“Little Dancer” as Oracle? Experiencing Museum Sage

One of the most energizing things about my job is getting to go on site visits to museums all over New England. Sometimes it’s for a workshop or a behind-the-scenes tour, sometimes for networking events or exhibit openings, and sometimes it’s just for a field trip with my coworkers.  Usually it’s somewhere I haven’t been before, but even when I have, as with our most recent field trip to the Harvard Art Museums, there’s always something new to satisfy my curiosity.

This time, it was a personalized museum-based oracular experience, led by Rainey Tisdale and Matt Kirchman, both trained guides in the Museum Sage technique. Each guide took a pair of us on an experience that’s part game of chance, part guided meditation through the museum galleries.

My colleague was brave enough to go first, so I got to enjoy watching her select random tiles from a bag held by our guide Matt, the numbers on which corresponded to the floor, room, and location of a random but specific artwork.  While doing so, she was supposed to be thinking hard on her question about her life, which, we were directed, could be anything from ‘what color should I paint my living room?’ to a more serious relationship or career dilemma.

We escorted her (with her eyes closed) to ‘her piece’ and then Matt led her through a conversation (with notes taken by me as the companion-observer) about how the artwork related to her question, which she could choose to share or not. She did not, but I figured it would be fun to see how the conversation changed if I did when it was my turn.

Part of the experience is the sensory overload and dislocation of being guided blindly through the galleries. Fortunately, I did not have to go over any stairs with my eyes closed, because that would have ended poorly. It’s strange enough, circling the hallways on the second floor of the Harvard Art Museums, feeling the empty air of the courtyard to one side, and the gaps in the air from gallery entrances and staircases on the other side. It makes one feel quite insubstantial and unsure of whether there’s solid floor beneath one’s feet.

When Matt bid me open my eyes, I was standing in front of Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, a piece I have loved since childhood. Obviously, my first reaction was one of inarticulate but heartfelt joy and relief, especially since my colleague had been initially negatively taken aback by the piece she’d ended up with as her artistic oracle.

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I like looking at and interpreting artworks. I like doing the same for literature (particularly poetry, which is meant to leave space for the reader to find herself within it). And I lived in Salem, Massachusetts for five years, so I have a reasonably high respect and tolerance for the ‘hoobie-joobie’ and arcane. So I was primed for the Museum Sage experience, and despite a few reservations about looking really silly, I did end up enjoying myself immensely.  I also believe that the kinds of questions Matt asked as the guide would make it an easy experience for museum visitors of any familiarity or comfort level. And since one starts with that gut reaction – joy, confusion, comfort, familiarity, shock – there are no opportunities for ‘wrong’ answers, then or following.

The basic questions that led me through looking at the artwork were as follows:

  1. What are your first emotional reactions? What are your eyes drawn to first, what do you notice? [comfort, familiarity, her poise and dreaminess]
  2. Describe the artwork in front of you as if you were trying to get someone on the other end of a phone or someone without sight to be able to picture your piece. [young girl, perhaps twelve, bronze statue about 2.5 feet high on a pedestal about 2.5 feet high, with a satin ribbon and netted skirt. Her leotard straps are slightly off her shoulders and she’s standing in 4th position, one foot out in front of her, with her weight on her back foot, hands clasped loosely behind her, hair in a braid, chin raised, eyes distant]
  3. Is there anything about the construction of the piece (color, material, size, shape) that relates to or reflects on your life question? [the way she holds herself, the contrast of the flexibility and softness of her ribbon and tutu with strength of the bronze that forms her body]
  4. Would you be willing to share your question? [how best to be making space for my creative pursuits in an increasingly complicated and busy schedule]
  5. What advice do you feel this artwork is giving you in answer to your question? [readiness for movement, the calm before the leap, the discipline it takes to get good at an artform you love and look like it takes no work at all, the importance of taking a moment to yourself before jumping back into the fray]
  6. Finally, when all other conversation seems to have died down, go look at the label and read it.  Does reading the title & label offer up any additional insights?

And in addition, as I was answering those questions, Matt was following up with active listening, adding in from time to time with questions like “I’m hearing you say ‘comfort’ a lot, does that apply in any way to your question?” or offering up a different point of view so one can look at the artwork, and the question, slightly differently.

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So while I can see why some people compare it to using the museum like a deck of tarot cards, I think it’s actually better (and less potentially creepy), because while in tarot someone else reads the cards for you, in this case you’re using the artwork like an outside focus for your own thoughts. It’s kind of brilliant, if you feel like exposing the way your brain works to whomever you’re sharing the experience with.

And at the end, you have clarity (hopefully) or at least new determination about whatever your life question was, as well as a deeper understanding of an artwork and a whole new layer of associations to add to whatever you already did or didn’t know about that piece. I could have had difficulty with Little Dancer, knowing it so well already, for instance, but instead I simply have a new way to think about her, and can now consider her a visible, beautiful reminder of my personal creative goals.

Keep looking forward. Practice. Don’t let them see you sweat. Take your private moment when you can get it. Exercise discipline in pursuit of your craft. Relax, and when you’re ready, leap.

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In front of Degas’ Little Dancer, working on my (very rusty) ballet forms.

As a museum educator, I think this kind of experience can be a really useful tool to get people to interact with the museum in a new way, whether they’re constant museum goers or ‘newbies.’ It takes nothing but a bit of openness and a bit of observation on the participant’s part, and creation of a safe and conversational space on the guide’s part.  After the field trip we spent a while talking to Matt and Rainey about how they envision using this technique in museums; it’s not easily scale-able to larger groups, and there’s no obvious existing business model to fit into. That being said, it’s interesting to consider offering this as an experience as a member perk or as a gift experience for people who are at a “questing” time of life; new parents, new high-school or college graduates, career-changers, the about-to-be or recently retired.  (Although really, who isn’t at a questing time of life?) I’m guessing that in some situations the ‘game’ aspects would or could be enhanced, and in others the more meditative side would prevail. (Selecting your artwork through fortune cookies? Those folding paper fortune tellers everyone makes in fourth grade? A sketching or writing component for those who are uncomfortable speaking their reflections aloud?) Either way, I will be interested to see where this method of museum experiential intervention goes.

More?

  • If you want to hear more about Museum Sage, check out Season 3, Episode 2 of the Museum People podcast, where NEMA’s Dan Yaeger interviews Museum Sage founder Laurie Phillips.
  • Looking to go check out Little Dancer for yourself? There’s a fun guide to get you started from The Met here. (And there’s a musical inspired by the statue that I wish I’d seen described here.) Can’t get to a museum with a version easily? The MFA Boston has some amazing detail images of their copy here.

This week’s inspiring reads: Why we collect

Museum Reads header image

Even virtual collections count, apparently! There have been roughly a hundred articles already about museum responses to Pokemon in the galleries, but how is the appeal of ‘gotta catch ’em all’ much different from the other kinds of collecting we do? Shouldn’t museums understand that gathering impulse?

The Secret Sauce of Pokemon Go: Big Data – Barry over on Moosha Moosha Mooshme talks about the gamification of big data and why the appeal of Pokemon Go is more than just the AR camera.

Object Lessons: The New Museum Explores Why We Keep Things – From the New York Times, an exhibit review on “a remarkable series of object lessons about what it means to “keep.”” The NYT is also interested in your collecting stories: “Tell us how you began collecting, how your collection has evolved over the years, and any other interesting details (like how others have reacted to your collection). Your response may be featured in an upcoming story.”

Direct Care of Collections – AAM’s new white paper on ethical standards for direct care, to help in discussions of deaccessioning, etc.

If this isn’t enough on collections for you, keep your eyes out for NEMA’s New England Museums Now, new issue coming out next week with a regional benchmarking survey, articles on open storage in historic houses, updates to abandoned property laws, discussions on accessibility and authenticity, digitizing your collections, and more!

Poetry Constructions

Poetry works its way into many of my postsNational Poetry Month is one of my favorite times of year, and every year I find something new to get excited about.

This year it’s building blocks and poetry.  Not in the form of stanzas, rhyme schemes or metaphors, but creative ways to inspire, actual physical ways to randomize words, create sequences of ideas, and give poetry a visual heft that matches its presumptive mental and emotional ones.

Shape poems

ee cummings 'i carry your heart' as laid out in Festisite

ee cummings ‘i carry your heart’ as laid out in Festisite

I’m not a huge fan of concrete poetry in general, because I’m not always convinced by the whole form/function connection when it comes to text.  However, if you’re looking for a new way to *present* a poem and hand written calligraphy is not your top choice, you might want to try Festisite, which has a handful of pre-selected forms you can use to plunk any text into for a graphic twist, as I did with ee cummings’ ‘i carry your heart’ above.

Poetry pebbles 

Poetry Pebbles from Kitchen Counter Chronicles

Poetry Pebbles from Kitchen Counter Chronicles

Story stones of all sorts are fun, assembling petroglyph-like images and then inventing the connections between each concrete object depicted.  Over at Kitchen Counter Chronicles one family used pre-created stones as poetry starters while outside on a nature walk: I think with older kids it could be as much or more fun to collect stones and decorate them along the way, to help spur further writing once back indoors.

Book spine poetry

The Convivial Museum: Art is Every Day, Shapes & Sizes & more Surprises, The Intelligent Eye Made to Play!

A museum book spine poem, by me and my bookshelves

I love Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books Project, and so do the folks at the Association for Library Service to Children, who recommend this as a great way to get kids to explore a library during National Poetry Month.  Sign me up!

Haiku calculator

Haiku calculator by Eugene Parnell, sample text by me.

Haiku calculator by Eugene Parnell, sample text by me.

Eugene Parnell describes his “Wheel O Matic Haiku Calculator” as ‘pure cogs-n-wheels fun, a machine-age Nirvana of Modernist production-line assembly techniques applied to to the emerging meta-industry of cultural production.’  That’s a little wordy, but it is, in fact, a fun spin-the-wheel-get-a-random-poem-bit, and could be easily recreated in an analog version.  The digital version was a little buggy when I tried it–precreated wheels of poetry options didn’t seem to be loading, but you could create your own easily enough.

Word wheel templates here and here for kick-starting an analog version.

Assorted other National Poetry Month resources:
Lesson plans for K-12 on ReadWriteThink
Lesson plans, videos, and printables on Scholastic
NaPoWriMo (write a poem a day challenge)
Interdisciplinary resources for teachers and parents on Reading Rockets

Past National Poetry Month posts on Brain Popcorn:
2010: Popping with Poetry
2011: Poetry and Puddles
2012: It’s the Most Wordiful Time of the Year

Check back in a week or two for a sneak preview of May MA Poetry Fest activities at PEM, as well!

Rushin’ towards the Olympics

Pretty sure I had gloves just like this when I was 7, only there was a tiny knit teddy bear in a pocket instead of a Russian flag...

Pretty sure I had gloves just like this when I was 7, only there was a tiny knit teddy bear in a pocket instead of a Russian flag…

It’s almost time for the Winter Olympics, and time for me to find friends with working TVs so I can play too.  Before the torch reaches the Olympic stadium, however, there’s still time to work in some fun Olympics themed interdisciplinary awesome!

Languages and Cultures

The folks over at The Educators’ Spin on It have compiled some fun pins about Russian language and culture to explore with younger children, and also a list of fun ways to use the three Sochi Olympics mascots (a bear, hare, and leopard) to explore Olympics history. (The mascots even have a Twitter account!)

olympic symbol sochiThe Australian Olympic team has provided a set of interlinked Winter Olympics lessons for several grades and disciplines.  (Despite its dubious educational benefit, my favorite is the coloring sheet featuring a kangaroo jumping out of a matryoshka, for sheer hilarity.)

From the Australian Olympic team, see link above

From the Australian Olympic team, see link above

Science and Engineering

NBC Learn has a host of neat videos on the science and design behind the tools, gear, and execution of various winter sports.  There’s even one called ‘Olympic Movement and Robotic Design’ that I am looking forward to watching when I get a free minute.  (2010’s series of films are still available thanks to the NSF here.)

Don’t miss Olympic STEM resources from Edutopia, or this great set of history, language, and science resources for older students from Teacher Vision either.

Plus, check out past Olympics round ups from right here on Brain Popcorn:
Vancouver 2010: Warming up for the Winter Olympics
Sliding, Rolling, and Gliding (Bobsleds and more!)

Six Word Mysteries

Thanks to the urban legend of Ernest Hemingway’s horrifically sad six word story (“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”) the idea of the six word story has been bruited about as a writing exercise for authors of all levels of experience.

How might this play out in a museum setting?  Education programs often make use of ekphrastic writing prompts–poetry, found poetry, personal reflections, point of view exercises, etc.

What kind of six-word story comes to you when you look at this object?

Please add your stories in the comments below, the more the merrier!

M8862 M8862-front M8862-owl M8862-snake

What is it? A souvenir coconut, collected in Mexico prior to 1956.

The catalog information reads: “The object has intricate carvings of a bird, owl, rattlesnake, rabbit, lizard,  house, Indian head, and flowers and vines. The object overall is made to resemble a cat, with inlaid eyes and teeth. There is a little door in the side.”

Guess Who?

In the years I have worked in the ANC, I have had a lot of people tell me about their favorite pieces of the center—the Build A Bird interactive, the Wrenchophone, the harbor seal that hung out in the mammals case during Eye Spy.  I’ve also harbored a few secret favorites of my own, like the trio of eastern screech owls peering beadily from their crooked branch, or the scrimshaw piece that depicts Ben Franklin.  (Why would you make a scrimshaw portrait of Ben Franklin? These are the stories I want to know!)

Eastern Screech Owls, with an artist intervention during Eye Spy

Eastern Screech Owls, with an artist intervention during Eye Spy

In that time, however, the other ANC staff and I have also heard a lot about things people have loved in the past, and things they wish we could bring back, or do more of, or explore in a different way.  We’ve kept track, and considered all those assorted ideas and favorites in addition to the prototyping and surveying that I mentioned in my last post.  We then worked all of that into our plans for the re-envisioning of the Art & Nature Center’s ongoing exhibition.  Over the last year we’ve been mixing and matching, adding and rearranging, inventing and tweaking, until we were all really happy with the new plans.

Toucan origami folded by Michael LaFosse

Toucan origami folded by Michael LaFosse

So now, the checklist is set, the floor plans are shaping up, and the artworks are rattling their boxes, eager to leap onto walls and into drawers to be seen and admired by all.

(Okay, so that last part is a little bit of an exaggeration, but only because I can’t prove it’s true.)  In that spirit, here are three sneak peeks at some new wonders to see when the ANC opens in October. 

Take a good look, and make a guess in the comments below.  Do you recognize any materials?  Shapes?  Artistic techniques?  (Go wild, and I’ll post the answers in a few days.)

Mystery Object 1:

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Mystery Object 2:

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Mystery Object 3:

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Ideabox: Cardboard Best Friends

ideabox big boxes

There are some great stories out there about the power of imagination.  As a kid, I was particularly fond of stories like Bridge to Terabithia, and The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Neverending Story.  However, it’s a wide and wildly varying genre, so today I’m focusing on stories (and activities) to do with cardboard boxes.

crispinCrispin The Pig Who Had it All is officially a Christmas story wherein an overindulged pig is given an empty box for Christmas by Santa, but is a great story and amusingly illustrated for younger readers.

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Not a Box is a in a much simpler style, with a much more indignant rabbit informing the off-page (and regrettably literal-minded likely-adult) that his/her apparent box is, in fact, not a box, but a…(you get the idea)
Not a Box printables for teachers at TeacherVision

Similarly, I ran across this beautiful video The Adventures of a Cardboard Box over on Vimeo:

And, of course, some people take their cardboard box visions to the extreme (and extremely cool):

Created by Christine at Pure Joy Events.  Click for link to source

Created by Christine at Pure Joy Events. Click for link to source

But for the rest of us looking for a little inspiration, here is ikatbag’s Guide to Working with Cardboard and 40 Cool Cardboard Projects, which is an excellent starting place for the corrugated-minded.

So tunnel in to a good idea (and then share it with me)!

So tunnel in to a good idea (and then share it with me)!