What I Have Learned From Museums

This will be my last post on the Rubin Museum Education Blog. I will be moving on to work at the at a non-profit arts foundation. I’ve felt so privileged to be able to work at the Rubin Museum of Art for the past year and working with such talented colleagues has helped me grow tremendously as a professional.  I’m also really proud that I’ve played a role in getting this blog standing firmly on its own two feet and set it free into the Internet world. I’ve already added it to my RSS feed and I hope you will keep reading too!

So far in my adult working life I have built my career working in museums. My new job will be taking me out of museums and into the broader arts world.  So, I thought I would use my last blog entry at the Rubin Museum to reflect on what I have learned from museums as an educator, learner and visitor after six years of working in them.

All-Seeing Lord with Eleven Faces and One Thousand Hands Avalokiteshvara Sahasrabhujalokeshvara Central Tibet; 18th century Pigment on cloth Rubin Museum of Art F1997.1.6 (HAR 40)

Learn the story behind the work of art and let them move you. If I learn the story behind a work of art that piece comes alive. When I first started at the Rubin Museum of Art I was overwhelmed by all the beautiful works of art and could not find a strategy to start learning about the collection. I asked David Bowles to take me on a tour and show me what he considered to be his favorite teaching pieces. When he showed me the painting of Avalokiteshvara and told me the story of how this beloved Bodhisattva of compassion got his 1,000 arms to better help end suffering in the world I fell in love. I knew I was really struck by the piece and the story when I used Avalokiteshvara as an example in a casual conversation to illustrate a point about compassionate action.

Brooklyn Museum: A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie

Brooklyn Museum: A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie by Albert Bierstadt

Take time to look deeply, and re-look often. Some of my favorite works of art in museums have grown on me over time. Many of them are ones which on first glance I thought, “Yuck,” or “Meh, what’s the big deal?” One of these was a painting at the Brooklyn Museum by Albert Bierstadt called Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie. It’s a huge, dynamic, imposing painting and at first I felt it was just an overblown American landscape like any other. The more I looked at it, the more details I found, and I felt myself entranced by the textures and quality of light in the painting, how it felt more like a backdrop for a stage set than a museum art work, and I appreciated the story it told about how Easterners like Bierstadt viewed the American west and the Native American people who lived there.  Now it is a piece I visit every time I go to the museum. Pieces like that one have grown on me as I took time to sit with them and let their details and multiple layers reveal themselves to me. Your mother may have told you not to judge people by first impressions and it’s the same with art.

Musee Quai Branly

Space and experience is as important as works of art. I’ve found that a museum can have a fabulous collection of art, but if their space is uncomfortable or visitors have an awkward experience, those feelings overshadow the experience of looking at art. There’s a reason that we have a “Visitor Experience” department that is part of our education team. When I first came to the Rubin Museum as a visitor I was struck by the space- the copper cloud wall behind admissions, the marble spiral staircase, the dark wood, and the delicious smell of food from the cafe. I felt relaxed, comfortable and taken care of as a visitor. Because of this I was able to focus on looking at, enjoying and learning about the art. However, space can also be distracting. I’ve found when a museum is too much about the space the works of art can be overshadowed by impressive architecture, which can compromise the visitor experience in the service of being visually impressive, but not very functional. I found this at the new Quai Branly museum in Paris, which has a breath taking building, and wonderful exhibits and presentations, but also small, cramped and dirty restrooms that are hard to find. I probably could tell you very little of my memory of my visit there, but I certainly remember that I was uncomfortable and disoriented as a visitor!

New technology and ancient art can compliment each other, not compete with each other. Many museums, exhibition  and interactive designers, and bloggers are thinking about innovative and non-distracting ways to use technology in museums, however, many museums still seem to feel that new technology will somehow undermine what they do. New technology, whether its web 2.0 or tablet computers, are here to stay and will only keep developing. It’s up to the creative people in museums to figure out how to use these technologies in the service of art and to keep the focus on art and not the other way around. I’ve loved seeing how the Brooklyn Museum’s staff blog, Facebook and Twitter feed brings community members closer to them and how we’ve been using videos and photographs on an iPad to show visitors to the Rubin Museum of Art what Himalayan art looks like in context. There’s still so much that can be done with technology. It’s exciting, but coming up with ideas to utilize it to its fullest potential in our institutions takes time, energy and careful planning, but if there’s anything that people who work in museums understand it’s the importance of planning and thoughtful implementation.

CHERYL video shoot at MoMA PS 1

Museum education will take you to places you never expected. This reflection is more personal than the others here. When I began working in museums six years ago I was fresh out of college and was looking for ways to apply my training in progressive education to teaching outside of a traditional classroom. Museum education seemed like an exciting fit and I began at the Brooklyn Museum as a school programs intern educator teaching school groups about Ancient Egyptian, American, European, Asian and Contemporary art (and learning a lot myself!). I never guessed that from that experience I would move on to work in museum public programming, or to conceptualizing and producing audio tours, videos, websites, and other interpretive materials here at the Rubin Museum. When I look at my colleagues who I have worked with in museum education I am struck by what they’ve gone on to achieve: they work in various departments of museums around the country, one is the director of a Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, one is a uber-intellectual conceptual artist, a group of museum educators started a popular, arty dance party, and others have gone on to pursue masters and doctoral degrees in England, Spain,  and Argentina, and still others have started a successful, artisanal natural soda company.  I think the variety of paths of my fellow museum educators says much about the strength of the museum education field. It is a field that encourages open questions, dialog, listening and understanding the perspectives of others, as well as coming up with strategies to present complex and often very culturally sensitive material in down-to earth ways that are relatable to a diverse group of visitors. This approach is not only essential for museum work, but for successfully navigating and living compassionately in the modern world .

What have you learned from museums?

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3 Responses to What I Have Learned From Museums

  1. mns says:

    I am honored to have known you from the beginning (6 years? wow. I was so thin then…) and excited to see where you will go. 🙂

    • Eleanor says:

      Thanks, Maria! I was thinking about you and all the things you have accomplished since then. How many boards are you on now? 🙂

  2. Eleanor-

    This is your 3rd cousin once removed just checking out your blog. What is your next destination in the art world? I would like to keep in touch, get in touch, rather.

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