This is the fifth guest post in the Schools and Museums series. Jackie Delamatre has been a museum educator for over a decade. Until this fall, she was an educator at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She recently moved to Providence, RI where she is an educator at the RISD Museum. She also writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim and the International Center of Photography.
My own comments are in italics at the end of the post.
Imagine a school trip to a library. Students are ushered in, told the rules, and then read three pre-selected books. Any questions unrelated to those books are answered perfunctorily. It is made clear that the focus should be on those three books rather than the library as a whole. The books are all related (perhaps only tangentially) to what students are learning in school.
Does this seem like a successful library trip?
Students have not learned what a library can be for them, how they can use a library, or how they could approach the space on a return visit. Students have not experienced the joy, surprise, and discovery of looking for and checking out a book that appeals to and interests them. No one has even modeled how to do this. Libraries, for them, are now places where people read them books and conduct conversations in a group about the books. Why return? The experience cannot be replicated on their own.
In a typical art museum tour, students, brimming with excitement, enter this new and unusual space. Many have never set foot in an art museum before. Many have never even seen an artwork up close. The space itself raises hundreds of questions for them:
Where do you get these artworks? How do you get them in here? How do you hang them? What would happen if I touched an artwork? What did the artists use to make them? How long did it take to make? Are they real? Is that the frame the artist chose? How much do these cost? Why is this considered art when I could do this myself? Can I go to the gift shop? When and where do we eat? When can I go to the bathroom? If I came back, would you (the educator) be here?
Many of these questions go unanswered. But what if we refocused? What if the primary goal of a museum visit were to foster an understanding of, appreciation for, and techniques for being future visitors in a museum?
Why are we replicating the teacher-directed nature of most classrooms in informal learning institutions?
What if we left space, and designed lessons, in order to foster the natural questions that students bring to the museum?
Many museums place curricular connections high on their list of goals for school visits. We worry that teachers need to justify their field trips to administrators by citing these connections. I have talked to hundreds of teachers before their school visits and in my experience, the majority of teachers do not want or need to shoehorn a connection to their curriculum into the visit. Instead, they most often cite the desire for their students to be “exposed” to the museum. On the face of it, “exposure” sounds quite shallow. I imagine flipping a slide on for a couple seconds and saying how happy I am I have “exposed” students to that artwork. But, in truth, I think teachers hope that their students will visit the museum and see that it is a welcoming, accessible space that they can return to independently or with friends or family, a space that they now have the tools to explore with or without guides, a space where they can contemplate not just art but their lives, history, spirituality, community, social justice, and political issues, to name just a few.
But how will students ever feel they can return on their own if our lessons are so educator-directed? So often, at the end of a tour, I have encouraged a student to come visit again and they have turned to me and said: But will you be here? I’d like to think this was because they liked me, but instead, I think it is because the way we lead school tours makes students feel as if they can only visit a museum with a guide. I believe there is a place for educator-directed group conversations on a tour because I think that is one way to help students see how much they can observe and interpret without extensive knowledge of art history. But why are we focusing so much on this one tool? And why is the primary tool we are using something that cannot be replicated upon return?
What if our primary goal were to encourage students to be life-long visitors? How would that affect our tour design? Perhaps students would be brought into a gallery space, asked to find an artwork they are attracted to, and given one of the following informal learning challenges:
- Tell a friend why you like or dislike it, or write about why you have this opinion.
- Tell a friend what you notice about it, or own your own list words to describe it.
- Sketch the artwork or free-write about it.
- Let the object launch you into a creative response (i.e. a monologue from the perspective of one of its subjects, a drawing of a more contemporary take on the image).
- Ask “what if” questions about it (i.e. what if it was a different color or palette, what if it were in a contemporary setting) and talk to a friend about the possible answers.
- Ask questions about the work to yourself, a friend, or a small group.
- Read the label and think about which questions it answered for you and which questions still remain. Think about how you can find answers to these questions.
Or perhaps students would be allowed to explore an exhibition or the entire museum on their own and asked to ponder it in these ways:
- Write as many questions down as you can think of, share them in a small group, pick your group’s most pressing question and ask it of the whole school group
- Wonder about an exhibition and how it was organized. Wonder about the curatorial choices. Which choices would you have made differently? Debate these choices with a friend.
- Think about what makes you comfortable here and what creates discomfort. Design a change for the galleries that would increase your comfort.
- Think about museum roles such as curator, conservator, or exhibition designer. Give students descriptions of these museum roles and ask them to write questions for each person.
Certainly, many of these techniques are already built into the best guided museum tours, but what if they were given more importance? All of these activities involve free choice. They involve independent looking, or looking in pairs or with small groups. They are general techniques, applicable to most objects and museums. They can be replicated independently upon a return to the museum, helping students see that they don’t need us to be there to have a fulfilling experience in the museum.
I am not proposing throwing out educator-directed moments or visual literacy as a tour goal. Instead, I imagine – as one possibility – a tour in which students are given one of the above prompts when they enter the museum. They can work in pairs or independently. Then the group comes together and discusses the experience. What did they discover? What other questions or thoughts did the experience bring up? Next, the group might look together at one artwork in order for students to see how a group conversation can go from observation to interpretation and bring to light so much about an artwork that independent looking alone might leave dark. Next, the group is dispersed again, this time with a choice of independent or pair activities before a final reflection as a larger group. Some students might choose a creative response, others judgment, others pure observation. Or, perhaps, like a Montessori classroom, different activities like this would be set up across the museum for students to choose from. Either way, through these student-directed moments, all will have an experience guided by their own interests and one they could apply on a return trip.
Over the past decade, based on teaching hundreds of tours, I have come to believe that certain age groups pose categories of questions. Fourth through sixth graders ask questions about how the museum functions. High school students want to know why something is considered worthy as art and worthy of space in the museum. Understanding these natural, developmentally-specific questions could help us as we design museum experiences for each age.
With this in mind, I propose a call for collaborative action research. Any museum educator who is reading can help – even if you just see one school group in the next few months. Before you have even started your tour, ask your students what questions they have. Write them down along with the group grade level. Share them in the comments to this blog post, or email them to me at jdelamatre–at–gmail.com.
I will compile and analyze the questions. Check back here in a few months for the results. And while you’re at it, look at the questions you have collected and think about how these natural questions might dictate a new approach to school visits – one more consistent with students’ interests. I can’t wait to hear your ideas.
I love this call for collaborative action. So often we think of research as expensive, or intimidating. What Jackie is suggesting is so simple – ask the kids a question, and collect the answers. I hope that many readers will email her about participating.
I also want to call attention to the way in which Jackie is aligning goals and strategies. If we want tours to accomplish X, we must do Y. How much more interesting it is to be intentional about those goals, and creative about how to accomplish them, than to struggle to teach to goals that we are not as committed to! If you have alternate tour strategies that you think would help kids become life-long museum visitors, please share them in the comments below.