Saturday, September 16, 2017

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Every year, I ask mentees to contribute blog posts as a part of their year-long mentorship with me. Tania Said, director of education, David Owsley Museum of Art Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana and I have had some great conversations. In this guest post, she shares her lessons learned from launching a school-museum partnership.
 After 12 years of trying to launch a full-scale museum-school partnership with my city school district, we have finally begun! It’s a goal I’ve had since I started my position and one I know many other museum educators have too.
There is no step-by-step guide for launching such a partnership, but here are some thoughts to guide others wanting to develop something similar with your community schools.
Be patient
Don’t be afraid to start out small, but always keep in mind what you want to develop. A typical school tour program when teachers call or email to schedule a visit is fine. Our group visit program grew over the years from 1 in 6 of our visitors to 1 in 4 now. For three years, we had a single school partnership, and now we are serving all public city elementary schools. (Eventually I would like to include other local schools, including others in the county.) While we patiently grew our school programs, we also built our volunteer docent corps of students and community members, and with it our reputation.
Meet everyone in the school district you possibly can, especially administrators and teachers
While I have been the director of education, I made sure to meet superintendents and many of their fellow school administrators. Competing demands made it especially challenging when the state focused on evaluating teacher and grading schools. It was very high stress for all of them. The situation is no less complicated now since our local school district is struggling financially. However the superintendent knew that despite the school district’s difficulties more community partnerships were needed to bolster student learning and opportunities, so our offer came at the right time.  
Learn about other museum-school partnerships in your area, especially offered by similar museums
My university employer encourages faculty and professional staff to apply for special leave i.e. a sabbatical. I chose to study school visits to Indiana art museums last summer. It afforded me a chance to visit every art museum in the state, meet my counterpart, learn about their school programs, and read about museum-school partnerships around the country. Knowing which art museums offer free tours and reimbursement for substitute teachers, and which school districts offer scheduling support and bus transportation, etc. provided valuable models and ideas for a strong, local museum-school partnership.
Think what themes you can best support and offer options to the school district to choose
Another benefit of learning about other art museums’ school visit programs was gaining new ideas for tour programs. As a result, my education colleague and I were able to develop a list of tour themes for school administrators to review for the proposed grade-wide visit program. They selected 4th graders for Indiana art because Indiana history is taught the same year and some of the testing pressures lessen after 3rd grade.
Develop a primary point of contact in central school administration
Having a school administration colleague appointed by the superintendent made developing a sound program model much easier. In our partnership, the director of elementary education has been my go-to person advising on program development, and scheduling principal and teacher trainings. Later she will also help coordinate 4th grade teachers’ visits and approve their bus needs. She has been indispensable helping me figure out local school culture.
Offer as much as you can
For the new School Museum Art Readiness Tours (SMART), we decided we would offer the following, which we were able to do through a $5,000 local foundation grant.
  • an art museum program with a standards-based and curriculum-related tour for every 4th grade MCS student emphasizing language arts, social studies, and visual art
  • pay 50% of substitute teacher costs for art teachers
  • provide a program preview for principals and administrators
  • offer a professional development for teachers with visual literacy and museum object-based learning
  • ensure a special event for Muncie 4th graders and their families with teachers and administrators to celebrate their participation and success

Ask for as much as you can
We were pleasantly surprised to request and receive the superintendent’s support for the following for SMARTours:

  • bus transportation
  • lunches for students visiting the museum
  • scheduling support for teachers
  • survey distribution
  • test results
  • the remaining 50% for substitute teachers costs so art teachers can accompany the 4th grade teachers and students

Give teachers the inside scoop
Not only did separate SMART training sessions for principals and teachers provide an overview of the program, but it gave them a chance to learn where their students will visit and gave them a chance to see the art and museum first thereby ensuring their buy-in. When asked what the teachers will tell their 4th grade students, they said:
“How important an art museum it is.”  “How art is an important aspect of life and connects to all areas of study.”  “They will see things they have never seen before and may never see again. An experience to remember.”

Build docent support
Several of our docents are former teachers and one was a school curriculum director. Their feedback was invaluable and gave credibility to the resulting materials developed by my colleague. In addition, we provided the docents a training about the SMART program to encourage them to participate and lead tours, but also persuade them to be ambassadors for the program. The docents applauded upon hearing the presentation as it was as exciting for them to know the local school partnership had launched!
Build in fun!
Yes, there are pre-visit and post-visit activities to make it different from other school visits to the David Owsley Museum of Art, but they are learning by doing. And we will make time to celebrate with the end-of-year event and ensure everyone knows they’re SMART!

Later this month, we will lead the 4th grade Indiana art tours. Check back about another blog post about our further progress. 

Top to Bottom:  
Learning at the Owsley Museum;  
Children learn about contemporary art with Tania Said, director of education, David Owsley Museum of Art;  
Muncie Community Schools elementary art and 4th grade teachers participated in School Museum Art Readiness Tours (SMART) training at the David Owsley Museum of Art on September 11. The training is in preparation for 4th grade students' visits in late September and early October to learn about Indiana art and visit the Ball State University campus. 
Cathy Bretz, education program director (bottom row, left), and Tania Said, director of education (top row, right), led the training. The program is funded by the Ball Brothers Foundation; Cathy Bretz, education program coordinator at the David Owsley Museum of Art, trains docents who will provide tours to Muncie Community Schools 4th graders about Indiana art with cross-curricular connections between art, language arts, and social studies. The special initiative is part of the School Museum Art Readiness Tour (SMART) program, funded by the Ball Brothers Foundation;  
"Hearts and Flowers" Merle Temkin 
All photos courtesy the David Owsley Museum of Art.  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Museum for Labor Day: Who Tells the Story?

Labor Day weekend here in the United States seems a good time to share my visit to the Plantation Tea Workers Museum outside Kandy, Sri Lanka, from a few weeks ago on the Old Peacock Tea Estate. I was in Sri Lanka for my work at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and I had spent much of the preceding week in a hotel conference room, in an intense workshop experience (perhaps recounted in a later post) so I looked forward to hearing up into the green hill country by train.  Up and up we went, and then the next day, up even further to the tea museum, which was founded by the Institute for Social Development, a Coalition member and an organization dedicated to improving both work and social conditions for tea workers and Hill Country Tamils.

As I thought about this museum and its founding, I thought about the other industry-specific museums I know--the vast majority of the ones we know well are corporate ones, telling a story from a specific point of view.  Their founding (and their funding) reflects the point of view of owners, rather than workers.  As I pondered this, I realized I should give a long overdue shout out to Patricia West, whose book Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House, published in almost twenty years ago, was really the first work that encouraged me to understand historic houses and museums in a more political context.

This museum has a clear mission, tied to the Institute's mission. The institute focuses on:
"rights issues of hill country Tamil people in plantation sector for last 25 years.  We enlighten them to claim their basic and fundamental rights by advocating the civil society organizations and politicians of the community while lobbying the policy makers of the country. Although the hill country Tamils were not directly involved in 30 years protracted ethnic conflict, it impacted on plantation community and made them most vulnerable and excluded from the mainstream development interventions." 
It's a small museum but the labels were in multiple languages, including English, and my visit (including the trip all the way up) was greatly enhanced by R. Nanthakumar, Programme Manager at ISD, who grew up in a line house on a tea plantation and shared a bit of his own history, updates on the current efforts to ensure full civil rights for this community, and the history of the larger community.

This was a museum where the story, except for the end product of the work, a cup of tea, was entirely new to me.  I didn't know how tea was harvested, I didn't know how the workers had come from India, recruited by the British, to work on the plantations, I didn't know they were essentially stateless for decades and decades. I didn't know about labor organizing, or about activists, including poets, for full civil rights for Hill Country Tamils. I was your average visitor who knew nothing.

But I learned alot! How often do workers really get to tell their story?  Sometimes local, city or regional museums take on telling workers' stories, and I've worked on a few of these projects as well--they're often a bit of a balancing act.  A bit of googling led me to some other workers' museums that I'm now curious about:

The Workers' Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa
The Labor Museum & Labor Movement Library and Archive, Denmark
The Workers History Museum, Canada
Amuri Museum of Workers' Housing, Finland
(FYI, none really came up in the United States--please share additions!)

Do you tell stories of workers at your museum?  How do you think about workers' rights? As the museum field slowly becomes more attentive to workers' rights in museums (see #Museumworkersspeak and the recent protests by interpreters at Plimouth Plantation), how much do we think about how we can encourage a broader campaign for workers' rights?

The Plantation Tea Workers Museum is not just about the past.  It's very much connected to present-day struggles for human rights and as part of ISD, in an action-oriented manner.  It's a small museum a long way away from anywhere but it changed my own perspective.  My next cups of tea will be accompanied by some thinking about the people who made that cup possible and their struggle for human rights.  And of course, in the same way the Coalition's members do every day,  I'll try to turn memory into action.