Reimagining Art Museums With Help From Local Teens

May 19, 2014
By Educator Innovator

Museum educators invite students and other visitors to share in the dialogue about art, transforming the role of the museum.

By Heidi Moore | Museums can be intimidating places, especially for young people who lack familiarity with art history and its insider language. Today a number of museum educators are seeking to change that—and, in the process, reimagine how visitors interact with artwork.

The blog of Art Museum Teaching, a partner organization of Educator Innovator, showcased a recent example with “Invisible Pedagogies.” A Madrid-based collective comprising educators from high schools, colleges, and art centers, Invisible Pedagogies seeks to transform the relationship between art and education. According to member Andrea de Pascual, invisible pedagogies are the nonexplicit “microdiscourses” that inform a pedagogy. Though hidden, these elements affect participants in a place or an experience.

Think of a classroom door, de Pascual says. “What is the meaning of closing a door in the classroom? And of leaving it open? Or asking the students which they prefer? In a museum the fact that the entrance doors are automatic or revolving or that one must push them will send a specifically different message to the visitor and will affect the way he or she interacts with the art inside.”

An open versus closed door provides an apt metaphor for the experience of visiting a museum. Is the museum hierarchical and didactic, or does it invite guest participation? Invisible Pedagogies seeks to disrupt what it calls the “power-knowledge barrier” between educators (the voice of the institution) and participants, who “in most cases feel they don’t have anything to say about contemporary art.” Decentralizing learning in a museum eliminates hierarchy and lends validity to multiple voices and viewpoints.

The collective was inspired by the work of Maria Acaso, a professor of art education at the Complutense University of Madrid. “Invisible pedagogies have many ways of changing people in their participation in the educative act,” Acaso writes. “They help them to learn or not. They get people to become passionate for knowledge or deadly bored. They make them feel fear or pleasure. They invite them to share or to hide.”

One arts organization that’s working to open the classroom door, so to speak, is the Milwaukee Art Museum. Writing in Art Museum Teaching, Chelsea Emelie Kelly, manager of digital learning at the museum, discusses an innovative program that invites local teens to study and interpret a work in the collection and then share their ideas about the work using digital media. The idea itself isn’t new—the museum has offered teen programming for more than 30 years—but the digital media component allows the museum to share these alternate viewpoints with a wider audience, both in person and on the program’s YouTube page.

Students in the Satellite Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo/ Front Room Photography

In fall 2013, students in the Satellite High School Program created vlogs (video blogs) exploring their evolving views of a single artwork. Using iPads provided by the museum’s education department, the teens wove together information from art historians and curators, peers, and their own subjective interests and experiences to create a unique interpretation of the piece.

“Some of my students have talked about how they look more closely and question things more that they’re learning about in history or in other classes—‘Why is this important? Why did this really happen? What effect did this have?’—because of this close looking at a single work,” Kelly says.

Working with digital media tools, teens in the program gain valuable career skills. And through visits with museum staff and curators, they gain exposure to potential arts careers.

The students aren’t the only ones who benefit from opening up the museum experience to other voices. “The staff at the museum has seen art in new ways as well, thanks to the videos the teens create,” Kelly says. After every end-of-the-program screening, museum staff “come up to me and say, ‘I never thought of it that way, but [after] that student’s comment, I have to look at this again.’ And it’s really exciting to have that impact.”

A similar experiment took place a few years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. In conjunction with an exhibit on architecture and design, students were invited to map the museum as a way to document their experience there—in essence making the map, and the art museum, their own.

The teens, some of whom had never been to the Art Institute before, scanned museum floor plans and then created annotated maps organized around a specific theme of their choosing. Afterward, they discussed their work via Skype with the artist Michal Migurski of the design studio Stamen, which created the OpenStreetMap project Walking Papers.

An earlier project with a similar intention was Art Mobs, in which patrons created their own podcast tours of works at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

Yet inviting other viewpoints doesn’t necessarily mean discounting or devaluing the voices of experts or the museum itself. “Museums are a very trusted resource,” says the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Kelly. “So you still want to be clear what the facts are [and what] we know about a piece and how those facts can help us interpret it ourselves.”

“Opening up interpretation, for me, means that we bring in visitor voices as a way of making our collection and our institution more accessible to more people and certainly more relevant,” she adds. “We educators learn something new about the piece by opening it up. It can enrich what we know from an art historical standpoint as well as making it more real and humanizing for the visitor.”

Find the Milwaukee Art Museum teachers’ resource guide here.