Teaching for Independence: Empowering Learning in the Art Museum


Guest author: Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum, and Founding Editor at ArtMuseumTeaching.com

A couple weeks ago here at the Portland Art Museum, I had a unique opportunity to work with a group of students visiting from neighboring Portland State University as part of their Freshman Inquiry course entitled “The Work of Art,” led by artist/educator Sarah Wolf Newlands.  This multidisciplinary course examines the ‘work’ that goes into artistic production, but goes way beyond that to explore the role art plays in our lives.  As the course site describes:

“It looks at the work art does in the world — how it shapes, reflects, disguises, complicates, challenges, or brings reality to our assumptions about the world…. What are the artistic levers with which we can move our world forward? What can looking through the lens of ‘art’ at the products from a broad range of disciplines reveal about ourselves, our culture[s] and our society? How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How does art influence cultural change? How can we use the arts to build community?”

One of my own goals when working with groups of college students and adults in the galleries (and in the classroom) is always to break down the often rigid expectations of “what we do” in front of a work of art — moving past the assumptions that we need to behave a certain way or know something specific before we can have an experience with art. I also aim to teach for independence — an approach to our ‘work’ with art that empowers a participatory, learner-centered process of making meaning and attempts to break down the constructed hierarchies between teacher and learner, professor and student, expert and novice, institution and audience.

“The visitor’s response and experience come first, before the museum’s, before the history of art.” —Rika Burnham

For me, at its heart, teaching for independence asks that educators (whether in the museum, K-12 classroom, or university lecture hall) strive to facilitate deep, collective experiences with art that leave participants and learners better equipped to look, explore, question, and engage deeply on their own without always relying on the museum or an ‘expert’ to lead that process.

Opening Up the Learning Experience: An Hour with Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth

As the PSU students gathered in the gallery, we began with a quick discussion of “what does learning look like in an art museum” to establish an atmosphere of thinking and reflection.  Then, we dove head first into a 60-minute co-learning experience with a single work of art — Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth (2006). The experience was intended to be multi-modal, involving various ways of thinking and openly responding to the artwork in front of us– a process similar to other experiences about which I have written.


Here is a quick outline of our experience with Bradford’s piece  (and I always want to be clear that these tips and strategies are not ones that I necessarily invent, but are inspired by some of the ‘Jedi knights’ of museum education like Rika Burnham, to whom I am greatly indebted. I also do use some of these strategies repeatedly when I am in the galleries, since some are just exceptional ways to open-up an experience of freedom, comfort, creative looking, and excitement):

  • Looking:We began with 1 minute of quiet looking, then having students share their initial observations with a person sitting next to them.  We followed that with another minute of quiet looking, this time using a paper tube as a telescope to see the artwork differently — followed by more sharing with their neighbors about anything new they noticed.
  • Question: Students were asked to write down one question or wondering they had for this work of art.
  • 60-Second Sketch: Everyone spread out across the gallery and then had 60 seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge.  Students were asked to lay all of the sketches in the center of the gallery, walk around and see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interested them (and was not their own).
  • Sketching with Language: Students had several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by using only language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing. I call this “sketching with language,” something pulled from Jack Kerouac and his creative process.
  • Reading:In small groups, students shared their writing by reading it aloud– really honoring their writing by reading it directly instead of simply summarizing or paraphrasing it (which is what we too often do).
  • Conversation Extender: By this point, students have had some serious time to look at Bradford’s work, share and exchange ideas about what they see and what they think about it, and do some sketching and writing to deepen or even shift their interpretations.  To extend their conversations and spark further thought, each group received a small packet of historic photographs from the 1921 Tulsa race riots — an event that historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, and that has been connected to this work by Bradford.  Each group of students was simply asked to continue their conversation about the Bradford piece, yet to see how this added layer of historic images (powerful in their own right) might build or shift that conversation in any way. In talking about his own work, Bradford once says: “It’s about … tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath.”
  • Group Discussion: During this entire experience thus far, students have been building personal meaning or sharing their ideas in pairs or small groups. So to wrap up, each group brings their thoughts and insights to the full class as we spend the last 10-15 minutes in an open discussion about the artwork and our experience with it.


Learning to See Learning in the Art Museum

For me, much of the experience with this group of college students was about empowering them to learn to see learning in an art museum (and with a work of art) differently — to begin to see looking and learning with art in a more active, participatory way that also allows for shared authority around knowledge and interpretation.  To help me gain a better understanding of how (or whether) this happens, I invited students participating in the experience described above to send me an email with their reflections after their museum visit. Here are a few great insights from their reflections:

“Usually when I go to an art museum, the experience isn’t as fun and exciting. It’s hard for me to look at a work of art and really dissect it…. I probably will never get to just sit down in front of a work of art and analyze it with that many people again, and it was an awesome experience. Thank you for taking the time to teach our class fun tools that we can use in an art museum to really get the most out of our time there.”

“It was really cool to spend a solid hour just looking into what the piece could be about, what it could mean. I’m glad that you opened up the learning experience by allowing us to interpret the painting in our own way, then discuss with one other person, and then discuss in small groups. I think this allowed each student to really get the most out of what other students were understanding and interpreting from the work.”

“This experience was very enlightening because we learned so much from so little. It was profound to get so much out of little more than looking, thinking, and discussing.”

“It’s crazy how observing a piece for just a little longer than a glance can change your perspective of a piece and your understanding of it…. If more people were to do what we did today and take time to observe art, they would see it in totally new ways.”

This type of learner-centered, participatory meaning-making is something I continue to explore in the museum context, but I think it also has significant implications for how we conceive of art history teaching outside of the museum.  What if we allowed for more active, open-ended looking and exploration with art, and hold back some on the passive transfer of information?  What if we used drawing, movement, or creative writing as another way of looking deeply at art?  What if we really focused our teaching more on creating and supporting independent learners who see and think for themselves?



This post has also been published at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, a collaborative online forum for  reflecting on practice in the field of art museum education as well as connecting a growing community of educators, ideas, and resources around what we do in our practice of teaching.  

One response to “Teaching for Independence: Empowering Learning in the Art Museum”

  1. […] syllabi, blogged on everything from using varied digital technologies in the classroom to making museum experiences meaningful, and looked in-depth at key issues in our field (eg. our community college […]

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