By Linda Norris, Museum Maverick for the Western NY Session
Presenters as Activators
As a presenter, there are always those first few moments when you’re puzzling out a room full of participants: will they want to try activities? What will they find in common? Are they lively or will they stand there with their arms crossed?
My two big lessons as a presenter are:
- Start as you mean to continue. Don’t begin with a lecture if you want them to be lively discussants.
- Participants only give back the energy the presenter puts in the room. Bring it and they will too.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 1997 describes the creative process:
The emphasis in this workshop was on learning tools that can be used when participants were back at work—but not making them feel like tools, but like fun. What does fun look like? Check out the photos from this workshop and see. And always remember, there is no research anywhere that says any of us learn best by sitting and listening to a lecture. If you’re a presenter, think about different kinds of learners and consider individuals’ whole selves: their physicality, their emotions, their internal and external lives.
A key idea of this workshop was that creative combinations—creating mash-ups of different materials into something new are way to think more deeply about museum collections and community engagement.
For the first mash-up, small groups got an image from the collection, a group of songs to choose from and the theme of power—and then they had to write and perform a song that used all those together. What would you do given an Andy Warhol print of high heels, the theme of power and a choice of songs ranging from "Call Me Maybe" to "Uptown Funk"? Perhaps your group would do a great, women-centered "Uptown Funk" version about those high heels as power.
Mash-up #2 broadened out to include both current community issues specific audiences, and the painting collection (which ranged from medieval religious pieces to early 20th century American works. What issues are current in Western New York communities? Gentrification, loss of family farms, fracking, and immigration - are just a few of the topics considered. Small groups were assigned an artwork and a community issue and challenged to brainstorm a program or exhibit connecting those two seemingly disparate things.
The goal was to create a program or exhibit that really looked at that problem, using that artwork. An artwork you might dismiss for one reason or another became a key to unlocking new understandings. After all, aren’t Mary and Joseph in a religious painting refugees fleeing a repressive regime? A bucolic farm scene can be used to talk about everything from gentrification to right-to-farm laws. An interior showing a television led to a program idea for teenagers about the ways families communicate (or don’t).
In both mash-up activities, it was clear that the vital ingredient was the small group work. Groups were mixed each time, and we saw that different groupings led to new insights and new ideas. It’s a takeaway about how important it is to break out of our silos, both within and outside of our museums.
The entire day was filled with lots of laughter as participants enthusiastically dove into every challenge set to them. But it was serious fun. New problems arise in our communities and our nation every day—and museums can be centers for not just art appreciation, but centers for activism and change. Approaching our work as serious fun can make that happen.