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Insider's Look: Museum Education

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In the current issue of the Art Institute’s Member Magazine, the “Insider’s Look” section spotlights Sarah Alvarez and Robin Schnur, two directors from our Department of Museum Education. Sarah and Robin specialize in outreach to students, teachers, and teens. Here is a continuation of our discussion in the January/February issue:

What was the first museum you visited and when did you know that you wanted to work in museums?

SA: I visited museums from a very early age and I knew I wanted to work in museum education as soon as I visited the JFK Memorial Library in Boston while I was in college. It was such a formative experience for me. The objects on display engaged my curiosity for culture and history in a way that textbooks had never been able to do. I began to realize that working in a museum could be a way to marry my love of art and my love of learning.

RS: Museums have been a part of my experience for as long as I can remember. My family often visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and all the thrilling exhibitions and collections we visited when I was a child have merged together into one wonderfully rich memory. I didn’t know I could actually work in a museum until my senior year in high school when I took an internship at the Mystic Seaport Museum, just down the road from our house. For whatever reason, the head curator allowed me to write the labels for an exhibition about 19th-century whaling ship keels, to curate an exhibition of photographs of America’s Cup race winners, and to plan a show of needlepoint seascapes. It was all weird stuff, but what an empowering experience! I was 18 and the things I created were actually up and on view for the general public. Partly as a result of my own experiences, I feel strongly about creating opportunities for teens to engage in the life of the Art Institute. This is how aspirations are sparked and careers begin.

What is the most challenging aspect of engaging teachers and students through art?

SA: I can speak best to the experience of engaging teachers. The greatest challenge is that no one teacher is exactly the same as the next. It’s very common in our culture to make sweeping generalizations about teachers, but they are all individuals coming from different school contexts and with different motivations. As for engaging them through art, it can be particularly challenging for teachers who don’t really have a sense of the role that art can have across the curriculum—in science, math, or other subjects outside of art itself. A powerful and well-facilitated experience in our galleries is often the best way to break through that challenge.

RS: It’s challenging to figure out what is most interesting and relevant to a group of students who may come from vastly different places and experiences. When school groups arrive at the museum on the morning of their tour, we have only received limited information ahead of time about who the students are, what they’re studying, and what interests them. We have to ask ourselves how we can best use the one or two hours they’re here, making the experience relevant to their classroom studies and meaningful on a personal level. Our ongoing education program for docents, the volunteer educators who facilitate experiences for students in grades 1-12, prepares them not only to know about and be able to interpret the encyclopedic collection of the museum, but also to structure experiences in which students are encouraged to bring their own ideas, knowledge, and opinions into the conversation. Creating a space for an open dialogue about art with students you’ve just met, while at the same time taking into account the curricular needs of their teacher, and also sharing gallery space with other docents and their groups is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we enthusiastically undertake and satisfyingly meet daily here at the Art Institute.

Look for more in-depth interviews in upcoming issues of the Member Magazine. For a mobile-friendly reading experience, download the Member Magazine to your iPad today!