This summer I am one of nine interns working in the Museum Education department. The internship introduces us to the practice of museum education and to the inner workings of the many departments in the museum. And while we all come from varied backgrounds and schools, we all share an intense interest in art.
One of our primary responsibilities during the internship is also—for me at least—the most challenging. Every day a new group of students walks through the doors and we lead them on tours. They range in ages from 3 to 19 and come from the city, suburbs, and far flung locales like Iowa and Alabama. Each group brings a different energy and perspective and over the course of an hour, we engage them in a conversation around five or six artworks from either temporary exhibits or the permanent collection.
In each tour we strive to include a wide range of art from the museum’s collections and thread them together with a common theme. This means that I have been stretched to research and present art objects outside of my interests and experience and that challenge has served me well—I have learned an immense amount from my colleagues and from the students. I have found that each person’s excitement about an artwork is infectious, and I have become engaged in aspects of the collection that I’ve never really looked at before.
The goal of our tours is to facilitate a structured engagement with artworks by encouraging them to look closely and respond to art firsthand, while also acknowledging that this might be the first time that many of them have been in an art museum. The idea is to teach them that thinking about what they see is a way to get at what the artist may have intended, and connecting with the work personally is as important as hearing the “right” interpretation. For example, I recently presented the Art Institute’s new Malevich painting to a group of middle school boys. I wanted to see if they could be interested in a painting that I have heard many adults fluent in art history easily dismiss. I asked them if they thought the shapes were moving, and we began to discuss how squares and trapazoids were falling and bouncing around the canvas. Then I revealed the title which refers to a football player and asked them if they could imagine a football game in the composition. Immediately they began narrating how the implied movement of the shapes revealed a major play in a game that resulted in a goal.
I am grateful for this experience and all of the challenges that it has presented. Every day I am reminded of the importance and impact of experiencing art firsthand, and of the curiosity and skepticism of the students who constantly renew the museum as a public space and enliven the practice of viewing art socially.