Art museums and intellectual inclusion

As usual, I have been looking at programs and exhibitions that foster wellbeing or social change and asking the question, ‘What is the unique contribution of the museum to this impactful experience?

Last week, (during my search for museum volunteer opportunities) I received some interesting answers with respect to art museums and the resources and pedagogies that make them ideal venues for intellectual inclusion.

These thoughts were inspired by attending Conversations at The Kreeger Museum, a program that offers art talks for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers. The talks facilitate discussion and connection through visual art and music (see link).

I arrived twenty minutes early for the program and was ushered through the gallery onto the back terrace where a small group of participants were already engaging with the two pieces of art on the agenda—sculptures, Torso Sheaf and Hurlou, by Jean Arp. The docent was moving around the sculptures, visually engaging participants’ attention on the works.

I found it wonderful that participants could arrive early and walk straight into a lively, dynamic discussion of the art. The close proximity to the art allowed participants to explore its detail, trace its shape with their hands (as the docent suggested), and soak in the natural warmth and light that was hitting the terrace.

At 11am, participants took their seats for a more formal discussion of the two works. Following this, they adjourned to another gallery to listen to a thoughtfully curated piano performance by Ralitza Patcheva.

My experience at this program gave me a new perspective on the roles and resources of art museums, and the potential for inclusive, educative experiences.

I would like to share a few observations and thoughts from my experience:

  1. Art is very intellectually accessible.

As I watched the docent skillfully engage the participants (including the caregivers), I noticed how effortlessly art affirms intellect, regardless of experience or background.

  1. Art offers multiple ‘ways in.’

Perhaps one of the reasons that art is so welcoming of all intellects and backgrounds is that it offers multiple levels on which to connect, including (in this case) poetry, history, music, movement (art has ‘energy’), and personal experience (art connects us to our histories).

  1. Art and education work together (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

In a recent blog post on Art Museum Teaching, Andrea de Pascual wrote about the art education collective, Invisible Pedagogies, and the work that they do to transform and innovate on traditional educational paradigms. She explained that she and her colleagues work to promote the idea that art and education should work together rather than separately (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

During the Conversations program, the docent clearly embraced this philosophy, frequently encouraging participants to engage with the works in both an educative and an artistic manner. She also allowed participants to experience themselves as creative or artistic beings by enquiring about their own artistic and musical hobbies and histories.

  1. Visitors are valuable knowledge-producers (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

Andrea also argued that museums should treat participants as knowledge-producers whose contributions are equally valuable as those produced by artists and curators (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

The docent facilitated and validated this knowledge production in several ways:

  • She frequently used participants’ comments as jumping off points for discussion.
  • She recalled participants’ comments and re-integrated them into the group’s newfound knowledge.
  • She helped participants to learn from each other by connecting one participant’s comment to another’s.
  • She asked participants to explain or re-interpret material for newcomers.
  1. Art education enriches all of us.

Conversations Program Manager, Rebecca Carr, explained to me afterward that the program is aimed equally at the older adult participants and the caregivers. This dual focus was very evident to me during the program as the docent frequently asked the caregivers to share their opinions and ideas. At the conclusion of the art discussion, the docent asked carers what they would remember and take away for further discussion. I thought this was an effective way to get the caregivers thinking about ways in which they could extend and continue the discussion beyond the museum walls.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the discussion and engaging with the works. Though I attended as a prospective volunteer, I was able to quickly integrate myself into the fabric of the group and feel like any other participant. Thus, the program accommodated the varied needs of participants while also creating a sense of ordinariness.

  1. Art museums are special places with valuable social assets.

Art museums offer access to unique resources and opportunities for inclusive art education:

  • art and authentic art experiences
  • curators, educators, and volunteers
  • museum scholarship and research
  • beautiful and safe surroundings

This program offers an important restorative experience for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers, arguably providing an essential service for organizations and families that need to share these uniquely beautiful and stimulating opportunities with their clients and loved ones.

I would be very interested to read any related opinions or research and would love to be directed to relevant resources—if anyone knows of any.

Note 1: My thinking on this topic has been greatly informed by my masters dissertation research. Two programs in particular have helped me greatly in developing ideas about programming for older adults living with dementia. If you are interested, check out National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Alzheimer’s Program and the collaborative Creative Aging program of The Phillips Collection and Iona Senior Services.

Note 2: Please forgive the absence of a photo. I was completely absorbed by the experience and forgot to take one!

 

Resilience in the museum

Last Friday, a memorable visit to the Anacostia Community Museum got me thinking about museums and resilience.

I went to the Museum to attend a program facilitated by Move This World, a nonprofit organization that uses movement and the arts to empower communities.

Before the facilitator arrived, I took a look through the Museum’s two temporary exhibitions: Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence and Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley. (The Move This World (for women) program promised to build on the themes of self-esteem and empowerment explored in the Ubuhle exhibition.)

The heroic creator

The Ubuhle exhibition was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things I have seen in a long time.

The exhibition features remarkable canvas-like works of colored glass beads created by the Ubuhle community, a group of female artists working in rural South Africa. The works are called ndwangos. (See exhibition description).

I could have spent several hours just enjoying being in this space (the Ubuhle exhibition).

I could have spent several hours just enjoying being in this space (the Ubuhle exhibition).

I spent forty-five quiet, restorative minutes poring over these luminous works. As I read the associated stories, experiences, and aspirations of the artists, I came to appreciate the complexity of the lives and careers of each ndwango.

In one sense, the works are a means of economic independence for the artists and a vehicle for sharing their skills. In another, they are deep repositories of emotion, experience, and family life. According to one panel, the creative process may be used to work through grief and preserve memory when a loved one is lost (See panel titled ‘Remembering those lost’).

In essence, all creative expression represents the resilience and survival of the creator. Through artworks and their creators’ stories, we see imagination and creativity, skill and innovation, and courage in sharing one’s ideas with the world.

The second temporary exhibition, Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley, seemed also to speak to the idea of art and creation as a symbol of endurance, adaptation, and human ingenuity. The exhibition explores an evolving, but ever-important quilting tradition in rural Mississippi.

The fieldwork shown in this exhibition is beautifully and empathetically conceived, and conveys the many ways that this quilting tradition absorbs and invigorates, and connects to community.

Again, I was given privileged insight into the forces that move and inspire others. Is this not one of the great joys of visiting a museum?

The heroic visitor

The Move This World (for women) program turned out to be a fitting way for me to process these exhibits and my emerging ideas about museums and resilience. It was a small group so instead of focusing on movement, we had an open discussion about the roles that we take on as women and the risks and rewards that we face as a result.

We discussed times when we have felt both empowered and disempowered, and we explored some of the thought processes surrounding these experiences while celebrating our efforts to persevere.

The experience was underpinned by a supportive atmosphere of esteem and respect. Much of the credit for this safe environment belongs to the facilitator from Move This World who generously shared her own spirit and humor to make the program successful.

I was touched when, at the end of the program, another participant gave me her phone number, inviting me to contact her if I needed help settling into D.C. So I left the museum both a little more confident and empowered, and with a new friend.

Is there a place for counseling approaches in the museum?

Yes, I think so.

The late social worker and researcher, Dennis Saleebey, stated: ‘All humans possess the urge to be heroic; to transcend their condition, to develop their powers, to overcome adversity’ (Saleebey, 2008, p. 123).

All museums, in some way, allude to everyday heroic acts by hinting at the many ways we survive, move forward, innovate and adapt. (Art museums? Yes. History museums? Yes. Science museums? Absolutely.)

Saleebey, who was a strong proponent of focusing on clients’ strengths (rather than their problems), explained that social workers should implore clients to imagine ‘what a dream fulfilled would feel, taste, smell, and look like’ (Saleebey, 2000, p. 135).

Maybe museums can help in this imagining process…?

Public programs that embrace a counseling/empowerment approach may be one avenue for extending and personalizing our experience of human heroism and resilience in the museum.

These programs might be made possible through partnerships and collaborations with social service organizations or with the help of likeminded nonprofits such as Move This World.

… So, if you find yourself in need of a little reassurance or connection, why not spend an afternoon in your favorite local museum? Take the time to recognize all that you already do (every day) that is strong and courageous, and then allow yourself to be inspired by the courageous acts of others.

 

Reference List

Saleebey, D. (2000). Power in the people: Strengths and hope. Advances in Social Work, 1(2), 127-136. Retrieved from http://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/advancesinsocialwork/article/view/18

Saleebey, D. (2008). The strengths perspective: Putting possibility and hope to work in our practice. In K. M. Sowers, & C. N. Dulmus (Series Eds.), & B. W. White (Vol. Ed.), Comprehensive handbook of social work and social welfare, volume 1: The profession of social work (pp. 123-142). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Fearless collaborators, equal partners

A few days ago, my fiancé told me he had found the perfect wedding present for me, but wanted to check with me first before buying it. He had recently seen something on Reddit about Ruth Oosterman, an artist, mother, and blogger (see The Mischievous Mommy), who collaborates with her two-year-old daughter to produce artworks. My fiancé was thinking about buying one of these works for me.

Of course, I was immediately excited at the thought of owning such a meaningful piece (though not convinced that wedding presents between the bride and groom aren’t a bit excessive). I began doing some research on The Mischievous Mommy and also found a similar story about a mother-child artistic team at busy mockingbird. Both Ruth and busy mockingbird author, Mica Angela Hendricks, collaborate with their young daughters to produce highly unique, creative, and visually striking works of art.

On their blogs, both women note the fearless creativity of their young collaborators, the equality of the working partnership, and the remarkable outcomes of the collaborations—which always far exceed their expectations for the works (Mica Angela Hendricks, ‘Collaborating with a 4-year Old’; Ruth Oosterman, ‘Thank you.’).

In many ways, our culture tends to view children as formative beings, or works in progress. As adults, we often value creative efforts that are neat and clearly contained. A child’s ‘scribbles’ may be seen as a valid developmental step, but lacking in control and skill. We fail to see children as our intellectual equals and in doing so, limit the possibilities for what we can achieve in partnership with them.

The opportunities that these two girls receive in co-creating these works are likely very empowering for them. Collaborative projects created in a context of true equality (as these appear to be) confirm for the child that they have truly contributed to the success of the project.

I remember that as a nanny, I was initially concerned about collaborating too much on creative projects. I was afraid I would take over the project or reduce the child’s sense of ownership over the finished product. While it was worth keeping these cautions in mind, I realized that the refusal to collaborate (especially when eagerly invited) can mean a loss of mutual learning opportunities. And I do really mean mutual; on countless occasions, I found myself presented with a superior solution to a problem, or proved wrong in my pessimistic assessment that a certain approach wouldn’t work.

Collaboration with children need not always involve the co-creation of an artwork, but could involve any genuinely shared enterprise. A few years ago, I was leaving MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City when I came across a mother and child selling their work together on the street. Charmed by this delightful business duo, I bought a wonderful work from young artist, Hannah.

Clearly, one of the ways we can communicate a child’s creative equality is by recognizing the child’s contribution as valid and significant. I am certain Angelina Jolie’s children felt validated to see their drawings depicted on their mother’s designer wedding gown—a ‘not-insignificant’ medium or context.

I feel that these kinds of collaborations could find many happy applications in the social service oriented museum.

At the Queensland Museum (in Brisbane, Australia), the Egg Sort activity invites children to help the museum by identifying and collecting stick insect eggs for their nursery. This activity seems to be deeply absorbing and satisfying for the children that visit, perhaps because the children clearly feel that they are contributing.

What can museums do to ensure children feel empowered to contribute and assured that their contributions are valued?

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Ask children for their ideas and solutions, and try to implement them.
  • Recognize a child’s work for its equal contribution by elevating, validating, and placing alongside the work of adults.
  • Consider the way that children’s contributions may augment and enhance regular exhibitions and programs (in addition to designated children’s galleries and programs).
  • Invite children to collaborate with artists, curators, parents and caregivers, and other museum staff through participatory exhibits and innovative public programs.

Your thoughts are most welcome.

(Finally, another benefit of meaningfully acknowledging children’s work in the museum is the fact that children—with their unabashed pride and confidence—bring everyone they know into the museum to see their work…)

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Children’s galleries, such as this locally renowned program at Ipswich Art Gallery, Australia, help to recognize the contributions of children in the museum. I wonder if we can extend these programs into regular museum programming and explore the potential for multi-age collaborative work.

 

When museums believe wholeheartedly in their contribution

A few days ago, I visited the final day of Investing in Women and Girls, an exhibition presented by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Art Museum of the Americas (AMA).

The exhibition featured 30 finalist entries from the Colors of Life photo contest organized in collaboration with The World Bank Art Program. It was held in the F Street Gallery, an off-site exhibition space located in the OAS’s F street building. Actively advancing the museum’s overt social justice mission, the photographs celebrate and affirm the achievements of women and girls, and advocate for advancing women’s social and economic rights.

The exhibition was accessible only by appointment so at 2pm on Friday, I arrived at the OAS ready to see the exhibition. My failure to confirm the required meeting spot in advance caused some confusion at the front desk. Luckily, the friendly reception staff called ahead to the museum and confirmed that I should wait in the lobby for the museum staff person.

This awkward start to my visitor experience was quickly redeemed by the warmth and genuine enthusiasm of the museum staff member, Fabian, who arrived promptly and took me through security to the gallery. He apologized for the security screening causing a less-than-ideal prologue to my visit, which instantly put me more at ease.

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Fabian and I agreed that OAS staff are fortunate to have the gallery brightening their workspace.

As he showed me around, he spoke enthusiastically about the exhibition and pointed out his favorite artwork. He explained that the artists would ultimately sell their works and donate the proceeds to various charities, allowing the project to make a very real social impact. He also chatted with me about my background and museum career aspirations.

The ‘likeableness’ of this museum experience continues to resonate with me days later. What stays with me is the impression that the museum and its staff believe wholeheartedly in the museum’s social mission and are warmly and unassumingly proud of the museum’s work. (My visit later the same day to the main AMA building further confirmed my impression of the museum as a sincere, proud, and humble institution.)

In her recent post on Intentional Museum, museum blogger, Amanda Krantz, talks about the value of raising awareness through even small changes in visitor attitudes and knowledge.

I suggest museums may be in a unique position to raise awareness in subtle and visceral ways that contribute to the ‘baby steps’ of understanding that Krantz talks about (Amanda Krantz, Intentional Museum). The understanding need not always be intellectual, but can be emotional and intuitive—in this case, perhaps a greater appreciation for the abilities of women and girls, or (for female visitors), a sense of social empathy.

As we’re seeing from the Ice Bucket Challenge, part of raising awareness about a cause is getting people personally engaged in some way. Thanks to the enthusiasm of my guide, I came out of the AMA exhibition feeling a true sense of possibility—both for myself as a woman, and for the exhibition’s imagined future of a more just world.

So how might museums engender a sense of excitement about their social service work and a sincere belief in its value? Perhaps creating this kind of institutional culture is one thing while conveying it to the visiting public is another challenge. Or does one naturally lead to the other?

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I happily accepted Fabian’s invitation to write a message to Colors of Life founder, Amalia Pizzardi, in the guest book.

After my visit, I can’t help feeling that museum staff are a valuable resource for ‘selling’ the social work of the museum. I wonder how museum leaders can help staff feel invested in that work—so that visitors feel invested too.