For contemporary artists to disrupt the narratives that dominate museum spaces – which are rooted in colonialism, racism and patriarchy – their ideas must be communicated to the general public. This is where education and museum interpretation come into play.
In the fall of 2020, the ART 496 Museum Guide Program, a one-year paid internship at the Henry Art Gallery promising 60 hours of work per quarterbegan its pilot year of exploring the power of community practices.
Berette Macaulay – artist, curator, writer and UW MA cultural studies graduate – leads a cohort of eight students from a wide range of humanities majors who will engage in three consecutive terms of training to lead interactive tours for Henry’s current and upcoming exhibits.
Combining both theoretical and technical aspects of study, the three-part program enables interns to learn about and discuss contemporary art in an active, fun and socially responsible way. Weekly meetings cover topics ranging from archive and exhibition policy, to the art of accessible public speaking, to community engagement in the museum and strategy for storytelling a visitor-centered visit. .
“The learning style is so decentralized, and it was much more open to discussion and intimacy between the different interns,” said Em Dickson, a second-year art history and English major.
Operating in what Macaulay calls “living room-style learning”, the course brings together students with different knowledge and backgrounds in a space for genuine and generous intellectual exchange on art world issues, with little mediation of instructors.
“It feels like there’s room for mistakes, for discomfort, and for dealing with that discomfort,” said third-year film studies and comparative history of ideas student Rosa Lasley. “There’s such a culture of ‘let’s work through it’.”
Even though classes are being held virtually, the space made available for student agency compensates for Zoom fatigue and allows interns to care about each other, while having reciprocal and responsible conversations in a world full of uncertainties.
“Basically, that [program] is structured from instinct, from the heart, from the intentions of social justice within an institution,” Macaulay said.
Museum education and public programs are conceptualized around the idea of making history in collaboration with communities, rather than focusing solely on them. Inviting community voices into an institutional space is an active resistance against myth-making that is often unchallenged.
One of the training goals for the winter term, according to Macaulay, is to “create tours that ensure the audience is focused on what they’re learning.” Through exercises like Pecha Kucha – a form of visual storytelling and presentation that uses twenty 20-second slides – and by designing mock tours, interns can learn about changing communication strategies that cater to a host of different demographics.
“A big part of this internship that I think has been the most beneficial to me personally is just learning to use the language not just as an effective communication tool, but also as a tool for meaningful conversation,” Cassidy Correia, a senior majoring in international studies, said.
Other students have spoken highly of how the museum guide program has shaped their college experience in terms of major, course selection, and career path. For Dickson and Lasley, who both aspire to work in a museum, this program offers them a wonderful insight into how museums work on the inside.
“Something really cool that we’ve started being able to do this quarter is attend general staff meetings at Henry,” Lasley said. “So I feel like there’s more of a sense of community with the people I work with.”
However, the professional skill set and cohort that students acquire through this internship is not limited to the field of art.
“Having the space was really instrumental in finding my path and my voice at UW to understanding who I am,” said Correia, who hopes to one day work in a field related to human rights.
Contact writer Fiona Ye at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Campfiion
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