“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.


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.

little dancer 2

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.


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.


  • 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.

Media literacy, election years, and museums

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The Massachusetts museum advocates outside Senator Warren’s office, Museums Advocacy Day 2016

Last week was #MuseumsAdvocacy2016, hosted by the American Alliance of Museums down in DC. It was several days of training, talking about museum issues, sharing big ideas, meeting up with old friends and making new ones, and talking to legislators and their staffers about everything from STEM education to charitable giving tax deductions. It was about 250 people participating in the ardent practice of democracy, and it was awesome.

And this week was Super Tuesday. (More ardent practice of democracy, for good or ill. I got to the polls 5 minutes after they opened, because when I was little, my parents took me voting with them like it was an adventure. Still is, mostly because I understand the stakes better now.)

Most people say the ads and the terrible behavior of both candidates and supporters are the worst part of election years. While that’s often true, this year I also marked with sadness President Obama’s last State of the Union.  If you missed it, for whatever reason, I do encourage you to check it out, because it was one of his better examples of hopeful oratory. I’ve linked to the White House above because they’ve got a bunch of the quotes, infographics, and other extras that were included in the enhanced livestream, which make for good nuggets around which to build a discussion, should you happen to be teaching civics, graphic design, or media literacy this week. (Please teach some media literacy this week.)

Media literacy has been a long-held interest of mine: an essay I wrote about it was part of the web resources for PEM’s Eye Spy: Playing With Perception exhibit, and elements of those same visual/critical thinking skills ideas also worked themselves into the teacher guide I wrote for middle and high-school based on the same exhibit. In an election year like this one is shaping up to be, where paying attention to the kinds of language candidates use gives you a lot of information about who they are and what they’re trying to do with their platforms, it’s important for educators in both classrooms and museums to step up their game around teaching those critical skills. Otherwise, who’s to notice when one candidate gets an overwhelming amount of media attention for no critically apparent reason?

That’s why I was pleased to find out recently that the Newseum launched a new resource for educators and students centered around the history, roles, and responsibilities of the press, with lesson plans, curriculum links, and activities for both the classroom and trips to the museum itself. I didn’t make it to the Newseum on this most recent trip to DC, but I enjoyed it when I was there several years ago, and it’s on my list for another look next time. (I’ll have reviews of the places I did visit in the next post or two.)

Here are a few recent ‘museums in the news’ articles to get you started, in case you want something other than election coverage to read:



Star Wars Ice and Scientific Mermaid Song: Exploring Sound

My anonymous tipmaster sent me a very cool video earlier this week showcasing the universality of the pentatonic scale.  (Bear with me: it means that anywhere in the world, people watching Bobby McFerrin jump around a stage can actually sing on pitch and together with almost no instruction).  This incredibly cool exploration of sound, music, and the way we think  reminded me that I’d been collecting some very fun sound-related links to share with you here on Brain Popcorn.

A Not So ‘Silent World’

Diving in New England is a relatively quiet business.  Most of the time, it’s your air bubbles, your dive buddy’s air bubbles, and the occasional scrape of gear on rock that accompanies you in the deep.  But not always, and not elsewhere.  Diving in the USVI a few years ago I was thrilled and startled to be surrounded by what seemed like a chorus of marine Morse code, and was informed that there were ‘very talkative shrimp’ on that particular reef.  A recent report highlighted by the Smithsonian suggests “A Noisy Reef is a Healthy Reef,” which is a fascinating new look at ways to measure the health of communities in endangered waters.

For most of us, the ‘sound of ice’ is skates carving up the surface, or possibly that sharp pop you get when you drop an ice cube into a glass of lukewarm juice.  If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the land of glaciers and icebergs, maybe you also think of the great rumble and splash of a calving glacier.  But what about a lake in winter?  Thoreau certainly noticed interesting sounds at his spot by Walden Pond:

The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature. One pleasant morning after a
cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of my axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods
around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head. The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun’s rays slanted upon it from over the hills; it stretched
itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. It took a short siesta at noon, and boomed once more toward night, as the sun was
withdrawing his influence. In the right stage of the weather a pond fires its evening gun with great regularity.

Read more from Thoreau’s Walden here.

If you can’t make it out to a pond when the weather is perfect, then listen to some amazing ice sounds from the warmth of your own desk, with sound artist Andreas Bick’s recordings, or check out compositions played on instruments made of ice by Terje Isungset.

Sounds Like a Fairytale

The Voice of the Little Mermaid — How might the Little Mermaid have sounded under water?  If, like certain people who shall remain nameless, you’ve ever tried humming in the swimming pool to find out, here’s a way to explore a little further.  An opera singer has actually performed most of an opera, singing underwater, and discusses her technique and the changes in the sound at the link above.  Very cool–but hard on the costumes, I should think!

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – Did you ever notice that when listening to the radio or the TV in the background, you could still get a sense of the meaning even without catching all the words?  Try reading this intro to “Little Red Riding Hood” aloud with a ‘storytelling voice’ and see how far you get.  Listen to the narrator on the Exploratorium’s page if you’re stumped, and find the rest of the story there too.

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.