Radical Practice: Museum Education as Game-Changer

One of the best things about starting this blog is the chance to learn from others and share exciting research and ideas. Sarah Plumb, an associate lecturer at Manchester School of Art and doctoral student at the University of Leicester, recently sent me two amazing articles on the importance of advocating for our profession. They gave me a lot to think about so I hope you enjoy them too.

First up – a useful dissection of ‘the educational turn’. The educational turn, also referred to as the pedagogic turn, is part of a shift in curatorial practice towards thinking about audiences more actively in relation to artists’ practice and artworks. However, instead of contextualising this new interest alongside the decades of work that has been done by museum educators and artist-educators, it’s presented as a brave new world, a virginal terra nova just waiting for curators to plant a flag in it. Michelle Millar Fisher’s article, ‘Museum Education and the Pedagogic Turn’ (Artwrit, Summer 2011) is an eloquent summary of how much the education turn owes to radical 1970s museum education practice, which she explores through two New York-based case studies: the Metropolitan Museum’s education programme, Arts Awareness (1972-74); and Artists Teaching Inc. an interdisciplinary artist-educator organisation, founded in 1975. Fisher doesn’t mince her words and has beautifully summarised everything about this approach that rips my knitting. For example:

“Writing on “Educational Aesthetics” in the very recent Curating and the Educational Turn, Andrea Phillips describes contemporary educational practices employed by artists and curators. Predictably, she makes no reference to early museum education models, and makes a distinction between contemporary art and curatorial projects from museum education; for her, artists and curators employ “the discursive turn” and are “conceptually and politically interested in education”, a paradigm that is wholly separate from museum education departments, which are “traditional” and employ “artists whose work has been determined as community or school friendly”. While the reductive hierarchy she implies between artists commissioned by curators and artists commissioned by museum education departments is unsurprising, her description of “radical” practice throughout her essay bears ironic comparison time and again with that of the much earlier museum education models such as Arts Awareness and Artists Teaching Inc.”


And secondly, a wonderful interview with Pablo Helguera, artist and educator, currently Director of Adult and Academic Programs at MoMA. Titled ‘A Bad Education’, Helguera was interviewed by artist Helen Reed as part of a project called The Living Archive which “seeks to expand the dialogue around artist placements and participatory practices within educational structures and art institutions”. Helguera makes so many great points in his interview, but I’ve chosen one anecdote that I think many museum educators will relate to:

“I remember I was working at the Guggenheim, seeing artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija presenting projects. And I remember, for example, once Rirkrit saying he wanted to do a project that used a gallery for children’s activities. I remember the curator calling us in the education department and being like “Quick, quick we have to come up with kids and bring them to the gallery to do activities with them”. Nothing against Rirkrit, but I felt that the whole project was so haphazard and so artificial. Because really, we are pretending that we are doing education here, that we were creating a great experience for these kids. I have no idea what ended up happening with the project. But those were the kind of experiences that made me suddenly realise; isn’t it interesting that I’m here, a mere educator, like many other educators who actually know very well how to produce these experiences, that’s our expertise; and yet we have absolutely no power over this certain situation where people, who know absolutely nothing about these audiences, decide they want to do an educational experience for them in the guise of an artwork, which has to happen promptly and efficiently. And the action will likely be covered by art magazines; by people who know absolutely nothing about these audiences, and then they will likely be convinced that something really great happened. While those, who supposedly the activity was created for, most likely were hurried into a situation self-proclaimed as educational and perhaps manipulated into being photographed as part of the documentation.”

His story makes me smile in recognition and frown in frustration. The situations both articles describe feel a bit ridiculous – how could this sort of thing happen so often? I think we need more Fishers and Helgueras. We need a greater emphasis on advocating for the value of museum education and the expertise of its practitioners. These articles also remind me how important it is to know our history – if we celebrate our predecessors and their achievements, recognise that we are standing on the shoulders of giants and benefiting from their pioneering experiments, we are then in a stronger position to be defining the future of the discipline. Engage journal, issue 35, Twenty-Five Years of Gallery Education might also be of interest.


The European Advantage

Sometimes, I like to use my train commute to catch up on work-related reading (other times, I like to nap). Last week, I took the opportunity to read Revisiting the Educational Value of Museums: Connecting to Audiences. It is a well-illustrated and concise report drawn from NEMO’s 23rd Annual Conference, held last November in Pilsen, Czech Republic. NEMO is the Network of European Museum Organisations and its mission is: “to ensure museums are an integral part of European life by promoting their work and value to policy makers and by providing museums with information, networking and opportunities for co-operation”. I first encountered NEMO through LEM, The Learning Museum Network, an EU-funded project that launched in 2010 and was due for completion in 2013. The network’s success led to an extension and it has now been incorporated into a permanent NEMO working group. I recommend exploring the NEMO Reading Corner, as well as signing up for the e-newsletter, which always has lots of interesting project reports and information on upcoming conferences across Europe.

With the EU Referendum just around the corner, my reading of the NEMO report was totally overshadowed by my concerns for the future. The report is filled with examples of museum education practice and thinking from across Europe, as well as the US, Asia and Ibero-America. Some articles I could relate to more than others, but all of them introduced me to a different perspective from my everyday practice in the UK – and it’s valuable to be reminded that our way isn’t the only way. From this single report, I learnt about: Denmark’s Learning Museum project (2011-13), a nationwide multidisciplinary collaboration involving 30 museums and 13 teacher training colleges; the Asia-Europe Museum Network (ASEMUS), a cross-cultural network of museums with Asian collections from Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) countries; and Santiago de Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a museum dedicated to commemorating the victims of Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

The advantages of EU-funding for the UK cultural sector are also worth thinking about. A really strong example is the Dancing Museums project (2015-17), where dance artists are working with eight museums across Europe to explore new ways of interacting with audiences. The National Gallery in London is working alongside museums in France, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy. I’m really interested in the potential of embodiment within learning programmes and I’m looking forward to seeing the final results. For an engaging introduction to performative pedagogies, art historian and museum educator, Marco Peri has shared a Prezi online from the recent conference at the University of Leicester, The Museum in the Global Contemporary: Debating the Museum of Now.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester has taken a pro-active approach to the EU Referendum by commissioning an installation that greets visitors at the main entrance. The EURO Tunnel, by artist Alex J Gardner, provides an impartial summary of the remain/leave debate through a series of graphics and text panels. Given all the hot air and hyperbole flying around this issue, a measured presentation must be a tonic for anyone who encounters it. For more information, there is a brief article about the EURO Tunnel in Museum Practice. Gardner’s installation also feels very timely alongside the newly-launched Inquiry programme, a Calouste Gulbenkian-funded initiative to explore the civic role of arts organisations.

There is so much to be gained by continuing to participate fully as European citizens. I enjoy being part of a global, outward-facing community of museum practitioners and working for a large cultural organisation that has staff from all over the world. Pulling up the drawbridge and hunkering down on our little island doesn’t feel a constructive solution or an effective means of meeting future challenges. I realise I’ve wandered a bit off-piste from my blog theme this week; normal service will resume next week.

What’s in a Name? Creativity and the Creative Process

Given that I’ll be writing quite a bit about the creative process of museum educators, I thought it would be worth taking a moment to look at terminology. There is no shortage of definitions of creativity out there, so rather than reinvent the wheel I’d rather make use of existing understandings.

I had previously been thinking about creativity and the creative process as slightly different things:

  • A museum educator’s creativity = characteristics and internal thought-processes of an individual,
  • A museum educator’s creative process = a sequence of actions that have been inspired by new ideas and involve others.

For me, the latter felt more active. However, I’ve found great definitions of creativity that have blown that little theory out of the water – they all include actions and outcomes as fundamental components of creativity. So perhaps my distinction isn’t necessary? I use the two terms fairly interchangeably in this post.

To find a good definition of creativity, there are worse places to start than Sir Ken Robinson. His TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? is already a decade old (how did that happen?) and has been viewed a phenomenal 39 million times. Still relevant and still funny, it’s worth a look. Robinson’s 2001 book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative covers much of the same territory and includes this elegant definition of creativity: “imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value” (p.118).

Rigour and judgement are also important ingredients, as Robinson explains: “Creativity involves a dynamic interplay between generating ideas and making judgments about them… critical evaluation involves a shift in the focus of attention and mode of thinking as we attend to what is working and not working” (p.133-134). This chimes very directly with my experiences of programming. When working with artists to plan a workshop, course, or study day, there is a stimulating process of discussion and knocking ideas around – I usually have a skeleton plan, perhaps a theme that I want to explore. The fleshing out of that plan relies on the creativity of the individuals I’m working with and they always surprise me – it isn’t a process I could complete alone. Having said that, the outcome we reach is a shared enterprise – we are each making judgements and giving feedback as ideas are suggested, offering refinements or alternatives until we reach a structure and plan that feels right. When I’m watching one of my sessions in action, there are also many micro-judgements occurring as I clock what’s working and not working; and these observations will feed into my future planning. And I also recognise Robinson’s statement in relation to programming more generally, and the sorts of judgements we need to make when looking across the whole offer – is our current approach meeting audience needs? Is there a good balance between making and discussion? Have we achieved what we set out to do?

Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is committed to promoting and exploring creativity, which it defines as “imagination applied by doing something or making something with an initial idea. The process of generating new ideas that are valuable”. This over-arching understanding can be broken down into three component parts:

  1. Imagination: the capacity to conceive of what is not
  2. Critical Thinking: the purposeful and reflective process of synthesizing, analysing, and evaluating
  3. Innovation: creativity that progresses, changes or impacts the world.

Not surprisingly, this is consistent with Robinson’s thinking on the subject. I like how thoroughly CMA have dissected the term. I must admit that innovation is a word I’ve become very suspicious of – its impact feels very diluted when it’s used to describe just about any and every project under the sun. True innovation is surely quite rare, but you wouldn’t know it based on how frequently it’s bandied about. However, in the context of CMA’s definition of creativity, it’s spot on. I can’t think of a better word than innovation to capture the sense of creating something that has never been done before AND is an improvement on how things were done previously. Not just new, but better too.

The final definition of creativity that I want to explore goes into even further detail. In their article Let’s Get Serious about Cultivating Creativity (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 04 Sept 2011) Stephen J Tepper and George D Kuhn write:

Creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time. These include:

  • The ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor;
  • Conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if?” propositions and reframing problems);
  • Keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;
  • The ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;
  • The ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;
  • A capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and
  • The expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate ideas to others.

Tepper and Kuhn argue that these characteristics are developed in higher education arts courses, but I think their list is just as helpful for understanding how museum educators construct their programmes. It all feels so wonderfully familiar, especially the last two points which could serve as a capsule job description for museum educators everywhere.

For my project so far, I’ve been thinking about the creative process as a sequence of three stages:

  1. Ideas-generation – where does that first spark of inspiration come from?
  2. Ideas-development – how are those ideas then realised?
  3. Output – what is innovative about the resulting programme?

In relation to the definitions discussed above, imagination is vital for ideas-generation, whereas critical thinking, using analogies, risking failure, working with others and receiving feedback all seem more akin to ideas-development. Innovation is a value judgement later passed on the programme itself, although there is also innovation to be found in different approaches to ideas-development. Within a typical working day for museum educators, all of these processes are underway and at different points as multiple programmes are thought about, planned, written, delivered, evaluated and reported on. Keeping all those balls in the air can feel pretty creative too.

Points of Connection: Visitor-centric Organisations

In preparing to visit the five organisations in my project, I’ve been nosing around their websites, reading their blogs and reports, and watching their videos. Over time, I’ve noticed some interesting similarities and shared characteristics. I think this says something about how these places understand and value learning at an organisational level, and thought it would be worth summarising my observations here.

Looking at the four headings listed below, you would expect, or at least hope, that all visitor-centric organisations worth their salt would champion these ways of working. I have yet to meet a strategic plan or annual report that doesn’t sing the praises of audience engagement or claim that learning is ‘at the heart of our museum’ – the organisations that I’ll be visiting really demonstrate this commitment beyond the page.

I will give a few brief examples to illustrate each of the following headings:

  • Research and audience development inform programming
  • Clear ethos, shared with audiences
  • Key turning points
  • Organisation-wide commitment to learning

Old Leather 3 shelves LLR

Research and audience development inform programming

How often do evaluation reports become expensive dust-collecting devices, sitting undisturbed on office shelves? How often does the initial appetite for change and experimentation fade when deadlines are fast approaching and we rely on our own prior experience instead of systematically building audience research into our planning? I’ve been guilty of both these things despite good intentions to the contrary. It’s basic good practice, yet to do it properly can end up somewhere near the end of a ‘to do’ list instead of forming the bedrock of all programming.

Not so at Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). I’ve written previously about their seven-year research project into audience engagement and the resulting ‘Framework for Engaging with Art’. Similarly, Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has a team devoted to audience research; their work spans summative evaluation of programmes to in-depth studies of perception and observation using eye-tracking technology. Both DMA and IMA are open with this research and share findings on their respective websites; an immediate way of inviting audiences into the conversations, debates and thinking that usually occur behind closed doors.

Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) has monthly Making Use of Documentation sessions (or MUD, which wins my Acronym of the Week award). Documentation in many forms is collected and tabled, and the team reflects on lessons to be learned. I love how achievable this is – as a shared group experience the team can push each other’s thinking, and with a regular structure it becomes a way of thinking that’s integrated into daily working life and museum culture.


Clear ethos, shared with audiences

The phrase USP, or Unique Selling Point, was introduced to me by a marketing colleague years ago – What separates us from the others and makes us immediately identifiable? What’s our Amy Winehouse beehive? Our Elvis curled lip and quiff? It now seems to be a commonplace consideration when we think about our museums and how we position ourselves in a crowded marketplace. Not surprisingly, audiences are vital to this process of self-definition – no audiences, no museum. The five organisations in my project have clear, consistent identities. The carefully chosen use of language on their websites communicates their organisational ethos and signals a strong understanding of their audiences. These organisations know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it for/with.

For example….

Museum Hack offers ‘subversive non-traditional tours for millennials’ and the style is immediate and energizing: Badass Bitches of the Met… A total celebration of feminism (without man hating), you’ll fall in love, dismantle the patriarchy, and get inspired to change the world, dudes and non-gender specified humans are welcome and encouraged!”

CMA is committed to creativity and has an open, inclusive attitude, reflected in its mission: There’s a willingness at CMA to try new things... A community hub where ideas can be exchanged and different voices heard, the Museum nurtures creativity through building relationships with diverse partners and designing engaging experiences.”

MCA Denver is where the cool kids go. It also warms up contemporary art for young people and families with a programme that feels approachable and unintimidating, such as the Failure Fair: “MCA Denver recognizes that artists put forth something new in the world without knowing if what they create will be embraced or ridiculed; in short, risking failure. MCA Denver created the Failure Fair to encourage this artistic spirit among young people. We encourage submissions of projects that demonstrate the courage to go against the grain of the everyday – to risk being ridiculous, impossible, fantastical, or merely impractical.”

IMA and DMA, both substantially larger organisations than the others, promote breadth of available experiences and an open welcome to everyone. On the IMA schools’ webpage, the invitation extends to family life: “Whether you want to bring your students or family to the IMA in person, or you’re looking for opportunities to interact with our collection through digital resources, let us support your learning experiences and make the art world a stronger, more relevant part of your world.”

DMA’s Meaningful Moments programme is described in a way that promotes both the social and creative benefits: “Designed specifically for individuals with early-stage dementia and their family members or caregivers, Meaningful Moments is a monthly program that includes a gallery discussion, an interactive component, and an art-making activity in the Art Studio. Participants will have the chance to relax and connect with art in the galleries, share stories, and gain inspiration.”

chameleon www.ox.ac.uk

Key turning points

Change – that old chestnut. It can be a destabilising and derailing experience for an organisation when managed badly. Not all change is good. Fortunately, turmoil can also create opportunities to cast off out-dated approaches and breathe new life into a place. It can be uncomfortable, awkward and difficult, but the conversations that surface by having to find new ways of working can push us forward and ultimately improve practice. Change is definitely a recurring theme in the places I’ll be visiting.

DMA’s centenary in 2003 was the catalyst for huge changes at the museum, sparking their extensive audience research and quest to reconnect with local communities. Both the then Director, John R Lane, and Deputy Director, Bonnie Pitman, played crucial roles in driving this change and the museum went from 337,000 visitors a year in the early 2000s to over a million in 2010.

A change of director often leads to a change in direction. Charles Venable became Director and CEO of IMA in 2012. Under his leadership to date, endowment spending has been reduced, membership has trebled, innovative programming has been championed and a new 10-year strategic plan has been developed. It hasn’t been entirely without controversy however, as restructuring reduced staff size and admission fees have been introduced.

Adam Lerner became Director and Chief Animator of MCA Denver in 2009 and has been the subject of glowing articles in The New York Times and The Denver Post, where his new approach is lauded. For example, “Adam is reshaping what has become a stale model for a contemporary art museum,” said Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. “That’s part of the reason I follow what he does.”

Recent site-development projects are common across all four museums in my project:

I am currently two years into a three-year site development project at the V&A, which has required temporarily re-locating the learning centre to the far side of the building. I can vouch first-hand for the disruptive nature of site-development projects, as well as their ability to provoke change as we’ve adapted to our circumstances and prepare for our improved welcome.


Organisation-wide commitment to learning

Having friends in high places is a useful way to get stuff done. In museums, having senior management and trustees championing experimental approaches to learning and visitor engagement can dramatically reposition a museum within its community (see DMA and MCA Denver examples above). An organisation’s commitment can be demonstrated in many tangible ways – in floor space, in allocation of funding, and in flexibility within and across teams to name just a few. It’s more than just lip-service when the entire floor of a museum is devoted to active engagement, as is the case at CMA. Liberated from the push-pull arguments that can bog down museums (objects first! people first!), Museum Hack is free to focus on audiences and the deeply human urge to tell stories.

Although Minneapolis Institute of Arts is outside my project, I can’t resist adding the example of Kaywin Feldman’s leadership; at a Museum Ideas conference in London last October, she shared some of the strategies for change at MIA, including having it written into everyone’s job description that the visitor is at the centre of all that they do.

I appreciate that no organisation can ever have 100% of its staff in agreement and all working towards the same goal 100% of the time – but the extent of the commitment to learning and visitor engagement in these examples is striking.


If I had to boil it down, I think all of the above can be summarised in two statements:

  1. Know thy audience; and
  2. Be a learning organisation

Learning staff are essential for their skill set, but that doesn’t let everyone else off the hook – efforts to engage with local communities and audiences of all ages must be intrinsic to all aspects of an organisation’s work to achieve genuine and consistent engagement. Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Who’s Cake Is It Anyway? argues this case very powerfully.