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The More the Merrier?

Twenty or less. Docents and educators across the country consider this the optimum size for school group tours in museums. That’s why we were both excited and a little nervous when the Education Department of the Chrysler Museum of Art invited us to craft and conduct tours for groups of 60-80 sixth graders who would be visiting an exhibition of Pueblo pottery on loan from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Approximately 2,000 students from the Hampton, Virginia, public schools would be visiting, and this would be the perfect opportunity for us to test the theory that if 15-20 children can have a great experience in the galleries, why not 80?!

On our initial visit to the exhibit, entitled Singing the Clay, we saw four large, connecting gallery spaces filled with long, low pedestals holding more than 100 exquisite (and unprotected) Pueblo pots. The absence of barriers made the pottery temptingly accessible to both eyes and hands. The pottery from the various Pueblos all looked alike at first glance, and the presentation was very stark for an audience used to a high degree of sensory stimulation. How could we teach about the pottery, create a fun and exciting hour for 80 different learners, and keep all those wonderful clay objects safe?

From the beginning we kept in mind Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and the PROJECT MUSE work being done at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, which applies learning theory to museum education.

Depending on which intelligences dominate a student’s learning, one or more of these five entry points to knowledge is preferred:

Aesthetic – responding to the formal, sensory qualities of the object or subject

Narrative – interest in the subject or story being told

Logical/Quantitative – deductive reasoning and numerical considerations

Foundational – underlying philosophies, consideration of why the subject or object has importance

Experiential – preference for learning by doing, using hands and bodies to learn.

Keeping in mind these ways of approaching any subject, including pottery, we decided that our first gallery activity would be both experiential and calming, as eighty students right off the bus would need to settle down. As our student visitors entered the gallery, they were greeted by the soothing sounds of traditional Native American flute music. Students sat on the floor in the exhibit’s central gallery, relaxed, and were invited on an imaginary journey to the Acoma Pueblo to observe the climate, the people, the pueblo architecture, and the methods of gathering and processing clay.

After this introduction, we tried our boldest experiment — allowing 80 students to work on their own with a treasure hunt activity. We really were not sure if this would invite total chaos or total involvement, but we knew that if the treasure-hunt clues covered each entry point to knowledge, we had a good chance of getting everyone involved. (The museum’s guards had been briefed ahead of time and were braced and ready just in case we were wrong!)

One of the most gratifying moments of our tour would usually come at the announcement of the treasure hunt, which was invariably greeted with a ripple of approval. Students always appreciate a chance to work on their own and to socialize with their classmates. The treasure hunt included factual questions such as “find the deer-in-his-house design” to imaginative and open-ended ones such as “find a design that is like fast, loud music.” Formal qualities of the objects were addressed, questions about the stories told by pottery symbols were asked, speculations about design and construction were encouraged.

About 20 minutes of the hour-long visit were allotted to this activity. As the students worked, we circulated among them, giving them more facts about the objects and asking them to spread this information to their friends. This approach worked wonderfully, and students quickly got caught up in teaching and helping each other. They also got caught up in competing with each other for the best answers. The treasure hunt handouts ended with a final item that invited students to invent two clues of their own and swap these with a friend. Every group tried to outdo the next with imaginative and difficult clues. Except for the occasional need to ask students not to run from one area of the gallery to another, or to not get too close to the pedestals, we had no discipline problems. They were just too interested in the task to get into trouble! On days when we were unable to work together and no docents were available, we discovered that one tour guide and one guard could handle the group.

After reassembling the class, we spent a little time having individual students try to stump the group with their clues. This was a big hit, and when we would run out of time to hear everyone’s clues, the students did not hesitate to express their disappointment.

The treasure hunt was followed by a drawing activity. We told students that the Pueblo Council would be looking for pottery designers who could combine symbols for corn, rain, earth, and sky in an original pottery design. We passed out forms with this “help wanted” ad at the top and with a large space for a drawing of the design. Students were asked to make a sketch as well as write about the meaning of their symbols and design. By this time, most of the class were so involved that they almost believed this was a real job application. As they worked, we again circulated among them, making comments about their designs and telling them more about the pottery-making process. We had samples of unfinished works they could touch, and we asked them to make a comparison between some cheap imitation pots and the museum objects. The ultimate highlight of our discussion was, however, the recounting of how an oxygen-reduction fire is used to create the unique black pottery at Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos. When the pottery has baked long enough, the fire is smothered with horse manure. We just could not resist being the first educators to pass around baggies full of horse manure in the Chrysler Museum of Art, and you can be sure the student responded to this innovation!

By the time the drawing was completed our hour in the exhibition would be up. For the last few minutes we recapped the tour by asking students to tell us at least three things they had learned about the pottery. We answered any final questions and made certain that students took their finished drawings and treasure hunts back to school for use during classroom discussions. Teachers were given a classroom follow-up activity which would involve students in designing one more pot, this time with symbols to represent their school. The teachers also received a follow-up packet with information about Pueblo food, games, music, and dance traditions.

From our observations and questioning during the hour, we became convinced that the majority of our visitors were having a genuine flow experience. Rather than being short-changed by the size of the group, almost every student had our individual attention at some point during the tour. An interesting group dynamic developed, also, with every tour. Because there were so many students, people who wanted to participate far outnumbered those who were reluctant. The peer pressure to learn was overwhelming, and even the “coolest” were induced to get involved. In smaller groups we’ve observed that there is a much greater opportunity for the reluctant to prevail and dampen the spirits of everyone else. Thanks to the willingness of the museum’s staff to allow such large groups to use these interactive strategies, we were able to demonstrate that sometimes more really is better!

Ellen Henry and Trish Pfeifer are museum consultants currently working with the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. A previous article co-authored by Ms. Henry and Ms. Pfeifer, entitled “Designing an Outreach Program,” appeared in the Autumn 1996 issue of The Docent Educator.

Henry, Ellen and Trish Pfiefer. “The More the Merrier?,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 14-16.

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