All posts by Amanda

When you visit… But Museums Are Boring!?

 

One of the best parts of being in Museum School is that moment at the end of the week when we do our “closing ceremony” and we talk about all the things that students experienced, saw, felt, and learned to enjoy here. There’s always so many insightful comments from young people and adults, and it’s a wonderful moment for me.

 

Usually the discussion is pretty diverse; even though it’s the same programs, artifacts, and building, every week these young minds interpret things in their own way and fascinating perspectives always emerge.

 

However, there is one topic that does often come up. It sounds like this:

 

“When I first came here I thought it was going to be boring”

 

Parents always howl when they hear this… I think it’s one of those moments where one person says what a lot of others were thinking.

 

Now, I know, that by the end of museum school, even if you’re an adult volunteer (and maybe only spent the day), you are going to see museums in a new light. You’re going to know what I know: that this is a sacred space, and it is challenging, rewarding, and sublimely beautiful.

 

But I can admit, it doesn’t always feel that way.

 

Museum School is a special place. We work hard to make sure that students grow to see the museum, and in turn themselves, in new ways. We want you to keep having special experiences here, but we know that it’s not always easy.

 

Museums require a skill set, just like most public spaces. Sure anyone can blunder through a shopping mall, but there’s a difference between the person who spends 20 minutes there, and the person who spends 6 hours. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you spend 6 hours in every museum, but at the very least, I’d like to help you get what you want, find the deals, and always know where the closest washroom is before you go (I’m still using the mall metaphor here, I’m sure you can find the washroom).

 

You’ve built part of your skill set to enjoy and get the most out of your museum experience while at Museum School. But next time you come it’ll be without the support and scaffolding of the program. So I’ve put together a few notes to help you remember what you already know, and make the most of your next museum adventure:

 

Your visit probably starts before you come; your visit to the museum will be a bit more interesting if you look at what’s on display, and learn a bit about what you want to see. Knowing things like to social context of the period, or even the textbook definitions of some of the techniques or influences will make your experience much more rewarding.

 

Don’t try to see everything; just don’t set yourself up for that kind of failure! Most museums take several visits to see the whole collection, and even small museums may take awhile to really appreciate and know. This connects to the previous point. When you walk in, know what you’re most interested to see, and don’t worry about visiting too much in one day.

 

Remember, it’s quality over quantity; museums generally keep 10% of their collection on view at any one time. They don’t even let you see all of it -never mind expect that you’re going to try to on one visit! Aim to have an engaging experience with a few galleries or pieces. (This is a pro tip if you’re visiting a museum on vacation. You still get to tick it off your bucket list, but you don’t need to pressure yourself into spending the whole day at the Met and missing the DIA Dirt Room or the Cyclone at Coney).

 

Don’t be intimidated. Art is for everyone. There is no wrong way appreciate a work of art (our security guards might want me to mention, at a distance of about 30 cm… but other than that… no wrong way!) Whatever you see in a piece is what is there. And that’s enough sometimes. Of course, the more you know about the history, connections, artist, genre etc. etc. etc. the more rich the work becomes.. but there is more than enough meaning in most pieces to just appreciate for its own sake. When my mom and I go to a gallery together, we look for the works that have animals in them. You might appreciate colors, or trees… no wrong way.

 

And lastly… (yes I’ve saved the best…) Challenge yourself. Look deeply at something that doesn’t appeal to you. Pull out that phone and research something or someone you know nothing about. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Look inside yourself and ask “how do I really feel?” (eep!)

 

Challenges make our experiences more memorable. As we do our closing ceremony in Museum School usually we will teach the students how to use the singing bowl. They’ve gotten used to hearing us use it when we’d like their attention, and then it’s their turn to command the bowl (and our attention) when we close. But there’s a specific way to use it, and the combination of trying something new and being in front of a group of peers makes the task seem much more challenging that it really is. But in doing that, we help the students remember the experience, and everything they’ve said in our closing circle.

 

Some remember it so well, that they come racing home and ask you to take them to a museum.

Importance in Art

Sometimes a piece of art just movies you.

One day, when I was prowling around Art of Asia, no doubt looking for a young person to question and harass into deeper thought ;) I spotted a really beautiful sculpture. Actually, I had just left a student who was sketching a lion, which I mistakenly called a dog, and was laughed at. It happens.

So I’m walking my way from this Liog, trying to regain my composure, and I spot it. Before I tell you what it is… let me read the label. Fool me twice eh?

I don’t know what it was, but something just drew me to it. Let me tell you about what I saw.

The sculpture was a small figure, almost cherub like, with wide swirls of hair like pasta. Despite its size, it looked strong; legs apart, sturdy, with one arm outstretched. Clearly it’s very old. Showing signs of wear and deterioration over time. It’s a human like form, but there’s something otherworldly about it too. A body made for a specific purpose, in perfect proportion, to stand and hold that one arm up. Like much of the Glenbow’s Art of Asia collection, the contours of the body have a round fullness to them and a distinctive feel and tone, much different from the realism of Roman sculpture of the same era.

Turns out, it’s a Dwarf, an attendant, from Nepal, and made some time in the 10th century. And, it turns out, it’s missing someone.

This dwarf is one of a pair.

The other one lives at the LA County Museum (wonderful! Go if you can!)

I wonder if they miss each other.

 

This is an interesting piece of art. It’s got a significance culturally, historically, and socially as well. It says a lot about the world we live in, as well as our institutions, and our culture, that we can come to own important objects such as this one and display them so far from their home.

But objects also have personal significance. This one drew me in, now I’ve written about it, and it takes on a new importance to me and everyone who reads this (hi mom!)

But, maybe they have an importance specifically their own.

Does it matter that they are apart?

Is that yearning for lost love that I see on the Dwarf’s face? (As I write this, someone in Nepal is shivering with disgust at my cultural blunders).

 

But we in museums must weigh importance.

How much value can we create out of one Dwarf? The answer needs to be: more than it would garner anywhere else. There are so many other important places for this dwarf to be, (maybe not with its partner…I get that wood is probably not capable of love but you never know) but maybe in other places, where other people might need it too.

Bus since it is here, we work hard to make sure that the young people in Museum School really, really see it.

P.S. Here’s a link to see the Dwarf at LACMA… The moment when I found it was a very good one. Have a look at this link, then come in to the museum for your own moment.

 

 

 

Our Responsibility in Truth and Reconciliation

 

Last week I had the fortune of attending a workshop at the Banff Center to work with members of my community on the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action. The workshop was held at the Banff Center, so of course it was a day filled with beautiful and inspiring views, mountain fresh air, and feelings of possibility. I was there to learn specifically how the Arts, Culture, and Heritage sector can undertake action towards reconciliation.

The premise for the Summit is that Truth and Reconciliation is a process that demands the attention and efforts of all Canada’s citizens. Regardless of our heritage, we are all Treaty people; some of us got land, others got promises. What the TRC uncovered (like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People years before it) is that many of those promises went unfulfilled. The Residential Schools in Canada were a compulsory education program for Indigenous children, and the TRC has found that despite arguments that it was an effort done in the best interests of Indigenous people, the Schools have had a profound and enduring traumatic impact on Indigenous families.

If you haven’t had an opportunity to learn about the Schools, there are many resources that can inform, many of which are authored by Indigenous folks themselves (I’ll include some links at the end of this post). Learning about the Schools is a much more complex process than this blog could hope to present, but in case you haven’t heard much about them I’ll just offer this short crash course:

Children were forcibly removed (under threat or jail, starvation, or damnation for their families), and taken far away (in some cases hundreds of kilometres), to schools where they were separated from their siblings, barred from communicating in the only language they knew, and taught that everything they had learned about the world from their families was wrong, bad, and illegitimate.

The teachers and administrators denied the children everything we now know is essential for healthy human development.

This process was more than enough to destroy these children.

Many died.

But on top of this, there was often physical & sexual abuse.

Generations of families were forced through this grinding system, and as a result, the traditional knowledge of how to love, teach, feed, provide, and nurture was all but lost. Instead, children were taught malnutrition, abuse, and hatred for their families. It was a poor replacement to the lessons that they would have learned at home, and the results of this process continue to devastate Indigenous communities today.

But… according to the Canadian Government, we are in a new era. This era is called reconciliation. It is characterized by the forging of new relationships between the Government and different nations, and the acknowledgment of and restitution for past wrongs. This is a process that will impact Canada at its very core, it asks who we are as a nation of people, and who we want to be.

The Summit was in some ways very productive. The morning was spent listening to some history of the TRC and learning about the people who have been driving it and working towards the Action Items in their lives. In the afternoon we broke into groups and started working towards industry specific ideas to achieve the TRC goals. It was wonderful to be in a room filled with people eager and committed to change. It was inspiring to listen to the leaders who worked so hard to bring about change so far. And it was fantastic to spend the afternoon actually working with people in my sector.

 

On the other hand, it was also taxing. After the sessions I spoke with some Indigenous folks who were feeling frustrated that more progress had not been made. Some participants were learning about Residential Schools for the first time. Others hadn’t really thought about the systemic impacts the schools had, and were only beginning to see the challenges ahead. Those who had been living with the consequences of the schools or working to alleviate them were disappointed, in some ways, at how far we all have yet to come.

 

Personally I felt conflicted. As a scholar of indigenous representation, I’ve thought a lot about the subversive aspects of these types of events. In the museum and heritage world the word we use for that is coloniality. Basically this refers to the idea that colonial systems, regardless of if they are still formally in place, have longstanding impacts on the ways that people can know, and the ways that truth and value are produced in society. Museums are producers and authenticators of knowledge, so we have an important stake in thinking about these processes.  Paul Nadasty explored this subject in his research on the Yukon and knowledge production, and his books illustrate the complex reality of the Canadian endeavors in the reconciliation era. He asks us to question our actions in light of assimilation…

So although we were all gathered at the Banff Center for a conference on Indigenous Reconciliation and meeting the Calls to Action in the TRC, there are problematic implications in the Banff Center as a meeting space, the mechanism of conferences, an “era” defined by a federal government, and the process of the TRC itself. Understanding coloniality means that we think about the product as well as the process, and about the underlying mechanisms that are culturally determined in everything that we do. To what degree do these actions we take contribute to modern assimilation? Are there other ways of doing, knowing, and acting in this technological world? If Indigenous people drove the process what would it look like? How have Indigenous worldviews been altered by western thought and action, and to what extent (if any) does this impact value? How can we make other ways possible?

 

These are questions that I grapple with often, especially in the museum… when I work with your youth I think about the narratives that I am strengthening, how these are culturally biased, and how to help them to think in other ways. That’s a big part of the value of the Museum School. We encourage different ways of seeing and knowing. A single object can be understood in terms of its color, its value, its surface, its materials, its intent, its impact on the personal experience… each way of seeing and knowing art can lead to different yet equally relevant understandings of the overall piece…

Our cultural differences give us perspective, and through sharing perspective we gain a more rich and full understanding of the world.

 

Sources for understanding Residential Schools:

A website designed to accompany Iroquois curator Jeff Thomas’ exhibition, Where Are The Children? 

Hi-Ho Mistahey! A documentary film about current issues in Indigenous Education by noted Abenaki  filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin

Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a debut fictional film by Jeff Barnaby who was born in Listuguj, Québec.

A short film by Gord & Mike Downie, and Jeff Lemire called A Secret Path 

A review of an exhibition (that will lead you to some incredible work) entitled Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools that was at Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver

 

The TRC website

The Canadian Government’s website on Residential Schools

 

Perspective & Productivity

Last week the Open Minds school teachers and coordinators met for a little professional development and a lot of new ideas. The theme for the evening was to look at our environments a bit more closely, and watch out for the things that we often miss. This was a great tie in to some of the more general themes of CCOM

 

The facilitators, those lovely folks who have the privilege of running one of this city’s most creative and engaging educational experiences, sent us all outside. It was an absolutely beautiful night, crisp and cool and a bit nostalgic with the long shadows in the fading light.

 

Our first mission was to explore on our walk through a particular lens. As we sat around tables in small groups, we discussed and debated and picked a role. One group chose poets, another chose by-law officers, another mathematicians. The idea was to look at our environment from the perspective of a particular role, and see what we might normally miss.

 

Our second task was to use a particular journaling technique to capture the insights of our new viewpoint. When teachers join the Open Minds School Program they’ve given a fantastic book called “Journey into Journaling” (here’s a description of the book based on the Calgary model, but described by the good folks over at Museum School London). The book describes all types of different tools to capture experiences through journaling. Some of the favorite techniques of teachers at our table were:

 

The 60 second sketch

(students put as much detail into their picture as they can, but only for 60 seconds, so a lot of the inhibitions of drawing are lost in the rush of time)

 

Character creation

(students make up a character that may have used the object or interacted with the environment)

 

Sense journaling

(students record senses connected with the object or environment)

 

My group chose to take our walk through the lens of a psychologist, using the journaling technique of just looking for colors. As soon as we went outside we realized that perhaps we set our own standards a bit high, and after a short discussion we changed our profession to architects (if only it were that easy!) But it was a great lesson; surely we could have done the exercise as psychologists, it wouldn’t have been impossible, it just felt too hard. How lucky that we, as adults, can just change the assignment to suit our needs. I wonder how assignments would change if I gave children the same power.

 

My big “ah-hah” moment of the night came as I was journaling. Just seeing the Calgary skyline through colors brought me to some interesting thoughts (nationalism, ecological design or the appearance of it, personal glorification, materials, etc.) and I found it interesting to apply a very specific lens to the view. Interesting and perhaps a little embarrassing, as I was drawing the Bow building in my black pen I wrote “Bow building…. Blue”

 

 

AH-HAH!!!

 

Oh boy. How many times have I looked at that building and not made that connection? But we’re not really trained to look deeper are we? (okay okay….I know I’m not really setting the bar very high here).

 

On our second walk about we were invited to look through whatever lens we wished, we weren’t bound by our group, nor by the facilitators. I get the sense that the second round was a lot more productive for folks, just because after you’ve been restricted, it’s so much more exciting to be free.

 

On the other hand, freedom does sometimes lead to chaos, and I know some of us likely just stood around and chatted for our last walk…

 

I think I’ll leave this post right there & head back to the students… thinking about how I can use their time here to be the counterpoint freedom to their lives at school, and how I can make sure that with freedom, they stay productive and make the most of their time together. Maybe I need to re-think what productivity really is…

 

A wonderful night, lots of learning, and a great opportunity to connect.

Context and how you use it

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Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Education on Planet Earth Conference, hosted by the Alberta Council for Environmental Education, and I thought I’d share some of the lessons of that day with our community.
 
It was an auspicious day… the first snowfall of the year started just as the opening remarks got underway. “A good day for an outdoor workshop” the presenters murmured as they looked down at their Chelsea Boots and cropped pants. Just kidding! Teachers are so practical! Everyone (except me) had their down jackets in fold away pockets, Arc’teryx toques, and very sensible looking hiking shoes. That’s definitely one of the things that sets me apart from teachers; I think it’s a disservice to attribute it to left/right brain type thinking (which has more or less been disproved for the moment anyways). Rather I’d like to give credit where credit is due and show some mad respect for the thousands of hours of preparedness training that teachers get every year. Because when your students comes to you with (insert weirdest craziest problem that you could imagine involving say…a stick of gum, a smart board, and 37 elastic bands) the last thing you want to worry about it your wardrobe.
 
Anyways. I opted for indoor sessions.
 

Don’t get me wrong, I love being outdoors, I just also love being warm. I attended the conference with a group of youth that I volunteer with, who also happened to be presenting. Their session was about Indigenous pedagogy and how seeing the world through stories led the learner to a different world view than seeing it through facts. As part of their presentation they incorporated many different instruction techniques (conversation, lecture, watching films, interactive gaming, and hands on learning), and centered most of the action around an installation piece we had made earlier in the week; we moved the chairs into a circle and gathered the participants around our own projected image (and sounds) of a fire.
Okay, full disclosure, this wasn’t our idea. Teaching at the 2012 Cree 8 Success conference in Edmonton, noted Indigenous author Richard Wagamese told his students (including one in Chelsea boots and cropped pants) about the power of the setting for storytelling. He had a little floor light/fan thing with some paper taped to it. He didn’t have to tell us where to sit, he didn’t have to tell us to quiet down, he didn’t have to tell us to listen. We knew. Our experiences sitting around the fire taught us that if we would only patiently wait, good things would come. Setting matters. It impacts how and what we learn.
 
The folks over at the Devonian Botanical Garden in Edmonton understand this point well. Emma Ausford, who coordinates their school education program led a fantastic session on how they transformed the Garden’s educational offerings from a didactic lecture based model to one based on play. She realized that traditional models of “outdoor education” sometimes just literally take the instruction outside without changing anything else. The value of the outdoor environment for education is in its opportunities for discovery, and the chance to take a risk. We found out how this functions in programming when all of the sudden a room full of conference goers were hopping, prancing, and strutting around the room. To be honest we looked more like a crew of awkward children at a Christmas pageant than an vignette from Hinterland Who’s Who… but who ever forgets what character they were assigned (ubiquitous Christmas Sheep!) and which one everyone always wanted (attention getting angel!) and all those other little details from that one childhood night? Play is part of that process of creating indelible memories.
 
Setting matters, but what you do with that setting does too.

Hello from your new friend at Glenbow Museum School

 

It feels a bit strange to be writing this post, a bit ghostly if you will(hello end of October!) You see, I’ve been haunting the museum school for quite some time, and this is most definitely not my first time on this blog…

 

My name is Amanda Foote, and I’m your new Museum School (assistant) Coordinator. As part of my role here, I’ll be working with Marnie in schools and at the Museum, and I hope to make a few contributions to this blog too. I thought I’d tell you a bit about myself so we can get acquainted… I believe that learning is significantly influenced by relationships, so I’d like to start some with the Museum School Community (no status update necessary, we can be just friends).

 

I first heard of the museum school as a fed up administrator working in a school system and deeply yearning for educational change. Every day I saw smart, creative, wonderful children, become frustrated and disengaged. I saw a system that was supposed to help them become their best, reduce them to their worst, and then punish them for the way they respond to the process. I started looking for alternatives, and one which particularly inspired me, was the work being done in the Glenbow Museum School.

 

To be honest, it was no accident that I stumbled upon their program, I am admittedly a museophile. Ever since I was a kid sitting in the front row of a Parks outdoor amphitheater watching a ranger wearing a beat up old bear costume and singing about poop, I have been fascinated with display, interpretation, and experiential education. Of course, I didn’t have the words for it then (if only I did, perhaps my poor confused parents would have better understood what I meant when I told them I wanted to be a dancing bear when I grew up). But through my education in Ecotourim and Outdoor Leadership, Heritage and Northern Studies, and Museums, I learned the language & tools of the trade.

 

So from an early age, I’ve been thinking about the ways that education happens. But I think many of us have. For me, and for many kids, the memory of that outdoor stage is far stronger than the collective experience of all my days in grade school classrooms, no matter how well intentioned our teachers were. The experience was transformative. Don’t get me wrong, there are teachers who can and do create transformative experiences (and on the other hand, there are parks interpreters who definitely don’t, I’m looking at you geologists with powerpoints). But the key is the environment. Schools are not set up to deliver transformative learning experiences, and in my opinion, the teachers who can create them out of the regimented systems of those places are straight up miracle workers.

 

And to some extent, that’s not really the point of schools either (now there’s an interesting discussion hey? My inner Oblio says that’s a discussion for another day). But it is the purpose of the museum. Or, to me it is. So when I get an opportunity to work with a young person, in a museum, that’s my goal. I want to help them have a learning experience that transforms them in some way… in any way… because human beings should be lifelong learners, and if I can expand the classroom into other spheres, and give young people new ways of seeing and knowing, that’s what is going to make this world a more creative, kind, and just place.

 

And that’s why I’m so excited to be here.

That's the shine of a brand new employee on her forehead. Welcome Amanda to the Glenbow Museum School!

That’s the shine of a brand new employee on her forehead. Welcome Amanda to the Glenbow Museum School!