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Make it Entertaining and Educational: Walking through Outdoor Installations

This is awesome! Look at that dinosaur spine made of sticks!” “Wow! The “spiral vortice” is really a wooden whirlpool!”

Such comments were heard over and over again as all the third and seventh graders from the public schools in Brockton, Massachusetts, enjoyed ten outdoor installations in the woods adjacent to the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton. The visit was the result of negotiations by the education program coordinator at the Fuller and the Brockton School Department, which agreed to pay for buses and an admission fee of two dollars per student. Over two thousand students were led by docents who had been trained to interact with the students before, during, and after the walk though the woods.

Questions such as “How do you prepare students to go outside the museum to see an exhibit?” and “What sort of questions do you ask students when making the transition from “indoor” art to “outdoor” art?” were discussed among the docents prior to the students’ arrival.

Docents felt that these particular tours were wonderful opportunities to encourage viewer participation, which is a crucial part of our teaching responsibilities at the Fuller. Prior to the walk outdoors the docents called attention to the word “docent” on their badges. Many of the students knew its meaning, having been prepped by their teachers using materials sent to them weeks in advance of their visit. We docents have found these pre-visit materials to be most helpful in preparing the students and teachers for the tour not only in their expectations and understandings, but also in behavior. In the walk-throughs the students were well prepared to stay on the path and follow the docent, rather than running ahead in excitement which could have resulted in lost children and confusion.

Groups of approximately ten students began the tour by touring an orientation gallery titled “Walking Through: Ten Outdoor Installations,” in which the artists’ plans (some with elaborate drawings and some with models) were viewed and discussed. Some of the questions that were asked by the docents included the following:

  • Why would a person want to create art in the woods?
  • What are some problems that artists might have to think about when constructing an outdoor sculpture? (Weather, vandalism, animals, etc.)
  • Have you ever made a sculpture using only sticks or leaves?

After all the students had had a chance to answer and ask questions they were eager to go outdoors to the woods behind the museum.

A correspondent for The Boston Globe described the ten works, which were installed along a pathway, as “an arty play-land . . . works that feel as if the fairies have been up all night spinning magic in the trees.” When this correspondent made reference to fairies she was probably thinking of the Fairy Houses made by Ted Hirsch and his 11 -year-old son, Ben. Visitors are invited to follow the artist’s lead and build their own houses of sticks and branches, resulting in wonderful creations throughout the pathway. As they gathered twigs, sticks, and leaves to build their own interpretations of “Fairy Houses,” the students revealed that they were actively involved in the tour and were eager to use their own creativity. One class continued to build Fairy Houses after they returned to their school and sent photos of the proud creators and their works of art. Artist Kate Dodd’s “Membranes/ Placeholders” provided an entry and an exit from the pathway with its curtains of mylar-encased paintings of scenes in the woods. Immediately upon moving beyond the “curtains” the students began to spy (and they were participating in a spying game to see who could spot colors first) the dead but graceful branches artist

Rebecca Doughty had painted in soft, vibrant colors. Exclamations that included, “There’s a pink one” and “Look how that orange one is bent” demonstrated that visitors to the woods were actively involved in viewing nature from a slightly different vantage point than they had before — one of the goals of our tours.

Each of the ten installations were greeted with the same enthusiasm — each being distinctly different from ones they had seen earlier or were about to see.

For instance, artist Grace Pond Cain gathered Post-its™ and other bits of paper with notes scribbled on them and placed a protective coat of laminating material on each one. Then she mounted them on chickenwire fences surrounding the tree trunks. Students demonstrated their delight as they scurried to read the dozens of notes. And, when admiring “Spiral Vortice” created by Frank Vasello, visitors speak of how the sculpture imparts a sense of motion, pulling visitors toward the center of rock formations framed by his addition of branches.

During the walkthrough docents discuss questions, such as “How would these installations be different if they were made of materials not found in the woods? (Steel, cotton balls, cardboard, etc.) and “How would this sculpture be different if we took it out of the woods and placed it inside the museum? What would change?”

One installation invited visitors to do more than participate with their eyes. Wesley Reddick’s “Swing Beams” consisted of two giant swings that hung from wooden beams and that encouraged visitors to climb up and take a swing. Young and old found this installation a delightful way to truly become involved with a work.

The outdoor installations have become an annual tradition at the Fuller Museum of Art and, judging from the reactions of the students and other visitors, it will continue. This exhibition has been exceptionally useful to the museum’s education department, as it attempts to create a more thoughtful relationship between the environment, works of art, and people. Such works entertain and educate visitors by actively engaging them, while challenging them to commune with the artists’ intents.

Miriam Johnson is a docent at the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton, MA. After receiving a Ph.D. from Boston College, Dr. Johnson served in the Brockton Public School System for Several years in various capacities. She finds that a background in education has helped her in her work as a docent.

Johnson, Miriam. “Make it Entertaining and Educational,” The Docent Educator 10.4 (Summer 2001): 4-5.

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