Written by Mike Deetsch, Director of Education & Engagement, Toledo Museum of Art
In 2010 the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) passed its 2015 Strategic Plan with an emphasis on the Museum’s Purpose: Art Education. One of the primary intentions behind the plan was to create a more relevant and sustainable Museum and at this point we adopted the Strategic Objective of Teaching Visual Literacy. The thought process behind this, brought forward by the Museum’s director Brian Kennedy, was that the Museum would leverage great works of art in the collection to teach people to see better in our 21st century’s image-saturated society. Since this time there have been a variety of visual literacy-specific initiatives developed by the Museum, including The Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, a docent training class highlighting visual perception, and the creation of a Visual Literacy website.
In November 2014 the Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 47th annual conference for the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA). As part of the preparation for this conference, in January 2014 the education department was charged with designing a professional development program that would train all Museum staff and volunteers on the theories and processes around visual literacy. With the conference imminent, we wanted to ensure that any staff or volunteer in the organization would feel comfortable talking about visual literacy with any of our attending guests.
Before my colleagues and I developed the curriculum, we needed to clarify TMA’s approach to teaching visual literacy and its associated concepts. Our goal was to make the content accessible to a wide audience. It might go without stating, but not everyone on our staff has a background in art, art history, or art museums. Keeping in mind that we were going to be training such a diverse audience (i.e. all museum departments as well as docents and other volunteers), our approach couldn’t be intimidating and had to be presented in a fun and engaging way.
We had been incorporating visual literacy concepts into programming in a number of ways since 2010, but those programs largely lived with the education department. To be successful on this project, it was clear that it was essential to engage a variety of staff members outside of education in order for the concepts to “stick” and be embodied throughout the organization. Aided by strong support from the director’s office, we pulled together a cross-departmental team of 14 staff, for three consecutive Tuesdays in February 2014, to brainstorm around visual literacy concepts. This team consisted of staff from curatorial, education, library, marketing, visitor engagement, visitor services, and the director’s office.
Our meetings took place in a white board room (three walls covered in white board paint) where we were able to discuss, brainstorm, and illustrate ideas. While the participants were not always in agreement, we were able to use these meetings (about six hours total) to land on consensus for our key process which include:
- an easy to understand definition of visual literacy,
- the Elements of Art and Principles of Design as the foundational vocabulary,
- the Art of Seeing Art thinking routine, and
- the concepts of interpretation distilled into four visual languages.
During these sessions the group realized the value of aligning the TMA’s definition of visual literacy with textual literacy. The comparison to textual literacy is important for two reasons: one, it makes an analogy that people are already familiar with and, two, it gives the Museum the opportunity to shift the discussion from literacy to language. The latter shift was key because focus groups had been telling us that literacy implies there are people who are illiterate, while language implies level of fluency. TMA’s definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, comprehend, and write visual language. Reading visual language is about the process of seeing, comprehending visual language is about the interpretation of seeing, and writing visual language is about the action you take in response to what you have seen.
With the definition, process, and concepts in place my colleague Kate Blake, Manager of Curriculum, and I drafted the curriculum for the professional development. From the outset of writing the curriculum we identified a few musts: the program needed to be multidisciplinary, meaning it wasn’t going to be art history-centric; it needed to be activity-based; and it had to be taught in the galleries.
As museum educators we know the value in using a variety of approaches to gallery learning, including group discussion, small group activities, drawing, and independent exploration. Facilitating activities, opposed to discussion only, would afford us the chance to engage with a variety of learning styles and dabble into a bit of game mechanics. By making the approach activity-based, we were able to engage our staff in the overall experience which proved to be useful in retaining the concepts introduced.
As I mentioned earlier this training was offered to TMA staff and volunteers, in all approximately 300 individuals. In the end we designed a curriculum of 12 contact hours which introduced the concepts surrounding Visual Literacy, spent time on close looking techniques, and gave special emphasis to the four visual languages. Kate and I knew that 12 hours was a significant commitment for people to give over during the work week, so we also developed a variety of workshop formats to adjust to people’s schedules accordingly. Initially each of these sessions was facilitated by full-time TMA education staff but gradually transitioned two of our more experienced docents into facilitators. These docents, who were both former docent board presidents, had been working closely with staff on visual literacy programming since 2010.
One lesson the facilitators quickly discovered during the workshops was the importance of acknowledging expertise, at all levels, throughout the professional development. There were content experts, such as curators, as well as other areas of expertise. For example our security staff, which spends more time in the galleries than anyone else on staff, was actively encouraged to contribute their opinions and perspectives. The guards’ comments were often the most insightful for their interpretations and their observations of visitor interactions with the collection.
Evaluation and Next Steps
As a means of reflection, we developed an evaluation tool that allowed us to make real time adjustments. Specifically we measured the digestibility (of content) and overall enjoyment. To do this, we created a series of online surveys to collect feedback at various touch points during the 12 hour workshop. The curriculum was grouped into six modules and each module had its own evaluation. While the evaluation was not a requirement for participation, we collected over 300 surveys. The general response was positive, with most activities receiving a rating of 5 (out of 6) on a Likert scale. Open-ended questions provided constructive feedback that we were able to act on immediately, such as making a slight adjustment to our definition of visual literacy and dropping activities that did not resonate or were too complicated.
All told between April and October 2014, our team of eight facilitated 28 workshops, totaling 336 hours, for 300 staff and volunteers. The entire experience, from design to facilitation, relied heavily on cross-departmental staff involvement, input, and engagement. As a result we were able to design a clear and concise introductory visual literacy curriculum which we have been able to repurpose for a variety of audiences and in a multitude of formats since getting the staff involved. Our staff and volunteers clearly understand TMA’s Purpose is Art Education and that we will achieve it by Teaching Visual Literacy now.
Having the opportunity to share and rely on expertise throughout the Museum proved invaluable throughout the entire process. How many of you have the opportunity to cross collaborate on projects from start to finish? If so, what does that look like? And do you have the opportunity to prototype new ideas? How can we build that into our practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
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About the Author
MIKE DEETSCH: Emma Leah Bippus Director of Education and Engagement at the Toledo Museum of Art, Deetsch is a key member of the Museum’s executive team, leading educational and programming initiatives across the Museum. He is responsible for curriculum development for all audiences, outreach, exhibition interpretive material and management of the docent program as well as conceptualizing innovative public programming. He oversees a strong, motivated education staff and a highly engaged TMA docent corps responsible for developing visual literacy initiatives and partnering to create opportunities for visual literacy education and awareness. Prior to joining the TMA staff, Deetsch served as a senior museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition and programs director at the Lexington Art League, and the student programs manager at the Kentucky Historical Society. Deetsch received his master’s degree in art education from the Pratt Institute and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Hanover College. He was chosen in 2011 to participate in the Getty Leadership Institute’s “Museum Leaders: the Next Generation.”