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Body Language Spoken Here

Experiential learning is a natural for science museums, where material can be manipulated to find answers. But what about art museums, where the pieces are often fragile, displayed in glass cases, and surrounded by “Do not touch” signs? Docents at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) of San Francisco, eager to involve their audiences, frequently employ the Socratic method of asking questions. This technique works well with young children and adults, but not with self-conscious pre-adolescents wanting to appear neither too eager nor too uneducated in front of their peers. The AAM Education Department and school docents, frustrated that the museum’s great art was not making an impact on inactive and disinterested sixth grade students, set out to create a new experience for participants.

To begin creating that experience, we met with local teachers who regularly bring their students to the AAM. They suggested we use a format similar to an approach developed and published by Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI). Their program, History Alive/, uses roleplaying, slides, groupwork, and other methods to involve students in a highly interactive process.

Bert Bower, Executive Director of TCI, developed the idea of sending students, in pairs, on a quest within the museum. Some docents were skeptical that sixth graders would be mature enough for the freedom such an approach would offer. They also feared that this style of tour would provide docents with only a minor role, and a disciplinarian one at that!

The AAM Education Department, AAM docents, and Mr. Bowers decided to work together to develop a feasible program that would ensure protection of the works of art and provide a challenging, interactive learning experience for students, while permitting docents to contribute in a substantial way to their group’s understanding of Asian art and culture. The result of this collaborative effort was Body Language: the Human Form in Asian Art. a two-hour program for sixth graders.

Introducing Students to Body Language

We begin the program in the museum classroom where we remind students that the title of our tour is Body Language and that we will explore the ways Asian sculptures convey different emotions or ideas by their poses, their expressions, and the attributes they hold. Students assume different stances to show how they would portray power, fatigue, anger, happiness, intelligence, compassion, or victory, thereby making a personal connection to the art.

Our second activity is called “act-it-out.” A slide is projected on the screen and students look carefully at the image, describe it, and finally put their bodies in the same positions as the characters depicted (or “act-it out”). We chose a slide of an Indonesian sculpture of Durga, the Hindu warrior goddess. Students notice that she has eight arms holding weapons such as sword, a club, a discus, etc. Four girls, standing one in front of the other, stretch their arms appropriately to represent Durga and her eight arms. Durga is standing on a buffalo demon, a part for which the largest boy in the class usually volunteers. Finally, we ask for another boy to take the part of the smaller demon emerging from the slain buffalo’s neck. The docent, acting as a reporter, holds a pretend microphone, asking each character how he feels. Students sense the emotions and themes — power, defeat, rebirth, transformation — involved in this powerful religious drama.

The docent now has the audience’s attention and explains that the buffalo demon is so fierce that none of the existing gods could conquer him, so all the male gods put their forces and weapons together to create Durga. With this power, Durga is able to slay the demon. But, just as she withdraws the sword from his neck, the buffalo transforms himself into a smaller demon, on whose head she pushes hard to keep him within her powers. With this demonstration and explanation, we move from the concrete details of the image to the concepts of power, transformation, and body-language. The docent is instrumental in taking the students to a more profound understanding of religion, art, and culture as students are guided from concrete details to abstract concepts.

Teams Discover Meaning

Students are now ready to enter the galleries to apply what they have learned about how Asian art expresses cultural meaning. The teacher provides the students with nametags and divides the sixth graders into pairs who will work well together. The teacher also divides the class into compatible groups of eight to ten persons (or four to five pairs) . Each docent takes one group into three different galleries. Each pair of students has a pencil and clipboard with a map of Asia and reference sheets with drawings of Buddha and different symbolic hand gestures or mudras, as definitions.

We can accommodate as many as sixty students at one time — six docents, each with one group of ten students. We can assign two groups of sixth graders with their accompanying docents in two different areas of the large India gallery and one group each in the other galleries: the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. The thirty handouts are color-coded (bright yellow for Buddha, green for guardians, etc.), allowing docents to vary assignments to each pair of students as they visit three different galleries, spending twenty to twenty-five minutes in each. The lead docent decides on the gallery rotations for each of the six docents.

As the docent brings her group into a gallery, each student is asked to mark an “X” on the map in the Asian area represented by art in that gallery, for instance the Himalayas. While the docent talks with students about the geography and culture of that area, the participants look at the works, noticing how they are distinctive from most Western art. Then, each pair is given a handout for a particular sculpture. The docent stands where he or she can view each sculpture as the sixth graders work on their handouts. This ensures the safety of the art works. It also makes it easy for students to find the docents when they have questions.

Each pair examines one work of art in this gallery using a handout with a drawing of that sculpture. The students assume the position of the statue whether it is the lotus position of Buddha or, as in the case of the Dakini from Tibet, a difficult dancing pose. Students draw parts of the figure that have been deliberately omitted, forcing them to look carefully at a designated characteristic. Often these are facial features with a definite expression of style or perhaps an animal head. For the Dakini, the sixth graders must also draw her scarf On close examination the pair discovers that the scarf is, in actuality a flayed human. The students make the discovery “on their own;” their excitement is palpable.

After completing these activities and answering a few related questions, a text on the handout explains that the Dakini is a Tibetan Buddhist figure, a “female skywalker.” Immediately, some children relate “skywalker” to the character, Luke Skywalker, of Star Wars. They come to realize that the Dakini, though she appears mean and ferocious, is in reality very caring because she will do anything to remove obstacles in the path of a devotee. The flayed human figure represents such an obstacle, an unbeliever. In order to be effective, the Dakini has to be ferocious, because it is difficult to change bad habits, especially if someone is tempting you to do otherwise. The students move from observing concrete details, such as the flayed human scarf to the concept of a fierce protectress.

A key feature of the program is that students explore the art in pairs. They are able to share ideas, talking quietly to each other within the museum setting. They help each other assume the correct posture depicted by the sculpture. They take turns completing drawings. Answering questions is a collaborative effort. Interaction is high and on task. If one pair finishes its assigned handout before the others, that pair is asked to look at the other sheets on the clipboard to find examples of different mudras or different characteristics of Buddha within the gallery.

Student Presentations

After finishing the work on their handouts, the students gather around one pair of students in front of one sculpture. This team then presents to the others what it has learned about the sculpture. Because the students are involved, because they have been brought to discover aspects of “their own sculpture” they never would have suspected, they are ready to hear from their peers about “their” work of art. This allows students to practice important presentation skills and, more importantly, reinforces what students learned in their handouts. Each team has an opportunity to present at least once in the three galleries.

Following the students’ presentation is an ideal time for the decent to answer questions and to enlarge understanding of the art and culture. In the case of the Dakini, after the students’ presentation, the docent might show the group other examples of flayed humans on other Tibetan Buddhist statues. The sixth graders can view a display of ewers made from human skulls valued by the indigenous Bon religion. These Bon skulls relate to the skull bowl, which was originally held by the Buddhist protectress, Dakini. This leads to a discussion of how the original religious practices are incorporated into other religions, which arrived later. The docent might also discuss the “aerial burial” practiced by Buddhists in Tibet, where the dead, placed on a mountain top, are picked clean by vultures rather than cremated because of the a scarcity of wood in the Himalayas. Students understand that Buddhist religious practices are adapted to the harsh environment of Tibet.

During the gallery sessions, a rewarding outcome is that those students who are least successful, or “off-the-wall” in the classroom, are often able to shine in this environment. Many “poor students” become involved and curious while providing original insights. Sixth graders prove that they are indeed mature enough to handle structured freedom in the galleries. Teachers like seeing their students’ curiosity and accountability. We feel a “buzz” developing among the school docents as they realize that some of the most profound discoveries are made in the de-briefing sessions in each gallery when they have an attentive audience.

Wrap Up

The final section of this program takes place back in the museum classroom where a slide is shown from each gallery. The class identifies the culture from which it comes and, if possible, the name of the sculpture. Docents and teachers alike are impressed that almost all students can do both. Students begin to understand how the depiction of the human figure throughout Asian art is in many ways very similar. In addition, they realize that each culture within Asia has a distinctive style of art unique unto itself.

Before leaving the museum, the teacher receives an envelope containing the students’ papers, which can be graded should the teacher wish to do so. (The docents did not want that responsibility.) An evaluation sheet with a self-addressed, stamped envelope is also included. In addition, we offer many suggestions for using student handouts in follow-up study, such as ideas for tracing the changes in the depiction of Buddhism as it travels from India to Southeast Asia to the Himalayas to China to Japan.

Teachers’ evaluations indicate that the program is just “the right combination of docent information and student discovery and participation.” They write, “Working in small groups with a definite focus, lots of adult support, and the chance for many different approaches to learning meant that everyone learned a lot and had a good time.”

Carol Thurston is an active docent at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, California, where she is on the Docent Council Board assisting with school tours. She is also on the Board of the Society of Asian Art in San Francisco. During the Four years she lived in Tokyo, Mrs. Thurston served on the Board of the College Women’s Association of Japan. In addition, Mrs. Thurston taught junior high school for ten years and continues to teach at-risk students of all ages.

Thurston, Carol. “Body Language Spoken Here,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 14-16.

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