When learning how to conduct a studio program for student groups, our “teacher,” in this case, Rachel Harper, recommended we use a “one-word check-in” with visiting students as a way to conclude the morning’s activities. In that moment, as I considered not only the practice studio program I had just participated in, but also my mock tour earlier that day, the other interns’ mock tours, and the two weeks of training I had nearly completed, I thought, “learning,” “informative,” “observation.”`
However, in reflecting on this past week–the first week of tours and museum practices seminars–a very different kind set of words came to mind: “context” and “accessibility.” To me, these were the themes underlying both my first set of tours and our meetings with Museum Director Douglas Druick and Prints & Drawings Department Curator Mark Pascale: the context in which we see, understand, and engage with objects, the role of the museum in the context of our (the public’s) lives, and how the museum makes objects accessible.
In what ways does/must the museum provide a context for its objects? In our meeting with Douglas Druick and our post-meeting discussion, we considered how curators take responsibility for displaying their objects in contexts–architectural, spatial, and emotive–in order to render objects most accessible and impactful. Often, accessibility is derivative of how we see art (consider, for instance, the modern and contemporary artworks on display in the Modern Wing.)
Accessibility also derives from the amount of experience the visitor has had with interacting with objects. This week really had me thinking about how the museum must be cognizant of how it (the museum) fits within the context of the visitor’s life. In this vein, Douglas Druick told a story of an acquaintance who wanted to take his children to the Art Institute, but who had never been to an art museum before. He had asked, “What do I do with my kids when I’m there? Do we just stand in front of a work? Am I supposed to explain it to them?” While in the course of our training we had discussed the idea that the museum is a public space which many find overwhelming and even alienating, I hadn’t really considered or sympathized with what being a first-timer to the museum might be like.
In turn, our visit to the Prints & Drawings Department offered an interesting counterpoint to our discussion with Douglas Druick; it was, at first, troubling. While we were lucky enough to go into the vault (coolest thing ever, seriously–see below), we looked at and talked about works on paper that Mark Pascale told us may never be viewed on public display. The interns and I shared in our reaction: “Then why have them? Who gets to see them?” Mark Pascale explained that they are all available to the public, as long as one makes an appointment to see them (which anyone can do.) But then, the issue of accessibility becomes: what kinds of people make appointments to see these works? And if only a limited sort of patron is taking advantage of this part of the collection, how should educators incorporate prints and drawings into educational programs or take advantage of what we can learn from these works to strengthen our ability to educate? In other words, how do we provide context for these works and make them more accessible?
A couple of my favorites:
In thinking about these issues of context and accessibility, I was really excited, therefore, to have a tour of kids in which not a single one had been to the Art Institute before. I loved just watching their reactions to the works we saw and even those we just passed. There was something so raw and uninhibited about their excitement (especially going through the Alsdorf galleries…I loved hearing “whoa that’s so cool!”)
In some ways, this tour contrasted with another one of our tours which consisted of kids from an art camp. When we got to Greyed Rainbow by Jackson Pollock, one girl (aged 8-9?) started jumping up and down with excitement because she knew who the artist was just by looking at the piece. We also learned during the course of our lesson on the Pollock that the kids had, just the day before, done a splatter painting activity at their camp.
While I have been thinking about these issues of context and accessibility throughout the week and in the process of writing this post, I haven’t really drawn any kinds of conclusions. However, I do have this: while the museum experience fit very differently within the context of each of these groups’ lives, it was interesting to see that our lesson plans carried out in very much the same ways. This was because we were focused (as we were trained to do) on getting the kids to simply engage with the objects based on what they see. By asking questions that get visitors to look, think about what they see, relate the visual information to their own lives, and to look again, educators serve as mediators–neutralizers, in a way–between art objects and visitors, both art connoisseurs and museum first-timers alike.
To me, that’s pretty cool.