Sometimes you don´t know your teaching practice has changed until you´re confronted with a different environment and audience. I recently changed gears from teaching in a museum to teaching in a school and the transition has been a radical experience for me as a teaching artist.
In February 2011, I moved back to Lima after spending ten years in New York as a teaching artist working in museums and developing my own artwork. I was offered a position in San Silvestre School, a British, private all-girls school with the goal “to provide an integral education based on the best aspects of the British and Peruvian educational systems….” Coincidentally, it´s also the one I attended all my school life, and considered one of the most prestigious schools in the country.
I now teach high school students studio art, the IGCSE University of Cambridge program, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Art Program and Art History. Although so different to what I’d been doing, it also seemed a perfect opportunity to apply and adapt all I’d learned in New York to a completely different setting, especially in art history.
Before moving to New York, I worked in a different British school in Lima where art history was part of studio arts. I taught the subject using what I then considered an interesting approach, looking back though, it was mostly linear. This methodology would not be enough in my current teaching.
In New York I worked interpreting art with museum visitors, engaging diverse audiences in looking at and contextualizing artworks and objects. Now, however, when faced with teaching art history as a subject to young people in a school setting, without the context of the museum (objects, artworks and through these, the presence of artists) it felt isolated, arid, bland. I’m a firm believer in teaching from my passion, that as I teach I become a learner myself; the dissatisfaction I felt using a traditional practice became a challenge.
At San Silvestre, art history is offered as an elective course not part of the IGCSE program which students follow in Forms III and IV. The course is intended as a connection to the arts for students with an interest in the subject but who do not necessarily want to make art or consider themselves ‘creative enough’. When I met my students however, they had a perception of art history as a boring subject. Or so they thought.
In a standard art history course students ‘look at’ artists and their practice in much the same way that zoo visitors look at animals: isolated from their environment, without actual objects or a direct artist connection. This lack of connection led me to find other ways to teach what the syllabus requires while at the same time encouraging students to think like art historians and be inquisitive about the process of creating art, building connections with their own lives and humanizing the artists being studied.
When teaching in a museum, the direct experience of engaging with artworks created an immediate interest in the students and prompted them to ask questions. The physical presence of a drawing or a painting, an installation, a video that you experience with your senses is crucial. What could I do, without the presence of actual artworks that would help students understand how artists think and why they make art? Most importantly, why should they care?
Student displays. To the left, museum of Japanese mandalas and to the right, ‘awana’, museum of Paracas (Peruvian pre-hispanic) culture which showcased the influence of this ancient culture in modern Peruvian art.
By the time Form III (15 year olds) came to study the ancient cultures of China, Japan, India and Pre-Hispanic cultures, I had established a culture of independent work with the group and built a relationship of mutual trust and respect; it was the right time to introduce The Museum Project. This project was designed to address this absence of the museum experience and engage students in creating museums around ancient cultures using investigation, group work and museum skills. Their challenge was to not only to design thematic exhibitions but to also present them to the school community.
We began by studying what a museum is, the work museums do and how they function. Given my museum background there was a lot I could share with my students to give them insight into the museum world. Most of them have been to several museums; especially abroad as Peru´s museums are few, and while they have visited many exhibitions, they had not wondered how those exhibitions came to be.
Without expecting it, students learned new art making skills (like how to cut and print a stencil). The techniques they used responded naturally to their design ideas for their museum displays.
Due to time constraints, we did not get to visit a museum but I would highly recommend it if you plan to develop a similar project. It is also the first trip on my list for this group in the upcoming school year and as preparation for their next (and more complex) museum project.
After studying the history and organization of museums and looking at how museums design exhibitions with the visitor in mind, students worked in pairs to research the art of one ancient culture. They then took on the role of curators, selecting very specific themes and five artworks that would combine cohesively. The group also invited IB Art students as guest artists, honoring their work.
Students had to design their exhibition panels to be visually attractive and clear, and taking on the role of the art handler, put up their displays in professional ways. Needless to say, they had to put in a lot of extra time and work to complete their museums. They were willing to do so because they felt they had to offer their best to their teachers and friends. During the museum opening, students wore ‘Staff’ badges and took the role of educators leading inquiry based tours for their teachers and peers.
Teachers participating in a conversation about the depiction and symbolism of dragons in the art of ancient China.
Reflection time was important; once the project was finished students were extremely excited about having had the opportunity to show their work to the school community. What was particularly powerful for them was having had the opportunity to share their knowledge with others giving them visibility and recognition. They felt proud of themselves as individuals and as a group and recognized they had learned in a different, yet more vivid way. They also admitted it had been hard work and required more thinking than a traditional way of learning where knowledge is given to them for them to reproduce. One student reflected:
“I learned that being part of a museum´s staff isn’t easy; there are many roles involved and hard work. It takes a lot of time to prepare exhibitions. In fact, the idea of “boring” when someone talks about art exhibitions and museums has left. Instead, I think about the whole process and question myself “why is this art work placed beside this one? What is the idea that the artist wants to transmit to everyone with this painting?”
My role was that of a guide but, throughout the process, I stepped back constantly to give students the opportunity to think things and make their own choices and decisions (and sometimes mistakes) based on discussions with their partners. “It was important for me to do the research myself and show other people my work. Feeling proud of it was the best part.” Students surprised themselves discovering they could master new skills and do a lot more than they thought they were capable of. Having an opening date and an audience were very important as they worked to offer visitors a good product and received immediate feedback.
During my last year in New York, my boss asked all the teaching artists why we teach art. My answer was quite simple: “To give others the opportunity to be happy.” I believe that. The beauty of teaching in museums is having all these wonderful artworks to work with, to be able to see closely what an artist made and ask questions. I find so much value in the way museums make us look and wonder and how oftentimes, in a tour, discussions take unimagined turns, I’ve brought the museum to the classroom to open my students’ eyes, to share the wonder and ask their own questions.