Well, the best thing about an action research experiment like the one I’m currently involved with at the Columbus Museum of Art, is that we can do whatever we like. We have no firmly pre-determined agenda and no funders or academic advisors to please. All the participants are volunteers who are along for the ride, no matter the destination. But, we are answering to ourselves, and those participants are my friends and neighbors. I want them to be happy and satisfied with the time and energy they are putting into the venture. And I want the museum staff to feel they have learned something that might translate into programming for other families in the future.
Last week I gave myself a few assignments, and this week I focused a bit on ways of addressing those objectives.
First was taking best advantage of being at the museum and working with its educational staff. In the days leading up to this session, Amanda Kepner and I exchanged a few emails to iron out our plans. I was thrilled when I read Amanda’s thoughts for our time in the gallery. She planned something very similar to what I might have done, had I taken the time…
“I chose a book called Perfect Square which is all about a square that gets torn up and turns itself into different things (like a fountain, flowers, a river, etc.). It reminded me a lot of Froebel’s gifts (specifically this one http://www.froebelgifts.com/gift7.htm). I found a HUGE painting that is nothing but color blocks in the gallery that has large abstract art in it (Gallery 10). I thought after we read the book, we could look for all the different colored “squares.” I am really trying to keep the art looking to just colors and shapes.”
We got started with some stations, to maintain some continuity with the first session and to give people time to arrive, take their kids to the potty, and say hello, before moving up to the gallery. This week the homemade Play-Dough was the most popular station and it seemed like nearly everyone wound up at that table, together, which was nice. I brought various tools for making shapes – cookie cutters, old Perfection game pieces – since I knew we’d be looking for shapes up in the gallery. I also brought back the lightboxes with various shaped colored acetate and covered a large sheet of butcher paper with simple shapes drawn in black marker with crayons for parents and kids to add to.
I am so glad we went to the gallery and I hope we’ll do it again – perhaps during our fourth and final session. Next week I have big messy plans. Even though I had a flashback to the day Cora did not sit down for a single moment in our music class, and nearly fainted when she landed a two-handed touch on the Color Field painting we were examining, it was truly grand to have this time with our friends in the gallery. While I strongly believe that museums ought to be conceived as a community spaces and sites for participatory cultural exchange, I still cherish them as spaces set apart from the rest of the world – shrines to artists, images, and objects. (I think I can trace this back to the first time I climbed the central stairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a field trip in elementary school, but that’s a story for another time.) I think we feel and act differently when we are in a museum. As Dissanyake (1988) suggested, art is “making special,” and we feel special in relation to it.
Our first venture into the galleries together was primarily focused on reading Perfect Square together in proximity to images that related to its content. I’m sure if we had organized our time slightly differently, we could have carried that idea beyond the single work we looked at (by going on a square hunt, for example) but I know that such singular focus can be very effective for kids this age. I know, because on our way to the studio yesterday, Cora showed me the impact it can have.
As we rounded a corner and entered a hall lined on one side with non-Western and folk artworks, she called out, “The dance!” and went running for a small ceramic sculpture from ancient Mexico. Backstory: About two months ago I took Cora and her gal pal to the museum and we looked at this “Figural Scene” together. I told the girls it looked to me like the figures were doing ring-a-round the roses and then we grabbed hands and did the dance ourselves a few times. Cora remembered it all. And as she did, she reminded me that it’s the quality, not the quantity of experiences that really matters. I think this is an especially important notion for parents of young children to keep in mind as we all try to offer our kids as many opportunities as time and budget can afford. Sometimes less really is more.
[Final note: This is a great, short paper on “Looking at Art with Toddlers” which Amanda recommended. It was written by another Ohio museum educator, Katherina Danko-McGhee, from the Toledo Muesum of Art.]