Museums: From show and look to show and teach

There have been many strange sightings outside the Whitney Museum of American Art’s over the years: a giant bird’s nest precariously perched on the cantilevered entrance; a neon sign that spelled out “Negro Sunshine”; and a giant replica of a toy fire truck parked at the curb for nearly three months. So it is hardly surprising that recent passers-by don’t seem at all curious at the sight of tall black shipping containers rising from the sculpture court. “We really do put education front and center,” said Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director.

Known as the Whitney Studio, it will stay there until the museum moves to its new home in Manhattan’s in 2015. The design is singular — a 600-square-foot space composed of six black-painted shipping containers that form a 17-foot-tall studio space and storage mezzanine — and the idea is perhaps the most tangible example of what museum education is about these days. “The big movement right now is experiential learning,” said Kathryn Potts, chairwoman of the Whitney’s education department.

At the Whitney, the pop-up center is an inventive solution to a space problem. When the museum sold its neighboring brownstones last year, with them went the space where some education programs were held. Desperate for a solution, the museum called Manhattan architects to create a place where people of all ages could participate in classes, art-making workshops, studio demonstrations and other educational endeavors. The space is just the kind of thing the public wants these days. “Audiences today are more interested in participatory events, not just being talked to,” Ms. Potts said.

On a recent rainy Friday evening, a few blocks north at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a group was gathered for “Drop-in Drawing.” The program meets every two weeks in a different part of the museum. Perched on folding seats, armed with clipboards, paper and colored pencils, a group ranging in age from roughly 6 to upward of 65 listened with rapt attention as Pamela Lawton, a New York artist, explained how artists traditionally compose a canvas.

The group then started sketching, inspired by examples of the Hudson River School painters surrounding them. After 20 minutes, the group moved to the nearby American Impressionist galleries, where Deborah Lutz, another artist, continued teaching.

 “The point is to use drawing to look more closely at art,” said Peggy Fogelman, the Met’s chairwoman of education. In the world of museum educators, learning today is all about do-it-yourself, sometimes called free-choice learning. “More and more people are directing their own learning experience,” Ms. Fogelman explained.

Now that online courses have been available for teachers and the public on museum Web sites, a concerted effort is being made to balance what the Internet has to offer with what museums can do on-site.

“It is no longer either/or, but and/and,” said Ms. Fogelman, who explained that recent visitor surveys showed that audiences wanted to learn where the action was — at the museum itself. “Technology is a part of our everyday life, and museums are getting smarter about using it. But it’s our collections and exhibitions that make us unique. At an encyclopedic museum like the Met, that is what defines us.”

In Washington, at the National Gallery of Art, Lynn Pearson Russell, the director of education, said she saw “a bigger return to teaching from original objects and less of a high-tech approach.” Families are invited to spend 60 to 75 minutes investigating one work of art.

Slowing down has also become a priority at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “The more virtual we’ve become, the more we need to touch,” said Sarah Schultz. As the Walker’s director of education, she also took on the title of curator of public practice, a signal that audience participation and civic engagement were critical. But Ms. Schultz was quick to credit the Internet with helping fuel the project’s success. Even that project, “which is designed around creating real time, face-to-face experiences, relies on a Web-based calendar to share and update information about events”.

Even in the virtual world, the emphasis is on do-it-yourself. “Digital is definitely the biggest news in the field of education; it’s been a game-changer for everyone,” said Wendy Woon, the deputy director of education at the Museum of Modern Art. At the MoMA, there are in-house programs and digital art-making courses.

Ms. Woon added that in the 21st century, “museums are well-placed as we move from consumption to innovation to stimulate ideas and creativity.”


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