Sunday, April 11, 2010

Who's interpretation?

Position titles are a funny thing. In my field it's not uncommon to see curator/manager/interpreter/educator/director attached in various combinations to a colleague's name. I probably sound naive to veteran museum educators when I say that the position title confusion seems so indicative of our ambiguous roles in the museum. My title is simply museum educator, but I oversee a paid intern and several part-time employees. I work with curriculum based programs for children, a weekly art studio program for intergenerational visitors, and a huge monthly cultural event. I develop tours and gallery experiences for visitors of all ages. I design workshops for adults, teachers and students as well as developing curriculum and materials for holiday and summer camps for children. I also often assist with researching the collections and exhibits, I create gallery guides, interpretive DVD's, write tours create other didactics for the galleries. I maintain our Facebook and create marketing materials for education programs and general museum events, I even write grants. I feel that I do much more than my title implies. I also find that I have to explain my function at the museum on a constant basis to people who hear/see my title. Most people think museum educator=docent, and all I do is give tours. I do give tours, but...there's so much more (I hear myself saying with a slight echo effect).

So when a small group of third graders approached me last fall about how to become a museum professional, I had to take a closer look at my daily function within the museum so that we could begin learning together. Wait, I'm putting the cart before the horse. They wanted to know how to become artists. We met for the first time in November 2009. The children had already begun research about the training, pay and variety of jobs an artist could pursue. Their teacher had suggested that they interview a person working in the field to learn more about working in the arts. These students had been visiting the museum regularly for a curriculum-based interdisciplinary art/science program. Since they don't have an art teacher on their campus, I was the reasonable and familiar facsimile. (I don't mean to imply that I am chopped liver to these kids, but I think they would have rather interviewed a flashy painter initially. Again, the teacher was the intermediary for their decision process, I believe.) So we discussed careers in visual arts. I told them about teaching art in public school, working as a graphic designer, my personal experiences in working with studio artists, and working with craftspeople. They took notes, asked a few questions, and thanked me when I was done. I figured that I had at least abraded their dreams, if not crushed them with my fairly straightforward (read bland) presentation of artist careers.

Much to my surprise, they came back for more. They had a new agenda based on further independent research, and they were looking for a museum-specific research project. So, a couple months later I had three 3rd grade interns, the Jr. Interpreters, visiting me for three hours a week with a parent volunteer. We familiarized ourselves with the education studio, toured the public areas of the museum, and met several of the staff members. We developed a list of what each staff member's responsibilities are at the museum. Next, we developed a collaborative definition of interpretation, using other familiar jobs (language translator, air traffic controller, etc.) as the basis. After we agreed on a set of characteristics of museum interpretation, we developed a very stripped down four step version of how I personally approach object interpretation. Next, using the four step program, the Jr. Interpreters identified a piece in our permanent collection and got to work. Several weeks later, we have a how-to video for responding to a ceramic artwork, a commercial for an artist's work, and a PSA about the value of visiting the museum to view sculptural glass art. The Jr. Interpreters have also presented their work to incoming Kindergartners, the PTA, and their teachers. Our next step is Facebook. We decided to share our video interpretations with the museum's Facebook audience in hopes of productive feedback. (I am the site moderator, so nobody gets hurt). All in all, the kids accomplished tons of self-guided research on artists, art techniques, artist statements and came up with some witty written, verbal and video outcomes.

So what did I learn? Well, lots more about how to connect all that grad school reading and emerging research methods with my actual practice. I am very excited about my personal realizations in this process. I know there are three kids that know and love the process of what we do as museum educators. More personally important, as a guide to the process of discovery of these guidelines and definitions with the students, I found the streamlining and simplification of how I understand my job currently has given me a new confidence in my ambiguous title. I know how to summarize some of what I do, and it creates room for me to grow professionally. The certainty of what I currently understand has solidified a foundation for me to begin building on my current methods. I am ready to start reading again, and I'd love to hear from/interact with other museum educators/curators/managers/interpreters/directors about their reflections on practice.