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Developing School Programs

This past November, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, in Ridgefield, CT, held a three-day seminar on developing school programs in art museums. The aptly titled seminar. Innovations in Museum Education, attracted 32 museum educators, consultants, and students from as far away as Los Angeles.

The impetus for hosting this seminar was the overwhelming response the Museum’s Student Docent program has received in recent years. The Student Docent program is a collaboration between The Aldrich Museum and local schools. Students from fifth grade, middle school, and high school come to the Museum to learn about our changing exhibitions of contemporary art from a museum educator. Following five after-school training sessions, the student docents guide their entire class in groups of 6 to 10 through the Museum, while engaging them in discussions about the exhibition. We have received over 200 inquires from other institutions on how to set up a similar program. This response inspired us to develop a forum during which museum educators could learn from one another’s experiences in building relationships with schools.

Innovations was designed for a small group of museum educators to foster discussions about the value of on-going relationships between students and museums. Long recognized by educators, museum-school collaborations are increasingly being recognized by museum boards and administrators as valid extensions of their missions. Those who registered for Innovations were seeking inspiration, new ideas, and details on implementing programs. The small size of the group allowed us to build a dialogue over the three days of the seminar.

Our first speaker was Harry Philbrick, director of The Aldrich Museum and creator of the Student Docent program. He reminded participants of the unique opportunity museums have to provide object-based learning experiences at a time when many of our experiences are second-hand. When designing school programs, it is important not to sacrifice that experience for the convenience of visiting a school with slides, and Mr. Philbrick encouraged participants to focus their programs on a direct engagement with objects in their institutions.

When building relationships with schools, it is important to involve the teachers in your planning. Mr. Philbrick cited research that concluded that a classroom teacher with little or no expertise in art had more success in teaching a simple “method for looking” than when a better informed, practicing museum educator presented the same information. This is because the teacher can relate the art to other relevant topics from the students’ curriculum. Philbrick took this logical discovery one step further along the learning pyramid: Why not let the student teach another student?

During the seminar, a selection of Student Docents demonstrated their skills. Ten students from fifth grade, eighth grade, and high school led a tour of our current exhibition of installation art. After the tour, some Student Docents participated in a panel discussion with the museum educators who trained them and classroom teachers from participating schools. The discussion enabled the educators to relay details of how the program works.

The final speaker on the first day was Roger Dell from the Fitchburg Art Museum, in Fitchburg, MA. Mr. Dell presented a museum-school collaboration where an arts magnet school is housed inside the museum. The Fitchburg Museum actually collects objects with a school’s curriculum in mind. The artwork in the museum is the textbook for classes that take place in the galleries of the museum.

The second day of activities commenced with an open-forum information exchange between many of the museum educators in attendance. During this exchange, educators presented their own school programs. A popular concept presented by several museums involving writing about art, among these the Neuberger Museum of Art’s Writing Through the Arts program; the Weatherspoon Art Gallery’s Art Smart: Portraits writing program, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Art and Creative Writing program. Other innovative programs included the Hecksher Museum of Art’s Junior Docent Program and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s High School Internship program, which trains high school students not only to lead tours for their peers, but to assist with family programs and teach younger children. The open forum proved to be one of the most informative aspects of the seminar. The opportunity to share ideas is something we would all like to engage in on a more regular basis.

The keynote speaker on the second day was Jessica Davis, the founding director of Harvard University’s Art in Education program. Ms. Davis’ research with Harvard’s Project MUSE (Museums Unite with Schools in Education) led to development of a series of questions that can be used in any gallery setting. Davis stressed the importance of focusing on the process rather than the product of learning when designing school programs. Project MUSE questions, known as the Generic Game and The Entry Point Quests, take the viewer through the . processes of inquiry, access, and reflection to discover meaning in a work of art.

Peggy Cole helped us to put our knowledge into a developmental perspective. She reminded us that knowledge and theory building are based on experience. The group discussed traits characteristic of different age groups, and then split into smaller groups to focus on primary, middle, or adolescent years. Groups of 5 to 6 educators worked on designing a series of museum visits including pre- and post-visit materials. One group designed a series of visits for middle school students in which letters are written back and forth between the class and the museum educator. The first letter would discuss the classes expectations of the museum visit. The educator will have received the letter before the class arrives. After the series of visits is over, students write a report to the museum educator on the same subject as the initial letter: What is a museum? What happens inside a museum? Hopefully, their perceptions will have changed. The educator would respond to the class a final time with a letter. Another group suggested using journal entries during the school’s series of visits to the museum to write wall text for both the museum and the school.

The focus on writing carried to our next and final day of the seminar. Carol Diehl, a writer, artist, and teacher, has the perfect credentials for teaching a class on writing about art and has been the lead presenter for The Aldrich’s writing program Art Advocates since 1996. Diehl presented several approaches for teaching how to write about art. She pointed out that these experiences make the viewer stop, but importantly, look. Telling students not to be afraid to hear their own voices will help them feel comfortable with their opinions. Diehl advised having students read work aloud to one another to encourage a fresh perspective.

The final speaker was Sonnet Takahisa, co-director of the New York City Museum School, where she is in the process of developing evaluation methods for museum learning. Sonnet addressed the museum educators’ responsibility to account for why learning in museums is valuable. She outlined six steps or phases of learning in museums: extended observation, questioning, research, synthesis and analysis, presentation, and reflection — all of which take place in any museum on a daily basis. Takahisa cautions educators to continually ask themselves: How do we know we’re being effective? Is our instruction evident in student work? How is it evident? This constant evaluation helps develop and maintain standards suitable to one’s own institution.

Perhaps most rewarding about Innovations in Museum Education was having the opportunity to meet and share ideas with so many other creative minds. Responses culled from evaluation forms about the seminar were consistently favorable – – citing in particular a preference for working in a small group with a focused agenda. Out of a concern that these qualities can not be found in a larger conference. The Aldrich has been inspired to consider offering a museum education seminar as a biennial event.

Nina Carlson is curator of education at The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, CT.

Carlson, Nina. “Developing School Programs,” The Docent Educator 8.3 (Spring 1999): 8-9.


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