Friday, November 24, 2017

Gratitude and Generosity

It’s that time of year when we tend to think about and express our gratitude more often than usual. We are grateful for the love and support of family and friends, for good health, food in the cupboard, for kindness and understanding from others. We also tend to be more generous this time of year, serving a meal at a shelter, dropping money in the kettle of the bell ringers, or writing a check to a favorite charity. We certainly hope our museums will be on the receiving end of others’ generosity with a year-end gift.

While valuing both gratitude and generosity, I’ve gradually decided that gratitude is relatively easy; generosity takes work. Generosity, it seems, is a more demanding, active, and compassionate form of gratitude. With gratitude someone else’s generosity or a lucky moment has enhanced us. We feel grateful to be on the receiving end of someone’s good will, gift, attention, or extra effort. How hard is that? On the other hand, when we have given up time, wisdom, or money, our generosity enhances the situation or wellbeing of someone else, not ourselves. Generosity is our giving without the expectation of someone else’s gratitude.

We are likely to think of people like Bill and Melinda Gates when we think of being generous. There is a link between generosity and resources with a long-standing connection between generosity and the elite. In fact, the origin of the word generosity is from the Latin word meaning of noble birth.

We don’t, however, need to be rich to be generous. True generosity is the quality of giving good things to others freely and open-heartedly. We can be generous with time, attention, advice, donating our body’s blood or organ, patience, kindness, hospitality, mentoring, money, or service to others. Everyone, even very young children and people with seemingly few resources can be generous to others.

Generosity is a disposition to do well towards others. As an inclination to act in a certain way, generosity is something we can all practice. While it takes more time and effort than a polite thank you, we can all do an errand for someone else, let someone get ahead of us in line, and remember the anniversaries of loss and suffering. We can live in generous ways in everyday moments, giving more than we think we have to give, sharing more than may feel convenient, or giving what’s needed with respect.

Giving is both an individual and a social act. When we give, we are contributing in some way to others in a social network, to our neighbors, members of our congregation, someone we tutor, a homeless family receiving a meal, or refugees living in a camp on another continent. The act of giving connects us to others and contributes to a stronger social network that may be small and near, or distant and large.

It might sound like a Hallmark greeting card to say that generosity gives twice–at least. Our mentoring, financial contribution, time listening, or doing a favor contributes to someone else’s wellbeing. In return, these actions refresh what we have allowing us to recognize our capabilities, enjoy a sense of purpose, or appreciate that we are in a position to give. Giving further serves our enlightened self-interest and how we see ourselves.

Of greatest interest to me is a generosity of spirit, giving that depends less on the money we have or the opportunities and privilege we have received from others. In that sense, it is more available to more of us and with fewer limits. Having money to act on behalf of others or in the interest of our community is not required.

Generosity Has Such Wide Arms
Although generosity does not necessarily beget generosity, it does spread good will, redistribute advantages, and create openings for change. When museums cultivate a spirit of generosity within themselves addition to encouraging supporters to give time and money to their missions, they create larger openings that invite and inspire people and ideas.

In addition to playing a valued role in their communities, museums’ generosity can also help strengthen communities. Museum resources like space can be a meeting place, event space, or even platform for friends and partners to support their friends and partners. Museum expertise in problem solving, event planning, or creating interactive experiences can help community groups meet their goals, and not just advance those of the museum. Helping partners meet their goals makes stronger partners and a stronger community.

The museum field is a generous field. We share ideas and lessons learned about what worked and didn’t. I know this first hand. Without the generosity of strangers in museums who became friends and colleagues, I would not have managed to start a museum, expand a museum, help museums grow, or write a blog. Such helpful, generous guidance from so many is a model for me and others to make introductions, share resources, and give away ideas. Because any idea is inspired by the generosity of others sharing their ideas, what they have seen, heard, and thought before, giving away ideas provides others with fresh ideas for their thinking. 

In our museums and professional service groups, a generous spirit helps build a culture of respect and acceptance. This spirit allows us to give someone the benefit of the doubt, tolerate ideas and behaviors that may be at odds with our own, listen to someone with who we disagree as if they might be right. This act could inspire someone to go out of their way for someone who needs, not expecting anything in return.

Gratitude is appreciating life’s gifts. Generosity is sharing life’s gifts. We need gratitude. But we REALLY need generosity. We could probably survive as a species and a society if we didn’t feel and express gratitude. There would, undoubtedly, be consequences of not hearing someone say thank you, or not opening an envelope to read heartfelt thanks. We could not, however, survive without generosity of spirit, open-hearted sharing and giving.

Of course, acting generosity does not, for a moment, mean not feeling and expressing gratitude as well.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Museum Environment as Teacher

What does this space say about learning?
(Photo credit: Atelier of water Energy: Agriturismo Il Ginepro)
Twenty-five years ago I first came across the image of the environment as the third teacher in a brochure for The Hundred Languages of Children exhibit from the Municipal Schools in Reggio Emilia (IT). I was intrigued and delighted with the idea that the environment, along with parents and the teacher, was understood to promote the child’s well-being, offer learning opportunities, and support independence, in beautiful, thoughtfully arranged settings.  

The idea wasn’t new to me. My graduate work had focused on the relationship between humans and the environment, between behavior and space. This vivid image, however, expanded my thinking and inspired me to imagine ways in which museum learning spaces could be harnessed for learning.  

The Environments of Our Lives
Environments are the lived-in containers of our lives. They are the spaces we inhabit, that shelter and protect us, inspire and give us pleasure. They make both daily life and grand occasions possible. At all points in the lifespan, environments represent an emergent context and force that shape behavior, inform choices, and deliver information.

The physical environment is more than the shape of a space or its full volume. It is more than the arrangement of furniture, the materials and finishes that cover surfaces, the combinations of walls and openings, light and sound. Our environment surrounds us. We engage with it directly, on many levels, and throughout our lives.

What does this space say about learning?
(Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit: Vergeront)
Contexts layered with meaning, environments signal what goes on in a space and at successive scales. This is a playground; that is a place to worship; this is a place for commercial exchange, that is a public gathering space, a place for sports, or a private, personal space. Scale and the configuration of space; qualities of light, sound, and smells; materials and surfaces add to the broad clues of function. Is this school welcoming? Is this park safe? Can I accomplish my tasks? Can I stay here and explore?

Although clearly physical, built and natural environments are also emotional, social, and cognitive spaces. They affect us across a range of emotions, making us feel at ease or anxious, competent or inadequate, motivated or discouraged. Some spaces encourage social interactions; they bring us together, facilitate connections, and invite conversations; and other spaces isolate us. We can be intellectually invigorated by our surroundings, intrigued by materials and objects that encourage us to ask questions, have ideas, investigate, and pursue choices.

An environment may be consistent with our expectations, facilitate our intentions, and support our capabilities. Sometimes, however, its goals–or those of its creators–are at odds with our own. The interaction of features, materials, light, and sound can be problematic; they can challenge our understanding of where we are and how to find our way. While soft, ambient sounds can create a soothing backdrop to conversation, loud sounds amplified by hard surfaces make conversation difficult, especially for people with limited hearing.

Surroundings with a sense of soul that resonate deeply with our own invite us to linger while a soulless container hurries us to leave. Across all domains, environments can facilitate or interfere with a feeling of well-being, a sense of accomplishment, rewarding interactions with others, and bold imaginings.

Ever-present, Reaching, and Teaching
While the concept of the environment as the third teacher emerges from the schools in Reggio, this idea is neither limited to children nor to schools and Italy.

Art, history, science, natural history, or children’s museums, historic houses or zoos; indoor or outdoor, purpose built or adapted spaces are functional and experiential entities with purpose. At least since the 1992 publication of the Association of American Museum’s Excellence and Equity, education has been recognized as central to museums' public service.

What does this space say about learning?
(Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota. Photo credit: Vergeront)
Museums advance their learning interests and serve their learners using a wide array of opportunities and resources. Text and labels; demonstrations, lectures and programs; objects and collections; curricula and interpretation; blogs and digital resources; phenomena and planned discovery are familiar approaches to learning in museums.

Museum visitors, however, are not just learners when they are in a classroom or reading a label. Like all learners, they are minds-on, senses-on, hands-on learners engaging directly with their surroundings and with others wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Even when shopping, standing in line, or relaxing in areas a museum doesn’t think of as educational, visitors are sensing, thinking, and learning.

And the environment is ever-present, reaching and teaching them. Space and scale; sound and light; visual and physical access; materials, textures, colors, and objects are encouraging exploration, facilitating connections with others and with ideas, and supporting meaning making. Conversely, these same features may be discouraging curiosity, interfering with connections, and overwhelming the senses. 

The environment may speak louder than words, labels, and intentions to children and adults in how the museum:

• … is welcoming, creates a sense of belonging, puts them at ease; and assures safety;
• … values learners as competent, active agents in their own learning;
• … supports values such as creativity, caring, inclusiveness, or experimentation;
• … engages the learner’s curiosity and interests and removes barriers to participation;
• … encourages connections and promotes enjoyable interactions among visitors and with staff;
• … increases comfort and relieves fatigue;
• … creates ways for learners to see traces of their doing, thinking, and learning;
• … offers opportunities to explore, browse, reflect;
• … values alternative perspectives and learning in different ways;
• … creates moments of delight and beauty.

Harnessing the Environment for Learning
There are points in a museum’s life when it does focus deliberately on its environment from various perspectives. Typically this is when a museum constructs a new building, remodels a space, reconfigures the entry and lobby, opens an exhibition, adds a maker space, or upgrades exhibit components. A museum team, often working with architects and designers, considers the size and shape of a space, how it must work for its primary purpose and users, adjacencies and flow of spaces, the look and feel of the space, the furniture and equipment needed. After the opening, the space shifts to operations mode with regular cleaning and scheduled maintenance. Taking stock of the space is unlikely until the next remodel.

But spaces are dynamic. As living systems that morph over time, affected by use, misuse, and inevitable micro
What does this space say about learning?
(NYSCi. Photo credit: Andrew Kelly)
changes, museum spaces evolve. Strategic goals change, program schedules and formats are adjusted, visitor patterns shift, and new technologies arrive as the old disappear. Some spaces groan from over use, some are under-used, and some attract unwelcome activities.

The environment is an essential element of a museum’s learning value and its public service. Harnessing this great potential to serve its learners relies on a museum understanding its own learning interests, being attuned to the environment, and integrating these insights into museum-wide procedures, practices, and decisions. This on-going work requires the perspective of people from across the museum: designers, educators, visitor service, operations, and facilities staff. And visitors. The following practices work together and inform one another to help accomplish this.

1. Align museum goals and interests with the environment. Museums have goals, values, and guiding principles. They may aspire to be a more connected community, inspire innovation, strengthen families, or promote wellbeing. By identifying examples of how these driving principles can–and do–play out in the environment, a museum builds a shared vocabulary around the environment as teacher that contributes to experience planning, operations, and increasing impact. (See # 2, 4 & 5)  

2. Build space planning into experience planning. Each step in experience planning is an opening to focusing on how qualities and features of the environment can support learning. For instance, if a museum wants the visitor to try something new or take a risk, what conditions must be present for someone to experience a situation as safe, recognize new pathways, and perceive invitations to be creative? (See # 1 & 3)

3. Design, Not Rules and Signs. What museums hope to encourage visitors to do can be facilitated or obstructed by the environment; even a single feature can interfere with safety, comfort, or access. Spaces may create a bottleneck; invite racing, chasing, climbing; tempt leaning on cases. A museum can make rules and put up signs. Or it can address the problem through design solutions and decisions about the environment. (See # 2 & 4)

What does this space say about learning?
(Photo credit: New-York Historical Society Museum and Library)
4. Modify spaces based on information. Understanding how a space is informing the learning that takes place emerges from information and insights. Observation, asking questions, and listening to visitors help identify the physical qualities that encourage learning. Where is the flow of activity, traffic, and interactions positive and humming? What qualities are present? These insights can inform the vocabulary, experience planning, and dialogues about space. (See # 2, 3 & 5)

5. Open dialogues about museum spaces. Conversation among staff, volunteers, members, community partners, people of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities expands the environment’s capacity to support learning. These exchanges may probe what the environment says about the museum’s view of learning, how learning opportunities are best supported, and possible improvements. When a museum and its friends explore these questions together, a bigger, more visible view of the museum environment as teacher develops. (See #1 and #4)

What does your museum environment say about learning?

Related Museum Notes Posts

… we value space for its power to organize, promote pleasant relationships between children of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity and its potential for sparking all kinds of social and affective learning. All this contributes to a sense of well-being and security in children.
Loris Malaguzzi


Monday, October 30, 2017

Observation: Seeing, Un-seeing, Re-seeing

These shifts of seeing again are precisely what the word ‘respect’ means. To look again is to ‘respect.’ Each time we look again at the same thing, we gain respect for it and add respect to it.
James Hillman, City and Soul

Over the past few months, I have been thinking about observation and its value as a tool for learning, stretching our thinking, seeing new possibilities, and being better museums.

Daily, we walk through our museums and what do we notice? We watch a family move through the lobby and pause before the door to a gallery. What is this moment about for them? We see someone step in front of a painting and lean in, peer closely at the lower right hand corner, and step back again. What new insight has that closer look added?  We watch someone slowly brush away gravel to reveal the form of an enormous bone. What happens next? What does it mean for them? What might we do differently knowing this?

These, among so many questions, reveal our on-going search for a deeper understanding of visitors and a greater familiarity with the conditions that encourage and support exploration and meaning making in museums. So much is going on in a single exhibit, program, gallery, or classroom in any one moment. Without thoughtful observation, what can we know and understand about what is happening around us in our museums, in the experiences we create, and the connections we hope to foster?

Yet, as powerful and valuable as observation is in advancing our understanding, thinking, and imaginations, we rarely engage in it extensively in museums–at least, from my experience and in my own work.

Of course, we do observe in museums. We engage in both formal and informal observation in research and evaluation, during prototyping, and sharing visitor comments. We follow visitors’ movements through an exhibit and sometimes sit in observation booths and videotape. This kind of observation, however, is typically short term and narrowly focused. It is intended to answer a single question, assess and fix a problem, or confirm what we already believe. Often it is to check whether exhibits are being used as intended.

Brief observation episodes that are ends in themselves or serve other agendas have a limited capacity to build new knowledge with long-term value that changes perspectives and reveals new possibilities about how people interact with objects and learn in museums.

With this view of observation, we are unlikely to take time to study how families explore together in our museums; how visitors negotiate turn-taking with one another; how children of different ages approach open-ended materials; what traces of use and engagement visitors leave to offer glimpses into their thinking; what having an idea looks like; and what building on someone’s idea looks like.

What We Don’t Already See
How do we go beyond the obvious behaviors we are able to identify and code and the minutes we can count to glimpse the extraordinary moments in museums and other settings?

There is no quick, easy, or particular way to engage in deeper observation. More and longer observation episodes are likely involved. Time to give our careful and steady attention to what is around us without deciding too soon what is before us is critical. In opening ourselves to being present to what is happening we can create room to notice what we don’t already see.

Observation is a process of attending, noticing, capturing, and revisiting. Keeping notes, taking photos and videos, and charting and mapping give value but not certainty to what we notice. What we have captured even temporarily allows us to return to the traces of those moments and ask, what am I noticing? How can I account for it? What does it mean to me? To others? What might others bring to the process to probe what matters here?

As good observers, we must also be observers of ourselves, studying our attention, checking our assumptions, and registering our focus. Questioning ourselves as we observe reminds us that we arrive at subjective interpretations, partial findings, and, hopefully, new questions.

Seeing Differently
As I was working through these thoughts, the subject of observation surfaced in my Thursday study group with Lani and Tom, two recently retired educators in the Twin Cities. As these weekly conversations so often do, this one pushed my imagination not just further, but into a different realm: from seeing more to seeing differently.

Lani had marked a passage to read from Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education by Reggio atelierista, Vea Vecchi. This brief, but extraordinary account of when Vea started in the Reggio schools in the 1960’s describes her year of observation.

At the direction of Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, Vea was asked to observe children in the school. She invited 4 children at a time into a studio space to work with paints in a nonfigurative way. Her observations of 90 children of different ages in the school continued over the year with Vea taking notes on her observations of children and their paintings. She also referred to books by more knowledgeable guides like Jean Piaget, Herbert Read, and Viktor Lowenfeld that Malaguzzi had given her. Malaguzzi then poured over her notes and the children’s paintings. He commented on her observations and shared his interpretations with her. At the end of the year, using his notes and comments, Vea wrote a report for the school on the children’s work; it later became a book.

Vea has described Malaguzzi’s strategy that changed her mental framework and identity from a secondary art educator to a professional in a new role as an atelierista. Malaguzzi helped create the conditions for change with a process of observation, formative reading, notes, discussion and shared interpretation, and documentation through which Vea unlearned her certainties and opened her eyes to the potentials of the children.

See, Un-see, Re-see
Tom called this process: see, un-see, and re-see. In observation, as in many activities we engage in, we think we are being neutral and seeing the truth. Actually we are often affirming what we already think, reinforcing beliefs we have arrived at by other means. This happens for a number of reasons. Learning, memory, expectation, and attention shape what we perceive, see, and believe. Pressures of accountability in schools and other institutions subtly insist we see what we are asked to see around standards and benchmarks. In museums we are susceptible to a dominant view of learning imported from schools that is content focused and teacher directed. We are also eager to demonstrate our value to supporters with evidence. These factors influence what we see when we observe in galleries, study exhibits, and describe museum visitors.     

Even when we do see something new, we are likely to name it something else, something we have seen before. Twentieth century philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, expressed this as, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”

Realistically, un-seeing is difficult, if not literally impossible. But we can work to undo old learning, find ways to displace certainty, and see fresh versions of what we are viewing. The conditions of Vea’s extraordinary journey are not easily replicated, but her effort and goal can encourage us to observe from a new stance. We can shift our observation from looking for what we expect, to looking for what we haven’t seen before. We can be open to what surprises us.

Tom, Lani, and I thought together about what might create movement from seeing to re-seeing to create a crack in our thinking through observation by:
• Being curious, open, and eager to be surprised
• Wholeheartedly pursuing the opportunity of the moment
• Revisiting the experience and its possible meanings  

When we are open, curious, and eager to be surprised, we are:
-        Awake to our surroundings and the people, spaces, and materials
-        Accepting uncertainty and the complexity of what we are noticing
-        Comfortable with not knowing what we are seeing
-        Exposing ourselves to other thinkers and knowledgeable guides

When we wholeheartedly pursue the opportunity of the moment, we:
-        Are prepared to capture traces of the experience in multiple ways: notes, video, photos, images
-        Are open to what we may be seeing that is contrary to the apparent direction and we follow it
-        Observe until we are surprised

When we revisit the experience and its possible meanings, we:
-        Return to all of the collected traces of observation: notes, photos, images, and videos
-        Pursue questions to reflect on what we have noticed: how do visitors influence each other in exploring an exhibit? How do ideas about how something works change over the course of an experience?
-        Attend to strategies, not outcomes: ways that individuals engage with the group; patterns of choices; leaps in thinking; the roles conversation plays
-        Share, and invite others to contribute what they see
-        Stretch to consider what something might mean that is beyond our imagination
-        Think together: what might we do to make this or that unusual gesture or activity more likely to happen again?

This is a bigger, more complex, process than can possibly be captured here. In fact, the above list, or any list, is fundamentally at odds with deep, open-ended observation. We must keep in mind that seeing what we already see is a poor strategy for the positive change and transformation we seek for our visitors, our communities, and ourselves. Fortunately, the benefits of what Lani calls a radical openness to what’s out there and what it means are ample and worthwhile: a livelier, richer experience of our work and its potential value. Are you ready to be surprised?

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thank you, Lani and Tom

Stand aside awhile and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different.
­Loris Malaguzzi