Art as Play

Yesterday the interpretation team took a field trip to the Toledo Museum of Art to check out Play Time. Associate Curator of contemporary art Halona Norton-Westbrook, who co-curated the exhibition along with Associate Director Amy Gilman, spoke with us about the origins of this experimental exhibition as we visited the included works installed throughout the museum.

Harmonic Motion by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Charles Richard MacAdam

We had visited Harmonic Motion first thing upon entering the museum and it was interesting to hear how the museum’s original vision, and interactive space for all ages, tended to be more attractive to, or at least more actively engaged with, by children than adult visitors.

Anything Can Break by Pinaree Sanpitak

Anything Can Break was another work in the exhibition some of us had encountered before meeting up with Norton-Westbrook. This was one of my favorites because I had been lucky enough to spend some time in the room with it completely alone. The work contains small cameras that are installed in hanging boxes, which capture visitor movements that then trigger musical sounds to play through speakers. When multiple people interacted with it simultaneously, sounds played in combination with one another creating a completely spontaneous and dynamic experience. My solitary interaction with Anything Can Break was both an unexpected and satisfying experience as I felt I had conversed with the artwork itself.

Animation by Stina Köhnke

Another one of my favorites was Animation – a work by American artist Stina Köhnke that seemed to be a wall of stuffed toys that grew out of a chair. Actually, I had discovered this work on the TMA’s website the day before so I was looking forward to seeing it in the galleries and it did not disappoint. Mountains of plush toys and furry animals brought back memories of arranging my own substantial collection of stuffed animals in my childhood bedroom after hours of play. While standing in front of the work, we witnessed a little girl sprint toward it to touch the animals only to be pulled away by an embarrassed mother. Norton-Westbrook explained this was a common occurrence with this particular work and it was something that had come to be expected and staff in the galleries were continually refining the best ways to balance the need to protect artworks with some of the visceral responses. What other response could one expect from child when they encountered such a magical sight!

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space was a group favorite as the act of swinging elicits the same feeling of joy from adults as it does from children. Four swings installed in an unfinished gallery space was paired with projected patches of blue sky for anyone who wanted to recreate the experience of an endless summer day spent on the playground. The swings were full up when we entered but once the children gave up their seats, the adults milling around in the background (us) quickly took their place. As one of our team said later, what could be better than swinging in a museum?!

Photo: Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, Toledo by SANAA, 2006

Our experience with Play Time next took us over to the magnificent Glass Pavilion where Norton-Westbrook introduced us to Glass Mountain and Masking Tape Installation, works that resulted from two artists’ onsite creations. She noted it was key that Play Time continued to evolve over the course of the exhibition so that it was, like many of the works themselves, constantly in motion.

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

As an interpretation team working in an art museum, we often find ourselves grappling with how to facilitate opportunities for visitors to meaningfully engage with art. I’d say with Play Time Toledo got it perfect with an innovative idea—unlock the child-like wonder that lies dormant in most adults by offering up opportunities to connect with art through the activity of play.

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Museum Reconnaissance, Continued (with special appearance by the Cheesebarn).

Last week the team headed south to the Columbus Museum of Art to check out their Center for Creativity and to chat with the awesome Merilee Mostov. Such a great trip! Such great discussions!

At the moment the museum only has a couple of galleries open as they are in the midst of an expansion and renovation project. It’s set to reopen later in the year, and they’ll have a snazzy new wing when they do. In the meantime, the Creativity Center continues to be open so we headed to Columbus to check it out.
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The main spaces are hubs of ideas jam-packed with opportunities for creating, thinking, solving, and playing.

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Each of these points was directly connected to works of art that were hung nearby, such as the station that is set up to allow visitors to create their own images using their phones along the lines of photographs by a Russian photographer from the collection displayed on the wall next to it.

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The center also includes a space called The Wonder Room that incorporates works created by local artists specifically for the space.

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There are opportunities for visitors’ imaginations to run wild.

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And the team jumped right in (we will always take an opportunity to play, apparently).

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The Imagine the Possibilities installation was really exciting– visitors had created so many different things, all using only one material in only one color. Some of the objects were just amazing, and it was fantastic to see they way that participants built off of one another’s creations.

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I was also really impressed with the inclusion of feedback stations throughout both the Center and the museum as a whole. They are taking the responses that they receive at the feedback stations and categorizing and analyzing what they hear from visitors. They get a lot of feedback, which means a lot of data– so much to work with!

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Denver Museum of Art, African Gallery

I think one of the themes in our museum reconnaissance missions this year has been creativity as a medium of engagement. It’s run, like a thread, throughout the conversations we’ve had with our colleagues and counterparts, and some of the installation at Columbus made me think a lot about what the Denver Museum of Art is doing, as well as some of the things happening at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One important piece that both the Center for Creativity and DAM have in common is real estate (always a commodity in short supply). As we’ve been visiting museums that have incorporated this into their floorplans, we’ve been thinking a lot about what positive experiences we can take away from the installations that can be done without (permanent) space. Are there spaces available for shorter periods of time? What can we do that would last a week? A day? A couple of hours? As we’re winding up our (fiscal) year this month, these are all questions that we’re going to be focusing on in the year to come.

Interpretation team goes to Columbus!

Interpretation team goes to Columbus!

Also, icing on the cake that was a great day out was that on the way back to Cleveland we stopped in at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn. We tasted cheese. We tried out jams. We met Grandpa. It was all the awesomeness you would imagine Grandpa’s Cheesebarn to be.

Grandpa's Cheesebarn!

Grandpa’s Cheesebarn!

Museum Reconnaissance Missions

Our department went on a couple of really fantastic research trips last year, and I’ve had the folder with my notes in it in the to do pile for an embarrassingly long time with all sorts of plans for writing about what we saw.  No better time than the present, right? Each of these trips was so incredibly valuable for us as we think about projects that we have coming up and the direction we would like to head towards with interpretation in the future.

Detroit Institute of Arts

The team visited DIA to meet with the Interpretation team, as well as some members of Education, Exhibitions, and Curatorial. It was a fantastic visit–it is always such a boon to have the chance to talk with colleagues at other institutions, learn how they are organized, and to see the culmination of their work in the galleries. Interpretation departments and teams are all grappling with so many of the same issues, it gives tremendous food for thought to hear about what processes and solutions are being put into play at other institutions– particularly ones with long-established histories in interpretation. This is particularly true when it offers the opportunity to spend the day with awesome people– and the DIA has an army of awesome people.

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Interpretation team field trip!

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There were quite a few takeaways from this trip, but I think the biggest one for me was hearing about how they were using visitor research, and how much it informs the work they do. We love having visitor research data, and do use it to inform our thinking about projects, but it was so great to hear about some of the ways in which the folks at DIA had used their data, how it had influenced decisions, and how it informed conversations around the work.

(I actually got to visit the DIA twice in the last year, most recently for a VTS practicum in March,  I visited the Diego Rivera & Frida Khalo in Detroit show while I was there, which is gorgeous and so worth the visit).

Portland Museum of Art

We were able to take a whirlwind trip out West to the Portland Museum of Art to meet up with their Education Department (as well as a number of folks from several other departments).

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Interpretation museum adventure! #pma

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We have been working on a storybooth prototype, and the PMA’s Object Stories project offers a well known  museum storybooth example, and one that we’ve been very interested in learning about as we’ve been thinking about our own project.

Object Stories Booth at PMA

Object Stories Booth at PMA

We had such great discussions with everyone at Portland– from hearing about the fantastic programming that they are doing to what they learned from Object Stories and more.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

They are doing some amazing things at the PMA, and it was really inspiring to hear about the ways in which they are connecting to a variety of communities in Portland.

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Our discussions about Object Stories were incredibly helpful for thinking about our upcoming project, and that was just one of the great takeaways from the visit. It was great to hear about projects they are working on, and inspiring to hear about the ways that they have experimented with making connections with visitors. In particular, I really admired how much of their work was informed by the community at large, and the really important ways they are thinking about the many audiences and potential audiences there are in Portland. We were also excited to hear how the museum was tackling social media, in which many departments are directly involved.

Denver Art Museum

On the way back from Portland we stopped in Denver to visit the Denver Art Museum.

We happened to get there not long after they released their report on creativity and community, so I had some really interesting reading material for the flight. For example:

But although irreverence is good, irrelevance is not. When polled, visitors consistently express a preference for rich, meaningful, object-based content.

DAM was full of surprises– at least for me. As a (probably over-) seasoned art museum visitor I walk into museums with a framework of expectations (as do many of us).

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At the Denver art museum

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DAM had many of the things that one would expect in an art museum visit.

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Excited for our day at the Denver Art Museum today

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But it also had some surprises tucked into spaces throughout the galleries– maker spaces that give visitors the opportunity to create themselves.

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We spent a lot of time in the maker spaces.

For me, having the opportunity to create something– even something simple (or perhaps especially something simple and low stress) was a great experience. I left thinking a lot about creativity and ways that supporting visitors’ creativity (even those who don’t think of themselves as creative) can expand and enhance visitors’ experience in the museum. We’ve been exploring ways that we can do even without having dedicated maker spaces, including programs like writing workshops and the storytelling workshop that Bethany wrote about recently).

We were also able to visit one of their special exhibitions, Matisse and Friends, which included unique interpretive elements, such as a single audio stop designed to facilitate contemplative looking, super comfy seating to encourage longer engagement with the paintings, and the opportunity to share a journal response to the works in the exhibition. We watched visitors interact with each of these elements, engaging with each one.

These visits and discussions were amazing and we will be thinking about what we’ve seen for a long time to come. I want to extend a huge thank you to all of our colleagues at the DIA, PMA, and DAM, who were all incredibly generous with their time, their knowledge, their ideas, and their experiences. We came away inspired, impressed, full of ideas, and completely wowed by the amazing things happening in the field.

Senufo, Shiva, and the Jar of Awesomeness

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Shiva probably never had to dance in the snow in India. (This particular bronze has been in Cleveland since the 1930s, so perhaps he has acclimated?) Dancing, driving, walking, and sliding through the snow is a pretty standard part of how things roll in wintertime Cleveland. Usually. (It’s been a light winter for snow this year, but we’ve been making up for lost time in the last couple of weeks.)

We’ve put the finishing touches on the Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa multimedia tour, which has been exciting. The app is now in the iTunes store (which is even more exciting– did I mention that it’s free? It’s free!), and there’s lots of work is going on in the exhibition space this week.

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Today I had the rare moment of having lots of things that need doing, but none that are due in the next 24 hours. Huzzah! It also gave me the opportunity to open up a folder of raw pieces for some ArtLens segments that I’ve been hoping to get to for a Very. Very. Long. Time. Double Huzzah! (Also? some of these raw bits are reeeeally interesting, and I think will lead to some great final outputs). *And* one of those bits-of-flarn projects that has been hanging out for months and refusing to get done basically got done this morning. Triple Huzzah!

We cover a lot of ground in our department. (I mean a *lot* of ground).

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We do heaps of programs and videos and lots and lots and lots of app content and gallery interpretation and interactives and things with docents and many, many things. It is exciting to have such  varied work, and I feel really fortunate to be able to do interesting, meaningful work, and to be a part of a team of talented, fantastic people. Toward the end of 2014 I was talking with someone that I don’t get a chance to talk with all that often and they asked how my year had been. And I said, “oh it was great, we did great things, and worked on great stuff, and had great projects.” To which he said, “Oh, yeah? Like what?”  And I said, “………..”

Because in that moment I couldn’t really think of an example of the great things we’d been doing throughout a great year. Of course there were challenges along the way (definition of every year), but there were also great things that we accomplished in 2014 and I didn’t have any of them on the tip of my tongue.

I think a big part of it is that it is sometimes hard to find a moment to step back, even briefly, at the end of a project and to really think about what worked, what didn’t, what you’d do differently, what you would like to do again. In some ways the nature of how the work our department works: we are always working on multiple projects simultaneously. And many of our projects are ongoing (we’re always creating something for ArtLens, so it’s never really done). The end of one project doesn’t necessarily lead to a natural moment of reflection.* More often, it leads to freeing up the time you were putting into project A to let you put it toward project B. In the end it sometimes makes it difficult to delineate what was accomplished in a given period of time (like, you know, last year). Which is ridiculous and needs fixing. If not for 2014, then for 2015.

To wit, The Jar of Awesomeness:

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The plan? To fill the jar with all things awesome, large and small as a reminder to ourselves (and me in particular!) of all of the great things that happen, the moments of good fortune, and the hard-earned achievements that come from the dedication of the team. The bottom of the jar is already covered with more to come.

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* Which is why we schedule post project discussions after big projects.

Congratulations, Bethany!!

We have a winner!!

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Bethany, who is  the Audience Engagement Specialist member of the Interpretation team, has been named the winner of 2015’s Cleveland Emerging Museum Professional of the Year Award. GO, BETHANY!! Bethany first came to the CMA as the Nord Fellow in 2010, later joining Interpretation in 2012 as Audience Engagement Specialist, where she focuses on public programming for adult audiences. And program she does! Lectures, gallery talks, plus a whole heap of new programs from Art Bites tours to mediation in the galleries, art making activities at MIX events,

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dozens of (very popular) yoga classes for last summer’s Yoga exhibition (she wrote about her experience back in December), and the large scale fashion shows for the Wari and Forbidden Games exhibitions.

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This award also signals her nomination for the Ohio Museum Association’s Emerging Professional of the Year, which will be announced at the OMA Conference in March. Congratulations, Bethany, much deserved!

Bethany

Do We Make “Content”?

Last month I went to Dallas (my first time in the Big D, at least out of the airport) for the annual MCN conference.

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It’s one of my favorite conferences, and is one that I always feel like I walk away with ideas and inspiration and thinking about lots of big questions– it’s the one where I spend the plane ride home thinking that I’m going to get home and Do All The Things! Make All The Things! Make Very Very Good Things! And then I get home and my inbox is full and there are voicemails and deadlines and maybe even a fire to put out, and I think, I will do All The Things a little later.*

This year I presented in the case study group, which was really enjoyable– there were some great conversations about what makes a trusted museum brand. I was also on a panel that was organized by Robert Weisberg from the Met (who compared his institution first to pre-revolutionary France, and then to a space ark) that was downright fun. (You can read his thoughts on this year’s MCN here). Corey Pressman gave an inspiring (and often hilarious) talk about orality’s shift into the authority of print, and the potential for opening authority as we move into a time of secondary orality. Kimon Keramidas talked about his (supercool) projects with students at the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center. (The audio from the panel is here).

The panel touched on a lot of things that I spend a lot (I mean a lot) of time thinking about. Much of what I do professionally is “content development.” If someone had said to me when I was tied to a carrel in the library in grad school that I would grow up to develop content I would have looked at you like you’d told me I was going to find myself living out my middle years on Mars. Content development? What does that even mean?

I don’t really recall hearing the word “content” (the way it is used now) in grad school. I might have, but if I did it didn’t make an impression. It’s a word I hear all the time now, both in my professional life and outside of it, but it is a term that I find hard to pin down. What does it even mean?

The seeming ubiquity of the word doesn’t, for me, negate it’s inherent slipperiness. What does it actually point to? First and foremost, it points to its holder (“content,” after all, says up front that it is contained, which means there must be a container) while not pointing at all to its own identity. It’s stuff that goes in the thing– it’s only identifying feature being that it is held in something else. It seems to function as a placeholder for whatever we happen to be talking about at that moment. Labels, videos, software, tours, public programs, whatever. We seem to have tacitly agreed to use this catch-all word to catch all we do– and it the process it’s lost whatever meaning it might have, at some point, had.

And then we use it with visitors.

Ug. The internal/external meanings of museums’ weird nomenclature are rarely aligned. In my experience museums have extensive taxonomies so esoteric that only a select few have been initiated into the highest levels of knowledge. For visitors, much of it is just wordswordswordsthatIdon’tknow.

And who actually wants to make “content”? Content sounds like vitamins: something you don’t enjoy ingesting but do it because you’re supposed to. Who wants to listen to, watch, see, read, or make that? Content is a word that sounds desiccated. And it’s so overused that at times I think it no longer has a referent.

When I think about what we are actually doing, when I think about what I actually love finding out about and listening to, and watching, and learning about when I go to a museum (and I go to a lot of them– and not just the one where I work), it’s stories. Because we’re humans, and humans are hardwired to hear, tell, and process narratives (literally). It is how we make sense of the world; but it is also a critical way in which we derive joy from it as well. We don’t want to hear “content”; we want to hear a good yarn.

This may seem like just semantics, and it is semantics, but it isn’t only semantics. Externally, is it realistic to expect our visitors to get excited about something we call “content”? Internally, does approaching the work through the framework of “content development” have an impact on what we produce? [I would say that it does, and not for the better].

That said, I don’t have a solution for a better word. Ideas, stories, narratives, something else…. I don’t know, but would love to hear suggestions.

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Meanwhile, I heard some fantastic panels and discussions at MCN, including a super fun panel on games with Emily Lytle-Painter of LACMA and James Collins of the Smithsonian that really had me thinking (again) about games (again) and museums (again). Our little department has several people who are gamers themselves (analog and digital) and the idea of bringing games into what we do at the museum comes up somewhat regularly. The session had lots of great advice, but was done through actually trying different things out– which is a great way to make the message stick.

I also really enjoyed a panel on museums and social media, and have been thinking ever since I left Dallas about Alli Burness‘s question: What do selfies mean?

And of course I visited the Dallas Art Museum:

Went to a honky tonk:

And had epic karaoke:

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Before heading home:

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*And over the course of the next year I usually get to Some Of The Things, which probably isn’t half bad.

Whatcha Wanna Make?

Things are humming along at a quick clip in the department. The schedule of programs is weighty this fall, we’re still working on our audience research project, we’ve got some new multimedia projects on the docket, and an experiment in content development for an exhibition coming up next year. Exciting things! Busy things! We need help! And best of all, we’re going to get it! (We’re in the process of hiring a new team member).

We’ve also started scheduling some team field trips, which we’re very excited about. The list of places range from in town to the other side of the country. We took our first one on Friday– the closest one on the list (we walked)– to think[box].

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What (you may ask) is think[box]? An excellent question! It’s a maker space connected with the Case School of Engineering. Right now it’s in the basement of a building on the Case campus, but they have expansion in their future with plans to move to a much larger, multi-floor facility. I’m sure that is going to be a fantastic space, because the basement space was already impressive. They have some seriously cool equipment. Industrial 3D printers! Laser cutters! A CNC router! Looking at all the possibilities just made you want to make stuff. Which is, of course, the point.

And you can go in and make stuff. My favorite part of our tour through the facility was the access discussion. Who has access? Everyone. Not just students and faculty, everyone. And the cost of access? Free. It’s a community maker space. You need to go through training to be able to use some of the equipment, and there are some costs for the use of materials, but if you just thought up a super awesome project idea and you need a you need a 3D microscope to do it, you can get hooked up.

We (not surprisingly) came back excited about some possibilities, and I hope that we might figure out a way to partner with them. But I’m also hoping to be able to talk with them about their experience with making, and what we might be able to to take back across the street to our end of the ‘hood. Making is definitely part of our museum culture, but it isn’t part of all parts of the museum.

More to come….

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