Intro 5: Museum Hack, New York

Met ext.

I’ll be visiting five arts organisations (four museums and one tour company) in September 2016 as part of my Churchill Fellowship. I’d like to give a bit more information about each one and why I think their learning programmes, staff and organisational culture are particularly interesting.

My fifth and final stop: Museum Hack, New York

Museum Hack is unlike the other four organisations I will be visiting. For a start, it isn’t an art museum but a tour company; there aren’t the usual parameters of being part of a museum’s working culture and programming solely for its collections and exhibitions, all within one building that has its own quirks and particularities. Secondly, Museum Hack has a more focussed remit – its raison d’être is to devise ‘subversive, non-traditional museum tours’ for millennials. More recently they have diversified into audience development and company team building, but this is still quite specific relative to the eclectic remit of learning departments in museums, that are often aiming for the broadest possible audience and programming across a huge age and experience range. Thirdly, Museum Hack (to my knowledge) is entirely dependent on ticket sales and consultation fees to exist; this is a very different model to the mix of state, charity, philanthropic and retail funding streams that are required to keep museums in the black. I wanted to include Museum Hack because it is so different. I was intrigued by a business that could take the basic building block of any learning programme – the tour – add a twist, and successfully reach a large demographic of savvy 20-somethings hungry for new experiences.

The story of Museum Hack’s creation is well documented; its Founder and CEO, Nick Gray was taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a romantic date back in 2011, and his companion told him stories about the artworks that animated the museum in a way that he had never previously experienced. His new obsession with the Met inspired Gray to lead tours of favourite objects for his friends, and the popularity of these tours snowballed from a hobby into a career pathway. A business major, Gray recognised the opportunity and in 2013 Museum Hack was founded. The company has expanded its reach dramatically; by 2015, the team comprised 40 staff across six countries. Regular tours are now available in San Francisco and Washington DC, and bespoke consultation has been delivered to museums across the US and as far afield as New Zealand. What they are doing is clearly a) in demand, b) meeting a need, and c) providing museums with something they feel is missing.

I really enjoy the Museum Hack e-newsletter, Museums are f***ing awesome, which is a great mix of articles, museum tour profiles, mash-ups and selfies that make me laugh out loud, or LOL if you’re that way inclined. Their approach is fun, which isn’t a word the general public always associates with museums. It also works; I have yet to read about anyone who has gone on a Museum Hack tour and not enjoyed themselves enormously. During my visit, I will be tagging along for two different tours of the Met – an Un-highlights tour and a VIP Night tour. I can’t wait to experience the Museum Hack approach first-hand, find out more about the team’s creative processes and how their programmes are developed.

A couple of further pieces of writing about Museum Hack that might be of interest:

  1. Nina Simon interviewed Museum Hack tour developer/leader Dustin Growick back in December 2014 for her Museum 2.0 blog. It was this article that inspired me to include Museum Hack in my Churchill application.
  2. A guest post by Margaret Jennings on the Museum Commons blog gives an insight into the Museum Hack tour experience and includes some thoughtful discussion around the model.

Intro 4: Columbus Museum of Art

Photo of Columbus Museum of Art ext.

I’ll be visiting five arts organisations (four museums and one tour company) in September 2016 as part of my Churchill Fellowship. I’d like to give a bit more information about each one and why I think their learning programmes, staff and organisational culture are particularly interesting.

My fourth stop: Columbus Museum of Art (CMA)

Columbus Museum of Art was established in 1878, making it the oldest institution I will be visiting, although they certainly haven’t been resting on their laurels over the past few years. In 2007, CMA launched a massive site development and endowment project with the goal of raising $80m. In 2011, after 13 months’ construction, the JP Morgan Chase Center for Creativity opened – 18,000sqft (1,700m2) of space dedicated to learning programmes, including zoned areas such as the Wonder Room and the Big Idea Gallery. To put the scale of the Center into context, it occupies the entire ground floor! Its prominence puts making and active engagement with artwork at the core of the visitor experience and says a lot about how much the organisation values learning. In October 2015, the third and final phase of development was completed when new galleries, a restaurant, shop and entrance were opened in the Margaret M. Walter Wing.

What I particularly like about CMA is how clearly they share their core purpose with the public, and it can be summed up in one word – creativity. Cindy Foley, Executive Assistant Director and Director of Learning and Experience at CMA, has given an engaging TED talk on the subject, titled ‘Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist’. She argues that an understanding of creativity needs to move beyond artistic skill, and when ‘teaching for creativity’ there are three habits to foster: comfort with ambiguity; idea generation; and transdisciplinary research (ie. research that serves curiosity). The CMA website describes the Center for Creativity as “a place where creativity is cultivated, championed, and celebrated”. The site also has a collection of creativity resources as well as blog categories for Musings from the Center for Creativity and inspiring Visitor Stories and Conversations.

This explicit and repeated promotion of creativity is interesting to me because I feel that this kind of thinking often stays buried in the programming process, and audiences rarely get to hear much about it. For example, at the V&A we have intergenerational engagement as the cornerstone of our families programmes; it’s important to us that everything we offer champions conversations and shared experiences between children and their parents or carers. However we don’t tend to tell families this, instead we focus on the tip of the iceberg, which is the actual programme itself. CMA aren’t just saying ‘come and participate in our programmes’, they are also saying ‘and this is why we’ve programmed them this way’. Audiences aren’t just encouraged to be creative, but to also understand what creativity is and why it’s important.

A couple of examples of the CMA approach in practice:

  1. Creativity Summit

A three-day conference (April 2016) for practitioners interested in the intersection of creativity, community and learning. Judging by the photos, the participants were active contributors rather than passive receivers and applied their own creativity to explore the conference themes and questions. And what rich questions! If this doesn’t whet your appetite, nothing will: “what dispositions support the creative process, and how might we cultivate them for ourselves and others? What is wonder, what role does it play in the imaginative and critical process of creativity? How do questions fuel growth? What factors create a fertile soil for creativity to thrive? How can we reimagine learning to promote the conditions and cultivate the thinking dispositions of creativity?”

  1. Teaching for Creativity Institute

To quote the CMA website: in this program a select group of Central Ohio educators work for one school year with CMA staff to better understand how to foster creativity and deep learning in their students, and how to cultivate innovative learning environments for their students. This program is open to all educators who are interested in how creativity can transform teaching and learning.” What appeals to me about this approach is the time commitment. Going deep, developing complex skills, trialling new approaches, and periodically coming together with peers to reflect – this strikes me as a process not to be rushed and one with rich rewards.

I’m sorry that I missed out on the Creativity Summit, but I’m very much looking forward to attending VSA Ohio’s Art and Autism conference that CMA is hosting while I’m visiting.

Intro 3: Indianapolis Museum of Art

Photo of IMA exterior from

I’ll be visiting five arts organisations (four museums and one tour company) in September 2016 as part of my Churchill Fellowship. I’d like to give a bit more information about each one and why I think their learning programmes, staff and organisational culture are particularly interesting.

My third stop: Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA)

Last April, I chanced upon an interview in the Guardian with Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, Director of Interpretation, Media and Evaluation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I was preparing for my application to WCMT and looking for examples of interesting practice – her comments were gold dust. I was particularly struck by the following statement: “The museum’s shift towards a more visitor-centred approach has been possible because of a number of different initiatives. First, the implementation of non-traditional programming [my emphasis]. We’ve been progressively moving away from more traditional approaches, such as talks and symposiums, in favour of more fun and playful experiences that support participations, social interaction and creativity.”

Silvia’s colleague, Scott Stulen, Curator of Audience Experience and Performance, has also spoken in similar terms about the changes at IMA: “Different audiences are wanting to consume art in a different way than our culture has been consuming in the past. And we can do it without compromising the core mission of the institution… What we really want to do is bring in younger audiences of people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s – before or when they have families. That’s the future of our museum. If we don’t start replenishing people, then we’re in trouble. And if we don’t change [our programming] people aren’t going to come.” You may already be familiar with Scott’s work from his previous role at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, especially his Internet Cat Video Festival, which has been a phenomenal success and is currently on a world tour.

Some exciting examples of the IMA approach include B-Movie Bingo (watch bad movies and collect clichés on a bingo card to win prizes), Cereal Cinema (family movie mornings) and the Office of Art Grievances/Resolutions (file a complaint against ‘Art’ which will be processed and addressed by a museum official). All of these programmes are built on and fed back into audience research and evaluation, creating a virtuous circle of communication between audiences and museum staff.

The IMA is the largest museum I will be visiting (the fifth largest in the US), with a collection of 54,000 artworks from Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania as well as textiles, decorative art, prints and drawings. IMA extends well beyond the building itself and includes a 100 acre park, greenhouse, pavilions and two historic houses. The site also hosts a pre-school, St Mary’s Child Center at the IMA for the 3-5s, which makes daily use of the collections and grounds for those lucky children. As well as spending time with Silvia and Scott, I’m also looking forward to meeting Heidi Davis-Soylu, Director of Academic Engagement and Learning Research, and Jennifer Todd, Manager of the Docent Programme. I hope to gain a rounded understanding of how the team is looking to create a new approach to learning and visitor engagement and embracing (and I imagine sometimes wrestling) with organisational change.

Intro 2: MCA Denver

Photo of MCA Denver from

I’ll be visiting five arts organisations (four museums and one tour company) in September 2016 as part of my Churchill Fellowship. I’d like to give a bit more information about each one and why I think their learning programmes, staff and organisational culture are particularly interesting.

Next up – Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver

MCA Denver is the youngest and smallest of the museums I’ll be visiting. It’s dedicated solely to contemporary art practice and the only one without a permanent collection. Established in 1996 as the first home for contemporary art in Denver, their new building by British architect David Adjaye opened in 2007. I stumbled across their website a few years ago and really liked the targeted use of different galleries to meet the needs of different audiences – there is the Fox Family Ideas Box for families and children and, more recently, the Open Shelf Library, a hands-on collection of books, articles and objects for adults to explore. For a recent Pretty Glam Party, which launched Marilyn Minter’s Pretty/Dirty exhibition, the elevator to the roof terrace was transformed into a Techno Elevator, “50% vertical transportation mechanism, 50% black-light dance party”, which makes this exactly the kind of museum I want to visit.

In 2009, Adam Lerner was appointed Director (his full title is Director & Chief Animator, Department of Fabrications). Prior to his appointment, he had built a successful reputation for programming Mixed Taste: Tag Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics, a format that continues live and well in the museum’s regular programme, produced by Sarah Kate Baie, Director of Programmes & Chief of Fictions. I often mention these talks as an example of museum learning at its best – funny, surprising and engaging. The structure is beautifully simple: two speakers give a short presentation on their specialist subject, often wildly disparate (Gospel Music and Zebra Sharks is one of my favourite combinations) and at the end, with the input of the audience, the group looks for commonalities and links.

I love the power of oblique tangents; a bit like the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expects the juxtaposition of wormholes and sinkholes to be the shared bill on a talk at a contemporary art museum. But just imagine how fantastically primed your mind would be to then engage with art after spending an hour forging all those new neural pathways and firing up all those synapses. Humour also goes a long way and I’m a sucker for a good pun – MCA Denver has an evening programme called Black Sheep Fridays, which has included ‘Sommelier Pirates’ (dress like a pirate and learn how to talk about wine) and ‘Presidential Waffling’ (eat waffles and watch clips from old presidential debates). Immediately, these titles convey such energy and a knowing wink. This impression is counter to the dry’n’dusty stereotype of museum programming and the expectation that museum staff are all po-faced and terribly worthy.

I am also looking forward to finding out more about their young people’s internship programme, Failure Lab; the name reflects the museum’s belief that “…risking failure is an integral element of creativity. We wanted to create a space that would provide teens with a unique opportunity to try out wild ideas”. MCA Denver has a strong commitment to supporting ‘teen’ engagement, including free admission for under 18s and weekly drop-in events, called Teen Friday Nights. In March 2016, professional artists collaborated with Failure Lab teens to create a mural for their Teen Lounge – a short timelapse video here.

I really enjoy just reading about the MCA Denver programme; going to see it in action will meet a long-held ambition of mine. And one final tip – I recommend checking out their annual December Holiday Videos, all available on YouTube.

Intro 1: Dallas Museum of Art

Photo of DMA. from

I’ll be visiting five arts organisations (four museums and one tour company) in September 2016 as part of my Churchill Fellowship. I’d like to give a bit more information about each one and why I think their learning programmes, staff and organisational culture are particularly interesting.

First up – Dallas Museum of Art (DMA)

I first discovered DMA online about five years ago when I was looking for good examples of museums and galleries that were working towards being more visitor-focussed. DMA had just published Ignite the Power of Art, Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums, the fruit of an extraordinary seven years’ (2003-2010) research into understanding audiences, their preferences for experiencing art, and utilising that understanding to run the organisation more effectively. I was immediately struck by the scale and ambition of such a project, as well as the depth of commitment from across the museum, including the director and trustees.

It’s also a cracking yarn – the story starts in the late 1990s, when the museum was facing declining revenues and had an annual attendance of 337,000, nowhere near its capacity. John R Lane was appointed The Eugene McDermott Director in 1999 and, alongside highly-respected educationalist, Deputy Director Bonnie Pitman (who went on to be Director from 2008-12), the focus of the museum shifted and steps were taken to address the “inhospitable” and “slightly depressing” perception of DMA held by Dallas locals.

In January 2003, DMA celebrated its centenary by remaining open for 100 consecutive hours and running an enormous programme of 150 events, including: tai chi; African American story-telling; a ballet performance; and Insomniac Tours. This marathon celebration was attended by 45,000 visitors and I can only imagine how exhausted the staff were by the end of it, but the whole experience clearly re-positioned the museum for audiences as the place to be. The years of audience engagement research that followed, led by research firm Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., resulted in the identification of four ‘visitor clusters’ and the creation of a Framework for Engaging with Art (FEA) that is the touchstone for all of the museum’s work. Full reports and more information on each of the six visitor studies conducted as part of their research can be found here.

And since then the DMA has gone from strength to strength:

  • In 2008, the Centre for Creative Connections (C3) opened – a whopping 12,000sqft (1,100m2) of interactive gallery and learning environment;
  • In 2010, annual audience figures reached one million for the first time;
  • In 2012, under the directorship of Maxwell L. Anderson (2012-15) and led by Deputy Director, Robert Stein, the Laboratory for Museum Innovation was launched, with a focus on digital technologies;
  • In 2013, free admission was reinstated, having been a charging museum since 2001;
  • And in 2016, a stylish new digital art library opened, replacing the slide library.

NB – A fuller history of the museum can be found here.

With my much-dog-eared copy of Igniting the Power of Art in my little hand, I am really looking forward to seeing the legacy of this research six years on, how the museum and its learning offer continue to adapt and develop off the back of this approach, and the impact of engaging audiences via C3, with its focus on learning through doing. A recent blog post, capitalising on the new series of Games of Thrones, is titled Mother of Dragons, which hints at the warmth, fun and humour that comes across so strongly in their work shared online. I am really looking forward to sharing the learning to be had from this wonderful experiment in museum re-creation and can’t wait to see the programmes I’ve read so much about.

So What’s This All About Then?

What is the creative process of museum educators and what does the future of museum education look like? In a nutshell, these are the two questions I want to explore through this blog. I’m not looking to put a final authoritative stamp on the subject, but to hopefully attract a community of like-minded practitioners interested in the same questions and keen to share ideas, research and experience. It’s an experiment, let’s see what happens…

So why this and why now? I’ve been working in museum education for 14 years, mostly in galleries and currently at the V&A, and I love what I do. I believe passionately that the arts improve our lives and the thrill of opening up this world to audiences of all ages is as exciting now as it was when I started. I’ve delivered approximately a bazillion projects over the years and now that my life is more about management and strategic planning, my attention is turning from the immediate needs of audiences to wanting to better understand how museum educators create their programmes and how we can do it better.

Given that we are specialists in creativity and dedicate our careers to helping others tap into their own, it fascinates me that we don’t spend more time turning that focus on ourselves. I have found many articles on creativity that either analyse its components (eg. failure and persistence) or explore audience benefits (such as increasing creativity in education) and almost nothing on the creative process of museum educators. The one notable exception is Emily Pringle’s work on artist educators and their role in delivering learning programmes; if you have any further examples, I’d love to hear from you.

I am using the term ‘museum education’ as a bit of a catch-all and I appreciate that practitioners use a range of terms. My emphasis is on art museums because I studied art history and have worked predominantly in galleries, spanning nationals, local-authority funded, and a university collection. I should also add that I am most interested in the programming part of the job – taking the raw components of artwork, funding, materials, spaces, partners, audiences and organisational objectives and combining them to create new events, activities, resources and projects. Teaching and facilitation are fascinating topics – again, I look to Pringle as well as the excellent Teaching in the Art Museum by Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai Kee – and there is so much to think about in relation to developing that skill set but I feel that is a different beast from the one I want to tackle.

I really want to understand the behind-the-scenes part of museum education. When I read about a daring and exciting programme, the story always starts with the fully-formed project outline and then goes on to examine what the participants got out of it and how the aims and objectives were met. When I’m reading these articles, the following questions always come to mind: what happened before this bit? Who came up with this idea? How did it occur to them? What was the catalyst? Did it meet resistance within the organisation? How long did it take to get from the initial idea to the final product? Were there blind alleys and previous approaches that didn’t work? That’s the part I really want to know about because if we talked about the process more, became more articulate and vocal about our particular and highly creative skillset, I think we would collectively be stronger advocates for our work.

Museum education is a wonderfully supportive and collegiate practice; I take huge inspiration from friends, colleagues and peers around the country and it is always encouraging and strengthening to discuss shared issues and challenges with people who have a common understanding. I’ve found it to be a network relatively free of ego, very hard-working, and incredibly open and non-proprietorial with ideas and approaches. I also think we could be more effective in communicating how learning programmes further our museums’ missions and contribute to the broader arts ecology. Working in the current political environment, where nation-wide provision of arts and culture is facing substantial challenges (local authority funding cuts leading to reduced arts provision; art, design and drama side-lined in formal education), and working in a field where museum educators are, on occasion, perceived as glorified crayon-sorters, I want us to be better at promoting our work beyond ‘preaching to the choir’ and being clear about why the skills, knowledge and creativity that we bring to our museums are valuable and to be valued.

So, advocacy is one motive, the other is progression. Museum education has a tried and tested approach to programming – talks, tours, workshops, trails, resources, etc – and each of these areas can be delivered to a standard that ranges from excellent and inspiring to dull and boring. This triggers a whole bunch of further questions: who is actively working on new approaches to programming? How is programming changing to reflect the shifting position of museums ‘from temple to forum’, to paraphrase Duncan Cameron’s 1972 article? Where is there really strong and original practice that we can all learn from? How do we strike the balance between meeting visitor figure targets and the needs of our core audience while also freeing up resource – be that staff, budget or head space – to play, experiment, risk and fail? Google famously allows its staff 20% free time to work on their own projects, knowing that this is a highly effective means of surfacing the ideas that could become the products we are using in 5-10 years; so why aren’t we all doing that? Who is deliberately pushing museum education forward? Again, I’d love to hear from you about any exciting examples.

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Rather than just listing endless questions in a blog, I am keen to pool our collective experience and knowledge and try to find some ways ahead. I have been awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) Travelling Fellowship which will enable me to visit the US later in the year to learn from top museum educators and their programmes. The WCMT is a fantastic charity; it was established through public subscription to create a living memorial to Churchill following his death in 1965. The Fellowships are awarded annually, you must be a UK citizen, and there are two main aims: travel overseas to learn from international practice; and return to share your learning with peers to the benefit of the UK.

I will be visiting five organisations, interviewing their staff, seeing their programmes in action, and trying my best to become a human sponge to soak up every single minute of it. I will create a series of five case studies, exploring the questions I’ve outlined above. This blog is one way that I hope to share my learning and it will also form a project diary as I go. The organisations are (in order of visit): Dallas Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art Denver; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Columbus Museum of Art; and Museum Hack (which is my only non-museum but I couldn’t resist their ‘subversive tours for millienials’ offer).

So that’s probably enough to get started, more to follow… and if you’ve got this far, thanks!