Lessons I Learned While at the Queens Museum of Art
In September 2007 I started my internship at the Queens Museum of Art in the Curatorial department. Little did I know, my career plan would lead me to managing school programs at one of the most community engaged museums in the country. I’ve spent the last 5 years working with thousands of students, hundreds of teachers and countless artists and educators to bring quality arts programming to NYC school students in a way that is meaningful and lasting. I write this post as a sign off and farewell as I move on in my career, and would like to share some of the lessons I learned as an educator, program administrator, and museum professional.
1. If you don’t plan to have enough coffee for a museum event for teachers, you might as well not show up. New Yorkers are serious about their coffee and teachers are some of the toughest New Yorkers around. Be smart, plan ahead, order extra coffee.
2. School teachers are the window to your school-age museum visitors. Teachers spend 5+ hours a day, 180 days a year, with the students you see for 1, maybe 2, hours. Learn as much as you can about your visitors through teachers’ eyes. A sincere public thanks goes to Lois Olshan, Arts Coordinator at PS 144, for helping me navigate the NYC school system.
3. Ask kids questions, but not too many. Make sure they know why they are in your presence, within the four walls of the museum. But more importantly, find out who they are and what makes them tick. Connection is key to an open learning environment.
4. Have fun in museum galleries. Children want to be wowed, so don’t think you are “stooping to their level” or “dumbing it down” if you create a game to get them interested in works of art. Play is learning too.
5. Do not fear technology. Too often I hear museum educators worry that mobile devices are going to “ruin experiences” for kids in museums. This is just not the case. Technology has changed the way we process the world. Let’s get on board and figure out the best ways possible to connect with our technologically savvy audiences.
6. The Curatorial department is your friend. Educators, did you hear me? Get to know the exhibition team and make sure they know you respect the artworks and plan to keep them as safe as possible with your groups. The more you communicate with this department (and the security department, might I add), the less headaches you’ll have.
7. Objects are objects and Museum educators can teach anything. The Queens Museum houses historic objects, contemporary art, models, and (of course) The Panorama of the City of New York. As an art historian by trade, I thought I only wanted to teach with art objects. On the contrary, I found out museum education is all about sparking interest and creativity with all different kinds of collections.
8. There are multiple ways to teach. Though many books will claim that there is one “proven” way to speak with kids about art, there are actually too many to list here. As part of my time at the Queens Museum of Art, the education department spent time exploring various teaching methodologies in the galleries and it opened my eyes to the many ways people can teach and learn about art.
9. Get to know everyone. The field is small and there are plenty of chances to shine. Join a professional meet-up or invite colleagues from other museums out to lunch. That should be a separate bullet point but – everything is better with food. I don’t think that pertains specifically to museum education, that’s just some life advice. Bottom line: networking + food = all good things.
10. Collaborate. Two heads are way better than one, as I learned at Teaching In Museum Education last summer at the SIAC with 15 educators from around the country. We parsed apart the symbolism in beautiful Fra Angelico painting faster than an Art Historian researching in isolation. It is okay to have your own ideas, but problem solving works best in groups.
11. Your colleagues are your work family – treat them with respect but know how to let your hair down. I’ve met and befriended some of the most brilliant and hardworking people along the way that I hope to keep in my professional and personal circle for a long time. Though I would name everyone, all who have impacted me, you know who you are.
12. Do what you love, and love what you do.
Because of guidance from women like Laura Lynch and Lauren Brandt Schloss, with the support of a group of elite museum educators who work at the top institutions across the city, and as part of Director Tom Finkelpearl’s extraordinary staff at the Queens Museum of Art, I can honestly say I love what I do. I must give thanks to every person I’ve worked with during my time here, because you are all MY teachers.