What Inspires Your Museum-Based Teaching?

It was five years ago, in 2011, that Karen Shelby and I sat across from each other in an office at Baruch College, CUNY, and bemoaned the lack of a peer group where we could share thoughts, ideas, concerns, and peer support around pedagogy in Art History. I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow in my first semester of U.S. classroom teaching, and Karen was a pretty new Assistant Professor who had just won a Whiting Award for her great work as an instructor. We both loved what we did, and from these shared conversations was born AHTR, a genesis I’ve written about plenty before in places like Art21 (here and here).

During those early conversations, I explained to Karen how the place I had come from before my dive back into graduate school–four years as a staff member and educator at the Guggenheim Museum–had been a very different teaching experience. At the museum, we had weekly teaching workshops; we had peer discussions; we traded lesson plans; we helped each other devise tour routes and open ended questions; we talked about data-driven assessment of our work (that was the moment in which a truly awesome educator and colleague, Rebecca Herz, led a team at the museum in a pioneering study of literacy in the arts). We also had mentorship (and I still count Ryan Hill among my very best mentors–and not only because he introduced me to my husband!). In short, we had a rich and vibrant community where teaching was valued by those we worked alongside (though don’t get me started on departmental hierarchies in museums that routinely dismiss the work of Education as secondary to Curatorial…). Karen and I decided we needed this within the academy, and we began to build it by launching AHTR. When we realized it would be greatly enriched by partners who had strengths we didn’t, we were incredibly lucky to welcome Parme Giuntini, Nara Hohensee, Renee McGarry, Ginger Spivey, and Kathy Wentrack, and this is the core team who lead AHTR today, along with advisors and mentors for whom we’re truly thankful.

It was in the spirit of remembering this early history of AHTR that I reached out at the end of the spring semester and asked a few colleagues and friends in museum education to briefly describe what inspires their museum-based teaching. Below, you’ll find their responses. Thanks to everyone who participated!

Pablo PIcasso. La Moulin de la Galette. 1900. The Solomon. R Guggenheim Museum. My favorite work to teach from in that collection.

Pablo Picasso. La Moulin de la Galette. 1900. The Solomon. R Guggenheim Museum. (My favorite work to teach from in that collection.)

Your name: David A. Bowles

What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): I lead K-12 School Programs at the Met.

What is your resource? Art Museum Teaching: A forum for reflecting on practice.

Why do you love it? There aren’t a lot of online resources devoted to rigorous yet informal perspectives on best practices in museum education. I love this resource because it speaks my language, and offers me opportunities to reflect on my own work every week or so.

Anything else you want to share? I wrote a post for the blog last year on using social media as a tool for reflective practice, and doing so A) pushed me to finally write something about my work and “get it out there,” and B) helped me connect with new colleagues digitally.


Your name: Jess Van Nostrand

What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): Develop public programming related to the visual arts

What is your resource? Relationships with artists

Why do you love it? Relationships build and develop over time, just like strong public programming; they cannot be rushed or forced. And no one person has all the best ideas, so calling upon inspiring makers and utilizing their skills is the key to innovative and memorable public programs. I like to think that my relationships with artists are the ideal example of a mutually-beneficial arrangement, one in which we both discover new ideas with the help of the other.

Anything else you want to share? I don’t do any museum-based teaching per se and come from a curatorial background, so perhaps this is why my approach to museum education comes from working closely with artists as a first step.


Your name: Miriam Bader

What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to
share): I am the Director of Education at the Tenement Museum in New York City and am fascinated by the nexus of education, technology, and where past meets present.

What is your resource? Visitors

Why do you love it? It’s the visitors that inspire to me to teach. They make every tour at the museum different and bring new perspectives to the material. Without visitors, the museum would just be a dollhouse. With them, it is transformed into an dynamic learning experience where connections are made across time, culture, and geography.

Anything else you want to share?
Museums are the perfect complement to classroom study. I strive to make it easier for students to visit and take advantage of this amazing resource.


Your name: Sheetal Prajapati

What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): In Museums: Assistant Director, Learning and Artists Initiatives @MoMA, which means I collaborate with artists to develop public engagement experiences for museum audiences and run a robust learning programs for adults (50-60 programs/year). Outside of museums: I curate the conversation series a annual conference on social practice called Open Engagement, which took place in Oakland in 2016. I’m also co-authoring  a report for the Art + Feminism wikipedi-athon group on recommendations for best practices for inclusion and diversity for their events and resources.  I am an artist too.

What is your resource? The resource I am sharing is a chart, Artists Engaging in Social Change (attached here).  The link to it online is here  and it is included in a longer text here. I found this chart when I was developing the reading list for a class I am currently teaching online called Theory of Engagement and Applied Research at Moore College of Art and Design (Philadelphia). No signficant explanation needed because its a great chart.

Why do you love it? I love it for two reasons. First, its a great chart. Great charts allow you to place existing knowledge within the structure offered and learn or understand something new. In this case, it was really interesting to place my work with artists at the museum within this framework.  As a museum collaborating with artists for engagement, I saw some interesting connections between our pedagogical goals at the museum and the potential for impact the museum could actually have, especially when working with artists as instigators or catalysts for new ways of working. The second reason I love this chart is because it places art well outside the walls of institutions and starts to broaden the definition of art as we understand it at places like museums.  Like history and science museums who have long championed the value of their objects/work within a contemporary context – both as a narrative to the present and visions of the future – so art museums might want to consider how this kind of approach could provider spaces for alternative or broader dialog around art and artists.  This has great implications for our approaches to teaching and interpretation in museums today.

Anything else you want to share? Thinking about Art Thinking  by Luis Camnitzer.


Your name: Mike Murawski

What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): I am currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, where I have the privilege of working with an incredible team to build connections with our community in meaningful and relevant ways.  This position allows me to work across program areas, think creatively about audience and public engagement, and advance ways to bring community voices into the fabric of our institution and its collections & exhibitions.  Outside of the museum, I enjoy being outdoors here in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, hiking or camping with my family as much as possible.

What is your resource? Being involved in teaching for the past 20 years (10 of those years spent in an art museum context), I often find myself going back to certain creative resources to inspire my teaching practice and to spark new and sometimes unexpected ways of looking at, perceiving, and experiencing art. One of these creative inspirations continues to be music.  When I am preparing to teach and in the research phase, I almost always take a dive into the music of the time period of the artist and their creative process. It doesn’t always surface in my actual teaching, although I do enjoy bringing music and sound into the galleries when it feels directly relevant to the art and to the goals of my teaching.

Why do you love it? Wynton Marsallis once said that the purpose of jazz is “to help us listen better.”  I’ve always applied that to my own teaching practice in art museums, considering the purpose of art as helping us see better and more deeply perceive the world around us.  I’m even more curious about whether music can help us see and perceive better – or, at least, in a new and more complex way. Exploring music as a resource for teaching has brought me to connect with the creative processes of diverse musical artists such as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman, and John Cage as well as 1890s French cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert or the deeply moving Spanish flamenco vocals of singer Chinin de Triana.  I think, overall, music and acoustic experiences can productively shape a more robust and multisensory encounter with an artwork, deepening our understanding of the creative process and moving us away from studying visual art in isolation from other creative acts.  It has also lead to some really fun and unexpected moments in the galleries, as learners explore the layers of a Jackson Pollock painting while listening to the structured spontaneity of Dizzie Gillespie; or as they gaze intensely at Franz Kline’s sweeping black and white forms in his large canvas Bethlehem (1959-60) while hearing Morton Feldman’s 1962 experimental composition entitled “For Franz Kline.”

Anything else you want to share?  For museum educators and those teaching art in a classroom setting, I think it’s so important to playfully explore the full cultural context of the art we teach.  Not just music, but bringing in other forms like dance and poetry to challenge the disciplinary boundaries that traditionally separate and isolate art forms.


Your name: Sara Bodinson

What you do in a museum (and outside of a museum if you want to share): Director of Interpretation, MoMA

What is your resource? I don’t teach per se, but would recommend the following resources (some of which I have worked on and others not):

MoMA’s free MOOCs geared towards K-12 teachers:

In addition, the MoMA Learning site looks at MoMA’s collection through the lens of themes. It used to be a site geared towards teachers but we re-tooled it to be for students, teachers, and lifelong learners.

One response to “What Inspires Your Museum-Based Teaching?”

  1. DeAnna Skedel says:

    Fabulous resource! Thank you!

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