What do you see that makes you say that?: Gallery Teaching in the (Online) Art History Classroom

Hallie Scott, Specialist, University Audiences at Hammer Museum

This post comes out of a presentation that I gave on the Hammer Museum’s Student Educator program at CAA in February 2020 as part of a session chaired by AHTR. The session focused on connections (and dissonances) between museums and classrooms. I was especially excited to take part because I often operate at this interstices in my current role as Specialist, University Audiences at the Hammer. Prior to entering museum education, I also spent several years on the opposite side of the museum/university divide as a graduate student in the PHD program at Graduate Center, CUNY and a Teaching Fellow in the Art History department of Brooklyn College.

In my presentation, I discussed the Student Educator program as an example of the ways that we strive to center student voice and mentor professional development at the Hammer. The program trains and employs UCLA undergrad and graduate students to work as gallery educators who facilitate the majority of the museum’s public and private tours. I posited that the program not only invites student voice and offers mentorship, but also makes gallery conversations more accessible to diverse audiences and decenters hierarchies that privilege curatorial knowledge. 

So much has changed in the world and in museums since CAA in February. I can’t begin to adequately address all of the political, social, and cultural changes here so I will stick to a reflection on the Student Educator’s recent shift to digital conversations about art. In the past few months, the educators have transitioned to facilitating conversations about works of art with adult and K-12 groups on Zoom. While the bodily relationship to works of art is lost in the digital sphere, aspects of the educator’s facilitation have become richer and more nuanced. They introduce historic and thematic comparisons, show images that give greater context to the works, and include detail shots that sometimes bring viewers closer to the artworks than was possible in the physical space of the museum. Witnessing these digital tours, I am increasingly aware of the ways in which they parallel teaching art history in the classroom—the process of guiding conversation through a succession of images and showing juxtapositions that reveal new insights. However, the digital tours are student-led, rather than directed by professors, and they allow for more open-ended interpretation. These parallels and inversions have led me to new questions about potential intersections between gallery teaching and art history classes: What can art history learn from gallery teaching? Can gallery teaching strategies be brought into a classroom? What could a gallery teaching assignment look like?

A brief overview of the Student Educator program might provide some context for these questions. The Hammer initiated the program in 2001, replacing a volunteer docent corps that consisted primarily of older white women, as a means to better engage UCLA students and diversify its teaching staff. In its current iteration, the program employs fourteen undergrad and graduate students who serve as the Hammer’s core teaching staff by leading tours, supporting family programs, and contributing to digital educational initiatives. Student Educators come from diverse disciplines, including art, English, developmental psychology, political science, theater, and neuroscience. They participate in ongoing trainings that explore special exhibitions and collections, strategies for leading conversations about works of art, and best practices for engaging different audiences in person and digitally. They are responsible for the entire process of creating a tour, from research to execution, and lead an average of three to six tours per month. They incorporate their own unique perspectives into their teaching and cover an array of social, cultural, and political themes. 

The Student Educators follow a dialogue-based gallery pedagogy that emphasizes collaborative meaning making over presenting knowledge from a singular perspective. They begin facilitation by prompting visitors to look closely and slowly at an artwork and then to share initial observations. The educators then pose questions that lead visitors to expand upon their observations, build on one another’s insights, and notice new details in the work. Educators further the conversation by offering contextual information that deepens the group’s understanding and dialogue about the work. On Zoom, educators often end with a comparison, asking participants to reflect on similarities, differences, and thematic ties between the works discussed.

Although the majority of the Student Educators come from disciplines outside of art history, the art historians within the group have reflected on how the program has altered their thinking about their field. Nathaniel Bench, a third-year Student Educator and soon to be graduate of UCLA’s Art History department, writes “I think that the SE program creates some much-needed space for thinking seriously about how to apply our skills, as art historians, to lived experiences.” Chloe Landis, who is completing her MA in Egyptology, shares: 

“One of my biggest takeaways from being a Student Educator is how through our close looking strategies and discussion based tours, we break down the hierarchies of knowledge within the galleries. Even when touring works that I have spent hours in front of, I always have a visitor that brings a new perspective to the work and broadens my thinking beyond standard art historical practices. I’ve even used themes from discussions in the galleries as launching points for my own research, which I never would have considered if it hadn’t been for the visitors.”

Nate and Chloe’s insights echo goals that many have written about on AHTR— offering students opportunities to authentically apply art historical research, making the discipline more relevant to their lived experiences, and developing alternatives to the standard research paper format. Their comments also underscore the value of learning how to teach, which is so often disregarded in academia. 

The Zoom tours and student reflections inspired me to draft a hypothetical assignment that translates aspects of the Student Educator’s gallery teaching process for a classroom setting. I recommend discussing the suggested reading by Elliot Kai-Kee & Rika Burnham and modeling a conversation (or going on a virtual or in person field trip to a museum that uses dialogue-based gallery teaching) before giving the assignment. I have admittedly not tried this in an academic setting, but, if you have done something similar, or if you take any of the ideas below, I would love to hear about how it goes in the comments. 

Gallery Teaching Assignment:

In this assignment you will facilitate a conversation about an artwork with your peers. In preparation for this assignment, read Elliot Kai-Kee & Rika Burnham, “The Art of Teaching in the Museum,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 39 (2005): 65-76.  

  • Choose an artwork that has not been covered in class to focus on for this assignment. (A few things to consider: If you are doing it in a museum, it should have enough space around it for people to gather. If you are doing it digitally, you should have hi-res images of the work so that it will be easy to view details when projected.)
  • Spend a few minutes closely looking at the work. Make a list of your initial observations. 
  • Research the work and develop a list of key visual and contextual points that are useful to understanding it. When making the visual list, keep your initial observations in mind—others will likely notice them too. 
  • Develop a list of questions. Initial questions should encourage close looking and visual observation, followed by questions that lead viewers to notice other details, and to expand on their analysis. Examples: 
    • Spend a minute looking closely at this work. What do you notice about the artwork? 
    • What do you see that makes you say that? 
    • What details have we not discussed yet? 
    • We’ve talked about the subject, but what are you noticing about the way the artist uses paint? Can you expand on that idea? 
    • Here is a piece of information about the artist/work [insert info]. How does that information change our understanding of the work?
  • If you are doing this assignment in a digital learning environment, put together a ppt that includes details of the work and, ideally, an installation view so that viewers can get a sense of scale. 
  • Use your questions to facilitate a 15-20 minute conversation about the work with your peers. 
  • Option: Do this with two works in comparison. Spend about 15 minutes on each work, and then conclude by looking at them together. 

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