On my daily tour of the galleries at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA), I joined a group of elementary school kids for a tour. They sat by “Untitled,” a painting by Cy Twombly, an abstract piece with scribbles and smears of paint. I have always thought of Twombly as an artists’ artist, appreciated mostly by artists and scholars rather than the average viewer. I was expecting the kids to giggle at his work, asking “Is this art?” or saying “I can do this!”, the usual clichés assigned to modern and contemporary art. Instead, they sat and observed the art attentively and discussed it for thirty minutes. The art teacher posed some questions using the Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) for engaging visitors: “What is happening in this picture?” started a discussion in which the kids made some surprising discoveries. This was a true demonstration of SJMA’s tagline, “See What You Think”: letting go of previous expectations, exercising curiosity, and developing critical and creative thinking.
I remembered Picasso’s words: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” This was a lesson for me to stay open-minded, listening and respecting the ideas of visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
Modern and contemporary art can seem threatening or inaccessible to the general public. Why would a family choose to spend time in a contemporary art museum when San Jose has so many other attractions? Why would a busy adult take the time to visit? How do you convince people to enter a museum and appreciate something that may seem foreign to them? Dr. John Falk, a museum researcher, claims people will only come to a museum if they feel that it satisfies their unique needs and interests. In order for SJMA to remain relevant to a variety of identities and backgrounds, it goes beyond simply displaying art, acting as a social and cultural center where everyone can contribute their unique ideas.
Creating and designing an interactive visitor experience is a great opportunity for me to incorporate everything I have learned, seen, and read in the past year into one tangible tool that connects people to the art and to each other. The SJMA’s Art Packs are an interactive art lesson in a bag: they consist of art supplies and art games, encouraging observation, discussion and creativity. My redesign incorporates plenty of interactivity to appeal to new expectations, while predicting future ones.
Lucy Larson, SJMA’s director of education (and my supervisor) follows an inquiry-based model of teaching in SJMA’s various education programs. This approach is based in part on the theory of constructivism, which argues that we generate knowledge and meaning from a combination of our experiences (what we see) and our ideas (what we bring). “Visitors build knowledge as they go along. They engage with the material at their own pace, and build on what they know. Without an authority telling them what to think, it empowers the visitor to come up with their own ideas and create their own meaning. It makes the visitor experience much more powerful”.
I adopted the inquiry-based learning for the process of content development and design for the Art Pack. Through surveys and interviews, I began my quest to understand the needs and interests of the visitors. By observing visitors and asking everyone from museum directors and managers to gallery guides, art teachers, and visitors I learned about different perspectives and created possible scenarios. The solution is the “See What You Think” Art Bag, complete with art supplies and interactive art games. These allow the visitor to participate in finding elements in the galleries, practicing art terms, discussing ideas with their peers, creating art and poetry, and most importantly, having fun! After weeks of development we finally tested out our prototype in the gallery, surveying and interviewing the users. So far, the responses were very enthusiastic. In one case, I handed out the prototype, and noticed the family was playing, drawing, talking, and spending more than an hour in the same gallery. Watching the Art Packs in action is a rewarding experience, and it is quite satisfying to know that these bags will serve the museum for the next 2-3 years.
Visitors value art and museums more when they feel valued. On the museum website, executive director Susan Krane states, “Open participation and creativity are in SJMA’s DNA.” My hope is that the learning will make a difference in people’s perceptions and spread creativity and the love of art in an informal and fun way.