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On Museum 2.0 Seema Rao asks why museum educators are so undervalued in the context of a question she was asked about the difference between a Sip and Paint session and a class on marbling technique.
She answers by noting that Sip and Paint sessions are focused on the final product while learning an artistic technique is about teaching you the process with the goal of empowering you to make it your own. However, they are intentionally designed to look the same to help learners feel comfortable with the experience.
Sip and Paints are product focused, in a sense. They prove to participants there is a simple set of steps to get something. It’s closer to learning to write a letter. Sure, we all have different handwriting, but we are essentially communicating the same sound. Much of modern and contemporary art, particularly, is often about communicating an “a” by drawing a cow, or rather coming up with new forms of communication. Teaching you to paint a sunflower step by step will not get you closer to appreciating the innovations of Van Gogh, largely because you’re skipping right past being innovative.
Museum educators working with adults, though, know adults yearn structure. Society rewards the structured in school and work. So, they come up with projects that mimic the safety of Sip and Paints, projects though that don’t have one single end-point. They safely allow adults places to not follow the rules or forget there are rules at all.
Rao goes on to mention that museum education departments are typically the most under-resourced area of their institutions, to the point there is often an expectation that they execute their operations with volunteers. This immediately put me in mind of the debate that has arisen about the Art Institute of Chicago “firing” their volunteer docents. I half wondered if she weren’t making an oblique reference to that situation.
The Art Institute was phasing out their docent program with the plan of replacing them with paid educators. The Art Institute had required quite a bit of their docents in terms of engaging in a long probationary period and engaging in research projects. It was acknowledged that these could prove impediments to diversifying the composition of the docent corps. Unfortunately, while paying people for their labor and working to diversify the composition of the education staff were positive steps, there was also a perception that the museum was dismissing 82 of their most avid supporters.
From reading Rao’s post, I think she would appreciate that the Art Institute of Chicago’s docents had invested so much time into educating themselves about the collection, but would be just as happy that the museum was directing financial resources into education rather than depending on the passion of volunteers.
“What’s the solution? One is that educators need to stand up and show their work, show the challenges, and highlight the hard work behind the scenes. “