Listening To Self: An Appeal for Autoethnography in Art Museum Education

Laura Evans, Assistant Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Director of the Art Museum Education Certificate, University of North Texas, and Jeremy Blair, Academic Liaison and Public Engagement Curator, CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado Boulder

As museum educators, we are encouraged and expected to listen to and understand our audiences.

Installation view of the MFA Exhibition, 2013, Photo © CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder

Learning how to achieve this is the subject of courses, the topic of seminars and presentations at conferences, the focus of blog posts and online forums; it is the very cornerstone of our work. Though we agree that learning how to communicate and collaborate with our publics is essential, we also need to understand ourselves: as teachers, as learners, as colleagues, as museum employees in positions of power, and as human beings. We believe that by understanding ourselves and turning our listening skills inward, as well as outward, we become better teachers and learners.

We use the term “autoethnography” as a theoretical and methodological lens to explain how we might better equip ourselves with the task of self-exploration. We propose ways in which museum educators can use autoethnography to enhance our understanding of ourselves, with the aim to better serve our audiences through this increased awareness of who we are. In this article, we will introduce ourselves and how we use autoethnography, as well as share methods for experimenting with autoethnography in your own practice to increase transparency for the benefit of ourselves and our public.

What Is Autoethnography? How Do We Use It?

Autoethnography is an increasingly popular and validated research method in sociology and anthropology (1), but it is still being accepted in the field of art museum education. Ironically, in a discipline that values authentic feelings and emotions as legitimate forms of inquiry (2) — and as ways to teach others about how to look at and appreciate art — as researchers and as educators, we still shy away from expressing our own.

Autoethnography is a form of self-narrative that places the self within the social context (3), and has the capacity to provoke viewers to broaden their horizons, reflect critically on experiences, enter empathetically into the lives of others, and actively participate in dialogue regarding the social implications of the encountered (4). For more details on the history and practice of autoethnography, we recommend this meta-article by a researcher writing autoethnographically about learning autoethnography.

We both use autoethnography and narratives as methods and as ways to make research more personal. Examining ourselves, autoethnographically, has been hard at times, but freeing. We have felt ugly when we have examined ourselves, but it has also helped us to see where our strengths are by analyzing our weaknesses. Ultimately, it has helped us to celebrate the good and the bad as we have felt like we can use this information to better understand who we are and who we still want to be, as teachers and as learners. In the spirit of this method, we’d each like to introduce ourselves through our paths to autoethnography.

Laura
I found autoethnography in graduate school when my professors introduced me to it in a safe, experimental, and encouraging atmosphere. Autoethnography was completely new territory to me and I recall feeling exhilarated but bewildered by the openness and transparency of my new department. Never before had I experienced such translucency in academia (5). In fact, the personal was irrelevant in my previous studies, where the voice of the author was considered to be a distraction if it echoed too loudly in one’s research. I recall one instance of trying to write autoethnographically in my Master’s thesis (though I did not know the term at the time). The result was that I was reduced to tears in a critique with my professor who chided me for using a first person voice. It is no wonder that when introduced to autoethnography in graduate school, I was hesitant. I literally needed permission to write “I” in my research papers and to be reminded that autoethnography was a legitimate and important source of research. As a professor, I have to do the same thing for current students: give them the blessing and freedom to write from the personal and to assure them that I consider it valuable.

Jeremy Blair, Teaching an Inflatable Sculpture Workshop, University of Georgia. 2014.

Jeremy
I too was introduced to autoethnography in graduate school by inspiring professors and activities such as those described below, and later developed my own studies that utilized autoethnography for my doctoral dissertation. In 2011, I taught a course based on emerging digital technologies and postmodern methods of inquiry at the University of North Texas. While teaching this course, I developed a method of autoethnography for pre-service art educators that I called animated autoethnography, which developed into my dissertation. Students, and alongside them myself, the researcher, created animations that accessed significant life moments, personal struggles, and triumphs. In order to to actively investigate self through art-making to connect with self and empathize with others (6).

We both gravitated towards methods that involved the self because we experienced how self-awareness enhanced our experiences as teachers and learners, creating an environment of transparency around impulses and backgrounds to strive for compassionate work.

Autoethnography Exercises for Museum Educators

We share two activities to introduce autoethnography into your museum education practice, designed to help generate self-exploration. Museum educators can use self-research practices to create narrative-based connections to self and to their museum. These activities are inspired by the structures and practices of the museum and, through them, we present a model of inquiry that encourages the mining of the self (7). We hope that these activities inspire you to think about how the personal informs the professional. Far from removing ourselves from awareness of our audiences, we believe that if, as educators, we know ourselves better, we are better equipped to be at our best teaching, listening, and researching for our constituents.

By listening to yourself, you might learn why you lean towards certain programmatic or teaching choices — and, consequently, how you can provide ways to learn that might not have otherwise occurred to you.

Further, we encourage reflecting on the results of your autoethnographic musings in a safe atmosphere with others who have done the same exercises. Doing so within departments and institutions and across the field are ways to support new staff, continue professional development, and create communities of care in museum education.

Autoethnographical Cabinet of Curiosities

A cabinet of curiosities, or kunstkammer, was originally a personal collection of small objects of wonder that were displayed in a room or custom wooden cabinet (8). These cabinets were most popular in the 17th century, but have been reimagined by libraries and art and natural history museums over the last century (9). Originally the personal collections of wealthy individuals that contained both man-made artifacts and objects from nature, cabinets of curiosities have reemerged to reflect the material and visual culture of our day (10).

Students study and sketch works from PAPER/PRODUCT: Portfolios from the Polly and Mark Addison Collection, Photo © CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder

Inspired by the cabinet of curiosities concept, this autoethnographic activity encourages museum educators to create their own literal or metaphoric cabinet filled with artifacts of self and culture in your office, home, or museum classroom. This collection can then be used as inspiration for future connections, exhibitions, programs, and interpretations. Choosing or creating objects that connect, reflect, or embody elements of your personal self and history can be a gateway into arts-based autoethnographic practices. Start this exercise by asking yourself a series of autoethnographic questions to inspire artifacts that connect self and other, such as:

  • What objects tell a story about my life?
  • What meanings or memories do I inject into objects that surround me?
  • With what objects in my museum’s collection do I most connect and why?
  • What objects still invoke wonder or surprise in me when I see them?
  • With what materials do I interact on a daily basis?
  • Have I collected any meaningful objects during my travels or wanders through life?
  • In what ways do these life artifacts help define my culture of self?

For professionals that work in collecting institutions, choose specific artifacts from your museum’s collection. We encourage you to create this cabinet of curiosities, whether it is from paper in list form or collage, digitally, or even an actual cabinet in your office or classroom space. Do this activity with colleagues to gain a better understanding of them.

Exterior view of the CU Art Museum, 2013, Photo © CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder

The CU Art Museum, where Jeremy works, is currently constructing a large-scale installation/cabinet of curiosity in one of its galleries. Inspired by this activity, they have invited faculty and staff members from across the University of Colorado campus to loan the museum objects that inspire them in their professional studies and personal lives, including live plant specimens, fossils, conducting batons, and historical electronics. Each object represents a unique life and interpretation, and the collection of objects creates an ever-changing dialogue for the museum and campus.

The process of conceiving, designing, and implementing a large-format cabinet of curiosities at the CU Art Museum has led to new faculty collaborations, teaching activities, course connections, and even job opportunities for local artists. Most importantly, the process of creating a personal cabinet has inspired individuals across campus to think deeply on the importance of specific objects in their personal lives and professional practices and provided them with an opportunity to present their unique stories to the museum. The CU Art Museum staff is much more knowledgeable on the lives and interests of many of its stakeholders, and further, the challenging task of building long lasting relationships with the campus community has been catalyzed by this cabinet of curiosities.

Autoethnographical Teaching and Learning Exercise

The goal of this activity is to use writing as an autoethnographical tool to explore who you are as a museum educator currently, or who you want to be as a museum educator. Write about how you came to be attracted to museum education and why.

Address the following in your autoethnographical exploration:

  • Your conception of how learning occurs in the museum
  • A description of how your teaching facilitates learning in the museum
  • A reflection of why you teach the way you do (or how you would like to teach)
  • The goals you have for yourself and for your visitors to museums
  • How your teaching embodies your beliefs and goals — think especially about how audiences have responded to your teaching
  • What, for you, constitutes evidence of learning in the museum
  • The ways in which you create an inclusive learning environment in the museum, and how you see that happening in action in your teaching practice
  • Your interests in new techniques, activities, and types of learning

Write informally and with passion. Examine your life and the decisions you have made, the paths you have crossed, the accidents that have occurred. What and how you write this reflection should represent you.

Laura has assigned this exercise to her graduate students in an art museum education course she teaches at the University of North Texas. One student reflected on this experience:

Thank you for making us do this. I had been feeling like maybe I didn’t quite fit into museum education and I felt unsure of myself as a teacher. I am quiet, reserved, and a better listener than speaker. I was starting to question all of these qualities in myself and wondering how a quiet person could make a good teacher. Doing the autoethnographical exercise helped me put the pieces together and made me acknowledge my own unique attributes, things that I had not been thinking about as strengths. My assets may not involve standing up in front of a group and loudly getting people’s attention, but I feel more secure that I can be a quiet leader and shaper. I feel confident that by making people feel comfortable and safe in the museum, I can enhance their experience. I am not sure I would have gotten to that point without being forced to reflect on it in such a personal way.

This student has gone on to find her niche by working with adult access programs, and her quiet strength is a great asset in her work. She continues to reflect on her practice and builds in an hour every week for writing autoethnographically about her job. She feels this reflective time has helped to keep her grounded in this fast-moving field, and serves as a way for her to constantly improve and experiment in her work.

Conclusions: How Might Autoethnography Help Your Museum Education Practice?

We hope that these activities will inform your practice by making you more aware of how the personal informs the professional. In our own work, we have seen that when we are more aware of ourselves, we make better teachers, listeners, and colleagues.

We see a connection between knowing ourselves and serving as a better conduit for encouraging audiences to make a personal connection through looking at art.

We believe that autoethnography can be used as a powerful tool in the ongoing identity development of museum professionals. Embedding personal narratives into educational practices is just as important for the educator as it is for the student or visitor. The autoethnographic method can provide the museum education community a shared platform to discuss differences and connections, which in our experience, ultimately leads to a museum community built on empathy, inclusion, and understanding. Further, through experimenting with and developing original autoethnographic practices, we have discovered that autoethnography is a versatile and nimble method of research that embraces art, education, and museums. Museum professionals can actively explore the culture of self and the culture of their institutions through participating in and developing autoethnographic activities.

Autoethnography has the capacity to provoke us to broaden our horizons, reflect critically on experiences that have lead us to where we are, enter empathetically into the lives of others, and actively participate in significant dialogue (11), all things we also strive for and seek in museum education. By expressing and investigating ourselves through works of art and museums, we can better understand and improve our own practice, and we can reveal ourselves to both our peers and our audiences in the hope that we can better identify with them and vice versa.

Laura Evans

Laura Evans is an Assistant Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Director of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas. Evans received her PhD at The Ohio State University in Art Education, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History at Denison University. Her research interests are in the intersections between art museum education, gender, and empowerment. Evans has also interned or worked at the National Gallery of Art; Washington, DC, the Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago, the Lopdell Gallery in New Zealand, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, the Denison Museum of Denison University, and the University Art Centre at the University of Toronto. Most recently, Evans served as the Education Programs Curator at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in Perth, Western Australia.

Jeremy Blair

Jeremy Blair (Twitter) is the academic liaison and public engagement curator at the CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado Boulder. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in art education from Miami University and is a former K–12 visual art teacher. Jeremy completed his doctoral work in art education at the University of North Texas in 2015 and currently lives in Westminster, Colorado with his wife Bevin and their two cats.

Footnotes

(1) See Bochner & Ellis, 2003; Denzin, 1997, 2004; Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011; and Richardson, 2000.

(2) Barrett, 2002.

(3) Reed-Danahay, 1997.

(4) Ellis & Bochner, 2000.

(5) Tedlock, 2008.

(6) For more on this research, see Blair, 2014, and Blair, 2015.

(7) The intention of these activities is to learn, preparing educators through aesthetic reflection and self-reflexivity. This article encourages self-exploration, but please note that we encourage you to seek a guide, such as a well-trained therapist or psychologist, who can help navigate any difficult issues if necessary.

(8) Mauriès, 2011.

(9) Mak & Pollack, 2013.

(10) Zytaruk, 2011; Mak & Pollack, 2013.

(11) Ellis & Bochner, 2000.

References

Barrett, T. (2002). Interpreting art: Reflecting, wondering, and responding. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Blair, J. M. (2014). Animated autoethnographies: Stop motion animation as a tool for self-inquiry and personal evolution. Art Education, 67(2), 6–13.

Blair, J. M. (2015). Animated autoethnographies: Using stop motion animation as a catalyst for self-acceptance in the art classroom (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of North Texas, Denton, TX. Retrieved from http://www.animatedautoethnography.com

Bochner, A. P., & Ellis, C. (2003). An introduction to the arts and narrative research: Art as inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(4), 506–514.

Denzin, N. (1997). Ethnographic poetics and narratives of the self: Experiential texts. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Ellis, C. & Bochner, A. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.). (pp. 733–768). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Ellis, C., & Adams, T. E., & Bochner, A. P. (2011). Autoethnography: An overview. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1).

Mak, B., & Pollack, J. (2013). The performance and practice of research in a cabinet of curiosity: The library’s dead time. Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 32(2), 202–221.

Mauriès, C. (2011). Cabinets of curiosities. London: Thames & Hudson.

Reed-Danahay, D. (1997). Auto/ethnography: Rewriting the self and the social (1st ed.). New York: Berg.

Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: A Method of Inquiry. In. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition (pp.923–949) Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Tedlock, B. (2008). The observation of participation and the emergence of public ethnography in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, 3rd edition. (pp. 151–164). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Zytaruk, M. (2011). Cabinets of curiosities and the organization of knowledge. University of Toronto Quarterly, 80(1),1–23.

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