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The Freelance Educators Who Teach Children to Love Museums

Museum education in progress. Photo by John Picken via Flickr.
Museum education in progress (photo by John Picken/Flickr)

Museum education as a formalized set of practices is a post–World War II development. Previous to the onset of what some museum scholars have called an “educational museology,” public and private art museums were primarily concerned with their collections, their chief patrons, and their artists. The first book outlining appropriate methods to be used by museum education officers, Museum School Services, was published in 1967 in London. It took more than a decade for the largest museum advocacy group in the country, the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums), to announce its unequivocal support for the idea that a museum’s primary task should be education.

According to Rachel Farmer, a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Provo, Utah, who works at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art as an educator, it was about 20 years ago that the duties of museum education began to be assigned to people who were not permanent members of the institutions’ staff. In the ensuing decades, freelance educators have made themselves, as a class of workers, crucial to the operation of many of New York’s main art institutions. Museum education is a significant and very visible aspect of the way museums interface with their audiences, yet there is surprisingly little publicly available information on how these institutions teach art and art history to the groups that visit them. These museums serve many populations, including adults, children (K–12), community groups (not school-affiliated), and people with physical disabilities including autism, visual impairment, and Alzheimer’s.

Additionally, little is known among the wider public about the teaching methods used and strategies applied with respect to current pedagogy, museums’ particular collections, or the needs of specific populations. In order to better illuminate these methods, Hyperallergic has begun canvassing educators in major museums in the New York area to uncover the approaches that lie at the root of the profound experiences many of us had with art the first time we entered a museum. The goal is to find out how these educators spark curiosity in artistic production and practice. Because teaching children is the most visible manifestation of what museum education departments do, child education is the main lens through which we examine the methodology and strategies used.

The following is generated by conversations with four educators. These women — the majority of freelance educators in the city are women — work at the Whitney, MoMA, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Morgan Library and Museum. Three of the educators wished to remain anonymous; the fourth, Rachel Farmer, was willing to give her name. (The somewhat precarious nature of their employment, which will be discussed in Part 2 of this series, is likely a large part of the reason that it was difficult to get educators to speak on the record.)

The main tool museum educators rely on is the gallery tour. Though not strictly necessary, the tour often includes a studio component in order to make learning multi-modal — that is, engaging audiences in different sensory modes. Students will almost certainly be expected to respond to visual cues, but educators also look to engage them intellectually via conversation or writing exercises, or kinesthetically via drawing, painting, or constructing collages. Remarkably, across all these institutions, there is a generally agreed-upon pedagogical outlook with regard to child education: the tour is the beginning of a process of child-centered, inquiry-based education that is usually framed by a theme, while subsequent studio exercises offer visual, aural, and somatic routes to learning.

On a museum tour, the educator will usually start with a simple question such as “What do you see?” This inquiry was described to me as “the great equalizer,” because it puts the learner in a position of not having to worry about giving a right or wrong answer. This may be followed up with a query like, “What makes you see that?” Often, the educator will then add information about the piece to deepen the inquiry. This is essentially a constructivist approach to learning — that is, it the educator is operating on the assumption that the learner will construct her knowledge based on her own personal capacity and experience. Rather than assuming that all learners absorb information in similar ways, this approach allows each child to indicate how she perceives, so that differences in perception can all be represented as valid.

Museum tours are arranged according to themes, which gives the educator both a great deal of flexibility in approaching the material and the ability to match each tour to the curriculum of the particular class in attendance. At MoMA, a suite of themes has been developed over time, including: “space and places,” “identity,” “society and politics,” and “materials and process.” The teachers who bring their classes to the museum are allowed to sign up for a particular theme, though not for a specific exhibition. At the Whitney, teachers are able to request either a theme or a specific exhibition. Here the themes are more focused on seeing the work and the world through the eyes of the artist. (One educator speculated that the Whitney has this sort of focus because it was started by a practicing artist, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.) There are four main themes at the Whitney: “artist as experimenter,” “artist as observer,” “artist as critic,” and “artist as storyteller.”

The Morgan does not do themed tours per se, instead offering specialized programs, such as ones that focus on a specific historical situation and the artistic production associated with it. This institution, by the nature of its collections, tends to emphasize history and mapping. So, for example, a class that is learning about Europe in the Middle Ages might be drawn to the Morgan’s cache of illuminated manuscripts. The Guggenheim, on the other hand, is open to a wide variety of tours, whether the themes are grounded in seeing the world through the eyes of an artist, such as “artist choices,” or in the material and technological processes that yield different work, such as “portraiture-gesture.” At the Guggenheim, educators are given a great deal of freedom to develop their own tours and learning methodologies, and are only asked to submit a tour floor plan to their managers in advance, in order to outline their aims.

The Morgan Library and Museum. Photo by Rob Shenk via Flickr
The Morgan Library and Museum (photo by Rob Shenk/Flickr)

Educators generally focus on nurturing the capacities of learners. One stated that her key goal is to get children to feel comfortable looking at, deciphering, and talking about art. She is concerned primarily with developing confidence and visual literacy. Farmer, on the other hand, is concerned with getting her students to feel, when they enter the museum, like “this is a place for you.” The sense of belonging is key for Farmer, who believes the art world needs more voices contributing to what is created and discussed to make the conversation richer.

At the same time, the schoolteacher may have particular objectives with regard to curricular requirements. All the educators indicated that their institutions are careful to have tactful and clear conversations with the teachers before they arrive with their groups. The museums also offer pre- and post-visit education opportunities for both school groups and community groups. Under these programs, educators travel to classrooms and develop extended programs that prepare the class for the visit or integrate what students learned during their museum tours.

Each educator finds this extended interaction to be important and rewarding. In fact, everyone interviewed demonstrated irrepressible delight in teaching her charges. The women all discussed their roles as informed, passionate, sensitive teachers who fully believe in the project of universal education. Moreover, they bring a range of areas of expertise that can make the museum experience one through which audiences learn to see what they didn’t realize was already there.

Part 2 in this series will delve into the particulars of the gig-based economy as it relates to the various securities and insecurities involved in freelance museum education. 

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