A few years ago I took my students to see an exhibit of work by William Kentridge, an artist from South Africa who uses drawings, robotics, and animation to explore themes of historical memory. What's not to love? However, when I went to the museum lobby to wait for them -- a full five minutes before the meeting time, there they all were, apparently bored and fidgeting with their smart phones. A trip to the museum seems requisite for many art and history teachers, but without a little imaginative planning, might feel like a real drag to our students.
How can we make students excited to visit a museum? Here are some ideas for livening up the experience of seeing art in person.
#1) Become the Curator
When students put on their own show, they experience the museum as a dynamic and living institution. Before your scheduled visit, ask students to select a theme using criteria such as their dreams, popular trends or ideas drawn from science and history. At the museum, have them select works that match that theme, making sure that they write down the titles and artists. When they return to school, the students will find images of their selected artworks online and organize their own virtual show using Power Point or Prezi. When curating their show, the students should consider how works are grouped together as well as the progression through an exhibit that a visitor should take.
#2) Rembrandt Selfies
Not every student has a smart phone, but making it an option for documenting their experience by taking photos (check with museum rules pertaining to their permanent collections and special exhibits), typing notes and sharing it with their classmates via social networks might be a way for making the experience fun. Teachers might also want to connect popular technology trends such as Instagram filtering to traditional techniques of color alteration or selfies to the long history of self-portraiture.
#3) Go Guerilla: Institutional Critique
The Guerilla Girls are a group of female activists who wear gorilla masks and, more importantly, by staging outrageous stunts, highlight the lack of women artists featured in major collections. As a form of institutional critique, pioneered by artist such as Hans Haacke and Fred Wilson, ask students to focus on issues of representation in a collection -- who is and is not represented and/or underrepresented, as well as what cultural groups, notions or styles they would include in a collection that might not currently be on display.
#4) Performative Reflection
What if students had to write a poem about a piece of art? What if they had to summarize the art through a haiku and recite it in front of the artwork itself? Some teachers have their students dress as their favorite piece of art, and stand before it taking questions from visitors. Seeing the museum as a place for expression and interaction is key to making an unforgettable experience for the students.
#5) Scavenger Hunt
As popular books and movies like The Da Vinci Code have made clear, the museum can be a place for intrigue and mystery. What if the teacher asked the students to solve a riddle that finds its answer in a modernist sculpture? Apart from the superficial fun of such an activity, it also presents the opportunity to really look deeply at the work, and discover features and details that might otherwise be missed.
#6) Build Community from the "Inside, Out"
The playwright August Wilson once said, "Art doesn't change the world, art changes people, and people change the world," In the 2010 show, "This Progress," the artist Tino Seghal made this his focus by clearing out entire Guggenheim Museum galleries of art works so that visitors could come and discuss what the notion of progress meant to them, as they progressed through the otherwise empty galleries. This form of artistic social practice allows people to talk about issues that are important to them, and with most socially engaged artworks, builds community in the process. To get your students started, you might want them to do research from the "inside out;" in other words, starting with values that they hold dear and then finding art works that resonate with them. Afterwards, students will take turns guiding their classmates through the museum to their favorite artwork and discuss it from the outside in, thereby connecting the work to what is personally most important.
#7) Drop the Jargon
Ask your students to come up with a list of words that they use to describe friends, frenemies, and celebrities such as "mysterious," "funny," "loud," or "angry." At the museum, with the goal of pushing them to go beyond the good/not good and like/dislike dichotomies, see if they can find artworks that match those descriptions. This exercise also helps both teachers and students understand that talking about art does not require a specialized language. Another approach that helps us get past the jargon is Visual Thinking Startegies (VTS). VTS encourages students to analyze work based solely on what they see before them. VTS is also great at providing teachers the tools for facilitating in-depth discussions about the work.
#8) Feed The Children Well and Skip the Grand Tour
I used to be frustrated by students asking about lunch 15 minutes after entering a museum. Walking around looking at stuff might seem like a low-impact endeavor, but dealing with the visual demand of art takes focus and energy. Factor in the excitement of leaving school and venturing into a different city or neighborhood, and it becomes clear why field trips can be a calorie-burning activity for our students. So, filling them with snacks on the bus or just before they begin looking at work might be a good idea. Also, the phenomenon known as "museum fatigue" does drain most visitors after two hours. Limit the amount of art that students are required to see so that the experience emphasizes depth over breadth.
Lastly, museums can do their part by providing free admission for those 17 years of age and younger; the privilege of visiting museums should be turned on its head so that youth are treated with same respect and honor as the largest donors. It is our role as educators to help our students understand that the artworks inside museums are part of our human heritage, and are never as great as the young person whose gaze brings them to life.