Facilitating Body Based Pedagogies in Museum Spaces: The Significance of Addressing Social Location and Positionality

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Filippa Christofalou, Teachers College, Columbia University

Introduction

In the summer of 2022, I ran a two-day intensive workshop on body based pedagogies (Christofalou, 2021) for art museum educators in Athens, Greece, titled The Body in the Museum: Working towards a complete museum experience. I was invited by the museum’s director of Education, a colleague I have worked with in the past in an art institution in London, to share my work and research. As a guest and facilitator, my goal was to familiarize, inspire, and instigate museum educators to consciously include both their own and visitors’ bodies in their practice. The participant educators worked in art museums and cultural institutions across the country or were in search for a job in an art museum. Most of them had never met before.

Aligned with my upbringing in a family with infiltrated Marxist ideas, my academic training(1) in Marxism (Marx, 2000) and Racial Capitalism (Robinson, 2020), worldviews and work in anti-oppressive pedagogies, my decision was to center the workshop around a decolonial praxis. One aspect of this praxis that I focus on in this article is sharing my positionality and social location from the beginning.

This essay was born from my personal reflections on: (1) my experience of sharing my social location with this particular group of body-privileged, white museum educators, (2) my observations on their responses and reactions to it, (3) my experiences as a facilitator over the years with anti-oppressive pedagogies, namely body based pedagogies in museums, (4) my participation in several body based programs in museums facilitated by other museum educators, and (5) my conversations with art administrators and colleagues who make decisions on museum programing.

Why sharing and starting with social location is important

Social location (Zaytoun, 2006) is a term that describes the multiple aspects of one’s identity that are affected by their unique experiences and how their identity shapes the way they understand the world around them. Intersectionality is a term coined by law professor and critical race theory advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw (2017), that describes the complex ways various facets of a person’s identity — such as race, class, body-ability, gender, culture, spirituality, and citizenship — are connected. Intersectionality adds to our understanding of social location as it emphasizes the complexity and multiple dimensions of one’s identity. In the context of body based pedagogies, an intersectional lens of social location helps reflect on questions such as “How did I come to be in this room?” or “What power does my body hold in the room?” — questions that require bravery, honesty, constant reflection, and empathy. By getting closer to answers like these, educators who aim to engage museum visitors with their bodies offer opportunities for reciprocity and vulnerability.

Doing work with and through the body activates the sensoriality of the self that is connected to memories, trauma, worldviews and beliefs, sets of sensations and tendencies, personhood, and constellations of emotions. Participants in body based pedagogies are therefore invited to attend encounters with the intersectionality of the self, the art and the museum space, with their whole entity, and their body-mind-spirit. This is a vulnerable, incomplete, and evolving process. Therefore, inviting museum visitors to participate in body based pedagogies is a big ask; as Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi theater worker and scholar Jill Carter (2020) argues, being present in the galleries and learning with an active body is a generous act (p. 17).

Participants in body based pedagogies are therefore invited to attend encounters with the intersectionality of the self, the art and the museum space, with their whole entity, and their body-mind-spirit.

As such, body based pedagogies require that a facilitator enter the learning experience with sensitivity to everybody’s intersectionality, commitment to examining their own, and openness to vulnerability, honoring visitors’ generous and political act of body-mind-spirit participation. A significant amount of the educator’s work consists of deep reflection on three, equally important aspects of a body based educational program:

  1. The nature of body based pedagogy and its possibilities as anti-oppressive pedagogy.
  2. The intrinsic connections between a bodily practice, the place and the space in which is situated. Museum visitors, while walking around the galleries and encountering art, create an idea of the museum as a place which is constructed through their lived experiences, expectations of the experience, memories and sensations, beliefs, tendencies, and somatic norms allowed in the actual physical space. In other words, museum visitors’ affect, sensations, lived experiences, memories and personal imaginations alter the space and transform it into place (Christofalou, 2023).
  3. An honest positionality that leans into discomfort and allows the facilitator to see their entry points and the qualities of the space their body occupies through that lens.

A body based praxis demands an understanding of positionality that examines the educator’s lived experiences, worldviews, and their relationship with the institutional space and place of their practice.

Body Based Pedagogies in Museum Spaces: Towards a Definition

Museums are places of anomalous learning that request from visitors somatic participation (Ellsworth E., 2015). Yet in places like museums and cultural institutions where the “mind/brain/body meld with objects, spaces, and times,” the adult visitors’ bodies, in many cases, remain in the periphery of the experience — a choice that serves the binary, neoliberal, and colonial foundations of art museums, emphasizing the importance of product over process (Bishop, 2012, p.19; Graham, 2018).

Going against this pedagogy of disembodiment (Christofalou, 2021), and following an epistemological turn in the body (Pink, 2015), museum educators in many countries have focused on practices that are body based: meditation in the galleries, mindfulness, trauma informed gallery teaching, storytelling, contemplative workshops, movement based tours and slow looking sessions, to name a few.

I consider body based pedagogies in museum spaces (BBP) any singular event or a constellation of non-linear practices that centers the body in the learning process. In BBP the museum educator intentionally initiates movement and/or brings awareness to sensational, visceral, somatic, and embodied responses. In this way, the body becomes an essential element of practice while activating knowledge archived within (2) (Hubard, 2015), as well as new knowledge through and with the body.

BBP is a pedagogy of encounters (Sánchez, 2018):(3) encounters with art but also with the self, with others, the real, the imaginative and the intuitive space (McKittrick, 2006). Examples of BBP include:

  • bringing awareness to embodied responses (e.g., “I noticed how some of you leaned forward”);
  • posing in front of an artwork mimicking what is depicted (e.g., “You can try to pose with your bodies and pretend you are the bird in this painting”);
  • doing meditative actions, and tuning into the self and the moment of encounter (e.g., “Let’s all find a comfortable position and take two minutes to observe the space, our bodies, the artwork”);
  • laying on the floor to see a different view of the artwork (e.g., “I wonder if we can see differently by changing our position. You may try to lay down and see a different view”);
  • slowing down, bringing awareness to the moment with/without a spiritual layer (e.g., “Let’s sit on the floor in a circle, close our eyes. When and if comfortable, take a moment to make a wish for your future self);
  • creating a movement as a response, like dance or a skit based on an artwork (i.g. “In your group recreate what you think might have happened one minute before the painter captured this moment”);
  • creating a soundscape using the body (e.g., “Imagine you are in the art work. What do you hear? Use your hands, your feet, your hair and mouth to create the sounds you hear”);
  • imagining and/or creating a scene within the artwork using the body (e.g., “Imagine you are in the moment in this painting. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel?”).

Some of the aforementioned examples may be a moment during a gallery teaching or may constitute the entire experience for the visitors. In every case, the educator aims for a seamless embodied experience throughout, in consistency with sensitivity, commitment, and vulnerability.

Body based pedagogies go against western epistemologies and the oppressive, colonial dominant forms of knowledge that privilege the intellect over the body, the product over the process and the measurable over the experiential. Body based pedagogies aim for possibilities “of other modes of being, thinking, knowing, sensing, and living” (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018, p.81). Thus the decolonial praxis of constant reflection on the entry points of the educator is an act of liberation, change and commitment to change (hooks, 2014).

Body based pedagogies go against western epistemologies and the oppressive, colonial dominant forms of knowledge that privilege the intellect over the body, the product over the process and the measurable over the experiential.

A Caveat

But let me be clear: not every bodily interaction/body based design/somatic program in museum spaces is anti-oppressive. In fact, I have participated in body based programming in museum spaces and cultural institutions that fell short of establishing an authentic relationship between body and space, educator and participant by avoiding any visceral and embodied address of their social location and institutional power.

In contrast to my experiences with educators who belong to marginalized groups and readily offer an introduction including their positionality, frequently white/straight/cisgendered/able-bodied educators start body based workshops without any sign of reciprocity; they avoid discomfort while their practice begs for emotional commitment and “complete engagement” (Hubard, 2015, p. 120). These practices perpetuate a harmful, hierarchical, and monolithic epistemology, built on white supremacy and racism. As anti-colonial scholar and Assistant Professor at the Institute for Women’s Studies Rumya S. Putcha (2020) argues, many body centered programming in museums (e.g. yoga classes through a colonized lens, without acknowledgment of cultural roots) are just another aspect of Western imperialism, “a form of somatic orientalism, a sensory mechanism, which traces its roots to the U.S. American cultural-capitalist formations and other institutionalized forms of racism” (p.1). In other words, incorporating body based practices in museum programming without awareness of social position does not automatically grant inclusivity nor change.

If body based pedagogies are to dismantle white supremacy and any subsequent form of oppression, attention must be paid to the ways we practice body based pedagogies, starting with ourselves as educators and mediators. Committed to constantly examining our privileges and positionality stemming from our social location is what will open up possibilities for liberation. The educator’s willingness to reflect on their social location, their intersectionality, and their relationship with their institution is a necessary step in practicing body based pedagogies. bell hooks (2014) described this process as “engaged pedagogy” and “liberatory education”, and it is the first necessary step before we facilitate body based pedagogies in spaces with a loaded history and presence of white supremacy, oppression, hierarchies, and neoliberal practices.

Modeling Vulnerability in Body Based Pedagogies

A big part of the first segment of the workshop I designed and facilitated was my decision to show up with openness and vulnerability, share my social location, positionality and the privileges these hold. My intention was multifaceted and rooted in decolonial praxis: I shared with kindness the nuances of the space that my body occupies, I slowed down, attended to my wholeness, and embraced my somatic responses: breaking voice, red cheeks, shaking hands, and distracted mind. I did not rush my vulnerability, and the ways my body connected to it, I breathed through it — a conscious choice made in opposition to our tendency to avoid any bodily manifestation of our vulnerability and our urgency to rush through packed agendas. I did not hide behind words; I let my words impact my body and vice versa, and I let the museum educators be part of this personal, vulnerable moment. I created a safe space for me, and for us. By being attentive to the moment, allowing my discomfort to lead my body, I tried to make visible and transparent not only how decolonial praxis may look like, but also what body based pedagogies may also look like, going against what “recedes unnoticed” in institutional spaces (Ahmed, 2012, p.21), and against habitual ways of being (Ng, 2018).

The positionality statement I shared looked like this: I am a body-abled, neurodivergent, cis gender, straight white European who grew up in a remote village in Greece with extremely limited resources and in many periods in poverty. Currently belonging to the middle class, as a member of the diaspora, I navigate my ever-changing identity as a new American citizen (first-generation), and a mother. I am also a first-gen student, currently a doctoral student; my affiliation with an Ivy League institution, a product of coloniality, gives me access to a vast array of opportunities and knowledge that I try to approach with care and awareness of its epistemological biases and institutional violence. I examine the harm of my citizenship as a settler, working and living in Manhattan, land of the Lenni Lenape and Wappinger Peoples, constantly profiting from structures that settler racial capitalism put in place. I am committed to continuously examining how my privilege, and my lived experiences unique, nevertheless limited — inhabit my body and manifest in my body based practice.(4)

After I shared my positionality statement in the workshop, breaking down the privilege every aspect of my identity holds, and my relationship with the institution, there was a mixed reaction of awkward silences and questions. The museum educators asked about the terminology I used and wondered what positionality had to do with body based pedagogies. It was at the end of the workshop that the same museum educators shared with me their deep appreciation of this vulnerability, their understanding of the entanglements of the self with museum spaces, and the significance of designing engagement content in museums by first deeply reflecting on the self.

My goal is not to imply that the work of these educators (and mine) ended with the completion of the workshop; examining and reflecting on one’s privilege and complex identity is an ongoing journey of discomfort, healing, and liberation.(5) Nor is my goal to substitute a lively, body based workshop with text and visuals — studying the body in particular, through texts is already a “haunted paradox”, to begin with (O’Loughlin, 2006, p.10). My goal is to join other scholars, practice decolonial work(6) and motivate more museum educators to consider examining their social location before they start or continue practicing body based pedagogies in museum spaces.

An Invitation to Action

Along with this essay, I invite you to use the cards below in any way that feels right to you at the moment. While I designed most of these prompts years ago and with the goal to be part of the workshops I run with museum educators, I believe they can be used by anyone who is interested in body based pedagogies and/or are committed to examining their privileges, standpoint and social location through and with their bodies.

The cards provide a body based way to examine your social location, before you continue or start incorporating body based pedagogies into your practice. White, cisgender, privileged, and able-bodied colleagues — myself included — might especially find these cards helpful — but make no mistake, they will not be enough.

You may print the cards (download a printable version here) and/or use your own journal to document your sensations, reactions, and responses and all that will come from examining your own entry points to body based pedagogies and your practice in museum spaces.

A color, pastel drawn background with red, yellows, and greens and black drawn organic, interconnected shaped. Handwritten text reads in silver: Who are you? Card instructions: While walking, take your phone and start recording your voice. For one minute and without stopping, describe yourself.
A pink-purple watercolor painted semi circle runs lengthwise across the right hand side of the card. Along the inside of the semicircle is hand-painted in the same color: take up space. Card instructions: Find a place in your museum you don’t visit often, and perhaps you don’t find welcoming. Stay there for a while and observe the sensations on your body.
Black text on white background, outlined with four overlapping, hand-drawn black rectangular boxes..
Click here for card text: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1twBOwaZ586rq2oKag6htl6A7raswMB_XCfhGEqHTLpQ/edit?usp=sharing

This work is not easy, but it is tremendously effective. I find comfort and strength from Dr. Jamila Lyiscott (2019) words: doing the work “with deep
self-awareness and hope/vision-orientedness” (p. 11 & 29). Doing the work with hope and the belief that small changes can be of a great impact. While this is a deep exploration of the self and therefore uniquely personal to each one of us, I urge you to find a community and share your experiences and journey. For whatever it is worth, I am always eager to hear from you and participate in any way I can with you on this journey (you may find me on Instagram and/or LinkedIn with my full name).

This essay would not have been possible without the thoughtful invitation from colleague, mentor and body based practitioner Shannon Murphy and the support of my colleagues Dr. Hannah Heller and Callie Smith. I thank them wholeheartedly for their time, care and trust.

Photograph of Filippa, who is pictured wearing a gray top, seated with her arms resting on an un-pictured surface. Background is multicolored and light dappled.

Filippa Christofalou (she/her)

Filippa Christofalou, M.S.Ed. is a performance artist, interdisciplinary museum educator and public engagement professional. Her practice is situated in museum spaces and centers participants’ body-mind-spirit. Filippa has studied Art History, Theater, and Drama in Education and holds a Bachelor’s of Science and a Master’s degree in Education. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, Filippa researches body based pedagogies that disrupt institutional hierarchies. Filippa is the founder of The Drama Science Lab, a series of evolving projects that use the body as a medium to explore the landscape of sci-art.

Footnotes:

1.My anti-oppressive academic training included a marxist focused syllabus during my Masters in Education, and classes during my doctoral studies such as “Decolonizing Culture? International Perspectives” and “Race and the Arts” with Assistant Professor Dr. Davinia Gregory-Kameka; “ART STRIKE: museum dissidents and dissonance” with Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Photography Concentration Dr. Naeem Mohaiemen; “Indigenous Theater, Performance & Politics” with Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Dr. Czarina Aggabao Thelen.

2. Olga Hubard describes “complete engagement” and talks about embodied ways of knowing, acknowledging knowledge archived in the body, as “sensations and emotions that are also lodged in our bodies” (pp120–123).

3. Aida Sánchez de Serdio, a scholar, educator, and cultural worker in the fields of visual culture, pedagogy and collaborative arts practices, argues “…education may be better understood as a pedagogy of encounter, a space for the emergence critical discourses and practices, for the production of difference, and for an encounter in which politics, aesthetics, knowledge, and affects intertwine in problematic ways.” (2018, p.155)

4. This positionality statement is written for the purposes of this essay

5. It has always been a plethora of Black, POC, and indigenous thinkers who challenged white supremacy, racism and atrocities, towards a collective liberation (i.e. Angela Davis, Resmaa Menakem, Lola Olufemi, Tamara L. Underiner, Fariha Róisín)

6. Some examples: Marit Dewhurst and Keonna Hendrick, in Identifying and transforming racism in museum education, Joni Acuff in Whiteness and art education, and Dana Carlisle Kletchka in The epistemology of the basement: a queer theoretical reading of the institutional positionality of art museum educators

References

Acuff, J. B., PhD. (2019). Editorial: Whiteness and art education. Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education (Online), 36(1), 8–12. http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/scholarly-journals/editorial-whiteness-art-education/docview/2392447202/se-2?accountid=10226

Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included. Duke University Press.

Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. Verso Books.

Carter, J., ““My! What Big Teeth You Have!”: On the Art of Being Seen and Not Eaten.” Canadian Theatre Review, 182(2020): 16–21.

Christofalou, F., (2021). Body Based Pedagogy in Museums. Roots & Routes: Research in Visual Arts, https://www.roots-routes.org/body-based-pedagogy-in-museums-by-filippa-christofalou/

Christofalou, F., (2023). Museum Bodies and Museum Spaces: Body based pedagogies in art museums informed by adult visitors’ somatic experiences. Unpublished manuscript. Teachers College Faculty, Columbia University.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2017). On intersectionality: Essential writings. The New Press.

Dewhurst, M., & Hendrick, K. (2017). Identifying and transforming racism in museum education. Journal of Museum Education, 42(2), 102–107.

Ellsworth, E. (2005). Places of learning: Media, architecture, pedagogy. Routledge.

Graham, J. (2018). ‘Where are we when we think?’ Space, time and emancipatory education in galleries. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 37(1), 21–39.

hooks, B. (2009). Belonging: A culture of place. Routledge

hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.

Hubard, O. M. (2015). Art museum education: Facilitating gallery experiences. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kletchka, D. C. (2021). The epistemology of the basement: a queer theoretical reading of the institutional positionality of art museum educators. Museum Management and Curatorship, 36(2), 125–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647775.2021.1894595

Lyiscott, J. (2019). Black appetite. White food.: Issues of race, voice, and justice within and beyond the classroom. Routledge.

Marx, K. (2000). Karl Marx: selected writings. Oxford University Press, USA.

McKittrick, K. (2006). Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. University of Minnesota Press.

Mignolo, W. D., & Walsh, C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Duke University Press.

Menakem, R. (2021). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Penguin UK.

Ng, R. (2018). Decolonizing teaching and learning through embodied learning. Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization. Athabasca UP.

Olufemi, Lola. (2020). Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power. Pluto Press.

O’Loughlin, M. (2006). Embodiment and education (Vol. 15). Dordrecht: Springer.

Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography. Sage.

Putcha, R. S. (2020). Yoga and white public space. Religions, 11(12), 669.

Robinson, C. J. (2020). Black Marxism, revised and updated third edition: The making of the black radical tradition. UNC press Books.

Sánchez, A., (2018). Pedagogies of encounter. In J. Byrne (Ed.), The constituent museum: constellations of knowledge, politics and mediation: a generator of social change (1st ed., pp 154–157). Valiz.

Underiner, T. L. (2021). 1. Indigenous Bodies, Contested Texts. In Contemporary Theatre in Mayan Mexico (pp. 19–44). University of Texas Press.

Zaytoun, K. (2006). Theorizing at the borders: Considering social location in rethinking self and psychological development. nwsa Journal, 52–72.

Resources

Belcourt, B. R. (2020). A history of my brief body. Penguin Canada

Caldwell, C., & Leighton, L. B. (Eds.). (2018). Oppression and the body: Roots, resistance, and resolutions. North Atlantic Books

Johnson, Ch., Council, LT., Choi, C. (2019). Intersection Allies: We Make Room For All. Dottir Press

Róisín, F., (2019). Being in your own body: a journal for self-love and body positivity. Abrams Books

Podcast: Sabrina Strings, PhD Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Ihttps://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/body-kindness/id1073275062?i=1000477535835

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