Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Reflections of a Museum Educator

Rachel Trinkley has worked as a museum educator for over a decade in the Midwest and DC. She is currently Director of Education for Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington, DC, a start-up children’s museum in the district with plans to open in the Fort Totten neighborhood in the coming years.

I recently spent some time with colleagues preparing for an upcoming educators’ conference at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where I was struck by a painting titled Braceros, by Domingo Ulloa.

Later I stood by myself in front of the work for I don’t know how long - writing down what I saw, thought, and wondered. This experience - in the midst of my day-to-day work of trying to help establish a children’s museum in the district - was a much-needed reminder about the power of art.

I saw men imprisoned, and I wanted to know why. Who or what is keeping them behind barbed wire? I instantly saw injustice. I wondered about each of the men, whether they have names, stories, and families. I felt angry, curious, and compelled to do something. When I went down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and learned more about the Bracero program, it raised more questions: why hadn’t I learned about this program in school? What effect did the program have (and is still having) on labor and migrant rights - and isn’t this institutional racism in action?

I know that part of the reason for my response is because I gave myself the time and space to really look at the work. I also know that my experiences, knowledge, and beliefs informed my interpretation, as did the artist’s compositional devices. But how might others respond, with different political leanings, careers, lives? How might a day laborer react to this painting? Or a young child?

Artists engage in a complex process to make a work of art that often encompasses deep research, imaginative thinking, trial and error, persistence, and emotional grappling. In this way, artists transcend disciplines and can serve as phenomenal models for the concept of whole child development. Art is fundamentally a whole human endeavor - messy, clarifying, confounding, pleasurable. High-quality arts education gives learners an opportunity to consider their place in their world and respond to it through cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and creative means.

Youth (including young children) have the capacity and strength to engage in these ways. They aren’t immune from the messiness and injustice of life. All art educators I know have incredible stories of students being transformed by participating in a class, workshop, or summer camp, and when that happens, it’s rarely a result of students following step-by-step instructions or coloring in the lines (even if coloring books have their uses). Transformation happens when educators and the larger community guide and support their youth, giving students opportunities to take risks, build understanding, grow, and succeed - often through multi-session collaborative projects or by starting with student interests and curiosities.

Since we’re in the midst of #summerlearning, do something to support arts education in your community. Attend a performance, give to a non-profit like DCAYA or one of its members, introduce a friend to a new arts organization, or volunteer. The conference workshop I’m leading is about how perspective taking can be nurtured through experiences with art. Works like Braceros can stimulate empathy and prompt dialogue about white privilege, inequality, and racism. And if you choose to go to an art museum - crucial, sometimes overlooked community partners in learning - here’s one of my favorite quotes to keep in mind, from artist Mark Dion:

"My job as an artist isn’t to satisfy the public. That’s not what I do. I don’t necessarily make people happy. I think the job of the artist is to go against the grain of dominant culture, to challenge perception, prejudice, and convention…"

- Rachel Trinkley, @racheltrinkley on Twitter

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