USF's Museum Blog

Sheila Pressley and Emily Jennings Empower Museum Educators at the de Young

By Lauren Garnese

To continue the tradition of introducing new faculty to the program, we sat down with the professors of our brand new Museum Education course, Sheila Pressley, and Emily Jennings. This class is being offered this Spring 2016 and held at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.


Sheila Pressley (left) and Emily Jennings (right) teaching the Museum Education Practicum on site at the de Young Museum.

Shelia Pressley, Director of Education at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, received her MA in Art History from San Francisco State University and has been an educator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for 30 years, getting her start as an intern. Emily Jennings is the Manager of School and Teacher Programs at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to teaching this course?

Sheila Pressley: I’ve been a museum educator for 30 years at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. I have gone from running programs on the floor to overseeing programs, to dealing much more with the administration, fundraising and directing the programs.

Emily Jennings: I started as an intern in 2001, and joined the staff in 2003. My original paid position here at the museum was as a grant funded writer for the Get Smart with Art curriculum. That was a very fortunate opportunity that allowed me to explore the needs of K-12 schools, and then correspond that to the collections. That has been the lifeblood of what we do. The curriculum is fashioned around empowerment, and we’ve been fortunate in the last ten years to look at the indicators and outcomes that show us that we are actually empowering students through the engagement with the museum.


Sheila: When I was an intern, I worked with a program called the Museum Ambassador Program, which hires high school students (at that point students living below the poverty level) to learn about art at the museum and go back out into the community and talk about art and do very deep community engagement. This was in 1985, and it was pretty unusual at that point to have such a program. I was very excited to see how art history which I had studied as an undergrad could be used for social justice and the community — getting these kids jobs and job skills and empowering them. I think a lot of our work is about empowering people.

What is your vision for the Museum Education course?

Emily: As museum educators “in the trenches,” we are going to make sure that everything is really grounded in application, from the way we are structuring the reading experiences to the final outcomes. Sheila and I want to start having relationships with the students early on and hear your ideas about museum education. We want to focus on how we bridge the growth of family programs and school programs, build programs that meet the needs of millennials and look at issues around access and integration. Also, we want to assess where we are with teen programs on a large scale. The Ambassadors program has inspired many museums across the country to do this type of service. But, we are also looking at how to build that beyond the forty or sixty students that get to have that life-changing experience into an opportunity that hosts 300-1000 students a year, in a meaningful way.

Museum Ambassadors_0

Museum Ambassador Program, Photograph courtesy of de Young Museum.

That’s the real vision for the course. We are definitely spending a lot of time looking at the readings and identifying what we feel is substantial for the field. We also want to give all of the students a chance to get in and curate the readings as well. Sheila and I will be leading discussion sessions that we’ll pre-populate with readings, but we are also going to have a dialogue and leave space for students to suggest new readings to bring to the class. It’s going to be a much more powerful experience if we all have a shared understanding of excellence in the field.

Sheila: This approach comes right out of the philosophy of our programs here at the museum, so it’s really great.

Emily: Another component of the way we fashioned our class is that we will spend time in the galleries almost every single session, with students teaching each other. That is a real challenge as you progress from an entry level person that might be lucky enough to teach in the galleries every day, to a position that is more focused on programming. The proof is in the pudding that you need to keep an active teaching practice, so we’re going to be instilling that in every one. It is important to get up there and experiment with how you are asking questions about objects, how you are leading a conversation, how are you pairing objects together, in a way that is meaningful and provocative.


Dedric Lupe (’16) and Allison Pohl (’16) in front of Gerhard Richter’s Strontium (2005) in the de Young lobby.

We’ve covered a lot of educational theory writings in our History and Theory of Museums course; what type of readings should we expect for the course?

Emily: It will be a combination of looking at the tried and true texts that form our foundation as a discipline, and also asking “what does the field need in terms of authorship in the next ten to fifteen years, and where is there exciting work being done now?” We want students to leave knowing that you have a lot of agency within the field. It’s a wonderful place to work because if you have the interest, and you voice it, quite often you have an opportunity.

Sheila: Museum education is a hugely growing field. And it’s becoming much more softly defined, so it’s not just strictly school kids and public education, now it’s engaging the community. Having a strong background in museum education can really help people get jobs in a lot of different areas in museums, particularly around museums and technology, even marketing and fundraising. So it’s a great time to be a museum educator.

Another thing we wanted to mention was how happy we are that we are able to teach the class here at the museum. The whole idea of the importance of museums and museum education stems from the power of the original art object and the interaction of an individual with the art object. We want our students to have this experience and observe and share it with other people. And, sometimes that gets lost, particularly in technology.

Emily: I think that is a good response to how much theory is going to come into the class. Theory is really awesome, and often it can be a guiding light, but it needs to be tested with application.

Sheila: Which reminds me, another thing that Emily’s practice, in particular, is all about, is prototyping, testing and evaluating, to make sure that what you’re doing is working. Not just saying “Oh, we’ve got a program; it’s up and running; this many students are coming through; it’s fully funded; it’s great;” but constantly evaluating and looking at what is happening in the gallery with the interaction with kids. Our students will learn to evaluate programs, and we will address how to identify what we mean by effectiveness, and then how to measure that.

That is an important topic to cover, and one I don’t think we will learn throughout our other courses.

Emily: Yes, evaluation is a field that can be really meaningful, and it’s also expanding. Science museums set the trend thirty years ago with doing evaluation around everything, but I think that again says why museum education is at such an exciting time right now. More and more people are trying to develop the tools to evaluate the qualitative work that’s being done.

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