Reflections on a Museum Experiment:
Thoughts About the Museum Teaching Mashup
It’s been a few weeks since the excitement that was the Museum Teaching Mashup at this year’s NAEA Convention in New Orleans. The organizing team (myself, along with Jen Oleniczak, Deborah Randolph, Mike Murawski, and Ellen Balkin) wanted to open up the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to a team of museum experimenters, and that was certainly what happened.
The first invitation went out on ArtMuseumTeaching , and we had an intrepid crew of about 30 experimenters who showed up to be divided into teams of 3 and randomly assigned an artwork. Their brief? Create a 5–6 minute experience with that artwork in 35 minutes of prep time. Jen and I played hosts and encouraged experimenters to push themselves, to support each other, and to feel OK about the possibility of failing in such a welcoming group of colleagues.
An hour later, with those experiences ready to go, lots more people showed up to join our audience (by the end of the night, there were about 100 people who’d come to the Ogden from NAEA, and we attracted some local residents, too, who were there for the museum’s evening hours). We hit the galleries for an hour of experiences that were at times lively, emotional, solemn, funny, and more.
We left the Ogden on a high of inspiration that night, and it didn’t feel right to change the tone to one of reflection, so we invited interested participants to email their reflections after the fact. While we’d planned to just share a few excerpts in a new ArtMuseumTeaching post, the thoughtfulness and eloquence of our colleagues proved so inspirational in its own right, that we decided to share their complete reflections here in one big Mashup Reflection Fest.
So, without further ado, here are the thoughts of some of the intrepid experimenters who made the inaugural Museum Teaching Mashup the magical experience it was. Thank you to everyone who shared, and may this be ongoing fodder for more thought and more museum experimenting.
Reflections from organizers/hosts Jen Oleniczak (Founder/Artistic Director, The Engaging Educator) & Rachel Ropeik (Senior Museum Educator/Teacher Services Coordinator, Brooklyn Museum)
Prior to the Mashup, I felt off.
I remember talking to Debbie and Rachel hours prior to the Mashup. I confessed I was feeling uninspired and flat in my practice — blame winter, seasonal affect, apathy. Yes, there was a certain excitement about the event, but I felt as though I was stuck in this limbo of unknown in a transition I kept talking about, but wasn’t acting on.
People think of me as a risk-taker — starting a company, quitting a profession, restarting a career at almost 30 — these things are often thought of as risks. People that know me well know I don’t think of these things as risks. I felt envious of the people taking true risks that evening — it’s not that I wanted to teach, I just wanted that feeling in my practice again. As an improviser, getting up and falling flat in front of people was something I was used to. During a particular horrific scene, I think we described the sound of the audience as “less than silence”. I just wanted to feel that edge of nervousness, that stomach drop fear of throwing myself into something that could truly crash and burn.
I had no clue I would feel exactly that with almost 100 people in just a few hours.
Be it the nervousness of the experimenters. Did we explain the process enough? Did the task make sense? Would they regret coming? Call it the feeling of unknown in the galleries. Would anyone come watch? How many people? Would we be too much of a disruption?
Or maybe it was my own true fear of failing and taking the leap out of limbo.
Whatever it was, when we got back together as a group to begin the night with the group, I felt it. That stomach drop. I had no clue what was going to happen — no one did. We were all just as uncertain, just as vulnerable. That shared vulnerability is exactly what made that night a success. It’s the feeling before the plane lands, before the roller coaster goes over. We were all in this together, feeling that same uncertain nervousness, the same immediacy of being in the moment and while we had no clue about the what would happen next, we knew we had to do it. And we did.
I don’t have to talk about what a success the night was. The feeling is impossible to capture in any museum education pedagogical reflection. But that shared vulnerability was exactly the push I needed to stop talking and thinking about the transition I was going through and just own it. So thank you to every educator who experimented, threw themselves into the night and just owned it.
Long live the stomach drop.
We’re very word-based, us museum educators. We’re good at it. We research and brainstorm and write lesson plans and reflect with each other, and we’re excellent at getting our audiences to build thoughtful conversations about art. But is that actually our preferred teaching method, or is that something we’ve learned to do and do well? Is it nature or nurture that leads us to rely so much on our words? How might we use those words differently, or commune with artwork in shared ways that don’t rely on words at all?
That’s what I was interested in heading into the Mashup. What would happen when a bunch of us excellent talkers and wordsmiths were asked to put together an object-inspired experience in a short amount of time without the resources and familiarity of the usual lesson planning process? Would we end up with lots of constructive conversations? Would we get no conversation at all? Would people use techniques they already employ? Would anyone try something totally new?
The answer, to my overwhelming inspiration and joy, was all of the above.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud to be part of the museum education field as I was on the night of the Mashup. I saw my colleagues (experimenters and audience members both) choose to push themselves out of the comfortable nest of close-looking conversation, and not only did they fly, they soared. There were teams who combined words with movement and song and rhythm all at once. There were teams who used words to focus us inward on deep emotional moments in our private histories. And there were teams who opted for hardly any words at all and asked us to just exist with each other and with artwork in extended silence.
My big takeaway from that night (apart from my immense excitement and pride in having such phenomenal colleagues) was the amazingly effective range of object-based experiences that went well beyond traditional conversation and “unpacking” (that most museum education-y of words) and building of collective meaning. I know I look for the chance to do alternative, experimental things in my own practice. But at the Ogden, I saw that some 100 other educators were also welcoming the chance to shake up their established patterns and try something new.
And look how well it was received! The eager participation and the smiles on everyone’s faces throughout the night were proof of that. Every single group that I witnessed facilitated an exciting, surprising, inspiring way to use art as a springboard for experience, and not one of them did anything remotely like a standard inquiry-based discussion about a work of art.
So, fellow museum education community members out there, let’s hold onto that spirit of excitement and experimentation where we can. Let’s charge ourselves to add on other kinds of art-based experiences to our conversational savvy and see — to borrow a good old VTS chestnut — what more we can find.
Reflections from the following experimenters and audience members (in no particular order):
Danielle Schulz (Teaching Specialist, Dallas Museum of Art)
Ilene Krug Mojsilov (Hands-on Learning Facilitator, Walker Art Center)
Hajnal Eppley (Assistant Director, School and Teacher Engagement, The Cleveland Museum of Art)
Verónica E. Betancourt (Ph.D. Candidate | Art Education, The Ohio State University; Graduate Associate | Docent, Teacher, and Youth Programs, Wexner Center for the Arts)
Sarah Abare (Administrative Coordinator, Blanton Museum of Art)
Gwen Fernandez (Museum Educator, Education Division│DEGL, National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Jason Trimmer (Eric & Jane Nord Family Curator of Education, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College)
Michelle Sparks (K-12 Program Specialist, Phoenix Art Museum)
Mike Murawski (Director of Education and Public Programs, Portland Art Museum)
Jenny Hornby (Associate Director of Education, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)
Hilary Knecht (Museum Educator, MASS MoCA)
One of the biggest challenges for me (a super-planner) was that I went into the entire experience without any idea of what to expect. (Confession: I woke up at 4am the night before, brainstorming ways I might handle the challenge to come.) I expected that I would be challenged and that it would be an interesting night but otherwise, it was a bit like walking in blindly. However, once I received my team and artwork assignments, we entered the gallery, and spent a bit of time with the artwork, the fear and anxiety melted away. I realized that I’ve taught in much more challenging environments than this one where I was surrounded by a group of supportive, enthusiastic museum educators in a beautiful and interesting collection. And it was a good reminder that even though I sometimes doubt myself, I’ve felt that magical feeling of good teaching and I know what I’m doing.
For our experiment, Maura, Jennifer and I were given our piece, The Crucifish by Robert Tannen. We knew nothing about this work of art, so our initial planning conversation stemmed from our visual reading of the artwork and in particular we focused on the physical relationship between the various aspects of the work. We noticed how the cross, fish and chair all connected to each other in one way or another, and furthermore that these connections (lean, balance, etc.) could be physically embodied. For our Mashup experience, aptly named ‘The Crucifish Experience,’ we invited visitors to call out various action verbs that came to mind when viewing Tannen’s work of art. After collecting this list of words, we asked participants, one by one, to first decide how to embody these words, and next to determine how best to add those physical movements to a larger participatory group sculpture. For example, balance was a person strongly rooted to the ground on two feet, lean became a body precariously rested on another’s shoulder, and on and on and on until our entire group was intertwined! There was a great chatter of excitement as participants added onto the sculpture, it was a truly impressive moment when it was all complete (and I expect it was a remarkable view as well to passersby!)
The Mashup was invigorating, energizing and just plain fun! It was wonderful to be around so many educators that are not only excited about what they do, but who are also constantly striving to do it better. The experience gave me great confidence to see how successful play can be in the art museum, and imparted some fruitful ideas on how to infuse a sense of play and experimentation into my practice as an educator. Bravo to Jen, Rachel and Mike for inspiring us to experiment and (possibly) fail — I hope this is the first of many educational experimentations! Thank you all!
Tracy, Taylor, and I were tasked with creating an interactive experience for participants from an entire wall of Jim Roche’s narrative drawings. This series featured a cast of characters and was visually explosive in terms of color, shape and lines. At first, we were overpowered by the clamor of competing voices in the artwork. After some back and forth, we agreed that a dance party would be the best strategy to animate a group. Scanning the artwork, Tracy picked out a rhythm and modeled it by clapping and stamping it out. Our aim was to transfer that rhythm to the audience at large. Next, we instigated a kind of freeze tag by tapping an audience member on the shoulder. That person, in turn, responded to a shape, color, or image in an artwork by improvising with voice and/or movement. This got everyone engaged in a kind of cacophony not unlike the wall of artwork in front of us. Since our group was the first one to start the evening, I thought the dance party invited people to express themselves and launch the experimental flavor of the night.
I expected that we’d choose the artwork to focus on, and do some kind of call and response work during the evening. So, it was a pleasant surprise to be randomly paired with collaborators and artworks. Obsessed with the challenge to unpack the artwork and commune with my team, I was oblivious to the fact that all artwork on the 5th floor was by Jim Roche.
Overall, I thought it was important to synthesize the ideas of our team, practice, and be open to an audience response. Personally, I felt immersed in both roles as team facilitator (tapping folks on the shoulder) and audience member. It was interesting to note that threads of the previous experience were pulled into the next one. I liked the way the second group called out synesthesia, which was something our group alluded to during the dance party.
The drawings intrigued me, and I saw potential for several gallery activities. Participants could pair up and create non-verbal body shapes. They could take on character roles portrayed in the works, such as, Loch Ness Mama, Penniemama, Big Sun, and Birds. I envisioned a 1 minute drama between characters. Or, a collage poem could be created from the titles. Also, I imagined a physical reenactment of compositional elements on the floor in front of the targeted artwork.
As a whole, our evening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art demonstrated how creative people can amplify the gallery experience for museum educators and the public. We need these experiments to break out of habitual patterns.
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art was a fantastic location to hold the mashup event. The galleries and exhibitions were gorgeous and the selection of objects given to the experimenters was full of visually stimulating works. I had very few preconceptions about what the mashup session might entail, apart from expecting to steer clear of a formal analysis of a work.
To begin, we were connected with a group through a random drawing, and I was pleased to work with two amazing colleagues: Keonna Hendrick from the Brooklyn Museum and Emily Scheinberg from the Peabody Essex. Our group was given “Da Snake” by Jim Roche as the focus object. It was a great work to engage with — colorful, huge, and floor-based rather than wall-hanging. In hindsight, It is very interesting how quickly the principal ideas forming the basis of our guided experience came to us; there was a free flow of thoughts and acting through of ideas. We quickly settled on crafting an experience that would engage both with the work and our senses other than sight. Leading over thirty people as we crawled, exclaimed noises and notes, smelled and ‘tasted’ the wild colors and shapes felt like a valuable way to think about that not only that specific work, but also how we think about visiting museum spaces, generally — we remember the lighting, the location of a favorite work, and perhaps even the faint scent of the galleries (I recently went to the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum where I interned long ago and that I have visited numerous times over the years, and I’m always struck by its particular scent that triggers certain memories in me just as powerful as an image).
Finally, I would say that the rapid execution of the developed experience was a great revelation. I find it a great joy to lead longer discussions in front of works, so getting just five minutes to create and lead a multi-sensory experiment was very new to me, and helped me better understand that there is always a range of exciting and valid ways to create connections with art.
First, thank you. The Ogden showed tremendous generosity, adventure, and confidence in letting us take over some of their gallery spaces on a busy Thursday night.
I signed up within 10 minutes of getting the announcement because I love trying and learning something new. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect and I like that. As a Ph.D. candidate, I’m practiced (and pretty good) at discerning and then meeting expectations. I’m used to making things work within parameters and making the most of existing resources–whether that be time, staff, space, or money. To do something that didn’t have to work, and that didn’t have to serve a particular audience was so exciting. My favorite moments of learning are when people surprise themselves. I love seeing new sparks of connection and possibility and throwing a passel of strangers together to do gallery interpretation (in the loosest sense of the term) seemed like a perfect way to be surprised.
Being asked to experiment in an art museum sounded like a fantasy; so often, we’re bound by institutional strictures and the burden of getting other people to make a transition to something new with us. Without having any common expectations, we could do anything and the prospect of anything was both challenging and liberating.
Participating in the throwdown was one of my favorite parts of NAEA. I literally dove right in, at one point slipping between a colleague’s ankles to become the next part of a human sculpture (I embodied the word “caught”). It was so freeing to do something kind of thoughtless. We just got to do what we wanted, with people who supported us in trying what we hadn’t done before. The giving spirit of improv was catching and people opened themselves to possibilities. We tickled a painting’s textures onto each others’ hands, washed away our fears and regrets in a cathartic ritual that was as powerful for me as any teenaged confession to a priest, and played out stories in choreographed group movement. I never expected to do any of these things. I never expected to have goosebumps.
In being inherently object-focused (I love art museums first for the art even though I deeply believe in their mission to be socially inclusive institutions that are places for community and communion), I am now struck by how much meaning I found in doing things that were not so closely tied to the specific object. Or, more specifically, not so closely tied to the art historical or inquiry-based way of looking at the work. I learned much more about my colleagues and the risks they were willing to take and the regrets that they carried in their own work and lives. I came out of the throwdown a little tired, a lot hungry, and not sure what to do next.
A week later, I think about how to incorporate some of the movement-based strategies in my own gallery touring. But that’s the practical concern. What I’m less comfortable with is how I found so much meaning in activities that were not conventionally respectful of the artwork and artist. None of the experiences did much to introduce the artwork or artist; they couldn’t, because we typically didn’t know much of anything about the pieces. Without this information, there wasn’t a group discussion that built art historical context or significance or formal analysis. The hallmarks of engagement with the artwork were gone and the focus shifted to engagement with each other.
Many of us talk about the visitor-centered museum. Though, across the field, we are making this shift steadily, the throwdown felt like an event from the future. Instead of building from what we knew of the work, we built from what we thought we might learn or feel as a result of the work. What would it mean for an art museum program to build from the point of visitor experimentation and spontaneous connection toward a deeper and more prolonged engagement with the artwork? What if art museums considered themselves not just spaces for harboring creativity (as collections of other people’s creative work and facilitators of educational programs that are often contained within a dedicated studio space) but vital communities where people come together in order to take risks and be creative alongside the art? There is something exhilarating in seeing another person’s creativity in public (we love watching people draw and make music for a reason) and I wonder how we can bring this exhilaration and spirit of community support for risk to the gallery space.
That was a lot, but I hope it shows just how much I appreciate the risk that you all took in organizing this event. It was meaningful to me and I suspect that others felt similarly excited.
One of my favorite artist quotes of all time is from Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. They once wrote that “art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.” I have used that quote so many times throughout the past 8 years, but still so rarely ever feel that ‘unknown world’ or true ‘risk’ in my own adventures with art. As a museum educator, I prepare so much for my teaching experiences (or as much as possible) to avoid the unknown; to avoid those scary moments when you’re standing in front of a work of art and you don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to crack it open. I’ve spent hours with a single work of art, researching around the work, and looking at it some more — working to minimize the risk of that experience I facilitate with visitors, staff, docents, or students. As an experimenter at the Museum Teaching MashUp at the Ogden, all that went out the window. The rapid, quickfire, collaborative experience forced me out of my comfort zone (which is so frequently solitary and time-consuming) and pushed my planning museum educator brain into the unknown.
The day of the MashUp, I found some time during the afternoon to gather my thoughts about what an experience like this might be like, and what could I prepare in advance (there goes my ‘planning brain’ again). In my notebook, I simply wrote “How can we create something new together?” — a mantra I could take with me into the fast-paced event; a mantra inspired more by artists, performers, and the creative act than by museums, art history, or pedagogy. For me, what seemed to matter most was some aspect of collective, shared experience with the art and in the presence of art. We were going to need to resist over-thinking or over-justifying the experience, and just let it be an experience.
Tennessee Williams Remix
After our teams were assigned and our trio (myself, Jenny, and Craig) quickly found our assigned artwork, we began the rapid brainstorming process. What could we do? Did the work speak to us in any unique way? The painting we were assigned was part of a small exhibition of works by the iconic Southern playwright Tennessee Williams. After a good 20 minutes of quick discussion and looking, we began to land on some key strategies we were going to play with: written response, group storytelling, and exquisite corpse. Our final “experience” was a bit of a Remix of Tennessee Williams. As the participants entered the gallery, they found small slips of paper scattered across the floor (short dramatic moments and written responses to the paintings by Jenny, Craig, and I, as well as some of Williams’ own words). Participants were asked to each take one slip of paper, then find a group of 5–6 people. Each group was then asked to take 1–2 minutes and create a story with their slips of paper. Finally, each group read their new story out loud, and we all listened and looked. That final reading was my favorite part. Not only did the stories have the dramatic, melancholy ring of a good Tennessee Williams line, I also enjoyed the co-creative process of handing over our creative writings to the ‘crowd’ who then re-created and re-mixed them to create something new and unexpected. Each final story had pieces of Craig, Jenny, and myself, and we were forced to let go of ownership over our own writing and trust the group.
Maybe We Need More “Just Do It” Experiences
After I leave experiences like this (or the Museum Throwdown or Gallery Teaching Marathon), my first thought is always: “I wish we’d had time for reflection and group discussion about our experiences.” I felt the same after the MashUp (and I heard others say the same thing).
However, now a week later, I’m interested in our ability to resist over-talking these experiences. As museum educators, we love to dissect museum teaching and learning to death. We are so good at killing an experience when we spend too much time talking about it. Reflective practice is a growing area of our museum educator toolkit, and the element of reflection finds its way into our work on a more regular basis (and that’s a really good thing). But I do think there is room to argue for more “just do it” experiences that we don’t get the chance to dissect.
When you participate in an experience like this (without a “talk back” style of reflection), you get to leave with YOUR own experience, and not the thoughts of someone else. You made meaning for yourself, and that experience is likely to continue to stay in your mind even after you leave the gallery. But when we halt the experience for a meta discussion poking back at that experience, I fear that we sometimes derail the continued potential movement and evolution of that experience (with art, with people, with our own creative mind). At the Ogden last Thursday night, I created a collective dance and drumming beat with people I had never met in response to an entire wall of art; I crawled on the floor around a large snake sculpture, imagined that I was eating it, and then shared that meal with another person; I shared stories about a fictitious nightmare of an alligator slowly chasing me down a beach and eventually eating me whole; and I watched as more than a dozen people reached through the negative space of a sculpture and joined hands in what seemed like a complicated, tense, playful, and intense human connection. At the core of these experiences is certainly something ineffable, something beyond description via the museum-ed language and vocabulary we all possess. We collectively ventured into an unknown world, and I’m glad that my mind is still playing around in that world (one week later).
Initially the Mashup intrigued me simply on the basis of taking risks in gallery teaching. As the event summary said, we often fall stagnant into our methods of teaching. I was excited to learn some new techniques and strategies for experimental ways of leading people through the galleries. I liked that it was a practical application, while most of the rest of the NAEA conference was more theoretical and abstract.
At the Mashup, most of the activities were a bit outlandish (in a good way) and demonstrated how far you can push the limits of museum education. I felt that I gained the sense that it is okay for me to do weird things in the galleries. I often improv similar off-beat activities, so to see other educators doing it ad hoc was enlightening. Many of the activities got us moving and interacting with the piece, which is important aspect of keeping people engaged.
Often when you try to do something more experimental with a high school group, for example, you are countered with judging blank stares. Most of the people who attended the Mashup are of like minds (museum educators, art teachers, etc.), so it was refreshing to be surrounded by such an enthusiastic and open-minded group. We all felt comfortable doing something silly. As educators, we are often the ones doing the teaching, so it was illuminating to be on the other side of things.
Moving forward, I feel like I was given the license to bring some of my activities to the next level. I can be even more imaginative with my engagement with the public.
Thanks for the opportunity to see how other educators out there like to experiment!
Walking into the Ogden, there is an interactive artwork on the side of the building that invites you to complete the sentence: “Before I die I want to ________”. A piece of blue chalk was carefully balanced on the nearby bike rack, and I quickly scribbled “be brave” on one of the lines. I’m not an inherently brave person.
When I first read about the opportunity on Art Museum Teaching, the idea felt electric — terrifying but exciting, something I was drawn to do, but that held the potential for causing pain — or at least major humiliation, if I failed in front of colleagues who I really wanted to get to know. Who I wanted to maybe not look like an idiot in front of — .
Our group drew a large bronze sculpture that was outside on the Terrace, Magnolia, by David Bates. We pretty quickly realized that none of us knew much about what was going to happen — how many people would be participating? Would it be dark outside when the tour started? This was an outside sculpture — could we invite people to touch it? (Okay, so we should have known better than to ask that one, but it was worth a try!). We didn’t get many answers, and were encouraged to just trust our gut and to come up with something.
And so we did. After looking closely at the large, chunky, rough sculpture of a flower, we started identifying all the ways the piece played with our senses — it was a flower, but didn’t really LOOK like a flower. It certainly didn’t SMELL like a flower. While flowers typically suggest delicacy and softness, this one was anything but. Even still, the work’s “flower-ness” came through.
We decided to try an experience that asked participants to closely observe the piece, and to listen to Magnolia to see if it spoke for itself. To listen to the environment we were in — the people talking around us and the sounds of New Orleans- instead of to us, talking about the piece. We hoped that by requiring people to get close to the piece (but not to touch it –we occupied their hands by having them touch each other across the piece instead), they’d be able to make more personal and meaningful connections that what we might assume to say.
Our fellow educators had us dance and make music to their artworks, to “taste” elements, and to collaborate on stories.
When it was our turn, I worried that maybe we’d taken the easy way out — choosing to remain silent and to ask participants to make their own meaning. But I think it worked. Would this work in every gallery, with every audience? No way! School kids would likely be too tempted to actually touch the art, or would worry about catching cooties from the person they’re asked to hold hands with. I imagine teachers wondering how we plan to address the standards we promised to cover, when we aren’t talking. The couple we asked to “pilot” our experience were obviously romantically involved, and even they were uncomfortable. But maybe there is space for a little quiet — at least sometimes.
I’ve gotten pretty good at spewing art facts at visitors, and telling stories that put works into a narrative context. It is harder sometimes, I think, to NOT fill in the quiet spaces. Being quiet asks the visitor to co-create their own meaning for a work. It isn’t what we expect, and so it can be uncomfortable.
We were challenged with the idea of doing something that scared us. I’m happy to say I did. As nervous as I was walking in to the experience, I felt pretty damn brave and inspired as I walked past the “Before I die…” wall on the way back to my hotel.
I offered myself up as an “experimenter” for the Museum Teaching Mashup after hearing some variation of “Oh, you definitely need to do this” from not one, not two but three of my colleagues at the Blanton Museum of Art. In the field of Art Museum Education, I am a relative newbie. I finished grad school last year and have been in my current role in the Education Department at the Blanton since August. This year’s NAEA convention was my first and I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous about meeting and speaking with so many seasoned educators.
My newcomer status, however, felt like an asset when it came to the Museum Teaching Mashup. Before signing up, I read over the description of the challenge. The phrases “outside of our comfort zones,” “risk-takers” and “scares you” definitely jumped out at me, but I signed up anyway, figuring that I really had nothing to lose.
I am confident in my teaching abilities and even if the worst-case scenario happened and I completely and utterly failed and/or humiliated myself, I knew few enough people at the conference that I could probably escape New Orleans with an untarnished reputation.
The day before the Mashup was the NAEA preconference for museum educators and I asked many of the people that I met that day if they would be participating. I have to admit, I was surprised by the number of people who said they were too nervous to sign up as an experimenter for the Mashup. Their hesitancy encouraged me to feel proud of myself for taking a risk but it also made me feel more nervous as I wondered to myself exactly what it was that I had signed up for.
As I drove over to the Ogden on the evening of the Mashup, I felt nervous butterflies. It was the exact same feeling that I used to get in the hour or so before I was to play in a soccer game when I was younger. I was about to be asked to perform a task in front of other people who are very good at what they do and I didn’t know what the outcome would be. In that situation, the prospect of failure can be a terrifying one.
Luckily, as soon as I got there, the Mashup started and I didn’t have any more time to be nervous. We were placed into randomly selected groups of three people and assigned a work of art in the Ogden’s collection. We were told that we had forty-five minutes to develop a six-minute long experience in front of our work. This “experience,” could not just be any gallery lesson or discussion, though; it had to be something that scared us as educators.
I immediately started thinking about the times when I have felt nervous or scared in my teaching and about the things that I tend to avoid out of fear. My team members and I all agreed that silence can be terrifying. We discussed how awful it can feel as an educator to raise a question or a statement to a group only to be met with complete silence. Silence, though, we agreed, can also be an important tool in teaching. If we are able to see silence not as a symptom of our failure as teachers but instead as a possible sign of our students thinking critically and intently, we often end up having tremendously meaningful conversations.
With silence as our inspiration, we moved forward with planning our experience, which we decided would involve a two-minute period of silent contemplation. Our work of art was a large bronze sculpture of a flower by David Bates. The work has a great deal of negative space and many interesting holes, and invites the viewer to walk around it to see it from all sides. Intrigued by how the participants in our experience would interact with the negative space of the work, we decided to boost the scariness factor by adding physical contact, in the form of finger-to-finger, finger-to-hand or hand-to-hand contact, which would result in our participants standing in an unbroken circle around the sculpture while they viewed it (sort of poetic, I thought). I felt pretty good about our plan and was eager to facilitate our experience to see what happened.
At the end of our planning session, we rejoined the larger group, which now included people who weren’t experimenting but wanted to participate in the various gallery experiences. Again, I felt a pang of nervousness — there were A LOT of people.
The two groups that went first both facilitated very boisterous experiences that involved dancing, singing, chanting, slithering on the ground, etc. Again, the nervous pang returned. Our experience could not have been more different than the two in which we just partook. I even thought about making a desperate last-minute change to our plan to incorporate more noise, but we decided against it. Making changes to make ourselves more comfortable wouldn’t help us reach the goal we were here to achieve.
So we moved forward according to our original plan and it was definitely uncomfortable. The discomfort, though, was amazing. All of the participants started giggling after about the first 15 seconds of silent hand-holding. But then, they became quiet again and as we stood around the sculpture on the terrace of the Ogden Museum, the sounds of the museum and the city took over and the twilight worked with the museum’s electric lights to illuminate our sculpture. I watched as the participants’ eyes moved from the sculpture up to the city buildings in the distance and then back to the sculpture and then over to their fellow participants, and I thought “hey, this is pretty cool. It’s definitely weird, but also pretty cool.”
After we finished, I felt relieved and I felt energized. My team members and I had facilitated an experience that we would never have thought to do in our museum teaching and we had come out unscathed! Was our experience a tremendous success? Doubtful. For me, though, it was a success in that it made me reflect on my own gallery teaching and question my comfort zones. I left the Ogden feeling excited because I was reminded that I have entered a field that is constantly growing, adapting and experimenting. I also felt a new wave of confidence come over me; the confidence that results from trying something new, confronting the risks involved, and succeeding, or, at least, not failing. I think that this experience will inform my teaching in that it will encourage me to ask myself more often “what am I afraid of and why?” In addressing that question, I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to grow as an educator and as a person.
The Museum Mashup was inspiring! I signed up hoping to learn something new about gallery teaching. The experience opened my eyes to the endless ways of having fun with art in a museum.
My team of three was assigned a small oil painting by playwright, Tennessee Williams. The 45 minutes we spent developing our strategy was intense. It was great exercise in creativity and collaboration. We used the painting as a springboard for constructing three separate stories, each with multiple parts related to other artworks in the gallery. Ten minutes until the buzzer we decided to mix all of the chapters together. Participants were put into groups and asked to construct new stories using these parts. At the end, everyone read their stories out loud and the results were poetic and weird. Live music from Ogden After Hours playing throughout the museum added to the dramatic effect.
The experience was rewarding. Back at home, I am thinking more about visitor generated content and ways of fostering fun in the galleries. Thank you Mike and Craig for experimenting with me. I would jump at the chance to do it again!
Thanks to all who helped organize what was a personal conference highlight!!
I went into the mashup not really knowing what to expect. The structure of the event piqued my interest along with the challenge to push myself outside of my teaching comfort zone. More than anything, I came away from the experience reminded of how much I like control and how the need for it is ever present in my practice (and let’s be real, my life). Leaving some things to chance made me very uncomfortable as did my co-teachers’ seemingly greater comfort with figuring it out as we went. When I plan a program, I know I can’t control every variable but my tendency is definitely to over plan. While I think this results in a very professional and polished program, some of the beauty that comes from spontaneity is lost.
The design of our “experience” was meant to allow for uncomfortable silence . . . to remove some of the voice of the educator and encourage people to look and formulate ideas and responses based on that looking. I could tell our audience wanted to be guided and it was hard to keep quiet and allow the silence to build. I’m curious if this approach would work with a non-museum educator stacked audience . . . I think we probably had more discussion given the high degree of museum literacy among this audience. However, I do think the challenge to limit our voice and to scaffold as minimally as possible is an excellent teaching exercise.
For me, during our presentation it was particularly challenging to adapt as people responded to our instructions in a different way than I expected. We purposefully kept the instructions minimal but I had a specific behavior in mind. When that didn’t happen I momentarily panicked but decided to go with it instead of redirect people and see what happened. It wasn’t what we envisioned but I liked what happened. Similarly, I was pleasantly surprised by my co-teacher’s on-the-fly decision to capture and read back the audience response to the work (three words that summarized their experience). It was a great way to conclude the experience that we hadn’t planned. My initial reaction was, “what is she doing?!” but upon reflection, I see how important it is to let the people you work with and collaborate with feel empowered to contribute their ideas (even unrehearsed) and innovate. When we shut voices down or make every moment be carefully scripted, we may lose a spectacular idea. Then again, we may fail spectacularly.
Knowing that I like control isn’t really new information for me, but I was surprised by how quickly the need for it receded as the night progressed (and without a single drop of alcohol!). I absolutely loved being part of the audience for the other experimenters. The energy and enthusiasm for non-traditional museum experiences was infectious. Once the barriers were let down, the possibilities of what could happen seemed endless. The night has definitely inspired me to work on being less risk adverse and embrace more silence. Thanks for cultivating an environment where failure was OK and experimentation was encouraged!