Preparing to Engage in a New Reality

When art institutions embark on community-based projects, good intentions are sometimes overshadowed by actions that leave a negative impression or cause offense to the people they are trying to engage. Mistakes are inevitable; however, mistakes can be prevented by devoting adequate time to courting a community and figuring out how an organization can put its best foot forward. Best practices for community engagement are not dissimilar to common tips for making a new friend or going on a first date. The potential to grow that relationship is based not only on how we talk, but also on how we listen to the other person. Good conversation typically begins by asking questions, being careful not to make assumptions. Even when we feel confident about ourselves and in what we have to offer, there may be uncertainty about how we are being received or read by the other party. Amid the anxiety, there can also be joy in getting to know someone and forging a new relationship. So how might an art institution prepare to introduce itself to a new community? And what happens when you are introducing new technology at the same time?

Barnes community engagement team meeting patrons and using VR headsets Charles Durham Free Library in West Philadelphia.

This was the task in front of the Barnes Foundation as they began to build out their virtual reality (VR) project in partnership with Philadelphia Free Library. As Shelley Bernstein explained in her first post, the project involves loading 360-degree photography of the Barnes collection galleries onto VR headsets. Then, an engagement team brings the headsets to Philadelphia library branches and facilitates meetups to introduce the device and the Barnes collection to library goers. Created to reduce barriers to visitation, the VR project is part of the Barnes’ desire to, as Barbara Wong said, “establish more meaningful relationships with community to fulfill the vision of Dr. Barnes” who believed in education for all. After the first meetup, participants are invited to meet the engagement team again for a free guided tour of the collection.

Jihan Thomas, a Barnes educator on the Barnes VR community engagement team, leads a group in the Barnes galleries who came on the field trip. This group was from the South Philadelphia Free Library.

The Barnes invited me to develop the pedagogy for the VR project and lead a training for the staff. As part of my preparatory work, I spent time getting to know the engagement team, learning about current education strategies and the different teaching styles, exploring the content of the collection, and observing how visitors, docents, and guards interact with each other and the artwork in the galleries. During this period of investigation, some common questions emerged: Would the objective teaching method that the Barnes has followed since the beginning prove adequate outside in the library context? If not, what method of teaching would stimulate deep engagement and foster mutual exchange across real and perceived boundaries between people and place? Could a collection that overwhelmingly features European paintings of white bodies be taught in ways that stimulated audiences of multiple racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds? It became clear that for the VR project to work — for both staff and audience to feel comfortable on their first meeting — we needed the foundation of guiding principles to build an effective learning strategy, and to establish staff and audience rapport. Teaching had to be rooted in the interests of library audiences and the common elements that bind us, not in our differences. The teaching strategy needed to emphasize curiosity and deep listening, with the “anything is possible” spirit that one brings to a first date.

With this in mind, I developed a daylong workshop for the education teams to generate collective teaching tenets, a set of principles to guide their work with this new tool at the libraries, as well as in the galleries. The workshop was not about dismissing Dr. Barnes teaching method or developing a lecture; it focused instead on how the VR headsets would be activated and how best to approach knowledge sharing and relationship building. Working together on the process of developing teaching tenets, the education team was asked to reflect on individual and institutional values and come to agreement about the collective spirit they wanted to bring to the libraries. Five groups of four were tasked with developing three tenets each and were given guiding questions to help shape their conversations: Why do you teach at the Barnes Foundation? What do you value or believe about art that you want to share with others? What actions might express these beliefs? How do you want to be known in the library context and to the community? When they were done, we looked for common threads across all of the tenets and began to zero in on those that felt essential — and true — to everyone. What follows are the tenets they developed, each including a summary of our discussions about each tenet.


Welcome your fellow human beings with kindness and respect.
We are more likely to achieve our goals and objectives as educators when we lead with kindness and appreciation for others. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may forget what you said, people may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Make no assumptions.
Neighborhoods are complex. Statistics are not stories. Beliefs are not facts. Enter the learning space with an open mind and receptiveness to all possibilities.

Position art as a conduit for conversation.
The Barnes collection is a vehicle for dialogue and discovery between participants and works of art. Use objects in the collection as tools for discussion. Be open to all interpretations of art.

Question. Pause. Listen. Collaborate.
Our capacity to form and express ideas is best taught through inquiry and exchange. Lead with questions. Reflect on what you heard. Continue to listen. Participants are partners in the experience; let their voices guide the way forward.

Accept all experience as learning.
Everyone is a learner and every interaction is an opportunity to gain new knowledge.

Recognize and honor nondominant bodies of knowledge.
Everyone has knowledge to share and something to contribute to the learning experience. Integrate and validate all perspectives, stories, passions, ideas, and opinions.

Expect the unexpected and allow for discovery.
Anything can happen when activating a new device, working in public space, and engaging with individuals from different walks of life. Be ready for anything that comes your way and carefully adapt to the situation.

Empower people to know they already have the tools.
Art in the Barnes collection is often about everyday themes. Utilize common language and ideas to show people that they already possess the knowledge to look at and talk about art.

The Barnes community engagement team met with librarians prior to the visit to make sure the VR program was something they wanted for their communities. Pictured here Jihan Thomas, a Barnes educator on the Barnes VR meets with Alberto Pagan, the librarian at Charles Durham. Supportive librarians served as bridges between the Barnes and the community at neighborhood libraries.

The second half of the workshop was devoted to role-playing to explore the tenets in action. Each group received a scenario based on a combination of information, including anecdotes and concerns that staff had shared with me, aired assumptions about people with different lifestyles, socioeconomic status, interests, and backgrounds, while considering some of the curve balls that come with working in public space. Staff members played the roles in each scenario, acting out hypothetical situations for their colleagues. Role-playing afforded the team the opportunity to think about how they would introduce themselves and the VR devices while facilitating a quality meetup experience that honored the different abilities, ages, triggers, interests, and politics of potential participants — remaining conscious of our larger goal to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment. Each skit generated a robust discussion that helped us develop tips and reminders for the VR engagement team. For example:

  • Visit the library in advance to familiarize yourself with the setting. Get a feel for how people interact with each other and utilize the space.
  • Library audiences will differ depending on the time of day. According to the Free Library, 30% of their patrons use the library to job search and art might not be their priority. Lean into this awareness.
  • Co-teach with a colleague if possible. In addition to helping each other manage large groups, combining approaches and perspectives may increase accessibility and conversation with participants.
  • Prepare for audiences of multiple abilities by creating a pack with materials for children, straps for the VR headset, a Masterworks book, posters, a whiteboard, written instructions, etc.
  • Ask for consent before touching participants. Even if your intention is to be helpful, touch can cause discomfort or pain or trigger trauma.
  • How you close is just as important as how you begin. Prepare an exit strategy. Take time to think about how you will invite the group to future meetups or to the Barnes Foundation . . . Thank the group for sharing and collaborating with you.
Charles Durham Free Library in West Philadelphia.

The pilot at Charles L. Durham Library in West Philadelphia was an opportunity to observe the project in real time. Following the tenets, Jihan and Anne, members of the education teams, launched the first meetup, inviting the library patrons to pick up the VR headsets and explore the Barnes galleries. (Read more about this in Shelley’s second post). Rather than assuming that art would be of interest to participants, Jihan asked questions such as “Do you like art or creative things?” The two women at her table began to share details about the art and furniture in their childhood homes. The question “What do you see right now?” elicited responses that not only told Barnes team members where participants were standing in the virtual experience but also what objects piqued their interests along the way. Jihan’s group named horseback riding, cornrowed hairstyles, and figurative paintings, among other things. Objects of material culture, such as chairs and chests, were of special interest to carpenters and others whose occupations involved making or domestic spaces. This led to moments of learning for staff who might not have known, for example, how the different chairs in the Barnes collection were fabricated. Thoughtful and patient inquiry was the conduit into the collection and listening paved the way forward. The tenets created a way of being that encouraged dialogue that was critical in reaching the project goals. As a Black woman, I would be remiss not to mention that people of color were in the majority at this meetup — an experience that remains rare after nearly twenty years of working in the arts.

Jihan Thomas, a Barnes educator on the Barnes VR community engagement team, leads a group in the Barnes galleries who came on the field trip. This group was from the Charles Durham Free Library in West Philadelphia.

Part two of the pilot, the visit to the Barnes, was even more remarkable than the first. Library patrons from the Central and Charles L. Durham libraries came together for the tour and a subsequent lunch. Like libraries, the Barnes Foundation is a temple of knowledge, a hub of information, a place brimming with stories about our shared human experiences. However, because people of color are virtually absent from daily visitorship and hardly represented in the collection their perspectives are marginalized. This challenged the engagement team to consider: What stories does the Barnes collection hold that may help visitors of diverse backgrounds take interest in the collection? How can creating space for them to share their stories lead to an experience that is affirming and empowering? It was exciting to see the library patrons engage with the artwork and each other; to hear them share their experiences perspectives, relating the content to their lives with comfort and confidence. The VR project demonstrated what happens when a museum works to both change its posture and meet the audience where they are­ — getting comfortable with the unknown and being vulnerable versus putting the expectation on the visitor to do the hard work of taking the first step.

The Barnes VR in Neighborhood Libraries pilot project was funded by the Barra Foundation as part of their Catalyst Fund. The program will move forward throughout 2019 under the Knight Center for Digital Innovation in Audience Engagement at the Barnes. Read more about the project in this series of Medium posts.

Project Team —

Barnes Foundation: Shelley Bernstein, Consulting Creative Technologist; Steve Brady, Chief Technical Officer; Ana Gamboa, Special Project Coordinator; Ann Moss, Art Team; Jihan Thomas, School Programs Outreach Coordinator; Alicia Mino, Youth and Family Program Coordinator; and Barbara Wong, Director of Community Engagement.

Free Library: Andrew Nurkin, Deputy Director, Enrichment and Civic Engagement; Kalela Williams, Director of Neighborhood Library Enrichment Programming