How can museums scaffold playfulness?

During Christmas, I enjoy catching up on trends I may have missed throughout the year as I observe the family gift exchange with my in-laws. This year, one family member received an adult dot-to-dot book—an apparent innovation on the popular adult coloring book. It looked intricate, engaging, and beautifully designed—and very appealing as a way to relax and get creative in a relatively low-stakes way.

Given the popularity of the adult coloring book, a dot-to-dot book for adults isn’t surprising. Creating art is both productive and soothing. Also, coloring and dot-to-dot books provide the scaffolding needed for adults to create something cohesive and aesthetically pleasing simply for its own sake.

Recently, I started working at Historic Ships in Baltimore as a part-time Museum Educator. This experience has been really valuable for me because it has opened my mind to the power of hands-on learning in cultural and historic spaces, something with which I had little prior experience. At Historic Ships, the Educators offer a variety of programs that allow visitors to engage actively with history by performing real tasks such as turning a ship’s sail, raising cargo, or running a gun drill.

As with coloring and dot-to-dot books, these activities might not seem, at first glance, likely to appeal to adults. They require some level of risk, vulnerability, and openness that most of us don’t entertain in our daily state of guardedness and fatigue. But they can nevertheless be pitched and scaffolded in ways that are captivating and engaging.

Adults, like children, love to be playful, but museums and cultural institutions, I believe, sometimes struggle to entice them to experience these instincts fully. I explored this question in an earlier post, asking how museums could invite adults to play in their spaces and with their content, and suggested some initial thoughts based on personal experimentation and relevant posts by other bloggers:

  • Include adult content and design choices
  • Provide platforms for sharing
  • Scaffold to ensure success
  • Ensure the visitor’s contribution is meaningful to the institution
  • Make it fun

Returning to this question, I would now suggest a couple of additional points:

  • Make the process (not just the outcome) meaningful and challenging. After observing programs at Historic Ships, I’ve noticed numerous opportunities for give and take, genuine challenge, and critical thinking with visitors.
  • Treat visitors with unconditional positive regard. This is a concept developed by psychologist Carl Rogers that advocates an enduring and fundamental acceptance of clients’ contributions. This attitude on the part of the museum is valuable in establishing the trust and safety required to solicit visitors’ participation in an activity. It means responding respectfully and encouragingly even when a visitor asks a question that seems obvious or silly, giving real thought and consideration to all visitor contributions, and accepting all levels of participation as valid and worthy.
  • Finally, thank visitors for playing. Participation is an act of generosity, and frequently, courage.

Image taken at The Matilda Joslyn Gage Home.

The museum’s ‘ask’: 2015 in review

Happy New Year! The dawning of 2016 marks 15 months of Museums with impact. Evaluating and reflecting on my first full year of blogging, I return to my original goals for the blog, articulated in the following mission and vision:


To facilitate an inclusive, collaborative platform for museum workers, human services workers, educators, students, writers (and hopefully many others) to discuss, celebrate, and build possibilities for creating empowering museum experiences.


A supportive forum where you can share your successes, challenges, and ideas relating to social service endeavors in the museum, and maybe even develop some collaborative projects.

While the blog hasn’t spawned any large-scale collaborative projects (yet), it has inspired opportunities for community-building and professional dialogue that have exceeded my wildest dreams, and made me feel truly excited about the abundant energy around leveraging culture to help people and communities.

In addition to the incredible adventures that I have had visiting museums, participating in programs, and meeting great people, I have received several emails from people reaching out to discuss ideas and collaborate in small ways. I’m so delighted and grateful that the blog has helped me to connect with new people and ideas. Thank you so much to those who reached out; I hope we can stay in touch in the New Year.

In looking back (and forward), I recall favorite posts from this and other blogs, reflect on recent museum visits, and try to coalesce the big ideas that are percolating for me in 2016.

These were my favorite Museums with impact posts—the posts that still excite me and raise unanswered questions that I hope to continue exploring:

The following were my favorite blog posts of 2014/2015 from other blogs:

Looking at these posts, I seem to be moving into 2016 curious about what museums are asking of their visitors and how these experiences might be empowering, inclusive, empathetic, therapeutic, and community-building.

What might some of these ‘asks’ look like?

  • To play freely like a child?
  • To submit to healthy experiences of discomfort, ambiguity, and doubt?
  • To self-examine and share the findings as part of a larger story?
  • To be ‘complicit’ in a unique experience?
  • To be self-efficacious?

Recently, my husband and I visited the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Gage was a women’s rights and social justice activist who fought for causes including woman suffrage and equality, separation of church and state, and violence against women. This museum strongly epitomizes the idea of a demanding yet supportive (and highly validating) cultural and community space (see photos below).

This recent Twitter conversation is going to be one of my guiding ideas this year as I pursue the importance of the individual person’s story (to the museum).

Imagine a place where you could go to feel totally and completely welcome and valued—as a partner, to feel challenged but efficacious, to feel sparked and excited, and to feel awe and a numinous connection. Could that place be a museum?

The key questions, at least for me right now, are how and what do we ask of visitors and how do we leave the answer open to develop in a way that serves individual and community needs, and is visitor-driven. And what do we also ask of ourselves as institutions in terms of actively serving communities in crisis, modelling congruent values in museum labor practice, and ensuring museums are accessible and welcoming multi-purpose spaces?

One reason why art is amazing—and essential to our wellbeing

“The artist is really interested in how …”

If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.

For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.

Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.

Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:

  • Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
  • The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
  • Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
  • Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.

Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).

Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.


Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.

The ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree

Every time I drive west down Duke Street past Landmark Mall (towards 395), I am cheered and comforted by the sight of an eclectically decorated ‘Christmas tree’ growing out of the sidewalk by the overpass to the Mall.


Photo by David Konigsberg

This tree has become a fixture in my mind—a landmark, in fact. Over the past several months, it seems to have cycled through several rounds of very creative decorating—undertaken, I assume, by members of the community.

Lately, the tree has gotten me thinking about museum participation and the varying degrees to which visitor participation is shaped and refined by the museum.

While I love the collaborative museum-visitor model where the museum uses its expertise to guide visitors’ contributions, the tree reminds me that the spontaneous, grassroots, ‘uncurated’ (nothing is entirely uncurated, but you get the idea) approach to creative participation might have some merit.

The tree also reminds me of my own childhood experiences decorating the family Christmas tree. My mom, early childhood educator and committed proponent of unbridled childhood creativity, always insisted that my brothers and I be 100% in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. She encouraged us to start leading this project from a very early age so you can imagine how special our Christmas trees looked as we were growing up: a massive clump of tinsel here; a scribbled, original paper ornament there; a concentration of decorations on the lower portion of the tree where our short arms could reach—nothing like the composed and visually balanced trees that we saw at our friends’ houses. But we loved our trees and were always proud of them.


Me and my late grandmother by our Christmas tree.

The urge to ‘correct’ the work of someone we see as less ‘qualified’ can be so tempting as to be almost automatic, especially in the case of young children. The drive for appealing and organized aesthetics is also powerful, and understandable. I’m sure some people drive down Duke Street and have to actively resist the urge to pull over and ‘fix’ the muddled assortment of random adornments on our community, year-round, sidewalk Christmas tree.

However, I think we might consider what we are sacrificing when we ‘edit’ someone’s participatory effort. The opportunity to see or learn something new from someone else, the opportunity to be impetuous and to proceed without a plan, and the opportunity to facilitate unmitigated ownership, self-esteem, and pride are just a few possible losses.

I am curious to hear from other museum professionals on this subject. Have you ever offered your visitors an (almost) entirely blank slate upon which to create something for the museum? If so, how did it work out? Did you learn something? Did visitors receive something valuable? Or was the result too jumbled and disconnected to be of value?

Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the DC Arts Center and saw an interesting effort at an uncurated community exhibit: the Center’s annual 1460 Wall Mountables exhibit for which the 1,460 square feet of gallery wall space is made available to community artists wishing to claim a 2’ by 2’ square to personally install their work. When I visited I saw only the blocked out walls and I am still yet to return to see the resulting exhibit, but I’m curious about the wonderful potentials of this laissez-faire, institutionally-detached approach.

When I was in college, I took a course on the topic of play. For one class session, we were let loose on a local day care center and invited to play, create, and display in any way that we chose using the materials provided. One particular room was my favorite; an eclectic mix of natural and found objects along with an open floorspace provided the opportunity to build, collaborate, and dramatize in unlimited ways—both lasting and ephemeral (creations could be left behind or broken down and absorbed into others’ work).

Perhaps I am being overly idealistic in considering the potentials of such randomness and disorganization in the museum, a place revered for its ability to cultivate the exact opposite environment. And maybe, not everyone finds an ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree quite so charming as I do.

However, I still remember what it felt like to work with those materials in that very unique class activity back in college: scary at first, but then therapeutic and very, very satisfying.

Local history sites and belonging

My relationship with the town or city where I choose to live at a given moment matters to me deeply. I want to have routines, places for quiet contemplation, favorite restaurants, places to take out-of-town visitors; a regular farmers market is always nice. I also want to experience the history of a place.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to do this when my husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon walking around Old Town Alexandria. It was one of those first few days when the sun came out in force, but the temperature was still crisp and the ground, still snowy. I suggested that we visit a local museum or historic site, perhaps the Friendship Firehouse Museum because I was intrigued by the word ‘friendship’ in its title.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum tells the story of the Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774 as Alexandria’s first volunteer firefighting organization. It was a good choice for my husband and me because it appealed to our divergent interests. My husband, the engineer, enjoyed seeing the historic firefighting equipment and learning how it worked. And I liked learning about the quirky culture of the Company, particularly the members’ endearing idolization of George Washington and fondness for collecting objects that related to him.

Initially, I wasn’t inspired to write about the Friendship Firehouse Museum on the blog. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how my visit related to museums and social service. A week later, however, I was describing my visit to a co-worker from my area and the conversation quickly opened up into a larger discussion of place and history. To know something about my area’s history gave me a foothold in the conversation and a sense of pleasure, belonging, and social connection.

Later, I checked in on Tom Mayes’ fantastic ‘Why Do Old Places Matter?’ blog series on Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. Tom’s posts about ‘Continuity’ and ‘Community’ stood out as most helpful, describing the importance of old places in aiding our sense of continuity of time and place, and our collective experience of community.

For me, the wonderful collision of local history, continuity, and community is epitomized by a past visit to the Museum of Brisbane (my then-local history museum). During my visit to exhibit, The River, I learned about the history of the Walter Taylor Bridge, a bridge I frequented during my commute at that time, and which therefore felt significant to my life. Apparently, the Bridge towers once functioned as accommodation for toll collectors. Family, domesticity, and day-to-day life were once contained within the structure of the Bridge, and the sight of hanging laundry apparently once entertained passing motorists. Though this history doesn’t sound terribly exciting, I had often wondered about this funny bridge with its thick pylons and many windows. So this new knowledge delighted me and gave me a sense of my own place in Brisbane’s history.

Given the ability of old places to passively accomplish these important ends, what might be the possibilities for more active programs and initiatives to address particular social needs and serve particular groups within the community—using these resources?

A quick look at upcoming programs at Friendship Firehouse Museum suggests great uses of the resource of ‘place.’ The Museum offers related walking tours, thereby connecting firefighting history to the larger community and its geography. It also offers upcoming Mother’s and Father’s Day Open Houses where children can enjoy a special visit with the celebrated parent and receive a complimentary family portrait.

Since local history museums and sites provide a valuable source of memory for communities (perhaps particularly so for older members) they are potentially useful resources for reminiscing. I am reminded of one of my master’s thesis case studies, the Hurstville City Museum & Gallery reminiscing program, which uses local history objects to prompt sharing and personal recollections among groups of older adults.

Additionally, local history, especially when it is casually embedded in everyday life (such as a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk), is a great hook for people who don’t typically frequent museums—i.e. my husband.

That said, sites will not comprehensively serve the community simply by existing. The Incluseum recently published a confronting and incredibly important post by researcher, Emily Dawson. In it, Dawson reports on her research into exclusion and the reproduction of disadvantage within the museum. The post got me thinking about the importance of increased scholarship on and visibility for the more marginalized histories within each story.

Local history sites are in the position to say: You are a part of this community and so this is for you. However, to be effective in fostering genuine inclusion and belonging, they will likely need to bear this promise out through action that, as Dawson suggests, makes all feel considered and welcome.

When I worked in disability support, I remember being told that my job involved more than assisting clients to participate in the community; it involved helping them find ways to contribute to community. I think the question of how to invite contributions is an interesting one for local history sites. It represents a challenge in terms of how to open a seemingly limited story into an experience that genuinely involves all people. In a way, sites such as the Friendship Firehouse Museum have social potentials similar to the public library; they are safe places for people to find community. So I think it’s worth considering how to continue meeting this challenge, and I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

The empowering exhibition

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s current exhibit, Days of Endless Time, promises to explore themes of nature, solitude, and escape through moving image works that attenuate and suspend time or evoke timelessness (see website) so when I visited with my mum last Wednesday, I expected any resulting blog post to focus on the exhibition’s meditative qualities. Unexpectedly, I was drawn down another path.

But let me begin by recounting my initial impressions and subsequent thought process…

Upon entering the exhibit, I was struck by the dark gray walls, which contributed a complex energy into the space, reducing one’s visibility in the gallery and invoking a sense of greater privacy and seclusion. I immediately noted that the exhibition suspended not only time, but also expectation. As in Divergence, I noticed a recurring narrative of duality and contrast (with fluidity between opposing or contrasting ideas); movement/stillness, sound/silence, object/shadow, small/large, nature/man, creation/destruction all inhered and enmeshed throughout my visit.

The works evoked a kind of ‘unreality’ that was, at least for me, strangely acceptable and beautiful, even peaceful. The exhibit reminded me of the potential for museums to connect to a spiritual dimension or an augmented version of reality—and to be deeply seductive. My experience was somewhat reminiscent of my experience at Glenstone (see post) in that I felt restored (even energized) afterwards rather than fatigued. My mum, Kathy, astutely commented upon leaving that she felt slower, but not tired.

The experience was certainly therapeutic, but the complete reason why eluded me until the next morning when I read this essay by Axel Huttinger, posted by Paul Orselli on his blog, ExhibiTricks. Axel’s argument that exhibitions should motivate a desire to learn by providing ‘a sense of security and a certain amount of self-confidence’ got me pondering the concept of an empowering exhibition: an exhibition that offers security and supports self-efficacy.

I use the word ‘self-efficacy’ (a concept developed by psychologist, Albert Bandura) rather than self-esteem because, as my sister-in-law recently reminded me, self-efficacy describes your belief that you can do something, a similar notion to Axel’s assertion that exhibitions should convey to visitors ‘that they have understood, or can understand something’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Unhurried and undidactic, Days of Endless Time offers visitors a strong and pervasive sense of control and security by introducing concepts gently and with restraint and by limiting factual content. This experience supports viewers’ authority and encourages their confident engagement; one person’s experience or interpretation is as valid as the next’s. Also, many of the works seem to offer flexible entry and exit points for viewing and understanding them.

My mum later told me that she had first looked at each moving image to ascertain her own organic interpretation and only later considered the label if she was left wanting more information. In many cases, she was satisfied with her self-produced knowledge and sought no further explanation. The exhibition’s capacity to accommodate this confident, self-guided approach struck me as an empowering opportunity for self-made discovery.

Days of Endless Time invites a kind of investigative approach in which patience, curiosity, and a contemplative mind yield great reward. It seems to strive towards Axel’s idea of the exhibition as a ‘public laboratory, in which the visitors themselves become researchers and scientists’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Museums are places where ideas inhabit space—and you, as the visitor, are invited to co-exist in that space. Exhibitions that present mountains of information with little option to select ‘out’ may be alienating and tiring—even intimidating. Contrastingly, exhibitions that make you feel smart, receptive, capable, calm, and in control may be enormously empowering.

What do you think?

Mum and I enjoyed our own experience of the vastness of nature getting across the snowy Mall.

Mum and I enjoyed an apt prelude to the exhibition as we braved the snowy weather to get to the Museum.

Huttinger, A. (2015, January 6). What is innovative exhibition design? [Blog post]. ExhibiTricks. (See Axel’s company website)

Just you and the museum

Eva P. Blutinger, M.A. is a Certified Instructor of Kripalu Yoga. Twice a month, she leads Yoga in the Galleries at American University Museum.

I woke up last Wednesday morning with a cloud of pessimism over my head and an inexplicable feeling of tiredness. Moving to a new country and saying goodbye to an entire life (job, friends, family, apartment, comforting routines) can be tough some days. Recalling a recent program on NPR1 about addressing your self in the third person to help emotionally regulate your thoughts, I said to myself, ‘Jess, even though you want to stay in bed and watch Netflix, you have got to get up and go out into the world.’

So I decided to follow through on my plan to go to American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center to participate in Yoga in the Galleries, a fortnightly yoga program led by Eva Blutinger (see above) in the gallery space. On this occasion, the program took place on the third floor, currently home to an exhibition titled Memorial Modeling: Peter Belyi and Petr Shvetsov.

photo (1) copy 2

While I generally attend a museum program with a preconceived notion of the topic for my corresponding post, I never seem to follow through on my original plan. This is one of the truly fun parts of my blog project; the topic I plan to write about is always supplanted by a new, more compelling idea—usually something that resonates with me in the days following my visit.

I initially thought my post about Yoga in the Galleries would be primarily about movement in the museum. However, after participating in the program and emailing with Eva, I came to understand that the program is about much more than simply working out in the museum. It is about focus, self-care, self-expression, and complementary artistic practice. From my personal experience, it was also about using the body as a vehicle of engagement.

Here are the questions I put to Eva and her thoughtful responses:

From your perspective, what is it like leading the class in the museum space?

I can’t think of a more perfect venue for teaching yoga. The gallery is a place of introspection and awareness of one’s self and that is the message I try to convey. Yoga is all about focusing your attention inward and being in the present moment.

Does the museum contribute anything unique to your experience and your teaching style?

The museum has an air of contemplation where you can focus on yourself. It’s kind of magical to go through the quiet physical routines of yoga movements in the quiet and tranquil environment of the museum surrounded by these great works of art. Yoga is about self-expression and, like the works in the gallery, a form of art – so practicing in the gallery is the perfect venue.

Do you find the museum space accommodating of yoga? Is there anything challenging about the space?

It’s the perfect space. It’s serene and meditative. Practicing yoga amidst the artwork gives us a chance to appreciate the artwork since much of yoga involves focus as part of our routine so what better place to focus than in an art gallery. 

Two posts ago, I wrote about the power of museums to bring people together, nurture relationships, and trigger moments of social connection (see post). Today, I propose that sometimes, museum experiences can simply be about you and your relationship with yourself.

The museum has a quietly spiritual quality that makes it ideal for contemplative, meditative, and deeply personal experiences thereby supporting creativity, imagination, and wellness. Yoga in the museum offers the chance to pursue these expressive experiences in a focused way. It also allows the merging of two experiences—yoga and art—engaging the body as a lens for experiencing the museum and interpreting the art.

Our body plays an important role in even the most traditional museum visit. It carries us through the space and, motivated by our particular interests, brings us closer to certain works and objects that capture our attention, allowing us to see more and learn more. Sometimes, where permitted by the museum, it allows us to physically interact with the objects.

A friend recently recounted her experience visiting a past exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., which featured life-size sculptural interpretations of well-known impressionist works. She described the experience as fun and memorable, recalling how she and her daughter took numerous photos of themselves physically interacting with the works. Clearly, our bodies can offer new ways to relate to art when given the opportunity.

The first thing I noticed as I settled in to the yoga class and rolled out my mat was how noticeably awesome it was to be barefoot in the museum. I definitely felt more free and playful than I usually feel in such a typically formal space.

As the class got underway, I began to notice the installations by Peter Belyi and Petr Shvetsov that surrounded me. Every time I lifted my gaze, I saw the ceiling installation (instead of a nondescript gym ceiling). And every time I moved into a new pose, I saw and appreciated the artworks from new and interesting angles. The yoga practice was literally giving me a new perspective on the art.

Ordinarily, I would not have the necessary attention span to look at the same gallery of works for a full hour. Most people wouldn’t, I suspect. But through the lens of yoga practice, I found myself in a deep, focused relationship with these works. Considering that, as far as I could tell, the exhibition consisted of just a handful of installations, my sustained attention is even more noteworthy. Not only was I present in the moment, I can remember a great deal of detail about these works even a week later. Most saliently, I remember a compelling beauty in the artists’ portrayals of destruction and decay. I don’t know if I would have noticed this had I simply wondered through the gallery space as a regular visitor.

Engaging with art through the body seems like a promising area for further experimentation. Yoga programs in museums are becoming increasingly common. I wonder also about the possibilities for dance programs in the museum after finding this video by VincaniTV featuring art interpretation through dance at the Crocker Art Museum.

My experience at Yoga in the Galleries reminded me of one of my favorite museum essays, ‘A Museum is an Open Work’ by David Carr. Carr (2001) argued that museum narratives are augmented and deepened by their users in unique, personal ways. He also suggested that the museum’s role is to facilitate, broaden, and advocate for this kind of user-driven learning (Carr, 2001).

Experiencing yoga through the museum (and the museum through yoga) gave me the opportunity to engage in a uniquely personal and creative way. The program provided gentle guidance for my museum experience, allowing me to connect with myself—something I particularly needed on that day.

Carr’s closing summarizes my experience well:

‘Our best learning becomes most possible in the museum when we are moved to the edges of our experiences, … where we must pay new forms of attention, where a momentary insight can reorganise parts of knowledge completely, and where the interpretation of the narrative involves the beginnings of a new conversation about how one life might move forward.’ (Carr, 2001, p. 183)


1 Laura Starecheski presented Why Saying Is Believing — The Science Of Self-Talk on October 7, 2014 on NPR where she discussed the work of psychologist, Ethan Kross, who studies the use of self-talk in the third person.


Carr, D. (2001). A museum is an open work. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7(2), 173-183. doi: 10.1080/13527250117281

Further reading on museums and the self

Buchholz, E. S. (2000). Echoes of quietude: Alonetimes in museums. The Journal of Museum Education, 25(1/2), 3-8. Retrieved from

Rounds, J. (2006). Doing identity work in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49(2), 133-150. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00208.x

Salom, A. (2008). The therapeutic potentials of a museum visit. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27(1), 1-6. Retrieved from

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

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…)

image (1)

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.