How can museums help us (re)learn the art of conversation?

In What is the political role of art education in rural communities? Kate Baird, museum educator at the Springfield Art Museum, explored experiences with art education in conversation with three of her colleagues. In this week’s post, Kate continues sharing her ideas about how museums can play an essential role in cultivating much-needed conversation in our communities.


In the wake of the 2016 election, there is a lot of data to suggest that wherever you live and whatever your politics, most of your in-person conversations and online interactions serve to reinforce the views you already hold. Increasingly, many of us can make no sense of those who occupy the opposite side of the political divide. Art museums have something vital to offer citizens at this moment and in this landscape: they can provide the opportunity to engage visitors in conversations about all the things we’re having such a hard time talking about — race, class, history, identity, values, loss — in a (potentially) open and receptive environment.

Like many museums, the one where I work does this very intentionally with groups of visiting students. Below I offer an example of how a relatively short conversation inspired by a work of art can impact students’ points of view. But as much or more than students, American adults need forums where they can discuss important topics face to face. What lessons can we take from student interactions, and apply to conversations with adults? How can we maximize the potential of museums to get people talking to one another?

I work at the Springfield Art Museum, in southwest Missouri. Through Placeworks, a partnership with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, we offer arts programming to rural schools in our region. Springfield is approximately 90% white, and in smaller surrounding communities that percentage is even higher. Many students that we work with through Placeworks have not spent much time outside of their hometowns. One teacher who brought her students to the Springfield Art Museum this past fall commented that it was the first time that several of her 7th grade students had ever left their town of 3000 people.

I had the opportunity recently to facilitate an installation project at a very small, very poor rural school. This project required a lot of teamwork, and I was floored by the ability of the students to assign each other roles, work through conflicts, and get things done. When I commented on this to their teacher, she chuckled and pointed out that they’d been together almost every day for 8 years, and for better and worse, they were more like a family than a class.

This closeness and ability to collaborate is an advantage, but it also means that it’s possible to get all the way through school in a rural community in southwest Missouri with few experiences with people from different racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds. Teachers from rural districts often ask Placeworks for programs addressing issues of tolerance and cultural sensitivity, so we think a lot about how to accomplish this in a thoughtful and effective way.

During one Placeworks field trip, 6th grade students were asked to create an image inspired by some aspect of Chinese culture. This was found by the teaching artist after the students had left:


The teaching artist, although deeply upset by the drawing, felt that showing it to the classroom teacher would not be helpful: she predicted that the teacher would punish the class, and that the kids would feel angry and defensive about being disciplined for something that they perceived to be a joke, and/or with which they had no direct involvement. Unfortunately, I think this is often what happens with conversations about race among adults in our area: conversations arise in response to problems, are charged or confrontational, and are therefore often unproductive.

The teaching artist felt that it was important to separate the objectionable viewpoint from the student who expressed it. We wondered how to push back against the idea without alienating the student. That little drawing resulted in a lot of thinking and talking about how to respond to bigotry, misinformation and bad jokes. We kept coming back to the idea that simple strategies might be best: start a conversation and keep it going. (Unfortunately in this particular case, we did not have the opportunity for a follow-up visit.)

What might such a conversation look like? In a museum context, the back and forth can arise from curiosity rather than tension. With a little time, consideration and information, student visitors to the museum often shift their own interpretations, attitudes and judgments about art, artists and even each other.

For example, consider Roger Shimomura’s Kansas Samurai:


Roger Shimomura, Kansas Samurai, 2004, seven-color lithograph. Copyright Roger Shimomura. Collection of the Springfield Art Museum.

Shimomura is an American artist of Japanese descent. At a young age, Shimomura and his family were sent to Minidoka, an internment camp, where they lived for two years. Much of Shimomura’s art addresses his own complicated cultural and personal identity and the experiences of Japanese-Americans during and following World War II.

When looking at the piece with students, I often lead a poetry activity involving two sets of words. When students first encounter the piece I ask them to write down the first thing that pops into their minds. This set of words often includes “evil,” “angry,” “bad guy,” “Chinaman,” “ninja” and “samurai.” Students then spend time looking at the piece, noticing its particulars and beginning to make sense of them. They are often able to make emotional sense out of the piece even when they are unaware of the history it references. I share some information about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Roger Shimomura’s story, which helps students better understand what they are seeing, and they often want to know more.

The second set of words that students generate, after our discussion, often includes terms like “unfair,” “injustice,” “trapped,” “sorrow” or “abandoned.” No one tells students how they should feel or what their interpretation of the work should be, and indeed there is generally still a range of interpretations of the work. But in the space of 15 minutes, Kansas Samurai can go from being an angry, evil menace to a figure with a more complex identity, deserving of empathy.

This kind of activity can open great discussions for adults as well as students. However, as many museum educators will tell you, adults and children behave very differently in a gallery setting. Many adults expect to listen and be given information on a tour. They come prepared to be told what something means but are not necessarily expecting to be called upon to construct their own meanings. More than younger visitors, adults seem to feel that if they don’t have a background in art or art history, they have nothing of value to contribute to a conversation about art.  In fact, the opposite may be true.

Just last week, I was working with a group of adults in the galleries. Some participants had a lot of formal art or art history education, others did not. We began by discussing Alison Saar’s Black Bottom Blues.

Black Bottom Blues, Alison Saar, 2001, oil on carved wood. Copyright Alison Saar. Collection of the Springfield Art Museum

Black Bottom Blues, Alison Saar, 2001, oil on carved wood. Copyright Alison Saar. Collection of the Springfield Art Museum

Participants were asked to find a connection with another piece in the exhibit. As we visited different selections, our conversation touched on 19th century trade, women’s roles in society, the gaze of the viewer, migration, techniques of persuasion, and formal considerations like composition. Towards the end of our conversation, one participant who had been mostly silent led us to Dayscape, by Jimmy Ernst.


Jimmy Ernst, Dayscape, 1967, oil on canvas. Copyright Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Collection of the Springfield Art Museum.

She prefaced her comments by saying she didn’t know much about art history or what the artist meant, almost seeming to apologize for what she was about to say. She then proceeded to share a very poetic and personal interpretation of the painting: she saw two lands separated by a great distance and many obstacles, and felt a tremendous longing to get to another place. After a period of silence, three other participants indicated that her words had opened up a new way of seeing a painting with which they were very familiar. It was arguably the speaker’s lack of art historical context that allowed her to look at the painting in the way that she did. No one left the conversation thinking that the painting had been explained or that artist’s intention had been revealed. But I believe we all left the conversation feeling that we had learned something about each other and about the ability of art to hold many possibilities.

I share this anecdote because I think it illustrates both the difficulties and the payoffs of convening adults for conversation in a museum. Most adults don’t want to say anything stupid or wrong, so they may start out not saying anything at all. But many adults, no matter what their backgrounds, also want very much to share their experiences and to be heard. This is true regardless of where we’re from, what we do for a living or how we identify ourselves. When we eliminate those adult fears of saying “the wrong thing,” then art provides the occasion for discussing our experiences, ideas, opinions and feelings in relation to art. One of the reasons that conversations about art can productively cultivate empathy is that people think they’re talking about one thing, but it turns out they are discussing another. People think they are talking about a portrait, and it turns out they are reflecting on how we treat one another. People think they are talking about colors and shapes, and it turns out they are struggling to make sense of the past. In these conversations, we may find that we have space to be more open and less defensive than we might otherwise be. We are giving our time and attention to something larger than ourselves. In that moment of connection with the wider world, we might find the generosity to consider the experiences, ideas, opinions and feelings of others a little more carefully.

Certainly this doesn’t happen for everyone, every time. But Americans urgently need to find spaces where we can talk with one another, and a museum is a good place to start these conversations. Groups of adults, particularly from rural areas, are harder to convene than groups of students on a field trip. But perhaps there’s more that museums can do. What if we reached out to workplaces and congregations and invited group visits? Museums have long been places where people come together for discussion. But as lively, respectful, person-to-person discussion becomes increasingly rare, museums have an ever more important role to play in making sure we remember what it feels like to have a really good conversation.
































3 thoughts on “How can museums help us (re)learn the art of conversation?

  1. Thank you for this great post! I do a lot of work with adults but more in contexts of science conversations (in and out of museums). I wonder who the adults were in the group you describe in the last part of the article – 1) were they just regular visitors to the museum on that day and 2) how were you participating with them (was it a tour/program or did you just drop-in to the gallery and engage them in the conversation)?

    • The group included people interested in volunteering at our museum, recently hired gallery attendants and a couple of teaching artists, and the conversation took place during a scheduled gathering. I’ve led similarly structured conversations with groups who came for tours through their churches, workplaces or social groups…but never spontaneously with groups of random visitors. That might be an interesting thing to try, but I think it probably helps to have people who are expecting to spend time in a group situation. Since there are other reasons for visiting a museum besides participating in conversation–maybe you’re wanting to see a particular piece, or maybe you’ve come seeking some quiet contemplative time, etc–I’m not sure I’d be comfortable initiating a conversation of this sort (which lasted more than an hour) with whomever just happened to be in a gallery. I am wondering a lot, though, about how to convene groups of strangers or groups of people who know each other but rarely talk in depth for conversations. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas!

  2. Pingback: What is the role of objects in an institution committed to social justice? | Museum Questions

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