Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why I do what I do

Today's New York Times has an article by Edward Rothstein about the opening of the new Uris Center for Education at the Metropolitan Museum. In the museum field, there's been a great deal of thought--and some very interesting writing--devoted to meaning making. In his article, he says,

"But art education is a strange and surprising enterprise. It makes memories as important as celebration, traditions as crucial as innovation." He goes on to describe his family's participation in programs in the old education center, which began with the "scruffy informality" of the center and then, "a train of adults and children would follow an instructor up the stairs into the American Wing or the African galleries or the 19th-century European-painting rooms, and press close to two or three works as the instructor teased the underage aesthetes into learning how to see a painting, or into thinking about what can be learned from looking and even sketching."

And then, Rothstein recounts, "And then the train would return to the Uris, where some aspect of the gallery experience would inspire a craft project using cups of pencils and crayons, sketchbook paper or scraps of construction paper for pasting.

There were programs about portraits, about families, about countries, about particular artists. And they were so refreshing because, given the nature of the audience, there was no way even the most accomplished adult could veer into intellectual abstractions or indulge in the lingo of the art theory industry."

For Rothstein and his family (including a daughter, now an art history major, who started her love of art at the Met), these experiences created indelible memories, and a chance to make their own meaning of the museum's incredible collection. In addition to talk about meaning making, there's also a great deal of talk about outcome-based evaluation. So a post workshop evaluation might have shown that the Rothstein family learned about a particular artist--but it wouldn't show us how those workshops shaped a family.

Why did I title this post this way? Because the chance to create those lasting memories--about things that matter--whether it's at a community history museum or the Met--are worth doing and worth doing in the very best way we can.

(and by the way, 20,000 educational events a year at the Met! I'm tired even thinking about it but wish they could offer even more--and most family programs are free with admission)

Thursday, October 4, 2007


A comment below noted my fairly regular thoughts and comments about museums as places that tell stories and wondered if storytelling, as such, should be taught in museum studies programs. Hmm...I don't know if storytelling needs to be taught, but perhaps courses in screenwriting or playwriting would generate new thinking. In both those disciplines, writers use all the tools at hand, not just words, but other elements to create a visual experience. They tell the story through stage or film sets and locations, costumes, props, and of course, their actors and the words they speak. But of course, the best writers do that just with words. I'm reminded of a session my colleague Christopher Clarke facilitated several years ago at the Museum Institute at Sagamore, a program of the Upstate History Alliance. In advance, Christopher asked half the group to read one non-fiction book, and half another. The books he choose were The Sudden Sea, about the great hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti and Close to Shore, about the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks. The group, with his skillful help, examined how these authors chose to tell a story and how their storytelling as non-fiction authors, relates to our own work as exhibit developers or other museum people. The books (both great, entertaining reads, whether you're interested in sharks or hurricanes or not) use detail--but selectively; they have characters that you care about; and each book has a careful, compelling story arc.

Museums have both more and fewer tools at our disposal. To me, books are a type of experience that's fully immersive, and I'm not distracted by other people, by whether or not my feet hurt, by whether my parking is too expensive, or any of the other million things that occupy museum goers' minds. But, we have the ability, within our resources, to create immersive enviroments that stimulate the imagination, and, of course, we have the real deal. We have (just to name a few things I've seen that stick with me) Darwin's notebook in which he first posits the theory of evolution, Vermeer paintings, or even the well-worn overalls of a worker in the Lehigh Valley Railroad shops in Sayre, PA. Each one of those items connects me to a story--and for me, as a visitor at least, I care about the people embedded in those stories.

So should museum programs teach storytelling? Couldn't hurt (and might even help make those historic house tours better!)

Above: Can't figure out how to get people into your museum? Consider the methods of this sideshow barker in Donaldsville, LA, in 1939. Photo by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection Library of Congress.