A Visitor-Centered Approach to Museums, Archives

May 6, 2016

As museums across the nation experiment with new methods for engaging youth, and especially adults, in their spaces, Natasha S. Reid has been training students to reimagine the museum experience.

No longer is that experience about merely connecting with what is physically contained within a museum's or archive's holdings. Increasingly, museums and archives are introducing active, participatory learning activities while also rethinking how they communicate — through marketing materials and even the labeling of artwork — so that in engaging members of the public, they can capture and hold their attention.

In addition to learning the basics of museum education, including the associated theory and practice, students in Reid's "Theory and Practice in Art Museum Education" course produced and facilitated community-based projects. Students also learned about the relationships that exist between schools and museums and how emergent technologies have shifted the museum experience.

During the semester, Reid's students visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, studying the varying perspectives of attending as an educator versus a visitor, eventually producing an artistic response detailing what they had learned.

The students also worked in partnership with the University of Arizona Museum of Art, or UAMA, to engage with participatory museum activities for Friday Art Night and produce complementary labels for artwork.

Students from Natasha Reid's course facilitate tours for students in Lisa Hochtritt's Engaging Visual Culture course. (Photo credit: David Huber)

"I wanted students to learn how to create labels that are engaging, innovative, critical and thought-provoking," said Reid, an assistant professor of art and visual culture education in the UA School of Art.

"It was important for the labels to be distinctly nontraditional. In other words, their creations needed to steer away from traditional didactic labels that can be loaded with historical content and jargon," Reid said. "Their works needed to incorporate a variety of intriguing methods for pulling visitors in, such as open-ended questions, embodied approaches, poetry, connections to popular culture and storytelling."

Also in partnering with the UAMA, Reid's students gave museum tours to middle school students and students in associate professor of art Lisa Hochtritt's general education course, "Engaging Visual Culture."

Students from Natasha Reid's course at the UAMA. (Photo credit: David Huber)

And during one of their later class sessions, the students spent time with archivist Jill McCleary learning about the holdings within the UAMA Archive of Visual Arts.

"It is highly important for students in this course to have opportunities to test out the theories and case studies examined in the course through hands-on, community-based learning opportunities," Reid said.

Students also learned about the profession from educators and others at UAMA, the Tucson Museum of Art, the Arizona State Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"It is important for the students to learn about various aspects of museums' workings," Reid said. "Thus, they are offered a glimpse into real-world work situations related to our course."

UA archivist Jill McCleary leads Natasha S. Reid's students in a discussion about the important role of archives, and how they are distinctively different from museums. (Photo credit: La Monica Everett-Haynes/UANews)

Ultimately, Reid hopes that her students, if they choose to work in a museum, an archive or a school, can help support the continued evolution of museum education in ways meant not merely to help institutions but to address the social and cultural needs of communities.

This, she said, is why she keeps such an intense focus on community-based immersive experience.

"Without such community-based opportunities, the students' understandings would remain in the theoretical realm," Reid said. "Furthermore, the students become highly committed to such community-based work, as they tend to feel that they are contributing to the larger communities."

UA archivist Jill McCleary speaks with students about the nature of her work maintaining an archive and its holdings. (Photo credit: La Monica Everett-Haynes/UANews)

Students learned how archivists organize and engage with materials housed within archives. (Photo credit: La Monica Everett-Haynes/UANews)

UA archivist Jill McCleary presents the apron worn by Robert McCall, the famed artist and illustrator for NASA, national magazines and a range of Hollywood films. (Photo credit: La Monica Everett-Haynes/UANews)

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UA archivist Jill McCleary speaks about the work of Sara Wallach, who was known for her sculptural etchings, which are called "Saragraphs." In addition to Wallach's prints, the archive maintains a collection of her scrapbooks and other artwork. (Photo credit: La Monica Everett-Haynes/UANews)