Few things make me happier than theory and practice coming together. I love it when ideas are explored through both language and action, and each understanding brings light and knowledge to the other. I saw this beautifully illustrated when I visited Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). I had interviewed Leah Hanson, Manager for Early Years and Family Learning at DMA about her work, and on the following day I shadowed one of her Early Years workshops. It was wonderful to see how the ideas that we discussed were manifest in the session.
Leah is a natural-born teacher and has a great rapport with young children. Like anyone who’s really good at what they do, she also makes it look easy. What feels like a casual, friendly chat with a large group of toddlers, parents and carers has been carefully constructed. Leah glides seamlessly from one mode to another: she riffs off the kids’ observations to draw them in; she promotes observational skills by focussing on details in the artwork; she switches it up with a combination of drawing, writing, movement, discussion and storytelling activities; and she peppers the whole experience with bite-sized and interesting factoids. It’s a joy to watch. The session I observed focused on colour and was fully booked (18 under-fives plus their carers). We spent an hour in the galleries, exploring one painting, Wasily Kandinksy’s Murnau, Burggrabenstrasse 1 (1908), and for the remaining 30 minutes the group experimented with paint in the Art Studio in the Center for Creative Connections.
When we’d met, Leah had told me about New World Kids: The Parent’s Guide to Creative Thinking, a book that has been an important influence on her work at DMA over the past eight years (the New World Kids website might also be of interest). Authors, Susan Marcus and Susie Monday, argue that just as we have to learn numeracy and literacy so that we can decode the symbols that form numbers and letters, there is an equivalent sensory alphabet (shape, colour, sound, movement, etc) that supports creativity. Rather than thinking about creativity within the narrow parameters of the arts, New World Kids encourages thinking more laterally and recognising that a child’s creativity can take many different forms and makes use of a wide range of media. The book is particularly strong on mixing up the senses to generate new ideas, something that really appeals. I’ve always been fascinated by synaesthesia, and envy those who can go to a concert and see the music in vivid colour.
Leah’s workshop made the most fantastic use of synaesthesia and I enjoyed making the connection between how she did it and what I’d read in New World Kids. About mid-way through the gallery-based part of the session, when the group were comfortable with each other, the space, and the ideas that she was introducing, Leah held up some A5-sized laminated arrow-shapes that were the same colours as those of the houses in the painting. As a group, the children helped her arrange the arrows (pointing north so the shape replicated a simple house silhouette) so that they were in the same order as those on Kandinsky’s street. We then imagined going into the pink, yellow, blue and green houses and everything in there being that one colour. We pictured having a meal in these different homes and discussed the kinds of food that would be on offer (corn in the yellow house, candyfloss in the pink house, etc). It was funny and surreal and the kids were totally hooked.
After eating our fill of imaginary candyfloss, Leah introduced the idea of a crayon factory – and the fact that it’s someone’s job to come up with the names for the crayons. She read a few out from a brochure (wild watermelon…) and then handed out a template, covered in crayon shapes, and coloured pencils, inviting the children to blend existing colours to invent something new, and then come up with a name for their colour. Parents were encouraged to take an active role in discussing the children’s thoughts and sharing their own views on colour. Not surprisingly, this was a task that the kids tackled with great enthusiasm and they confidently bounced across the senses as they developed their ideas. My absolutely favourite comment – and the words I want to end on – was from a young girl who told her mother she wanted to invent a crayon colour, “like the sound of the ocean”.
I really like it when I learn a new word, believing I’ve never seen or heard it before, and then in the following week it’ll cross my path at least twice. I’ve been experiencing something similar in relation to the social aspects of museums – the idea isn’t new to me, but now that my attention has turned to it as a result of my US trip, it’s all I can see and it’s absolutely everywhere. To be fair, I’m conflating three different ideas of ‘the social’ – social experiences, co-design, and the social role of museums – but they all share an emphasis on people, how we interact with each other, and how we could interact with museums. Some examples…
This idea came up time and again during my trip – museum educators (for want of a better word) are thinking more holistically about the visitor experience and broadening their programme accordingly. It’s no longer just about providing ‘food for thought’, now it may also include actual food, accompanied by a glass of red, live music, perhaps a dance performance and, my favourite, somewhere comfortable to lounge about with friends or family.
Social experiences can be promoted between pre-existing groups of people (families and friends who know each other), or generated between small groups of strangers (such as the Museum Hack tour experience) or, if you’re feeling ambitious, created on a massive scale, such as the CatVidFest, where 11,500 people congregated to watch internet cat videos, part of the incredible Open Field project run by the Walker Art Center. I met Sarah Schultz when I was in New York; Sarah is now a freelance consultant and was previously the Head of Education at the Walker Art Center. It’s Sarah’s vision that made Open Field possible. Her new book, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, is a collection of essays inspired by the success of CatVidFest.
I love the way Sarah talked about CatVidFest – it sounded like a truly collective, joyous, (a bit silly), and totally uplifting social experience. When I think of equivalent experiences in my own life, where for a brief moment I was one with thousands of others, I recall singing and swaying along to Dolly Parton at Glastonbury, and shouting at a telly in a pub in Cromer to aid Mo Farah’s victory in the 5,000m at the 2012 Olympics. Even the memory of these social experiences gives me goosebumps. They are on the ‘epic’ end of the spectrum, but I think it’s worth considering how we can foster more modest, but still collective, social experiences in our museums. I want visitors to head back out into the world feeling refreshed, relaxed and reliving an amazing moment that they couldn’t have experienced alone.
While it could be argued that museum educators have always collaborated, the current trend is pushing this idea further. We’re moving away from playing the role of cultural saviour, applying a tick-box approach, and casually diving in and out of relationships with community partners as it suits us. Instead, we’re moving towards a more complex model whereby: fewer long-term working partnerships are formed; there is an authentic interest in understanding the requirements, priorities and interests of the people we are working with; institutional biases are challenged; and the work goes beyond the remit of learning departments, and becomes core to the organisational mission. Not easy, but it’s vital that we start to tackle this approach if we wish to remain relevant.
There are many names for this way of working – participatory practice, co-creation, human-centred design – although irrespective of what it’s called, the bottom line is always ‘working with, not at’ (I also like the phrase ‘nothing about us without us’). Nina Simon has been championing this approach for years and her latest book, The Art of Relevance, is filled with practice advice and well worth a look. Speaking at the engage annual conference earlier this month, Tate Liverpool shared their recent co-design approach. Tate Collective is their national young people’s project; Tate Liverpool has expanded this to a Family Collective and a Community Collective, working with adults. Representatives from each of these group spoke to us, alongside the Tate staff. The groups clearly have a good relationship with the team, and have the confidence to critique organisational practices (asking questions such as, ‘why can’t we have an exhibition?’).
Another great example of co-design practice is Our Museum, a five-year research project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), that aimed to move community engagement from the margins (ie. learning departments) to the core (ie. senior management and organisation-wide) of museums. There is a whole page on the PHF website that summarises the projects, their progress, and further recommendations. I have also recently discovered a report from the Oakland Museum of California, titled How Visitors Changed Our Museum. It goes into the detail of transforming the Gallery of Californian Art, which involved a huge amount of input from local communities.
The Social Role of Museums
Cooper-Hewitt’s Process Lab recently had an interactive display, Citizen Design, which invited visitors to go through a social impact design process to explore issues, such as reducing dependence on private cars, improving access to healthcare, or restoring housing after natural disasters. At the entrance, as a means of introducing social impact design, was the wonderfully illustrated tale of ‘Dick and Rick’, and their differing approaches to co-design with communities. Rick finds out what is important to the community and spends a lot of time listening and seeking shared solutions. Meanwhile, Dick thinks he knows better and believes that a few photos of the area will suffice. They both work to create a community park – you can probably guess which project was the success.
Large network organisations and funders are currently querying the role (or roles) museums play in society, which is a sure sign that major changes are afoot. Museum ID & ICOM recently held a two-day conference in London, titled The Future of Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. I’ve recently returned from an ICOM & La Caixa seminar in Barcelona, which asked the question, ‘what is the social role of museums?’ Case studies, shared by delegates from all over the world, reflected the economic turmoil of the time, the societal pressures of mass migration, and the impact of terrorist attacks on cities. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is currently leading a number of workshops and consultations across England, asking, ‘what is the civic role of arts organisations?’ and politics is again rearing its head (think Brexit) and challenging how we see ourselves – could (or should) museums wade into this territory or would it be better if we just ‘stick to our knitting’ and stop trying to be all things to all people? Personally, I don’t think isolating our work from what’s happening around us is helpful. Museums are no longer cloisters, and no matter how much cotton wool we choose to shove in our ears, we can’t avoid dealing with our contemporary social context indefinitely.
With this social trend gaining momentum, it’s a great time to be working in museum learning/education departments. People are our thing – when something ‘people-related’ comes up in museums, it’s the learning departments that are expected to address it. So how do we make the most of this opportunity? Are we ready? What changes do we need to make to fully engage with this massive agenda? And how much of it do we actually want to take on?
Header Image: As part of the Citizen Design display, visitors were invited to select a sticker. If unwanted, the stickers could be ‘returned’ to a display board on exiting the display.
After a very happy month of living in a travel bubble, I’m now back to real life and trying to process the experience. I took copious notes and photos while I was away, and they are proving very useful portals back to the cities and museums I visited. What I’m find most unsettling is that I don’t know what I think, but I do know that what I used to think doesn’t fit anymore. Some of my fundamental principles of museum education have been challenged – which is what I hoped would happen – but I’m yet to land back down on either side of the fence with a strong opinion either way. For example, it has been my mantra since the dawn of time that all programming must be rooted in the collections and exhibitions; I would refer to it as ‘Easter bonnet syndrome’ when programming didn’t respond to its immediate context or encourage direct engagement with artworks. But after what I’ve seen in the US, now I’m not so sure, and I’m excited about the potential of blowing the whole thing open and rethinking the purpose of programming.
I was struck by the more open approach at MCA Denver, where the events programming holds equal status with exhibition programming. The team place a strong emphasis on creating social experiences and platforms for thinking about culture and society more holistically. Similarly, Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is committed to promoting creativity and provides drop-in studio time for families and young people as well as informal opportunities to make and draw in their Chase Center for Creativity. Both MCA Denver and CMA do respond to collections and exhibitions, but not exclusively.
I also visited science museums during the course of my trip – they have gone quite a bit further, and take an even more relaxed approach to engaging with original objects. The Perot Nature and Science Museum, Dallas, and the Center of Science and Industry (CoSI), Columbus, both have play spaces for young children without any collection objects on display. Instead they provide space to experiment with sand, water, role-play (shopping for fruit and veg seems especially popular), and physical activity such as climbing and crawling, and improving manual dexterity. This approach reminds me of the National Maritime Museum’s new AHOY! Children’s Gallery. We went to see AHOY! on a V&A team outing and the absence of collection objects generated much discussion. While it still makes me a bit twitchy, I’m more open to the idea than I was previously. All of these child-friendly galleries were heaving with families, and they looked like they were having a great time. Those young children must go home believing that museums = fun and want to return. If collection-free spaces provide a gateway into the museum, is that so terrible? Or is it a cul-de-sac, rather than a gateway, for those families who don’t explore further? Or is it just snobbery to judge how others choose to engage? Hmm, dunno, I might need to stay on the fence a bit longer on that one…
Coming back to the world of art museums and new approaches to programming, Bank Street College of Education, New York, offers Leadership in Museum Education post-graduate courses. I met with Program Director, Brian Hogarth, and he shared their recent report, Leading the Future of Museum Education: Challenges and Opportunities (I haven’t been able to find an online version yet, but there are some good blog posts about it). It summarises a three-day meeting at the Denver Art Museum in May 2015 that invited museum educators from across the country, as well as international contributors, such as our Jane Sillis, Director of engage, to address the pressing issues of the sector. The report includes the following statement:
As educators, we want our institutions to take a more active role of addressing … broader social issues. In the past, the job of museum education was to cultivate learning and appreciation by drawing people into the museum, generating interest and focusing attention on collections and exhibitions. Now, our work is more about connecting and facilitating experiences that visitors, in part, help to determine. Our work has become more collaborative and outward in orientation. (p.5)
This statement feels very consistent with the practice I was seeing. I like the phrase ‘connecting and facilitating experiences’ – it feels far more expansive than focussing solely on objects, and reflects both the complexity and inherent possibility of our roles. It differs from ‘Easter bonnet syndrome’ too; it’s an approach that values the context of a museum to hold all sorts of conversations, and bring together a range of experiences and perspectives (the same could also be said of libraries). It’s an approach that has possibly been driven by audience demand; we are having to rethink the purpose of our cultural institutions because people want to engage differently – stoic discomfort and po-faced beard-stroking don’t cut it anymore.
There’s a whole wide world outside our museums, and what’s going on out there means more to many people than the stuff accumulated inside our buildings – how can we better bridge the two? Don’t get me wrong, I love object-based learning and the pleasure of looking at amazing wonders from around the world; I’m not proposing we abandon our collections. I just think we’re missing a trick if we don’t cast our nets further, and let more of the outside world in. Header image source: http://www.sky.com/tv/movie/the-italian-job-1969
Last Saturday, I went on two Museum Hack tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Combined, this experience took a total of five hours. That sounds pretty hardcore, even by my museum geek standards, but the time flew by and I loved every minute of it. The company is a relatively young start-up that offers high-energy, entertaining and subversive museum tours. It’s an approach ideally suited to adults who were dragged around museums as children and consequently assume that tours must be boring, tiring and didactic. As with a number of the other organisations that I’ve visited on this trip, Museum Hack understands that offering positive social experiences is a fundamental aspect of audience engagement. Who doesn’t enjoy spending time with friends and family, having a laugh and doing something a bit different together on a Saturday evening? Museum Hack has successfully identified a gap in the market and then developed a strong product to meet that need. They’re going great guns too – the company is expanding at an extraordinary rate.
I started with the Un-Highlights Tour, which promised not to show me all the usual things, but to offer a personal, alternative introduction instead. We were a group of nine (four couples and me, the lemon) and our guide Evan was funny, knowledgeable, and engaging. He’s also an artist and his love for the Met was obvious – we were definitely getting a tour from a big fan. One of the first objects we saw was a huge Roman sarcophagus, unfinished and never used for its intended purpose. It’s nothing much to look at, but it’s interesting because it was the very first object to enter the Met’s collection. Its reference number is 70.1, because it was the first object purchased in the year of the museum’s founding in 1870. That’s cool. The entire tour was driven by storytelling, the cornerstone of the Museum Hack approach, and was filled with all sorts of interesting snippets and factoids. It wasn’t all one-way traffic either; there were little challenges and tasks along the way that encouraged us to talk with each other and explore galleries in the museum that we may have otherwise walked straight through. I looked, I laughed, I played – all great fun.
In the evening, I joined a VIP tour – I knew it was fancy because my name tag was a silver sticker instead of the usual matt white. We were a group of 13 (six couples and me, the gooseberry) and we had two guides: Ethan, who has been with the company from almost the beginning and leads on the continuing professional development (CPD) side of the business; and Charlotte, who is newer and had more of a supporting role, although she did lead some sections of the tour. It was a 6pm kick-off and we were booted out as the museum was closing at 9pm; I really couldn’t tell you where those three hours went. At some point, the sun had set and the spotlit sculptures looked stunning, especially with the dark sky and Manhattan architecture, visible through the large windows and skylights, forming a dramatic backdrop. All of this was nicely capped off with a glass of red wine, provided as part of the tour – they know us so well.
Every Museum Hack tour is different because the guides tailor the experience to the group. Fairly early on, there was an ice-breaker exercise where we briefly introduced ourselves. This wasn’t just to bond as a group, although that was useful too, but to give the guides a sense of our interests and world views. For example, if someone in the group comes from the financial sector, then anecdotes would be skewed towards the value of objects or other money-related tales. If there were museum types on the tour (apparently that happens), then there would be some juicy art history nuggets thrown in to keep us happy too. It shows how nimble and well-trained the guides are, and probably plays a big part in keeping their storytelling fresh and immediate.
So that was my Saturday. On Sunday, I hijacked Ethan’s afternoon for an interview and we had a really great, wide-ranging conversation about the ‘Museum Hack way’ and associated topics. I was hugely impressed by the creativity and hard work that he pours into his role. Ethan loves museums, and he loves the objects in museums, and he really wants others to discover museums and love them as much as he does. Museum Hack is quite a controversial prospect in some circles, not least because it’s seen to be treading on the territory of established museum learning departments, and their subversive spirit has been interpreted as cavalier. However, I was happy to discover just how rigorous and systematic Museum Hack is in its training, planning and programming. Ethan and his colleague, Kate have formalised the key elements of what makes a Museum Hack tour, and trainee guides have a huge amount to learn before they can deliver to a group in such a way that suggests they’ve just rocked up for a chat. Like all good guides, the hard work is hidden beneath a lot of practice and preparation.
I chose Museum Hack as a case study because I find it fascinating that a company outside the museum sector can come in and have such an impact. Moreover, they have museums eager to hire them as consultants to inject their particular brand of energy and entertainment into adult programming. Shifting the focus from them (Museum Hack) to us (museum educators) for a moment, why aren’t we already doing this for ourselves? I like a bit of healthy competition and I’m glad they’ve thrown down the gauntlet; it means that we have to raise our game. Granted, being subversive is easier when you are external to an organisation, rather than a cog in its machinery; however, there is nothing to stop us from looking again at the format of our key programmes and rethinking them. Tours, talks and workshops are the basic building blocks of museum learning programming and there can be a risk of sinking into the deep wheel-ruts of established approaches. Tours can be done differently and can attract new audiences – Museum Hack have demonstrated that. So what else can we be doing differently? What else can we adapt to respond to contemporary audience need?
As part of my trip to the US, I’ve been visiting a range of cultural institutions, including art, science and social history museums, as well as the occasional aquarium and botanic gardens. My focus has been on art museums, but an unexpected bonus has been how much I’ve gained from visiting social history museums. I’ve written previously about how objects in these museums affected me – particularly seeing a KKK hood in Dallas and an electric chair in Indianapolis. I’ve been learning about historical instances of deeply entrenched racism and social inequality in these museums, and then I’ve seen the impact of this history when walking down the street and witnessing the differences between the haves and have nots; or when I’m watching the (almost daily) news reports of yet another unarmed African American man, or sometimes boy, shot to death by police. Throw in the surreal election campaign and accompanying braying media coverage, and the whole world seems fit to explode. Fortunately, museums can redress the balance by providing a place to contextualise current events and to present the many ‘hidden histories’ that have previously been ignored and repressed.
Having seen that hood in Dallas, little did I know that KKK objects would be a recurring theme, and I have encountered similar objects in at least four collections I’ve visited. For example, in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis there was an incredible display, called The Power of Children: Making a Difference, which explores the lives and impact of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. White contracted HIV in 1984, aged 13, from a blood transfusion. He did a huge amount to increase knowledge and understanding of the disease before his death in 1990.
Ruby Bridges, aged six, was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the American South. She was escorted by federal marshals, and had to navigate a mob of angry adults, to get into the school. The Children’s Museum told her story and placed her into the broader context of the role of children and young people in the civil rights movement, who took incredibly brave actions to access education and bring change. And there it was, the KKK again, this time in the form of a ceramic ornament, as part of a display about the racism of the time. Wisely, the museum has provided boxes of tissues at various points in these galleries as the material provokes strong emotions – all three children demonstrated so much courage in the face of so much adult idiocy and fear.
As time went on, I noticed a stark difference between the social history museums, that are really grappling with the difficult and ugly sides of US history, and the art museums, that are still turning a relatively blind eye and, through omission, staying on the vanilla side of the fence. Hmm. Having said that, there are some examples of good work, such as at Columbus Museum of Art, that has a couple of great collections built around social justice and a gallery that addresses four aspects of this: women’s rights, employment, poverty, and African American lives. However, it wasn’t until I got to the Brooklyn Museum that I really understood how much further art museums could go – I have never seen so many artworks on display by women artists. And not just in the ‘women artists’ corner, but right throughout, almost as though their work was of equal value and worth to the other 50% of the population. Similarly, there are many artworks by African American and Native American artists on display, and the museum also has substantial displays of African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American art. The best bit was the interpretation; I took so many photos of labels because I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading; I’ve never seen such strongly-worded text in an art museum.
One of many striking juxtapositions at the Brooklyn Museum was an oil painting of a Native American man on a horse, alongside two ink and crayon drawings of conflicts between Native Americans and US soldiers. I want to quote the label text in full to give an indication of the museum’s approach.
The oil painting is called The Outlier, 1909, by Frederic Sackrider Remington. It is described as follows:
In this nocturnal scene, the Native American appears as something of a lone relic, disconnected from his culture and ambiguously detached from a specific historical moment. Depicted in isolation, the figure simultaneously suggests former glory and inevitable demise, a fate that most European Americans at this time considered to be certain for Native Americans.
Frederic Sackrider Remington painted many versions of the solitary Native American – a motif inspired by the lingering psychological impact of his harrowing experience in wartime Cuba as a war correspondent. However, it is the American Impressionist-inspired style, featuring broken brushwork and lightened palette, that dominates the painting’s narrative content.
The ink and crayon drawings are both titled ‘Ledger Book Drawing’, 1890, and attributed to a ‘Cheyenne male artist’. They are described as follows:
Depicting the Indian Wars
As gold and land lured non-Native settlers westward, Native American fought for their homelands in fierce battles with the US Army, as depicted here. Government pogroms attempted to wipe out Native peoples by deliberately spreading disease and by killing off the life-sustaining buffalo and native sheep. Native warriors, who had traditionally depicted their battles on hide shirts and tipi liners in the 1800s, co-opted ledger books from government agents to draw their war experiences. General Custer’s 1876 defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana and other Native victories were overshadowed by relentless US Army massacres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the famous one at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. The wars continued until all Native peoples were driven onto reservations.
This tone of voice felt far more akin to what I‘d seen in the social history museums; it was fascinating to experience such a large art museum through a similar political lens. Brooklyn Museum also houses the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and gives pride of place to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-9. I have known this work since I was a teenager and it was incredible to see it in person. The installation is presented in a bespoke gallery with highly reflective black walls and this has the effect of multiplying the triangular table-setting into infinity. It felt like being in a chapel and visitors were especially quiet and contemplative as they walked around and read the names of these 1,038 women.
I also want to include a few examples from the Whitney Museum, where women and African American artists are also well represented. I loved Steve, 1976, by Barkley L. Hendricks, for its simplicity which brought to mind nineteenth-century examples such as J.M. Whistler’s Symphony in White, no.1 (The White Girl), 1862. I also enjoyed Byron Kim’s Synecdoche, an ongoing project started in 1991 (see Header Image). There are over 400 panels in the series to date. Each panel ‘records the unique skin tones of friends and fellow artists on monochrome painted panels’. The Whitney is showing a selection from the series, focussing on artists represented in their collection. Again, I liked the simplicity and art historical references (because I’m a big art history geek).
And finally, I was struck by Annette Lemieux’s work, Left Right Left Right, 1995. This piece shows 30 photographs of fists, presented as placards. Ten unique images are each reproduced three times and there is a mix of the famous (Martin Luther King Jnr, Jane Fonda) and the anonymous (a sailor, a preacher, and a concert goer from Woodstock). The label states, ‘together they suggest the united front of a political demonstration whose cause remains unspecified. Taken out of context, the individual fists could be raised in celebration, anger or solidarity.’ This work is over 20 years old and yet it feels very contemporary in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and the symbol of the raised fist. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last weekend in Washington DC to much fanfare and I’ve heard glowing reports from those who’ve seen it.
Having seen how well these art museums are addressing issues around gender, sexuality, race, and inequality, I’m looking forward to returning home with this particular heightened awareness and looking again at how UK art museums are conducting similar discussions. Do please share any examples of good practice that you’ve seen – I’d love to hear from you.
Header Image: Synecdoche, 1991 – ongoing, by Byron Kim