kline entitled Freedom, and a focus exhibition of the work of Portland artist Arvie Smith. As we personally responded to the news cycles of the summer, we wondered how our visitors might bring their feelings of anger, fear, grief, pain, hope, love, and healing to their experience with these exhibitions and our collection. Should we do anything different, or just allow the art to spark that connection on its own with the people who happen to visit?
After a few rapidly planned cross-departmental meetings combined with some unplanned hallway conversations, the general consensus was to do something. One of our attempted strategies, among others, was to develop a guide to support productive conversation and dialogue in the galleries. After all, the idea of ‘conversation’ has been such a core value for gallery teaching at our institution for many years, as well as for my own personal teaching practice (see “Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums”).
I am writing this post to share the prototype of our Have Conversations Here Guide, and talk briefly about the various resources that I pulled together to develop the text of this guide. While I know that this guide is far from perfect, I am such a fan of an ‘open source’ mindset and just simply getting it out there. I welcome productive feedback, other useful resources, and both success and failure stories for when others have experimented with strategies like this.
But before discussing the Guide in more detail, it only makes sense to provide a bit more information about the Kline and Smith exhibitions that essentially sparked this extended thinking about productive dialogue here at our museum.
Art Provokes Conversations
Taking up an entire floor of the museum’s modern and contemporary wing, Josh Kline’s exhibition Freedom explores issues of social justice activism, policing, surveillance technologies, and corporate/government power. The work includes video monitors; a recreation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan (a space taken over by Occupy Wall Street in 2011); life-size sculptures of police officers in tactical gear with Teletubby heads; videos embedded in the torsos of the police figures that include Black Lives Matter activists and retired police officers; and an installation of replicated donuts bearing police crests, handcuffs, asphalt, and broken auto glass. Inspired by his own participation in the Occupy movement, Kline asks visitors to confront the recent past and its repercussions, while contemplating our roles as citizens in this pivotal moment when the uses of technology, notions of privacy, and the social order are rapidly shifting.
In a different part of the museum, the brightly-colored paintings of Arvie Smith draw subject matter directly from his own African American roots and lived experience. A key work in the exhibition is Smith’s Strange Fruit (1992), depicting the lynching of a young black man by two robed KKK members, and borrowing its title from the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Additional works such as Hands Up Don’t Shoot (2015) include stereotyped caricatures of African Americans like Aunt Jemima and direct references to police violence and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both Smith and Kline clearly see their work as intended to spark conversation and dialogue around these challenging issues, inviting visitors to not only grapple with the imagery and subject matter of their work but also with the connected realities of the world we are experiencing every day. In an interview with Portland Monthly Magazine, Kline talks about the relationship of activism and art, and the role he sees his art playing:
“Art doesn’t directly change the world. It provokes conversations and gives people space to think about their world in ways that aren’t usually possible through mass media, but it doesn’t have the power to topple corrupt governments or feed the hungry. Art operates via the ripple effect and through indirect influence. As an artist, I feel fortunate to have a public platform right now and I want to use it to speak out about issues that I feel are important—while at the same time making work that reflects the human experience in the present.”
Along these same lines, Smith discusses the importance of dialogue in an interview with the museum:
“I think everybody comes to these strong emotional situations from their own frame of reference, and I’m going to see things one way, someone else is going to see it another way—doesn’t mean I’m right; doesn’t mean their right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion. And, somewhere, through dialogue, hopefully, we can come together & make this a better world to live in.”
Developing a Conversation Guide
As part of our multifaceted conversations about how to support our visitors in having meaningful, respectful dialogue here at the museum (and after their visit), I spent time researching and developing a Conversation Guide that we could share. I scoured all of my existing resources on teaching, critical pedagogy, community activism, and museum learning, and printed out dozens of training manuals and facilitation guides that related directly to having conversations about difficult topics. My desk was completely covered.
After drafting up an extensive multi-page guide that included far too much text and too many prompts, I edited it all down until it fit on one single page. I sent this off to a few amazing colleagues at other museums, handed it to fellow staff at my museum, shared it with a few key community members, met with our director, and brought together all their feedback to create the final prototype: Have Conversations Here. We uploaded it to our website on the Visit page and emailed it to all staff and docents. I also began handing it out at programs and events developed through specific community outreach efforts related to these exhibitions, including the PDX Social Justice Community Art Project and a panel discussion “Race in America After Ferguson” with Rev. Traci Blackmon from Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
As you’ll quickly notice, the key sources of inspiration and content for this guide included Hillel International’s Ask Big Questions, the Public Conversations Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, the curriculum resources of Teaching for Change, and PBS’ Talking with Kids guides, especially their guide for Talking with Kids about the News. If you are not familiar with any of these project and resources, I highly recommend you check them out and share them with your staff or colleagues. I have been a huge fan of Ask Big Questions for years, and I found the field manuals from the Public Conversations Project to be incredibly detailed and useful (for creating this guide, as well as for my own professional practice).
I am pasting the full text of this Have Conversations Here guide below in this blog post, so anyone can use any portion of this without needing to surgically remove it from a PDF. I hope that some of you find this useful, and perhaps might use some of this content in your own museums (if you do, let me know, and please continue to cite the sources for this guide).
I couldn’t end this post without including the following quote from curator Michael Brenson (which sadly didn’t make it into the guide); a quote that has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums.
“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”
You are welcome to talk and have conversations here at the museum. We encourage you to use the galleries throughout the museum as spaces for dialogue, while always remaining respectful of all visitors. Explore together, look closely, and find a place within the museum to sit and talk about what you see and experience.
Dialogue is a powerful mode of conversation that genuinely seeks mutual understanding. It can occur between friends, co-workers, family members, and even among strangers. And it can certainly occur between people who do not share the same experiences, perspectives, or ideas. Learning to listen carefully and disagree respectfully are essential skills in today’s world.
Share your views.
Listen with care.
“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.” – Adam Gopnik, writer
EXPLORE THE GALLERIES
Consider visiting artworks on view that more directly explore some of the politically- and socially-charged issues we see in the news today, including policing, racial violence, stereotypes, and social justice activism.
Take some time to experience these artworks, think about your responses, and have a conversation with someone else in which you share your perspective and listen to theirs. Consider these questions:
How have events related to these issues affected you personally?
What life experiences of your own might connect with the work by these artists?
How are these artists challenging you?
If you’ve used this guide to spark any conversations with others—whether during or after your visit to the museum—think about any insights you’ve gained and how you might extend this experience.
Have you noticed anything new about yourself and how you view the world?
How might these conversations help you better understand someone else’s perspective?
How might you create more opportunities for reflection and dialogue?
TALKING & LISTENING STRATEGIES FOR FAMILIES
Talking about issues of social justice and violence with kids can be challenging. Children are curious and constantly ask questions about the world around them. In one breath, they might ask about a range of topics — from the weather to something they heard on the news. Whether at home, in the car, or here at the museum, it can be difficult to know how respond when difficult questions come up.
To help support these types of conversations here at the museum for all ages, we wanted to offer a few flexible suggestions. These strategies might help your family talk together about some of the socially- or politically-charged artworks you might encounter during your visit to the museum.
Start by finding out what your child knows.
When a difficult issue comes up, ask an open-ended question like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what they are thinking.
Ask a follow up question.
Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get them thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough.
Listen and acknowledge.
If a child sees or hears something that might worry and upset them, recognize their feelings and comfort them. This acknowledges your child’s feelings, helps them feel secure, and encourages them to tell you more.
(Adapted from “Talking with Kids about the News,” a resource for parents available online at pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news)
This guide draws from the following projects and resources to develop these strategies to promote active, productive dialogue and reflection. Learn more by visiting the websites listed here:
Featured Header Image: Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ leading a conversation in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art with participants in the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. Photo by Cody Maxwell.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)
Reposted from The Warhol: Blog, the institution’s online presence for stories about the museum and its exhibitions, programs, education programs, and other news. Check it out, and learn more about the exciting work happening at The Warhol!
This is the first post in a series on the development process of The Warhol’s new audio guide.
In 1964, Andy Warhol moved to a new studio in a large New York City loft and covered its walls with silver paint and aluminum foil. Dubbed the Silver Factory, this space became known as a gathering place for artists, friends, and celebrities.
The “open-door policy” of the Factory is something that we’re inspired by at The Warhol as we endeavor to create a communal and inclusive environment within the walls of our museum. One way we’re becoming a more inclusive place is through our commitment to making the museum friendly to visitors of all abilities. Later this summer, we’ll be soft-launching a new audio guide that takes an inclusive design approach. According to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, this is a philosophy that designs with all users in mind from the outset:
“The inclusive design approach will ensure the museum experience is not only accessible for all ages and abilities, but is enriching and satisfying for all. It is not a design style, but an orientation to design.”
Through a series of posts on The Warhol Blog (cross-posted here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com), we’ll dive into the process behind our new audio app, which soft-launches later this summer in a limited release and will be available to all museum visitors this fall.
The story starts in the summer of 2014, when my predecessors in charge of digital engagement partnered with the education department to develop experiences for visitors who are blind or have low vision. One component of the project was an audio guide in conjunction with the exhibition Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede. We used low-energy Bluetooth beacons to push content out to visitors based on where they are located in the museum—no need to read numbers on a wall label and type them into a device! Instead, the iOS application notifies you when there is relevant audio nearby.
In conjunction with the app, we also partnered with David White of Tactile Reproductions, LLC, to produce tactile representations of artwork in The Warhol’s collection. Tactile reproductions reimagine the contours and colors of an artwork as different relief layers, allowing visitors to use touch to gain an understanding of what a work looks like. Together, the audio guide app and the tactile reproductions allow visitors with visual impairments to delve into Warhol’s life and practice through senses beyond sight.
We learned a lot from these prototypes, but they were just the start. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve been hard at work to turn these prototypes into a reality. From the beginning of the process, we’ve kept four things in mind:
1. Put users first
We are committed to building an audio guide experience not just for community members with visual impairments, but with them as well. In our design process, we’ve worked closely with consultants with varying degrees of blindness. We talked to our partners even before we drew a single wireframe, exploring what makes a great museum experience and how they use technology. We also bring in our consultants to test prototypes at different stages of the process, allowing the findings from these sessions to guide the next step.
2. Don’t just build for accessibility
We strongly believe that if we design with different abilities in mind, we can craft a better experience for everyone. Even though we’re designing first for visitors with visual impairments, the audio guide will be available to all. Our consultants told us that they like to come to museums with friends and family, so whatever we design should be built for a social experience. Additionally, we currently don’t have an audio guide—and our front desk staff tells us this is one of the most common requests they get.
3. Reimagine the audio guide
Since we started from scratch with this audio guide, this was a great opportunity to depart from the usual way of doing things. We’re not the only ones rethinking the traditional audio guide: The newly-opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles is taking a cue from the irreverent and conversational tone of podcasts in their audio app; the British Museum has experimented with tours with longer audio files organized around themes rather than objects; and SFMOMA has designed a fully-immersive audio experience. In future blog posts, we’ll describe how we’re taking a different approach, splitting up audio content into smaller, modular stops and allow visitors to dive deeper if they’d like to learn more.
4. Start small, dream big
Everything I’ve described above is a tall order! From the outset of the project, we decided getting it right was more than ticking off all the checkboxes. For version one of the app, we have focused on only one floor of the building—floor 7, which displays works and artifacts from Warhol’s birth through to the early 1960s—but we’ve made it as complete an experience as possible. After launching and refining version one of the app, we want to expand to other floors of the museum.
Over the course of this blog series, we’ll be delving into everything from the user research we’ve done in conjunction with our blind and low-vision partners, to the process of imagining a new kind of audio experience, to the technical trials and tribulations of wrangling beacons and building our app from scratch. We’re glad you’ve joined us!
Accessibility initiatives at The Warhol are generously supported by Allegheny Regional Asset District, The Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, and the FISA Foundation in honor of Dr. Mary Margaret Kimmel.
Reposted from Design Thinking for Museums, an exceptionally useful resource for professionals and practitioners interested in applying design thinking to museums, cultural heritage institutions, and non-profit organizations. The site offers case studies of design thinking in action, posts by guest authors, interviews with practitioners, and downloadable resource guides.
For a series of printed visitor guides called the “I’m Here” series, Phoenix Art Museum adopted an innovative approach to content development: a design sprint. Educators worked off-site on the “I’m Here” guides in a day-long sprint. The finished guides have been hugely successful, with a large take-up rate, several print runs, and robust social media shares. For this post, I interviewed Christian Adame, Assistant Education Director, about the project.
Q: Tell me how the “I’m Here” gallery guides came about.
A: We had just started a rebrand of the museum’s look and feel, and we wanted to set a new tone. Our goal was to explore ways we could interact with visitors in a more informal way. We were aiming to demystify what it means to go to a museum, so we asked ourselves, “Why do people come to museums? Why are they posting selfies and sharing the experience socially?”
The answer is that they want everyone to know why they are here. And that phrase stuck with us: “I am here.” This really encapsulated our thinking. The why around a museum visit is really meaty.
Q: Why did you chose to run a design sprint?
A: The education director at the time was very interested in iteration and trying new approaches quickly. Museums are glaciers—they move really slowly. Running a sprint was a way to bring more voices to the table, and move quickly through a single project in one day.
We ran the sprint off-site, at my (former) boss’s house. We felt it was critical to get out of the office, away from (office) dynamics. We assembled a group of seven of us in the education division and put everything else aside. The thought was that everyone would be a part of this, and we would finish the first iteration that day.
Q: So you knew you wanted to frame the sprint around this notion of why a visitor is at the museum, but did you have a product in mind going into it?
A: Well, we didn’t have a very robust digital infrastructure here, so we knew we wanted to create something analog, something printed that people could walk away with. We went into the sprint with some criteria for what we wanted to create: it should be informal, and concise, and respond to the notion of “I’m here.”
And when we brainstormed during our sprint, three main ideas came to us. These were:
I’m here …
For the first time
On a date
Being in Phoenix, we get a lot of first-time visitors, mostly tourists and snowbirds, as well as locals who visit a few times a year. And we wanted to give these visitors a starting point. The one “with kids” was targeted at parents, and the last one (“on a date”) was an opportunity to have some fun!
Q: Tell me more about how you structured the sprint.
A: Our former education director facilitated, and I took second lead. We started out by examining at all the research we already had: audience demographics and evaluations. We also looked at the research of John Falk. His work examines what motivates visitors to come to museums, from relaxing and recharging to facilitating others’ visits. This kind of thinking goes beyond demographic information, which only provides a certain baseline amount of knowledge about why people visit.
We then considered this notion of “I’m here” and the idea of visitors wanting others to know why they are here. From there we did a brain dump, with everyone individually writing down ideas of how to address visitors’ motivations for why they come to Phoenix Art Museum We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a visitor, and asked the kinds of questions they would ask, what they might want to know, and so on. We alternated between working individually, then posted our thoughts and ideas all over the walls and shared out as a group. We are a big fan of Post-its. The process of showing everyone’s thought process visually together, then honing down to the best and most meaningful ideas, provided the structure of the sprint.
We cranked through the content in a day, worked with a graphic designer to create (the first prototype), and had about 200 copies made and put it out there. We wanted to see what would happen.
Q: How did you test it?
The education director and I ran the testing. We have free admission on Wednesday evenings, and there is an art walk on the First Friday of every month, so we put the guides out (on Wednesdays and Friday evenings), and talked with visitors.
We played with where to place them so they would get the most visibility, and basically observed. It’s critical as an educator to observe what people do in the museum. It’s safe to say we lurked quite a bit, and as visitors left the museum, we asked if they found the guides useful. We got a lot of positive feedback right away.
Q: What kinds of things did you learn?
A: It was mainly the language and the design that visitors responded to. Visitors noticed the difference in tone from the interpretive content on the walls in the museum. For example, you open the date guide and it says, “Ah, first dates… will there be chemistry?” It spoke to visitors directly, not abstractly.
We also learned that visitors appreciated something they could physically take away for free. We played with placement, and put the guides into different galleries.
We also watched social media so we could quantify if people were posting photos of themselves holding the guides—selfies with the guides, etc.
Q: What are your next steps?
A: We’ve been through three reprints now, and we have another guide in development: “I’m here to disconnect.” This one is about putting your phone away and focusing on two to three works of art.
Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.
Dana has worked with organizations ranging from the Getty to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to rethink the user experience and service design of digital and analog products and programs using design thinking. She is based in Berkeley, CA, and when she’s not working, she’s taking improvisational theater classes at the Berkeley Rep School of Theater.
Reposted from Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a peer-populated platform for art history teachers & home to a collectively authored online repository of art history teaching content including lesson plans, video introductions to museums, book reviews, image clusters, and classroom and museum activities.
It was five years ago, in 2011, that Karen Shelby and I sat across from each other in an office at Baruch College, CUNY, and bemoaned the lack of a peer group where we could share thoughts, ideas, concerns, and peer support around pedagogy in Art History. I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow in my first semester of U.S. classroom teaching, and Karen was a pretty new Assistant Professor who had just won a Whiting Award for her great work as an instructor. We both loved what we did, and from these shared conversations was born Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a genesis I’ve written about plenty before in places like Art21 (here and here).
During those early conversations, I explained to Karen how the place I had come from before my dive back into graduate school–four years as a staff member and educator at the Guggenheim Museum–had been a very different teaching experience. At the museum, we had weekly teaching workshops; we had peer discussions; we traded lesson plans; we helped each other devise tour routes and open ended questions; we talked about data-driven assessment of our work (that was the moment in which a truly awesome educator and colleague, Rebecca Herz, led a team at the museum ina pioneering study of literacy in the arts). We also had mentorship (and I still count Ryan Hill among my very best mentors–and not only because he introduced me to my husband!). In short, we had a rich and vibrant community where teaching was valued by those we worked alongside (though don’t get me started on departmental hierarchies in museums that routinely dismiss the work of Education as secondary to Curatorial…). Karen and I decided we needed this within the academy, and we began to build it by launching AHTR. When we realized it would be greatly enriched by partners who had strengths we didn’t, we were incredibly lucky to welcome Parme Giuntini, Nara Hohensee, Renee McGarry, Ginger Spivey, and Kathy Wentrack, and this is the core team who lead AHTR today, along with advisors and mentors for whom we’re truly thankful.
It was in the spirit of remembering this early history of AHTR that I reached out at the end of the spring semester and asked a few colleagues and friends in museum education to briefly describe what inspires their museum-based teaching. Below, you’ll find their responses. Thanks to everyone who participated!
Your name: Jess Van Nostrand
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):Develop public programming related to the visual arts
What is your resource? Relationships with artists
Why do you love it? Relationships build and develop over time, just like strong public programming; they cannot be rushed or forced. And no one person has all the best ideas, so calling upon inspiring makers and utilizing their skills is the key to innovative and memorable public programs. I like to think that my relationships with artists are the ideal example of a mutually-beneficial arrangement, one in which we both discover new ideas with the help of the other.
Anything else you want to share? I don’t do any museum-based teaching per se and come from a curatorial background, so perhaps this is why my approach to museum education comes from working closely with artists as a first step.
Your name: Miriam Bader What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want toshare): I am the Director of Education at the Tenement Museum in New York City and am fascinated by the nexus of education, technology, and where past meets present.
What is your resource? Visitors
Why do you love it? It’s the visitors that inspire to me to teach. They make every tour at the museum different and bring new perspectives to the material. Without visitors, the museum would just be a dollhouse. With them, it is transformed into an dynamic learning experience where connections are made across time, culture, and geography. Anything else you want to share?Museums are the perfect complement to classroom study. I strive to make it easier for students to visit and take advantage of this amazing resource.
Your name: Sheetal Prajapati
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):In Museums: Assistant Director, Learning and Artists Initiatives @MoMA, which means I collaborate with artists to develop public engagement experiences for museum audiences and run a robust learning programs for adults (50-60 programs/year). Outside of museums: I curate the conversation series a annual conference on social practice called Open Engagement, which took place in Oakland in 2016. I’m also co-authoring a report for the Art + Feminism wikipedi-athon group on recommendations for best practices for inclusion and diversity for their events and resources. I am an artist too.
What is your resource? The resource I am sharing is a chart, Artists Engaging in Social Change (attached here). The link to it online is here and it is included in a longer text here. I found this chart when I was developing the reading list for a class I am currently teaching online called Theory of Engagement and Applied Research at Moore College of Art and Design (Philadelphia). No signficant explanation needed because its a great chart.
Why do you love it? I love it for two reasons. First, its a great chart. Great charts allow you to place existing knowledge within the structure offered and learn or understand something new. In this case, it was really interesting to place my work with artists at the museum within this framework. As a museum collaborating with artists for engagement, I saw some interesting connections between our pedagogical goals at the museum and the potential for impact the museum could actually have, especially when working with artists as instigators or catalysts for new ways of working. The second reason I love this chart is because it places art well outside the walls of institutions and starts to broaden the definition of art as we understand it at places like museums. Like history and science museums who have long championed the value of their objects/work within a contemporary context – both as a narrative to the present and visions of the future – so art museums might want to consider how this kind of approach could provider spaces for alternative or broader dialog around art and artists. This has great implications for our approaches to teaching and interpretation in museums today.
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):I am currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, where I have the privilege of working with an incredible team to build connections with our community in meaningful and relevant ways. This position allows me to work across program areas, think creatively about audience and public engagement, and advance ways to bring community voices into the fabric of our institution and its collections & exhibitions. Outside of the museum, I enjoy being outdoors here in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, hiking or camping with my family as much as possible.
What is your resource? Being involved in teaching for the past 20 years (10 of those years spent in an art museum context), I often find myself going back to certain creative resources to inspire my teaching practice and to spark new and sometimes unexpected ways of looking at, perceiving, and experiencing art. One of these creative inspirations continues to be music. When I am preparing to teach and in the research phase, I almost always take a dive into the music of the time period of the artist and their creative process. It doesn’t always surface in my actual teaching, although I do enjoy bringing music and sound into the galleries when it feels directly relevant to the art and to the goals of my teaching.
Why do you love it? Wynton Marsallis once said that the purpose of jazz is “to help us listen better.” I’ve always applied that to my own teaching practice in art museums, considering the purpose of art as helping us see better and more deeply perceive the world around us. I’m even more curious about whether music can help us see and perceive better – or, at least, in a new and more complex way. Exploring music as a resource for teaching has brought me to connect with the creative processes of diverse musical artists such as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman, and John Cage as well as 1890s French cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert or the deeply moving Spanish flamenco vocals of singer Chinin de Triana. I think, overall, music and acoustic experiences can productively shape a more robust and multisensory encounter with an artwork, deepening our understanding of the creative process and moving us away from studying visual art in isolation from other creative acts. It has also lead to some really fun and unexpected moments in the galleries, as learners explore the layers of a Jackson Pollock painting while listening to the structured spontaneity of Dizzie Gillespie; or as they gaze intensely at Franz Kline’s sweeping black and white forms in his large canvas Bethlehem (1959-60) while hearing Morton Feldman’s 1962 experimental composition entitled “For Franz Kline.”
Anything else you want to share? For museum educators and those teaching art in a classroom setting, I think it’s so important to playfully explore the full cultural context of the art we teach. Not just music, but bringing in other forms like dance and poetry to challenge the disciplinary boundaries that traditionally separate and isolate art forms.
Your name: Sara Bodinson
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share):Director of Interpretation, MoMA
What is your resource? I don’t teach per se, but would recommend the following resources (some of which I have worked on and others not):
In addition, the MoMA Learning site looks at MoMA’s collection through the lens of themes. It used to be a site geared towards teachers but we re-tooled it to be for students, teachers, and lifelong learners.
Your name: David A. Bowles
What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): I lead K-12 School Programs at the Met.
Why do you love it? There aren’t a lot of online resources devoted to rigorous yet informal perspectives on best practices in museum education. I love this resource because it speaks my language, and offers me opportunities to reflect on my own work every week or so.
Anything else you want to share? I wrote a post for the blog last year on using social media as a tool for reflective practice, and doing so A) pushed me to finally write something about my work and “get it out there,” and B) helped me connect with new colleagues digitally.
Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?
Statistics and Evaluation
As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.
Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts. When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.
A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.
In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space. In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses. We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.
After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage? Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?” What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets? Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses? Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?
When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space. When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer. In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses. The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.” From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems. The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.
This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations. Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:
From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors. First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.
Share your thoughts
What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?
“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed. Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.” –Paul Klee
I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country. My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.
Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working. Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.
The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking. It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.
I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”. From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.
Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.
I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.
One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing. I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.
The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.
When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present. The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey. Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.
Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.
When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?
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SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA. Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts. She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.
As the fourth year of ArtMuseumTeaching wraps up, I thought it would be good to post a brief “Year in Review.” Not that we need any more end-of-the-year lists or calls for resolutions, but I think it can be meaningful to take a minute and look back at some of the issues that have been on our minds this past year. I want to thank all of the amazing contributors who have taken the extra time to share their practice with this community!
Since its inaugural year back in 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching has grown from a tiny blog seedling to a robust and active online community now involving more than 60 contributors, publishing 172 posts, and being read by hundreds of thousands of people in as many as 170 countries around the globe. I hope that this online community and forum will continue to grow, include more perspectives, and be a space of exchange where we can connect on issues of teaching, learning, and community engagement that matter most for museums and the people that make up those museums.
Year in Review: 5 Most Popular Posts of 2015
5. “320 Hours: Slow Looking & Visitor Engagement with El Greco” (July 2015): We all talk about the value of slow looking and extended engagement with art – and this great post by Kelsey Ferreira provides such a unique insight into her experiences spending 320 hours with a single El Greco painting at the Portland Art Museum. What questions did visitors ask? What types of experiences sparked further engagement and learning? What surprisingly deep experiences did visitors bring to this stunning painting? A fantastic read for museum educators and art lovers alike!
4. “Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool” (January 2015): David Bowles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared his insights from posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from his gallery experiences on Facebook, and using social media tools such as Facebook to add a reflective element to our practice. This is a great read, especially with David’s five take-aways for museum educators about student learning in the galleries.
3. “We Flipped Our Museum – Here’s What We Learned” (June 2015): Emily Kotecki shared the work at the North Carolina Museum of Art to deepen and activate the museum learning experience through a Flipped Museum pilot program called “Artists in Process.” They developed an online learning platform to support social interaction and choice-based learning, and then worked with sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. Check out their ‘lessons learned,’ and read more in the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.
2. “The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App” (July 2015): Written after my own visit to the Brooklyn Museum this past summer, I briefly explored the what, how, and why of this effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. While I am still attracted to the app’s desire to make personal connections with visitors, I’m a bit concerned with how few visitors use the app considering the staff and resources dedicated to this project. But I absolutely love that the team at the Brooklyn Museum is super transparent about their thinking and planning via their blog (so awesome!).
1. “Questioning the Use of Questions” (January 2015): In the most widely-read post of 2015, museum educator Jackie Delamatre responded to Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee’s challenge to the use of questions in museum teaching. While there is great value in questioning the use of questions, Jackie’s insightful post defends the use of open-ended questions and brings in some of her own personal experiences. And her search for the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon of questions’ is not to be missed!
Enjoy these popular posts from 2015, and see you in 2016 — a year that promises to bring a whole new set of challenges, success stories, and new ways of thinking about both the theory and practice of museum teaching. If you would like to share the projects you’re working on or the issues and challenges you are grappling with, please add your voice to this growing community (and just send me a tweet at @murawski27 or email me at email@example.com).
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.
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“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.