Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf

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Are we there yet?

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Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (detail), 2018. Installed and on view at the Brooklyn Museum

“Are we there yet?”

To answer this question, we might respond with several questions of our own, such as: “who is WE?” or “where is THERE?” It is a question that can be either simple or loaded. We might think about career or personal milestones that we have set (and whether we have been successful in checking them off the list); places we have gone to (perhaps as a child you consistently asked this question to the adults on long car rides); or social, emotional and cultural viewpoints. The answer to “are we there yet?” is completely subjective and largely depends on individual and/or group experiences and perspectives.

On Saturday, March 23, my wife and I joined the artist, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and several others on an ‘artist’s walk’ between the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Central Library. We began our discussion on the steps outside of the museum, where Rasheed’s I AM POROUS. TODAY, I LEAK PREPOSITIONS. SO, I WILL ASK AGAIN, DO YOU HAVE A SIEVE? (2018) is installed. The installation is composed of several vinyl propositions affixed to the concrete steps, which read (to name a few) ‘after’ ‘before’ ‘above’ ‘along’ and ‘below.’ Rasheed prompted us to pick a word that spoke to us and our relationship to others and stand next to it. We then partook in a conversation with the other people who chose the same word. My wife and I choose the word ‘after’ and along with three other strangers, we engaged in a discussion regarding the language functions of the word. Our cohort came up with definitions, syntax, concepts, and intersectional relationships for ‘after’. We then regrouped with Rasheed and the others and discussed how all the prepositions have multiple meanings in regards to how we think about past, present, and future narratives and constructs.

We then went into the museum and gathered around Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (2018), which consists of four textile banners, on view within the museum’s entrance. The artwork’s intent is to prompt individuals of all ages to elicit responses to problem posing questions (Freire, 1970) including: “Are we there yet?” “After hope, then what?” “Is this the last time?” and “Did you think it would get easier after this?”

We were invited to congregate around a question that we felt was most pertinent to our own lives and discussed it with others in our group who chose the same question. The responses ranged from personal to collective and addressed themes that are social, emotional and political. We spoke about what we thought the future might hold in relationship to our sense of self, collective identity, and the environment. In times of flux and ambiguity (which largely define our contemporary culture), it is helpful to come together and share feelings, aspirations, assessments, and ideas about how we can address pertinent societal issues going forward.

After several people shared their responses to the questions, we walked roughly six minutes down Eastern Parkway towards the Brooklyn Central Library, where Rasheed’s interactive project Scoring the Stacks (2019) is installed in the main lobby. The participatory installation instructs visitors to select cards (possibly referencing card catalogues of yesteryear) with ‘scores’ that direct and elicit specific actions. For example, one card tells the holder to go to the reference ‘Society, Sciences & Technology’ section and choose a blue book, read the last page and choose a word that you would like to use in future conversations. The participant answers their prompts and deposits a carbon copy (they take home the original in a folio) into a box, which is then utilized for other participatory projects, which include: collaborative flash fiction writing, songwriting, and choreography.

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An example of one of my responses to a prompt from Scoring the Stacks.

Scoring the Stacks is symbolic of how we can learn through noticing deeply and making connections to past and present information, while thinking ahead to the future. While going through the library on the de facto scavenger hunt, I became more aware of other things, such as the library’s special collections; other interactive exhibitions on view; and the diversity of the people who utilize the library’s breadth of resources. Sharing my own insights and hearing the insights of others made the experience incredibly fulfilling and efficacious. Throughout the two-hour artist’s walk, I enjoyed listening to all of the thoughtful responses from each individual and opening my mind to new perspectives and information.

Participatory-centered artwork has major benefits on the way we construct knowledge and experience in a collaborative environment. Rasheed’s installations at the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Library are the crux of inquiry based learning, where questions and actions, rather than statements, become the impetus for the creation of knowledge. Rasheed’s practice embodies a constructivist form of pedagogy, centered on formulating knowledge through socialization and collaboration. In fact, prior to becoming a full-time artist, Rasheed was a high school history teacher.

Rasheed’s artistic practice combines progressive pedagogy, history and literacy, focusing on the intersection of these elements with multicultural identity and placemaking. Scoring the Stacks is both an engaging activity and a teachable moment, where we co-create new knowledge in collaboration with the artist, in order to make insightful realizations about our unique relationships with history and public spaces. The Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Library are ideal environments for an artful activation of public space, because they function as pedagogical institutions for the community at large.

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Installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed at the Brooklyn Central Library. Photograph by Kelly Kimura (@pageonesixtyone).

On the atrium of the library is a quote from Rasheed, which reads like a mantra for self-discovery and interconnectivity with the world around us: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, i decided to wander.” This quote brings to mind the idea of playful exploration and experiential learning, which makes building knowledge a worthwhile lifelong process. When we allow ourselves to let go of convention in favor of exploration and embracing ambiguity (both studio habits of mind that the arts teach us), we gain a wide range of metacognitive and critical thinking skills, while exhibiting empathy and expressing ourselves through multifaceted means. American educational philosopher, Maxine Greene (1995) states that the arts empower our minds to examine and interact with the unknown and uncertain. Therefore, I don’t think the question “are we there yet?” can ever be repletely answered, because we are always learning and creating new personal and communal experiences each and every day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. Pg 12.

Greene, Maxine. 1995. Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Springgay, Stephanie, Irwin, Rita L., and Kind, Sylvia Wilson. “A/r/tography as Living Inquiry Through Art and Text” Qualitative Inquiry. 2005 11: 897. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rita_Irwin/publication/258181966_Artography_as_Living_Inquiry_Through_Art_and_Text/links/00b7d5323b351ac803000000.pdf

Artful Arithmetic

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Jennifer Bartlett, Air: 24 Hours, 5 P.M., 1991-92, oil on canvas. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993. © Jennifer Bartlett

When confronted with a mathematical problem, have you ever thought to yourself ‘if only I could see an image (instead of numbers and symbols), this equation might make more sense?’ If so, then you are someone like me, whose method of learning is more inline with visual-spatial abilities than logical-mathematical modalities (see: Gardner, 1983).

That is not to say that if you are more inclined to perceiving things visually/spatially then you can’t also be logical. In fact, these two ways of thinking and reasoning (along with six other multiple intellegences, explained by Gardner, see: ibid) are actually complimentary to logical reasoning and are both bolstered through artistic engagement.

Through employing the theory of multiple intellegences, learners are empowered to combine and/or hone in on problem solving methods by utilizing one or more of eight modalities. The eight modalities are: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

The systems-centered artwork of Jennifer Bartlett is a great example of how art can combine multiple intellegences in order to arouse responses from a diverse array of viewers, who each bring different abilities and prior knowledge to the viewing experience.

Bartlett’s paintings are inspired by systems based processes, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style. For example, within her series titled Air: 24 Hours, Bartlett created twenty four paintings to represent each hour of the day. She arranged her square canvases by painting a grid-based system that always adds up to the number sixty. While she has implemented the structure of a grid, a comment on a trope within Modernist painting, Bartlett contrasts the logical-mathematical system by overlaying imagery and formal elements that are at once absurd, mysterious and intimate. Bartlett makes logical structures more personal by including symbols and vignettes from her personal life. The scenes, while not overtly telling, represent moments and happenings around Bartlett’s house at a specific hour of the day.

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Jennifer Bartlett, Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536, 1973-74, Enamel over silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates, 77 inches x 9 feet and 8 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Alex Katz Foundation Gift and Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Another work of art by Bartlett, which combines mathematical systems with formal aesthetics is the painting Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536 (1973-74). This painting consists of black enamel paint applied over a silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates. The title is a literal description of Bartlett’s self-imposed mathematical formula for cumulatively squaring the number two. The mathematical function was also Bartlett’s artistic process, because for each solution, she composed the precise number of hand-painted dots within the grid to represent the whole numbers: 2, 4, 16, 256 and 65,536. The resulting painting juxtaposes logic with subjectivity. The perspective changes depending on how you view the painting (i.e. from closer up you can clearly see the dots within the grid, but from afar they seemingly amass into an abstract form or blend together into obscurity).

The work of Jennifer Bartlett is an exemplary intermediary between mathematical and aesthetic thinking and doing. Incorporating visual art with mathematical systems is a great way to gain a well-rounded grasp on math formulas, while also expressing a personal element to problem solving, which makes overcoming challenging tasks efficacious and relevant.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Gardner, Howard 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences , New York: Basic Books

Gardner, Howard. 1999. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/surface-substitution/art-and-maths, accessed 17 March 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences.” Artfully Learning. 11 Jun. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/differentiation-and-multiple-intelligences/

 

If you’re bored, try living artfully

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Nina Katchadourian, Bananafish, 2013 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-
ongoing), C-Print, 15.25h x 19w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark
Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

I am certain that we all have experienced a fair share of dull moments throughout our lives. Whether it’s dragging our feet while going on errands, waiting on lines, routine doctor’s visits (and the accompanying time spent in waiting rooms), trips to the DMV, long periods of travel, or just sitting around with nothing to do; there are many times where banal moments leave us with much to be desired.

As a teenager, I remember pausing at a specific line within the lyrics to the song Flagpole Sitta (1997) by the band Harvey Danger: “But if you’re bored then you’re boring.” This posed one of the earliest existential crises for me. How could I combat the doldrums of my own boredom? I realized that me being ‘bored’ was largely a result of my own self imposed fears and negative attitude. I had crippling social anxiety, and low self-esteem, which led me to avoid certain situations that I would likely have enjoyed experiencing (and thrived at too).

I still have social anxiety, however, I am more or less able to get over it through creative thinking and action. The real transformative moments begin when I immerse myself in artistic explorations and playful creative endeavors.

It is my personal philosophy that everything and everyone has artistic potential. Many individuals including John Dewey and Joseph Beuys have expounded upon the idea of art as a way of life, intrinsic to our personal and collective consciousness and culture. Within art, external and internal stimuli are presented and expressed in a profound manner by combining aesthetic principles and social and emotional symbolism. Through viewing the world as a canvas or a stage on which to engage with, I am constantly thinking about translating everyday moments, objects, and images, into works of art. Even walking to work or riding on the subway becomes part of the artistic process, because I am carefully observing, paying attention to details, making connections, and gaining insights into the creative potential that consistently surrounds me. I see both everyday objects and interactions as mediums, materials, and themes for making art.

Art offers a profound and fun way of liberating ourselves from the seemingly static nature of boring tasks and situations. For all the negative associations that boredom has, it is a major source of inspiration and a vehicle for artists to convey deep sociocultural concerns. The arts teach us to welcome boredom and use it as a channel for powerful means of communication and symbolic expression. Boredom is largely connected to major facets that artists need to make work. These characteristics include being able to find value and purpose in repetition and responding to subconscious thoughts and daydreams, which come about when the mind is left to wander. Artists need to have the patience to perform many routine and precise steps in order to achieve their vision. They also need to allow their minds to be active and think big. Harnessing boredom enables artists to re-frame and re-present their reality in a novel and exciting perspective.

Nina Katchadourian is one of the most seminal contemporary artists versed in embracing and transcending issues of banality. I have previously mentioned Katchadourian’s work in a post titled Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art. She was recently the subject of a traveling museum retrospective called Curiouserand is currently showing a concise survey of her work at Fridman Gallery, in New York, in a solo show titled Ification. The well curated work within Ification is a great example of how Katchadourian finds efficacy in conventionality via a multidisciplinary art practice that is as playful as it is poignant.

Instead of accepting monotony and mundaneness as a matter of circumstance, Katchadourian utilizes artistic behaviors in order to find a myriad of ways to transform boredom into something captivating and significant. She infuses humor and irony within artwork that makes due with the materials and situations that are relatively universal.

For instance, her ongoing Seat Assignment (2010-) series is made up of imagery created while Katchadourian travels on airplanes. In this day and age, airline travel has gotten more restrictive and complex for passengers, while the airlines themselves offer fewer inflight forms of leisure. Seat Assignment is an antidote for the long and dull process of commercial air travel. Being subjected to long periods of stationary sitting, with limited supplies such as inflight magazines, travel guides, carry on (or meager complimentary in flight) snacks, and occasional trips to the lavatory (when the captain has turned off the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign), inspired Katchadourian to turn an otherwise uninspiring moment into a captivating artistic experience. Using a mobile phone and whatever she can find around her seat, she creates surreal and fantastical scenes and narratives that comment on themes such as travel, consumerism, culture, ecology, and art history.

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Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in Flemish Style #8, 2011 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-ongoing), C-Print, 13.33h x 10w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment series includes a whimsical group of bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps, and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. These portraits are humble modern day re-presentations of the high art portraiture, painted in the Low Countries, especially The Netherlands during the 15th – 17th Centuries. In a witty fashion, Katchadourian demystifies the work of Old Master painters by showing us how good art can be made from simple materials and repetitive processes combined with a big imagination.

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Nina Katchadourian, Talking Popcorn, 2001, Popcorn machine, black pedestal,
red vinyl base, microphone, laptop with custom-written Morse code program,
printed paper bags, popcorn, dimensions variable. Installation view at the
Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark  Gallery and Fridman Gallery.

Two other bodies of work that exemplify Katchadourian’s astute skills for noticing deeply, recognizing patterns, and incorporating everyday objects into awe-inspiring artworks, are Talking Popcorn (2001) and Songs of the Islands (1996). Talking Popcorn features a working movie theater popcorn machine, and the sound of the kernels popping gets translated into Morse Code, which, a computer-generated voice reads aloud. Katchadourian has coined the resulting popcorn messages as “popcornese.” In an effort to further investigate and legitimize “popcornese,” she has solicited the expertise of a diverse group of professionals including: linguists, poets, translators, an astronomer, a Zen Buddhist, and an anthropologist. For the making of Songs of the Islands, Katchadourian collected discarded audio tape that she noticed throughout New York City during the 1990s and painstakingly rearranged the loose audio tape to reveal a cacophony of sounds. The resulting compositions included music from a wide variety of genres, spanning across the globe (from heavy metal to Vietnamese pop), and even a taped episode of “All in the Family.” Combined as a soundtrack, the audio depicts a sociocultural portrait of New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world.

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Nina Katchadourian, Songs of the Islands: Concrete Music of New York (detail), 1996/1998, found audiotape between Plexiglas, paper board, ink, audio player with headphones, 40h x 30w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

In the educational realm, boredom can be harnessed through methods that influence students’ thirst for knowledge and inquiry. Some of these methods might include dropping ‘learning objectives’ in favor of ‘learning questions’ (see: Warner, 2014) and promoting playful learning. Both of these pedagogical methodologies give students agency in their own learning by supporting the co-creation of knowledge (between teachers and students).

Like artists, students should develop skills that will allow them to synthesize big ideas (hopes, aspirations, dreams) into realistic goals and tangible actions. Routines and consistency are important in developing a student’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, however, the art of education is finding ways to make this repetitious practice relevant and appealing. If a student is feeling unfulfilled and uninspired, one solution might be shifting the pedagogical approach towards asking more student-centered prompts rather than predetermined learning objectives. By starting off learning segments with student driven questions, educators can be sure that they are setting up proper modes of instructional scaffolding, activities, and assessments that are meaningful and influential to the experience and education of each student.

 


Nina Katchadourian’s Ification will be on view through March 31, 2019 at Fridman Gallery.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Straaten, Laura van. “The Artist Behind the Famous Bathroom Selfies.” The Cut. 22 Feb. 2019. https://www.thecut.com/2019/02/interview-with-ification-artist-nina-katchadourian.html

Warner, Andrew. “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.” andywarner78. 24 Oct. 2014. https://andywarner78.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-big-question-raising-challenge-by-dropping-objectives/

 

How Art and Art Education Changed the Prison

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Wilfredo Ramos, Cracker Tin Punched with Holes In the Kitchen Corner, 2017. Courtesy of Jeffrey Greene.

Jeffrey Greene started working with prison populations throughout Connecticut in 1991, and is currently the Program Manager of Community Partners in Action (CPA)’s ‘Prison Art Program,’ where he has worked with over 200 incarcerated individuals by teaching art classes.  Through Greene’s mentorship and support, prison inmates across the state of Connecticut have transformed themselves by building self-worth and making personal discoveries while creating art in communal workshops.

The exhibition How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program, which is on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, displays works of art by a coterie of inmates throughout the ‘Constitution State.’ The selected works explore potent themes such as social justice, psychology, mindfulness, intersectionality of identity and self-discovery.

When he first started working in prisons, Greene realized that a majority of the artwork being made by inmates featured highly technical and graphic art with cliché iconography that was largely absent of personal expression. He encouraged members in his workshops to focus on more introspective and communicative elements of art. Greene pushed his students to search inside of themselves for inspiration and allow themselves to be free from the physical and mental constraints of both traditional fine art (i.e. still lives, generic technique building exercises, and other largely impersonal subject matter) and prison.

After 28 years of teaching in prisons, Greene has truly found his stride in encouraging and challenging incarcerated artists to think ‘outside the box’ when making art. Greene’s classes prompt participants to conceive works of art that can expand and grow outside of the paper, their cells, and out into the world beyond prison gates. The results are highly personal and moving expressions, which feel liberated from the harsh realities of prison that these men and women face on a daily basis.

For example, drawings such as Cracker Tin Punched with Holes In the Kitchen Corner and My Brother’s Turn (both 2017), by Wilfredo Ramos, came to fruition through the artist’s intimate memories of childhood and home. Ramos utilizes unique aesthetic perspectives to enhance the overall mood, using an aerial view of the kitchen in Cracker Tin Punched with Holes In the Kitchen Corner and a voyeuristic one-point perspective view in My Brother’s Turn. Both of these images imply the negative relationship Ramos had with his mother, who seemingly exerted physical force upon both Wilfredo and his brother. In the exhibition catalogue, Greene (2019) writes that as Ramos was making these drawings “it seemed like they exorcised something from him. It seemed as if he was putting something in its place. As his drawings got heavier, his mood got lighter.”

Self Portrait Jewelry Box (2016) by Edward Schank, is chock-full of personal expression due to its composition of materials that are captivating both aesthetically and symbolically. The sculptural bust is a self-portrait, which Schank created by cutting up 1,374 packages of ramen noodles and weaving them together. The use of Ramen noodles for Schank’s self portrait is a highly significant statement on identity and the complexities of life in prison. The instant noodles are a very popular prison culinary staple, and are also a choice form of currency for inmates to barter with. In prison, ramen noodles are essentially a metaphor for gold or any precious material, which makes Schank’s sculpture fitting and relational as both a high work of art and a jewelry box, which its title implies. Many prisoners have been enduring a food crisis due to meager portions and cuts in the amounts of meals served per day (Santo & Iaboni, 2015), so ramen noodles are a life force for many inmates because they have both nutritional and economic value.

These are just two examples of the conceptual and emotive work that are realized through CPA’s Prison Arts Program. The exhibiting artists all go above and beyond traditional and generic forms of art that are all too often associated with prison art (i.e. bleeding hearts, clasped hands, eagle talons, etc.), and convey highly personal, poignant, and enlightened portrayals of the human spirit and the will to transcend the bleak and alienating conditions of life beyond bars.

A major benefit of a good art educational curriculum, is the long lasting impact that it has on the individual’s psyche and their ability to express themselves to the world in a mature, affecting, and profound manner. These artists have been dehumanized via the prison system (see: MDC Brooklyn Has Long Been A Frozen Hellhole. The Polar Vortex Just Made it Worse).

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Edward Schank, Self Portrait Jewelry Box, 2016, 1,374 ramen noodle packages, cut and woven.

It is essential that educational programs, like prison art classes, exist in prisons so that incarcerated individuals retain their sense of humanity and actually stand a chance to be rehabilitated (why call it ‘corrections’ if you don’t actually put effort into rehabilitation?). How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program features an installation consisting of a 15+ minute audio recording from current and past participants of the CPA’s Prison Art’s Program, whose statements are a testament to art’s facilitation in their ability to embrace ambiguity, make deep personal connections, reflect positively on themselves, and exhibit empathy.

The work created by the incarcerated artists in CPA’s Prison Arts Program exemplifies how immersing oneself in deeply reflective modes of creation leads to catharsis and transformation. Furthermore, it allows those of us on the outside looking in to be reminded that we are all worthy of being seen, heard, and valued.


How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program is on view through May 27th at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Exhibiting artists: Lester Alan, Jon Jay Arnold, Allen Benoit, Michael Caron, Ryan Carpenter, Joseph Castellano, Veronica May Clark, Dennis Coleman, Pedro-Martin DeClét, Mark Despres, Jillian Vasquez, George Gould, Frederick Gunn, Trev Hedge, Michael lovieno, Lee Jupina, Paul Blackman, Kimberly Lebel, Luis Norberto Martinez, Vincent Nardone, Yong Mi Olsen, Nicholas Palumbo, James Pinder, Wilfredo Ramos, Michael Reddick, Jose “Nando” Rivera, David Saucier, Edward Schank, June Seger, James D.E. Scott, Michael Seidman, Lamont Thergood, Ross VonWeingarten, and Joseph Wilson.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Greene, Jeffrey. 2019. How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program. Ridgefield: The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Godoy, Maria. “Ramen Noodles Are Now The Prison Currency Of Choice.” NPR. 26 Aug. 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/26/491236253/ramen-noodles-are-now-the-prison-currency-of-choice

Miller, Hayley. “MDC Brooklyn Has Long Been A Frozen Hellhole.” Huffington Post. 6 Feb. 2019. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mdc-brooklyn-conditions_us_5c59bb62e4b00187b5556cdf

Santo, Alysia and Iaboni, Lisa. “What’s in a Prison Meal?” The Marshall Project. 7 Jul. 2015. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/07/07/what-s-in-a-prison-meal#.YnsGJHEPl

Seeing is Feeling – Art & Experience for Visually Impaired Individuals

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Unknown photographer, Rebecca Soyer touching Chaim Gross’ Sculpture Young Girl, 1926, archives of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation.

Contemporary culture is permeated with sensory experiences that envelope our daily lives. Educational reformer, John Dewey (1938), stated that knowledge is formed by assigning meaning to the sensory experiences that bombard us. We learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and can attach language to these experiences so we can store them for later recall and sort them into categories so we can see connections between this experience and other experiences. Since just the act of living causes us to experience qualities (sensory information) we are often oblivious of it. It is only when we act upon, assign feelings, and react to the information that we form a learning experience.

Learning is not a passive event, therefore we have to actively participate with the incoming information and do something with it in order for this information to hold meaning for us. We draw upon our past history of experience with these sensory qualities and over time form habits, which connect these experiences with feelings and act and react to these sensory qualities. Moreover, Dewey and other Constructivist and progressive thinkers uphold the theory that knowledge is derived from social interactions with others.

Taking this into account, I wanted to investigate how the field of art education addresses pedagogy of active learning that is inclusive of individuals who are either legally blind or visually impaired. These issues have always been of interest to me as an artist, art historian, curator, and educator, because I believe that everyone should have accessibility to the visual arts. Art enriches people’s lives and gives them an expressive means for communicating symbolically.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) by the artist Lenka Clayton, utilizes sensory, inquiry, and collaborative learning techniques to re-present the work of Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920) in a manner that is accessible and relevant to viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

The aforementioned post also discusses the work of seminal art educator Viktor Lowenfeld and psychologist John M. Kennedy, whose experiential and multisensory pedagogical processes can be utilized to prompt aesthetic responses from visually impaired individuals. Through innovative methods, theories, and techniques, artists, art students, and art appreciators who have trouble seeing, can immerse themselves in both the creation and viewing of art in profound and personal ways.

Because the arts are so important to our social, emotional, and cognitive development, many significant programs have been introduced to make art accessible to the population that is most vulnerable to being left out of aesthetic experiences. It is entirely possible and necessary to include resources in museums and in educational settings that can be accessible by sighted and visually impaired people alike. In fact, including more sensory based learning and viewing opportunities is beneficial for everyone, because as Mitchell (2005) asserts, there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. Mitchell argues that painting is associated with other forms of language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all. He states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258).

Major museums, like the Cooper Hewitt and  Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) have implemented programs for the public that include ‘touch tours’ where visually impaired visitors are able to feel the works of art while lecturers give detailed aesthetic descriptions of the piece. Ideally, these descriptions and proceeding discussions paint a picture in the ‘mind’s eye’ of the visitor.

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Visitors are engaged in tactile observations of a sculpture by Chaim Gross. Courtesy of The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, New York.

One recent example of an educational curriculum being developed and implemented for blind and visually impaired individuals is the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions,” a public educational program that is in conjunction with their current exhibition Teaching Through Touch: Works By Chaim Gross, curated by Sasha Davis and Brittany Cassandra.

During his illustrious career as one of the preeminent American Modernist sculptors, Chaim Gross (1904-1991) implored viewers of his sculptures to engage with them in both a visual and tactile fashion. As a part of his artistic philosophy, Gross wanted viewers to be able to interact with his art through touch, in order to learn first-hand about sculpture and connect to it in a more personal way.

Because sculpture exists in the same dimension as we do, touching sculptural works enables us to experience its three-dimensional form in a profound and engaging way. Additionally, Gross made many of his sculptures using natural materials such as wood, which he hand carved. Therefore, the surface areas of many of his sculptures are brimming with exquisite texture and other elements of art. You can literally feel the artist’s hand and tools that he used for making all of the intricate marks and forms. Allowing all viewers to touch these works of art, provides an intimate hands-on experience that gives insight into how Chaim Gross worked in his studio.

Along with teaching artists (Nitza Danieli, Pamela Lawton, Annie Leist, and Deborah Lutz), participants in the at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions” workshops analyze sculptures and drawings by Gross through multisensory activities and then create their own tactile works of art based on a specific theme (the topic is different each session).

Another seminal organization for developing curricula and technology to facilitate artistic learning for visually impaired students is Art Education for the Blind (AEB). AEB was founded in 1987 by museum educator, Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel, as a reaction to the lack of widely available programs and resources for blind and visually impaired individuals to access and appreciate the fine arts. AEB has published many resources to rectify this issue, including a comprehensive multimedia package titled Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The publication combines audio narrative with an interactive book on the history of art that uses tactile diagrams to guide the reader’s recognition of specific works of art. AEB’s resources and materials are widely used in museums and institutions throughout the world. AEB also works within school environments.

Psychologist John M. Kennedy has also been highly influential in developing contemporary practices for integrating tactile and other sensory explorations within visual art making and appreciation. According to Kennedy, “blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” However, with instructional scaffolding and proper sensory resources, the blind and visually impaired individual’s experience with visual art can be just as replete as it is for sighted people.

Kennedy’s (in Bird, 1991) work with blind individuals creates an equal learning situation for them in the classroom. He used malleable rubber drawing boards, which allowed students to touch their drawings that they carved into the rubber sleeve. Using a simple ballpoint pen creates enough pressure to create a raised line on the board. Through this process, students learned about many of the important formal elements of art (line, shape, texture, pattern) and also formulated a comprehension of symbolic meaning, i.e. the changing shape of a car’s wheel to suggest motion (Bird, 1991).

Using raised line drawings and/or three-dimensional models enables blind students to experience the qualities (sensory information) of a work of art or architecture. This also can be helpful in providing context if for example, when learning about the Gothic cathedrals, the students can feel the shape and outline of either a drawing or model, which along with a historical and detailed description from their teacher will provide a vivid aesthetic sensibility in the student’s mind. The haptic experience coupled with a trip to a cathedral and/or the student’s previous encounter(s) inside of a church or place of worship, provides conditions for the type of perception that Dewey (1938) described as assigning meaning to an experience.

Pompano (2007) described how tactile learning, such as touching an object like a chair, allows visually impaired students to understand an object’s formal qualities as well as its essence. Her research with blind students explored the possibilities of learning through tactile and systematic approaches while studying the design of chairs. In other words, teachers can guide the students through the physical experience by describing the different parts of the chair while the student’s hands are touching it. In addition to the physical experience, the teacher will impart historical and technical knowledge upon the students regarding the chairs. While the students are engaging in the tactile discovery of the chair, the teacher can have them think about the common parts of the chairs they are engaging with and then list them. Teachers should coach the student along in their discoveries by asking the students questions about what they’re observing so that the experience of sensory perception and formal analysis become learned habits.

Art educators can make the leap from their students’ recognition of an object to their perception of an experience through social interaction and situated learning in the classroom. Verbal communication from the teacher is a key component to both recognition and perception. It can be equally helpful for sighted and blind students in the same classroom to hear the teacher describe an aesthetic object in terms of its features, which include but are not limited to physicality, location, history, and narrative.

According to Castellano (1996), the goal is to have the blind student become a full participant both inside school and in their community. She suggests an increased verbal communicative approach in the classroom, wherein the teacher describes what is going on in the classroom in great detail so that the student can get as clear a picture of the lesson plan as the sighted students. Paying attention to details can help the visually impaired student construct a mental picture within the art classroom. It is through instructional scaffolding that the arts educator can help the blind student associate certain aesthetic qualities of an artwork with their own life experience.

Kuell (2009) describes a case study of a blind student named Melissa who was encouraged by her art teacher, Verna O’Donnell, to create art in the same capacity as sighted students. O’Donnell’s methodology came through trial and error, but she always had several backup plans if one method wasn’t working or engaging. She came up with a way that Melissa could explore art making through sensory perception such as focusing in on the smell and feel of the art materials. O’Donnell also organized her art classroom with very tactile objects (vibrant masks etc.) that both her blind and sighted students would appreciate. She also chose art units that would tap into the student’s personality and creativity such as mask making and imaginary landscapes. Through encouragement of both the teacher and her classmates, Melissa built up her confidence in addition to developing artistically along with the rest of her classmates. In fact, the other students asked O’Donnell about ways they could make their artwork more tactile, so that they would be appreciated and become accessible to everyone in the class.

In conclusion, it is definitely possible for blind individuals to comprehend visual media similarly to those who can see it. Classroom teachers and museum educators should understand how they can create an atmosphere in the classroom or museum that will support and prompt students/visitor’s awareness of the sensory information we are often oblivious or refrained from employing when interacting with art. Every museum collection can be combed through in order to find works of art that would be stable and captivating enough to be handled and expressly interpreted in a tactile manner.

Through both classroom/gallery conversation, tactile exploration, and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. As educators, we can enhance the experience by asking engaging questions, passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images, and encouraging students to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning. This will give a wide range of people the confidence and joy that art and art education should have on their lives.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art Education for the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind . Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 1998. Louisville: Optical Touch Systems Publishers.

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York: MacMillan.

Grimm, D. (2010) Teaching art to the blind student. Art Education Daily. Retrieved from

http://arteducationdaily.blogspot.com/2010/12/teaching-art-to-blind-student.html

Kuell, C. (2009). Tapping the Creativity of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Dialogue, 45 (2) Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr28/3/fr280307.htm

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Mitchell, W.J. 2005. “There Are No Visual Media.” Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Pompano, J. (2001). Teaching Art to the Blind / A Study of Chairs. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved from http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2001/2/01.02.07.x.html

The Classroom in the White Box

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Children during a museum lesson at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1960.

Museums should help us to realize that history and culture are not static, and is informed by a multitude of people, places, and events. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the museum’s job is to present an open-ended vision of human ingenuity, that inspires us to ask big questions and keep coming back for more. At their best, museums represent a multicultural world that is synonymous with our daily lives, by incorporating knowledge and information in a contextualized way so that viewers can make significant connections to everyday experiences.

A Museum is a School (2011–), is a site-specific installation by Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer that displays the statement: “The Museum is a school. The artist learns to communicate. The public learns to make connections” on the facade of museums throughout the world. When on view (such as at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, or Museo Jumex, Mexico City, Mexico) the work publicizes a succinct message that museums act as a collaborative learning environment for the community at large.

Museums enable us to view the work and sometimes the process of artists, makers, and innovators (which is diverse depending on the museum’s disciplinary focus), while prompting us to develop our own experiential connections and relationships with their work. When done well, museum exhibitions have long lasting personal relevance and leave the viewer inspired to pursue and engage in further discoveries, insights, and lifelong learning.

The idea of a museum as a communal classroom is a large reason why many museums have created innovative educational programs, where visitors can actively engage with aesthetic and informational content in unique ways. Museum educational programs exist for a wide range of groups and individuals, and museum educators have done a nice job scaffolding instruction and programming to ensure diversity and democratic access to the arts, science (STEAM), history, and culture at large.

If the museum or gallery space is a classroom, then the role of a University and college art museum or gallery is especially important. That is the crux and thesis of The Aesthetics of Learning, an exhibition featuring the work of artists Joseph Beuys & Henning Christiansen, Juan Downey, and Catherine Wagner, on view (through March 1, 2019) at the The Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College. In their careers, Beuys, Christiansen, and Downey, each taught at the University level. Wagner, works in California and teaches art at Mills College in Oakland.

 

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The exhibition’s curator, Alaina Claire Feldman, selected works of art from within Baruch College’s art collection that relate to pedagogical systems of learning, as well as physical educational settings. Feldman, who is also the director of the Mishkin gallery, wants us to make deeper connections between how we spend our time viewing, analyzing, and relating art to our personal and collective development and understanding. The show’s curatorial statement asks us to consider “what does learning look like? What does learning sound like? How are aesthetics a conduit for rethinking the ways in which knowledge and power are formed?”

A performance by Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen, four photographs by Catherine Wagner, and seven etchings by Juan Downey, convey principles of seeing, listening, and action/participation, within an interrelated aesthetic and pedagogical framework. Each of these facets are important for both experiencing art and learning, because we make associations and acquire knowledge through a combination of social, cognitive, and emotional reactions. Seeing, of course, is represented in each of the art works on view.

Wagner’s black and white photographs of educational settings, sans students or teachers, treat the classroom as a skeleton/foundation for learning. The four photographs on view are part of a series titled American Classroom, which presents a wide variety of objects and architectural elements related to educational spaces, in order to focus on the psychical and instructional scaffolding that stimulates and builds knowledge and learning environments.

We employ our sense of hearing and listening while experiencing a digital recording of Schottische Symphonie / Requiem of Art, a 1970’s performance by Beuys and Christiansen, which features the two artists tuning a piano. Beuys and Christiansen were both renowned for their experimental and empirical style of making art, as well as teaching. In their performance, which took place on August 21, 1970 at the Edinburgh College of Art, the experiential process signified the moment where both art and learning coexist. This reflects a pivotal pedagogical ideology, which is that we learn through making. While we can reflect upon the final product (as evidenced through critiques), the real significant eureka effect happens during the creative process.

Lastly, we utilize our sensation for action and participation via Juan Downey’s Do It Yourself series of etchings. In this body of work, Downey presents us with schematics and diagrams, which represent a collaborative transformation of knowledge, expertise, and innovative activity. Downey prompts us to consider the real-life implications of assembling machines, which seek to solve common issues, and enhance our means of sustainability. The viewer can assess these sketches for potential sculptures, and perhaps build upon the information in a tangible manner. Overall, Downey invites us to be active respondents and participators in the communication and application of knowledge.

The Aesthetics of Learning signifies the role museums and galleries embody, in order to inspire experiential learning and the creation of knowledge. Museums and galleries become a profound educational environment when they engage visitors to utilize their sensory perception, prior experience, and newly formed knowledge, in direct response to works of art (or whatever else is on view). The museum should not be a static collection of artifacts, but rather, an active vessel for incubating innovation, progressive discourse, and awareness for ourselves and the world around us.

A published report from the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the American Association of Museums), titled Excellence and Equity, states that “the public dimensions of museums leads them to perform the public service of education—a term that in its broadest sense includes exploration, study, observation, critical thinking, contemplation and dialogue” (American Association of Museums, 1992). This statement falls in line with the aforementioned themes and work in The Aesthetics of Learning, as well as the ongoing programming within a large variety of museums throughout the world.

The museum is the school and the community.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

American Association of Museums. 1992. Excellence and Equity. http://ww2.aam-us.org/docs/default-source/resource-library/excellence-and-equity.pdf?sfvrsn=0