Tag Archives: discomfort

“Honoring who we are” is rooted in honesty

I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.

I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.

But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.

Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too.  In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.

If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.

This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.

When you come to the museum, expect honesty, and bring your courage (too). It’ll be beautiful, it’ll be surprising, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it.

 

Learning Gender

Last year, one of the very thoughtful Museum School parent volunteers let us know that some of our ways of speaking about gender were a bit… *historic* (sorry!) We really took that message to heart, and started exploring some of the ways that we talk about people and the roles we assign them, both today (in our teaching practice) and historically (in our teaching content).

As part of this learning journey we asked for some help – the Calgary Centre for Sexuality offers workshops for professional communities to understand gender and sexuality, and some of the ways that these topics are unknowingly (or knowingly) integrated into our work with story. The whole educator team at Glenbow joined in to learn more, and we also had some of the other Campus Calgary & Open Minds sites and team with us as well.

We’re all going to have to keep working on and thinking about gender until we create safer spaces for all students to learn in (there are just mountains of evidence to suggest that safety is integral to productive learning environments). This will require strategic large scale change, as well as personal choices. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have the power to really do some of the things that are necessary for change, (in our life, in our work, maybe in the world at large…I’ll try to come back to this idea in an upcoming blog post) but there are a few small things that each of us can do… Here’s some ideas for first steps…

  1. The Centre for Sexuality folks suggested that children become aware of gender around ages 3-4. This reminds us that when we’re working with students, they’re already aware of gender and interacting with it as a concept in many ways. We don’t need to be afraid that they’re too young for us to talk about gender, because children are already aware that they are living in a gendered world.
  2. Although we constantly make assumptions all day long (it’s a human survival tool, related to our beliefs and experiences), we can be thoughtful about the times we make assumptions, and the times we take a minute to ask for information instead. Creating a climate where asking is welcomed can begin with you. As an educator, sometimes I only have a minute to get students all the “housekeeping” info they need, but I always make time to introduce myself and tell the students what I want them to call me. It only takes a minute to let students know what pronouns I prefer to be called, and to let them know I’m interested to know their name and pronouns too.
  3. Another housekeeping thing that I always make time for is to share the location of our bathrooms. Our site doesn’t have any gender neutral bathrooms but I can let students know that it’s okay to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in, or the one that matches their identity. This may go over a lot of students’ heads, but for students who are transgendered, it identifies me as an understanding adult, and our space as a safer one.
  4. Creating a safer space is about a lot more than just bathrooms though. We’ve started talking to other folks who work on the floor of our organization about all of us learning to be part of creating a safer space. We’ve also initiated some plans for signs (letting visitors know we’re working to be safer), and some discussions about other things we could do in our respective departments.
  5. When we talk about gender, we often do it kind of… sideways. Like, we’re not sitting down and saying “okay class, now we’re going to talk about gender!” rather, we’re talking about important content, and gender is part of that.  It comes up when I talk about cultural performance in West Africa, when I speak about Warrior history, and when I’m telling stories about our Mavericks. It comes up all the time, but I don’t think of it all the time. So that’s another thing to work on, just being thoughtful about the gendered expectations that exist in our stories and discussions. I believe that awareness will lead to better things.

 

Our facilitator for the workshop asked us how we feel about the word “guys” to refer to groups, and some folks said it was fine, but others felt that it could be interpreted as offensive. As an experiment, I counted the number of times I was referred to a part of a “guys” last week. In one day alone, it was 17 times. That really surprised me…(maybe give it a try yourself and see if it leads to any interesting thoughts or feelings?)

In that vein, one challenge that comes up a lot for us, is how to refer to a group of students without calling them “boys and girls” so here’s a list of ones we came up with:

  • Friends
  • Students
  •  Learners
  • Explorers
  •  Scholars
  • Empathizers
  • Scientists
  • Creative minds
  • Mathematicians
  • Artists
  • Problem Solvers
  • Creative Thinkers

Hopefully this is heading in a more helpful, kind, and considerate direction. Let us know your thoughts.

Some Starting Points for Considering Cultural Appropriation

At our September Pedagogy night, some of you (very bravely) pointed out that sometimes the work we engage with in museums facilitates cultural appropriation. This is a profoundly important issue for museums, and not just because it’s come up in popular culture recently.

For decades, and especially since 1988 in Canada, museums have struggled with voice, and respecting cultures from which collections originate. But the very reason we have some of these collections is because that respect was missing for a significant portion of our history. Only recently have we begun the work of respecting voice, traditional law, and insider views of culture. So, right now we’re all in a bit of a mess together, and it will take some time and some work to figure it all out.

Luckily, the pop culture awareness of this issue has led to some great writing. Here’s a few articles that have some especially helpful thoughts on appropriation. Apologies for the language – understandably, some people are quite upset. I’ve tried to find articles that present a balanced view, but there are some NSFW words (and images) in some of these.

Kim Tran’s  article in Everyday Feminism  

Nadra Kareem Nittle’s article in ThoughtCo

I also want to share Jenni Avins article, which is a bit tone deaf, but I think speaks to some of the confusing ways we navigate our daily lives in a globalized world working through appropriation concerns.

And a follow up to some of Avins’ questions from Julia Brucculieri. I want to point out that these last two authors are representatives of the dominant culture, but Brucculieri cites people most affected by appropriation in her writing. I’m sharing this as an illustration of how Avins article is off base, but is part of a dialogue that we are really still in the thick of.

Lastly I just want to take a minute to say thanks to those of you that are willing to engage with this material. Its frightening in some ways, and it would certainly be easier to just avoid altogether, but we know Museum School teachers see the value of learning about other cultures for your students and we’re grateful for that.

Well, it happened again

Every year, I say I’m going to keep the blog going, even through the busy season…

Spring is when we’re simultaneously thrilled for all the schools that are joining us till June, and wildly busy confirming next year’s participants. Also reporting. Lots of reporting.

This year we had the added fun of planning summer PD for ourselves which actually, turned out to be pretty darn fun.

But each year around this time, I look back at the blog and start to feel guilty. Here’s the thing though, all I’m thinking about is that I should have done it. I’m not remembering all the other extra little things I had to do, or help with, or take on, that stopped me from doing what I intended to do. When I have moments like these, I try to remember my spoons.

That’s right. I wrote spoons.

Have you ever heard of spoon theory? It’s one of my favorite ways to explain personal capacity. I borrow it (regularly) from disability theory, and Christine Miserandino.

Basically a spoon is a metaphor for a unit of energy that an individual has. People have a different amount of spoons, and they are replenished at different rates. Some days you may have more than others. Things like illness and stress cause you to have less spoons, and although most people can refill their spoonfuls by sleep, those with chronic pain  or sleep disturbances may have trouble filling theirs. Today I might have 10 spoons, but if I get a good sleep tonight, I could have 15 tomorrow. Tasks take up different amounts of spoons, but I get to quantify how many. Today I might choose to spend some of my spoons on walking the dogs, but after work spoons, and commute spoons, and making a stressful phone call spoons, that might not leave me enough to wash the dishes. And thats okay.

I like spoon theory because it acknowledges how different our capacities might be at any given moment, and asks us to define our abilities internally, rather than in comparison to someone else’s achievements. I recently met an ultrarunner… he has more spoons in one day than I’ll have in my whole life. And that’s okay.

Some students have lots of spoons; they have healthy happy lifestyles and have lots of support. Not all students are like this. Some barely show up with any spoons (and the ones they do have sometimes get spent on things they want, rather than the things we want of them). Same with us, sometimes we have lots, sometimes not so much. And thats okay.

Are you picking up my theme here? I’m forgiving myself for not doing everything I had planned, because I know I tired my best. my best fluctuates daily. I’m also not taking it personally when the people around me don’t live up to their commitments, including and especially the little people. I know you all try your best too.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable

My partner and I have an agreement, and it involves me seeing a lot of movies that I really don’t want to see (but in exchange he accompanies me to Haunted Houses, which he hates). This week I found myself at yet another theater watching something I really would have rather watched at home. REALLY. It was the kind of movie where you feel uncomfortable with the content, but also with the laughter of those around you. I just wished I had a journal, a pause button, and a chance to google before deciding if a joke was funny or not. In short, it was a very uncomfortable 103 minutes.

But… that’s okay (and not just because it means next October I get to go to the haunted corn maze again). Sometimes uncomfortable is where you need to be.

In my life, there are not too many places that I go where I feel uncomfortable. I can generally set up my day to avoid things that make me squirm. This isn’t so for many people, and it’s a facet of my privilege that I live life this way.

I used to work for a First Nation. I could always feel the dread welling up in me whenever I knew I’d have to stop at the Gas Bar. At first I just thought it was because I worried that I didn’t belong there. I’m a sensitive person, and I felt that maybe my presence wouldn’t be welcomed in that space. That’s probably partially true, but I think the more relevant reason I didn’t like going there was that I wasn’t used to being a minority. It felt uncomfortable. When I finally put a name to my feeling I understood a little better what folks of color, and others who may be marginalized, might be feeling in situations where they are the minority. They enter those situations a lot more than I do. It was important for me to identify with that type of discomfort, and learn from it.

My discomfort in the movie was more closely related to the discomfort people seem to come across in Museums… the feeling of not being sure how you feel. Art can be controversial, it can be shocking, it performs all sorts of roles and functions. And it can be really uncomfortable not to know what it means, or how you’re supposed to feel about it.

I see that particular kind of discomfort when students look at artifacts from other cultures, or non-representational art for the first time. This discomfort illustrates a gap in our knowledge. It forces us to ask, “What does this mean?” So the discomfort really comes from a place of vulnerability. Not knowing, and not wanting to make a mistake.

During this movie, I sat there, wondering how to feel. Which is not exactly a fun experience, but certainly not a bad one. It forced me to wade around in my own thoughts. To dig through the files in my brain, and to swirl around the puddle of feelings to see if there was any sense I could make. This process, has led me to interesting conversations with my partner and friends. It’s let me to engage with ideas in my own mind, and with others. It’s helped me to grow.

Sometimes it’s alright to be uncomfortable, to let some silence hang in the air if no one seems to have the answer. To let kids grapple. To leave a question unanswered for a while. To put ourselves in positions that we’d be more comfortable avoiding. Ultimately, a little discomfort can lead to… lots of important things.

Book to share

I want to share a book with you…

In the museum school we are very lucky to have a beautiful collection of books. Some have been gifted to us by teachers who have been through the program, others we’ve purchased, some seem to appear out of nowhere… and some seem to be artifacts themselves (hello…cases of books published by Glenbow in the 1970s).

Marine and I are always on the look out for books that fit well with the concepts and ideas that our programs and collections highlight. Each class that comes to visit the museum brings a “big idea” and many of these focus on legacy, local history, and concepts of heritage; so we try to have books that support thinking about these ideas.

We also try to be particular about the types of books we have – recently you may have heard about the conflict surrounding author Joseph Boyden, but controversy over the rights to tell specific stories is not new. One of our Blackfoot Educators Sable Sweetgrass once told me that she attended an actual class on how non-native authors could find and take Native stories to turn them into children’s books for their own personal gain. (Don’t worry, in addition to being an excellent museum educator, Sable is a fierce author and storyteller, I am fairly confident after a discussion with her, none of the people connected with that class would consider making such a mistake EVER AGAIN).  We try to make sure the stories we have here are ones that are told in a good way, by people who have the rights to tell them (this is an important part of the Reconciliation process, and as many scholars and Indigenous people point out – this process will be long, complicated, and messy. There will be missteps and we’re all going to need to try our very best – here and here are some good examples of reconciling work in children’s books).

Sorry – I digress… the story I wanted to share with you is a more commonly known one, it’s a story about Winnie the Pooh.

Let me set the scene for you here… It was a Friday, one of those rare Friday’s where there were no students in the museum school. I dutifully carried myself into work anyways, because there were emails to send and files to work on. But halfway through the morning I was finding it hard to concentrate. When this happens I do one of two things, I take 15 minutes and either go for a walk around the collections and sketch, or I head up to the classroom and read.

I decided to try out one of our Cando seats (note point 4 in the description) which proved to be an awful choice, I have no idea how students can stand those things. The book I picked was an odd one for me. I’ve never really liked the Winnie the Pooh stories (Sorry! I know, to some that’s sacrilege), but I love bears. No I love bears. Ask the authors of local books on bears who mostly all have restraining orders against me (just kidding. But my partner does say that my correspondence with them comes off as a tad bit overzealous).  And the bear on the cover of this Winnie book was just too cute.

 finding winnie

Harry Colebourn’s (the soldier who first befriended the bear) great-grand-daughter writes the book, so the look and feel of the story is a fairly big departure from Disney’s franchise about this bear.

I’m sure most Canadians know the story, and for those that don’t I won’t spoil it here (you can just google that)… but there’s one part in particular that I love. After Winnie is left at the London Zoo, there’s this page…

image1

 “Is that the end?”

“That’s the end of Harry and Winnie’s story,” I said.

“But I don’t want it to be over,” said Cole.

“Sometimes,” I said, “you have to let one story end so the next one can begin.”

“How do you know when that will happen?”

“You don’t,” I said. “Which is why you should always carry on.”

Now – I am a bit of a crybaby (once a day whether I need it or not), but that really had me sobbing. I’m crying again now actually.

It’s just such a beautiful thing to put into a children’s book. It’s real.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of other parts of the book that a less “real” … picture books can be a fairly unrealistic medium – and that’s great! I love the little pictures of the bear curled up under the army cot, and riding on the bow of the ship al la this titanic moment. There’s some other perhaps more problematic un-realness though; the story of Winnie has become a myth in Canadian culture, and seeing the real pictures at the end of the book of a small bear in big chains doesn’t exactly fit the story we like to tell ourselves about the lives of animals in the past (speaking of which… here’s a tragic one for you - I sort of rabbit holed into that one & thought I’d share).

The topics of historic animal human relationships, zoo ethics, myth making, and the flattening of history are important. They are stories that need to be told. Maybe books like this help us lay the foundations to explain these things to our children as they get older and have the framework to better understand them. But for students this age… I think this one simple truth is a valuable one.

It is important to carry on, because you never know what adventures might await.

 

 

 

As long as you’re human. The bear doesn’t fare well in this story – so that certainly says something about privilege and priority… there’s some class metaphor in there as well probably… again… important lessons for the teenage years.

Anyways! It’s a good page, in a complex story, and possibly offers a moment in which both I as the instructor, and your kiddos as students, can learn and reflect together, ultimately as humans.

(not bears).

What to write…

Lately when I have been sitting down with the intention to write a blog post I write a few sentences, then I get stuck. Then I stop. Then I add “write a blog post” to the back of my to-do list and go do something else.

It’s been awhile, so I thought I should devote some energy to really thinking about why it’s been hard for me to write. After much more procrastination, three snack breaks, a walk, and two changes of scenery, I think I’m starting to make a little headway.

I think it’s the same reason I don’t like to make art, or write songs, or draft a book… (I’ve rarely/never done these things, I just have an enormous faith in my creative ability – it’s a generational thing)…  It’s because I don’t really think I have anything important to add.

There’s already a million stories, songs, paintings, sculptures, and blog posts. If I’m not confident that whatever I’m putting out there is enriching and unique, what’s the point?

I am eternally baffled with all the pictures and posts on social media, clearly people feel the need to share – and I wonder, do they think the picture of their breakfast has value? What type of value? To whom?

This new world of sharing our ideas and opinions is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I love that I can stay connected to friends around the world doing interesting things, or ask someone far away for advice and get feedback immediately. In the museum today I sat in on a class about Blackfoot culture, the presenter Blaire Russell, showed a picture of Deerfoot a runner or message taker – who would run from community to community to share news – my, how things have changed.

But I also think that this new medium is having complex impacts on our culture, and the ways in which we relate to each other. I work a lot with youth, and the high levels of social anxiety they are feeling astound me. At the same time, they communicate freely over the internet, saying and doing things online that they would never dream of saying or doing IRL.

I’ve also noticed that online at least, we’re all becoming quite quick to judge and slow to have sympathy. In some ways I wonder if this is a natural consequence of social justice, and if marginalized folks are finding a voice and using it with a vengeance (fantastic!) But I also notice many of the judgments serve the interests of the status quo. Seeing the internet pounce on people is a terrifying thing, and intuitively I feel that it’s less of an “anonymous” thing with careful critical thought behind it, and more like a knee jerk reaction.

The proliferation of sharing, combined with the threat of enraging the cyber community, makes me extra reluctant to put anything out into the world. Firstly, who am I to think that anything I say or think is important enough for others to read?  Secondly, given that, as well as the threat of millions of haters, why bother?

I subscribe to the idea that art is a passion that is burning to get out of you. I don’t have much of that. Mostly I have “meh.. I guess I could make that.” And I’d rather not fill the world with my mediocre ideas. But I do have some passion, and some types of expertise… as all of us do. I’m in love with the idea that we can share those things with others – maybe blog posts are useful for that, but I’m sure there’s other ways too (I’ve always got the concept of the salon floating around on the back burner in my mind as a viable modern institution).

So I’ll keep posting here – when I feel like I’ve got something to share that I’m passionate about, or that I have an inkling is useful to you, given my particular expertise.

Otherwise I’ll keep my mouth shut and my photos of my breakfast to myself.

Keep posting yours though!

They fascinate me, and I do think they have some type of value and consequence… when I figure that out, I’ll write a blog post about it.

 

 

 

Go ahead and sketch with them

sketch by amanda

Early sketch by Amanda – [not pictured, a dinosaur I drew yesterday that looks exactly the same]

By the time I come into your classrooms to introduce the idea of sketching… it’s not really an introduction. Most students have begun drawing at least a bit, and (hopefully) you’ve been working with them on their sketching too.

But what if you’re not particularly “artistically inclined?”

I’ll be honest, I feel like I hit a plateau in my drawing some time around age 14. I knew how to copy line drawings, but I had no clue how to move into drawing from life, and was worlds away from being able to draw real people (I do however have a very large, yet unimpressive, collection of anime style drawings of myself and all my teenage idols). I didn’t know how to learn more about drawing. I had heard (and said) that practice will make you better – but to be honest, after a certain point, your practice also needs to involve a great deal of reflection and analysis, which I didn’t know how to do.

Getting to that point is like shooting a basketball a million times and still missing the hoop. If you don’t know the technique to improve, you likely won’t.

So practice isn’t just about sitting alone and trying over and over, we are social creatures and we develop skills through the study of others.

I never cared enough that my drawing skills were nothing to brag about at parties, so when I hit that plateau, I just quit.

But – since being in Museum School, I’ve had to dust off those drawing skills. Marnie encouraged me, and told me that if I was getting the students to sketch, then I should be prepared to do it too…and absolutely she was right. I connect best with your students when we’re sitting on the floor sketching together. We wonder together, I stop answering questions, and I start asking them.

I learn a lot from watching your students sketch. Their technique, and their perspective. It has taken me some time to figure out how to crack open a conversation and learn from the students while we draw, and I don’t always get there, but when I do it’s awesome.

The other thing I learned is how to draw better. Literally. I took a class. (Okay – so all of us Calgary Campus Open Minds School folks had a super interesting lesson with Ron Wigglesworth, big thanks to everyone who made that happen). It was really stressful for me, way outside my comfort zone, but I think I learned a lot.

Letting yourself learn is an important activity for teachers. I think that when I am drawing beside your students I am letting myself learn too. It changes the dynamic between us.

I’m not going to try and tell you what I learned at the workshop. All I want to share is that it was good to be together working to improve a skill with others, being open to comments and suggestions, and learning from someone with an inspiring vision and a thoughtful approach.

I don’t really think that being a “good artist” would help me be a better educator. But I do think that the skills of sitting and reflecting, looking in new ways, and being critical of my work (or my impact) do help me be the best self I can be for working with your students. That’s also what I’m asking for from them.

 

I think sketching helps me practice that, and sketching together becomes our common learning experience.  We learn together.

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.