Imagining Museum Education in 2040

A few months ago, the Center for the Future of Museums posted a challenge: what might preK-12 education look like in 2040 if museums got involved in new and more thorough ways than we do now? Instead of asking for statements or essays, they wanted stories: imagine the future, and tell us a good yarn.

So seventy-eight of us did. The winners’ stories are all fascinating, and I recommend you have a look here. I’m also pleased to be able to say that my entry won an honorable mention, and is posted on the “Vibrant Learning” microsite here. The lovely folks at CFM have granted me permission to post my story in its entirety here as well.

I picked the Harvard Museum of Natural History as my ‘future-awesome’ location because it was a place I spent a fair amount of time as an undergrad, but I’ve never worked there, so it’s a good balance of familiar but not overly so. (Plus they’ve done some really neat events encouraging artists and students to ‘hack the museum’ by creating interesting overlays, installations, and interventions, so I figured they’d be game.)

heterodontosaurus

Heterodontosaurus, photo from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Romer Hall

It Was Supposed to Be Dinosaurs
by Meg Winikates

 

Senator Ariel Kwan
1705 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC
February 15, 2040

Dear Senator Kwan,

As your constituent, I write today to urge you to vote for the reauthorization and increased funding for the Family Learning Leave Act. I also thank you for your continued support of the Institute of Museums and Library Services, especially as it was museums and libraries who spearheaded the initial passage of the Act.

I hope that based on your previous record, you already intend to vote in favor, but I would like to share the lasting impact this bill has had on my family and so many families like mine. Enclosed you will find a selection from the learner’s self-assessment report I wrote during my daughter’s Kindergarten Collaborative three years ago, and an interview from my subsequent Artist’s Spotlight this past autumn. Were it not for Learning Leave, I would never have been able to take the time away from my retail job to support my daughter’s education. Having the opportunity to connect, to explore, and to create together has given me a better understanding of how she learns and what her options for the future are. Thanks to our museum experiences, my daughter is now in an accelerated Creative Science program, and I gained inspiration and contacts which have allowed me to grow my own independent business.

Thank you for your attention and support for this vital program.

Regards,
Hannah Lopez
Parent, Artist, Businesswoman, Museum Supporter
[encl.]

= = = = = = =

Harvard Museums of Science and Culture: Kindergarten Collaborative
Adult Learner’s Self-Assessment Journal, Day 3

Today was the best day yet of my ‘grown-ups go to school’ adventure. Lucy has, of course, spent the last two days beyond excited. She has been absolutely bubbling to show me all the places in the museums that she loves, and it’s been amazing to see how seriously she takes her job as a ‘guide’ for me, the museum newcomer.  Today I really got to appreciate the way my shy baby has learned to work with the other children, and how responsive the education team is to their curiosity and enthusiasm. It’s clear they have some specific educational goals in mind, so it’s not the free-for-all that it would be if I tried to run a class of five- and six- year-olds, but with one adult for every four or five kids, the educators really do know how to listen and guide the conversation without cutting off or shutting down the little ones.

Today, for instance, was the start of ‘dinosaur days.’ I guess they’d spent some time in the dinosaur galleries before now, but mostly were exploring other things; rocks, I think, and teeth? Lucy will surely tell me in great detail if I ask. But today was dinosaurs, and the kids split themselves up into small groups, gravitating to a fossil, cast, sculpture, or diorama, already used to peppering the educator stationed nearby with questions, almost before the kids stopped moving.

Then the educators pulled out this spray-on-glove stuff, apparently the same kind that their conservators use in the lab, and spritzed all our hands and let us touch the fossils. The stuff’s so thin, you could feel every bump and grain, like the gloves weren’t there at all, but apparently it keeps all the sweat and oils from your hands off the delicate bits. Crazy, but just so cool. (I actually got up the guts to ask one of the educators later where the glove-spray came from, and she looked really proud of me. I guess they are serious about the grown-ups being there to learn too. Turns out it was first developed for medical work, which makes sense.)

So there we were, touching the fossils, and one of the kids in Lucy’s group asked how they found the fossils, which meant we all got to troop outside to the lawn to try out the ground penetrating radar machine. With five year olds. Looking for the ‘modern fossils’ in plaster that the museum had buried in the front lawn. Once we got *very* dirty uncovering them with shovels and trowels and measuring tapes, we then went at the plaster with real chisels, hammers, and brushes. I don’t know what that educator would have done if the kid hadn’t asked that question, but I hope she would have managed to get us out there eventually somehow, or some poor college student would’ve spent a whole afternoon of their work-study burying fake fossils for nothing. And all of that was before lunch time. I know some of the kids in Lucy’s group; they’re a hyper, easily distracted bunch of kids most of the time (especially right before lunch). But they were really engaged, and I admit as a mom it was awesome to see my normally quiet little girl take charge of an excavation. “No, Momma, you have to make a drawing before you pull it out of the ground!” and, “No, my momma should do the drawing because she’s an artist!”

Sweet, given that my drawing abilities are limited to making costume patterns, but it’s always nice to feel like you’re your kid’s hero.

After lunch it was back to the original room, this time to look at the Pteranodon. It’s hard to believe something encased in rock could ever fly, which I totally get, so Lucy and her buddies were understandably skeptical. Only Lucy and her pal Karen were completely unconvinced by the video of the scientists’ animated model, though, which means they were the ones that split off from the group to go into the PhysLab (“FizzFizzFizz, like ideas in your head, Momma, that’s why it’s called that!”) to test out wing designs.

We made wings of paper, string, and straws, and tested them in the wind tunnel. We each picked our favorite, put it in the scanner, and got to add the finished computer model to a digital animal body to animate and watch it ‘fly.’ Lucy was very serious about hers; she actually wanted to recreate the scientists’ Pteranodon for herself, but I admit I got a little silly with mine, and made a dragon.

I never was the science one in the family, after all.

I half-expected to get in trouble for not taking the ‘assignment’ seriously, but instead, it was like I’d made the PhysLab overseer’s day. She handed me an exhibit brochure for a fantastical creatures show at one of the other university museums, and when I told her that my side gig was fantasy costuming, I ended up with info on 3D printing wearables, a costume design exhibit announcement for a museum across town, and a shiny new Searcher ID card.

I’d heard there was some kind of library-card-for-museums thing, but between work and family and all, not the sort of thing I’ve had time to go looking for on my own. It’s fancier than the library card I had as a kid; you add some personal details to your profile, interests and stuff, and it gives you suggestions on where to go and who to talk to for answers. Plus it gets you in free if you’re working on a research project. So I could go see that costume design exhibit on research for my own designs, and talk to a curator or a designer, and borrow study materials, all on the strength of this card that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been messing around with dragon designs on the computer at the museum to make my daughter laugh.

So yeah, definitely the best day of my learning leave yet. I think I’m as excited as Lucy to go back to “school” tomorrow.

= = = = = = =

“Wings, Webs, and Wishes: An interview with Hannah Lopez” by Ginny Evans
Harvard Museums of Science and Culture newsletter

This month’s Artist Spotlight is costumer Hannah Lopez, who has been the brains and hands behind this spring’s highly anticipated Paleontology Parade performances. Lopez’s temporary home is HMSC’s PhysLab, where she was finishing printing the latest dinosaur-skull headpiece for enthusiastic decoration by her ‘apprentice’ — daughter Lucy, age 8.

When asked why she wanted to meet in the PhysLab, Lopez laughs.

“Because it pretty much started here, with designing dragon wings.” Behind her, Lucy scoffs into her glitter paint; it’s clear she’s been part of telling this story enough to say,

“Dinosaurs, mom, it was supposed to be dinosaurs.”

“Yes it was, but mine were dragons, and it was a good thing they were, too.” Lopez’s eyes light up as she talks about the chance encounter with fellow fantasy-fan and HMSC staff, Maya McCormack.

“She wouldn’t let me leave the lab until I’d finished my Searcher profile.  Those first couple of resources she pointed me to, they were great for bringing my inspiration back. It’s so easy to get lost in the day to day details. But somewhere in there, in watching Lucy fall in love with science here at the museum, and in taking the time to follow up on the connections Maya made, getting close to those fabrics in the teaching collection, it made me want to do something big. Bigger than the kids’ Halloween costumes and Renaissance Faire garb I’d been doing in little bits. And once I had the bug, I just didn’t stop.  If that Searcher card had been a credit card, I’d have reached my limit ages ago.”  Lopez laughs.

“Lucky for me it doesn’t work that way. It’s like getting lost on the internet, but better, because it’s this whole web of people and things and ideas that you can reach in person, and some of the time it turns out they’re looking for you, too.”

The discussion turns to the binder of costume designs in front of us and the nearly-finished pieces on her worktable nearby, since it seems dinosaurs have won the day, at least this time.

“Getting the artist residency here, it felt like the right thing to do,” Lopez agrees. “I wanted to do something collaborative, something that showed what Lucy and I both learned when we were first here, and to keep that excitement going.  So we’ve been having troops of kids of all ages in here to help with personalizing their costumes, and making comments on the designs for the professional actors.  I think the final effect will be just on the right side of hilarious and brilliant.”

Opening next week, Paleontology Parades will be a series of theatrical skits that bring various stories in the museum to life, incorporating both professional actors and the schoolchildren they’ve been working with, including Lucy and her classmates in the Creative Science program. The acting troupe, the Wishing Wells, are another contact Lopez made through the Searcher program, when it recently expanded to include performing arts organizations.

“Working with Jason and the team from Wishing Wells has been a lot of fun. I can’t wait to put the last scales and feathers in place and watch it all light up.”

And what’s next for Lopez (and her apprentice)? They give identical grins.

“Well, to celebrate, we thought we’d go find a new museum to explore.”

NEMA wrap-up 2: Cultural Consumption and Gut Reactions

Time for NEMA Wrap Up 2: Numbers and emotions!  (Those do not usually go well together, but we’re going for it anyway.)

informal feedback board from NEMA 2014

Feedback, whether formal or informal, is the most constant thing on the menu for museums who want to figure out what’s actually happening in their spaces.

Culture Track: Understanding Boston Museum-Going Audiences

Have you noticed how data-hungry people are these days?  From fitbits to count your number of steps per day to ways to measure your driving habits, your energy consumption, and the efficiency of your home heating system, everyone seems to love a bunch of numbers to crunch.  The museum field is no different.

Fortunately, Boston’s MFA recently paired with the folks over at La Placa Cohen to create the first city-focused Culture Track study of museum audience behavior in the greater Boston area (these are usually done at the national level).  The announcement, with links to the entire report and the summary presentation, is here.

The study aimed to understand audiences, not just “What are they doing? How are they engaging in culture? Why do they decide to participate?” but also “What’s really driving or discouraging audiences?  How do local trends compare to national ones?”   The study was also planned as a test case as a way to establish “shared & actionable data” for museums in the area.

These were a few highlights I took away from the session (though I encourage you to check out the full report as well!):

  • Since 2011, the percent of respondents who attend at least one cultural activity per year has increased in almost all fields.
  • The youngest audiences drive the market in Boston: cultural attendance among the younger ages of respondents is much higher here than the national average.
  • People are looking for “entertainment and enlightment” but the social aspects are very important:  almost half of millenials won’t go if they are going alone.
  • Audiences in all age brackets are looking for convenience (low cost, easy parking and opening hours) in addition to there being interesting topics and activities available.
  • All  culture-consuming Greater Bostonians are info-hungry and seek out information about their proposed activities ahead of time: websites, news articles, brochures, youtube videos, etc.

There were also a number of good questions brought up about further possibilities for study, including tracking visitors who only attend free events, or thinking about ways to improve the perceived value of memberships as organizational support.  Lots of food for thought!

Objects and Emotion

Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris, authors of Creativity in Museum Practice, led a really interesting and highly entertaining session on provoking emotion through objects in museums.  In their typical style, this was a highly participatory session too, starting with a question like “Does incorporating strong emotion in the museum world make us nervous?” and then asking us to remember and consider objects in our own lives that provoke emotion.  (A lot of us chose gifts/remembrances of lost family members, which was interesting.)

The importance of emotion – especially strong emotion – is that it is closely tied to memory: both memories already held, and those created in that moment.

“Every memory comes with an emotional ‘stamp’ attached to it.  The stronger the emotional value the more likely sensory information is to pass this inital inspection and be admitted into memory.” – John Falk

In fact, according to Norris and Tisdale, in a study soon to be published by Reach Advisors, Susie Wilkening will report that ‘transformative’ or ‘aha’ moments need these elements: immersive environments, real objects, narrative/story, emotion.  (This is not surprising, perhaps, but as in the post section above, everyone loves the data that will prove it!)

In the exercises that followed, we were asked to pick a favorite object from our own museums, and to then call out a number of emotions.  Then we all sorted our objects into one of those emotions, ranging from ‘wonder’ to ‘anxiety’ to ‘confusion’ to ‘skepticism’ and beyond.  And we were asked to consider these points when going back to our own institutions to design a new visitor experience:

  • Some emotions are easier for museums than others (abundance, nostalgia, pride, tragedy).
  • Emotions are complicated – how do we get to the less explored territory beyond the emotions mentioned above?
  • An object can prompt the same emotion in multiple people and/or different emotions in different people. (All equally valid!)
  • Providing opportunities for emotion is more important than dictating what they should feel –  let people find their own resonance.

Some suggestions for ways to get to those emotional resonances included:

  •  cataloging by emotion (adding tags to your catalog based off staff assessments of a work’s emotional weight)
  • collecting by emotion (asking your community to donate objects with emotional resonance, complete with the stories about why)
  • tagging by emotion (getting visitors to use post-its or other ways to tag objects on view with the emotions they feel when looking at them)
  • designing to provoke emotion (lighting, stories in labels/media accompaniment, juxtapositions with other objects, visitor feedback areas)

If you’re looking for more information or a good emotion-bank starting place, here’s the handout from the session: ObjectsandEmotionHandout

Do you have a particularly emotion-laden object in your museum or personal collection?  What makes it resonate?  Share it in the comments!

Museum Review: Fuller Craft, Brockton MA

This past weekend I took a trip (with my trustiest museum-going companions) to the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA.  It was my first trip there, and my overall impression was very favorable.  The museum has a lovely location overlooking a pond/reservoir, with wooded area around, and the building itself takes advantage of a lot of small courtyards and opportunity for natural light and indoor/outdoor sight lines.  It’s a very appealing space, though with a few drawbacks I’ll get back to later.  It’s a museum that deserves more attendance than it had the day we were there, for certain.

Here are a few highlights from our visit:

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From the sculpture-laden courtyard/patio, overlooking the pond. Photo by Meg Winikates.

Game Changers: Fiber Art Masters and Innovators

“Fiber arts” can seem a pretty vague term.  What exactly counts as a ‘fiber?’  In the case of the Fuller’s exhibit, a lot: twigs, roots, aluminum strips and other metals, paper, plastic wire, the more expected silk, cotton, etc, and even leaves and ‘wasp nest fiber.’  It’s a variety that serves the exhibit rather than causing it to be too diffuse: the pairing of traditional techniques with unusual materials balances the use of traditional materials in fresh ways.  Understandably, I have a bias towards artworks that use natural materials (hello, job of 5 years), so a number of the pictures in the gallery below include tree materials, silkworm cocoons, etc. (There’s a full list of participating artists on the exhibition page if you need more information, too.)

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All of us really enjoyed this exhibit: there were surprising moments, impressive examples of craftsmanship, visually engaging pieces, and beautifully textured ones that you just *really* wanted to get your hands on (though of course we all knew better).

Annette Bellamy’s Floating

Alaskan ceramicist and fisher-woman Annette Bellamy had a lovely one-room installation up through 11/2, which was the favorite of at least half of us in the group.  The two dominant pieces in the gallery were Floating and Sinkers, one of which featured a softly twisting and chiming set of ceramic kayaks, the other very pendulous, larger-than-life ceramic sinkers like the weights one finds on fishing lines and nets.  The lighting design in here was particularly nice, too, with the shadows of the kayaks offering the illusion of fish flitting beneath the boats.

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The other part of this gallery that I really liked was a set of custom-adapted paddles, each inspired by a particular person or experience: a whale biologist’s paddle was shaped like a fin, a violinist’s like an abstract version of her instrument with curls of musical texture over it, a ‘phosphorescence’ paddle looked like coral and water bubbles, and Emily Dickinson’s featured buttons and lace.  As a gallery/installation, it was nicely designed and very effective.

Permanent Collection

The Fuller’s permanent collection exhibition space tries to do a lot in not a lot of room.  The intro panel mentioned four main thematic elements that guided the selection and groupings of objects, but there wasn’t a lot of room for those themes to be separated or further explained.  The strength of this set of galleries, therefore, was in the ‘eye-catchingness’ of particular objects or groupings, like the gorgeous seed-pod and flower-bulb inspired ceramics below.

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Many of the works in this space were highly individual, often humorous, imaginative, and clearly made with a great deal of skill and imagination.  The density of display in some ways is an advantage, as it leads you naturally to compare and connect the pieces you are seeing in a single glance.

A Few Missed Opportunities

A craft museum is all about the work of an artist’s/craftsperson’s hands–the Fuller even emphasizes this idea by incorporating a fingerprint into their logo.  In such a museum, one would therefore generally expect to find interactive or touchable pieces.  With two exceptions, notable because they were the only ones (a book you could examine while wearing gloves and a weaving activity), this was not the case at the Fuller, and it’s a shame.

To be fair, I don’t believe the museum has a large staff or a gigantic budget, and they are certainly pressed for space, since many of their ‘galleries’ are in fact glorified hallways.  However, there were so many points where a small interactive (touchable ceramic tiles with varied glazes or bases, magnet board with re-arrangeable design elements, ring clip of textile varieties, etc.) would have really carried the day, it was a bummer not to see them.  I realize as a person who has spent the last 8 years in very interactive-heavy spaces I have a bias, but kids are not the only ones who are drawn to interactive experiences, and I was not the only one in my party who missed the opportunity to appreciate the art-making process in a more visceral way.

Also, labels with slightly larger font size (and on a few occasions a *little* less text) would be helpful.  I understand a lot of people don’t want to take attention away from the art, but it actually takes more of your attention to squint at a tiny label than to glance at a readable one.

That said, it was a great visit, a fun way to occupy a few hours, a nice quiet destination if you like your museums more meditative, and I recommend you make the trip to Brockton to check it out for yourself if you’re in the New England area.

#ArtsMatter at the Create the Vote Gubernatorial Forum

On Tuesday, the non-partisan advocacy group, MassCreative hosted a forum in Worcester where all the gubernatorial candidates were invited to attend and talk to arts leaders and advocates about their platforms for supporting the arts in Massachusetts.  Most attended, though Republican Charlie Baker neither bothered to show up in person nor send a representative.  About 600 arts leaders, participants, and activists were in the audience, and they were both enthusiastic and determined to get some nitty-gritty answers to their questions about arts funding and state support.

MassCreative put together a summary of much of the tweeting that went on at the event here, and I also tweeted a number of the moments that caught my ear (find the whole set @mwinikates).  You can also find much of the same material from the evening covered in the candidates’ position surveys here.

Overall, I thought Don Berwick and Martha Coakley both had good and interesting points that got cheers and applause, and Steve Grossman clearly had support in the hall.  Falchuk was very focused on affordable housing and cost of living issues, and McCormick had a very business-minded approach to dealing with the arts, while Fisher seemed underprepared and tone-deaf to the concerns and realities of his audience.  Here are a few of the evening’s highlights:

(And here I am, catching up with Neil Gordon of the Discovery Museums, my old stomping ground,  and Dan Yaeger of NEMA.)

Plugging back in to the theme of the evening, in response to an audience question about how to get the legislature to get behind a gubernatorial arts initiative:

I agree, and I hope that MassCreative keeps up the good work in the time between now and the election (and after!).

Looking for more?  There’s another great round-up of the evening’s event over at Dig Boston.

 

Politics, the Arts, and Massachusetts’ Gubernatorial Race

masscreative

Are you invested in the future of culture and the arts?  Do you have friends or family members who are?  Do you plan to vote in the next Massachusetts race for governor?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, and can get to Worcester (or one of the bus departure points) on July 15th, please consider signing up here, and I will look forward to seeing you there!

If you can’t make it, and want me to ask a question at the forum, please let me know in the comments below, and I will make a full report after.

Pledge to Play

From "Let the Public Play," a recent exhibition at the Cambridge City Hall Annex, photo by me.  See more from this exhibition at "The Playful Season" post linked below.

From “Let the Public Play,” a recent exhibition at the Cambridge City Hall Annex, photo by me. See more from this exhibition at “The Playful Season” post linked below.

I’ve been blogging over on PEM’s Connected again, this time about the importance of intergenerational play.  Did you know that playful behavior in adults can improve your mental and physical flexibility, but that play involving adults and children can also improve empathy and conversational skills on both sides of the age divide?

Check it out here: The Playful Season.

Do you have any playful plans for this summer?  I’ll be overseeing/sitting in on a watercolor painting class, for one, and looking forward to digging out my diving gear in a week or two as well.

Nature in the Neighborhood

It’s still a little cold to get super excited about a long ramble in the woods, but I like to think ahead, and the teachers from the Salem State Pre-K program and I had a great time a few weeks ago looking at ways to incorporate art and nature study into their year long theme studying neighborhoods.

As a librarian’s daughter and former English teacher, I believe strongly in centering lessons around stories.  Great stories make great hooks to engage learners of all ages!

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

So we started the day with a read aloud of MT Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester, which I love, not only because it’s based on actual history, but because the illustrations and sea-chantey-esque text are captivating.  We then made sand paintings, with glue, sand, sea shells and sea glass (some courtesy of the local beaches, some thanks to Christmas Tree Shop).  People made some beautiful designs!  I only wish I had thought to have related music playing in the background while we worked.

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Mixed media sea serpent!

Mixed media sea serpent!

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Next we moved on to oral history techniques that are useful with pre-k and other young students.  Download the discussion notes here: Oral History Projects with Pre-K  As part of this activity, we also worked with Twisteez wire to make a representation of our favorite toy from childhood, and talked about 2D and 3D ways of working art into story telling and personal history.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Art & Nature Center director Janey Winchell made a guest appearance to talk about great ways to get young kids involved in and actively observing on a nature walk, complete with a suggested Nature Walk scavenger hunt.

School Programs manager Emily Scheinberg also led teachers on an investigation of Salem  history in PEM’s collections.

What clues to Salem's past does a fire bucket hold?

What clues to Salem’s past does a fire bucket hold?

Finally, we wrapped up the day with a pair of observation activities: examining and understanding beach erosion via milk and cookies, and creating ‘viewing frames’ to take on a walk through the neighborhood to encourage close looking, thinking about perspective, and even the basics of composition.  These two activities were inspired by Corinne Demas’ The Disappearing Island and Dr. Seuss’ To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.

Download activity directions erosion and frames

What do you see on the street?  In the sky?  On the buildings as you pass by?

What do you see on the street? In the sky? On the buildings as you pass by?

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Sandstone and conglomerate...aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip.  Which will stand up to milk's erosive force?

Sandstone and conglomerate…aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip. Which will stand up to milk’s erosive force?

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

Want more?  Other classroom activities, read alouds, resources etc available for download here: handouts 2014