Yoga and the Museum

Yoga: The Art of Transformation opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art last summer. From June to September, over 1400 visitors participated in:

  • Three lectures.
  • One four-week seminar.
  • Four gallery talks.
  • And FORTY-FOUR yoga classes.

Gallery talks and lectures? Easy. We do these all the time. Where we really had to stretch ourselves (pun absolutely intended) was the yoga classes. Sure, lots of museums offer yoga in the galleries, but for us, this was a new challenge.

Yoga on the Lawn

Yoga on the Lawn

It wasn’t difficult to find people to teach. As soon as the exhibition was announced, yoga teachers in the area were calling and emailing, wanting to know how they could get involved. Even before plans for a yoga studio were added to the exhibition’s design, I had a list of excited teachers and studios ready to offer classes. We started out by scheduling two classes each Sunday of the exhibition’s run (with the creative title “Sunday Yoga”). When Sunday Yoga sold out, in some cases months in advance, we first added more spots to those classes and then more classes during the week, evenings, and Saturdays. We also had a weekly drop-in yoga session out on the lawn.

Even though these programs were successful, there were still aspects of the summer that could have gone more smoothly. Here are some of the lessons learned.

Stretch Yourself…

Every time we do a new program at the museum, there’s an element of anxiety. Will people come? Is this actually worth it? Will the art be in danger? Will yoga enthusiasts be running around the galleries shoeless?* All valid questions, and sometimes, the answers make it seem like an idea is impossible. But often, these new programs are welcomed and enjoyed by our audiences. We learned that a new program can be successful, even if it requires implementing new ideas, and it’s worth trying.

Full classes!

Full classes!

…But Not Too Far

When the yoga classes filled up and more and more studios wanted to get involved, I got excited. I wanted to keep this momentum going and really celebrate how enthusiastic the community was, but I didn’t consider how much more work it would be. Yes, it was exciting, but by the end of the summer, I was completely exhausted and behind on a lot of my other responsibilities. It would have been better to look at what resources the museum could expend and consider more carefully how much we could take on.

Be Flexible

Working with nineteen different yoga studios and teachers also meant working with a lot of different personalities, ideas, and methods. While I tried to clearly lay out our expectations and resources, there were inevitably classes that required special arrangements, like bringing in musical instruments and props for yoga and harmony experiences or setting up chairs for meditation and therapeutic yoga. Some of these I knew about in advance, others were a surprise. Expect that no matter how many times you ask for details, you might not get them!

Deep Inhale

Sometimes your volunteers or your yoga teacher won’t show up. Sometimes people will get mad at you when they buy tickets for the exhibition and don’t realize the yoga class wasn’t included (or vice versa). Sometimes you schedule a kids’ yoga class for the first week of school and not realize it until you get to the empty studio. Sometimes your speaker will get laryngitis. Sometimes people will ask you if a black teacher is doing “African” yoga.** The potential for random, disruptive, or unfortunate happenings is there in any program, and even more so with forty! It’s easy to let it get to you. Take a minute to yourself when something like this happens. Don’t just run off to the next thing, no matter how busy you are; wait a second, breathe, and let it go.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

 

Be In the Moment

Because there is so much advance work that goes into making a program happen, I sometimes feel like the actual event is anticlimactic. Once all the paperwork is in and the arrangements are made, the actual day-of feels easy. But if you’re already thinking about the next thing you have to do, you miss what’s going on right in front of you. I was reminded of this in one particular class, when I overheard a very experienced yoga practitioner chatting with a complete beginner about how much they both enjoyed one of the works in the exhibition. That moment of connection, when someone can relate a centuries-old work of art to their own life and is so excited that he or she wants to share it with others – that’s what it’s all about.

Practice

Last summer’s experiences showed that there is a deep interest in yoga in the Cleveland community. With many of our programs, we try to meet people where they are by incorporating their favorite experiences into the museum. Thinking about the success of these programs, we’re looking at ways to make yoga a regular part of the museum. Like yoga, viewing art can be a relaxing and inspiring experience. What could be better than bringing them together? 

Even if they weren't taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

Even if they weren’t taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

* This was brought up in an early meeting. I thought, “No way. Who would forget their shoes?” That first weekend, I had to run after two people who got all the way out of the studio, into the lobby, and onto the escalator completely barefoot. Yeah. 

** And yet not one question about whether the white teachers were doing “European” yoga. 

 

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This is [only] a test

We’ve been experimenting some new things this summer. New programs:

yogainsession

Including yoga classes to go with our big summer exhibition. (Very, very popular)  I’m working on an interpretation project for an exhibition next year that will be quite different (in terms of both content and delivery) from our usual mode. (Very exciting!) The museum has a conservation on view exhibition happening throughout the summer, and we have a wall up inviting visitors to ask questions:

askanexpert

(Also quite popular with visitors).

We’ve also been doing some audience testing. It’s something that the department has been involved with in the past, but this summer the team is taking a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of research and data gathering. One thing we’re looking at is interest levels for new content that we’re planning to develop.

content testing

It’s been fascinating to listen to visitors give their responses to some of the ideas. And (as always) there are surprises that pop up along the way. Some of my favorites have been:

One visitor said they would be interested in a tour of Medieval art because they enjoyed painting from that period. Soon afterwards another visitor said that everything was always about Medieval art, which they found boring.

One response to the tour topic “Surprise!” one visitor said they wouldn’t know what it was about, but they would be curious to find out. Another also said they wouldn’t know what it was about– but that they weren’t good with surprises, and rated it at the bottom.

In response to a tour on the theme of the Monuments Men one visitor expressed that they weren’t familiar with the theme, asking if that was pictures of Abraham Lincoln on his throne. (I think they were talking about the monument in DC).

It was interesting to see how differently different people responded to the same topic. We’re going to be doing content testing for at least another couple of months, and we’re starting to see some patterns emerging. I think a big part of what we do as we move forward is to think not only about which topics rise to the top in overall popularity, but also about niches. For example, some topics did not get a  lot of votes overall, but those who liked them really liked them. We also need to think about polarizing topics. “Surprise!” is a good example– people seemed to rate it either at the top or the bottom, with few in between. For those who were interested, having it in the mix was a real positive. The negative responses were very solid in their reaction– would the presence of something they were turned off by turn them off from other options?

We’ve also started testing program formats for adult audiences. We have some new types of programs that we’re going to be trying out this year, so we’re testing both how well visitors will understand the planned descriptions (this will be iterative over the next couple months), and how interested they would be to attend a program using the new formats. Can’t wait to see what we find out!