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Reach Out and Teach

Once upon a time, I thought I had this touring business , figured out. After all, I had the material more-or-less mastered. I knew generally how to select objects that would be the most engaging to visitors and how to shift course, most of the time, if I needed to! I knew how to select a theme and how to design and sequence age-appropriate questions for good visitor involvement. I also knew how to connect ideas and make the tour “flow.” And, alas, I knew how to use effective speaking and crowd control techniques. This is not to say I didn’t have plenty of room for continual improvement. But, let’s face it, I’ve been doing this for a long time. Yet, something was missing. Sound familiar?

What was missing was an experience that engaged the whole person. The richest learning environments and experiences are often found in pre-schools, kindergarten, and early elementary. What is so special about these classrooms? Among other characteristics, they are very conducive to multi-sensory experiences that emphasize learning-by-doing a wide range of activities, often at “centers.” Our museums generally have built-in “centers. ” In professional parlance, they are called “exhibitions.” But, no matter how well designed, these exhibitions probably do not, especially in art museums, emphasize learning-by-doing. That is, unless a docent is present to play the critical role of facilitator: expanding the context by providing multiple “points of entry ” into the object, thereby making it more accessible and, hence, more meaningful to visitors.

I don’t know about you, but about the same time I realized “something was missing,” the familiar art museum dictum of “touch only with your eyes” began to seem highly unsatisfactory to me as a docent. No doubt, it had never been very satisfying to the students. Yes, it remains a clever and polite way of asking students not to touch the objects without having to use a “negative” word like “don’t.” But the message is clear; touching has too infrequently been a part of art museum tours. What a shame, for early childhood psychologists tell us that touching is a very important and appropriate way of knowing and understanding the world around us.

The Science Museum Model

Science and children’s museums have historically been far ahead of art museums when it comes to meaningful hands-on experiences for visitors. An observation of those around you in these kind of institutions reveals people actively and enthusiastically involved in doing tasks that engage them at many levels, whether it is touching starfish in a tank or manually operating a model of planetary orbits. Art museum docents can learn important lessons about teaching in museums from their colleagues at these institutions.

Art museum docents would be wise to exercise caution in the design of hands-on activities, however, lest they fall prey to the central flaw of some of these science/children’s museum models: that entertainment is sometimes mistaken for education. In an effort to create “fun,” “engaging,” and “kinesthetic” learning experiences, activities may engage visitors on the level of physical — and even social — activity to the exclusion of the thinking and learning goals that were intended.

A Guidelines for Developing Hands-On Activities

We can aim to avoid pitfalls by remembering the following four guidelines. Docents should use tour props and age-appropriate hands-on activities:

  • with very specific learning objectives and learning goals in mind;
  • in support of concepts very closely related to the museum objects (not in competition with them);
  • to direct visitor attention back to the exhibited objects (rather than as ends in-and-of themselves); and
  • as an instructional enhancement, not recreation.

As we try to design activities that meet these guidelines, we must continually ask ourselves questions such as, “Is this activity teaching a concept germane to this object or is it just keeping kids busy? Will the students understand the connection without a lot of explaining on my part? If it is instructionally valid, is it teaching what I think it is teaching?”

Defining “Hands-On”

There are at least three interpretations of the term “hands-on,” as it relates to art museum (and many historic site) tours. The first refers to tours in which students “do” something besides ask and answer questions, such as worksheets. The second refers to tours that are followed by a related (studio) art activity, often of the “make and take” variety, the purpose being to reinforce some aspect of the tour. The third interpretation, and the one I have chosen to elaborate on, is where opportunities to manipulate materials or props are integrated into an inquiry-based tour.

Four Types of Hands-On Activities

In reflecting upon several years of exhibitions and the kinds of hands-on activities we designed for specific works of art, I found that virtually all of them were developed to increase understanding in one of four ways. I discuss each of them, below, describing examples of activities for each. In spite of their highly specific nature, my intent is not to provide “blueprints,” but to offer examples that will hopefully inspire your own ideas for effective and engaging ways of teaching.

Though the objectives embodied in the four approaches below could be accomplished through a didactic “show and tell” method of delivery, they are intended to be used in a way, as the term “hands-on” suggests, that actively involves students in making discoveries by trying their hand.

1. Simulate an aspect of the creative process.

Joan Nelson is a contemporary artist who isolates background details appropriated from Renaissance paintings and paints them on tiny canvases. The paintings are lovely, but small and difficult for a group of students to see very well. In order to help them understand some aspect of Nelson’s creative process, we designed a simple activity in which pairs of students were given color photocopies of Renaissance paintings and view finders (slide mounts would work) . The students’ task was to lay the view finders on the reproductions and move them around in order to “isolate” background details, finding the best composition. This concept of finding small pictures hidden within pictures captivated the students, who also demonstrated a keen natural ability to “compose,” and helped them understand the scale and subject matter of Nelson’s work.

In the same exhibition, another artist had cast hydro-stone in the shape of Styrofoam packing peanuts, which he then arranged in small groupings called “glyphs.” Students were given four packing peanuts, asked to think of a noun or verb that they wanted to communicate and then asked to use their peanuts to create a “glyph” representing their ideas. The other students tried to infer what their classmates were trying to communicate. While neither of these activities could possibly duplicate the complexities of the artists’ creative process, they very inexpensively and efficiently helped students understand some of the mental and physical dimensions of creating art.

2. Explore a principle embodied in the artwork.

A fountain called Cultivus Loci: Nimbus installed in our gallery by Jann Rosen-Queralt provided at least two opportunities to reinforce science-related concepts that were integral to the unity and meaning of this piece, which expressed the artist’s ideas about the relationship between water, land masses (such as glaciers) and clouds. Three screens enclosed the fountain. Each screen was constructed by suspending two layers of fine mesh screen from a rigid frame. By using two layers of screen, the artist was able to create patterns that resembled water-marked silk, as well as the nimbus clouds referred to in the title of the work. Pairs of students were given two small pieces of screen (with the edges taped) so that they could discover the patterns that were created when the pieces of screen were held up to the light and turned in different directions.

The fountain itself was constructed from vertical copper pipes covered with sea sponges. Water was pumped from a large pool up through the pipes and allowed to drip down the sponges before plopping onto varying lengths of more copper pipe, set at oblique angles to the vertical pipes. As the water struck these shorter pipes, different tones were emitted, so that the space was filled with a metallic atonal music.

We built a simple xylophone from graduated lengths of copper pipe, the ends of which rested on a wooden frame. Using a metal rod, students struck the pipes to create sounds, first predicting whether the longer or shorter pipes would have higher or lower sounds, explaining why, and then testing their predictions. Finally, as a departing activity, we incorporated a little folklore into their experience by supplying the students with pennies to toss into the fountain after making a wish.

3. Make tangible an unfamiliar reference in the artwork.

In a recent exhibition, a series of chewing gum sculptures by Hannah Wilke was entitled “Four Color Process, ” a reference to a printing process which few people have heard of, much less experienced directly. This work was a series of non-objective sculptures created from opaque layers of colored chewing gum, used almost like polymer clay. In order to penetrate one layer of meaning (the other was covertly anatomical and sexual, so we decided to leave it alone!), we felt students needed to know what the four color process is.

We borrowed actual color transparencies from both a local art school and our local printer so that we could show students what the phrase “four color process” means. We showed samples of finished print jobs to the students and then “magically” reproduced the images by layering four transparencies, each printed with one of the four colors required by the four-color printing process: magenta, cyan, process yellow, and black, one on top of the next. Students watched as, for example, a yellow area became orange by laying magenta over it, or green by laying cyan over it. More complex colors emerged with the final two layers. Even our security guards were transfixed by this little bit of color “magic.”

4. Illustrate the connection between an artwork and the artwork to which it alludes.

A work entitled “Sold!” in a recent exhibition consisted of a red dot, about the size of a quarter, painted on the wall. It was a clever, if rather minimal and oblique, reference both to Pop art painter Roy Lichtenstein’s emphasis on the ben day dot, as well as to the “sold” sticker placed by most galleries on the labels of artworks that have been purchased.

In order to help students understand this work as pushing Lichtenstein’s paintings one step further, we first showed students examples of comic strips. Using a magnifying glass, we asked them to find the dots. Then, we showed them a reproduction of one of Lichtenstein’s paintings, helping them discover how he had emphasized and enlarged the ben day dots used in comics. In this way, students were better able to understand this highly minimal and ironic work.

A Touch and Go, Go, Go

As you begin or continue to explore the wide world of tour props and hands-on activities, remember that the best ones make concrete what is implied, embodied, referenced, or assumed by the artist. Also, remember that neither the materials nor the activity need be expensive or complicated. In fact, if they are, there is certainly a better way that you just haven’t thought of yet . . . but you will!

Betsy Gough-Dijulio is Director of Education for the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, in Virginia Beach, VA. Ms. Gough-DiJulio, who is a regular contributor to The Docent Educator, received her M.A. in art history from Vanderbilt University and her Ed. S. in Curriculum Instruction from George Washington University.

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Reach Out and Teach,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 10-12.

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